Grand Canyon: Taking the slow, scenic route

Following the bright lights, glitz and glamour of a three-night stay in Las Vegas, we packed our bags and loaded our rental car for the next leg of our trip – the Grand Canyon.

 

The first highlight of our road trip was to cross the new bridge built to divert traffic from traversing directly over the Hoover Dam. Just a few years earlier during a visit to the dam, we stood in awe of the bridge’s construction and engineering prowess. For better or worse, concrete walls obstructed panoramic views of the dam and the dizzying height of the bridge as we crossed it.

A few miles down the road, we stopped at a scenic outlook to soak in some sun and sights of Black Canyon and a portion of Lake Mohave. Blanket spreads displaying jewelry, pottery and ornaments mocked a huge sign reading “Selling or Advertising Prohibited.” Nice try, Arizona Department of Transportation.

‘Double-double, animal-style, please’

With the help of Yelp, we landed on our lunch destination an hour into the trip in Kingsman, Arizona. The bold red-and-yellow sign stood like a beacon off Interstate 40. We had heard the lore associated with the In-N-Out Burger chain and wanted to see if it was worth the hype.

We ordered the highly recommended double-double, animal-style cheeseburger and fries. A smiling all-American teenage girl who looked like she could have walked straight off of a commercial set for In-N-Out Burger greeted us and patiently explained the menu. It was love at first bite – that combination of beefy juiciness, a hearty helping of crisp lettuce and tomato, grilled onions and satisfying Thousand Island sauce wrapped between two spongy-perfect buns. A serving of thinly fresh-cut fries completed the meal. It’s worth the hype.

On the road again

Subtly changing landscapes reminded us of why driving can be a much more rewarding and enlightening experience. The terrain transitioned from desert scrub and flowering cacti to pines and views of snow-capped mountains.

As we approached the Grand Canyon, the flat but vegetated terrain made it even more difficult to believe that we were approaching our destination – a mile-deep, 277-mile long, 18-mile wide hole in the ground. It’s easy to imagine the shock early explorers must have felt to stumble upon it.

There’s a certain giddiness that comes from standing in the presence of an expanse that enormous. It’s something pictures can never explain because the feeling is as much a part of the experience. Only six million years in the making, the canyon’s oldest rock dates to about 1.8 billion years – just a few billion years shy of earth’s ripe old age of 4-plus billion years.

Let your mules do the walking

While the idea of taking mules down to the bottom of the canyon seemed like it could get boring for someone who likes to hike, I quickly reversed my decision as I stood at the rim looking down at this great abyss. From our vantage point near the historic El Tovar hotel, you can’t see the bottom of the canyon, which made me yearn to see its floor and the mighty Colorado River all that much more. Even better would have been to hike down, stay at Phantom Ranch and pay the extra cost (yes, it costs more for a one-way return than a round trip) to hitch a ride from the mules back up the canyon.

Whatever you decide, plan it 13 months in advance when reservations open for mule rides, Phantom Ranch and El Tovar.

El Tovar is another National Park classic historic hotel built by the railroads to bring tourists to these great destinations. Staying and dining in this Registered National Historic Landmark that first opened its doors in 1905 is a treat not to be missed. If you can, stay in El Tovar Suite to take advantage of South Rim canyon views from a roomy balcony. This would be a great option for a family considering you can order a rollaway bed for the second room.

Watch your step: Navigating the rim

Hiking along the Rim Trail between outlooks is another rewarding way to experience the canyon as you take in the views and solitude between the shuttle stops. As the light, clouds and perspective shift ever so slightly to spotlight new sections of the canyon, it conjures stories of greatness.

Plan your hiking day around lunch at Hermit’s Rest. Grab a sandwich at the small snack shop, find a cozy picnic bench and take in this unforgettable dining spot.

Be sure to check out the gift shop to see the fireplace built as a part of the complex designed by southwest architect Mary Jane Colter.  Hired by the Fred Harvey Company responsible for building and operating many of the hotels and restaurants along the Santa Fe Railway, she was a woman ahead of her time and had a knack for blending building forms into the landscape as not to detract from the canyon’s beauty. Instead, each building became a natural extension of it.

Get your bearings at Geology Museum

Before you leave the Grand Canyon, be sure to stop by the Geology Museum to bring together the story of its evolution. A model helps acquaint you with its nooks and crannies, and binoculars in front of its expansive windows help you get your bearings.

As we left the park, we began contemplating our return trip with mule rides, new hikes, rafting and more. That’s the classic sign of a great destination – when you can barely cross its borders before planning for and anticipating doing it all over again.

Comments   

+1 # The GypsyNesters 2014-07-12 15:45
Fun post! In-N-Out burgers do rock! One tip, we learned last year on our visit to the canyon that the mules on the North rim are not nearly as booked up. We went with only a couple days advanced reservations. They don't go all the way to the bottom though, and it is a 4-5 hour drive across, but beautiful.
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0 # Susie Wellendorf 2014-08-18 20:54
Thanks! I appreciate the tip on the North Rim mules. I hope to make it back there someday. Regardless, more In-N-Out burgers are in my future! Quoting The GypsyNesters:
Fun post! In-N-Out burgers do rock! One tip, we learned last year on our visit to the canyon that the mules on the North rim are not nearly as booked up. We went with only a couple days advanced reservations. They don't go all the way to the bottom though, and it is a 4-5 hour drive across, but beautiful.
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