It's curious how many kilometers one is willing to travel to see water doing things. We flew to Iguazu Falls to see it falling off a cliff and drove to Yellowstone to see it burst out of the ground. A few days later we found ourselves driving to see it dig a hole in the ground.
That might be just a little sarcastic, but it's true, Grand Canyon is just a hole in the ground. It just happens to be a very big hole. It is a mile deep, ten miles wide and to see it from both sides you need to drive over two hundred miles to get around it. Historically it was formed by a multitude of forces but today the greatest remaining influence is that of the Colorado River way down in the bottom of the canyon. The river has dug itself so deep into the ground that scientists are finding primitive fossils about two billion years old just by dusting off a little dirt. The canyon defies all reason and logic with its sheer immensity and can not be described by words. Even people who have seen it may not grasp the enormity of it. In 1540 a guy named Castaneda wrote in his journal about the expedition to the canyon: "They spent three days trying to find a way down to the river which from above appeared to be only a fathom wide… …The men who remained above estimated that some small rocks jutting out from the wall of the canyon must be as high as a man, but those who went down swore that when they reached them they were found to be taller than the highest tower of Seville."*
It is a very big hole.
The Grand Canyon was one of those things that we listed as a must-see as soon as we started planning our RTW trip. We didn't really plan how we were going to see it though, nor did we research any of the practicalities involved in going there. We had no reservations and no idea how much time we would like to spend there and what there was to see. That's the way these things seem to go with us, but then again it has worked surprisingly well so far. All we knew was that we wanted to see the canyon. We also knew that to do this we would have to visit the Grand Canyon National Park. We didn't, however, know that there are two sides to this coin.
According to Lonely Planet, of the national park's 4.4 million annual visitors only 400 000 visit the less developed North Rim, a fact which quickly caught our eye. We're not big fans of mass tourism and like to do things our way instead of following everyone else around in long lines. That being said, I really have no clue what things are like on the South Rim, since we didn't go there. We chose the northern side of the park in hopes of finding a little privacy in one of the most visited natural wonders of the world. We also went there because it is higher and hence cooler and it seemed to fit better into our vague itinerary. We had seen a few interesting places in southeastern Utah and were interested in a couple more in the southwestern side as well. Going to the South Rim would have taken us off course a little bit. Still, the main reason in choosing the north over the south were the numbers: 90% vs. 10%. For a couple of people who want to do things their way, those are the only things that really matter.
Arrival and Day 1
We had spent a night in Page on a Walmart's parking lot and started our journey by heading south on highway 89. At Bitter Springs we turned north on scenic highway 89A and followed it all the way to Jacob Lake, where we stopped at Kaibab National Forest visitor center. We had read that in the North Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park there is only one campground and a lodge that fills up at least a year in advance, so we were hoping that we might find a place to camp in the adjacent national forest. It turned out that this was indeed possible as long as one follows a few simple rules. Camping is allowed in Kaibab National Forest as long as you are at least a quarter mile away from the main road and within 30 feet of the gravel roads that cut through the park. The ranger we talked to gave us a simple map and hinted of a few places that people often use. They see no harm in people camping on their grounds and recommend places that have seen use in the past to limit the number of areas that eventually form by themselves. It sounded reasonable and definitely made our lives easier, since we didn't have to worry about getting a site at a developed campground. Surprisingly none of this was mentioned in Lonely Planet or in any of our other information sources. It nearly always pays to go and ask these things yourself.
From Jacob Lake we continued south on highway 67, which brought us to the entrance of Grand Canyon National Park. Our annual pass to national parks ($80) got us through once again when otherwise we would have paid $30 per vehicle for a ticket valid for one week. From the gate we drove down to the North Rim visitor center to ask about good day hikes around the park and if there was anything else we could find interesting. Once again the best source of information, apart from the rangers, was the park newspaper which seems to be an integral part of every national park in the United States. These usually have a map and some general information about what's going on the park, in addition to detailed suggestions of different activities such as hiking trails. Following the advice of the ranger and the newspaper we did a short walk on Bright Angel Point Trail that started from just behind the visitor center. Here we were awarded with our first views of the famed Grand Canyon.
