Going Places, Near & Far: Exploring the Grand Canyon’s South Rim

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(OARS “Rim to River” guided tour puts the unparalleled experience of hiking down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon –a full mile in altitude – within reach. After hiking the spectacularly scenic 7-mile South Kaibab Trailovernighting at the historic Phantom Ranch, and hiking back up to the South Rim on the Bright Angel Travel, we have the evening and part of the next day to explore the South Rim. Our adventure continues from 4/1, 4/8, 4/15, 4/22 columns.)

You can take a walk through time along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon – there is literally a Trail of Time where every step is equivalent to one million years of geology. 

The South Rim is where most of the 5 million visitors a year who come to the Grand Canyon confine their visit, but as we find out, there is really a lot to do here and ways to experience the Grand Canyon even if you don’t go down the trails (though many take the Bright Angel Trail down to the first outpost and return, which you can do in a day, which is why by the late afternoon, it seems like rush hour). 

We have completed our hike down the South Kaibab Trail 7 miles to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, overnighted at the historic Phantom Ranch, and hiked back up, 10 miles long but a full mile up, back to the South Rim, back to civilization, as it were, and with this accomplishment, have joined the elite “1% Club” – the tiny slice of the 5 million visitors to the Grand Canyon who make it to the bottom. 

We trudge from the top of the Bright Angel Trail, stopping for a congratulatory photo around the stone marker, and get our rooms at Maswik Lodge, one of several lodges managed by Xanterra, where we had stayed our first night at the Grand Canyon. We drop our things, and meet up at the Bright Angel Lounge where there is live guitar music, and a stunning Hopi mural by Fred Kahotine (oddly holding a soda pop). 

I rush out to see the sunset. After having hiked down and up the Canyon, this view takes on a different perspective – it is no longer flat but I can fill out the nuances. But I  immediately appreciate how fleeting this experience is. I get just a few shots when a fog rolls in. I look away for a moment, and when I look again, the Grand Canyon has completely disappeared. It is eerie.  (There’s a lesson in that: Seize the moment). Then, just as magically, the fog opens, and all of us who have gathered along the Rim get to see the last burst of light and touches of color and texture before it all is blanketed in darkness. 

The scene is so fleeting it makes you think about time and the uniqueness of each moment, in this place where you get to peer back two billion years of Earth’s geological history. 

We have a celebratory dinner at El Tovar, the elegant dining room in the grand, historic hotel which was designed by Charles Whittlesey for the Santa Fe Railroad in the heyday of railroad hotels. It was named El Tovar in honor of the Spanish explorer Pedro de Tobar who led the first expedition to Hopi Indian country in 1540. 

The El Tovar hotel is absolutely enchanting – the architectural crown jewel of the Grand Canyon – constructed with native stone and Oregon pine; the 78-room hotel (which books up a year in advance, or, the receptionist says, if you show up on that day hoping someone canceled), is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1987 and has been a member of Historic Hotels of America (historichotels.org) since 2012. The Hotel has hosted such luminaries as Theodore Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Western author Zane Grey and President Bill Clinton. 

When the El Tovar hotel opened in 1905, the Fred Harvey Company (made famous with Judy Garland in “The Harvey Girls”) was selected to manage it. Fred Harvey had been building and operating facilities to accommodate travelers along the Santa Fe route since 1876. 

Nothing was spared to make the El Tovar one of the great hotels of the era: it was equipped with electric lights powered by its own steam generator. Railroad tank cars brought fresh water from Del Rio, 120 miles away, fresh fruit and vegetables were grown in greenhouses on the premises, and the hotel even had its own dairy. 

Arguably the first proponent of environmentally friendly tourism, restaurateur Fred Harvey emphasized preservation of the park’s natural resources and ensured the building’s architecture complemented its beauty. Constructed of native stone and Oregon pine, this historic hotel was built as a “destination resort,” and provides an air of venerable dignity. Its location is a mere 20 feet from the rim of the canyon and is one of only a handful of Harvey House facilities that are still in operation. 

The Fred Harvey Company was purchased by Amfac Parks & Resorts (now known as Xanterra Parks & Resorts) in 1968 and the new company (which also manages most of the lodges at this and other national parks), respects the Harvey tradition. The hotel was most recently renovated in 2005. 

The dining room also respects the tradition of the native peoples who have come before: it is decorated with magnificent murals reflecting the customs and style of four Indian tribes: the Hopi, Apache, Mohave and Navajo. 

The native Americans are not the only natives who are respected: When we arrive, we look up and see ringtail cats (a little like small raccoons), peering at us from the beams in the ceiling – they dash about the rafters (the waiter says the National Park Service does not allow them to be caught and they don’t bother the diners, but will come down and snatch sugar packets when everyone leaves). 

