In recent times, I’ve been called an opportunist. When I was first told this, I was a bit embarrassed because for me, “opportunist” draws to mind negative connotations associated with freeloaders, users and abusers, and those that take advantage of others.
At the time, I was away for the week for an annual staff retreat in what I’d consider a mansion-cabin in Show Low, Arizona. And you see, I was often trail running in Tonto National Forest which backed up to said mansion-cabin, taking a dip in the hot-tub every night (and every morning), bowling in the basement, and sitting outside on any break from meetings.
I was taking advantage of every possible opportunity around me, so to my friend, I was an opportunist. And she was right, I really was taking advantage of these opportunities because they were there (and also because, how often am I ever lodging in a mansion-cabin that is pretty much the lap of luxury?!). I realized that perhaps “opportunist” could summarize the things that I aspire to – to not miss a thing, to drink deeply of what’s in front of me, to completely give my all, and to realize there are some chances that will never come again, they must be seized. Carpe diem!
So I suppose the opportunist in me saw that because I was out in Arizona for work, I shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to dirtbag it to one of the greatest wonders of the world only 3 hours away – the Grand Canyon. And of course if I was already at the Grand Canyon, I shouldn’t pass up the chance to backpack through Zion National Park in Utah, just another 4 hours away.
So that is exactly what I did. I met up back in Phoenix with my faithful travel buddy, Diane Fender, we loaded up our little Nissan Versa rental (which we named Chellay) and hit the road. The road was open, the radio was up. We sang and danced along to the same twenty Top 40 hits over and over again and it became the soundtrack of our trip.
We arrived at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon from Flagstaff after many passing pine forests, flat plains, and scrubby desert plants. Even though you seem to drive gradually uphill, the whole approach maintained that feeling you get when approach the ocean; you know you’re at the edge of something huge.
Making no stops for any visitor centers or the like, we raced directly for the canyon rim. Catching my first glimpses was stunning and it truly holds the grandeur it’s known for and yet it feels so unreal. Despite knowing it is 10 miles wide and 1 mile deep, it was honestly quite hard for me to grasp the scale of it; it almost looks fake. When it comes to geologic wonders like this, I always imagine what it would have been like to be one of the earliest settlers to come across this thing while trying to move west. Poor, poor settlers, they probably had to travel so far just to get around it.
From Mather Point
We caught the view at Mather Point, which is the main viewpoint closest to the park entrance coming from Flagstaff and points south and is adjacent to the park Visitor Center. Because it was relatively crowded, we walked west along the Rim Trail which is a paved path that follows along the South Rim from Mather Point all the way west to Hopi Point. From this trail we found a outcropping for taking photos. There are lots of places like this along the Rim Trail, but use good judgement. Our rule was to “not do anything stupid” (read: die) by crawling out on some ledge for the “perfect photo opportunity.” None of that tomfoolery was to be accepted! We got really mom-like nervous watching some fools taking jumping photos on tiny outcroppings and watching grown adults try to climb down to small little points. Make good choices, people. There’s a man in this photo attempting to do something very dumb (climb down to that sketchy rock formation).
A view from behind my shades.
If going for sunset, be prepared to stay awhile as you’ll find that the colors seem to just keep getting better and better with each passing moment, transforming the plateaus and temple like structures to different hues of red, orange, and purple.
After spending more than an hour on our rock, we headed to Mather Campground. Even though we were camping in the end of March, I made a reservation more than a month in advance, just to be safe. This campground fills in peak season from April through September and was full for the night when we arrived. Sites are $18 a night and are of your typical National Park quality – each site includes a fire ring and picnic table with bathrooms and potable water nearby.
We pitched our tent in the dark and packed up in the dark (to catch the sunrise) so I don’t have any photos, but it was a decent site to crash for the night although neighbors are close. This was our first night of the trip and so we quickly learned that both of my always faithful sleeping pads we used had slow valve leaks. We awoke sad and annoyed on the cold, hard ground about every 3 hours. This was the great affliction of our 5 day adventure!
After a broken-up night of sleep, we woke before dawn, made some tea, and raced for Grandview Point. It was particularly cold and incredibly windy when we arrived with a few other onlookers.
Moving east on Desert View Drive we drove onward to our last stop, Desert View. Being a favorite viewpoint of my husband’s and featuring a unique stone watchtower, we thought it would be a great last stop before making the drive onward on 64 East out of the park toward Kolob Canyon in Zion National Park.
1) If staying at Mather Campground, consider avoiding campsites that back up to the road in and out of the campground. If you aren’t planning on getting up for a sunrise view of the canyon, you’ll likely be woken by the numerous cars exiting the campground at 5 am. We stayed further in at site 310 and had great access to drinking water and the bathrooms, without being so close that you hear excess noise.
2) No matter what time of year you go, prepare for a variety of temperatures. In the 3rd week of March we saw temps below freezing on the South Rim – hats and gloves were great in the morning for sunrise pictures. Even in the heat of summer, temperatures can be into the 50s at night. Despite being in the desert, an overall elevation around 7,400 feet brings temps on the Rim down quite a bit. If you are hiking to the canyon floor, on the other hand, prepare for it to be like hiking into the pit of hell.
3) If you’re squeezing in a stop on a road trip like us, plan for a sunrise and sunset session at the rim. I planned this trip to Arizona and Utah to be primarily focused on backpacking through Zion National Park, so our stop in the Grand Canyon was a limited one, but still well worth it. There are many many places to explore in the Grand Canyon, but if you’re looking to do something similar to a short stop for photos and wonder, make sure to go when the lighting is best during the few hours before and during sunrise and sunset. Take time to walk along the Rim Trail from Mather Point or drive further west to Powell Point or Hopi Point for less crowds. We saw nearly no one while taking early morning photos at Desert View.
4) So when it comes to capturing the grandeur, make sure all your cameras stay charged. This sounds obvious when traveling to something as majestic as the Grand Canyon, but Diane and I struggled to keep our phones, cameras, and my GoPro alive with the number of shots we took. Consider bringing extra batteries, recharge packs, or solar power to charge whenever you can. If you are going in colder weather, keep your electronics inside your sleeping bag at night so the batteries won’t drain in cold conditions by morning.
It’s a stunning place – there’s nothing like it in the world! Enjoy, and remember the wise words of Ron Swanson: