When you think of the Grand Canyon, what springs to mind? Perhaps it’s a scene from Roadrunner, as the ‘meep meep’ bird outwits Wile Coyote once again, darting amongst the red rocks and sandy canyons of the desert. Perhaps you think of cacti, extreme heat, the grandeur of the scenery stretching for miles.
I’m guessing you don’t think of this:
Yes folks, though you might not believe it given the almost-complete whiteout behind me, that’s the Grand Canyon in winter.
The trip to the Grand Canyon was always going to be the main attraction of our visit to the States. Having decided not to take on the epic road trip and instead confined ourselves to a short holiday in search of warmth and sunshine, we flew to Las Vegas to escape the rainy, grey time in Vancouver. As Dave accurately describes, we goggled at the size, the loudness, the brightness and the general over-the-top-ness of Vegas. Then we escaped on Highway 93 towards the Arizona border.
En route was a stop at the impressive Hoover Dam, as recommended by my American correspondent, Mike. Stretching across a narrow but deep chasm of the Colorado River on the border of Nevada and Arizona, the dam was built in the 1930s and boasts clean Art Deco lines and aspirational decoration on a par with the BBC’s motto of around the same time: “Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation”. Damming the Colorado River had unforeseen environmental consequences but also produced safe, clean and sustainable electricity for the growing cities around it. It also proves a jaw-dropping example of early 20th century engineering.
The view from the new bypass bridge downstream
Having said that, the bridge was identified as a possible terrorist target after the attacks on September 11th, and the new bypass bridge (already needed by the volume of traffic seeking to cross the river) was rapidly built, opening in October this year. This actually provides by far the best view of the dam and gives a sense of why it is such a recognised national monument.
Unlike some of the other borders we’ve crossed this year (I’m looking at you, New Brunswick), Arizona and Nevada are happy to remind you that you lose an hour by crossing from Las Vegas towards Flagstaff (in fact, a feature of the Hoover Dam are the two clocks showing the time in each state). After an early sunset in Las Vegas, we were happy to be travelling to a state with some extra daylight. Nevertheless, the distances in North America continue to amaze us and the sun sank behind the horizon as we were still driving through the flat, arid landscape of western Arizona. By the time we arrived in Grand Canyon village, the light was long gone and we had no idea of the visual spectacle awaiting us.
The next morning we leapt out of bed, ready to see the sun rise over one of the natural wonders of the world. We hightailed it to the rim, only to find… nothing. Nada. Not a sausage. The snow was falling, the wind whipped at the fog lying over the canyon and we shivered in the grey light as we walked part of the trail through the village, looking out hopefully for a view to make our early start worthwhile. After a couple of hours we gave up and retreated indoors for a hot breakfast.
Having put on all the clothing we could muster, we agreed to hike down into the canyon on the Bright Angel Trail, in the hope of getting out of the wind and snow, and perhaps even dropping below the cloud line. The path was well-worn and muddy; no worries about getting lost here.
One of the most popular ways to experience the Grand Canyon is by mule; some of the earliest visitors to the canyon travelled this way and it retains a cowboy appeal. Until we bumped into them on the trail, I’d never really realised quite how big a mule is, and also how unlikely it is to respond to a cry of “Yah, mule, yah!”.
Eventually the fog thinned, the snow became rain, and we were finally able to see some of the views that make this area what it is. Every switchback brought a new view, and we descended as far as the three-mile resthouse before deciding to start our climb back out. The national park strongly discourages those who want to hike to the river’s edge and back in one day, citing excessive temperature as a reason (ha!) but having not taken any lunch with us, our tummies were rumbling and the motivation to ascend quickly was strong.
Dave at the lowest point we reached in the canyon
By midday, the temperature had risen and it was practically balmy (I actually took my woolly hat off). We were still strafed by the odd passing shower but it did have the unexpected happy outcome of providing some of the most spectacular pictures, complete with rainbows.
After our hike out, it was a shock to the system to return to the windswept and exposed rim trail. We rapidly demolished the most enormous lunch we could find and headed out on one of the free shuttle buses that ply a route up to the western edge of the South Rim area. The longer we spent on the bus, the less keen I became to get off and before we could make a decision to leap out and see the sights, the order came through to the bus driver to return to the village, picking up any passengers he spotted along the way. The weather was simply too severe. We decided to be satisfied with our earlier 6 mile hike and slunk indoors, hoping for better weather.
The next morning, Dave bravely decided to try and see sunrise again. Although the cloud meant that once again there wasn’t much to see, the snow overnight (3 inches in places) meant that the red rocks and shale piles were dusted with an unfamiliar white gleam.
We spent the morning heading out on the trails we only glimpsed from the bus the day before, before driving (very carefully) along the snowy roads towards the eastern end of the South Rim park. The sky cleared to a limpid blue and the sun caught the crystal-gleam of the snow, providing the most spectacular scenery.
The trip had provided the diametric opposite to the charms of Vegas: stunning scenery, fresh air, hiking and a chance to see the awe-inspiring natural attractions at which North America excels. Thus refreshed, we returned to the city of sin.