Tuesday, April 14, 2015

There and Back Again: The Grand Canyon

When I was growing up, my parents made it a point to take a summer vacation somewhere around the country every year, but one place we never made it to was the Grand Canyon. I’m glad to say that I finally made it to this must-see national park with my own family (including my brother).

We had a terrific trip. Although it’s no doubt a cliché, words and photos do little justice to the experience of actually being at the Grand Canyon. Viewing it in person is absolutely breathtaking and awe-inspiring.

Get Your Kicks on Route 66

We opted to take a popular Grand Canyon Railway package, which starts in Williams, Arizona, a town that touts itself as “the last town to be bypassed by Route 66.”*

Located 65 miles from the Grand Canyon, Williams today serves as a gateway to the Grand Canyon for those traveling west by car and or opting to take the Grand Canyon Railway, which takes tourists daily to and from the Grand Canyon. Operating since 1901 and tied historicallyto the development of the Grand Canyon as a tourist spot by the Santa Fe Railroad, the railway closed in the late 1960s but was resurrected in 1989 as a dedicated tourist train serving the national park. (The development of the Grand Canyon as a tourist resort is also closely tied to the rise of the Fred Harvey Company, one of the first chains of hotels and restaurants, famous for its “Harvey Girls.”)

The operators have quite shrewdly also positioned the railway as a “green” alternative to driving and polluting the Grand Canyon, claiming that it is responsible for keeping 50,000 cars from the park. These efforts—which also encouraged the use of reusable water bottles—is in line with the park’s efforts to promote green living and preserve the natural wonder of the Grand Canyon.

Though Williams is nearly a straight-line north-westerly drive from L.A., rather than take the 7.5-hour drive, we opted to fly to Las Vegas, stay there for a few days, then drive to Williams in a rented car. Vegas is about three-and-a-quarter hours from Williams and Phoenix is about an hour closer, being the closest major airports to Williams and the Grand Canyon.

Our railway package began with a night at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel at Williams (which is right next door to the Williams Train Depot); a two-and-a-quarter hour train ride to the Grand Canyon the next morning; an overnight stay at the Grand Canyon at one of the lodges inside the park’s tourist village and resident community, the Grand Canyon Village; and a return trip to Williams the following afternoon, with one final night at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel. Given that the package included two breakfasts and dinners at the buffet restaurant at the Williams railway hotel, the train trip and entertainment, and a brief coach bus tour at the Grand Canyon, I have to say the cost of the trip was certainly very affordable. The company took care of our luggage the whole way, transporting them from one hotel room to the other the entire way, so we never had to worry about them. The package also included a cowboy gunfight at Williams and a “train robbery” on the way back–which featured the train robbers running alongside the train on their horses. All the employees on the tour were incredibly nice, welcoming and upbeat.

The Grand Canyon

As mentioned, our package included a coach bus tour of the Grand Canyon upon arrival. Frankly, now that I have a better understanding of the park, the bus tour was probably unnecessary, but it was nevertheless a good way for first-time visitors like ourselves to get oriented and learn about the park. After that, we were on our own.

The reason I say the bus tour was unnecessary is because the Grand Canyon has a great shuttle system consisting of three lines—one that serves the Grand Canyon Village which is the visitor nexus for the park and two that take visitors on round trips around the South Rim with stops at various key viewing spots on the rim. Anyone wishing to hike (or bike) can certainly do so, but the shuttles are obviously a great way to see the sights if you have limited time or energy. Each vista point offered as spectacular view as the last.

The canyon is about 277 miles long, 18 miles wide at its widest, and about a mile deep. No doubt one reason the Southern Rim of the canyon is the most developed and visited is because of the trails you can take down to the bottom: the Bright Angel Trail and the South Kaibab Trail. They are about 9 miles down, taking you more than 4,000 feet (the canyon’s elevation is about 7,000 feet). Hikers are not advised to attempt the hike in a day, especially since one has to remember the hike back is uphill. Hikers have the option of staying at a lodge called the Phantom Lodge at the bottom (or, presumably, camping). But you can certainly go as far down on the trail as you like and then turn around and come back.

