How To Do the Grand Canyon in an Afternoon
How To Do the Grand Canyon in an Afternoon
The Grand Canyon is a world-famous bucket list item, popular for its views and dos. Wanna whitewater raft for a few days? Hike overnight or a few nights? Seeking some thrill-inducing cycling? All can be had here. Or perhaps you just have a few hours to spare and want to properly ooh and ahh at one of the more awe-inspiring sights in the world.
That is entirely possible, my friend.
While I was planning my recent trip out west, I realized that the Grand Canyon was just a two-hour detour from my planned route. Sure it was a Sunday in high-season but when in Arizona… So I did a little research and revised my itinerary. So glad I did. I’ve been before but I was a teenager and sick with a random cold so I’m sure I was grumpy and unappreciative to say the least. This time I could enjoy it in all its glory.
Did you know there are lookouts you can hear singing to you?
I was coming from New Mexico so the South Rim is where I landed. From Flagstaff/I-40, take Hwy 64 to the south entrance. The Grand Canyon is $15 for the pedestrian ticket and $30 for a car (including everyone inside said car). FYI, if you are flying solo, you cannot pay at the entrance and expect to park and take the free shuttle from there. No signs advertise en route to park and pay the cheaper fee. There are listings at the gate for the pedestrian fee but they’ll make you pay $30 and drive it, no turning around. (I’m sure if you strongly voice your dislike they will let go back to town and park but I was ready to just see it already and didn’t feel like haggling.)
To park and visit cheaper, stop at Tusayan, at the IMAX/Visitors Center on the west side of the road. It’s a can’t miss and that’s where you can buy you ticket and hop on the free shuttle to go into the park. This shuttle is known as the Purple Route and takes you in and around to the transfer station and your first view.
If you purchase the vehicle ticket, know you will not be able to drive anywhere you wish in the park proper. Some areas are closed off to plebian drivers because of congestion or environmental concerns. But for the most part, it’s a free-for-all. There are a few lots to park it for the day and walk around or take various shuttles. You can also drive to certain stops on the inside, like the Shrine of the Ages or the Train Depot.
Should you arrive on a busy Sunday afternoon like yours truly, you will probably have to park at the back lots of C/D to begin your Rim experience. This was actually perfect for me as Lot D was right next to the Red Route, the road I wanted to take.
Now I don’t know if these truly are the most scenic views but they were something. This is one of the roads that only official Grand Canyon vehicles are allowed on (in high season; it’s open to all Nov through Feb) so it was quiet. Except for the babel, and I do mean babel, of voices. I may hate crowds but I love hearing all the different languages at tourist-y places like this. I get all proud as an American that people are coming to see the US, and it’s amazing to be reminded how big the world is. Speaking of big.
This canyon’s called “grand” for a reason. It’s 240 miles around, averaging ten miles across, up to around fourteen miles in some places. The Red Route has nine stops all with their own unique marker. (Tip: Three stops (Powell, Mohave, Pima) are return stops so if you want to go back without going all the way to the end you just queue up at the return bus instead.) The first stop looks out over the canyon with a view of the village and beyond. I didn’t get off at this stop since I was more interested in the people-less views. I had a few favorites though.
This was the 3rd stop and is set on kind of a jut into the canyon so you get two views. (This also helps to spread out the people.) There is a monument to Mr. Powell himself telling a bit about the explorations of the Grand Canyon. Each side is a bit different here: one shows the canyon spread long and far and the other displays the rugged inner canyons. The latter has a glimpse of the Colorado River below, if you squint and use your imagination. These pictures don’t show that just how different the views are.
Mohave is the most picturesque. The clouds were dancing that day and the shadows cast on the canyon walls were glorious. Hard to get a picture of though as the wind soon blew them away. The Colorado is more than a dream here though; it snakes around a couple of bends and you can even see the famous rapids rippling in a few places. As the name intimates, the colors at Mohave are striking and memorable.
From the name, I already knew I was going to like this one. What I did not expect was to hear the canyon’s song. It whistled and keened and occasionally bellowed from below, filtering through the trees and into the void. This was my absolute favorite. I sat on a ledge and watched condors dip and whitecaps bounce for quite a while. It was peaceful and energizing at once as only Mother Nature can be. I would have meditated if I didn’t think I would have ended up dead on the a rocky crevice down below. (I tend to fall asleep instead of meditating. I’m still learning…)
So if you’re like me, mass amounts of people make you…what’s PC? Frigging bugnuts. Since I travel solo I’m able to make all the decisions, which is not always a good thing but in this case worked out. The Red Route is paired with a walking trail called the Rim Trail. All the stops are varying distances from one another, from almost a mile to less than a quarter of. So instead of taking the bus from stop to stop, you can walk between them. There’s even these handy lookout markers that show the whole trail and the distances to the next stop.
Thing is, there’s a mad rush to get off at the first few stops but this number is cut in half for the last few stops so that bus stays crowded and crankiness builds. I think it was Hopi Point (only the fourth stop) that I heard a grandma telling her entire family (and all of us really) “It’s the same view after a while. They just call it ‘grand’ because it’s so big.” Well, yeah. Big and Beautiful. And millions of years in the making. And awesome to witness. Also, is that any way to instill wonder in your grandkids?
