Grand Canyon National Park

April 9-17, 2019

Sunset at the Watchtower

John’s Writing Assignment: Compare and contrast your two visits to the Grand Canyon.

Glorious! Both times. There simply isn’t another word for it.

 

On my first trip I was with a Boy Scout Troop that backpacked rim-to-rim-to rim – 50total miles down the south rim, across the bottom, up the north rim, back down, across and up again… In six days… Carrying a 60 pound backpack… In 100+ degree heat! IN JULY! (Anyone that says, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity,” is lying. Dry heat, wet heat – it’s still HOT!)

Canyon View – Bright Angel across to North Rim

This time around I’m older, a lot older. Almost 22 years older, and retired… NO schedule, no miles to cover each day, only carrying the water I need for the next few hours… so much easier. I pretty much stuck to the South Rim, with the exception of a short, 3 mile roundtrip hike down the South Kaibab Trail just for old time’s sake (and to give Holly the taste of the canyon trails she craved). More on that hike later.

Comparing Visits

My two visits to the Canyon were as different as night and day.

First Visit

I turned 45 the day we left Maryland for the Canyon – mid-July. I carried a 60+ pound backpack. On the first hiking day, the temperature reached 113 degrees at Phantom Ranch. We quickly learned we needed to get up before dawn and be off the trail by ten. I hiked with three other adult leaders and 7 to 8 Boy Scouts. My most vivid memory was having to stand on the outside of the trail whenever a mule train carrying tourists or supplies passed. More often than not, as the mules reached us, they thought that was a good place to stop to pee and poop. Take my word for it, steaming hot pee and poop does not smell good. After a sweltering hike, I remember soaking in the clear, cold water of Bright Angel Creek where tiny fish nibbled at my toes. I remember stopping at Ribbon Falls and climbing behind the falls to eat lunch in cool, moist shade. I remember climbing, and climbing, and climbing what appeared to be a never-ending series of switchbacks up to the North Rim. My mind kept telling me not to look up… but I had to. BIG MISTAKE, as each time I looked, the rim appeared farther away than before. I remember enjoying the lush, cool temperatures on the North Rim. On the way back down to Phantom Ranch I hiked through “The Box” which we thought would be more appropriately named “The Oven”. The narrow rock gorge absorbed the heat of the sun and reflected it back on us. To get the last few miles needed for the Boy Scout “50 miler” patch, we hiked to Plateau Point to watch the light, shadows, and beautiful colors as the sun set and painted the canyon. And I still vividly remember that final step that brought me back to the South Rim. I was sore, I was tired, I was exhilarated! I did it!

Bright Angel Trail (only the beginning)

Second Visit

This was a much more relaxing and less physically demanding visit. Everything we did was unscheduled and changed with the weather (read that as meaning constantly changing). Weather was variously sunny, cloudy, windy, gusty, cold, cool, and snowy – sometimes within a few minutes. While we were glad the temps never got anywhere near that 100 degree mark, it was much colder than we expected; partly due to massive storms wreaking havoc in the north central part of the country. We even had measurable snow – twice! Needless to say we hunkered down or toured buildings until it warmed up enough for us to venture outside each day. After all, we weren’t on a schedule like I was on my first visit.

John with snow clouds dancing in the canyon

Activities

Ranger Programs

While there were fewer Ranger programs than I expected, the ones we attended were quite good. I especially liked the “Critter Talk” about the elk. We learned quite a few interesting things. Male elk shed their antlers every spring and grow a new set. The new antlers grow at a rate of one inch PER DAY. What’s astounding is that both antlers are mirror images of each other and the new set is exactly like the old set so if an injury causes an odd turn to one of the antlers, that odd turn will be regrown on the new antlers every year for the rest of the elk’s life.

SO MANY LAYERS! – Yavapai Geology Museum

Next we attended a program at the Yavapai Point Geology Museum. The program was pretty heavy on the geologic timeline and formation of the canyon but very educational.

Geology Center 3D Map

They have an awesome 3D map of the canyon in the center of the building, interpretive displays, a small gift shop and a HUGE wall of windows looking into the canyon. We had to go back a second time for pictures as the swirling snow obliterated most of the canyon the first time. This point was chosen for the museum by geologists because it has an excellent view of all the different geologic features of the canyon. It is well worth a visit and a great place to let small children safely view the canyon.

Tusayan Museum

Tusayan Kiva

Our third program was to the Tusayan Museum and Ruin. You can do a self-guided tour and get the same information but we enjoy the interaction with the Ranger and often get tidbits of information that are often missed when wandering on your own. The ruin is one pueblo out of hundreds found along the rim and down into the canyon. Part of it was excavated and part was left as it was found so you can see what a historic site would look like if you came across one out in the forest. There are good displays of ancient and modern native artifacts in the museum. It shows that the ancient people didn’t leave, they are still here. Many tribes link their ancestry to the ancient people of the canyon.

Canyon View

Hiking

We didn’t totally chill during our eight days at Grand Canyon. We did quite a bit of walking and hiking.