The first day we stayed out long enough to watch the sunset—understandably a popular pastime as many people settled down around us to do the same. Returning back to the village, we found the “upscale” restaurants had 90-minute waits and decided to just hit the food court at our lodge. Not as good as a sit down restaurant meal, but at least we were able to order food quickly and replenish ourselves.

On the way back to our building, we found another advantage of being a little bit outside civilization—the night was so clear that we were able to easily find the North Star, the Big and Little Dippers, and Orion’s Belt!

The next day we spent exploring the western side of the Canyon. It was at that time that my brother, son and I (while my wife and daughter slept in) discovered we were within walking distance of the rim and the main trail heads.

We visited at the perfect time—it was spring break for my kids and the weather was clear and comfortable, being neither too warm or too cold. While there were many people there, I wouldn’t consider it crowded. I can only imagine what it’s like in the summer at the height of tourist season—I overheard a bus driver say that the park had 17 permanent suttle drivers and, during the summer, employed as many as 54 to accommodate the crowds.

I’ve never had love of heights—while it’s not debilitating and being at the Grand Canyon wasn’t a particular problem for me, I certainly wasn’t as brave as some folks who were able to rather non-chalantly go fairly close to the edge. Nevertheless, I have to admit, just starting down one of the trails was enough to bring my heart to my mouth—and in any case my son refused to start down anyway. (My daughter was more than game, but since no one else was willing, she was denied the chance—I told her she could do it on her own trip!)

At least I can say I’m not alone because there were at least three instances while I was there of people horsing around in such a way that made others nearby literally scream—after witnessing one such incident involving a young man who leaped high from the edge for a good picture, one rather burly gent muttered to me “I must be getting old.”

While there are fences or walls at the main vista points, some of them would offer little protection for young children; and the main trails and other points have no such protection at all. But it’s all a matter of common sense and a little bit of caution. (Googling such incidents, I found that the park averages about 3-4 deaths a year from falls, and another 8-12 or so a year from “environmental factors” like dehydration and sunstroke).

Hoover Dam

On the drive back from Williams to Vegas, we stopped at the Hoover Dam since it was on the way. I’m really glad we did. When we got close to the dam area, there were only a few cars ahead of us in the security check line for vehicles; I can imagine that during the summer the service road can get quite a bit backed up. Plus, once we entered the dam area, a sign almost immediately pointed us to parking right there and we quickly found a parking space.

While there are several levels of tours visitors can take, we simply opted for the museum tour which includes a room that offers a nice overlook of the dam. And, of course, we made sure to walk across the dam that includes the state line dividing Arizona and Nevada.

As the pictures accompany this blog show, the area also provides a spectacular view of the Mike O'Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, opened in 2010 and built for security concerns.. I’ve since learned it’s the second highest bridge in the U.S. after the Royal Gorges Dam in Colorado—and since we drove across the memorial bridge and I’ve walked across the Royal Gorges Dam Bridge (it’s a pedestrian tourist bridge that was the highest in the world until 2001), I can say I’ve traversed the two highest bridges in the U.S.!

The Hoover Dam was, in its way, as breathtaking and impressive as the Grand Canyon. Completed in the midst of the Great Depression, it is truly an engineering marvel (it was even completed two years ahead of schedule) that represents an apex of American ingenuity and industriousness that has stood the test of time.

Visiting the Hoover Dam also proved to be a nice bookend to our Grand Canyon trip since, of course, the Hoover Dam straddles the Colorado River, so it was a treat to point out to the kids that we were seeing the same river we saw at the Grand Canyon.

In all, our trip went smoothly and safely, and was a memorable vacation as American as apple pie!

* Historical Route 66, made famous by legend, song (and TV), was displaced with the rise of the Interstate Highway System and Route 66, which runs through the town, was the last leg to be replaced by the I-40 in 1984. Route 66 was officially decommissioned in 1985. My wife reminded me that Santa Monica, California, near where we live in West L.A., was the west coast terminus of Route 66. Signs and souvenirs at the Santa Monica boardwalk capitalize on this connection.)

Below are additional photos from our trip:

To see all the photos, visit the following links:

You can see a mule train of riders in the center of this photo