Seeing the Grand Canyon has been on my agenda since I landed in the USA. What I wasn’t prepared for was how spectacular the rest of the area is. It is stark. It is hot. It is dry. Yet, it is unbelievably beautiful.
My trip started in Las Vegas after a quick flight down from Seattle after work on the Friday evening. I rented a car without hassle and was released into the chaotic streets of Vegas. Fireworks on the go, traffic everywhere… It was exactly as I had imagined (from my limited exposure to Vegas essentially solely from the movie 21). I found my crummy AirBNB, it was cheap and probably only one step up from a hostel, and jumped into an Uber to find the city center to drown a beer and throw some money down the bottomless well that is a casino: my statistics training doesn’t help with my general mindset toward gambling. Honestly, apart from being a little amazed at seeing “Oxygen Bars”, I wasn’t too impressed with the space and given my excitement to get on the road in the morning I went to bed shortly after midnight.
This is where the fun starts. I got up and hit the road en route to Antelope Canyon. The drive in was spectacular and was easy on large open highways through beautiful terrain. When an interesting sign for a “scenic stop” or “point of interest” came along I capitalized on my lack of planning and took the opportunity to see these places. I highly recommend the drive through this Northern corner of Arizona and parts of Southern Utah.
I met a friendly couple at a stunning Wahweap overlook and we got chatting about things to do in the area. Not surprisingly, both Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe bend are on the list and they asked me when my booking for Antelope Canyon was. This is one of the downsides of not clearly planning out a trip. Whoops. I hurriedly got a call into Dixie Ellis’ Lower Antelope Canyon Tours and got lucky as they were able to accommodate me at 3:30 that afternoon. Crisis averted. I now had some time on my hands so I carried on with my leisurely drive to Horseshoe Bend:
Now the super confusing thing about the area is that Utah operates on Mountain Time whereas Arizona operates on Pacific Time; in other words Arizona is one hour behind Utah. So when my phone’s Google Maps updates to Utah’s time, but fails to recognize that I have returned to Arizona, there is some confusion that ensues. I was enjoying the sights at Horseshoe bend (it really is magical but it is as hot as all hell so you can’t really spend more than an hour there anyway) and figuring out exactly what time I needed to leave to get to Antelope Canyon when I second guessed my calculations and decided that Arizona was actually on Mountain Time. My panic was cemented when I asked another group of tourists what time it was! Crap! Crap Crap Crap! I am 10 minutes from missing my appointment at Antelope Canyon after making the trip all this way to essentially see this. Crap.
It turns out that the tourists were actually from Utah and so they were just as confused (if not more) as me and my initial gut was right. I probably broke a number of speed limits screeching into the Lower Antelope Canyon parking 1 minute before my 1 hour early scheduled tour departure. Running in that heat is not advisable and the steaming mess that I now was arrived at the shelter mumbling something about an apology for being late while the tour guide was confused as to why I was so early. Thankfully I was not the only idiot to fall prey to this misconception as I saw a number of other tourists come in only to be told they had more than an hour’s wait under a slightly insufficient shade cloth.
I sat and waited for the requisite hour and eventually got anxious when my tour time came around. There was no clear call to action. A little more composed this time I went to ask someone who seemed to be in charge and after some confusion got assigned to a private tour guide. I was not sure what I did wrong, if anything, but to hell with it, I was super stoked now as I had my private guide and I didn’t have to join the bun-fight of the Chinese tour group that had arrived via bus for the same tour time. My tour guide, a student from Phoenix, was super sweet and we navigated the other groups and managed to get down into the Canyon.
Need I say that it was amazing? Wow! It certainly is a tourist trap, and that is a reason I heard for an individual not visiting the area, but it is so amazing that I can still highly recommend this stop. Walking through this outlandish area was a highlight for my time in the USA.
The Grand Canyon
Now is where the magnitude of my lack of planing begin to dawn on me. I am near a spot called Page. My under-informed and naive plan was to drive off to the Northern Rim, watch the sunset and then casually drive to Flagstaff where I was booked into the Grand Canyon International Hostel: I said I was on a tight budget right? Well, it turns out that this drive is non-trivial. 2h30 would get me to the Northern Rim just in time for sunset and then I’d face the 5h back-track to get back out and around the canyon to Flagstaff… Not ideal. Worse still, the Grand Canyon International Hostel is a full two hours south of the Southern Rim. Hmmm. True to form, I let my stomach dictate my decision and chose dinner over sunset (this area is pretty remote and apart from some crummy looking Jimmy Johns or Macky D’s, your eating options are really limited unless you are at the South Rim or in Flagstaff).
So now that I had missed the sunset over the Grand Canyon, I certainly wasn’t going to let the sunrise escape me. The only problem is that Flagstaff is the aforementioned 2 hour drive south of the South Rim. Well, over a delicious burger at Historic Brewing Barrel + Bottle and some beers that REALLY hit the spot, I decided that since I was here, I was going to have to do this properly. 2am alarm got set and I planned to get an early night in. I won’t talk it down too much as the Grand Canyon International Hostel is a hostel after all (and so what can I expect??) but I have seriously done better than this one. The rooms are stifling hot and very cramped - and in hindsight it is nowhere near the actual Grand Canyon. Let’s just say that I was glad that I was spending minimal time in this place. I was a little sad that I didn’t have more time in Flagstaff though.
I actually got up before my alarm (does this happen to you when you set an alarm that is out of the ordinary?) and I made my way over to the Canyon. It was very clear where to go and I ended up at Mather Point. This is rated as one of the better places to watch the sunrise and since it was about 4:45am I assumed the warning of it being a more crowded spot would apply more to the sunset. How wrong I was.
A peaceful handful of people were minding their own business in the early hours of the morning as the horizon began to light up. With 10 minutes to go, the tour busses piled in and the tourists arrived en masse. Holy crap! By then I had worked out what was going to happen and I dominantly staked out my space - and I am glad that I did as this was very much encroached upon. Luckily the majority of tourists were from another Chinese tour bus and I was big enough to hold my ground. It was a close call though. The sun peaked over the rim on the horizon and 5 minutes later they were all gone. Unbelievable.
Well now that I was actually able to enjoy the space and get a breather, I began to appreciate what was to become the most impressive showing of the morning. The sunrise itself was indeed magical but my favorite moment was when the light began to fill the layers of rock in the canyon itself. Layer by layer, these strata were lit up and began to glow with the hazy dawn still in the air but now under direct light. Magic. This time there were no crowds to fight and it was just me enjoying the magic of a sunrise in the Grand Canyon!
By about 10am I had spent a good 6 hours in the canyon and I decided it was time to make the long trek back to the airport. The drive was easy and brunch at Calico’s was amazing. Get the “all you can eat brunch”! You cannot be disappointed - especially with the bread and butter styled dish made with french toast. Nevertheless, the rest of the trip was uneventful and a seriously exhausted me arrived back in Seattle at about 10pm… Ready to start the new work week??