From Sedona to the Grand Canyon’s south rim is only a 115 mile drive north by car, but by motorhome it’s an extra thirty miles. Arizona 89A north out of Sedona has tight mountain switchbacks and strict vehicle length limits, so we had to head south out of Sedona back to the interstate. It’s always a challenge in the RV to figure out where you can and can’t drive!
There are several RV parks between Williams AZ and the south rim, ranging from an hour away to ten minutes away. We opted to stay inside the park at the park service’s “Trailer Village” campground and we’re really glad we did! The park’s shuttle bus system stops at the campground every 10-15 minutes and can take you practically anywhere. It’s just under a mile walk to the Visitor Center or Mather Point overlook. The sites are decently sized (not huge, but not right on top of each other), with full hookups, and cost us $36/night (it looks like the price went up to $44 a few days after we arrived though). The only downside is many of the sites are extremely un-level… our site was nice and large, but even with all our leveling blocks and jacks we still couldn’t get level. We even had elk and mule deer wandering through the campground almost every day!
We honestly expected to have lots of “downtime” at Grand Canyon… it’s just a big pretty view that you take photos of and move on, right? Wrong! If you’ve been following along for a while you probably know we like to mix in plenty of relaxation days with our activities. Well, we ended up busy every day we were at Grand Canyon, which was quite a surprise! We’ll definitely be taking time to relax a bit at our next destination!
We started out by watching the introductory movie that runs every half-hour at the Visitor Center. It provides a very quick overview of the canyon’s geologic history, Native American history, and more recent exploration by European and American explorers and naturalists. We then made the short walk to Mather Point to get our first view of the canyon:
We walked west along the Rim Trail, a 13-mile paved path along the south rim with many viewpoints as well as lodges, historic buildings, and our next stop, the Yavapai Geology Museum. Built in 1928 and renovated in 2007, the small building provides a more in-depth explanation of the canyon’s origins and formation. A few fascinating tidbits: the rock that makes up Grand Canyon is between 200 million (the top layers) and 2 billion years old (the “basement” rock the Colorado River flows through now. The canyon itself is “only” 6 million years old… that’s how long the Colorado has been carving its way downward through the rock. There are plenty of fossils to be found throughout the canyon, but no dinosaur fossils: the youngest rocks here (200 million years old) are older than the dinosaurs! If you’re interested, Wikipedia has a good, detailed write-up on the full geologic history.
We continued our walk to the Bright Angel trailhead and got our first look at one of the hikes we planned to do later in the week. The Bright Angel trail descends very steeply into the canyon with more switchbacks than we’d ever seen before. Our legs were aching just looking at it and picturing the climb back up, but we were excited to see what the canyon would look like from the inside!
We continued exploring the south rim and stood in awe at all the amazing views. Since the entire Rim Trail is dog-friendly we decided to come back the next day with Opie in tow to see more of the area and hopefully tire him out a bit. Dogs are not allowed anywhere inside the Canyon, but are welcome all along the rim.
Opie enjoyed his walk, but there are a lot of squirrels at the rim, so we had to be extra careful that he didn’t lunge after one and take us over the edge with him after the squirrels! For our return trip we decided to walk through the forest on the paved “Greenway” trail rather than along the rim. Opie enjoyed the scents and we enjoyed the peace and quiet since everyone else was crowded around the rim trail and views. The Greenway is a series of paved trails all through the Grand Canyon Village area. Incidentally, if you have bicycles with you (or want to rent one from the Visitor Center), the entire area is very bicycle-friendly!
Next up was the Bright Angel hike. The nice thing about it is there are several waypoints where you can rest, use the pit toilets, and even refill your water. It also means it’s easier to decide how much of the hike you want to do… many casual tourists will go to the first stop (the Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse) and turn around, while experienced hikers will go all the way to the Colorado River and camp overnight before returning the next day.
We planned for hiking to the Three-mile Resthouse, but we toyed with the idea of continuing down to the Indian Garden campground area. Once we made it a significant way down into the Canyon and realized just how steep the trail was we enthusiastically agreed to make the Three-mile Resthouse our turn-around point.
