At the Grand Canyon, Part 1
By Rebecca Gau
Over the years, several women I have known have done rim to rim hikes of the Grand Canyon but I could never go myself. I hope that one day I will. In the meantime, I’ve asked questions done a little bit of research, and started some light training in the hopes that one day I’ll be able to do something like that. I took a very important step on that journey over the Thanksgiving holiday when I did my first hike down below the rim. Getting ready for that trip and being on that trip, and recovering from that trip, I learned a lot.
I think the first thing anyone needs to know about the Grand Canyon is that when you get there and you look out over the rim for the first time across the miles to the other side, it isn’t going to look real. Everyone I’ve talked to while I was there, and since I got back, has had the same comment. You feel like you’re watching a movie, or that it’s just a big wall poster in front of you. It’s really hard to fathom that there’s actually depth to the image you’re seeing, because the other side is actually so far away.
And when you see pictures of the Grand Canyon, and you see the tiny green dots your brain processes them as little tiny tufts of grass or something. But they are not. They are trees. They are trees that are very very far away on the side of a very steep cliff.
I had been to the Grand Canyon several times before I actually hiked it. Once as a child, like many people, I was taken to the edge and I don’t remember much, but there are some pictures of me with some rocks, and I’m told that was the Grand Canyon.
I went again as an adult, but it was rainy and cloudy and you couldn’t see anything so we went to the IMAX movie in Tusayan instead. (And to a really great coffee shop that I don’t know if it still exists.) I’ve heard really good things about the IMAX from others as well – I’m not sure it’s changed in the 20 years since I saw it, but it is a cool experience to kind of see what it looks like down in the canyon and learn some of the history. However, as of right now it’s temporarily closed for refurbishment, so if you’re going anytime soon, don’t plan on seeing that.
But there is a lot of other stuff for people of different interests and abilities. I’ve been twice this fall. First, I went in early November with my aunt. It’s been on her bucket list and she’s been a huge help with my family for the last couple of years and I wanted to thank her so I took her on what I hoped would be an adventure with good food, good views, and hopefully a good night’s sleep in the hotel.
We stayed at the Yavapai Lodge in the section of the Grand Canyon park called The Market. It’s away from the rim and the nicer hotels that are in the section called The Village. The nicer hotels are El Tovar, and Bright Angel Lodge, and they have more traditional restaurants. Yavapai Lodge has a cafeteria style restaurant with decent seating, and also a pub style restaurant with limited seating inside but great food and drinks, as well as a coffee shop that serves Starbucks. In fact, Starbucks are everywhere at the Grand Canyon, which is kind of awesome. At least for a Starbucks junkie like me.
In early November it was cold and windy in the mornings and slightly warmer and windy in the afternoons. I had lots of layers on and was OK, but my aunt was cold the whole time. And the wind was pretty brutal.
We arrived at about four and got comfortable in the room, popped out to the rim at the visitor center just after the sunset and it was really cool to see the kind of silver light behind us into the misty canyon walls. It was windy and cold and we didn’t stay long, but it was a good first view.
Then we drove over to the main restaurant and hotel area in the Village. We found that the only restaurant that takes reservations is El Tovar, — the fanciest restaurant located in the hotel of that name. Since we didn’t have reservations for El Tovar, we went to one of the two restaurants at the Bright Angel Lodge, Fred Harvey Burger. There is also the Arizona Steakhouse, if you can find the front door (hint: Its not accessible from the lodge lobby, you have to go outside to the separate entrance on the east side of the building). While we waited to get texted about our table at Fred Harvey Burger we found a little door with a little cocktail lounge that serves the same appetizers and shares the kitchen with Fred Harvey Burger. Now, I hate to give up the secret, but here you go. The cocktail lounge always had seating available, had great service, the appetizers were amazing, and you don’t have to drink alcohol to hang out and enjoy the food. I have tried everything on the menu over the course of my two visits, and my strongest recommendations are for the honey soy wings and the tater tot nachos. If you’re into cocktails, I hear that the shriveled apple mule is really good. I saw one couple ordering the Irish coffee’s over and over. The sliders were OK. They’re like a pulled chicken barbecue slider but the barbecue wasn’t warmed through all the way and they were a little sloppy and honestly kind of boring compared to the wings and the tater tot nachos. if you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, they had the basic guac and salsa kind of stuff. And I bet you could get the tater tots without all the bacon and cheese on them, but where’s the fun in that. (I’ve tried everywhere for a link to the lounge and its so secret I can’t even find it on the grand canyon website!)
