Grand Canyon National Park

National Park Number: 36 of 59

My mom tells a story about when she was a kid and her family was taking a road trip. As they drove up the middle of Arizona, they passed a sign that said, “Grand Canyon, 30 miles”, and her dad—who I never met, but who sounds from everything I’ve heard like a warm, funny, adventurous guy—said, “I’m not driving 30 miles to see a big hole in the ground.”

Both David and I have seen big holes in the ground, but neither of us had previously been to this big hole in the ground and, silly as it probably sounds, I was actually a bit worried about being unimpressed. I’d seen the Grand Canyon in movies and pictures and I’ve been to many other canyons, and a niggling part of me just kept thinking, “What if I’m not impressed enough by it?”

So now, having spent several days gazing gah-gah out over its rim, I can tell you that—at least for myself—pictures and videos just don’t capture the scale of this place. My own eyes couldn’t capture the scale of this place. But what they could capture was a gut-punching, mind-jolting sense of awe.

 Vermillion Cliffs, on the way to the Grand Canyon
Vermillion Cliffs, on the way to the Grand Canyon

 On the bridge at Marble Canyon, where the Grand Canyon begins.
On the bridge at Marble Canyon, where the Grand Canyon begins.

The first day we went to the park was kind of a teaser day; we had to get down to Phoenix for a wedding and before that, we had to replace our water pump and fix some leaks that we developed from taking Buster into the frozen tundra of Idaho. But driving down from Zion, we passed right by the Grand Canyon and we couldn’t resist stopping for a quick half-day visit before we continued south.

Our first glimpse of the canyon was at Desert View. We stood at the rim for a while and then, after picking our jaws up off the ground, discovered there was ranger program in progress at the watchtower and decided to join in. The program was about the building and the history of the watchtower, run by a ranger who was dressed as and performing the role of Mary Colter, the watchtower’s architect and champion. The tower was built as a place to bring tourists, but Colter designed it to pay homage to the Puebloan people who had long called the canyon home. The tower is a traditional shape, made with traditional materials, and the upper floors are covered in re-creations of petroglyphs found throughout the Southwest. Our tour was super interesting and the views of the canyon from the top of the tower were incredible.

Afterward we headed to Grand Canyon Village, watching the sun set along the way, and by the time we got there it was too dark and cold to check out one of the overlooks, so we just got a pizza and kept driving to Phoenix.

 All the petroglyphs in the watchtower were copied from real petroglyphs around the Southwest and reproduced here by different artists.
All the petroglyphs in the watchtower were copied from real petroglyphs around the Southwest and reproduced here by different artists.

We were very excited to come back and do some hiking, and we returned a week later. In the meantime there had been a snowstorm, and though there was a brief moment of nice weather while we were there, another storm was expected, so we knew we only had two more days to spend in the park. We are not weanies about being cold but we didn’t want our water pump to freeze again and also we are actually weanies about being cold.

We drove late into the night from Petrified Forest and slept right outside the park so we could get an early start. Then we woke up to Graham telling us he didn’t feel good and instead of spending the day hiking, we spent it holding onto Graham while he leaned out the bus doors and threw up for hours and hours. 

If there’s anything worse than seeing your kid sick, it’s having your kid be super absurdly polite while he’s sick. This is a thing about Graham: whenever he is sick, he becomes extremely sweet and cuddly and says things like, “Mom, thank you so much for holding me while I throwed up. I know its not fun to watch but I’m glad you were with me,” and, “I really ‘ppreciate you giving me crackers and reading to me. You’re the sweetest mommy.” These are both actual things Graham said in between pukes and it blasted my heart into a thousand shards. He is normally good about being grateful (we drill this into him, and his use of the word “appreciate” might be my favorite thing about him) but something about being sick just really puts him into overdrive and it is too much for me to handle. 

So until Graham started feeling better in the afternoon, we hung out in the bus and did nothing, and it was a little nice. We were parked near the overlook near Hermit’s Rest and I was laying on the bed near Graham, reading a book, and I could look out over the view from my cozy spot and it didn’t make me feel all that motivated to get out and hike.

