The Grand Canyon can be seen a lot of different ways, but in the two days we visited it, we had two completely different experiences.
It’s a challenge to keep this brief, but I’ll try.
We visited the GC’s South Rim. That’s the “touristy” side that probably 99.8% of visitors go see. It’s the side of the Canyon that the Brady Bunch visited back in the 70s, but I can tell you that the Grand Canyon that Mike and Carol Brady visited was very different than the one we saw. Okay, the Canyon is the same, but the visitor experience is very different.
The Canyon is pretty well-developed at this point for visits from tourists, and I don’t mean that in a bad way.
The focal point of the South Rim is Grand Canyon Village. It’s full of parking lots, gift shops, and tourist lodges — yes, you can stay in a lodge right on the GC’s rim and wake up to a view of the Canyon, for about $500 a night — but it also features the structures that were built in the early 1900s, when the first settlers set up camp on the rim and made their lives there.
I don’t have the time or space to fill you in on the Canyon’s history, but of the major early structures, it seems like most of them were designed by famed Canyon architect Mary Jane Colter — yes, a woman, in an era where women weren’t very accomplished in fields like architecture. Her designs include a major photography studio right there in Grand Canyon Village — there were two photography studios in GC Village — and the western-most structure (Hermit’s Rest) and the eastern-most structure (the Desert View Watchtower).
Once you arrive at GC Village, there are free shuttle buses that take you to lookout points along the South Rim. Most shuttle buses travel west, where there are about eight lookout points between GC Village and a place called Hermit’s Rest, about eight miles from GC Village.
Remember when the Bradys rolled up in the station wagon, parked, and rushed out to lean on a railing looking out over the Grand Canyon? Haha, that does not happen these days, my friend. If you want to stop at the various lookout (observation) points on the South Rim, you have to park at GC Village and ride the free shuttle buses. You can get off at any lookout point, stay as long as you want, shoot a bunch of pictures, and catch the next bus that comes along. But it’s all very controlled. These days, Mike Brady would be pulled over and arrested for attempting to drive the South Rim in the Wagon Queen Family Truckster, and little Bobby Brady would have tears in his eyes as his dad was carted off to jail.
Here’s a map of the Grand Canyon Village, the shuttle bus routes, and some of the sights and places along the South Rim. As always, click for larger versions.
On Monday, June 17th, the first day we were at the Grand Canyon, we did the western leg of the South Rim, shown in red on the map. We got off the shuttle buses a lot and took a lot of pictures at the various lookout points.
The first time you walk up to a Grand Canyon lookout point … well, it’s like walking up to the ocean, if the ocean was located thousands of feet straight down from the beach, and you were standing in the sand, staring down into what seemed like a bottomless pit. It’s disorienting, and it takes a little getting used to, to say the least.
By the third or fourth stop, you’re used to it, but the first stop is unnerving. In this day and age of four-page safety warnings for something as simple as a flashlight, you can just march right up to a Grand Canyon railing that looks out over a drop of several hundred feet, and you can walk out on rocks that are just a few feet away from certain doom.
Watching your kids snap pictures just a few feet away from vertical death is an adjustment period.
Okay, enough cheery stuff … like most of the pictures taken on this trip, these shown here don’t do the real spectacle justice. You have to be there to see the magnitude of it. DO NOT DIE WITHOUT VISITING THE GRAND CANYON. Nuff said.
The western excursion along the South Rim ends about eight miles from GC Village, at a neat place called Hermit’s Rest that was designed by Mary Jane Colter and was built in 1914. Back then, people had to endure a long, rough stagecoach ride from GC Village to Hermit’s Rest; these days, the air-conditioned shuttle buses travel paved roads, and Hermit’s Rest features a gift shop and a snack bar including ice cream. We made it all the way to Hermit’s Rest, and of course, partook of the ice cream.