The next day we took the shuttle tour to Hermits Rest which is free. Once you’re in the park, starting at the Bright Angel lodge transfer station you take the Hermits Rest shuttle and it goes along the rim on the road that personal cars aren’t allowed during much of the year. It’s great no matter what your physical level is because if you want to just ride the bus with great windows and hear interesting facts, depending on your driver, it takes about 45 minutes round-trip.
Or you can get off at any of the stops, hang out as long as you want and then jump on a passing shuttle that comes by maybe every 10 or 15 minutes. I know it goes without saying the views were incredible but the views are absolutely incredible. They were just mind blowing. And pictures really just don’t do it justice. And my aunt, God bless her, is 72 and a bit afraid of heights. But she shuffled her way out to the edge of some of the viewing spots like a trooper.
There’s a short hike in between a couple of the scenic spots if you don’t want to take the shuttle, so we did one of them that was about a half a mile walk and then the one next to it is 1/3 of a mile, but we skipped it and got back on the shuttle. It was so fun to walk along the rim trail with her and realize that we were just taking a stroll ALONG THE RIM OF THE GRAND CANYON!!!
There are bathrooms in two spots along the shuttle route, but they are pit latrines and pretty gross. If there’s any way you can hold it, I strongly recommend it until you get back to the hotel. (The Bright Angel lodge lobby restrooms are very well appointed.) The apex of the Hermits Rest shuttle ride is this adorable gift shop and coffee shop that was designed by Mary Colter in the early 1900s. There are some really cool books and gifts up there that you can’t get anywhere else in the park. The apple cider was fantastic, and I hear the hot chocolate is really good, but the machine was broken while I was there. They do have sandwiches and snacks as well – on my subsequent hike that was our starting point and we bought sandwiches to take for our lunch down the trail. I also found it interesting that they have single use oxygen bottles for sale as well. The air is pretty thin at 7000 feet if you’re not used to it, but I didn’t see anybody really having problems.
The other really cool thing at the Hermits Rest stop is a water filling station. They have filtered Grand Canyon water, which is the most delicious spring water I’ve ever had. I bought an overpriced Hermit’s Rest Hydro Flask so that I could fill it with Grand Canyon water to take back with me. There are a couple other spots are at the park that also have these water filling stations but when we were there, a lot of them were closed. The one in the Yavapai Lodge itself near the coffee shop was still working though.
It took my aunt and I a few hours to do the shuttle ride stopping at most of the scenic spots and we got back to the Bright Angel Lodge at about lunchtime. You can walk along the rim there as well, and the start of the Bright Angel Trail is right there and it’s kind of fun to see the people all geared up starting to trek down or people who just did partway and are huffing and puffing their way back up. Which I can now totally relate to. More on that next time. (Note: although we saw people taking their dogs down the trail, dogs are NOT allowed below the rim. They are allowed, on leashes, on the rim trail or greenway trail.)
Anyway, it was a very busy lunchtime and the waiting list for both restaurants was an hour long so we put our name on and then went to the gift shop. I had bought a few books on the hiking trails and talked to a park ranger in preparation for my Thanksgiving trip, knowing I was going to do a hike, but not sure which one or how far I should go. One of the things I was warned about was at Thanksgiving there might be snow and ice on the ground so I should get some sort of spikes or crampons for the bottom of our shoes. I did, but there wasn’t. But more on that later too.
Our little buzzer went off after only about 10 minutes and we ate at Fred Harvey Burger. I’ve got to say, I was not impressed. It clearly had the Aramark or Sodexo vibe which probably wasn’t helpful for the fact that I saw one of the delivery trucks when I was lost trying to find parking the night before. (Parking SUCKS up there, btw). The black bean soup was really good and that’s about all I can say about that. I mean if you’re tired and hungry and have to eat somewhere it’s fine. You know burgers, fries, whatever. I had a good garlic aioli for the hamburger but it wasn’t enough for the ridiculous oversized bun, but not an oversized patty. The ambience was very diner like and just not what I expected.
