The Grand Canyon: Part One, the Southern Rim

The Grand Canyon is one of the most iconic and visited national parks in our country. It is a magical, mystical place, with a silence that I have only heard while in its presence. And though it can sometimes feel like the Disney Park of the natural world, it still somehow maintains a unique, untouchable quality.

The Desert View Entrance Station is the Eastern entrance to Grand Canyon National Park. It is far from typical civilization, as it is neatly nestled on the western side of the Navajo Reservation. Once you enter the park, there is a viewpoint called Desert View Watchtower that captures the best view of the Colorado River winding its way into the widening, deep canyon that stretches out almost infinitely in front of you. For that reason, this view is the most captivating to me. You can see how the river carved the canyon’s entrance, the cracks in the plateau as the ground broke free and fell into the mile deep ravine, expanding the beauty that has formed over millions of years, now 18 miles wide and 277 miles long. To call it massive is patronizing; instead, I will call it captivating, spiritual, quiet, wise, and calming. There is a mystical quality in the air that entices, and sometimes escapes, our modern sensibilities, as though the canyon seems to know that she was here before us and will continue to be here long after we are gone. Her whisper soothes me, and her power pushes me to surrender to her from that first glance until my last parting picture.

It is then a 25-mile drive through the forest along the southern rim of the canyon until you reach Grand Canyon Village. This national park is one the largest, and so very out in the middle of nowhere, that it has it’s own post office, school, Chase Bank, gas station, and grocery store, as it must serve its many rangers, employees, and visitors. Each lodge has a restaurant, cafeteria, or pub with all of the Wi-Fi and amenities one might need. The multiple campgrounds are tucked away into the trees, and you can hear the chatter that seems to surround the many campfires lit in the distance. The multi-hour drive through Native American reservations to get here reminds us of the vastness of land and rock formations that surround this stunning natural wonder, yet once on site, it has a theme park feel to it, particularly in the afternoon as the tourist busses and the Grand Canyon train roll in from Flagstaff, pushing the limits of the Bright Angel Lodge welcome center and ice cream shop. Most day-trippers walk a portion of the dog-friendly paved 12.8-mile Rim Trail, of which has many access points and is accessible for all abilities. There are shuttle busses to help transport folks from the end of the trail back to their car or starting point, as well as to and from services, lodges, and campgrounds. It’s a well-organized machine but can feel over-whelming and unauthentic at the peak of the day and the height of the season.

 

But the day-trippers leave around 5:00, and the park settles into a calm rhythm of hikers and campers that have chosen to stay onsite. I have camped, as well as stayed at a lodge, and both experiences were lovely. I think that it just depends on the person, the group, and what you might be wanting to gain from the experience. Either way, there is enough distance to not feel as though you are on top of each other, but you are definitely not alone. To me, the best part of staying onsite is the latitude to take your time. Being so far away from light pollution, the stars are magnificent, the crispness in the air is refreshing, and the wind has a sound that is unique and indefinable as it soars up from the canyon. It moves towards you through the trees, pushing the smell of pinion pine through the air in a seemingly forward, purposeful movement. When quietly taking in the view, I become intensely aware that I am only a passerby on this planet, helping me understand that my purpose on this Earth is to simply be a good person. I take a deep breath and calm my soul with that brief reminder.

The Grand Canyon looks differently at all viewpoints and at all times of the day, from sunrise to sunset, earning it the nickname “the canyon of light.” Grab an early cup of coffee and head down to the rim from your campsite or room to watch the cool, silent sunrise. Walk the Rim Trail and eat a packed lunch as you take in the midday view. There are three trails that lead you down into the canyon, and though you can’t complete a trail and return to the rim in one day, you can walk down to your comfort level and get a different perspective of the vastness of the canyon. There are mule rides along the more remote Eastern rim, and there are bike trails that wind their way through the forest, connecting the viewpoints and lodges. Grab an afternoon tea and bundle up to watch the breathtaking sunset. Drink a beer at the pub or at your campsite, as the cool air surrounds you in the high desert evening. The Grand Canyon is one of the best national parks at providing the middle ground between the backcountry hikers and the daily tourists, creating a comfortable medium. It’s worth it to sit and stay.

On this past visit, my mom and I went to Yavapai Point to watch the sunset over the canyon. We sat on a bench next to a couple that had road tripped from Georgia, of all places, taking turns and driving the 30-hour drive straight through the night with their three teenage kids for Spring Break. They had just arrived and were settling in. “But first,” he said, “we watch the sunset.” We sat quietly together as the kids walked along the rim, taking in the view with energy and excitement. The father spoke again, this time to his son. “Sit and be still. Listen. You will hear things in your heart that will surprise you.” The son sat with his dad, appreciative of his parents’ adventurous spirit, and listened.

I listened, too; it was good advice. I took my mom’s arm and gently smiled. She did, too.

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TOP FIVE of the SOUTHERN RIM:
Don’t skip the museums! It really helps you understand the geology.
Staying Dog-Friendly: Yavapai Lodge & Mather Campground
There is a kennel onsite, and while it’s okay, its not my favorite.
Maswik Lodge has the best wifi and gift shop, as well as a pizza pub that stays open till 11.
The deli in the grocery store at Market Plaza is awesome.

Canyon Trails:
Bright Angel is the typical, most popular one. 
South Kaibab is more strenuous, but less traveled & very beautiful.
Hermit Trailhead: for experienced desert hikers only. 

*One day I will be able to write parts two and three: hiking and camping in the canyon and rafting the Colorado River through the canyon.

**Cool stormy pic of Desert View picture credit goes to a friend from one of my previous trips to the Grand Canyon.

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