I’m still perturbed at this woman. But that’s when I decided to hoof and it was lovely. I’d say bring a hat because there are a few hotspots but for the most parts it’s shaded and almost cool in the 98 degrees that is the rim of the Grand Canyon. (FYI a general rule is that you can add ten degrees to the rim temp and that’s what it is on the canyon floor. If you’re rafting, awesome, but hiking or cycling? Yeah, no.)
The trail provides little spurs onto ledges (don’t be a daredevil, be smart, especially if hiking it alone.) It is also without a human for the most part. The two miles I walked I think I only passed around fifteen people and eight of those were two families from (best guess) somewhere in Scandinavia doing a rim hike together. The stops do get farther apart near the end of the route so keep an eye on the markers and stay hydrated. The buses come through every 10-15 minutes so you don’t have to wait long if you decide to hop back on. And you have this to look at while you wait:
Now, if you are expecting a luxury respite at the end of your hike/ride, quit dreaming. There are some picnic tables and benches scattered about but many of these are not shaded and the ones that are go quickly. There’s a gift shop and a snack bar but these are not indoors. The Rest is cool though; it’s basically a big old fireplace that was made into the gift shop. Hermit’s Road was the go-to thing to do at the turn of the twentieth century, even before the Grand Canyon was a national park. Horse-drawn buggies were pulled down the dirt rim, then cars started putting along. And now giant tourist shuttles carry hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.
Hermit’s Rest does have bathrooms (as do a couple of other stops along the line) and the all-important water-refilling station. The water comes from a spring and is not too shabby. The gift shop is not extensive but does have the obvious: t-shirts, magnets, shot glasses. I got a coffee cup. I always get a coffee cup. The food ain’t cheap at the snack bar so I skipped it but they do have energy drinks and bottled water. Tip: Open containers and food are not allowed on the shuttle. You can stick your sandwich in a bag just don’t pull it out on the bus.
I don’t know how long the shifts are for these guys but I imagine saying “your welcome” to the four-hundredth person of the day might be the tipping point. (I’m not saying don’t thank them, I’m just saying tedium is tiring.) My driver for the return trip was an older dude who seemed funny at first but that quickly became brusque and turned downright mean when he scolded a couple in front of the packed bus. Lesson: do not cross the white line. Even if you were crossing the white line for the last ten minutes, stop crossing the line because dude will eventually notice and relieve a little stress upon you. Also, squish, squish and squish some more to allow as many persons to squish on as possible. Just DO NOT cross the white line.
Really I think it was just this guy, the other drivers were lovely.
The initial queue for the shuttle was long; it took about twenty-five minutes to start the route. If I would have known about the Rim Trail before, I’d have started walking it and then hopped on a bus down the way to skip that nonsense. But again, there are awesome views to distract you. Or you can read all about the park on the info they give you at the gate.
Random tip: Arizona does its own thing so if you are traveling after your Grand Canyon experience remember they do not use Daylight Saving Time. So if you check your phone for the time and think, “Well sure I can hike for a couple of hours, I have plenty of time!” know that you are wrong. (And if you happen to be traveling to southern Utah after, know you may have to wait out some cows on a mountain road. I had know idea there were so many mountain cows until this trip, at least American mountain cows.)
There’s also a café (Bright Angel Lodge) in Parking Lot D. This is a really cute area: there’s camping sites and cabins and small parks all about. I believe you can rent mountain bikes from the center as well to take out on the trails. (Shuttles have the right-of-way, just so you know.)
If you go on a Sunday, the Shrine of the Ages has a religious service. I’m not sure if this is every Sunday but there is a board out front that lists the monthly services.
Dogs (and probably cats) are allowed on-leash but not on the free shuttles. They are also not allowed on the canyon floor, just at the rim.
Purple: As before mentioned, this one takes you from Tusayan and to the Village Visitor Center. If you want to only pay $15 per person fee, park in town and take the Purple Shuttle.
Blue: Village Route. Takes you around the village to stops like the Shrine of the Ages, Mather Campground, Village East and the Hermit’s Rest Transfer Station, among others. The Train Depot is by the Red Route station by the way. If you wanted to rent a bike you can on the east side of the Village via the Blue Route as well.
Orange: Desert View Drive. There is another entrance gate on this route and the bike/etc. rentals are at the village-end. I did not take this route so I can tell you nothing of the scenes or the stops except there are around seven stops and I’m sure they are breathtaking.
Horseback riding! Helicopter rides! Climbing! Biking! Rafting! How much time do you have because the list goes on and…
I have whitewater rafting the Colorado on my bucket list so I will be back someday. May even do a rim-to-rim hike though it would have to be in October or something. Can’t imagine the helicopter thing wouldn’t be cool but I can exist without it.
Overall I spent about four hours at the park, from entrance to exit. Saw a couple of village landmarks, saw several views of the canyon and got in some hiking fun. I didn’t feel like I rushed my visit but I definitely know I could spend more time here, mostly down below. There’s something about those walls…
So if you are in the area and have an afternoon to fill, swing over to the Grand Canyon. Don’t let anyone tell you “it all looks the same after a while”. Use your imagination and soak up the history, prehistory and geology of the place. There’s really no rival for it.
Respect, Grand Canyon. Respect.