South Rim Trail and Greenway Trail (tracing the South Rim)

Our longest hike was from Hermit’s Rest to Bright Angel Lodge – about eight miles. One cold and windy day we took the red shuttle to Hermit’s Rest at the western end of the “tourist section” and started hiking.

Luxury at Hermit’s Rest

Hermit’s Rest is a cool stone building with a snack bar (a hot chocolate/coffee combo sipped in front of a roaring fire was pure bliss). We weren’t sure how long we’d want to hike in the wildly changing weather (it snowed left, it snowed right, then it snowed UP out of the side canyons!!!) so we decided to start at Hermit’s Rest and hike until we didn’t want to, then hop a shuttle back to the village. We never got on that shuttle. The views all along the way were spectacular. Every time there was a break in the trees and I stepped toward the edge the view seemed entirely different. I had the same feeling 22 years ago while hiking down into the Canyon. Perspective is everything and the Grand Canyon gives you plenty of those. At one overlook we came across a herd of about fifteen female elk lying just off the trail.

Totally Chill Elk

They stared at us as we stared at them. We were more impressed by them than they were of us. A few of the females appeared to be pregnant but there were no young yet so they were very calm. A few were lying within three feet of the trail. One grazed at the canyon’s edge then crossed the trail right between the tourists. Elk have the right of way. We marveled at these beautiful animals, took our pictures and hiked on. After this excellent hike we rewarded ourselves with a nice steak dinner and adult beverages at the Bright Angel Lodge. Our timing was perfect; we arrived fifteen minutes after they opened for dinner, were seated, served and happily eating in short order. It was the perfect end to a perfect day.

Grand Canyon Village

Over the next several days we added other pieces and eventually hiked the entire Rim Trail and part of the Greenway Trail. Our boots hit every mile of trail between Hermit’s Rest to the west and the South Kaibab Trailhead to the east. We stopped at every visitor center, museum, and gift shop as well as several restaurants. The ups and downs of the rim trails were pretty mild. We stayed up top along the South Rim on both of these trails. The Rim Trail along the main Village area can get quite crowded as that’s where the lodges, restaurants, snack bars, gift shops, and historic buildings abound but it is a great place to explore.

As we walked along the rim peering down the Bright Angel Trail, Holly asked me if those little trail lines sketching across the canyon were “calling to me.” At first I said, “No” but as the days went by I felt a tug. Soooo…yeah, they did start to call to me and my eyes started tracing those little lines wandering across the canyon.

Canyon View

Pack Mule

South Kaibab Trail

Our other (not so big) “big” hike was down into the canyon. It was three miles instead of fifty with light weight daypacks. The mile and half down South Kaibab Trail was a breeze with our walking sticks. The mile and half back up was a good bit more difficult but we had plenty of snacks and water, took our time, and made it without incident. The views were amazing and though the trail was crowded, we thoroughly enjoyed the hike. We met two gentlemen with full packs climbing that last mile out of the canyon and chatted for a while with them in the shade. They are Arizona natives and hike backcountry in the canyon multiple times a year. They referred to it as their “backyard”. What an awesome backyard it is. This trip they were out for seven days and had camped most of it in Clear Creek Canyon. They said they experienced 90 degree heat, then wind, rain, and freezing temps with sleet, hail and snow. They showed us photos of Clear Creek waterfall and pointed it out far across the canyon. They said it is the tallest falls in the canyon and drops 800 feet to a ledge then topples over and drops another 400 feet. Our eyes traced the trails far down in the canyon that they hiked. We were on our way down so a longer hike felt doable. It was on the way back up that we had to accept our limited abilities.

South Kaibab Switchbacks – an easy walk down

Holly described it as feeling like an easy 1.5 miles down and a rugged, dusty, windy 5 miles back up the same way. She was happy there was a (seriously stinky) pit toilet at our turnaround point at Cedar Ridge.

We hung out there, visited with the pack mules that were on their way back up from their supply run to Phantom Ranch, rested, snacked, gazed at the beautiful canyon, and just generally recharged for the hike back up to the rim 1,120 feet above our heads. Our legs were only mildly sore the next day so we counted that as huge win!


Top to bottom: South Kaibab Hike – Before, View at .9 miles, View near 1.5 miles, After

Logistics

Getting around wasn’t that hard. The park runs a series of shuttles all around the park on four different routes – Red, Blue, Orange, and Purple. Most shuttles run every 10-15 minutes during the main tourist season. They start early in the morning and continue until an hour after sunset. Many bike paths also run through the park and most shuttles have a bike rack on the front so you can easily tour that way. There are bike rental stations if you don’t have one with you.

The Blue shuttle is the “Village Route” and snakes through the main tourist areas from Bright Angel Lodge to the Visitor Center. It hits all the parking lots, lodges and main campgrounds. We were on and off this bus repeatedly as it connected everything else.