This is truly the “luxury” part of OARS “Rim to River” guided tour. Even being here is special – Our OARS guide, Jonathan, had to make the reservation days in advance. 

Waiters in starched white shirts with black ties serve us with formal style. The menu is imaginative and the presentations are simply exquisite. An appetizer selection is Hand-made Basil, Pesto & Roasted Tomato Mozzarella Roulades Sampler with marinated Poppadew & Kalamata Olives drizzled with Extra Virgin Olive Oil. The acorn squash soup is absolutely delicious. For the main, selections include perfectly prepared Roasted Half Duck with Prickly Pear Orange Glaze; Veal Oscar; Hand-Cut, Grilled Arizona Grown New York Strip served with Potatoes au gratin; Steel Head Trout;  and Stuffed Roasted Quail. We struggle to make room for dessert because they are eye-popping scrumptuous, such as a Pumpkin Pecan Crunch Tart. 

The next morning, I get up at 5:30 am and rush to the Rim to see the sunrise over the Canyon and meet people from all over the world who gather along the South Rim to see the sunrise, too. Except there isn’t much of one – making us appreciate all the more how unique every day is. Still, it is a very special sight. 

Our group meets at 8:30 at El Tovar for breakfast – big picture windows let you look out over the Grand Canyon from the dining room, and with a fire going in the fireplace, it is just a magical venue. Again, the menu (and the service) are elegant, and the selections imaginative: Pumpkin Belgian Waffle; Polenta Corncakes with Prickly Pear Pistachio Butter. Even the omelet with Monterrey Jack cheese and spinach is particularly flavorful. 

We spend some time enjoying the major attractions here in the village – shopping at the Hopi House (also designed by Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter) which has marvelous items created by native Americans, the Kolb Studio where there is a gallery. There is also a superb Geology Museum which explains the formation of the Grand Canyon and which affords the iconic views.

We still have time to enjoy the attractions of the South Rim before heading back to Flagstaff. 

Jonathan, our OARS lead guide, takes suggestions – he offers to take us to Hermit Road, the most westerly point on the South Rim, to see fossil beds. I opt to walk a bit along the South Rim trail, but would have preferred to rent a bike and do the entire 14.8 mile length of it including a “Trail of Time” where every step is equivalent to one million years of geology  (if time is short, you can put a bike on the shuttle bus). This trail is, for the most part, paved and wheelchair accessible. 

As luck would have it, we get some extra time to visit the Geology Museum (it would have been better to visit before the hike). I come away with this thought: If the earth is in cooling period now, and human activity is making it hot, can you imagine how much hotter the  earth would become were it not in cooling period now? how much graver impact Global Warming would be now?) 

Even though it is really busy here on the South Rim, there are many places where it is just you and the Canyon. 

You can hear the silence; feel the peace.

The Grand Canyon extends an impossible to imagine 277 miles. The views are always changing, always different. 

The Grand Canyon Hike is about not being a mere spectator but interacting, being a participant, having a physical connection with something so wondrous, so unique – a link to the oldest things on earth. A wondrous presence. 

You really appreciate what a tour operator adds – not only in setting the itinerary – choosing to descend on the South Kaibab Trail for example (most people hike down and up the Bright Angel Trail which is accessed right out of the Village), and getting accommodations at the Phantom Ranch, which has such limited capacity, it books up quickly (the only alternative is to camp, and even campsites are limited). And then arranging our celebratory dinner after our climb up the Bright Angel trail at the fine dining restaurant of the grand and historic El Tovar Hotel are all things that enhance the experience. 

Jason Dosch, who designed the Rim to River program for OARS, had described it as “luxury.” At first I wondered about that as I was slogging around in mud and muck. But it is a luxury not to have to carry down heavy packs, and have what you need for the overnight carried down for you. And being able to sleep in a bed (albeit a bunkbed) in a cozy cabin with a roof over your head, electric lights and running water, is a luxury in the wilderness of the Grand Canyon. 

And certainly, our celebratory dinner at El Tovar is the peak of luxury. 

But the luxury is also in the pacing of the trip – spending most of our first day together exploring significant archeological sites outside of Flagstaff, arriving in the afternoon at the Grand Canyon so we can enjoy the South Rim, and having another night at the Grand Canyon, plus much of a third day at the Grand Canyon to explore (had I known, I would have arranged for a rental bike to go along the 14.8 mile South Rim trail). 

Luxury is also in designing the trip by spending most of our first day together exploring significant archeological sites outside of Flagstaff (see next). 

OARS offers another option to hike the Canyon – as part of its rafting trip. Instead of floating for the entire length of the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River – which takes about two weeks (of camping), you can go half way (about 6 days), pull out at the Phantom Ranch, and hike up the Bright Angel Trail the next day. Alternatively, you can hike down the Canyon, and meet up with the rafts at Phantom Ranch, and raft the lower part of the Canyon, about 8 or 9 days. (The Grand Canyon rafting is not recommended for children under 12, for one reason because you spend about 5 or 6 hours a day in a raft; which the guides control.) 

