Friday, September 2, 2016

Travelogue: A few thoughts on the Grand Canyon and a bit of joy

The really wonderful moments of joy in this world are not the moments of self-satisfaction, but self-forgetfulness. Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and contemplating your own greatness is pathological. At such moments we are made for a magnificent joy that comes from outside ourselves.

I found this quote while doing research for my recent trip to the Grand Canyon. It really resonated with me, so I pasted it into my journal wondering if I’d have this same reaction to seeing the Grand Canyon.
A conference in Phoenix recently gave me the chance to fly out a couple of days early and experience this natural treasure. A Grand Canyon visit had always been a travel bucket list item, so being less than four hours away, it made sense to take an extra day.
Two willing travel companions – my sister, Bootie, and her 18 year-old son, John – gave me good reason to make more than a day trip out of the visit. We had a great two-and-a-half days at the national park experiencing this natural wonder on foot and on bikes.
We got some good insight on what we might want to do from friends and online resources, but had nothing planned beyond a hotel room and dinner reservations one night. The highlights of our trip were the things we discovered when we arrived rather than planned in advance. Over the course of our time at the Grand Canyon, I came up with a list of several things I wish we’d known when planning this trip. Maybe it will help others thinking about this adventure.
Getting there. We flew into Phoenix because that’s where I needed to end up for my conference after the Grand Canyon adventure. Plus, it seemed to be the best bet for visiting the South Rim. We arrived in Phoenix about 9 a.m. on a Saturday. The airport is much larger than I thought, and the shuttle ride to the rental cars is unusually long – about 20 minutes.
Since our flights were late, our lunch was a quick stop at an In and Out burger joint. It’s a chain of about 300 locations in six western states that’s been around since 1948. And in and out it was! The menu choices are burgers, grilled cheese and fries. That’s it. No decisions involved. Pretty cool.
To break up the drive to the Grand Canyon, we made a stop in Sedona to see the Red Rocks and do a little shopping in this town known as an artists’ colony. It’s a bit touristy, but the visitor center on the outskirts of town has some great info on how to get nice views of the Red Rocks.
We made stops at a couple of the lay-bys to take pictures and just absorb the magnitude and beauty of the landscape. The red in the Red Rocks can’t be adequately described in words. After an hour of piddling around the touristy downtown, we hit the road to our destination.
We took the scenic route from Sedona to the Grand Canyon on Route 89. It’s a two-lane road that gave us samples of several very starkly different landscapes. We left behind the cactus-scattered sandy land around Phoenix for the Red Rocks around Sedona then passed lush hilly ground that looked something like the NC mountains before reaching the mesas near the Grand Canyon. We could have covered the same distance on this 40-mile stretch in half the time on the parallel interstate, but the time was worth the delay to experience the beautiful and diverse landscapes.
The Grand Canyon National Park. The Grand Canyon National Park is well-run, clean and environmentally conscious.
A few interesting facts: The Canyon is 277 miles long. It’s a vertical mile from the Rim to the Colorado River which translates into about seven miles on foot accounting for the winding paths and switchbacks. It’s big!
I learned from the front desk guy at the hotel that the average visitor to the park stays only two to three hours. This is compared to when the park first opened in the 1920s – people stayed two to three weeks.
The hotels. There are four hotels in the park. If you are even considering the possibility of a visit in the future, book now (they take reservations starting 13 months in advance of arrival date). The hotels have varying levels of amenities from high end to motor lodge-style. Initially, I wasn’t able to book a room in the park six weeks in advance, but someone told me to “make it your job description” to try two and three times a day, and it worked.
We got a room in the motor lodge-style Yavapai Lodge. It had the basics, was clean and well-situated. Kind of reminded me of the old Howard Johnson days of my childhood with all three of us in wedged into one room with two beds and a rollaway (we discovered the design of a rollaway hasn’t changed since our experiences with them in 1970s). The cafeteria-style restaurant suited us just fine for pizza and a salad our first night after a 20-hour trip, but it’s not cheap.
Biking and hiking. We had two full days to explore but hadn’t made any formal tour arrangements. The first morning, we happened upon the Blue Angel Bike Rental shop purely by the luck of how we entered the Visitor Center parking lot. The shop has hundreds of bikes of all sizes for rent. I was able to rent a yellow bike exactly like my own making the bike adventure even more enjoyable.
A number of trail options fit every type of bike and cyclist. We opted for the 22-mile roundtrip ride to Hermits’ Point. We followed a mile-long paved path with gently rolling hills that threaded from the Visitors Center to the Bright Angel trailhead within the park. This led us to the traffic-restricted road to Hermit’s Point. Cyclists share the road only with the occasional tour bus…no cars allowed.
The 10-mile ride to Hermit's Rest included a couple of somewhat challenging hills but was certainly manageable for our fitness and skill level. We made a half-dozen or so stops along the way for pics and water (believe everything you read about staying hydrated!)
Words certainly can’t describe and photos can't adequately capture the beauty of this place or how the colors and shadows change so quickly yet so subtlety. At Hermit’s Rest, we cobbled together lunch from the snack bar and took a breather before heading back.
While the altitude did seem to have some effect on our stamina during the ride, it was nothing like what many people had described. Again, believe everything you hear about staying hydrated though. I drank more than twice my usual daily intake of water every day we were there.

