When we put together the original itinerary for this trip we decided, in the light of the array of other stunning sights on offer, none of which we had visited before, we would omit the Grand Canyon. After all, we had been twice before, the South Rim in 1995 and the North Rim nine years later.
On the later visit, we had fl0wn in a helicopter down to the canyon floor for a short boat ride on the Colorado River. This had been followed by a hair-raising jeep trip onto the Havasupai reservation for lunch and, inevitably, a tour round the open air jewelry stalls.
But as this vacation drew nearer, we came to our senses and realised that we would be insane not to go, especially as we were staying two nights in Flagstaff, Arizona, a mere eighty miles from the South Rim. Downtown Flagstaff and nearby Sedona would have to wait another day.
And, of course, we were proved right. Much as we were mesmerised by Bryce Canyon and humbled by Monument Valley, this mother is truly the daddy of them all.
We set off on yet another clear blue morning and 66 degrees. Once through downtown we branched north-west onto the I-180 West. We had, at least for now, seen the last of the buttes, mesas and crazy sandstone rock creations as we received a ponderosa pine guard of honour through the middle of the Kaibab National Forest. The San Francisco Peaks lay behind.
At Valle we met the I-64 coming north from Williams and followed the I-180 due north. Reba McEntire sang Consider Me Gone on 92.9 FM Kaff Country Radio. The Flintstones Bedrock Campground with Fred’s Diner and a huge sign exclaiming “Yabbadabbadoo” looked inviting but we were anxious to get to our destination.
We approached Grand Canyon Airport, from where Janet had got a flight to Vegas on our first visit, on a stretch of highway adopted by “Elmina Freeman I Love You Mike Freeman”, one of the more bizarre romantic gestures I have seen. Shortly before Tusayan, at what appeared to be a relatively new complex of hotels and other lodging, restaurants and trading posts, we re-joined the forest.
Using our America the Beautiful national parks pass once again we entered the park, but before taking that first momentous look, we called in at the Grand Canyon Village for breakfast. Parking at the Canyon Lodge information Plaza, we were astonished to see how the facilities had been upgraded since our previous visit to the South Rim seventeen years before.
On that brisk October morning, when we had first gaped in astonishment at that massive crack in the earth, we had been deposited at Mather Point for just a few minutes before being herded back on our tour bus for the trip to Vegas. My only other recollection, and one from which I still bear the mental scars, is of the birds, grosbeaks I believe, stealing our breakfast of warm mini-donuts. This time our granola bars (a sign of the changing times?) were stashed safely in our rucksacks on this occasion.
So we knew what to expect.
Nothing can prepare you, however often you might visit, for this most inspiring and uplifting of spectacles. The expectation alone in walking the couple of hundred yards from the plaza to your first sighting at Mather Point was thrilling enough.
But then – that view!
We talked to a couple from Florida who were halfway through a three month road trip to celebrate the husband’s retirement. They were also visiting many of the same sights as us, as well as driving through the midwest and the south (well, they had to in able to get home).
It had been exactly a week since our last serious hiking – in the Arches National Park. All our walking of late had been in largely urban settings. So we were a little out of practice, if not of breath. But the trails along the rim were paved, though for anyone foolhardy enough to do so, and there were plenty, there were many opportunities for hanging over the canyon on jagged precipices.
Initially, we walked east, the less populous route, but after about a mile and a half we turned back and returned to Mather Point. From there we headed west along the Rim Trail to Yavapai Point where the displays in the Yavapai Observation Station explained how the canyon may have been formed.
Now, the guidebooks suggest that the latter extract of the trail takes about ten minutes. That may be true – if you are running for a bus with no heed for the scenery. But every few steps brings another jaw-dropping vista or overlook at which you find yourself drifting off in a reverie, only to be woken by a Japanese voice asking you to take a photograph of him and his girlfriend.
Attempting to pick out teasing glimpses of the bottle green Colorado River as it weaved its way around the canyon floor was a fascinating exercise in itself.
As evidence of just how quickly time had passed it was now 2.30 in the afternoon, time to drive the 23 miles east along the Desert View Drive, stopping at Grandview, Moran and Navajo Points to gaze at the timeless, ever-changing landscape of the canyon.
At Desert View, the park’s eastern boundary, we witnessed a group of hikers taking the last few steps of an ascent from the canyon itself. Now that is what we will do on our next trip. If we can negotiate the Navajo Loop Trail in Bryce Canyon in a hundred degrees, this would be perfectly manageable. Perhaps not the gruelling, and occasionally life threatening, Bright Angel Trail, but certainly one that takes us down into the canyon – and hopefully back up again!
In the Ancestran Pueblo-style Desert View Watchtower – which has an excellent gift shop on the ground floor and three circular chambers above decorated with authentic Hopi murals on the floors above – we talked to the proprietor who had lived in West Yorkshire. His experience had taught him that the British were much more polite than his fellow countrymen, an opinion which, on balance, we were, in all humility, inclined to agree with.
Armed with a bundle of souvenirs from the Watchtower gift shop, we had a coffee in the nearby snack bar. With the sun already hinting it was ready to call it a day, we dragged ourselves, reluctantly, from the park.
Rather than double back on ourselves, we took the I-64 East to Cameron where we picked up the I-89 South just as we passed 2,000 miles for the trip. The revised route allowed us the opportunity to call in at the Navajo run, but virtually deserted, Little Colorado River Gorge. It may have been the time of day but we saw more abandoned, or perhaps closed, jewelry / pottery stalls on this stretch of road than anywhere else in the Navajo Nation.
At Elden Pueblo a giant stars and stripes flag with an imprecation inscribed below of “Romney Save the USA”, lay limp at the roadside, a premonition perhaps, despite the previous evening’s presidential debate, of the ultimate fate of his challenge for the highest office.
The welcome sign for Flagstaff pronounced it the “World’s First International Dark Sky City”, a worthy accolade and one, I think, its residents should be proud of. It made me like Flagstaff even more and resolve to pay it a longer visit very soon.
Given that our room, or should I say suite, was so comfortable and spacious, and that we had to pack and prepare for our last. and longest, day on the road tomorrow, we decided to have room service.
One of the reasons we had originally chosen Sedona over the Grand Canyon for this day had been the short drive from Flagstaff. In the end, we had clocked up almost 200 miles.
But it had been worth every inch.