It was a little disappointing… Not much, but a little. I mean, it was a big hole in the ground, quite similar to the views we saw at Canyonlands national park a few days earlier. Everyone knows what Grand Canyon looks like, but this wasn't it. Part of it was probably because of the vegetation, at 2516 meters above sea level we were not surrounded by desert, but by sandy pine forest similar to eastern Finland. In many ways the surroundings reminded us of the kind of ridges people in Finland used to build tuberculosis hospitals on in early 20th century. True, there are no large canyons in Finland, but we had seen them in other places. The Grand Canyon seemed a bit too familiar. Sure it was big, but not that big.
With somewhat mixed feelings we decided to continue our tour by driving towards the eastern parts of the area. Following a narrow paved road we drove up to Vista Encantada, where we finally got a glimpse of what we had come to see. From here the canyon seemed a lot deeper and more barren, the way we thought it would be. There were a few people at the viewpoint but not nearly as many as there were at the visitor center which probably improved the experience a little. Continuing further we stopped next at Roosevelt Point and did the very short walk there, finding it almost covered in hay. Things seemed to be improving by the minute. American national parks are a driver's paradise, usually you can get a pretty good idea of the main sights without ever leaving your car. As a result, most people hardly ever do, which means that if you are willing to walk even a little further than the main trails you can find yourself enjoying them completely alone.
Cape Royal was a prime example of the negative side of the previous remark. There we found a big parking lot and a ton of people walking on paved foot paths to see the couple of viewpoints. It was far from crowded but we still figured that we might be able to find someplace a little more secluded still. The views were almost breathtaking for sure, but in the end this wasn't our favorite place to view the canyon from. Still, if one has limited time or mobility, this is probably where I'd start. Here the massive canyon spreads out beneath and around you and at points you can see the Colorado River at the bottom of it. After stopping at Walhalla Overlook we had learned from a ranger there that the river was now more or less the color it used to be before people had started meddling with it. The word Colorado is a twisted form of the original "Color Rado", meaning the color red. Nowadays the river is usually dark green, but in the olden days, before man made dams, it used to run red or muddy. Due to recent rains the original color had returned for a while and we got to see the river as it was meant to be. It turned out to be surprisingly hard to make out of the scenery, since it looked almost like a small dirt road at the bottom of the canyon.
After Cape Royal we headed back towards one of the trails that was recommended to us. Cape Final Trail started from a spot that was not quite a parking lot but was used as one anyway. It definitely looked promising, apart from us there was only one car there parked on the small opening under the trees. We took a little water and snacks with us and headed into the forest, following the trail up a gentle slope. Here we saw our first Kaibab squirrel, a type of squirrel found only in this area and instantly recognizable by its fluffy white tail. Apart from the little creature and the trees there were no signs of life on the trail. The same was true at the first viewpoint we came to, we got to enjoy it all by ourselves. We found the people from the other car at the second lookout, in a deep state of awe as they took in the scenery from their own personal ledge. Continuing further still we stumbled on one of the most perfect camping spots we've ever seen, set right next to the cliff with perfect views of the canyon. There was a sign there marking the spot as a tent site, but we didn't have a tent or a permit to set one up. Following another sign to the end of the trail at Cape Final we found ourselves climbing a rock formation dangling high above the ravine.
It was here that we finally got it. The magnificence of the Grand Canyon that is. We sat down in a desperate attempt to take in the grandeur of the view, the enormity of space around us and the total silence that surrounded us. This was the awe-inspiring Grand Canyon we had traveled so far to see and the spot we wanted to see it from. We sat there totally alone, contemplating on what a great decision it was to come to the North Rim with only 10% of the total number of visitors. By walking just a little off the main road we had found an incredibly scenic view that the two of us shared with just a few striped lizards. It felt unreal, as if we were in a poster or an advertisement. I could actually see the latter one in my mind: us sitting on the edge of the cliff in perfect solitude and a text below saying: "Now we're really at the end of the world… …How 'bout a Pop-Tart®?"
