If this is the first entry you’re reading, you need to back to Part 1. I broke up the blog entries into three parts, plus bonus content for a couple of french fry related adventures.
Day 3 – Arriving
After a good night’s sleep we loaded up the Outback with all of our stuff (this activity got very old) and drove to the Grand Canyon. In my opinion, the best way to start any leg of a road trip is to find the best doughnut shop in whatever town your in and load up for the hours ahead. Per my exhaustive research of Las Vegas doughnut purveyors, Pinkbox was the best option available. I found a location in Henderson, NV, that didn’t push us too far off course. This was a big emotional lift for the kids, and I’m never mad about eating a great doughnut. Their flavor profiles were really creative, and the execution was quality. My favorite might have been The King. It was filled with mashed bananas, peanut butter, and honey. It was topped with “crumbles” and a toasted banana slice. Obviously it’s an homage to Elvis’s peanut butter, banana, and bacon sandwiches.
The plan was to drive until we hit some kitschy diner (either Delgadillo’s Snow Cap in Seligman or Anna’s Canyon Cafe in Williams). However, since those plans were made that morning, we didn’t mind deviating from course by eating at In-N-Out in Kingman a little bit early. People had to go to the bathroom, and it was the path of least resistance. I thought we’d still end up getting milkshakes or tacos or something later down the road, so I ate light. I still really enjoy In-N-Out but hold to my belief that the fries suck.
From there we finished out the drive to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and checked into the Yavapai Lodge. This is outside of the main Grand Canyon Village, but it’s right by the grocery store and not far from the Visitor’s Center. It’s also a 10 minute walk to the rim. During normal operations they’d have all seven of these Yavapai Lodge buildings open and full of visitors. On our trip they were only running two of them. Given the reduced capacity and COVID precautions, they shut down the restaurant next to the lodge. That left the grocery store as the only nearby food source. If you’re able to survive on dining hall quality pizza, hot dogs, and some basic sandwiches for a couple days, then you’ll be fine. If you need something better than that, you’ll need to shell out some $$ to eat at El Tovar, or leave the park and visit Tusayan (about a 15 minute drive). We made due by eating the grocery store stuff, some jerky, instant ramen, and hard boiled eggs. Not a great culinary experience, but the scenery made up for the inconvenience.
On this day we dropped off our stuff in the room then headed out on foot to the rim trail. After a 10 minute walk to get to the rim we headed West on the Trail of Time towards Grand Canyon Village and read about the history behind the geological formations within the canyon. It was stunning. Every yard represented a millions years of history, and every viewpoint was a mind-breakingly beautiful panorama at an ungraspable scale. It’s an upside down mountain, and you’re standing at the edge of it. Due to the lack of crowds we could take our time, soak it in, and get as close as we could feel comfortable. There were moments of absolute inspiration and awe. There were other moments of indescribable dread or foreboding, where you feel like gravity is pulling you towards the void. It’s nature putting the contrast of the universe on full display and I loved it.
You know who didn’t love it? My kids. They were impressed for about 45 minutes, and then they were hungry, tired, and cold. At that point we were about 1.5 miles away from the lodge and it was clear that they wouldn’t make it back o their own power without some extremely unpleasant encouragement. I was also hungry, tired, and cold, but I did the dad thing and hustled back to the lodge solo so that I could bring the car around and pick them up. Even this wasn’t enough for my children…the first comment I got when I pulled up was “WHAT TOOK YOU SO LONG???” After obtaining some mediocre pizza for them and some other food for us, we unwound in the hotel for a bit.
I had assumed that there would be pretty awful internet service in the area. I also assumed that cell phone reception would be weak. I underestimated how bad both of those could be. The wifi signal coming from the lodge was about 0.1 Mbps. It was enough to eventually pull in an email, but not quite enough to appropriately respond to it. Cell phone reception wasn’t much better. It would get strong enough to give me hope, but not actually allow me to accomplish anything substantive. Most would argue that that’s a benefit of staying in the park. I’d agree, but there’s rarely a day when I’m not trying to put out some small fire at work. Often when I don’t deal with the small fires quickly they become a much larger problem for me later. I say this not so much to complain, but to help others prepare for the experience.
We also went out to look at the stars that night. It gets very cold after the sun goes down, and it was also very windy during our trip. Even after bundling up the kids in jackets and blankets they struggled to appreciate the majesty of the Milky Way. I figured out how to do some astrophotography on my phone, but we had to cut the stargazing a bit short that night. We headed back to the lodge and crashed hard for the night.
Day 4 – Biking
I wanted to see a sunrise, and I also wanted to move my legs, so I laced up my running shoes for a jog along the Rim Trail. The trail was so beautiful, and private. I ran from the lodge, to the mid-point of the Trail of Time, and headed east towards Yavapai Point. After snapping a lot of photos on my phone I arrived at the Eastern viewpoints in time to watch the sun really start breaking through the horizon/clouds into the canyon. Every five minutes it was like I had put on color changing glasses. The shadows moved to create different perspectives, and details blurred and clarified as the light shifted around me. It’s very hard to put into words, but this experience was worth the drive, and the run. After hanging out for a bit I ran the trail back to the lodge, finishing about 3.6 miles.
