Memorial Day Weekend at the Grand Canyon

At last count, I believe that I’ve visited 37 countries. By comparison, I’ve only traveled to 36 of the 50 U.S. states. One of the states that I had yet to visit was Arizona, which only lies a few hours east of my current residence in Los Angeles. That situation was remedied this past weekend when Megan and I escaped the thundering hoards in LA for a weekend getaway at the Grand Canyon.

I’ve actually seen the Grand Canyon several times from the air as flights to LAX often pass directly over this well-known landmark. From 30,000 feet, the landscape is stunning with bright red rocks hurtling toward the sky and dark shadows hinting at the depth below. This view from a distance wetted our appetite to make the journey to this popular destination.

We departed LA on Friday afternoon, joining the throng of travelers leaving the city. Since the first half of our drive shares the same route as the popular pilgrimage to Las Vegas, it was a slow slog for the first few hours. It was easy to pick out who was headed for Vegas – generally either a single male driving a Mustang with wrap-around sunglasses and enough hair product to perform taxidermy on a small rodent or a car filled with blathering women with huge sunglasses and spray-on tans. Progress was plodding until we reached Barstow and were able to peel off from the Vegas crowd. Driving through the Mojave Desert, the sunset was beautiful and the mountains on the horizon gradually turned purple as the sky darkened.

By about 10:00 pm we began searching for a hotel for the night. The border town of Needles, California didn’t have much in the way of options, so we opted to drive north to Laughlin, Nevada since numerous signs promised a desert oasis. Instead, we suddenly came upon a perverse doppelganger of Las Vegas. I had no idea that such a place existed. If Las Vegas is tacky, then Laughlin is something less refined than tacky. A strip of casinos ran along the Colorado River and sunburned tourists in jean shorts and tank tops unloaded their trucks with motorboats and jet skis in tow. If Las Vegas is the vain, superficial, older sister who wears too much make-up then Laughlin is the dirty, poorly dressed, rug rat of a little brother who plays in the trash. On the upside, the rates at Harrah’s were reasonable and we skirted around the smoke-filled casino, past the McDonald’s and found our room in the 3rd tower. Looking out on the other 1,500 rooms, we dined on turkey sandwiches and avocados before calling it a night.

The Homeless Man’s Las Vegas

The next morning, we rose early and got on the road. Grand Canyon National Park was only three more hours and as we approached the park, a steady stream of vehicles converged on the famous attraction. Before entering the park, we stopped at the visitors center in Tusayan where we purchases a park pass and got information on camping and hiking. Due to the holiday weekend, the area was teeming with tourists, so our first course of business was to go to the campgrounds and reserve our campsite. We set up our tent and then proceeded to the park. Not surprisingly, the place was a zoo. Parking was difficult to come by and the crowds were everywhere. We bypassed the visitor center due to lack of parking and as we drove through the woods a glimpse of the canyon suddenly emerged not more than 50 feet away. We parked on the side of the road and walked a few steps to find an amazing panoramic view before us. A paved path followed the contour of the rim for about a mile and tourists with all varieties of accents gawked at the spectacular views. Amazingly, visitors were allowed to be as stupid as they wanted and various groups jostled for the perfect picture, even if it meant scampering out on a precarious ledge with a sheer drop only a couple feet away. Perhaps due to the size of the canyon it isn’t possible to put up a rail along the whole rim, but on this particular day we saw more than a few people hanging dangerously close to the precipice.

After taking a few pictures, we scouted out the rest of the Grand Canyon Village that included a grocery store, several lodges, and plentiful small cabins. For dinner, we bought a steak and some popcorn to be accompanied by chips and smores – all good camping fare. Following  a nice meal, we went for a walk around the campgrounds, during which we were invited by a park ranger to a presentation on local wildlife. These presentations often seem amateur or become tedious, but this one proved to be both informative and entertaining. The ranger described the big game animals found in the park and showed an assortment of pelts, antlers, and horns from the animals. My favorite was the javelina, which I learned bears no relation to the pig other than a strong resemblance. The presentation also included instructions on what to do if ever encountering a bear or mountain lion in the wild, information that I hope will never come in useful.

Wildlife Presentation at Campgrounds

On Sunday morning, we woke up early, packed up the tent, and got an early start driving into the park. Where the huddled masses had roamed the afternoon before, we found ourselves alone to enjoy our breakfast with a breathtaking view. We drove to the end of the road and then boarded a bus that shuttles visitors throughout the park, beyond where cars are permitted. Disembarking at one stop, we snapped some pictures, took in the views, and hiked a about a mile to the next stop, where another bus shuttled us further along the rim. We repeated this enjoyable exercise several times before reaching the end of the bus route. With the exception of the last stop, nearly every lookout was empty and we enjoyed the quiet solitude. In the morning light, the sepia cliffs looked even more brilliant. Around every corner was another spectacular view and we have hundreds of pictures to attest to the beauty of this park. The hiking ranged from nicely paved paths to well-trodden dirt trails. Though warm, the oppressive heat didn’t truly set in until the early afternoon. The entire route was tremendously beautiful and words cannot describe the stunning scale of the Grand Canyon. In a place so vast, everything seems out of proportion. The vast pillars and plateaus hardly look real and it seems like the background set of movie rather than a real landscape.

As we returned to the village, the tourists returned en mass. Long lines waited for the buses that we had breezed onto hours earlier. The afternoon sun beat down and we decided it was time to return home. During the drive back to LA, we appreciated the barren landscape, inhospitable to life and devoid of any development. The weekend at the Grand Canyon reminded us of how much we enjoy camping and hiking, causing us to vow to do more of both in the future. The short trip was largely improvised with little in the way of planning. Had we known what to expect, we might have chosen to raft the Colorado River rapids through the Grand Canyon or we would have secured the backcountry permit necessary to backpack down into the canyon. As it was, we were impressed by how convenient the national park was and what a wonderful luxury it is to have access to such beautiful surroundings. The buses were frequent and completely free. The food was reasonable, at least by LA standards. The roads and campgrounds were well-maintained. Considering what a popular tourist destination the Grand Canyon is, everything seemed to be understated and done with good taste. Compared to Laughlin, the Grand Canyon was clean and a pleasant reminder of how beautiful and diverse our country truly is.

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