MY DREAM CAME TRUE!
Reviews of bucket-list-worthy things to do all over the world

A Dream-Come-True Visit to the Grand Canyon!

Sunset from Rim Trail between Mather Point and Yavapai Point.
 

"Visiting the Grand Canyon should be on everyone's bucket list! Photos can't even begin to capture its beauty." I'd heard that sentiment many times in my life. That's why the Grand Canyon held a top spot on my bucket list.
         In 2013, when a friend and I spent a few days in Las Vegas, we took a helicopter ride to see the Grand Canyon. The views from the helicopter were awesome, and the excursion was certainly worthwhile, but it didn't provide that classic south rim view of the Grand Canyon that everyone raves about. And so, in mid June 2018, that friend and I headed to the south rim, so we could take in the breathtaking views that have made the Canyon famous.

 

Arrival


         We started our journey with a flight into Las Vegas McCarran airport, picked up our rental car, and set out on our way. After about four and a half hours of driving (about 277 miles), plus a stop along the way for lunch, we arrived at the south entrance to Grand Canyon National Park. I'd read in numerous reviews that visits in June, July, or August were plagued by crowds, but we were pleasantly surprised to find only a few cars waiting to enter.
         Because we were planning to visit not only the Grand Canyon, but Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park as well, we saved money by purchasing an America the Beautiful - National Parks & Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass, which allows the card holder and a few guests (generally up to 3 adults who are all riding in the same car) unlimited visits to the National Parks for one year. (Children under 16 years old are admitted for free.)
         Back when I first added the Grand Canyon to my bucket list, I knew that I'd want to stay inside the park, along the rim of the Canyon, in order to experience the Canyon during its most magical hours: at night and in the early morning. There are four hotels located along the rim of the Grand Canyon: El Tovar Hotel, Kachina Lodge, Thunderbird Lodge, and Bright Angel Lodge. Bright Angel Lodge is the only hotel that offers cabins located steps away from the rim, and so I decided that I wanted to stay there.
         We didn't start planning our trip until three months in advance, at which point the Bright Angel Lodge cabins were sold out for the days we were considering. After about three weeks of daily checking  on the Xanterra website, I found availability for two consecutive nights in a Historic Cabin at Bright Angel Lodge on dates that worked well for us.
         We parked at Bright Angel Lodge, checked in, then unloaded our luggage into our cabin and freshened up for our first evening at the Grand Canyon. Our cabin was quite small and the furniture and carpet were somewhat dinged up and stained respectively, but the spotless bathroom had been nicely remodeled and the bed had fresh white linens and a comfortable well-padded mattress. The pillows were extremely firm and thick, but there was a flatter pillow in one of the drawers which I found more comfortable than those provided on the bed.

 
The Bright Angel Lodge duplex Historic Cabins are located just steps away from the rim.
 
First views of the Grand Canyon

         By the time we left our cabin, it was nearly six o'clock in the evening. We headed to the Village Route Transfer shuttle stop (conveniently located just a few minutes walk from the Bright Angel Lodge cabins) to take the Red Shuttle (Hermits Rest Route) to visit some of the Canyon's viewpoints. (The park shuttle service is free.)
         It was at the shuttle stop where I got my first glimpse of the Grand Canyon. It was ... underwhelming. So underwhelming that I didn't even feel motivated to snap a picture. The Canyon looked smaller than I thought it would. But, I told myself, this is just a view from a shuttle stop. I hoped the view at the official viewpoints would be better.
         My friend and I hopped on the Red Shuttle and made our way to Mohave Point. At Mohave Point, I got my second view of the Canyon. I was relieved to find that the Grand Canyon actually looked grand, although not quite as big as I'd expected. I was also relieved to find that there were only about twenty people at the viewpoint, not nearly the summer crowds I'd read about.
 
Looking at the Grand Canyon from Mohave Point, we could see glimpses of the Colorado River.
 
         After a few minutes spent soaking in the views, we headed east on Rim Trail. Our plan was to walk the Rim Trail (a relatively flat trail that runs along a portion of the south rim) to Powell Point, stopping to see Hopi Point along the way. We didn't make it far before I stopped.
         "The trail is too close to the edge," I told my friend. The trail was only a few feet wide, and the canyon side was just inches from a miles-high drop with no railing to prevent one from falling to one's death. A slip of the foot here could be deadly. My friend is fearless and wasn't at all afraid to continue, but I couldn't make myself do it, and so we turned back toward Mohave Point, our plan to walk to the other viewpoints thwarted by my (possibly-well-founded) fears.
         We had planned to eat our picnic dinner at one of the viewpoints, but instead we decided to eat right there on the trail, sitting on a pair of tree stumps, all alone, just us and the Canyon, as the sun sank lower in the sky. This turned out to be the first of many highlights of our Grand Canyon adventure. 
 
