Spring Break 2013 - To the Grand Canyon

A strange sight - a snow covered mountain in the desert near Page

Our last trip of a busy 2012 hiking season had been to the Canyon Country in Utah. We hiked in Bryce Canyon National Park and Cedar Breaks National Monument. While we were there we resolved to return for a longer canyon hiking trip the next spring. Eventually that firmed up into a plan to take a week off at spring break. With that much time we could go further south - as far as Page, Sedona or Grand Canyon in Arizona. Since Sandy had never been to the Grand Canyon we decided to make that our primary destination. Since it was on the way we thought that it would be fun to visit Page again. We spent several days in a golf school there some years ago. The course is one of the prettiest we had ever played. The green fairways wind through redrock cliffs and in the distance there are views of Lake Powell. Sedona is also a favorite of ours. It is a weird but fun place - the New Age capital of the US. There are lots of places where you can hike to a lake or a mountain view. Sedona is the only place that you can hike to an energy vortex. And the scenery is great too.

First view of Grand Canyon - cold and windy at Desert View

I also thought it would be a great opportunity to visit southeastern Utah. Sandy and I have been to all of the national parks in the state. But the southeast corner is quite remote. It's mainly BLM wilderness, a lot of it in the huge Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. Since we usually do canyon country trips on three or four day weekends, the eight to ten hour drive to reach Zion or Moab or Capital Reef is long enough. A full week plus would give us plenty of time to go to the furthest and least traveled corner of the state.

After a long winter without hiking we were excited about the trip. Since spring break was the second week of March, a bit early in the season for canyon country, we decided to stay flexible and watch the weather as our vacation approached. The only thing we did was book two nights hotel in Grand Canyon National Park. We figured that even in low season we needed to do that ahead of time. We had Sunday and Monday night booked there. We figured that we could leave on a Friday and drive to Page Arizona, stay there for the night, and play golf the next day. Then we could continue to the Grand Canyon for two days. After that we would decide based on the weather. If the weather was good we would head up into Utah. If it didn't look so good, we would head further south to Sedona where the weather is usually milder.

The Watchtower at Desert View

Just before leaving we saw that there was a big storm moving through the area Friday and Saturday. So we decided to delay our departure a day. That actually worked out well as it turned out I had an important meeting at work on Friday (a pretty rare occurrence). Saturday morning we left Boise at 8am headed for Page. Google claimed it whould take eleven hours. Their estimate turned out to be right on the nose. With only three gas/lunch/potty stops along the way, we made it there in eleven hours almost to the minute. We got an unpleasant surprise driving through southern Utah. There was snow everywhere. We hadn't had snow on the ground in Boise for a month so we didn't expect to hit snow going south. But it turns out that all the snow came with the storm on the weekend. We were right behind it and even after a couple of hours we could see the snow melting. But there was a lot of it! We didn't get out of the snow till we were at the Arizona border half way from Kanab to Page.

Sandy climbing the stairs inside the Watchtower

Our hotel in Page was a Comfort Suites. It was nice and not very expensive. For dinner we found a good Italian restaurant called Stromboli's. We didn't find it right away however. Page is not very big so I thought it would be easy to drive towards town and hit the main drag. But I was one block from the road I thought I was on and ended up on an entirely different highway heading out of town. When we decided to backtrack I must have made a mistake in the dark and pretty soon we were throroughly lost. Eventually we got back to an intersection that I recognized. From there I took the long way around but it was a way that I knew. The wise traveler knows - always beware the shortcut. When we finally got to the restaurant we ordered a half carafe of the house wine to help us get over our harrowing experience. For dinner I had spaghetti and Sandy had a Calzone big enough to feed five people. The food was good so alls well that ends well.

The next morning there was no trace of the storm from the two previous days. The sky was perfectly blue. The weather forecast was even better - sunny for at least the next four days and getting warmer each day. The storm had passed. After a good breakfast at the hotel, we were optimistic as we headed south towards the Grand Canyon. For about five minutes. Then we hit a sign that said that US89 was closed. A sign pointed to a detour. Not good. When you have a detour in the city, maybe you get routed half a mile out of your way. But there are not many roads in this part of Arizona. We followed the detour for about a mile and as soon as we saw a gas station we stopped. For one thing, we wanted to fill up before we headed off to who knows where. It also gave me a chance to ask about the detour. It was a blast from the past as the gas pumps didn't take credit cards. It was old-fashioned give them a credit card to hold, they turn on the pump, and then you go in and pay for your gas. I probably haven't done that since 1990. It also gave us a chance to ask about the detour. When I asked the lady at the counter about why US 89 was closed, she said it was because it was gone. Gone? It's a US highway! Sinkhole she said. Must be one heck of a sinkhole. So we followed the detour. It took us fifty miles out of our way. So instead of a two hour drive to the park, it was about three. But we weren't too upset because we were in no rush.