But eventually Graham did feel much better and we headed to the visitor’s center to get his jr. ranger badge, watch the excellent park movie, and catch a ranger program about squirrels, during which we played a game where the kids acted as “squirrels”, who had to collect “nuts” (poker chips) from “trees” (other program attendees) to take to their “nests” (paper cups hidden in bushes) without being caught by the “hawk” (Brazilian teenager who was not thrilled about participating), and one of the “trees” kept saying to the kids, “Come over here; I’ve got some yummy nuts for you!” and he was an older gentlemen, raspy-voiced, and even in context, what he was saying seemed super creepy. But none of the kids ended up being pulled into an unmarked van and whisked away, so everything was fine, and after the program we headed out to Mather Point to dosey-doe with the other tourists and watch the sun set casting colors into the canyon.

The next day we decided we were all up for a hike, but for no good reason at all, it took us half the day to get ourselves ready to actually do it, and then when we were ready, we had to park lightyears away from the trailhead and walk along the Rim Trail til we reached it. But finally we made it to the trailhead of the South Kaibab Trail, and we started our descent into the Grand Canyon.

When we were figuring out what to do in this park, we remembered hearing from other people we knew who’d been here and hiked into the canyon, and in every case we thought they’d hiked all the way down to the river and back in a day. Our first day at the park we saw a million signs telling people not to do that, so then we went back to the people we’d thought had done it and they all said, “No, no, I only went to _____” (some other point halfway or less to the bottom), which made us feel better. It also made us feel like no matter how far we hiked down, maybe people would read this and believe we went all the way down and back up, like superheroes, and then forevermore be impressed with us.

 The mule train passed us at Ooh Aah Point, carrying vittles and doo-dads for the folks at Phantom Ranch.
The mule train passed us at Ooh Aah Point, carrying vittles and doo-dads for the folks at Phantom Ranch.

But in truth we only went down to the first marked stopping spot, three-quarters of a mile down, called Ooh Aah Point. When we got there, we wanted to go further but figured we’d probably die on the way back up, so we turned around (after much oohing and aahing and eating of chocolate rocks). But then we made it back up to the rim painlessly—surprising, because we’re not all that fit (don’t laugh about it only being a mile and a half total—it’s steep!). We were thinking back to early hikes from our trip, how much I in particular had struggled to walk uphill whilst carrying a child, and we felt proud.

We also felt hungry, and celebratory, and a bit lazy, so we headed to Tusayan for a Mexican feast at one of the restaurants and we gorged ourselves, which isn’t the smartest thing to do when you live in a tiny space with three other people and no bathroom. But we all lived to tell the tale and it was not even the smelliest night we’ve spent in the bus.

And that was our visit to the Grand Canyon. Not all that grand; maybe we shortchanged the park, but I don’t think so. We’d love to come back someday and hike rim to rim, or raft the river, or stay at Phantom Ranch. Without one of those epic undertakings, a visit to this place doesn’t feel quite “done”, at least not from our perspective of trying to experience and give an overview of every park. Even so, we loved being here, loved finally seeing a place we’ve always wanted to see, loved feeling tiny as we stood next to that vast, gaping gash. It may just be a hole in the ground, but I’m pretty certain it’s the coolest hole in the ground in the world and we felt lucky to be there.

  1. I think your words and photos and appreciations are very nice and grand enough for me. Especially I like how you felt tiny at the edge of the mighty canyon, the photo of the diagonal juniper trunks foregrounding with a distant glimpse of the canyon beyond, and your mom-ish appreciations of Graham. Thank you.

  2. Okay, hearing the little tidbit of Graham’s politeness was adorable. I’d say that’s certainly a reflection of great parenting… wanna raise my future kids too? JK.
    I think sometimes in the Instagram/blogosphere we can get a little fixated on doing the "epic stuff." The stuff that photographs well and sounds cool when you describe it. I’ll admit that sometimes whilst writing a post I feel almost guilty writing "we just hung out all morning, snacked, and relaxed." But why? Those are some of the most enjoyable times in the parks for us! We’ll probably never see or experience half of what the parks have to offer, especially not in short single visits spread over years (or months), but the coolest thing about the parks is that they’ll always be there, and we can always go back. I know you don’t, but never feel bad for enjoying a park however you want.

  3. I never tire of reading about these adventures!! And Graham continues to “bore a hole deep into my heart, but I fear when we actually “meet again” I’ll still be caught up in something that he’s long-since passed and moved on.” But oh he is quite a kid!! Loved your opening comment—as it was truly what my own Dad might say—never having had an appreciation for the ‘naturals of nature’—only the practical side of mountains or rivers or canyons—the recreation of what you do when you get there—certainly NOT the beauty or the wonder of how they came to be. Pictures again, are wonderful!! Thanks for the Posts—Love ‘em…

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