It is a vast thing.
It’s two hundred and seventy-seven miles long, a mile deep in most places, and about ten miles across on average. The Colorado River is three miles from the south rim, and therefore seven miles from the north. The National Park Service estimates that it should take you about three days to hike down to the river from the south rim, and warns against anybody trying to do that on their own. There are signs here and there listing the rescues that they undertake for people who ignore those warnings, and if you truly miss the point the gift shops sell a fascinating inch-thick book that does nothing but describe all of the people known to who have died in the Grand Canyon since white people found it, helpfully arranged in chapters by cause and updated to 2015. The south rim is roughly a thousand feet lower than the north rim, all those miles away, which means it has completely different weather. When you add all that up, you will understand why you can watch an entire rainstorm cruise up the canyon without getting wet yourself.
Honestly, even standing in front of it live and in person you often get the feeling that you’re looking at a painted backdrop because the sheer size of the place is just that difficult to wrap your head around.
One of the things that stuck with me most about the Grand Canyon was a sign at one of the viewpoints that quoted an early Spanish explorer. He reported that men who had been sent into the canyon came back reporting that boulders they had thought from the rim were the size of men were actually the size of houses, and that other rock formations they thought were the size of houses were taller than the Tower of Seville. It’s deceptive, looking on from the rim.
We got there a bit after 8pm, though that’s misleading too since Arizona does not recognize Daylight Savings Time except when it does. It’s an hour earlier than Utah at the Grand Canyon unless you’re on the Navajo reservation, in which case they do recognize Daylight Savings Time and it’s the same time as Utah. And if that makes no sense to you then you can take it up with Benjamin Franklin or Woodrow Wilson because I found that the best strategy was simply to ignore the clocks as much as possible.
We still had some daylight when we got there, no matter what time it was.
In order to get to our hotel in Tusayan, where most of the hotels are if you’re visiting the south rim of the National Park, you actually have to go through the park. So we paid our admission – got a nifty little pass that allows us to get into all of the national parks for a full year, actually, so perhaps we’ll be doing more traveling soon – and we headed into the park.
The first stop we came to was the Desert View Watchtower, which bears no small resemblance to Bohus Fastning, a medieval fortress that we visited in Sweden a few years ago. Maybe that's just what watchtowers look like. There's an old line among historians about how the fact that there are ancient pyramids in Egypt, Sudan, Mesopotamia, and Mesoamerica really does prove that a pyramid is a good shape to pile rocks in if you don't want them to fall down. Sometimes it is just that simple. The Desert View Watchtower is not that old, though - it's a purpose-built observation tower, and you can climb up inside to get a good view of the east end of the Grand Canyon. Or you could if it were open. But it had closed about an hour before we got there, so we milled around outside and were suitably impressed anyway.
As the light faded we headed out through the park and found our hotel.
It was a lovely hotel, really, once you mastered the art of parking in its labyrinthine lots and skirted around the tour buses parked randomly in traffic while discharging vast quantities of Asian men in white robes. We had a very nice room with comfortable beds and the whole thing was located at one end of a commercial strip that featured one of the best Mexican restaurants we’ve been to in a long time. If you’re ever in Tusayan, Arizona, you should stop by the Plaza Bonita for some really good food. We liked it so much that we ate dinner there both nights we were in Tusayan, though that also might have had something to do with the fact that it was a) within walking distance of the hotel and b) open late for dinner, since neither night did we get there before 9pm. Still – good food.
We started early the next morning, driving up to the Visitor Center to get oriented. Despite dire warnings about the lack of parking, including signs on both days we visited advising us that the parking lots were completely full and we should try to find parking somewhere in New Mexico, we never did have any trouble finding a spot. Let that be a lesson, folks – the signs only tell you what they want you to believe, not what’s actually there.
We went in and dutifully watched the movie that they show every half hour – a cinematic tour de force that no doubt won some kind of award – and then went off to see it for ourselves.
It’s no more comprehensible in the morning sunlight, really.
From the Visitor Center we walked over to Mather Point and then west along the rim until we finally got hungry enough to eat lunch, sometime in the middle of the afternoon. This turned out to be quite an adventure, as our target restaurant was not the first place we went into (that was a rather fancier hotel) nor the second (a place called the Arizona Room) nor what we hoped it would be once we got to it (turned out to be a walk-up ice-cream-and-dog stand), so we ended up back at the Arizona Room where we enjoyed a lovely meal overlooking the canyon.
Somewhere in there we got to see the rainstorm go by. It was gorgeous in its way, especially since you could see the lightning across the way. It changed the lighting in the canyon quite a bit.
By this point it was getting late in the afternoon, so we took the shuttle bus back to the Visitor Center – the park has a large and efficient shuttle bus system that should be a model for public transportation systems everywhere – raided the gift shop for souvenirs, and then drove out to the Tusayan ruins.
No, not the commercial strip where our hotel was. That was fine.
The ruins are an 800-year-old Native American village on the very eastern edge of the park. We’d passed it on the way in the previous night. We got there about ten minutes before the museum closed but it’s small enough that you can get a good sense of what’s in it in that amount of time – some artifacts, including some twisted twig animal figures that I thought were fascinating, and a bit about the culture that produced it all.
And then we got to explore the ruins, which are in pretty good shape and right out there on the trail. There are polite little signs asking you not to walk on them, and we took that advice.
From there we worked our way back down the road toward the Visitor Center again.
We stopped at the Desert Tower again, which was open this time. You can walk in and up the four flights of stairs to the top, or you can stop halfway and go out onto an observation area and see from there.
Then we moved on to Moran Point.
Thomas Moran was one of the multitude of artists drawn to the Grand Canyon over the last couple of centuries because of the scenery and the way the light plays upon it. He painted his most famous works from what is now Moran Point, and since Tabitha fell in love with one of them back at the Philadelphia Art Museum a couple of years ago we decided that this would be a good place to stop.
I can see why he liked the vantage from there.
Of course, it’s not all scenic splendor at the Grand Canyon.
The next day we decided to try the hotel buffet since it was pretty much the same price as the local McDonalds for breakfast. All meals cost about the same in Tusayan, apparently. I’m not sure how they coordinate that but nevertheless ‘tis true, ‘tis true.
We checked out of our hotel and headed back up to the Visitor Center, where we got on the various shuttle buses that took us up to Hermit Point and found ourselves surrounded by Wisconsinites. They’re everywhere, fleeing the state for parts unknown. I’m not sure what that implies, but there you have it. Eventually we made it all the way out to Hermit’s Point, the furthest reach of the National Park shuttle lines.
It’s just as lovely as the rest of the canyon.
After a while, though, it’s kind of overwhelming and you just have to head elsewhere. So we shuttled our way down to the Visitor Center, got in our car, and headed back toward Utah.