We had been driving through Arizona all day to try and reach the park before sunset, so that we’d have our first glimpse of the canyon at the most beautiful time of the day.
We were staying at the Yavapai Lodge, the largest lodging complex within the Grand Canyon National Park. Nestled amid a piñon and juniper forest, the lodge is just a mile’s walk from the canyon’s South Rim. The cheaper option would be to stay at accommodation located outside of the park but, with only limited time available, we prioritised seeing as much of the canyon as possible in the time we had.
We had been told that sunset was at 7.30pm, so after checking in at the lodge, we jumped back in the Dodge and drove along the quiet road that skirts the canyon’s South Rim. We were heading for the Grand Viewing Platform but, along the way, an opening in trees gave us our first sighting of the Grand Canyon. Nothing quite prepares you for the huge scale of it, the vast, gaping space and great drop below. I was pleasantly surprised by the freedom that visitors have to explore – despite the obvious safety risk, it was wonderful to be able to stand near to the edge and admire the view without being cordoned off by a fence or having warning signs blocking the way.
The Grand Canyon is a steep-sided canyon carved by the Colorado River and its tributaries which cut their channels through layer after layer of rock while the Colorado Plateau was uplifted. Recent evidence suggests the Colorado River established its course through the canyon at least 17 million years ago. It is just enormous, at 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and attains a depth of over a mile.
We continued on in the car, now racing against the setting sun. Once we arrived at the Grand Viewing Platform, we hopped down the rocks in complete freedom, able to scope around to find the best position to sit down and marvel at the view. Despite Mum and Dad feeling nervous and dizzy, William and I perched at the edge of the cliff with our feet dangling down, before eventually convincing them to come closer for a better view. It was relatively quiet, considering the amount of people who had gathered there – everyone was sat peacefully thinking, meditating, taking photos and just soaking up the atmosphere. It took around an hour for the sun to set completely, with the light upon the rocks changing colour from pinks to reds and then into shadow, while the rapids of the Colorado River hundreds of feet below were slowly swallowed up by the rising darkness.
We stayed in the park and went to the Yavapai Lodge Restaurant for our dinner that evening – a simple buffet-style affair, with beers, pastas and salads. We had decided that, since you’re only in the Grand Canyon once in a lifetime, we would get up for sunrise the next morning and see how differently the rocks were coloured from the night before in a morning light. We were told that sunrise was around 5.30am so, having set our alarms for 4.45am, we called it an early night and hit the sack.
A few hours later, we were up at the crack of dawn. We jumped back into the Dodge and headed back to the viewing area that we had been at the previous night (although all facing the opposite way, of course!). It was still fairly dark and cloudy when we arrived but, as the minutes went by, the sun broke through and shone a few feeble rays out. The light of the morning was dark blue, turning the canyon into a mysterious, moody place, compared to the beautiful, bright rocks that we had seen the evening before. Many people had brought blankets with them, and snuggled up against the cold morning as they watched the sun rise over the edge of the rock. Again, we stayed around an hour, but it became apparent that the clouds weren’t shifting any time soon so we decided to head back and get ready for the big day ahead of us.
William had told us that he was planning to bike ride along a particular route, which leads through some of the most scenic checkpoints along the Grand Canyon rim. Mum and Dad had decided that they would ride the Hop On Hop Off bus, which seemed the more leisurely option – and therefore the more attractive choice to me. However, we had just that morning heard about a man who had disappeared somewhere along the Grand Canyon on a hike. With this in mind, I couldn’t let my poor, defenceless younger brother go off exploring on his own, so decided I would get on a bike for the first time in eight or so years. Mum did try to warn me – “I just don’t think you’re fit enough, Rebecca,” she said while shaking her head pitifully at me, but I pulled on my leggings and trainers, declaring myself to be fighting fit and ready for action.
Having paid $30 dollars each for our bikes, William and I started cycling at a leisurely pace from Bright Angel Bikes at Yavapai Lodge Information Centre with a map and an endpoint – Hermit’s Point (where this is a cafe, gift shop and restrooms). Since William had possession of the map, I had no idea how far away Hermit’s Point was, but ignorance is bliss and our ride there was amazing; we stopped every mile or so at different viewpoints to see the spectacular views of the Grand Canyon South Rim and, from here, we also had the best glimpses of the Colorado River. Similar to the Gobi Desert (and so different to the small-town low-rise skylines of home), the landscape here is just huge – the kind that won’t even fit into a panoramic photo and where you have to swivel your head up, down, left and right just to see as much of the view as possible. The sky was huge and blue but, throughout our whole bike ride, there were deep rumbles of thunder from the left. Storms are prevalent around the Canyon and Mum told us later that her tour guide banned them from resting their hands on the safety barrier in case they were electrocuted by lightning.
The bike ride back was ten times harder than the journey there; we had seen the stops already, meaning that William was reluctant to stop as he whizzed off ahead of me. Despite the fact we had appeared to be going uphill most of the way there (meaning I was looking forward to a no-pedal free ride the whole way back), we actually seemed to be going up one 10-mile long steady incline, which nearly killed me. We accidentally cycled on the wrong side of the road so came within millimetres of being squished into a fossil by the shuttle bus but, in the end, we made it – feeling two stone lighter and super fit.
In fact, our bike ride ended up being a 21-mile all round trip, in 30°C heat. If you do not fancy cycling, the Hermit’s Road shuttle bus drives the exact same route, stopping off at all the viewing platforms. You can actually cycle one way and then pick the bus up on the way back, as it has bike carrying facilities at the front of the bus.
However you choose to see it, do make sure you see it once! The Grand Canyon was one of my favourite stops along the road trip. Nothing prepares for you for its beauty; although you’ll have to accept that its size WILL make you feel small and insignificant, like a tiny ant who appears to have no impact on the world. Justthink of all the millions of people who have stood there before and the billions of years it has taken for the world to evolve this way, just so. So live in the moment! The Grand Canyon is thought to be somewhere between 6 million and 70 million years old. It’s a bit of a difference, I know, but it gets you thinking about your place in this enormous world.