That was Monday … very touristy, riding buses along the west side of the South Rim and taking pictures of the Canyon – just us, the Europeans, and the Asians. Yes, most of the conversation you’ll hear at the Grand Canyon isn’t spoken in English. I’m not sure when that changed, but I have noticed in my recent visits to major United States landmarks like the Washington DC monuments and the Grand Canyon that about half of the visitors these days are foreign. I don’t have a problem with it, it’s just very different from when I was a kid, and from the days when Marsha Brady leaned on the railing at the Grand Canyon.
After a day trip to Sedona, AZ on Tuesday (more on that later), we visited the Grand Canyon again on Wednesday, but this time around, it was a completely different experience.
For one, we went east from Grand Canyon Village on Wednesday instead of west, but another huge difference was that we started Wednesday off with a hike down the Canyon.
A hike down the Canyon? Yes, a hike down the Canyon. We left the Rim and went down into the Canyon.
I never knew that hiking down into the Canyon was even an option, much less so popular. There are a number of “trailheads” on the Canyon from which you can descend down into the Canyon, via hiking trails carved out of the side of the Canyon that go down into the depths of the Canyon. Here’s a view of the “Bright Angel Trail” leading down into the Canyon — you can see the trail carved into the Canyon.
You can hike down a short distance, then come back up (a day hike), or you can go way down into the Canyon, spend the night down there at a campground, then keep going if you want. It’s a huge subculture that a guy like me, not the outdoorsy type in the least, knows nothing about. Just Google “hiking the Grand Canyon” to open up a whole new world of adventure … if you’re young, fit, and have the time.
The Grand Canyon embraces the hiking culture … but the various visitors centers and signs at the trailheads make no bones of warning you that you can die doing it. The story they like to tell as a warning is the death of Mary Bradley in 2004. Bradley was a fit 24-year-old marathoner who overestimated her own abilities in the Grand Canyon, hiked too far without enough water and sustenance, and died in the Canyon.
But have no fear, our hike wasn’t anywhere near the caliber of the 27-mile round trip that did in Mary Bradley. All we did was hike a mile into the Canyon (a drop of about 700 vertical feet), and then hike back out. If you scroll back up near the top of this article and look to the right on the map, you can see, off to the right in green, the South Kaibab Trailhead. That’s where we hiked. The whole trip took about two hours …
… and it was amazing. Just look at the next pic, taken at the beginning of the hike, when the trail winds back and forth and drops steeply down the rim.
Going down into the Canyon affords a completely different view and perspective of the Canyon, and I think it’s incredible that we did it. It was a once in a lifetime experience. We took lots of water, Gatorade, and granola bars, and though it wasn’t exactly easy, the family did it, no problem.
For the record, we hiked down the South Kaibab Trail to the first stop, an aptly named place called Ooh Aah Point.
After that, we returned to Grand Canyon Village, retrieved the rental car, and drove east from GC Village on Desert View Road. Remember when I told you that you can’t drive west from GC Village, that you have to take shuttle buses? Well, if you go east, you can drive your own car, Brady-style. There are fewer lookout points, but the whole reason for going east is to go see the Desert View Watchtower, designed by (guess who) Mary Jane Colter.
While Hermit’s Rest is only eight miles west of GC Village, and there are multiple lookout points along the way, the Desert View Watchtower is 25 miles east of GC Village, and there are very few lookout points.
If you Google “Desert View Watchtower”, you can find out a lot about it, but you will also find reviews that paint it as some hidden gem of the Grand Canyon, like nobody goes there. Uh, no. It was just as crowded as the rest of the Grand Canyon, and just as developed. But it was also very cool, and the view was very different from what we had seen. There’s a lot I could tell you about the Watchtower, but time and space don’t permit (Google is your friend if you want to know more), so I’ll just present some pics.
That was our experience of the Grand Canyon. In between our two days at the Canyon, we visited Sedona, AZ, which I will describe in a separate blog entry. But as for the Grand Canyon, I think we did it about as well as you can do it. We did the picture-taking touristy thing the first day, and on the second day, we hiked and went to the side of the South Rim that most people don’t go to and don’t see. It was fantastic experience.