Lying on my bunk bed in a shared female dormitory at Phantom Ranch, I watched the movement around me. Dinner would be served in about one hour and we had time for introductions. “We’d always wanted to see the Wild West”, one person volunteered, as she adjusted her traditional Amish hairstyle. “My husband is at sea and I wanted to do a mother-daughter trip”, another interjected, with a lovely Texan accent. For months, I had been craving a chance to pause and be inspired. A winter visit to the Grand Canyon National Park seemed like just the perfect way to do it.
It had been a while since I had wanted to see the Grand Canyon in winter. The idea was planted in my mind by a Henry Shukman’s article in the New York Times of quite a few years ago. Early last December, when a trip to Brazil fell through, I picked up the phone on a whim, and contrary to all admonishment, had a cabin on the South Rim and a bed at Phantom Ranch in minutes, with just a little over two weeks in advance.
Winter keeps the crowds away from the South Rim. The area around the lodges and restaurants is still very busy, but as I walked along the trails I soon realized there was plenty of solitude. My first two full days on the rim were spent writing in the frosty mornings, and walking the trails in chilly but sun bathed afternoons.
When I mentioned to a few people that I was going to the Grand Canyon, some said, “Yes, I’ve been there”. I know the “I’ve-been-there-people”. I saw them run out of their cars, take a photo from the rim with the Canyon in the background, and leave real fast. This is like taking a photo with a celebrity that you will never see again. I know that is all we can afford to do sometimes, but this place deserves a different visit, I promise you. The kind in which you become close friends with the landscape, the people, the animals, the weather. Then, when you look at your photos, you are not seeing a famous stranger, you are seeing a part of you. My chance to be at the Grand Canyon in this more intimate way was about to come. I was going to walk to the bottom of the Canyon, spend the night at the Ranch, and walk back the next day.
I made my way leisurely down on the South Kaibab Trail, in five hours of gorgeous winter weather, sunny and chilly in the occasional shade. When I think of this day, I don’t remember so much anymore how my knees were sore at the end of the afternoon due to the steep terrain and hundreds of steps I had to walk down. My mind just wants to display scene after scene of amazing landscapes, shapes and colors.
I was ready to put my legs up when I came to the suspension bridge over the Colorado, at the bottom of the Canyon.
To walk back up to the South Rim the next day, I took the Bright Angel Trail, leaving Phantom Ranch at 7:30 AM, right after a breakfast of plenty of coffee, pancakes and eggs. I thoroughly enjoyed each second of my eight-hour upward walk, taking photos, thinking about life, unhurriedly snacking and chatting with other hikers (particularly the mother-and-daughter team from Texas).
By the time I made it back to to the rim by mid-afternoon I already missed my friend, the Grand Canyon, and I did so with a well nurtured soul.
For More Images: If you are interested in seeing more photos, you can find them here.
How to Get There: I rented a car at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and enjoyed the scenic drive to the Park. It was very convenient – and expensive. For my next visit I will take more time to research public transportation alternatives.
Where to Stay: I stayed for three nights in a small cabin at the Bright Angels Lodge (completed in 1935), just a few steps from the rim. It was toasty in spite of the single digit temperatures of early morning and I could just walk to trails along the rim and down into the canyon, and to a couple different restaurants in the complex. I stayed for one night at the bottom of the canyon, at Phantom Ranch (completed in 1922). Another, more luxurious alternative on the South Rim is El Tovar (completed in 1905). All of these places bear a genuine historic charm, having been part of the Grand Canyon National Park history since before it attained the status of National Park (1919). Imagine someone deciding to build a luxury hotel on the Grand Canyon South Rim – and doing it! in the early 1900’s! El Tovar is a beautiful monument to the American entrepreneur spirit. I cannot wait to take my children there and let them soak it in.
Where to Eat: I stayed local and had my meals at the Bright Angels Restaurant for the most part. The quesadillas were deliciously memorable. If I came to dinner a little before sunset, I could watch the last rays of the sun set the canyon on fire, as I sipped my wine. One night I treated myself to a steak dinner at the El Tovar, which was very charming in its 1900’s architecture. At Phantom Ranch, you either bring your food or you eat the set menu at the Phantom Ranch Canteen. To travel light, I opted for eating at the canteen. The food was hearty, as hikers would want, and the atmosphere very friendly with large families and groups of travelers from all over the US and overseas. Contrary to what one would expect, neither of these places take advantage of the Park’s isolation to spice up the prices or to force poor service down your throat. I found the food very nice, costs fair and service excellent. It’s a pleasure to see good business ethics being practiced and being rewarded. All of these places had plenty of business.