Thursday, October 24, 2013

Grand Canyon South Rim

The Grand Canyon is almost incomprehensibly huge, encompassing 2000 square miles.  Many regard it justifiably as one of the wonders of the world.  I have marveled at it many times from airplanes while flying across the coast, but never actually had any desire to see it up close.  This time, however, I knew that I would be in Vegas with time on my hands before I had to be in California, so it seemed like a good opportunity finally to check it out first hand.

Not all of the Grand Canyon is a part of the National Park system.  From Vegas, for example, the West Rim is an hour closer than the official park entrance to the south, and has the famous Skywalk that extends into the canyon itself.  The West Rim is controlled by a Native American tribe, and is not part of the National Park system.

I opted instead to go to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park (even though it is farther) since the consensus argued that it offered more magnificent views.  I have no basis of comparison, but the views from the South Rim are indeed spectacular.  Having said that, the Grand Canyon is basically just a “hole in the ground” (more on that later) and I am not sure how different the sights really are from the many vantage points.

I left for the Grand Canyon from Sedona just after sunrise, and it was a pleasant drive north.  I was lucky in that the weather was very cooperative, but perhaps it's always like that this time of year?  Isn’t this part of the country basically just desert?

Anyway, I was ready for the 2 hourish drive, but soon got hungry.  About an hour out, I decided to stop for a greasy breakfast.  I had wanted to stop closer to the park, but I figured I was close enough because the diner was named the "Grand Canyon Inn."

I noticed the Flintstones Park across the street.  I was tempted to check it out to see exactly what made it Bedrock-like, but I was pressed for time so I skipped it.

Breakfast, unfortunately, put me behind schedule.  So I decided to speed up a little.  As my bad luck would have it, the Arizona state police decided to pull me over just shy of the Grand Canyon park entrance.  I pleaded my case to the officer as best as I could, remarking how excited I was to see the Grand Canyon and how much I loved Arizona.  I was even a Cardinals fan. (Yeah, right.)  The officer must have been in a good mood, because he let me off with a warning.  Before he let me go, however, he lowered his sunglasses and shook his head, chuckling: “Just slow down…you tourists are getting all excited and rushing recklessly to see just a hole in the ground…and it ain’t going anywhere.”  True that, as I would discover.

Near the park entrance, I recalled from Tripadvisor that people suggested getting a sandwich from this great deli before hand.  Food options inside the park itself are, well, very limited and very bad.  I bought a sandwich for a picnic lunch, and then pulled into the park itself.


I now had no doubt that the Grand Canyon truly is an impressive natural wonder.  Simple photographs really can’t do it justice because they cannot capture the “vastness” of the canyon, which stretches 180 degrees as far as the eye can see.

After the initial glimpse, I went straight to the Visitors Center, where I got the bus schedule (park service buses do a loop around the view points) and a local map.  I had enjoyed the hike in Sedona, so I decided to do another one here.  I didn’t have much time since I only allocated one full day here (which by the way, I think was plenty).  I settled on the Bright Angel Trail, which the National Park Service calls "the premier” trail of the park.  It is also the safest trail, even though it goes straight down to the floor.  So I hopped on the bus which dropped me off at the trailhead.

The downhill hike was pleasant enough, with great views.

You just had to be careful of the mules (and the mule droppings, of which there were plenty!)

The view didn’t change noticeably as I descended, but it was marvelous nonetheless.

I came across the occasional warning signs, and of course, logically I knew that the hike up would be much more strenuous than the hike down.  Still, I was having a good time so continued to descend.

After an hour or so, I still had a long way to go to the bottom.  The hike was nice, but I wanted to see other parts of the rim so decided to turn around.  I had heard that the rule of thumb is that it takes about 1.5-2.0x the time to go up than to go down.  Who ever made up that rule was smoking something funny when it comes to this trail.  Or perhaps I am just old, tired, and out of shape.  It didn’t help that the day’s temperature, which started out quite cold, was by this time very hot.  So sweating like crazy, I struggled for the next three-plus hours to make it back to the top.  Needless to say, I didn’t take any photos during the up trek as I huffed and puffed all the way.

I was utterly exhausted and hungry when I finally returned to the trail entrance.  I still wanted to see the other parts of the canyon, so I forced myself on one of the buses that circle the park.  Thankfully, the bus provided an opportunity to sit while taking me to visit the many vantage points around the rim.

Now GCNP connoisseurs claim that each vantage point is special.  As I said, I think the Grand Canyon truly is spectacular, but in my humble opinion, the views are also repetitive.  Ultimately, it is just a hole in the ground!  And thus, all the views (while each gorgeous in its own right) began to look the same to me.

The only difference is that from some vantage points, you can actually make out the Colorado River, which admittedly is kind of cool.