Next: Exploring Native American sites

OARS’ 4 Day Grand Canyon Rim to River Hiker is offered April through October. The trip meets up and departs from the DoubleTree by Hilton, Flagstaff, Arizona. Prices range from $1499 to $1649, based on double occupancy, single supplement $200. See:  www.oars.com/grandcanyon/hiking/grand-canyon-hiking.html

Contact OARS, Angels Camp, CA, 800-346-6277, 209-736-4677, oars.com, info@oars.com.

Exploring Flagstaff

After our three-days in the Grand Canyon, spending the morning exploring the South Rim, we drive back to Flagstaff, arriving in the afternoon.

Having visited Walnut Canyon and Wupatki Native American sites on our first day of the OARS “Rim to River” guiding hiking program, I would have wanted to have time to explore the Northern Arizona Museum, which is where many of the artifacts from those sites are now displayed.

Founded in 1928, the Museum of Northern Arizona occupies a 200 acre campus that includes an exhibit building, research labs, and state of the art collections facilities for more than five million Native American artifacts, natural science specimens, and fine art pieces. It is recognized internationally for the quality of its collections, its first-rate exhibitions and festivals, and its renowned Native American Shop.  MNA works in collaboration with native peoples of the Southwest to protect and foster the cultures, traditions and beliefs of the Colorado Plateau by encouraging artistic expression and supporting, empowering, and educating visitors about the art and cultures of Southwestern Native people (3101 N. Ft. Valley Road, Flagstaff, AZ 86001, 928-774-5213, musnaz.org).

I also discover (too late) about the Lowell Observatory, where, in 1930, building upon the lifetime of work of Percival Lowell who first postulated the existence of a planet beyond Neptune in 1905, Pluto was discovered. The Lowell Observatory continues to champion further discoveries related to Pluto and is contributing to the New Horizons project underway. I met a woman who did visit the Lowell Observatory, absolutely enthralled. The Steele Visitors Center at Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill offers guided daytime tours, films and rotating astronomy exhibits, but the main attractions are the many telescopes on campus at night — including one that discovered Pluto. (Open Monday-Saturday: 10am – 10pm; Sunday: 10am – 5pm. Lowell Observatory, 1400 W Mars Hill Rd, Flagstaff, AZ 86001, https://lowell.edu/).

The city of Flagstaff supports the Lowell Observatory in a big way: it is actually the world’s first “Dark Skies” City.

Flagstaff also has a delightful historic district with restaurants and shops.

Definitely worth spending more time.

Drury Inn & Suites

I enjoyed my stay at the Drury Inn & Suites immensely – not only for its services and amenities, but its ideal location.

Located right on the campus of Northern Arizona University, it is walking distance to the historic district and most of the attractions (1 1/2 miles from Lowell Observatory) the lovely restaurants and shops, and to public buses.

The hotel welcomes you with an elaborate “Kickback” Happy Hour beginning at 5:30 pm  that provides up to three free drinks (wine or beer) and a whole buffet of food, (soda, coffee and popcorn are available all the time), and have an enormous buffet breakfast (Belgian waffles, fresh fruit, oatmeal, cereal, eggs, cooked meats, assorted breads, juices) in the morning, when I was most impressed that the General Manager was helping sweep up and going around chatting with guests. It offers 160 guestrooms (I had a king suite that was enormous). There is an indoor pool, 24-hour fitness center, 24-hour business center. Free Wifi, up to 60 minutes of free domestic long distance calls, free covered parking, guest laundry, guest pantry, lovely sitting areas, pets welcome. The service is excellent.

This energy-efficient hotel is the first Drury Hotel to be LEED® certified at the Silver level by the U.S. Green Building Council, and the first LEED® certified hotel in Arizona.

The Drury hotel is right on the Northern Arizona University campus which offers  six campus museums and hosts concerts, community events and festivals throughout the year (but that also means the hotel fills up during Parents weekend and important sports events).  It is also a well-placed hub to go skiing at the Arizona Snowbowl (7 miles), or visit the San Francisco Peaks (15 miles), the Coconino National Forest (2 miles), Meteor Crater (35 miles), Sedona (28 miles), the Museum of Northern Arizona (3 miles), the Arboretum at Flagstaff (6 miles), Walnut Canyon National Monument (5 miles).

Drury Inn & Suites, 300 S Milton Rd, Flagstaff, AZ, 86001, 928-773-4900), www.druryhotels.com/locations/flagstaff-az/drury-inn-and-suites-flagstaff.

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