Temperatures increase significantly as you descend in altitude. The rim is at around 7,000 feet and was chilly during most of our visit, but near the Colorado River at 2,500 feet the air is 20 degrees warmer! This, and the intense afternoon sun that reflects off many of the sandstone walls (creating localized temperatures up to 140 degrees), is why the Park Service no longer allows hikers to attempt hiking to the river and back in one day. Too many people have died, and many more required rescue, due to the heat and exertion of the hike. Permits are now required to hike to the bottom and the hike must be done over two days (there and back).
The trail is very popular, but the crowds gradually thin out the further down you go. The other people we ran into along the way were quite diverse… it seemed that we rarely heard English spoken! It’s great to see people from all over the world coming here to enjoy this amazing natural wonder.
Our ascent back to the rim was exhausting. It’s a 2,100 foot climb over three miles, but some sections are very steep. We felt accomplished, but also humbled by the experienced hikers who practically jogged past us on their way up… and they started at the river and had a 10 mile and 4,300 foot climb! We knew we’d need to rest our legs for a day before another hike, so we made plans for an easier day in between our hikes.
We spent the next morning driving east towards the Desert View Watchtower. It’s a 25 mile drive and is the only section the park’s shuttle buses don’t go. There are many pull-offs along the road that provide different views and perspectives of the Canyon. While in many ways the views are similar, they each have their own character, angle, and rock formations. For example, it’s almost impossible to actually see the Colorado River from the main Visitor Center area, as the river has carved deeply into the rock and is hidden from view. Some of the more eastern viewpoints provide a very different view, looking down along the river instead of perpendicular to it.
We stopped at the Tusayan Ruin and Museum and walked around the 800-year old Pueblo archeological site. It always amazed us not just how ancient peoples lived, but how much modern researchers can learn about them by piecing together relics and ruins. At the end of our drive was the east entrance Visitor Center and the Indian Watchtower. The Watchtower was designed by Mary Colter and built in 1932. It was deliberately designed to look old and weathered, to imitate an old Anasazi watchtower. We admired the watchtower from inside and out, but didn’t wait in the long and crowded line of tourists waiting to climb to the top.
The next day was our second hike, the South Kaibab Trail. Originally we’d planned to hike three miles (round trip) to the Cedar Ridge area, but after our experience with the Bright Angel trail we decided to turn around early, at “Ooh Aah Point” making this hike just under two miles. Sometimes it feels good to know your limits! Besides, we have to save something for a future visit, right? Warning, more switchbacks ahead:
The view from Ooh Aah Point was beautiful, and we could see much more of the trail continuing down into the Canyon. With Kathie’s binoculars we spotted a team of mules making their way slowly up the trail far below us, carrying lucky tourists back to the rim from their overnight stay at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Canyon.
An advantage of cutting our South Kaibab hike short was that we were able to take the bus back to the Bright Angel area to attend one of the park’s Ranger Programs, the Fossil Walk. Ranger Ty walked us over to an area just past the Bright Angel fault where geologic uplift exposed many layers of earth that, 250 million years ago, were a shallow ocean bed. Everywhere we looked were fossils of sponges, brachiopods, corals, crinoids, and trace fossils of worm burrows. Ranger Ty did a great job pointing out and explaining all the different forms of life and what we can learn about the location, climate, and state of the world at the time the creatures lived.
To finish off the day we took the bus further west to Hermit’s Rest. This section of the road is only open to the shuttle buses and bicycles. The buses were pretty crowded but they stop at many viewpoints along the way to let visitors off and on. We took the shuttle to the end of the line at Hermit’s Rest, a small building built in 1914 (and also designed by architect Mary Colter) as a place for early visitors to rest and refresh themselves.
With our jam-packed (for us) week finished, it was time to pack up and prepare for our trip to Page Arizona and beyond. The Grand Canyon impressed us much more than we though it would, and we found much more to do than just admire the view! In the future we may try visiting the North Rim as well for a different perspective. The North Rim doesn’t even open until May 15th and only has a primitive campground with no hook-ups or other services, but that’s part of the adventure!