We left for the airport two and a half hours before our scheduled flight to Phoenix. We were a little anxious since this was our first trip since the new airport security restrictions and policies were begun. Indeed the security is tight at Sea-Tac Airport. The cheerful Alaska Airline agent advised that we might have to check a Japanese bamboo flute that we wanted to carry on, since theoretically you could hit someone with the flute. After some debate and close examination involving a supervisor, who happened to be one of that day's General Security Coordinators, we were allowed to carry the flute on. We'll see what happens when we try to take a saxophone to California next month!
Leaving windy and rainy Seattle, in less than two and a half hours, we arrived in the warm and dry desert climate of Phoenix. Since the Grand Canyon's lodging inside the park is very limited, and often booked as much as two years ahead, we did not get a room there this time. Instead, we found a Red Feather Lodge in Tusayan, a small town just a few minutes outside the park. We drove 230 miles from Phoenix to Tusayan, and up to a 7000-foot altitude in less than four hours in our small rental car. We crashed in our room just before midnight.
Saturday morning was chilly and sunny. We got into the park by 8:30 a.m. Our first stop was at Mather Point, where we stood on top of a giant rock formation 250 million years old (photo, Canyon View), standing up at 7500 feet, high above the Colorado River. Driving along the South Rim to Yavapai Observation Station, we could see black smoke (photo, Smoke) coming from the North Rim along the Walhalla Plateau. A ranger told us a planned autumn control burn was getting a little bigger than originally planned. We could certainly smell the smoke even 15 miles away from the North Rim.
The major activity we planned for this trip was hiking the canyon trails. There are plenty of them. Depending on your physical strength, you can do anywhere between 3-15 miles a day, all descending or climbing with 1200- to 4500-foot elevation changes. It is like a mountain hike, only backwards: The climb is at the end, normally taking twice as long as the descent. Saturday afternoon we took an experimental hike down the South Kaibab Trail (photo, On the Trail), just three miles round trip with an elevation change of 1160 feet. Starting at Yaki Point, the trail drops steeply down the Canyon. There is no water or shade along the trail. We packed food, water, flashlights and emergency kit. Richard was armed with his precious flute, camera, and a sleek REI walking stick, and Barbara carried a senior citizen walking cane from a second hand store and a binocular. We walked single file to protect the trail and often stopped to let other hikers and mules pass. Barbara was tempted by riding the mules instead of walking, but the idea of being up on the back of a mule with nothing to hang on to and feet up in the air was too scary for her. What if the mule is out of control and flips her off? She would take the 10-second tour, ending up in the bottom of the canyon with her head split open. Not that she is afraid of death; but the last 10 seconds are too hard to swallow. Even though we were assured no one has ever had an accident with the mules in the Grand Canyon, hiking on our own feet seems a better idea. At least we have ultimate control of our feet. It took us about two hours to hike as far as Cedar Ridge (photo, Cedar Ridge), enjoying the sweeping view along the way, taking pictures, playing some flute (photo, Flute Player) to hear the canyon playing back with its bouncing sound. While resting at the end of this short trail, we ate lunch, Richard played a bit more flute which lured a couple of blue birds to come check out the noise. There is no question that hiking up is hard grinding work for the legs, but the trip down was harder on our aging knees and backs. It was a good experiment and we decided that we could take a harder, more demanding hike next day.
Back at the rim, we took the park shuttle bus to Hopi Overlook in the late afternoon. This is said to be the best spot on the South Rim to view the sunset (photo, Hopi Point, and another). Indeed it was beautiful and impressive. The shadows gradually fill the inner gorge and swallow the little stretch of river that is visible, then cover the lower parts of the canyon wall and climb up until all the rocks are in shade. Finally the lonesome red ball touches the flat expanse of mesa far to the west, and twenty seconds later there's just a fading brightness on the horizon. We were herded back to the buses with around 200 other sunset viewers (photo, Viewers) for the ride back to the village area, where our car was parked. On the way we saw a family of four deer (photo, Grand Canyon VillageDeer) casually strolling past the bus stop.
Sunday morning we got a good early start. By 6:30 a.m. we were at the Bright Angel trailhead, just in time for sunrise. We began our descent before the sun had struck even the highest of the canyon walls and as we walked down we could see sunlight gradually lighting the rocks on all sides. Right near the trailhead, a square doorway (photo, Stone Door) has been cut through the rock, and another one down another half mile. There are a lot of switchbacks. Though the trail is nowhere near as steep as the South Kaibab trail, the 4.6 miles down to Indian Garden basically descend straight down the walls of a great sandstone U. We stopped frequently, eating snacks and drinking water. At each stop, Richard tried to play the flute to see if the sound changed and also to balance his breath. The further down you go, the reflection of the flute tones against the canyon walls sounds more mysterious and more resonant. The sound becomes haunting and surreal. The canyon itself has its own sound to our ears, which is the absolute silence occasionally broken by the wind blowing up the canyon. Almost all the hikers and mule riders passing us complimented us on how pretty the flute music sounded, but we knew it was the canyon making the music sound more beautiful and prominent.
We had a debate at Indian Garden whether we should continue to Plateau Point, which is another 1.5 miles down. Using an old Chinese proverb, "You are not a real man til you reach the Great Wall," Barbara challenged Richard to hike further. We gained Plateau Point at midday, with the sun directly above us and no shade at all. At this point, you have a 360-degree panoramic view of the canyon all around you, and the deep green swirling Colorado River (photo, River) straight down the cliff 1300 feet below. Watching people standing at the edge of the cliff to have their picture taken, our knees got weak and Barbara experienced her very first fear of height in her life. Even on these bald rocky formations, wildlife manages to thrive. We saw a couple of lizards (photo, Lizard) sunning themselves.
The hike back up Bright Angel trail was more strenuous than we anticipated. We got back to the last rest area, about 1.5 miles from the rim, as the sun started fading away. The canyon becomes dark very quickly after sunset. Luckily we had our flashlights. There was of course no moon, but the dark blue sky displayed the most amazing stars above us: the Milky Way, Cassiopeia, the North Star. We haven't seen so many stars in years. After 13 hours hiking, we finally made it up to the rim. After the quick drive back we immediately collapsed into the hotel bed.
Monday morning we rode the park shuttle to Hermit's Rest at the west end of the South Rim drive, named after a lonely miner who lived in the Canyon in the late 19th century. There is a giant fireplace (photo, Hermit's Rest) big enough to roast a bear. We stopped to say goodbye to the canyon at Mojave Point from where the smoke of the fire on the North Rim (photo, Smoke on the North Rim) appeared thicker and more dramatic.
We drove four hours back to Phoenix, enjoying views of the Arizona desert and the San Francisco Peaks (photo, San Franscisco Peaks) on the way. Back to cold and rainy Seattle, we start getting the Seattle drizzle blues and fantasizing about a winter trip to the southern hemisphere, where a summer sun will warm us.