A picnic on Rim Trail between Mohave Point and Hopi Point
 
          With full stomachs, we headed back to Mohave Point to watch the sun make its final descent. As it did, larger and larger shadows appeared inside the Canyon, and the Canyon walls transformed from reddish-orange to dull-purple. Almost as soon as the sun disappeared, the other visitors did too. Soon, my friend and I were the only ones left at Mohave Point. The wind started to pick up, softly whistling along the Canyon walls. Standing there, just the two of us, listening to the wind, feeling the warm breeze whip through our hair, was absolutely magical. We could have spent hours there, watching the final light of the day fade, listening to the quiet and the wind, but we didn't want to miss the last shuttle back to our cabin. It is about a three mile walk on Rim Trail from Mohave Point to the Bright Angel cabins, and I wasn't about to do that in the dark.
         We were looking forward to checking out the night sky during our stay at the Grand Canyon but, by the time we arrived back at our cabin, only a few planets and stars had appeared, and the sky was dark blue rather than black, so we went inside, took our showers, and then made our way back outside into the cool, windy night. Sure enough, the sky was now filled with myriad stars, more stars than I'd ever seen at once aside from visits to planetariums and a trip to the Mohave Desert. After a few minutes spent gazing up at the sky in awe, we retired to our cabin to rest up for a busy day exploring the Grand Canyon.

Good Morning, Grand Canyon!

         When we awoke in the morning, the interior of our cabin was crisp and cool despite the fact that the Bright Angel Lodge Historic Cabins lack air conditioning. (Note that the cabins are heated in the winter months.) We'd left three of the screened windows open overnight and the canyon breezes had deftly done the job of cooling our cabin to a comfortable temperature for sleeping.
         We got dressed and packed a picnic breakfast to enjoy along the rim, then we headed out into the beautiful morning. We ate our breakfasts on a rocky wall with a billion-dollar view of the Canyon, then headed back to our cabin to pack up our daypacks for our first Grand Canyon hike.
 
Our breakfast spot
 
Day hiking in the Grand Canyon

         It is possible to hike all the way to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, stay at the bottom overnight (either by camping or staying at Phantom Ranch), and then hike back up the next day. Generally, these hikers descend via South Kaibab Trail (which has no potable water or restroom facilities along the trail) and ascend via Bright Angel Trail (which seasonally offers fresh drinking water and toilets along the route). My friend and I decided to do two day hikes that would give us a peek at both of these trails: a 1.8 round trip hike (with about 760 feet elevation change) on South Kaibab Trail followed by a 1.5 mile round trip hike (with about 500 feet elevation change) on Bright Angel Trail.
         We headed to the Village Route Transfer shuttle stop and took the Blue Shuttle (Village Route) to the Grand Canyon Visitor Center where we could transfer to the Orange Shuttle (Kaibab/Rim Route) that would take us to the South Kaibab Trailhead. When we arrived at the Visitor Center, before we boarded the Orange Shuttle, we took a quick walk to check out the viewpoint where most people get their first view of the Grand Canyon: Mather Point.
         Mather Point turned out to be my favorite viewpoint yet, possibly because it pokes out into the canyon, providing a more-immersive view. My only disappointment was that, like everyone before me, I couldn't capture the majesty with my camera, no matter how hard I tried.
 
Taking in the view at Mather Point
 
         After spending some time at Mather Point, we walked 0.7 miles on Rim Trail to Yavapai Point. Along the way, we experienced spectacular Grand Canyon views minus the railings.
 
Taking in the view between Mather Point and Yavapai Point
 
         After a quick look at Yavapai Point and the geology museum there, we jumped on the Orange Shuttle for the ride to the South Kaibab trailhead. Before setting out on the trail, we visited the pit toilets and topped off our water bottles at the filling station. Then we began our descent.
         We felt well-prepared for our hike. We each carried more than 2 liters of water, along with healthy snacks that would also serve as our lunch. Nothing, though, could have prepared us for the views as we descended. The Canyon walls were no longer below us, but surrounding us. Within just a few minutes of walking, the experience had become the highlight of our visit. We even got the chance to step aside and watch two mule trains, each lead by a friendly cowboy, pass us by.
 
