Finding the Real in Surreal: Grand Canyon National Park

After our amazing two-month stay in California, It felt strange to leave. Alas, it was time to move on. There was red rock to see. Our first stop en route to Utah: the iconic Grand Canyon.

Driving into the park on a cold morning in early November, we headed straight for the backcountry office to try our luck at a permit.  Surprisingly, we were able to get a permit to camp down at the bottom of the Grand Canyon that very night! Without further ado, we returned to the FunBus where we quickly readied our packs for a two-night adventure.  We then jumped on a shuttle bus to Yaki Point. As we sat at the front of the bus and chatted, I suddenly realized how surreal it was that I was about to hike down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and yet had not even seen it from above yet. With this in mind, I glanced backward out the window, and was suddenly gifted a grand view. I nudged Stephanie. “There it is,” I said casually, pointing toward the giant hole in the ground.  Stephanie laughed at my aloofness and she, too marveled at the pace at which this was suddenly happening.

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Hiking Down South Kaibab Trail – Grand Canyon

When we arrived at the trailhead, we were taken aback by the sweeping view of the canyon in front of us. To me, it didn’t even look real: it looked like a screen had been put up to create a background for a movie. Was I in Oz? The grandeur soon became real, however, as we began descending lower and lower along the switchbacks of South Kaibab Trail. Down through the fascinating rock layers, we passed many an exhausted face toiling their way back up the canyon. These were the faces of day hikers, some of who had gone all the way down-and-back-again in a day. Though the weight of my pack was a burden, I was glad that once we got down, we would be able to stay. We also passed two groups of mule trains (or rather they passed us, as you should always yield to mules). One of the drivers was very stoic, while another amused himself by singing sweet country tunes.

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First View of the Colorado – Grand Canyon

The whole hike down to Bright Angel Campground was about 7 miles. It wasn’t until pert near the end of the hike that we got our first view of the sculptor of this Grand Canyon: the Colorado River.  Soon after that, we reached Black Bridge, which crossed the river to our campground. Having had a late start, we arrived at the last open site in the twilight. That night, we were amazed at the temperature at the bottom of the canyon. I hardly needed my sleeping bag, and yet the previous night at the top of the canyon, I had been freezing despite sleeping in the shelter of the FunBus.

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Black Bridge Crossing the Colorado – Grand Canyon

The following day we explored Bright Angel Canyon via the North Kaibab trail, twisting and turning along the creek surrounded by colorful walls. Eventually, the canyon opened up and we walked through a prairie dotted with Prickly Pear Cactus. We went as far as the Ribbon Falls spur trail, at which point we viewed the falls from afar, then turned back, eager to indulge at Phantom Ranch.

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Bright Angel Canyon – Grand Canyon

Phantom Ranch is located right next to our campground (Bright Angel).  It was commissioned in 1922 and designed (and named) by Mary Colter. Like much of her architecture, the buildings of Phantom Ranch are made of local materials and were influenced by the surrounding landscape. Today, Phantom Ranch is a very popular destination: to stay there, you must make reservations 15 months in advance! You may also choose to ride a mule down. I am trying to convince my mom to make a reservation for my dad and herself to stay at this quaint and quiet oasis. When Stephanie and I arrived back at the ranch, we went into the store to drink a few beers and to send a postcard (by mule!) back to Minnesota.

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Phantom Ranch – Grand Canyon

After another peaceful night of sleep, it was time for the dreaded hike back up to the top. We had decided to hike up the Bright Angel Trail this time, which would be slightly less steep.  To start, we crossed over the Silver Bridge and along the canyon where the views of the river and canyon were splendid.

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Silver Bridge – Grand Canyon

The first half of the hike was pretty easy. After resting at the midpoint, Indian Garden, the terrain became more difficult but the views became even grander. I stopped to take a picture when suddenly a group of riders passed us by.  Seeing this as a golden opportunity to get some photos of mules, I snapped a few pictures. One of the riders stopped next to me, looked at me quizzically, and said “Are you taking pictures of our asses?” “You caught me,” I said, as he chuckled at his own joke.

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Mule Riders – Grand Canyon

Toward the top, we ran into Stephanie’s sister’s friend who was visiting from France: it’s a small world after all! We then proceeded up many grueling switchbacks until we made it to the top and enjoyed viewing the art at Kolb Studio. Next, we retreated back to the national forest for a free albeit cold place to camp.

We arose early the next day to watch the sun rise from Yavapai Point, which was deemed the very best view by those who conceived of the Geology Museum. After sunrise, we cooked breakfast in the parking lot, waiting for the museum to open. As I fried eggs in my little cast iron, one of the shuttle buses drove by us and the driver said over the loudspeaker “What’s for breakfast?”

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Sunrise Over Yavapai Point – Grand Canyon

After doing some learnin’ in the geology museum, we drove to our final stop at Grand Canyon: Desert View. Here we ran into our French acquaintances yet again! It’s a small canyon after all? We then explored another of Mary Colter’s buildings: the watchtower. The inside was decorated with art inspired by ancestral Puebloans. The architecture, too, was influenced by the Puebloans. Though the geologists deemed Yavapai Point the greatest view, I preferred that of Desert View.

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Desert View – Grand Canyon

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Desert View Watchtower – Grand Canyon

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Ceiling of Desert View Watchtower – Grand Canyon

After five days exploring up and down the Grand Canyon, I can tell you that it is not only real, it is the premier place to study geology. Over time, the Colorado River has exposed forty rock layers, which range in formation as far back as two billion years!  I definitely want to return to this natural wonder. Next time, I hope to see it from a different perspective: rafting down the Colorado River!

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