Canyon trip a grand way to start new chapter in life

Destination The West


GRAND CANYON, Ariz. / / In winter, Grand Canyon's Bright Angel Lodge keeps a fire roaring at the end of its long reception hall.

Here, on the South Rim, guests can watch nearly blue tourists huddling together in front of that fireplace, unprepared for temperatures that can drop to the single digits. The bravest of each group usually peels off to check in through chattering teeth.

I've already checked in, so I wander over to the activity desk.

"Is there anything you can do in winter that you can't do during the summer here?" I ask the first attendant to make eye contact.

"No," she says.

"Except make snow angels," says her younger colleague.

But when Betsy, my bride-to-be, and I visited the Grand Canyon last month, there was little snow. Also missing: traffic jamming the roads and tourists clogging every viewpoint overlook.

Author Edward Abbey once wrote, "I find that in contemplating the natural world, my pleasure is greater if there are not too many others contemplating it with me, at the same time."

This is the allure of visiting the Grand Canyon in winter, when average highs on the South Rim are in the mid-40s, with overnight lows half that -- or even, as the shivering tourists we saw attested, substantially colder. About 5 million people tour the park each year, but only a small fraction come in winter.

It's our first visit. We're here to celebrate my 30th birthday and, as Betsy puts it, "to stare into the vast chasm of the rest of your life." She laughs.

We're only here for the weekend, so we hit the high points: a meal at the grand El Tovar Hotel, a drive along Arizona Highway 64 (also called Desert View Drive) and some hiking.

But first: a word or two about the canyon itself. It's almost impossible to take in at once. The human eye is overwhelmed, unable to know where to focus, the horizon bunching up in the peripheral vision.

After years of seeing photos and movies of it, I was still unprepared for how stark and vertigo-inducing the canyon can be. It's a visceral experience unparalleled in all my road trips.

In the early 20th century, the owners of Santa Fe Railway experienced this, too, and commissioned staff architect Charles Whittlesey to design El Tovar -- a hotel hybrid of Swiss chalet and Norwegian villa -- right on the South Rim's edge.

It's the kind of place where guests can dine, sit by the fire and use the lobby as a starting point for hikes along the canyon's edge -- which we did on our first evening.

Betsy and I, however, go farther afield on our second day. We drive along Desert View Drive, taking photos and discovering the walk-in fireplace at Hermit's Rest on the park's west end.

But with the daylight burning, and not wanting to hike in the canyon shadow, we cut our Sunday driving short and head east to the South Kaibab trailhead.

South Kaibab is the starting point for mule rides to the canyon floor, which we opt not to take. It's a little pricey (see "If You Go"), and we don't have the time (it's seven hours, round-trip).

And, though the brochure assured that no one has ever been killed in a mule accident, it doesn't say no one has ever been horribly maimed. The trail looks steep, narrow and not for the faint of heart.

It doesn't help that one of the best-selling books in the canyon gift shops is Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon -- a horrifying catalog of grisly maker-meetings in the park.

So, we walk.

As we descend into the canyon, the temperature climbs, as does our heart rate. Most of the ice on the trail has melted, and any remaining snow survives only in the canyon shadows. Loose rocks challenge our footing.

But those are the least of our worries. The hairpin turns would be impossible to hike around if we harbored a fear of heights. A few of the mules ahead of us seemed to feel the same way, as many of them relieved themselves in those exact spots.

Mostly, though, we're looking up. Climbing down into the canyon is even more amazing, as light falls differently and the contrasts are more dramatic.

Although we only ventured a half-mile on the six-mile trail down into the canyon, we were panting and carrying our coats on the way up.

By the time we got back to the car almost two hours later, the water bottles left outside overnight to freeze were thawing in the sunlight.

I cannot imagine how people do this in the summer. Hiking in the winter gives the perfect heat-up, cool-down period. During the 100-degree temperatures of July and August, it must be like walking into Hades.

We had survived it easier in the winter and didn't end up as another footnote in a tourism book. Not a bad way to start a new decade of life.

Robert K. Elder writes for the Chicago Tribune.



Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.