We ate our snacks watching a condor search for prey, in a deep state of awe. It was impossible to grasp the dimensions of the canyon as it lay there before us, there was no way of telling if the rocks we saw were the size of a man or that of a tower. The massive opening on the face of the earth seemed to suck out comprehension the way it did sounds, it was both stupefying and humbling. If we had been just a little disappointed at first, we weren't anymore. This was definitely worth driving so far for. It was worth all the trouble and more.
After having sat there for what seemed like quite a long time we started hearing some noises and decided to let the couple we had passed earlier have the view for a change. We stopped at their viewpoint on the way back to the car to get one last view of the canyon basking in the light of the setting sun, before heading out of the national park. The darkening evening brought out some deer that stood next to the road in a few places, but we managed to make it to Kaibab National Forest without any trouble. There we followed the advice we got from one of the park rangers we talked to in Grand Canyon and took the first right after the store/gas station on highway 67. We found a spot to park our car for the night easily enough and slept well and undisturbed. In the morning we realized that the spot didn't really qualify for overnighting since it wasn't actually a quarter mile from the highway. Oh well…
We wanted to do something a little special on our second day in the park and to stretch our legs a little as well. We had already done a short hike on the rim of the canyon, so the obvious thing to do was to go down into it. After driving back to the national park we parked at the trailhead of North Kaibab Trail and had our breakfast there, both to secure a parking spot at the popular trail and to have our breakfast last for as long as possible. The North Kaibab Trail descends into the bottom of the canyon where you can follow it all the way to the South Rim. We weren't planning on staying out that long, or even staying overnight, but we were still just a little ambitious. The editors of the park newspaper had dedicated an entire page for the trail, explaining different sections of it and going over what you should pack with you, all the while reminding people not to overestimate their abilities at the risk of perishing in the heat. It sounded fun!
We got a later start than we would have liked and didn't start the descent until 8 a.m.. By then the mules hitched next to the parking area had been loaded with unsuspecting people who had thought that paying for a mule ride would be fun. I'm being mean here, they probably did enjoy themselves, but we didn't like sharing the trail with mule trains. I mean, a mule is really just a donkey on steroids. The other word for a donkey is ass, probably because they poop a lot. What do you think donkeys on steroids do? In the end the pooping wasn't really the main problem and much less so than the urinating. The way it seems to go is that the leading donkey stops to pee and all of the following ones stop to pee in the same spot. This, in addition to the pounding hooves of the heavy animals, transforms the trail into a long cesspool, smelly and awful at points. To make matters worse the mules are slow and raise a huge cloud of dust behind them, for the impatient hikers to inhale.