View west from Navaho Point - the heart of the Grand Canyon

Actually while I was talking to the lady at the gas station another customer mentioned that there was a short cut. He was an old Indian in full cowboy getup and driving a big pickup. Take the turnoff at Kaibato (where ever that is), he said. It was a good road, he said. It was even paved most of the way, he said. Sure enough, as we were driving east on the detour we went through the town of Kaibato and there was an arrow pointing to an unsigned road which headed south. After getting lost the night before we didn't even think about the short cut. After all, what kind of stories start with "We decided not to take the official detour. Instead we followed some vague directions from a local and took an unmarked road through the desert which was supposed to be partly paved but don't worry the rest is good dirt...". Nope. We didn't want to end up in a newspaper article that people read and shook their heads saying "what were they thinking?" As I said before, the wise traveler knows - beware the shortcut.

Sandy's a much better model than me

The drive to the park wasn't bad. I had never driven the detour stretch of highway before so it was something new. Because of the late season winter storm the previous two days there was a lot of snow on the ground. It was wet and sticky so all of the cliffs along the road were plastered with snow. The mountains in the distance were white with snow. I have driven through this area a lot of times and you don't usually see snow covered mountains in the Arizona desert. It was actually a pleasant change from the usual hot, dry and dusty landscape.

Even with the detour we made it to the park by noon. Just through the entrance station is Desert View, the first viewpoint for the Grand Canyon. It was sunny there but quite windy, so it felt cold. The area is dominated by the Watchtower (queue the Jimi Hendrix music). Built in 1932, the structure imitates an ancient indian watchtower. There is a gift shop inside and narrow stairways leading up four floors to the top observation area. From the top it provides a panoramic view of this end of the canyon. With the wind blowing outside it was nice enjoying the view from inside the tower. There was also a gift shop next door with a cafeteria so we took the opportunity to grab some lunch. Then we continued on the road to Grand Canyon Village.

Tourists at Mather Point enjoy the view

The road from the entrance followed the rim closely so we were able to stop at several viewpoints along the way. As we went further west the canyon got deeper and steeper and wider. The east end is spectacular but it got more impressive as we traveled west. Each viewpoint was better than the last and we got a lot of great photos.

Finally we reached Grand Canyon Village. We had reservations at Yavapai Lodge. Although the roads in the vilage area are somewhat confusing we were able to find our hotel and check in an hour early. We picked the Yavapai Lodge even though it is about three quarters of a mile from the rim. There are several other lodges in the park that are right on the rim but they are older and significantly more expensive. Sometimes staying in an old historic park lodge is cool (Paradise Inn at Mt. Rainier comes to mind) but may not be as comfortable. Plus our hotel was close to the market plaza, which had the general store, post office, bank and other businesses. The lodge was fairly new and when we got to our room it was really nice. We decided it was a good choice.

The well equipped hiker with her cappucino

After dropping luggage off at our room we headed to the Visitor Center. There was a coffee shop next door where Sandy bought a cappucino. Hiking does not always mean roughing it. Behind the Visitor Center we took a trail a short distance to Mather Point. Named after the first director of the park service, it's a stunning viewpoint on a rock fin that extends into the canyon. From Mather Point we walked west along the Trail of Time. It is an interpretive trail that uses footsteps to try to give people an idea of the age of the rocks in the canyon. At different points along the trail each step represents a year, a thousand years or a million years. Pretty basic and corny but the views of the canyon were awesome. The trail goes west to Yavapai Point. According to the park newspaper it was supposed to be the best spot to view the night sky over the canyon. We thought we would check it out as we wanted to do some stargazing later. We hiked for about an hour before turning back towards the car.

We went back to the hotel to take a break and have some snacks. Then we headed to Mather Point in time for sunset. The red colors in the rocks of the canyon were even more dramatic just as the sun was setting. I took a lot of pictures but didn't really think they did justice to the real thing.

Sunset in the canyon from Mather Point

After watching the sunset we decided to drive over to the lodges on the rim where they have more restaurants. It turned out to be a zoo. Although there was a lot of parking near our hotel and at the visitor center, there was very little near the rim lodges. The place was jam packed with cars. There wasn't a chance for us to find a spot so we went further down the road. We came to the Maswik Lodge a little farther along the road away from the rim which had parking available and it advertised a pizza pub. Sounded good to us so that's where we had dinner. Turned out to be good but not great, but at least it wasn't too expensive. National Parks tend to be like airports - everything costs twice as much as usual.

After dinner we drove to Yavapai Point. We bought a flashlight at the general store and used it to find our way the short distance to the rim. Then we turned off the light and looked at the stars. This area is one of the darkest in the continental United States, so the sky was just incredible. It was perfectly clear and there was no moon. The number of faint stars that were visible was just amazing. Before our trip we had just watched an astronomy video, Inside the Milky Way. Now we got to watch the real Milky Way for a while before heading back to our room. It was incredible.

It was a great first day for our trip.