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Grand Canyon )
Grand Canyon Photography by Laura Robida/elan Magazine )
Painted Desert )
The Petrified Forest Photograph by Laura Robida/elan Magazine )
Route 66 marker in the Painted Desert. Photograph by Laura Robida/elan Magazine )
A 1932 Studebaker is part of the Route 66 exhibit in the Painted Desert. Photograph by Laura Robida/elan Magazine )
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The guidebooks aren't exaggerating when describing the hikes into the Grand Canyon as difficult and strenuous. And, as you're hiking down to a viewpoint, you'll be tempted to think that all the warnings posted along the rim and at trailheads are out of an abundance of caution. They're not. There's still the climb back to the top to consider. Nonetheless, don't let a strenuous hike deter you from visiting one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Take it from someone who seriously considered having mail forwarded to my new residency at Ooh Aah Point: the trip is worth it.
Overwhelming due to its sheer size, the Canyon stretches 277 miles along the Colorado River and, at its deepest cavern, a mile from rim to floor, but the National Park itself covers 1,904 square miles of Arizona. If you're brave enough or conditioned enough, a trip from the South Rim of the Canyon to the river is considered a two-day trek. And, for the bravest of souls, a hike from the South Rim to the North Rim, is considered a three-day adventure.
While most of the nearly five million annual visitors to the Grand Canyon view it from various overlooks along the South Rim, a much smaller number of visitors see the majesty of the Canyon from the North Rim, only 10 miles directly across from the South Rim, or from below the Rim. With the North rim 1,000 feet higher in elevation that the South Rim, it is much less accessible and heavy snows close the road leading to the rim from late October to mid-May of each year. But, even in good weather, the trip from the South Rim to the North Rim is a whopping 220 miles by car or 21 miles by foot across the Canyon by way of the North and South Kaibab Trails.
The Grand Canyon gets awfully busy during its peak season. The heaviest crowds can be found during spring, summer, and fall months but late fall and early spring see significantly smaller crowds. A recent early March trip into the Canyon found very light crowds, and as your writer descended the South Kaibab Trail, she found herself alone for several awe inspiring and peaceful moments.
The inner Canyon is accessible from a number of trails that are well traveled by hikers, mules and their passengers, and river runners. Hardy (and brave) adventurers can backpack or ride a mule to Phantom Ranch, the only available lodging located below the Canyon's rim, but if you're looking for a day-trip, a hike down to a viewpoint and back can take as little as a few hours.
Even experienced hikers may find the journey into the Grand Canyon difficult — which is comforting for novice hikers who may have bitten off a bit more than they can chew. All of the trails leading into the inner Canyon involve a downhill trip followed by a strenuous and steep uphill climb. A good rule of thumb is to allow for twice the amount of time for the return trip to the Rim. Also, hikers of all experience levels should be prepared with plenty of water and maybe a high protein snack or too.
Anecdotally, I found the trip down the South Kaibab Trail to Ooh Aah Point to be relatively easy despite being full of steep switchbacks, man-made steps that, in some places were far apart or awfully high, and the signs of mules that had traveled the trail previously. Ooh Aah Point is 1,200 feet below the Canyon's rim, and while the elevation change may be unnoticeable on the journey down, it is certainly noticeable on the return trip. And while standing down at Ooh Aah Point, take a long look at the view as it stretches out before you. The enormity of the Canyon will certainly hit you. But then take a look back to where you started from. You'll wonder how you'll make it back to the top.
While my own trip took place during the cool early days of March – there was still snow on the trails in some places and I needed to wear microspikes on my boots – temperatures vary greatly from the Rim to the inner Canyon. Summer temperatures on the South Rim are relatively pleasant between 50 and 80 degrees, but inner Canyon temperatures can be extreme, sometimes exceeding 100 degrees. The weather can be unpredictable in the spring and fall but, I found temperatures at the Rim to be around 50 degrees. Inside the Canyon, however, was closer to 70 degrees.
Wherever you see the Canyon from, however, you're in for a breathtaking sight. First time visitors will undoubtedly be told that there's more to the Grand Canyon than just a large, rocky hole in the ground, but the temptation is there to minimize the hype. There's nothing to minimize. The Grand Canyon is awe inspiring. Whether you choose to walk the handicap accessible South Rim trail or don hiking boots and grab a set of trekking poles for an adventure in the inner canyon, it's hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer enormity and beauty of the Canyon.
While visiting the Grand Canyon, give into the temptation to make nearby Flagstaff your "basecamp." Just 74 miles from Grand Canyon National Park, Flagstaff is just 90-minutes away and features a number of lodging and dining options. Additionally, another natural wonder is just 120 miles away: The Painted Desert and Petrified Forest.
Set aside several hours to explore all that the Painted Desert has to offer and get up close and personal to the large pieces of petrified wood that now dot the landscape. The Painted Desert is where art seems to come to life. Formed from sediment and shifting landscapes from nearly 200 million years ago, the Desert is a broad region of rocky badlands spanning more than 93,500 acres featuring rocks in every color, shade, and hue.
A long road runs through the Desert but be sure to get out of your vehicle and take the time to walk some of the trails. Unlike the strenuous hikes of the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert is an easy and enjoyable walk. The Desert and Petrified Forest are host to just 645,000 visitors each year so its not unusual to walk out onto a trail and suddenly find yourself alone among the rocks and pieces of petrified wood. There's a sense of smallness in moments like that. The noise of traffic from nearby Interstate 40 (the new Route 66) disappears and there's nothing but the beauty of the desert.
Wildflowers bloom from March through October to add more color to the already picturesque landscape. But if the wildflower and the natural color of the Desert aren't enough, turn your gaze to the ground. Logs of petrified wood are strewn about the desert. Mostly comprised of quarts, the logs make up the remains of what was once a large river system surrounded by trees. As the trees died over many years, they floated downstream and formed log jams. Those jams, formed 211 to 218 million years ago, are now the various forests within the Petrified Forest Park.
And while you're enjoying the natural beauty of the desert and the blues, greens, blacks, and reds of the Petrified Forest, don't be surprised at the sight of a rusted out 1932 Studebaker pulled along the main road. The Studebaker, part of a Route 66 exhibit in the Petrified Forest, showcases a section of the original Route 66 that used to pass through the park and features the original roadbed and telephone poles that marked the path of "Main Street America."
For a native New Englander, driving through Arizona can be an experience like no other. Aside from the 70 MPH speed limit, it's incredible to see the horizon stretch out for miles on all sides of the highway. The natural beauty and colors of the desert are beyond comparison and this writer continuously struggles to find a way to do the region justice.
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