Grandscape: The South Rim of the Grand Canyon

 

Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

Excepting perhaps Yosemeti’s famed valley, no landscape has captured the national imagination like the Grand Canyon. Vast, rugged, strange, fantastic, profound…the grandest of canyons carved by the Colorado River through countless layers of sandstone rock is like no other on earth. There are bigger canyons, but none eclipse the Grand Canyon in scale, beauty or sheer awe factor. It is a place entirely worthy of its name.

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Almost anyone who loves the outdoors will eventually be drawn here, as evidenced by its off the scale visitation numbers. In 2017 Grand Canyon played host to over six million visitors, making it the second most visited national park behind only the Great Smoky Mountains.

But in truth, the Grand Canyon is far more of a tourist draw than the Smokies. One must take into account that GSMNP not only sits within a day’s drive of half the population of the United States, but charges no admission fee. The Grand Canyon occupies an area of the US that is still extremely remote, more than three hours to the South Rim from Phoenix (twice that to the North Rim.) Most who visit will take a plane and THEN a long drive to reach this park, meaning, they have to be very motivated indeed to want to come here.

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Probably taken near Lipan Point, one of the very few places on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim where one can see any significant length of the Colorado River.

You also don’t have to spend much time here to realize that a disproportionate number of visitors come from overseas, making this a truly international attraction. (Most of the signs are multi-lingual.) Therefor, it is no exaggeration at all to state that the Grand Canyon is the most popular National Park in the United States, and the most sought-after natural outdoor destination in North America.

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Millions visit the canyon annually to get views like this one, taken near Desert View Point (note the famed tower in the background, which many erroneously take to be an ancient ruin of some kind. Also note, very faint on the horizon, Humpries Peak, highest point in Arizona. )

What makes Grand Canyon special is not its depth (there are many deeper canyons, and Brian and Sylvia have visited at least two) but the fantastic breadth and complex geometry of its landscape. It is not really one single canyon, but rather a complex of canyons, each interspersed with bluffs, buttes, mesas, ridges, tablelands, hoodoos, crags and any number of other things that come into being as a result of land colliding with the forces of erosion.

In fact there are very few places where one can stand on the rim and even see the river at the bottom of the canyon. The scale of Grand Canyon, and its mind boggling complexity, must be seen and experienced to be fully understood. It cannot be adequately described. Words were not designed for such a visual place.

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Like millions of others, Brian was drawn to visit in Fall of 2001 with his brother Chris. No photos of this Shackelton-esque ad-hoc expedition exist, at least in my collection; if any do exist they would be ‘real’ pictures on photo-paper (I had the bright idea of using a bag of disposable cameras reasoning that, in the great light of the southwest, you couldn’t take a bad picture. I was not entirely wrong in that regard.) Chris may yet still have some in his attic and if any turn up, I will publish them in a future post before handing them over to the Smithsonian.

At any rate, Chris and Brian drove from Boston for three days to reach the canyon, passing for the first time in either of our lives through the great state of Texas where, unbeknownst to either of us at the time, Brian would be living in just two years time.

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Brian looking rather disturbingly Gomez Adams-like in this photo from circa 2001, around the time he  visited the Canyon.

This was the second of three ‘western adventures’ Chris and Brian attempted, and probably the best planned and executed (the next one, to Montana in 2002, was without any doubt the worst.) We stayed in the spacious and scenic Ten X Campground in the National Forest outside the Canyon, which is perhaps the finest front-country campground Brian have ever stayed in, being scenic, spacious and filled with nearby wildlife (although it has no view of the canyon and does sit rather close to the small private Grand Canyon airport.) From there it is just a few miles drive to the busy South Rim of the Canyon.

For once we arrived with perfect timing; it was near sundown and after driving through miles of pine barrens, there at last we pulled into the parking area of the canyon’s most famous overlook –  Mather Point. We parked as close as we could, which was quite close in those days, and walked right to the rim where the sun was just beginning to set. The payoff was immediate; rarely has any amount of work paid off like those three days driving did with that singular of view of a firey furnace of red rock splendor sinking, slowly and steadily, into a deep ocean of shadow.

Here’s some pictures taken at approximately the same time of day by Sylvia and myself in roughly the same location, nearly ten years later. The crowds had notably increased, but the views had not decreased.

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Note the long dark ravine on the left hand side; that is, ironically, Bright Angel Canyon, where Brian would hike down into the canyon during his traverse in 2003.

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Sylvia and I returned to the same place in 2009, flying into Phoenix and driving north to the canyon. (Unlike Chris and Brian who ended up with a crappy rented mini-van, on the second trip we ended up with a Dodge Charger…which in Boston would lead one to say, “Wicked pissuh! A Dawj Chaaaaajuh!”

Chris and Brian very much enjoyed their time at the canyon, hiking most of the Rim Trail. (We walked out to about Mohave Point or maybe further, then caught the shuttle bus out to Hermit’s Rest.) The crowds that year in September seemed large but, having visited twice since, were the smallest I have seen. We had the place to ourselves excepting the areas right around the bus stops.

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One of the last blank areas on the American map, the Grand Canyon was not fully explored until the 1870’s when John Wesley Powell braved it. By then the Transcontinental Railroad had already been in service for years.

 

Sylvia and I repeated this venture some years later…this was in March of 2009, and we did not camp out, Brian having recently been ill and still suffering from back problems that had forced him to take a battery of steroids. Instead we ratcheted up the Fu-fu (a bit) and opted to stay in the Canyon’s rustic, though drafty, lodges.

In fact we spent a couple nights at the historic Bright Angel cabins, right on the rim itself, which was nice. As it ended up, the weather was brutally cold, with snow still lying on the Bright Angel Trail. The crowds were far greater than Brian remembered from his past visits…in fact, they were so big that at times he was frankly shocked.

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Our drafty cabin at the Historic Bright Angel Lodge. The view in the other direction is straight into the Canyon.
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Sylvia points to a spot on the North Rim where she thinks a shoe boutique should be located.

Sylvia loved the Grand Canyon. And I loved her so much that I proposed to her on the spot, hand-crafting a ring for the occasion out of locally available minerals and precious metals (or so the story goes.) She accepted, and the rest is history!

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Brian failed to ‘suck in his barriga’ in this unfortunate photo from the Rim, taken somewhere along the Hermit’s Rest Road.

But there is more to explore in the state of Arizona than just the Grand Canyon (as if that were not enough.) There is more to be seen – including the incredible red rock garden that is Sedona!

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This picture hangs in our bedroom at home, a reminder of past and future adventures.

Next up…The Red Rock Rim at Sedona

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