‘The Grand Canyon’ is a remarkably vague and pretentious name, but with good reason: there’s simply no better way of describing it. Though neither the longest nor the deepest canyon in the world, the impression it creates is so incredible, so deeply felt, so indescribable, that ‘grand’ seems the closest possible definition. Over one full day and one morning we saw it from the east, the west and within, and while we eventually became accustomed to the sight, we never could have hoped to fathom it.
The canyon wasn’t revealed to us until the morning after we arrived, which made the moment we finally saw it all the more dramatic. Having spent most of the day driving from Las Vegas, it was long past sunset by the time we reached the canyon, and we rolled into the accommodation village through pitch-black forest roads. Getting out of the car, my eyes were drawn irresistibly upwards to the wide inky sky, absolutely bursting with stars. I’d never seen such clear, starry skies in my life. But when we found what seemed to be the canyon’s edge, all that lay beyond the path’s handrail was a bottomless black void.
We’d pre-booked a cabin at Bright Angel Lodge months in advance, knowing they’d sell out quickly. Our cabin was a minute’s walk from the main lodge, and after checking in we had to use the torch apps on our mobile phones to find it. I was thrilled when I saw it: an adorable log cabin with a coloured door softly illuminated by a lamp. Inside was an invitingly warm and cosy room, fitted out with suitably old-fashioned wood furniture. It was perfect. (I couldn’t take any photos in the darkness, so the photos below show the lodge and cabin in daylight!)
We ate dinner at the Bright Angel Lodge restaurant and were a bit disappointed by its burgers. The otherwise unremarkable dinner was saved by the short, surprise appearance of a cute furry creature between the wall and ceiling, which staff said was a Ringtail. That put a smile on everyone’s face, and served as a perfect reminder that we really were out in the wild!
Morning on the rim
We woke up early without trying – probably due to excitement – so didn’t hesitate to go get our first look at the canyon as the sun rose. To our amazement, it lay just steps from our door. Standing on the same spot as yesterday, where had been a black void was now a spectacular ocean of rippling rock, dusky purple in the dawn haze except for a few select peaks onto which the sunlight was creeping.
For breakfast we headed to El Tovar, the poshest and most historic of the Grand Canyon accommodations. This was possibly our best idea of the trip. For roughly the same price we would have paid at Bright Angel Lodge, we got a real fine dining experience. This included a table by a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the canyon rim, refined table service, and the tastiest breakfast I’ve had in my life. Out of many tempting choices I chose the Southwestern Quesadilla: a soft tortilla filled with juicy beef brisket, onions, red pepper and creamy soft cheese, covered in a tasty red pepper sauce, plus fried skin-on red potatoes and rich scrambled eggs. Every bite just oozed with flavour. Steve had the very American choice of rib eye steak with two fried eggs, and it was good steak too!
Browsing the gift shop afterwards, I fell in love with a very expensive cowboy hat and, in an out-of-character move, decided to buy it. I’m glad that I did!
We walked back to our cabin along the rim, the canyon now fully illuminated and dazzling in its grandeur. Meanwhile, squirrels and tiny chipmunks darted in and out of the bushes at our feet.
Into the canyon
We loaded up on supplies at our cabin then caught the free shuttle bus to the South Kaibab trail. This long trail goes right down to the campground on the canyon floor, but with limited time we went down only as far as Cedar Ridge. The path is well-defined, with steps at some points, but steep and largely covered in precarious scree. I was surprised that parents were taking their young children down there, as it was challenging enough for us! But gosh, was it worth it. The views of the inner canyon were spectacular at all times, changing every time we turned a corner. Descending beneath the rim allowed us to get a much better idea of how deep it really is, with its walls seeming to go on forever.
Several times on the way down we met lines of mules and their riders coming up the other way, and had to press ourselves flat against the canyon walls to let them pass on the narrow paths. One section was a path along a narrow elevated ridge with steep drops on either side, which provided stunning panoramic views.
Eventually we reached Cedar Ridge, a wide plateau ending in a ridge of piled rocks. Standing at the furthest point of these rocks felt almost like you were standing at the canyon’s centre, elevated on a ship’s crow’s nest above a tumultuous rock ocean.
Here we turned around to walk back up, stopping at Ooh Aah Point to eat our wraps. Though the air had started off quite cold it was now boiling hot, the sun warming our backs as we climbed.
Sunset at Yaki Point
Back above the rim, we walked east along the rough but flat trail to the village and Mather Point. Along the way, a deer crossed our path to join a large group of them grazing in the trees. Mather Point was pretty spectacular, but very crowded, so we elected to watch the sunset at Yaki Point instead.
We got a bus back the way we’d come and tried out a few viewpoints before settling down. The best sight wasn’t the sun disappearing behind the horizon, but its rays moving up the opposing canyon peaks and the shifts in colour that followed.
We had dinner at the ‘Pizza Pub’ of Maswik Lodge, where we shared a giant and deliciously gooey Supreme pizza with local Grand Canyon wine and beer. We couldn’t manage all of it and took our two remaining pieces away with us. By now the free shuttle bus service had stopped, so we had no choice but to walk back to our cabin. The walk was no longer than 10 minutes, but considerably more challenging in pitch darkness. Despite our joy in being ‘out in the wilderness’ we thanked goodness for modern technology as we used the light from our phones to find our way back.
Sunrise at Powell Point
We had only a few hours left at this wonder of the world – we had to see the sunrise before we left. This time we set our alarms for 05:00 in order to get the early red route bus out west. There were several lookout points along the route to choose from, and we picked this one for no other reason than the bus driver helpfully suggested it.
We were the only passengers to get off, and once the bus left we found ourselves alone in absolute darkness. We used our phones to find our way to the canyon’s edge, and then set up and waited. We watched in extraordinarily total silence as the glowing line of the horizon grew brighter, gradually bringing the canyon into view. When the sun eventually broke the horizon, its rays began to pick out individual peaks, creating beautiful patterns. We were only joined by other people much later on, and were glad to have had it to ourselves for so long. When sun had spilled into most of the canyon, we made the short walk to Mohave Point to see it from another angle.
Biscuits and gravy
We got the bus back to Bright Angel Lodge for breakfast, and it was almost as good as yesterday. I feasted on a stack of delicious buttermilk blueberry pancakes, with maple syrup, blueberry sauce and whipped butter. The latter was a revelation: so intensely creamy and easy to spread, I was left wondering where it had been all my life. Steve had the intriguingly named biscuits and gravy, which was another revelation! Completely unlike my expectation, the biscuits were warm and soft savoury scones and the gravy a thick white sauce flavoured with turkey and vegetables.
Leaving the Grand Canyon is an event in itself. We coasted along Desert View Drive with the Mustang’s roof down and our music on, enjoying the sun, the breeze and the views. Driving past several viewpoints, we stopped at the final one to climb the desert view watchtower and admire the canyon from one last angle. From there it was a non-stop scenic drive to our next destination: Page.
All text and photos (c) Juliet Langton, 2016. All rights reserved.