Afterwards, though, there’s this cute little gift shop/mini museum at the on the way to the bathrooms that has a fudge counter with wonderfully cleverly named flavors of fudge. Some of the flavors change from week to week so it was fun to try some with my aunt then and have different flavors with my husband and sons a few weeks later. The peanut butter chocolate was my favorite, absolutely delicious.
Later that afternoon, we drove out to Desert Tower which looks like it was maybe some old Native American lookout post but it was actually designed by Mary Colter as well. The second floor with the 360 view was closed but the lower floor (also a gift shot) had a really cool panoramic view of the eastern edge of the Grand Canyon Park. Lots of interesting history, etc. Just up the path was an even bigger gift shop with a Starbucks in it. We even saw a couple who were taking their wedding photos up there. I felt pretty bad because it was very windy and however much she paid for her updo it was a down do by the time they were done. Still, she looked very happy. Who wouldn’t, getting married in that spot?
We headed back to the Village for dinner at the cocktail lounge again because why settle for second best at one of the dumb restaurants. I had looked at the steakhouse menu (and located the secret entrance) and it’s totally not worth it. It was just a slightly dressed up version of the Fred Harvey Burger menu with better views of the canyon and higher prices.
The next morning we went to the Yavapai Museum of Geology that’s also right on the rim. The location was established by some of the original surveyors who said that that spot was the best representation of the geology of the Grand Canyon. It had panoramic windows with lots of great explanations about how the Grand Canyon was formed, like going back to the very beginning of time because in order to explain how the Grand Canyon was once the bottom of a sea bed you have to know where the relative position of the Grand Canyon was on that big mega continent that started modern geology when it smashed together (over millions of years) and then broke apart.
Which I guess says a lot about me that I always assumed when I learned or heard that part of Arizona was the ocean floor that I just thought that this part of North America was once underwater, but it wasn’t underwater in its current location. It was underwater when it was an eastern coastline of Pangaea. The visual display that walks through all the layers and where the geographical position of the spot you were standing used to be was really fascinating and I highly recommend visit there. It’s a few minute well spent. Plus, another gift shop.
One thing to avoid is the stupid walk-through time. That was actually the original reason we went. The museum is hyped up on the brochures as the starting point through the “trail of time.” But don’t be fooled. No matter what you read about it, or if you’re walking along the rim and see a little marker that says “10 million years in the past” just ignore it. It doesn’t have any logical relevance to anything. They say they space them apart to give you some sense of how old the Grand Canyon is, but they are not to scale. So, it truly makes no sense. You get a much greater sense of the scope and scale and magnificence of the Grand Canyon from the museum itself. Truly, don’t waste your time on the trail of wasted time. The only good thing about it is that it’s along the rim trail, which is a very long path that goes from around the Visitor’s Center out all the way to Hermits Rest. It’s long, but it’s flat-ish and dogs are allowed on it. It is a pretty walk in either direction but don’t worry about the stupid markers. Did I mention how stupid I think the markers are?
Anyway, after that, my aunt and I headed home. We stopped in Flagstaff at my favorite restaurant — Himalayan Grill, and I made her try basically one of everything on the menu. If you have the chance to stop there, I highly recommend ordering off the Himalayan part of the menu, but they do have an extensive Indian menu and some Pakistani dishes as well. The samosas are some of the best I’ve ever had. I’ve had better biryani in North Carolina, but the mango chutney was super tasty, although they didn’t really give enough when you order it as a side condiment.
I think the best thing about the drive is how short it is from Phoenix. If I had realized what an easy drive it was, I would’ve been going a lot more before now. From the valley it’s an easy 2 1/2 hours to Flagstaff and then you have a choice to take the 40 to Williams or to take a back road. It’s really 6 of one, a half dozen of the other. It’s also crazy that the terrain looks much like Flagstaff even when you enter the park. You’re just like “Doop dee doo more Pinyon pine for us. This is just like Flagstaff how lovely.” And then you break through some trees and holy mackerel. There’s a big hole right there. I couldn’t get over how we could be hanging out just a quarter of a mile away in the middle of trees and forests with absolute indication from the terrain that the Grand Canyon was in walking distance.
I had a great time with my aunt, but I got home feeling very anxious to get down the trail so that picturesque but somewhat distant feel of the landscape could be up close and personal. More on that next time!