Monday, April 4, 2016

The Canyon that They Call Grand

If you drive Highway 64 from the east, where it starts near Cameron, you drive from a desert wasteland to a lush, forested environment, where warning signs of mountain lions warn you to be on the lookout. You climb, quickly enough to make the pressure build in your ears, and you move from one world to the next.

Entering the Grand Canyon National Park from the east, your first view of this vast expanse is at the Watchtower Lookout, where I learned that in 1956, two commercial airplanes collided and tumbled into the canyon, onto nearby Temple and Chuar buttes, taking 128 lives with them. It was a sombre first introduction for my wife and I, who visited the vista of this tragedy while our kids rested in the car.

The canyon, from this vantage point, is beautiful, and made us excited for what we had in store for the rest of the day.

We made a couple of stops between this lookout and the main visitor centre, which has a large parking lot but is packed, even in March (although, this was the break for many schools in Arizona). Patience from parking at Costco on a Saturday afternoon told us to be patient, to look for someone that was walking back to their car, and to follow them closely. In less than 10 minutes, we pulled into a spot that was close to the welcome centre.

The best way that we found to get our bearings was to talk to one of the staff at the information counter, and to watch the short movie about the canyon. From there, we took one of the Blue Line shuttle buses to the Market Village, where we could feed the kids (to keep them happy) and to fuel all of us (again, to keep everyone happy). The restaurant/cafeteria lets you order your meal electronically, and I was happy to see that they offered craft beer (I had a tasty cherry-vanilla stout). The food was good (not great) for the money, and the cafeteria offered us the opportunity to discuss and decide our plan of attack for the day.

There is so much to see and do at the canyon, whether you choose to hike the Rim Trail or be more adventurous and explore some of the trails that take you into the canyon. As you descend into the chasm, the temperature increases, so you have to make sure to wear layers so that you don't suffer heat exhaustion, and you must especially ensure that you carry plenty of water: many ill-prepared visitors have suffered dehydration, have become extremely ill, or have died.

A book in the gift store gruesomely catalogs all of the deaths at the canyon, in detail, from lack of hydration, to heart attacks, to tumbling over the edge.

Because we were travelling with kids who are reluctant to hike—especially after our trek up Camelback Mountain in Phoenix—we agreed to make it easy. We would stick to the Rim Trail, taking the Hermit Road (red) bus route to the western-most end of that ride, and we'd walk the trails that everyone agreed to. We could hop the shuttle bus at any point (we later learned that while the red route stops at every point along the westward part of the route, it only makes three stops on the eastbound trip).

I won't get into further details of our afternoon because I covered a lot of it last week, when I lamented the loss of my old expedition hat. I will say, however, is that if you ever make the trip to the Grand Canyon, plan lots of time to take the shuttle buses. If you take the buses all the way from the visitor centre to Hermit's Rest without getting off along the way, count on 90 minutes for the trip. Getting back will take longer, depending on the time of day and where you get on. If you want to enjoy various points during the day, plan at least four hours to get out there and back.

Here's some of what we saw on our hike from Hermit's Rest to Pima Point.

We didn't plan to stay until sunset, even though I wanted to, because we needed to drive to Flagstaff, where we had a cabin waiting for us, and we didn't want to drive unfamiliar roads in the dark. But because we planned poorly for the shuttle buses, we didn't return to the visitor centre until sunset.

In my opinion, the mistake was worth it. Except about the hat.

The shot that cost me my hat. In retrospect, it wasn't worth it.
The Grand Canyon was definitely a highlight of our trip. If you have never visited this natural wonder, you should plan to do so.

Tomorrow, my Arizona road trip continues in Flagstaff, where we searched for historic Route 66.

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