I stopped off at one of the points and sat on the ledge to take it all in, like the person on the left of the photo below.  The scale and beauty of the canyon can be humbling.  I noodled on this as I wolfed down my picnic lunch, and then reminded myself to stop thinking deep thoughts or I might stumble off the cliff.

I hopped back on the bus and continued to the other view points.

Eventually, I reached the end where Pima’s Point and Hermit’s Rest were situated.  Many of the tourists don’t make it out this far, although for serious hikers and campers this is regarded as one of the better places.

By now, the sun was beginning to set, and the Center had recommended several vantage points for the best views.  I was ready to sleep by this point, but there was no way I was missing the sunset.  I hopped back on the bus and got off at Hopi Point, where crowds had already started to gather.  Fortunately, I found a spot among the crowd and began to snap photos.

As the sun dropped farther, the walls of the canyon began to change color.  They took on hues of orange, brown, gold, and green, giving them a perspective that had been absent during the bright day.

The sun started to drift off beyond the horizon, and I was thankful that I had caught this.  Many in the crowd exited and headed off to board the buses before it got too dark to walk along the pathways.  As a photo-bug, I decided to hang out a little longer and capture the entire sunset.

By this point, I had snapped a ton of photos of this sunset.  Although I was tired, and although the many different “views” of the Grand Canyon seemed the same to me, I had to admit that the sunset was incredibly beautiful.

And then, all of the sudden…BAM!!!

It happened almost in an instant.  The sky metamorphisized and jumped to life, as if some divine being decided to breathe energy into the land and paint with the full spectrum of nature's colors.

I have seen many beautiful sunsets throughout the world, but for minutes I was totally breathless and dumbfounded.  It took me some time to realize that I was no longer taking photos.  I shook myself out of my reverie and began once again to snap pictures, still unsure as to whether what I was witnessing was real.  Even though the weather had been fair and clear for the entire day, the skies were now full of turmoil, passion, and foreboding, even anger.  It was breathtaking.

When the sun finally set, those diehards of us who had remained behind hopped back on the bus back to the center of the village.  By now it was pitch black.  Walking became a bit of a trick as there was little illumination.  I was still replaying that vivid sunset in my head, not really paying attention to where I was walking, when I heard a noise.  I stopped dead in my tracks as I realized I had almost walked right into an elk!  Literally.  Almost walked smack into the side of this beast.  I was shaken a bit, but the elk seemed nonplussed by the whole affair.

I decided to walk more carefully, and slowly made by way back to my cabin, the Maswick Lodge.  Talk about a dump at $100 per night!  But the company who operates the “on-site” lodgings has a monopoly, and so it can overcharge by a lot.  Still, I couldn't really complain because being “on site” was what made seeing the sunset so accessible, as well as the sunrise the following day.

By this time I was famished (not to mention totally beat).  I had read during my research of the Grand Canyon that dining options in the park were extremely limited and bad.  And judging by the cafeteria in the Maswick Lodge, I suspected those criticisms had more than a significant amount of merit.  Tripadvisor reviewees, however, pointed to the dinner at the El Tovar dining room as the only worthwhile, albeit expensive, option in the entire park.  Just in case, I had booked a table there as reservations are critical, and by now, I was hungry enough to use it.

While the dinner was not mind blowing, I was quite satisfied, especially when I thought about the alternatives that were available.  If the place has survived since 1905, it must have something going for it, right?

After dinner, I went straight to bed.  The lodge was simple, but at least the bed was OK.  But maybe I was too tired to notice whether the bed was bad or not.  In any case, I slept like a log until my alarm went off much too soon the following morning so I could catch the sunrise.

Given how spectacular the sunset had been, I excitedly checked out of the lodge and rushed to capture the sunrise with great anticipation.  When I got to the view point, about 30 minutes before sunrise, I shook my head to realize that many avid and die hard photographers had already beaten me to the best spots.  Oh well.  I still found a nice spot, and watched the sunrise feeling very good about having decided to visit the Grand Canyon after all this time.

The sunrise could not measure up to the grandeur of the prior afternoon’s sunset.  But it was still beautiful.

After sunset, I got back into the car for the long drive back to Vegas, where I would catch my flight to California.  I decided to take historic Route 66, which frankly was a bit disappointing in terms of sight seeing, but I did find a great little diner in Seligman AZ where I had TWO breakfasts!  Yummy.

Overall, I was quite happy that I made the trip to the Grand Canyon.  It was marvelous, and the sunset was hands down the best I have ever seen.  Having said that, unless one is a die hard camper or hiker, I don’t see the point of spending several days there.  Perhaps I am not discerning enough, but the views (although each was spectacular) all pretty much looked the same to me.  The Grand Canyon deserves its reputation as one of the wonders of the world, but at the end of the day, despite its immense size, it is still just a single (though amazing) hole in the ground.

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