When I saw the Grand Canyon for the first time two thoughts came into my awestruck mind. One: there is definitely a god. Two: there is no way this was made in one day.
It is impossible to describe Grand Canyon National Park. You just have to see it to believe it. It is 277 miles long, 18 miles across, and 1 mile deep. Some of the oldest exposed rocks on earth are the “basement” rocks within the Inner Gorge at the bottom of the canyon. They date back to 1.84 billion years.
You have to feel it to believe it. The tug of 5 thousand feet of gravity magnetizing you from the canyon walls below. I feel it even now, as I sit over 13 hundred miles away. Perhaps that is why I’ve found myself there 3 times. I see the Grand Canyon in my dreams. I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true. I’m obsessed with beauty; I search for it wherever I go, and I find it hard to compare anything else to a sunset or a sunrise over the Grand Canyon.
We were here in mid-May and the weather was perfect. It was in the low 80’s during the day and high 50’s at night. The sky was seamless as the Summer monsoon season had yet to move in, (although in monsoon season the sky is gorgeous). We spent 3 days on the South Rim. We took a few popular trails and hit all the famous overlooks, but spent most of our time off the beaten path, snaking through ancient Juniper Pines, finding our way to remote overlooks at the very edge.
By sunset on the second night, we found a perfect outcropping, a triangle of smooth rock jutting out due North, 2 miles from the road and nearly invisible to every other person in the park. We sat on that rock for hours- writing, photographing, drawing, dancing, singing, watching the sunset, and feeling like two of the most blessed people in the world. Those photos are gone, after What Happened in Kingman. But the memories never will be.
May is a great time to see the Grand Canyon, and also to see the entire American Southwest. The tourists and temperatures have yet to reach their peak, and both can be hazardous to a desert experience. Not that I’m saying summer isn’t a perfectly lovely time to go, because it is. The sky is filled with more clouds than you’ve ever seen in your life, storms fall in all directions as you can see for miles, and rainbows are abundant. But this time around, it was nice to see the wildflowers while at the same time escaping extreme heat and crowds.
People tend to only visit one rim at a time, but I say if you have more than four days to spend, see both. Though the drive between them is about 270 miles, it’s worth it.
The North Rim is 1 thousand feet higher in elevation than the South, and for this reason it is only accessible May through October as it gets a considerable amount of snow. Unlike the South Rim, there is no major highway running right past it and therefore does not attract as many crowds. The Colorado River is only viewable from the Cape Royal viewpoint and the panoramas aren’t as vast as the Southern’s famous wide angles, but it is still equal in beauty and perhaps surpasses the South in mystery. The drives out to certain viewpoints are longer and the trees are much taller. It is home to an array of indigenous creatures, which means that they live nowhere else on the planet.
The drive to the North Rim is better, in my opinion, because the roads are emptier and filled with eerily beautiful rock formations, rocks that are remnants of mountains that stood tall millions of years ago. It also holds the only place you will ever be able to cross the canyon in your car, over Navajo Bridge, a gorgeous span of iron that is 400 meters across. As you drive South into the park you pass vast fields of free ranging buffalo.
This is the Desert View Watchtower from afar just after sunrise.
This is an incredibly hazy 55 mm view of the Colorado, miles below.
How long should you stay at the Grand Canyon? Stay as long as you possibly can! You won’t run out of things to do. I could spend days on either rim, alone. I have yet to take the unpaved backroads to Toroweap Overlook, which is a 3 thousand foot vertical drop, dramatic even in Grand Canyon’s terms. I have also yet to hike down to Phantom Ranch. A hike down and back up the canyon will take even the most fit hiker a minimum of 3 days. If you have even more time, a Journey to the Grand Canyon Oasis to see Havasu and Mooney Falls, which is not part of the National Park, but is a part of the Grand Canyon owned by the Havasupai Native Americans, is an experience that you'll remember for the rest of your life.
But even if you’re just passing through on your way to Flagstaff, or if you’re making a day trip from Vegas, stay at least long enough to catch a sunset.
To be a tree on the edge of the Grand Canyon.
There are several lodges on the South Rim and one of the North. They all fill up months in advance, so make your reservations as soon as possible. The same goes for the campgrounds. Mather Campground on the South Rim has nice amenities and I would recommend staying there, but reserve your site because the chances of getting lucky and just happening upon an open spot during the high season is rare.
Every time I go to the Canyon, they have built something else. On the South Rim, there is an enormous market that sells everything one could ever hope for while staying in the middle of nowhere. There are a couple restaurants and even a gas station. And if you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for, there are more amenities in Tusayan, a village just 5 miles South of the park. Be prepared to pay top dollar for gas and 4 bucks for a small bag of ice.
It is incredibly difficult photograph the Grand Canyon. Well, at least it was for me. I am no professional, that is for sure, but even those with years of experience find difficulty with this park. Part of it is the feeling that comes along with standing on the edge of the rim and the other part is its sheer size. The only real tips that I could give are to find something in the foreground to show depth of field, learn how to make a panorama (something I have yet to do!) and to avoid the infamous blue haze, avoid taking the majority of your photos during the middle of the day.
I am fortunate that I at least have a few photographs left of the Grand Canyon. The ones throughout this blog are of my last sunrise and sunset in the park. Perhaps it is greedy of me to want more, but I can’t help but dream about going back to the Southwest and retracing my steps through the first 8 days of my Grand Canyon Loop, retrieving the pictures that were stolen.
This is a photo of me on my last night at the park. I’m watching the sunset. The next morning I’ll be getting up at 4 am to leave for Supai. I have no idea what is in store for me yet. I am oblivious to the unfortunate events of Kingman, AZ. This picture makes me want to go back and pick up from the beginning, somehow make it to this moment again.
I wonder what the Grand Canyon is like in late October, early November. Would it be too cold to camp? And Arches, Canyonlands, de Chelly, Monument Valley? There might be snow. I’ve never seen snow in the desert. I’d like to, though.
These are the last few moments of sun. The light streams horizontally burning colorful refractions into my lens.
Until at last there are only shadows.