The second day, we opted for a hike. We sought out advice at the Visitors Center for the best trail to try, and were strongly discouraged from any hiking between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. during the heat of the summer. Knowing this was our only day to hike, we decided to give it a try, and we would just turn around if it got too hot. We took the bus to the closest of several trailheads in the park, the South KaibibTrail described as a “maintained dirt trail.”
Before we set a foot on the trail, it was clear that we weren’t the only tourists who hadn’t heeded the park ranger’s advice about not hiking in the hottest part of the day. Fortunately, we were well-prepared compared to many of the hikers we passed. We had ample water, light backpacks, sturdy shoes (or at least Bootie and John did), and we were all in fairly good physical condition. Along the way, we saw sweaty babies in backpacks, people wearing flip flops and jeans, and families with flushed faces hiking back up having clearly run out of water.

The views again defied description, but what struck me the most was the hazards on the trail. It was loosely packed dry dirt with lots of roots, rocks and uneven surfaces… no rails or handles anywhere. I witnessed several near misses with kids horsing around or people just losing their footing.
The highlight of the hike was the turn-around point of “Ooh Aah’ point.” Large boulders (best word I can come up with to put perspective on these ginormous rocks) jutted out from the path giving breathtaking views.

We took lots of photos here but scrambled to head back up when we saw a posse of mules trudging up the hill toward us. They stopped for a bathroom break, and did their business in unison right there on the trail. We certainly didn’t want to be behind them should that happen again going back up!!
Interestingly the hike back up didn’t take as long as going down, plus none of us felt it was any more intensive.  Bottom line: water, water, water, good shoes, light backpack.
Food. You don’t visit a national park for fine dining, but the El Tovar Hotel’s dining room was elegant and inviting. Reservations are hard to come by at the last minute but, again calling over and over, we got a table for our last night at the Canyon. Food and wine choices were diverse and rivaled a high end urban restaurant. Patrons’ dress ranged from “right off the trail” hiking gear to elegant evening out attire.
The Blue Angel Lodge dining room also had a diverse menu. I can’t say if the food was unusually good or we were just ravenously hungry from our bike ride that day, but we all agreed this was the best meal of the trip.
The park’s General Store near the Yavapai Lodge had a good variety of groceries, tourist trinkets and a sandwich/breakfast buffet that served us well for breakfasts. I was a little put off by the $9 bag of trail mix and the $3 granola bars but what can you expect in a contained tourist destination?
Sunsets. Of course dazzling sunsets didn’t disappoint. We arrived the first evening just in time to get to the Yavapia Center to experience the sunset the first night. Even with clouds and a brisk breeze, the sunset gave a kaleidoscope of changing colors every night.
We learned there are several overlooks in the park where sunsets are supposed to be at their most spectacular, but I’m not sure they could be much better than what we saw from the Avapai Center and the porch of the El Tovar Hotel.
Weather. It was hot. Of course it was hot. We welcomed the escape from the humidity, but the 100+ degree temperatures didn’t seem any worse than what we are used to in SC. I wasn’t expecting the temperature at the Grand Canyon to be a good 20 degrees lower than Phoenix, and the evenings were downright cool. My trusty jean jacket was just what I needed to calm the slight chill.

So bottom line advice if you are planning a trip: Start planning early to get the best hotel (definitely stay in the park). Bring your own water bottle and refill it often at the many water stations around the park. Pack snacks and any other food you may want while you are there. Don’t forget a jacket because nights can be chilly even in the dead heat of summer. Plan on at least two days – that was exactly the right amount of time to experience the Canyon the way we wanted to – by bike and on foot.
Now….back to the quote I’d found about the Grand Canyon. The second morning, I woke up just after sunrise about 6. I packed up my camera and long lens and ventured out to the Rim. I’d recently taken a photography class and was enjoying the challenge of light and texture in the Canyon shots.
Sitting alone on a ridge with the first light of day reflecting off the Canyon around me, I was struck by the same sense of joy described in the quote. It was a joy springing from the beauty, the quiet, the miracle, the sheer magnitude of the space around me. I so wanted to capture that with my camera.
After experimenting for a bit, I realized my attempts at recreating that enormity in a photograph would never yield the results I wanted.
So I just sat … and absorbed … my smallness, the Canyon’s grandness, and the perfect connection between them.



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