The family was just starting to wake up and move when I got back. This was the day that we chose to rent some bikes and go on a family ride. We were short on the details, but the crew at Bright Angel Bicycles pointed us in the right direction. We rented four bikes for 5 hours, and at their recommendation we road them back to the Grand Canyon Village area from Mather Point, and then loaded them onto the free shuttle buses to help jump start us on the way out to Hermit’s Rest. It’s possible to bike the entire way, but the route starts off at a 6% grade which would have sapped most of the energy reserves we had. So, the buses took care of that first section, and we caught back up with the actual trail at Hopi Point.
We rode our bikes from Hopi Point all the way to Hermit’s Rest. There were some hills, but nothing that we couldn’t handle with frequent breaks to rest, eat, or just take in another view. I think this section of the ride was about 5 miles, but you’re bouncing from majestic vista to majestic vista along the canyon’s rim. I loved this. You don’t need bikes for this route, and you could even just take the free shuttles and hop from stop to stop (they were running basically every 5 minutes), but feeling the breeze as you leisurely cycle along the rim was much more my speed. The kids were tired by the time we got to Hermit’s Rest, but we bribed them with ice cream bars from the gift shop at that last stop. From there we loaded the bikes back onto shuttles, road to the Grand Canyon Village station, and started peddling back to Mather Point to return the bikes. My son was exhausted and was daunted by the 1.5 miles left to go on the trip. There really wasn’t a better option to get him back other than just pushing him on until we finished. My daughter wiped out crossing some railroad tracks, my son said he was going to die, but somehow we all made it to the rental shop.
Dinner, again, was a mix of mediocre cheese pizzas from the grocery store, hot dogs, and a lukewarm microwave burrito that was sitting in a hot cabinet. We bundled the kids up to go watch the sunset, and this proved a battle that we almost didn’t survive. We drove over the Yavapai Point, hiked West a little ways, and watched the sunset while shivering through the wind. I enjoyed it, the kids did not. We took them back to the hotel and they warmed up with hot showers and pajamas. I went out to do some stargazing again at Yavapai Point (in the pitch black night without a headlamp) and Sarah made sure that the kids didn’t kill each other. It all worked out. I only lasted about 30 minutes in the dark alone before getting too spooked and needing to head back.
Day 5 – Hiking
My kids are Junior Rangers. This means that when we visit National Parks we pick up activity books (homework) that teach the kids about the park. It’s a terrific free program and gives the little people in your life a focus during the park visit, and at the end they get a cool badge at the end. We picked up the activity books on Day 4 and worked on them a bit more on Day 5. Our plan was to hike the first part of the South Kaibab trail which meant we’d need to drive a few minutes to the Visitor Center, hop a shuttle bus to the trailhead, and then hike down the canyon. This meant there’d be a bit of time here and there to knock out the activities in the books.
There was a small line for the shuttle to the trailhead. They run frequently, so we only waited about 15 minutes while a couple buses cycled ahead of us with other passengers. The bus ride itself is only about 10 minutes, but it’s the only way to get directly to the trailhead. If you don’t take the shuttle you have to park a little ways out and hike to the trailhead (hike to the hike).
The South Kaibab will take you all the way down the Canyon, but you have to be prepared for it. It’s not a down and back that you can do in a day (according to about 20 different warning signs that we saw in the park). We had zero intention of that kind of ambition and expected to stop at either Ooh Aah Point or venture a little past to Cedar Ridge. My heart was not prepared for the near vertical drop off the side of the initial switchbacks leading you into the trail. Holy crap. The first 10 to 15 minutes give you a rock wall to one side and the sheer abyss on the other. It’s nerve-wracking walking down that with kids. Or without kids. If this trail was crowded I would be a quivering all of anxiety, but given the circumstances it was doable. The hike was beautiful, and I’m so glad that we did it. It really does give you a different view of the Canyon (both in terms of perspective as well as physically different than the Bright Angel Trail area in the main village). The kids ultimately got overwhelmed by the heavy winds that were slamming us for the last section near Ooh Aah Point. You’re exposed to it quite a bit, but they just couldn’t go any further than that. It was tough getting them motivated to hike back up even from that point so I’m glad we didn’t push our luck.
After this hike we made our way back to the Visitor Center at Mather Point, got the kids a treat, and then started a drive along Desert View. We had a GPS guided audio tour from Gypsy guides on one of our phones, so we listened to interesting historical facts and stories about the area as we drove East along the rim. We stopped at about half a dozen places. Grandview Point and Moran Point were a couple of our favorites. The Desert View Watchtower was our last stop, and it was fascinating. Even though the tower itself was closed to visitors, I enjoyed learning about the history of the building, and the context of its architect. I won’t spoil that, but it’s worth a listen through the Gypsy app. The drive and stops took us about 1.5 hours start to finish. After that we headed back to the grocery store for more mediocre pizza, hot dogs, sandwiches, and lukewarm burritos. I wanted to watch another sunset so I drove out to Yavapai Point again (by myself), and saw one of the best sunsets of my life on a cliff’s edge overlooking the Bright Angel trail. Such a surreal experience, and it’ll stick with me forever.
To read Part 3, click here.
To read Part 1, click here.