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October 25, 2006

Southwest Odyssey: Day 5

Day 5 of our trip is another flexible day; we have a hotel reservation tonight in Flagstaff, Arizona, but we have deliberately left our plans for what to do on the way there open. We consider checking out the Monument Valley Tribal Park (Monument Valley sits on Navajo Nation lands), but after the last two days in Arches and Canyonlands, we have been bitten by the hiking bug and are less interested in simply seeing the sights from a vehicle, which our guidebooks indicate is the primary method of exploring the tribal park. We consider simply heading straight for Flagstaff, to spend some time there with a possible side trip down to Sedona, and we are about to strike out in that direction when Doc Dregs says, "How far are we from the Grand Canyon?" Much to my surprise, he adds, "I've never been there." It's amazing the things you don't know about someone even after 10 years together.

I consult my map, and discover that in fact, we can easily get to Grand Canyon in a couple of hours, have time to take in the view and possibly do a little hiking, then drive to Flagstaff. I feel a little (okay, a lot) silly for not considering this while planning the trip. After all, I've never been to the Grand Canyon, either. But somehow, I had placed it too far west on my mental map, and thought it was too far out of our way. The guidebook we've relied on most, Lonely Planet Southwest USA, tells us that "visiting Arizona without seeing the Grand Canyon is like leaving your house without shoes," and we decide that we had better seize the opportunity before us and just go there. We say our farewells to Monument Valley, taking a few more pictures before we hit the road into Arizona.

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Our drive takes us through the western portion of the Navajo Nation and the northwestern corner of The Painted Desert. The evolution and diversity of the landscape as we've traveled southward from Arches and the Moab area continues to astonish us: as we noticed yesterday in our Canyonlands excursion, the scenery is the same, and yet not the same. When we turn west, we catch a few glimpses of the Little Colorado River, and start to get excited as we approach the grandaddy of all national parks.

There is quite a climb involved as we approach the east entrance to the park. Elevation on the South Rim of Grand Canyon is over 7,000 feet, and we are pleasantly surprised to see the scrubby sagebrush of the lower elevations gradually give way to a pygmy forest of pinon and juniper, and then eventually (at around 6,500 feet) to a tall pine forest of Ponderosa. This scenery is delightfully familiar to us (both having spent our formative years in South Dakota's Black Hills), and it feels both welcoming and comforting after several days in the desert.

Our first stop after entering the park (our third national park in three days!) is the Desert View area, which includes the Watchtower, one of several historic structures on the South Rim of the canyon. As expected, there are many more people here than anywhere else we've been, but we are glad to be here at this time of the year when the crowds are relatively much smaller than during the summer months. Here we get our first views of the canyon, and although the scenery is familiar from countless photographs, we are still struck speechless. Nothing prepares you for the actual scope of the canyon, which is just completely overwhelming.

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The sun is out, but it is cold and windy, and the storm clouds are ominously gathering to the west. We are hoping to fit in a short hike into the Canyon on the South Kaibab Trail before we need to head to Flagstaff (about 80 miles away), but it's beginning to look as if the weather isn't going to cooperate. We head back to the car, and drive west toward the visitor center, where we hope to catch a shuttle bus to the trailhead. Sure enough, as we drive, the clouds roll in and the rain begins. We park, and as we make a run for the visitor center, the huge, cold, wind-driven raindrops turn to sleet. The Canyon is now almost totally obscured by the storm clouds and rain; clearly, there's no way we're going to be hiking in this.

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Deeply disappointed, we check out the exhibits in the visitor center, which are interesting and informative, but definitely not what we came here for. I try to joke about our bad luck, but we are both pretty upset at this turn of events. Having grown up on the edge of the West and knowing what to expect of its weather, we fully expect that this storm will pass quickly -- and we are not disappointed -- but by the time it does, there isn't enough daylight left for us to do our planned hike. We try to content ourselves with more views and photos from the rim in the Grand Canyon Village area, knowing that we will have to leave for Flagstaff soon. The storm has left some cloud remnants hanging over the formations in the Canyon, and their beauty provides a small consolation for what we will miss.

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The Village itself is fairly astonishing to us as first-time visitors. It's almost a full-fledged town, with a post office, bank, and grocery store, in addition to the souvenir shops, bookstores, and lodges. It makes sense that the park would require such services to accomodate its 5 million annual visitors, but it comes as a bit of a shock to us after visiting Arches and Canyonlands, where such services are nonexistent. The buildings in the Village are a mishmash of historic structures on or near the rim (including the El Tovar Hotel and the Bright Angel Lodge) along with more recent buildings, most (unfortunately) in the utilitarian architectural styles prevalent in the 1960s. Still, despite its extreme degree of remove from the Canyon's wilderness, we find ourselves liking Grand Canyon Village. Both of us are simultaneoulsy attracted and slightly troubled by the ways in which it reminds us of Walt Disney World, and we make jokes about "Disney's Grand Canyon Experience." We recognize that hanging out on the Rim in Grand Canyon Village is one of the archetypal American national park experiences, which has, for better or worse, become in many ways inseparable from the natural wonder of the Canyon itself.

El Tovar is an extraordinary place in its own right, as we discover when we spend a few minutes warming up in the lobby. It's a classic national park lodge that reminds us of the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone, despite its architectural differences. Both of us are immediately seized with a strong desire to stay here, though we are sure it would be impossible to get a room for the night. Besides, we still have a hotel reservation in Flagstaff (which it's too late to cancel). But our desire to stay here combined with our disappointment that we did not get to hike into the Canyon today overcomes our better instincts, and Dr. Dregs inquires about room availability for the night ("it couldn't hurt to ask," we say to each other, fully expecting the inquiry to be met with laughter from the front desk staff). To our amazement, however, one room is still available: not in El Tovar, but in the neighboring (architecturally and historically undistinguished) Kachina Lodge. We take it, and the desk clerk tells Doc Dregs that it was literally the last room available in the park. We consider that a sign that we are meant to stay here tonight and spend another day at the Grand Canyon.

This means that we are sacrificing the cost of our hotel in Flagstaff (fortunately, it was relatively cheap), and that we won't have time to see Flagstaff and Sedona. We regret this, but now that we are here, we feel that Grand Canyon is too special a place to leave after such a short time. Our room in Kachina is extremely comfortable, having been recently remodeled, and though our room is on the side of the building with a view of the parking lot rather than the Canyon, we still feel the excitement of staying on the rim of the Grand Canyon. We hang out on the rim (with many of our fellow tourists, natch) waiting for the sunset and snap a few more pictures.

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We have a surprisingly good dinner at the Arizona Room, one of the restaurants in the Village, and return to our room, exhausted but content, and sleep soundly until just before dawn.

What goes in, must come out: Day 6

Posted by at October 25, 2006 10:15 PM