To the canyon

Aug 21, 2006

The kids were surprisingly smitten with Las Vegas, what with all the outdoor escalators and jumbotrons on the sides of the hotels and the circus acts and whatnot. We drove back down the strip on leaving the hotel this morning to take some pictures of the facades of some of the more spectacular casinos, got some breakfast at Jack in the Box, and it was off to the Grand Canyon.

Half an hour later, we had already made our first stop, just outside of town to see the new improved Hoover Dam. Actually the dam itself is the same, but the area around it is going through a massive rehab which seems to be about 2/3 done. The dam itself looks like it did in the old home movies, although you can’t walk out to the pumping stations any more, but you can still walk across from Nevada to Arizona and back. Coming from the Las Vegas side, you are directed to the shiny new parking garage and cough up $7 for the privilege of parking out of the sun (if you get there early enough). If you’d just keep going over the dam, you’d get to all the free parking that’s been there since the thing opened in 1936. Attached to the new garage is a brand new gift shop and restaurant (more of a diner, really). And the sidewalk from that build down to the dam is all done up in a plaza with some new sculptures and plaques and such.

What’s sort of irritating about the new set up is the new “visitors center” below ground, which isn’t really what I would consider a visitor’s center at all because you have to pay $11 to get in. You go down the escalator, are immediately besieged by some people wanting to take your picture in front of a poster of the dam so they can sell it to you later, you walk in the building and through a post-9/11 security checkpoint, and then it’s right up to the cashier. There’s a tour and a movie and stuff for your money, but if there’s any traditional museum-type stuff behind there you’ll never see it unless you fork over the full eleven bucks. So we didn’t bother, I wasn’t looking for a multi-media experience, I just wanted to see the damn dam.

The big orange sign on your way down to the dam says the road is under construction until 2008. They’re building a giant new bridge over the dam that looks to be about 500 feet high, only a few pillars are there so far, but it should alter the landscape quite significantly when it’s done.

As for the dam itself, it’s a scenic spot to see Lake Mead, all the hydro-electric furniture, and if you’re going from Vegas to Arizona you pretty much have to go that way anyway, so you might as well stop and take a look. It’s a massive structure, the pumping stations are much bigger in person than they appeared on the old home movies, and its remote location just makes the idea of its construction even more staggering for the time. We pride ourselves on our engineering ingenuity in the present, but there are plenty of examples of equally audacious projects that were seen through to successful completion long ago. I think building this giant bridge on this site sort of fits because current engineers have dreamed up something as monolithic as the dam itself, to show maybe that the current generation can still equal their forbears.

By the time we got to Kingman it was lunchtime, and Kingman is yet another stop along the old Route 66, so we found ourselves a roadside diner called Mr. D’z and sat at the counter and had some burgers and I had a root beer float for dessert. Across the street is the town’s Route 66 museum (every town along the old Route 66 would seem to be required or at least compelled to have one), housed in a large building called the Powerhouse. We skipped the museum but did the gift shop and they had a few exhibits setup including a large-scale model railroad that ran around the upper level of the building that the kids watched for a while.

Back in the car, it was off down I-40 (the replacement of most of Route 66 in Arizona) towards Williams. We had stopped for gas and a bathroom break in Ash Fork, so there was no reason to cut through Williams to get to the road for the canyon except that it was another stretch of 66 and the last part to be replaced by the interstate (not until 1984), so it’s a fair bet that we drove through it in ’68 (albeit in the other direction). Unlike Kingman, which seemed to have be a town in its own right, Williams is a wide space in the road, the junction with the Grand Canyon road isn’t even within the main part of town, so it would seem to serve the primary purpose of being a giant speed trap, as I discovered when I saw flashing lights in the rear view mirror. The cop was a young guy who informed me I was doing 35 in a 15, I’d seen the 35 sign, but not any 15 signs, but you can’t argue with the guy. We were profusely apologetic and when he saw we weren’t really from California but only driving a rental, I think that convinced him to let us go. For a minute there I thought I’d get a ticket without having to drive to Tijuana, but fortunately we were off the hook and back on the road, dutifully driving through scenic downtown Williams at 15, or maybe even 14, miles per hour just like the sign said.

The landscape through Arizona is mostly desert at the beginning, but as you get towards the center of the state you get more vegetation and more hills, until when you turn north towards the canyon you’re actually driving through the Kaibab National Forest, which for the most part looks like a forest, just one with trees that aren’t very tall. You wouldn’t have any reason to believe, driving through the 50 miles or so of this landscape, that there’s a giant canyon up ahead. We got to the main gate at about 4:15pm, found our room at the Kachina Lodge and checked in, and were on the Rim Trail by 5:20 or so, which didn’t leave us a lot of time to head down into the canyon since the sunset was around 7pm. It was a short walk to the trail head of Bright Angel Trail, which was already mostly in the shade, and we walked down maybe most of a mile, it was hard to say, the kids had been cooped up in the car all day and were perfectly happy to not do anything the rest of the day. We passed a number of people who were coming up out of the canyon (they advise not to go all the way down and back in a day, although it would seem like if you were in good shape you could do it, but there would need to be a fair amount of hiking in the heat, I suppose). A few people passed us going down, we were busy dodging the copious amounts of mule poop, although no mules, they’d all gone home I guess. The rule of thumb is it takes about twice as long to hike up as to hike down. We were going kind of slow on the way down, having to stop and take pictures and video, as well as prod Chloe into going further and administering to Justin’s various emergencies and requests for water, snacks, etc. So after about 45 minutes we figured it was time to turn around, even though we hadn’t reached the first checkpoint at mile 1.5 that was the original goal. Chloe was totally motivated to go back up, had been since we set foot on the first downward slope, in fact, so she zipped up the whole trail with nary a peep of complaint. Justin had to get into a groove, he was wheezing a bit at first, mostly an act, but if you give him brief but frequent rest breaks and point him towards a visible goal up ahead, eventually he got in a zone and did just fine the last half or so, using the rest stops to take pictures or look through the binoculars. Beth on the other hand was losing her groove as we went up, but she managed to make it back to the top in one piece. At the end, the walk back up had taken almost exactly as long as the walk down, so go figure. Although it had been starting to get a little dim as we got to our furthest point down, coming back up the sun had come out again and there was still plenty of light when we emerged around 7pm or so, really a great time to go since there were lots of shadows to make the canyon more colorful and it wasn’t hot at all.

We headed straight for the Bright Angel Lodge for dinner, then back to the hotel to crash for the evening. The Kachina is fairly small, so it’s treated more like an outbuilding of the more historic and expensive El Tovar hotel next door. The outdoor architecture is pure ‘60’s brutalism, but the room overlooks the canyon, so you don’t really notice from the inside.

Tomorrow we can look forward to a day that doesn’t require buying $60 worth of gas, and find out how much of the canyon we can see in a day.

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