Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Grand Canyon

I just spent a week visiting my sister and her family in New Mexico.  It was a great trip - wonderful to see everybody again and fun to see both old and new places.  There's a lot to write about, but for now, I'll focus on just one: the Grand Canyon.

I'd never been to the Grand Canyon.  Seems like every time I went cross-country, it was well north or south of there.  I knew it was a neat place, but it never seemed to percolate to the top of my "must see" list.  As we were planning this trip, though, my wife suggested that my sister and I go to the Canyon (my wife did not go on this trip).  We all thought it would be good, so we locked it in.

The drive out took about eight hours, most of which was on I-40, the modern-day Route 66.  The landscape was really striking.  Long, flat, tilted planes ended in sharp cliffs, small piles of volcanic rock lay here and there, and near the border with Arizona, the road cut through a valley that had long lava fields.  It turned out that this lava area is the El Malpais National Monument.  The lava fields that looked only a couple of years old, are really 2,000 years or more old.  Shortly before hitting Flagstaff, we cut north and later west, entering the Grand Canyon from the back end.  This turned out to be good, because we got to see the some of the canyon before the sun set.  It took quite a while to finish the drive to our lodgings in the park.

Early morning from the South Rim

The next day, we walked over to the rim and it was an "Oh ... my ... god" moment.  Yes, you've seen lots of pictures of the Grand Canyon, but they are nothing compared to the impact of the real thing.  It's just so immense, so deep, and so spectacular.  We spent several hours walking the Rim Trail, stopping every few yards to look and take pictures.  It was early when we started and a light haze lay over the canyon.  The haze gradually burned off during the morning until it was sharp and clear by mid-day.  We walked all the way to the Visitor Center (about a 3 mile walk) and had a bite at the small cafe.  Then we took a bus to the head of Kaibob Trail.  We hiked about 3/4 of a mile down the trail, which was probably about an 800-ft vertical drop.  Seeing the Canyon from below the rim is a very different experience from seeing it on the rim.  It's a sheer drop hundreds of feet down on one side, and a sheer cliff going up on the other.  How they carved the trail into that mountain is beyond me.

On the Kaibab Trail

We could have gone much further down the trail, but because (a) the rim is at 7,000 ft altitude and I'm not used to that elevation, and (b) climbing up 800 ft is much more strenuous than going down, and (c) we'd already walked over 3 miles already, we turned around.  In all, we were on the trail about an hour: 20 minutes down, 40 up.  There were a few very fit and hardy hikers who were burning along on the uphill climb like it was nothing.  This not-very-fit-nor-hardy hiker was puffing like a steam engine.

Horse Train on Kaibab Trail

On the way back up, a tourist group on horseback passed us.  We both thought that was probably the best way to see the Canyon: down and back on another critter's legs.  However, that would be about 8 hours on a horse, and if you're not used to horses, you would be mighty sore long before you ever even hit the bottom ... much less do the climb back up.

Late afternoon on the South Rim

We walked back along the Rim Trail to the lodge that afternoon.  I stopped and did a few sketches here and there.  It was past sunset and just getting dark by the time we got back to the room.  We rested a bit, cleaned up, had dinner, and called it a day.

The next day, we headed back to New Mexico.  It was pretty much a replay of the drive out: 8 hours on the road, looking at very unusual (for this North Carolinian) landscapes.

Some observations:

Plein-air exhibit in Kolb Studio

- One of the first places we visited in the park was the Kolb Studio.  This was originally built on the south rim by a couple of brothers who were photographers.  Now it is a park gallery for Canyon-associated photography, paintings, and other art.  It had an exhibit of works by a group of 26 plein-air painters.  The Grand Canyon Association sponsored an event in September in which these artists, who were juried in from a large pool of applicants, spent a week painting at various places around the park.  I was blown away: these painters were good.  Normally, in a show like this, I expect to see maybe two or three who were pretty good, and a lot of others who are so-so.  Not this group.  Every one was top-notch.  The exhibit is online - go take a look.
- Late October or early November is a good time to visit.  The weather was good and the park was not crowded.  Unlike summer, when it's hot and you can barely move for all the bodies, there's plenty of room to get around.  We heard lots of different languages: French, German, Japanese, Southern Redneck, Chinese, British English, Spanish, and many that I couldn't place.
- There are plenty of warnings about hiking below the rim.  Many warn you not to try to get to the river and back in one day.  Of course, some do: one woman blew by us on the hike back to the top of Kaibab Trail, and she was barely breaking a sweat.  My brother-in-law, though, did something even more remarkable a few years ago.  He ran from the campground to the rim, then down to the river, up to the top of the North Rim, back down to the river, and back up to the South Rim, and back to the campground.  Rim to rim to rim.  He does ultra-marathons, too.
- The staff everywhere were exceptionally good: very friendly, very informative, and it was clear that they really got a kick out of working in the Grand Canyon.  Didn't matter whether they were park employees or working for the contractors.
- We saw a bit of wildlife.  On the first night, we saw several female elk and one young solitary male.  Later, there was a group of five or six females munching on grass on the shoulder of the road.  The next day, we saw a group of deer.  We looked for the rare California condor, but didn't see any.

The Grand Canyon.  If you haven't been there, put it on your bucket list.  It's something every American should experience.

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