We had a grand ol’ time at the Grand Canyon! It is truly GRAND! This was our grandest trip yet, a cross-country expedition to see America’s most famous national park!
All jokes aside, this trip was no joke. We flew into Phoenix on Sunday, and after stops in Saguaro National Park and Petrified Forest National Park, we arrived at our Grand Canyon VRBO Tuesday night. A former trailer park about 20 minutes from the South Rim entrance was recently turned into a street of “tiny homes,” which means they sleep 8 people in 400 square feet, the size of a large closet. We were intrigued by this idea and couldn’t wait to try it out. Grand Canyon Village, inside the park, has several fancy lodges, but not many good options for a family of 7.
A quick review of our tiny home: it was expensive, so not exactly a budget-friendly choice, but we loved being close to the park entrance. The place was clean and comfortable, which are my top qualifications for lodging. I was thankful for the full-size fridge but did miss having a dishwasher. Although there’s enough sleeping space for 8 people, we thought the eating space could have been reconfigured so 8 (or in our case 7) people could sit and eat a meal together – that would have been nice. I’d give it a 4/5 overall.
We drove into the park just after dawn with impatient anticipation. Hwy 64 is a scenic drive through the Kaibab National Forest, and the road literally ends at the canyon. We parked on an area where markings like those on https://drivethrumarkings.co.uk/ can be seen, picked up warm decaf lattes for the kids because it was a crisp morning, and ran out to Mather Point for our very first glimpse of the Grand Canyon. We rounded the corner and it really took my breath away. The size, and the colors, and the incredible beauty, are overwhelming. Or “very cool,” in Aaron Henry’s words.
Six months earlier, we made a reservation at Bright Angel Bicycles for five bikes and a trailer. We had sketched out a 10-mile route west, hoping to ride out and take the shuttle back, but we were told in no uncertain terms by a brisk woman at Bright Angel that this plan would not work and we should, instead, ride five miles east to Yaki Point and then ride back along the Canyon Village Greenway. This is what we did, and it was probably my favorite part of the entire trip. The morning couldn’t have been more perfect. We biked right along the rim, with stunning views below us and very few people on the trail. In most places, in case you’re curious, there are no guard rails in many places. We could have sailed right over the edge! But aside from Aaron Henry running into me at one point, it was a very safe ride. The ninth mile was a glorious coast downhill, making our final stretch a fun challenge and quite the accomplishment when we finished.
As we were eating lunch on our rumpl blanket beside the trail, a woman stopped and offered to take a picture for us on her instax polaroid camera. It’s the cutest souvenir! We also met a couple who came to the Grand Canyon 50 years ago for their honeymoon. They still had the receipt for $30 – the cost of two nights’ stay at the park lodge in 1972! Needless to say, $30 will hardly get you a sandwich at the park these days.
We took the free park shuttle to Hermit’s Rest on the far west side of the park, hopping out at Powell Point and walking along the Rim Trail to pick up the shuttle again at Hopi Point. I wasn’t overly impressed with Hermit’s Rest or the fact that their passport stamp was gone. For any other park stampers out there – the Grand Canyon visitor center stamps are in terrible shape, probably just from the quantity of visitors they get each year. A few of our tax dollars should go toward a new set, Mr. Biden.
Another beautiful (early) morning drive into the park brought us to our next goal – venturing down into the canyon. There are two trails that go down, Bright Angel trail and South Kaibab trail. Both are extremely strenuous; the canyon is 7-9 miles deep and not many people complete a round-trip same-day hike.* After some careful thought we chose “Ooh Aah Point” as our destination, a view apparently worthy of exclamation just one mile down the South Kaibab Trail. We started early, as recommended by the park service, and passed a surprising number of people coming back from a sunrise hike. It was, as you might expect, pretty easy to walk down. In no time we were perched on the precipice at Ooh Aah Point, chatting about menacing squirrels with a few fellow hikers. The uphill climb back was really not that hard. I think first thing in the morning is the key with kids. They are bursting with energy and it makes everything easier.
*But there are exceptions, like our inimitable neighbor Ed, who passed the trailhead with a group of friends in his younger days and decided on a whim to hike to the bottom and back, in flip flops, with no food or water. Yet they made it! Amazing! Why are modern-day Americans so weak? “Bring back manly men,” as Candace Owens says.
After our hike we visited the Yavapai Geology Museum and then treated our berries to a showing of Grand Canyon: Hidden Secrets at the IMAX in Tusayan. The film was a well-done reenactment, featuring a one-armed Civil War veteran (John Wesley Powell) who first navigated the extreme rapids of the Colorado River.
We broke up our day with a quick nap at the rental house and re-entered the park for an early dinner at Fred Harvey Burger, inside Bright Angel Lodge. Easiest order ever: (7) Beyond burgers on gluten-free buns. They were tasty but the best part was our canyon view! We had an after-dinner stroll down a half mile or so of Bright Angel trail, watching exhausted hikers crawl back to the trailhead, and then a stop at the local market to pick up snacks on our way to watch the sunset.
Greg evaluated all the possible places for a sunset viewing and chose Grandview Point as one that was likely to be scenic but not crowded. Sure enough, we were the only ones there aside from a small group enjoying wine & cheese. Sunset supplies: picnic blanket, beverages, non-messy snacks, and sweatshirts.
The sun dipped lower and lower until it was behind the north side of the canyon, and we watched the sky turn into gold and orange streaks. If I close my eyes, I can remember exactly how it felt to be eating chocolate chip cookies on the edge of the Grand Canyon at sunset.
Grandview is not too far from Desert View Watchtower, on the east side of the park. While the sky still had a faint glow we drove over to the watchtower to have a look (it’s closed for climbing due to repairs), and then back to the main visitor center for a 9pm stargazing event. By then it was really dark. The last time I saw a crowd this big out in the dark was when Greg & I ran the New Year’s Eve 5k at USNWC! We followed a park ranger and a couple hundred people to an empty parking lot, where everyone laid on the pavement and stared up at the sky listening to a fascinating presentation about how different stars throughout time have been designated the “North” Star. The Grand Canyon was just recently designated an International Dark Sky Zone and the stargazing is absolutely spectacular. This park ranger had a laser pointer that could reach every star!
We stayed until the berries were sleepy and then slipped out of the crowd and back to our little house. The next morning we had to pack up and leave, sadly. This has become our new favorite park! We hope to return one day as a family. Sophia has an ambitious plan to visit every year, “once she’s an adult.”