Top to bottom: Kolb Studio inside and out, Hopi House, Grand Canyon Depot

The Red shuttle runs from the Red-Blue transfer station (at the Bright Angel Trailhead) to Hermit’s Rest and back. This is an excellent touring route. It stops at eight overlooks going out and at three of them coming back. The pocket guide they give you tells the trail mileage between the points so you can hop on and off the shuttle for excellent views without ever hiking, you can hike bits and pieces, or you can hike the entire route back. If you plan to bike, there are short sections at each end but you’ll need to run the road in between. Since the road is closed to non-commercial vehicles, there is very little traffic so biking there is pleasant.

The Orange shuttle runs east from the Visitor Center to the South Kaibab Trailhead and Yaki Point and also west from the Visitor Center to Yavapai Point and the Geology Museum.

The Purple shuttle is a direct run between the Tusayan Community and the main Visitor Center. Many people park in Tusayan ant take the shuttle to avoid the traffic and parking mess that you find in the village on busy days. We took advantage of all the routes except the Purple route.

Main Visitor Center

There are four large parking lots at the main Visitor Center. Lot 1 has parking for about 50 RVs. But be forewarned that during tourist season ALL of these lots all fill up by 10 A.M. Visitors then park helter-skelter anywhere they can along the nearby roads and the sides of the parking lots. And forget parking anywhere in the Village. For us, we always found a parking spot at Market Square where you can catch a Blue shuttle. Large vehicles can also park at Lot D (Backcountry Information Center) which is also on the Blue shuttle route.

NOTE: Grand Canyon is EXTREMELY popular during spring break (which seems to run most of March and April in the southwest). Holly had trouble booking campsites. Our first five nights were spent in five different sites – we had to pack up and move each day (then find a place to park the RV AND car). We spent the first three nights at Mather Campground near the village (in three different sites). The fourth night we couldn’t book anywhere so we spent the night in the Kaibab National Forest just outside the park boundary (gorgeous and free). We could have stayed on there for two weeks but it was a long drive to anything. On the fifth day Desert View Campground at the far eastern end of the park opened and we finally settled into a site to stay for more than one night. None of the campsites we stayed in had hookups of any kind. There was a dump station and water fill at Mather Campground but not in the National Forest or Desert View. We finally set the solar panel up at Desert View as the RV spent all the other days in parking lots (Holly says we need solar panels on the roof as well as our portable one to cover this scenario).

Campgrounds

There are three campgrounds in Grand Canyon National Park. We stayed at two of them.

Trailer Village

We didn’t stay there. They have full hookups for $59.00 a night. Our only view was the loop around the entrance station on the Blue shuttle.

Snow at Mather Campground

Mather Campground

We spent three nights there in three different sites. They have a 30 foot limit but we were able to fit the 28 foot RV and the Subaru with bike rack into all three of our sites. One site said maximum 25 feet. It was a curved pull through so we figure it is because wider rigs can’t get around the angle. There was plenty of driveway for us on the ones we booked but we did see many that would not have worked. Spaces were moderately level and spaced out so there was plenty of open space around us. We saw elk grazing through the campgrounds. There is a dump station, water fill, coin laundry and coin showers at the camper services area at the front of the campground. Generators are allowed two hours in the morning and again in the evening.

Watchtower

View from Watchtower

Desert View Campground

We spent four nights there in the same site. There is NO dump station or water fill. There are spigots for fresh water but you can’t hook a hose to fill your tanks. There are no showers available but they do have flush toilets. They have a dishwashing sink on the back of restrooms. Desert View is first come first serve and at least half of the sites would fit our rig and car. It is a nice campground and was full EVERY day we were there. The sites are closer than Mather but there is still plenty of space. Generators are allowed two hours in the morning and again in the evening. There is a gift shop, general store with café, gas station, and more restrooms a short walk or drive from the campground to the main Desert View visitor area. The Watchtower is the highlight of the area and is a beautiful building with 360 degree views of the canyon, forest and desert.

View from Fire Tower

Kaibab National Forest

We spent one night there (free). The area we stayed in was accessed by a dirt road off of Desert View Drive between Grandview Point and Buggeln Picnic Area. You go about a mile on a not-too-bad dirt road, pass the Kaibab National Forest sign then watch for camping spots on both sides of the road. Most are near where two roads intersect. Ironically, we had the BEST cell phone signal in the forest – 5 bars 4G Verizon. There was a cell tower right near the camping spots.

Kaibab National Forest Fire Tower

Snow in Kaibab National Forest

There was also an 80 foot steel fire tower that we climbed for great views. You can’t access the enclosure at the top but you can go right up to the platform below it. We would have stayed longer but it was a long drive to anywhere. In hindsight, we should have stayed longer as we wound up driving from Desert View to the village several times which was an even longer drive. We could have returned to the camper services at Mather to dump and refill water if we stayed long enough to need it. There are Forest Service disbursed campsites just outside both the East Entrance and the South Entrance of Grand Canyon NP so if you can dry camp, it could be your best way to go. There were no rules posted on the entrance board about generators which was good because we woke up to an inch of snow that morning and were happy to kick on the genny and pump in the heat without draining our propane using the furnace. You might notice a recurring theme in our campsite pictures… snow. Those were the two times we had measurable snow but we did get snowed on four of our eight days at the canyon.

J & H

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