The Grand Canyon in Arizona is one of those places that really has to be seen to be believed, and was one of the highlights of our trip to the Southwest. This would be my third time here. The first was when I was a kid and had no real appreciation for it, and the second was a couple years ago with our teenagers, when it was mostly just a look-see sort of visit. For this, the third time, we planned to hike partway into the canyon and spend some real quality time with one of Nature’s greatest wonders. Luckily for us, this part of the trip came together even better than we’d originally planned!
From our operating base in Tucson, we headed north for an overnight stop in Phoenix to visit with an old friend of mine (well, he’s not old, it’s just that I’ve just known him since fourth grade). Then we had another overnight stop in Camp Verde, where we went kayaking on the Verde River (highly recommended!) and did a little more wine tasting before we eventually arrived at the Flagstaff-Grand Canyon KOA. This KOA is much like its many cousins across America and Canada, and is very well kept and clean. If you have a bigger rig, though, be forewarned that the roads in the campground are fairly narrow and the sites aren’t all that level. But hey, it’s a KOA, it’s in a very convenient location for both Flagstaff and heading up to the Canyon, so it’s sort of hard to go wrong.
Now, before I say anything else, I wanted to give HUGE kudos to Sheldon, our guide from Arizona Tour Travel. I can’t say enough good things about this guy and his company; that he (and his boss, for that matter) went the extra mile for us during our stay would be a gross understatement. If you want a stress-free, entertaining, informative, and just downright fun visit to the Canyon (or Sedona, for that matter, as Sheldon does tours there for AZTTG, too), Sheldon’s your guy. I’m sure they have other great guides, but it’s hard for me to imagine anybody topping this guy for providing a great tour.
Our hike into the Canyon was the day after we arrived in Flagstaff, and we were pumped and ready to go. Sheldon picked us up in the morning at the KOA, then snagged a couple with their two god-children at a nearby hotel before setting out for Grand Canyon National Park, about 90 minutes away. We found out that these folks had already gone partway down the South Kaibab Trail the day before with another guide from Sheldon’s company. We didn’t have much of a preference for which trail we took, although the general consensus was to take one that was less-traveled, as summer is the high season at the Canyon, and Sheldon was very adept at working through potential options so that everyone was satisfied, and we settled on a jaunt down the less-traveled Hermit Trail.
I have to say up front, looking back on it, that this wasn’t the best way for us to go, for two reasons. First, while the scenery anywhere in the Canyon is spectacular, the upper portion of the Hermit Trail is sort of off in a side canyon with limited views. Second, it was a bitch (if you’ll pardon my French) for us out of shape suburbanites to climb. It’s very steep and not maintained nearly as well as Bright Angel or South Kaibab, and has very little cover from the sun, which at this time of year (late June) can really hammer you: it…is…hot. We lucked out with cloud cover for most of our hike, but that didn’t do much in our battle against gravity. The slope is steep and rocky, and you don’t realize how steep it is when you’re going down. That realization only sinks in when you’re going back up. The worst part was that one of Jan’s knees decided to give her hell, so she had a painful hike back to the top (and I wasn’t in much shape to give her a piggy back ride!).
Having done this small portion of one of the trails (note: we never intended to reach the river – that’s essentially an ordeal over a minimum of two days down and back), I have this to say to anyone who hasn’t gone but plans to. There is lots of information on how to have a fun and safe hike in the Canyon, be it all the way to the river or just a ways down a trail. Even if you do a lot of hiking here and there, read it and heed it! While this is a heavily visited area, it’s still very much a wilderness, and even on a day hike you can suffer from dehydration, heat stroke, or injury. If you get into trouble somewhere on the trail, don’t count on dialing 911 and having a helicopter come to get you out in thirty minutes: there isn’t any cell service once you go much below below the rim, and the logistics of mounting rescue operations can sometimes leave you waiting quite a while before extraction. Again, know before you go. People have died on these trails because they weren’t prepared. It’s very hot, and gets hotter the farther down you go, there are very few sources of water before you get down to the river, the sun is intense and shade sparse, and the air, at least in the summer, is extremely dry. So, bone up on what you need to know and do so you can be safe, okay?
Once we made it back out, we had an enormous yummy lunch that Sheldon provided, then wound up walking a mile or so along the rim trail, while some of the other folks in our party hiked a bit of the Bright Angel Trail. After everyone was suitably exhausted, Sheldon rounded us up and took us home.
So, that day, while not perfect, was nonetheless a good one, largely due to the efforts of Sheldon, our guide.
Now, my parents were scheduled to take a driving tour of the canyon the next day, while Jan and I wandered around in Flagstaff (more on that later). As it turned out, they got Sheldon for a guide, too (although it wasn’t originally going to be that way; more the luck of the draw). They had a great time, but the best part was that by the end of the day, Sheldon had come up with some ideas for a tailored tour for just the four of us the next day, when we were scheduled to take a helicopter tour of the canyon.
This is another example of how great Sheldon was: he came up with an itinerary (which we heartily agreed to) that had him picking the four of us up at the KOA the following morning, taking us to Sunset Crater and the Waputki Native American ruins, stopping at the Cameron Trading Post for lunch (you’ll love the Navajo tacos, but order the small size!), then into the east entrance to Grand Canyon National Park (Jan and I hadn’t seen any of the eastern part of the canyon), stopping at the Watchtower and some other scenic stops before taking us to the airport to catch our helicopter, then back to Grand Canyon Village to see the sunset and a post-sunset dinner at one of the picnic tables at Grand Canyon Village.
It turned out to be a full, full day, but it was fantastic! We had such a great time, and the cost of this ad-hoc tour was extremely reasonable (and worth every penny). Sheldon made sure we had enough time to scope things out, but was also careful to keep us on schedule without making us feel like he was rushing us along. We arrived at the airport right on time for our helicopter flight, which was pretty darn breathtaking, and had us back to the canyon rim with plenty of time before sunset. The only negative of the entire day, which, alas, was beyond Sheldon’s control, was that the western horizon was covered with clouds, so we didn’t get to see the sun setting over the canyon. But everything else during the day was great!
So, if you’re going to be visiting the Grand Canyon or anywhere else in the northern Arizona/southern Utah area, make sure to check out ATTG (we went through one of their subsidiaries, Sedona Central Reservations)
And make sure you visit the Grand Canyon. It’s truly a sight not to be missed. I’ve gotten quite a few compliments on the photos I took, but even the best photo can’t compare to the splendor and jaw-dropping awesomeness of the real thing.