Luckily the mules only went as far as the Supai Tunnel, 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) down the trail. We made it in forty minutes, passing three trains of mules as we did. From the tunnel we continued down another thirty minutes in splendid scenery, eventually reaching Redwall Bridge where our path took us up for a few minutes before starting to take us deeper still. About an hour more on the trail and we were in our preplanned destination called Roaring Springs. We had started from an elevation of 8250 feet (2515 meters) and followed the path for 4.7 miles (7.6 kilometers) to the elevation of just 5200 feet (1585 meters). We were almost a full kilometer lower than where we had started from. The temperature had risen substantially and there were hardly any clouds, so we had our lunch under the shade of trees. We had frozen two half liter bottles of water to keep our boiled eggs, hotdogs and PB&J sandwiches cold. This had worked marvelously and is a highly recommended way of taking food with you, since it keeps it fresh and you get to drink some ice cold water as it melts in the bottles. In addition to the ice we had packed six more small bottles and a canister containing a full gallon of water. With just over two gallons of water with us we had figured that we were pretty well off. However, after finishing our 45 minutes long break we ended up pouring almost all of the one gallon canister into empty small bottles. We had gone through half our supply going down and had to climb back up with the rest of it…
The park newspaper told us that it would take twice as long to climb back up as it had to get down into the canyon. We thought that this was exaggerating since based on our previous hiking experience coming down takes about 90% of the time used to climb up. This is usually done in the other direction however, meaning we're used to climbing on hills and then coming back down. Turns out doing it the other way around is quite a bit different. First of all we were a little tired already when we started the ascent. Second of all, it was getting hotter by the minute. We started the climb deliberately slow to save our strength, but soon enough we were going slow just because we couldn't go any faster. The newspaper had also advised against hiking between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when it was hottest. We were climbing up exactly then. After a while we started to feel like the way up would take at least double the time we used coming down, but then we saw the bridge ahead of us once more. We reached it about an hour after starting the climb, the same time it took the other way. Gladdened by this we drank a little more water and started on the steepest part of the journey, the hike up to the tunnel. We made it there in about half an hour, again the same time it took for the way down. There was a fountain that we could fill our water bottles from so we weren't in any kind of trouble anymore and sat down for another half an hour to eat some bananas and cherries, before starting the last ascent. Going up we met with some more mules on their way down and had to wait on the side of the path to let them pass. The three trains slowed us down some, but we made it up in about an hour anyway, relieved that the hike was finally over.
We enjoyed the trek, but there is a reason for it to be rated as "very difficult" on a signboard at the visitor center. They say it should take about six hours to complete and we did it in just that, all the breaks included. We had a gallon of water each, but if we hadn't been able to fill up on the way back we might have gone thirsty for the last part of the hike. We had packed just enough food, which was almost as great as the fact that we didn't end up using any of our emergency gear, including a first-aid kit, a Swiss army knife, a whistle, water purifying tablets and an emergency blanket. We used our hats for most of the way but not our disposable rain ponchos since it was sunny. The scenery on the hike was great, but in the end nothing exceptional. The main draw in the trek was the fact that we got to go into the Grand Canyon and watch its edges rise above us, a view most people miss. We also got some much needed exercise since neither of us has been doing any regular workouts on this long trip.
That is probably why we were so exhausted after the hike. To allow other people to park at the trailhead we drove our car to the visitor center and rested there. Then we ate and rested some more. I caught up on writing out these blogs and Sini read our ebook reader. We did this for over five hours, until it was time to go back to the rim of the canyon to watch the sunset. Some small clouds had formed in the sky as we rested and the setting sun seemed to set them on fire while the canyon itself remained somewhat shaded. It was not the most beautiful sunset we had seen, but seeing it from the edge of the Grand Canyon made it special. After the sun had hidden itself behind the horizon we returned to the car and drove out of the national park and into the national forest for another free camping site. This one we found about two miles down road 22 at the first major intersection on the left. Most of the spots there were occupied as we arrived but in the end our small RV fit in nicely.
We did one more thing in the park after that, just to wish it a farewell. After breakfast we drove back into the national park and parked at the trailhead of Widforss Trail, which the park ranger at the visitor center had recommended when we first arrived at the park. At the trailhead there was a sign warning people of a nesting grouse that had been harassing hikers on the trail. The rangers had designated its habitat a no-go zone, marking a new route with pink ribbons. We ended up seeing the angry bird on the trail and went around it to keep it from attacking us. Judging from its posture it wouldn't have hesitated to do so. It kept its eyes on us the whole time we were visible…
We didn't do the whole 10 mile (16 km) trail, but only followed the numbers on a pamphlet we picked up at the trailhead up to number 14. From there it would have been another 2.5 miles to the last lookout and we felt like we had already gotten what we came for. We stood for a good while at the edge of the great canyon completely alone, on a stone cliff dotted with fossilized seashells. It was just us and the sound of the wind carrying the distant cries of a condor somewhere below. We said our goodbyes to the hole in the ground and found it to be truly Grand after all.
*I picked up the quote from a board at one of the overlooks, so I take no responsibility in its accuracy…