Into the canyon

Aug 22, 2006

A full day in the Grand Canyon is a serious workout, at least if you have any intention of seeing the Grand Canyon. They say the average visit to the GC lasts three hours. Considering how far off the beaten path it is, this seems hard to believe (since if 3 hours is the average, that means there’s a fair number of people who pay their 25 bucks, drive in the gate, and turn around and drive back out). If you’re going to go to all the trouble of driving from wherever to the Grand Canyon, the least you could do is stay for the day. And most people apparently do just that, the place is pretty quiet earlier in the morning, and I can’t vouch for later in the evening but I would imagine it would be similar. I went for a run along the Rim Trail this morning from the Lodge to the Yavapai observation station and back, and once I got past the lodges on this end I saw very few people on the trail and only one other jogger. This was about 7am or so. The Rim Trail follows along the canyon’s edge for quite some distance, most of it isn’t very big, but the area between the lodges and Yavapai is relatively wide, mostly a gentle incline on the way east, so I did the second half about 2 minutes faster coming back than the first half going out.

Everyone was basically ready to go when I got back, so after a quick shower we’d loaded up all the stuff and were headed for the canyon trail. But first breakfast, so we did a quick selection of muffins, Danish and juice at Bright Angel Lodge, then hopped on the blue line to the green line to the trailhead of the South Kaibab Trail.

Several years ago the powers that be at the National Park Service decided that the Grand Canyon was becoming too crowded and conceived of a huge plan to shut down the vast majority of the canyon area to cars and have everyone instead congregate south of the park in Tusayan and take a light rail shuttle into a brand new Visitors Center south of Mather point. They built the Visitors Center, a large complex of several buildings housing a museum, bookstore, and lots of bathrooms, which is also the terminus of two of the three free bus lines that run between the various areas of the park. But the rest of the plan still hasn’t been implemented. Tourism dropped off after 9/11 and since then the numbers of people and cars have been kept to manageable levels, most notably by shutting off certain sections of roads to private vehicles and running these shuttle buses on them instead, which seems to work reasonably well. The Visitors Center suffers, though, because it’s a lone outpost that there’s no compelling reason to visit, and that most people probably don’t even know is there. The bus routes have even been set up to force you to cross the plaza to get from one route to the other, but on our way back through there around 1pm, the place was basically empty.

So after a change of bus route we were deposited at the aforementioned South Kaibab trail, which if you’re really adventurous goes all the way down to the river, where there’s a suspension that takes you across and connects to the North Kaibab trail, which would bring you ultimately up to the north rim. Our plans weren’t quite so ambitious, we hoped to be able to hike down to the first outpost at Cedar Ridge, about 1.5 miles each way, dropping 1140 feet into the canyon. There were a decent number of people on the trail, families, college age kids, tons of foreigners (there may not be more foreigners than Americans visiting the Canyon, but it’s possible there are more foreigners actually hiking there). It was about 10am by the time we got started, it took us around an hour to get down, with some of the ubiquitous spectacular canyon views around every turn and switchback in the trail. At least half of it was in the shade too, since we were mostly hugging the west side of that ridge. Also ubiquitous was the enormous amount of mule excrement on the trail, some of it noxiously fresh, since unlike yesterday the mules had just gone down. We passed two short mule trains during the hike, one on our way down and one going back up, just pack mules, no passengers. A group of mules for hire also passed through going up while we were checking out Cedar Ridge.

Justin was much better on the way down this time, knowing what to expect, and also he tends to clam up and behave when Chloe is having a moody episode. We agreed before we started that she would complain the whole way about having to hike in the canyon, but that we would severally ignore her. It took about an hour to reach the plateau at the checkpoint, we spent close to half an hour there recuperating and taking in the scenery, then about 90 minutes to go back. On the way back up, Justin did pretty well, following the same strategy as yesterday. Chloe did fine, while still griping. Beth, on the other hand, was having a coronary much of the way, the sun was out in full force by now, and the temperature was well into the 90’s, but I thought it could’ve felt a lot worse. As it turned out, before we were half way back up some clouds had rolled in and we could finish the ascent out of the direct sun. In fact I was starting to worry that it would rain, with us stuck on the upward climb of the trail, but it never did. We made it back to the trail head around 1pm, dusty, sweaty, redolent of mule, but full of the enormity of our achievement and seriously ready for lunch.

The shuttle bus back took us as far as the Market Plaza, where there’s a large cafeteria and we dug into a late lunch. Without even heading back to the room, still carrying two backpacks, we shuttled all the way back to the end of the blue line and picked up the red line, which takes you along the western part of the rim and stops at 8 different places to check out various scenic spots. We skipped the first two as being just the opposite side of the gorge that we were looking out over by default (and that we’d seen from the inside via Bright Angel Trail yesterday), but spent some time at all the others, no hikes, just taking pictures and video and soaking up the scenery. The sun had come back out by then and it was hot for a while, but everyone seems to have been SPF’d enough to avoid any sunburn.

The last stop on the red line is Hermit’s Rest, which has a little gift shop and snack bar, as well as another trailhead which is best left to the professionals. We rested and browsed there for a while, then headed back to our Lodge to regroup and change socks, etc. It was getting towards dinnertime and in spite of the late lunch everyone was hungry, so we walked over to the gift shop at Bright Angel Lodge for some swag, then hopped the shuttle to the Maswik Lodge just one stop down the road for dinner at a cafeteria remarkably similar to the one in Market Plaza, except not big or well organized (and busy, since it was more the dinner hour). We walked back here in the dark (not much in the way of streetlights) and the kids were crashed by 8:30 or so. A full 12-hour day at the Grand Canyon, doing our best to up the average visit. You could easily spend a week here, between the sightseeing, hiking, shopping, history, ranger talks, etc. While the canyon village is bustling, they seem to be able to handle the crowds reasonably well and you really don’t have to go very far to get away from the masses and commune in relative solitude with the vastness of the unique sight of the canyon that is behind every tree and around every curve. The north rim is reputedly even more remote and less developed if you really want to get away from it all, but you could only make that determination with any degree of accuracy after sampling the totality of the south rim first. In my experience, there’s no place like it.

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