Two of my friends, Jawsem and Daniel, joined Kierstin and me on a border-crossing adventure that is high atop most people’s bucket lists. We arose at 6 am on Sunday to leave the Mediterranean climate of Santa Barbara and embarked on a seemingly endless car ride through the high deserts of California on our way to Arizona. Our destination: the Grand Canyon.
After countless stops, we began the last leg of our journey as the sun began to set over the horizon. As we drove through Williams, AZ, only about 60 miles to the southern rim of the Grand Canyon, I attempted to stretch my neck to see if I could catch a glimpse over the horizon of the massive geological wonder. Our highly anticipated first glimpse would have to wait since the view was obstructed (to our surprise) by the Kaibab National Forest. We had pictured a high plateau desert but the south rim sits at about 7000’, high enough to support a verdant population of coniferous junipers and pinyons.
We had reserved a campsite adjacent to the canyon on Mather Campground. The campground consists of tight loops, which results in close quarters, but I had prepared, researched, and reserved the secluded campsite #190 in the far corner of the Maple Loop. When we arrived, a small pack of massive and unflinching elk wandered through the backside of our campsite. Whether this was a good omen for our trip or merely the product of semi-domesticated wildlife was yet untold, but it was a fascinating sight and definitely a fantastic start to our adventure. We pitched a modest campsite: two tiny tents, a propane stove, and our ice chest filled with food and drinks. There was still time for our first view of the Grand Canyon before the sun hid below the horizon.
We drove to the south rim and excitedly raced to “see it first”. Before our visit, I researched about the enormous size of the Grand Canyon. I had seen amazing pictures of its awe-inspiring views. I had read incredible descriptions of its mammoth effect on people and even knew that it has been viewed by some as a holy ground. Great expectations like these often lead to disappointment, and I was extremely fearful of feeling dissatisfied.
When we saw the monstrous canyon though, it was difficult to articulate appropriately descriptive words. I was not uncertain if it was the crisp air or the startling view that induced the goosebumps and chill down my spine. It had to be the breathtaking sight of the canyon; it was unfathomably colossal, indescribably spectacular, overwhelmingly tremendous. The stratification of the rocks produced picturesque hues of red, brown, and grey, and it felt like I was standing in a painting. You could not observe the entire canyon with one glimpse; you had to turn your head and scan your eyes entirely from the left to the right. The only other object I have seen that requires this field of vision is the sky, which should be telling of the vastness of the Grand Canyon.
With darkness came a frigid chill with temperatures dropping below freezing, so we hurried back to our campsite to light a fire and cook dinner. We bundled up with layers over layers and huddled close to the campfire, where we roasted marshmallows and played dice games until the warmth of our stacks of blankets and sleeping bags in our tents beckoned for us.
I awoke the next morning when I rolled to one side and was splashed with icy condensation that had collected on the fabric walls. I groggily emerged from the tent, and we prepared breakfast: hot scrambled eggs, fried sausages, and melted cheese tightly wrapped into warm flour tortillas. We feasted on our delicious meal and gulped down hot cocoa, fueling ourselves for the impending hike along the canyon trails. After playing games, getting ready, and making lunch, we set off to the rim trails to seek vantage points of the majestic canyon and Colorado River.
Visitors can choose to hike along or below the canyon rim, but dogs aren’t allowed on the narrow trails below the rim. We hiked along the Trail of Time, stopping at vistas along the way. At the first point we stopped, we could see hikers below descending into the canyon on the Bright Angel Trail. Temptation seized Daniel and Jawsem, who then decided to depart and explore the inner canyon.
Kierstin and I walked Simba along the rim and attempted to grasp the enormous size of the Grand Canyon. The trail was scattered with podiums that contained infographs and writings about the history of the canyon. We learned about the first US explorers, led down the treacherous Colorado River by a one-armed army major named John Powell. The first expedition had been a speedy exploration but dangerous enough to cause four men to abandon the journey. Three of the four were never heard from again. We also learned about the geological history, historical mining ventures, and biological diversity of the canyon.
The different waypoints each had unique offerings; some, like Powell Point, had memorials and trivia while others, like Hopi Point, had incredible views of the canyon and Colorado River. We stopped in between Hopi Point and our final destination, Mohave Point, to enjoy our picnic lunch. Someone had placed a picnic table in the warm sun adjacent to the trail overlooking the canyon below. It was a prime location for lunch. After appreciating Mohave Point, we turned around and headed back to camp. Simba had found himself a stick that he happily carried in his mouth for nearly a mile, prompting passersby to clear the path and remark how lucky he was to have such a grand place for a walk. This was true for him but for us, too; the hike was one of the most scenic treks I have ever enjoyed.
We returned to our campsite to rejoin with the rest of our group. We had planned checking out the visitor’s center since park rangers sometimes lead night hikes or stargazing adventures at the center. The clear skies and low light pollution enabled the stars above to shine brightly, but our limited astronomy knowledge consisting mainly of Ursa Major and Minor and Orion had us thirsting for more information. Unfortunately, the only activity for that night was a sunset hike that we were already late for. Instead, we found a perfect viewpoint and watched the sunset over the canyon horizon while sipping refreshing beers. We had formed our own little paradise; four friends secluded from the world silently pondering the massive geological wonder in our sights.
We barbequed tri-tip back at camp and built another warm, crackling fire. The last night of our trip was spent again huddled in front of the fire, devouring s’mores, and playing games. The next morning we’d have to pack up and return home. Before we left the national park in the morning, we drove along Desert View Drive where the canyon was visible from the road. A pack of elk held up traffic along the way, but we soon arrived at the Desert View Watchtower.
The watchtower was designed by American architect Mary Colter, who was also responsible for building four other Grand Canyon structures. She designed the tower to mimic Ancient Pueblo buildings, but modern construction techniques were used: a hidden steel structure belies the stone edifice. Her design approach makes the tower appear authentic and the tower interior is decorated with southwestern Native American-inspired murals. The view from the tower was one of the best of the trip, and you could see the Colorado River better than anywhere else we had been. At this point, we had to begin our long trip back home, which was not without happy reminiscing about our adventure in the Grand Canyon.