Two mule trains near the top of South Kaibab Trail
 
A vertigo-inducing view from South Kaibab Trail
 
Another vertigo-inducing view from South Kaibab Trail
 
          The trail made me a bit nervous, as it was sometimes narrow, with a steep drop-off on one side, but I continued anyway, hiking close to the canyon wall, as far away from the drop-off as possible.
         It wasn't long before we arrived at the spot we'd chosen as our turn-around point: Ooh Aah Point (yes, that is its official name). The point is aptly named. The view there is spectacular and it was a perfect spot to sit on a rock and enjoy our lunch.
 
Ooh Aah Point!
 
         A challenge with the hikes in the Grand Canyon is that the downhill part of the hike comes first and the uphill part comes second. It takes most people about twice as long to hike up as to hike down. On our descent, we'd seen numerous flushed-face, panting, exhausted-looking hikers coming up the trail. My friend and I took the ascent slowly, stopping for rest breaks whenever we felt even the slightest bit tired. Those rest breaks gave us a chance to really enjoy the views; when we were hiking I had to keep most of my attention on the trail in order to avoid tripping and falling or twisting an ankle.
         Finally, we arrived back at the rim, sweaty but happy. The Orange Shuttle took us back to the Visitor Center, where we transferred to the Blue Shuttle to get back to Bright Angel Lodge. We made a quick stop at our cabin to freshen up and replenish our snack supply for our second hike of the day, then we took the short walk to Bright Angel Trail and began our descent.
         Bright Angel Trail has two rock tunnels along its uppermost portion. The second (lower) tunnel is the turn-around point for the 1.5 mile round trip hike.
 
The upper portion of the Bright Angel Trail can be seen from the Rim. (The white arrow shows the location of the first (upper) tunnel.)
 
The Bright Angel Trail trailhead
 
First (upper) tunnel on Bright Angel Trail
 
         My friend and I enjoyed our hike on Bright Angel Trail, but we agreed that the views from South Kaibab Trail were more spectacular.
         When we finally arrived back at the rim after our hike, we were craving a hot meal and (even though it was a hot day) a bowl of soup. We found both at the nearby, casual, family-friendly Bright Angel Restaurant (AKA: the Historic Harvey House Cafe), where we requested and received a booth with view of the Grand Canyon (just a sliver of the canyon was visible from the window adjacent to our table). We savored our delicious, reasonably-priced meals (a pasta and veggie dish for me and a seasoned trout filet for my friend) and rallied what was left of our energy for a Blue Shuttle ride back to the Visitor Center to watch the sunset from Mather Point.
 
Sunset at Mather Point
 
         The sunset experience at Mather Point was similar to that at Mohave Point but, during the shuttle ride to the Visitor Center, we were treated to a close-up view of a mother elk and two babies standing in a wooded area just a few feet from the road.
         That night, we went to bed exhausted yet thrilled with our Grand Canyon adventure.

Goodbye, Grand Canyon!

         The next day, we enjoyed our final picnic breakfast with a view of the Grand Canyon, checked out of our cabin, and then drove toward the east exit of the park (Desert View Entrance Station). We asked our GPS system to guide us to Desert View Watchtower (a stone structure designed by architect Mary Colter which is located near the entrance station). Instead, the GPS guided us to the Navajo Point viewpoint (located just before the turn for the Watchtower when traveling east on Desert View Drive). This mistake, however, proved to be a blessing. The view at Navajo Point turned out to be my second favorite view from the rim (after Mather Point), because it included twists and turns of the Colorado River and offered a view of Desert View Watchtower in the distance.
 
A view from Navajo Point
 
         The Watchtower itself, although attractive to look at, proved otherwise underwhelming, especially because the roof of the tower is not accessible to the general public. Those who climb to the highest point in the tower end up in a stuffy, glass-windowed viewing room that isn't really worth the climb.
 
Desert View Watchtower exterior
 
Inside the highest level of the Desert View Watchtower
 
         Despite our lack of enthusiasm for the Watchtower, our visit to the Grand Canyon was amazing. The sweeping views from Mather Point, picnicking on the rim of the Grand Canyon, and hiking down into the Canyon had made our trip bucket-list-worthy. And our six-day/five-night whirlwind road trip had only just begun. Next, we were heading to Monument Valley to visit the buttes that we'd seen in countless movies from old westerns, to Forrest Gump, to the Disney/Pixar movie Cars (the buttes were a bit altered in Cars (to look like cars), but Monument Valley was certainly an inspiration). Then we'd check out Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend. Finally, we'd make our way to Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park. We couldn't wait to continue!

I did this in mid June 2018 in Grand Canyon, Arizona.

Jen (California, USA)

You might also enjoy these reviews of the other stops on our whirlwind road trip:

Monument Valley
Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend
Zion National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park