Road to the Grand Canyon (Part 3): The Grand Finale

Around mid-morning I make my way to the Grand Canyon, about an hour-and-a-half west on the 40 and north via 64.  I reach civilization in the form of some very generic restaurants and chain hotels that threaten to lead me into a tourist trap. There’s no hint at all that I’m actually approaching a gargantuan gorge in the earth; the dense Kaibab National Forest conceals the canyon’s grandeur for miles. Even once I reach the South Rim entrance and pay the $25 entrance fee (good for seven days), I remain on the edge of my seat until I reach Mather Point.

And there it is: the Grand Canyon.

Few adjectives can genuinely describe this vision. Through today’s haze it looks somewhat two-dimensional, like staring into the most giant Impressionist painting, ever. The few clouds in the sky cast shadows that create unbelievable contrasts of color over every surface of jagged rock.

This particular viewpoint is a bit crowded, but the place is actually not swarming with visitors today; October through April is off-peak here. The weather is flawless: temperate and mostly sunny, comfortable for a leisurely stroll along the Rim Trail. One of the park rangers advises that any portion of this 21-kilometer path offers immaculate and diverse views. If you don’t have much time, it’s a pretty perfect way to spend a few hours, or just a few minutes.

Brave girls do handstands close to the edge of an overhang just below the rim. Getting there requires carefully descending slippery rock. I hesitate for a moment, but you only live once, and you might as well live on the edge—literally, in this case. It doesn’t seem like a dangerous climb down for a person in good physical condition, but I’m hyper-aware of my humanity here; this canyon is seriously humbling. When I reach the edge, heart racing, looking out into the great lithic abyss, I realize the impossibly tiny radius of space in which those girls before were kicking into handstands.

Any viewpoint along the Rim Trail has its own unique angle, and shifting light transforms the face of the canyon constantly. Within an hour, it’s no longer a muted Impressionist painting I see, but a variegated sculpture of multi-layered stone, kissed by the white light of the afternoon.

The North Rim offers a different perspective—not the traditional sweeping panoramas you get from the South, but a more intimate view of the buttes and the Kaibab National Forest. The North Rim is loved for its dramatic colors and more remote feel, however there are very limited facilities in the off-season (October 16 through May 14). The South Rim offers a more comprehensive Grand Canyon experience, and year-round.

As diverse as the canyon views are the people who’ve come here today: young Frenchmen, families from as far as India, lone travelers, and American bikers who have ridden their Harleys from Northern California. They’re all strangers friendly enough to snap photos of one another against the legendary backdrop.

By the time I reach Yavapai Point just one kilometer into the trail, I’ve got to head back, but this won’t be the last I see of the canyon.  In fact, I’m about to see much more of it than I imagined.

Back south on 64, just a few kilometers outside of the park entrance, I rush to the Grand Canyon Airport for a flight with Grand Canyon Airlines. I board a Twin Otter C73, which departs hourly for this 40-minute air tour. It’s the last flight of the day—4:00 pm, when the sun hangs low and washes everything in an imperial golden light. Early morning and late afternoon are prime time for this flight. We take off over the Kaibab National Forest and head east to loop from the South Rim to the North Rim and back.

This is full-blown hypnotic beauty, so boundless that my eyes can’t conceive of it all even when it’s staring me in the face. All other senses are rendered incapacitated. The only thing I truly remember hearing from the multi-lingual narrated tour is that when Spanish explorers came upon the Grand Canyon in 1540, they saw nothing special about it, and didn’t return for over two hundred years. How could this be? I guess it’s a shame they never got the aerial view.

I’m breathless, soaring like a California condor over the Zuni Corridor and high above Imperial Point, the canyon’s tallest spire. Over the course of mere minutes I’m seeing the Grand Canyon in all its splendor. The elegant, rolling badlands of the Painted Desert sit to the east. The Kaibab Plateau above the North Rim is coated with spruce-fir, ponderosa pine, aspen, and juniper. Such an exhibition of divine nature exists right here. I can’t believe it.

After the flight, in my transcendent state, the only thing I can think of is to go back up the 64 and re-enter the park. That’s when I spot a herd of mule deer in the woods just by the main road. They’re relatively unfazed by a few humans, but once more people start to converge on them, they all trot deeper into the forest.

I head east to see how far along the rim I can go before sunset. There are quite a few park-and-view spots right off the road, which might have been a more convenient and easy way to see the canyon from different angles on limited time. But I wouldn’t trade my slow walk along the Rim Trail and my moment on the edge for anything. It’s absolutely worth staying a few days here to explore—biking along the rim, hiking into the canyon, or descending to the canyon floor by surefooted mule.

This evening I lose my race with the sun. Just a few meters from Desert View Drive, a giant elk, as big as a stallion, grazes, stoically. I creep dangerously close to him and his formidable antlers—maybe about 10 meters. He looks at me once or twice, but I’m not as interesting as his dinner. I stay for a long time watching the beast curiously, until the sun has disappeared into the horizon and the Grand Canyon is mostly just silhouettes with vague textures. Even in the dark, it’s always looming, forever an icon of the great American outdoors and a world beyond our wildest dreams.

Photo by: Wei Zhang

This is Part 3 of my story about road tripping to the Grand Canyon. Read Part 1 and Part 2. A version of this was published in Conde Nast Traveler China’s March 2015 issue.


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