Saturday, April 19, 2014

Even More Grand, Off-season

The largest "crowd" we encountered during our December 2013 weekend at the South Rim.

Of course I wanted to see the Grand Canyon close up. And yes, I wanted my significant other to enjoy his chosen birthday destination. Still, I was quite frightened about leaving our cozy Las Vegas hotel for a four-hour drive to an elevation of 7,000 feet when 4-to-8 inches of snow and temps hovering around
0° F were predicted for the weekend at the South Rim.

Now that we’ve survived the adventure, I’m delighted that 1) we didn't careen off an icy road into the Canyon, and 2) we had one of the world's seven natural wonders almost to ourselves.

Day 1: Cabin window, Bright Angel Lodge
Primo Affordable Lodging: The picture at right — taken through our cabin window at Bright Angel Lodge in Grand Canyon Village — is meant to inspire you to consider this lodge in your travel plans. We hadn't reserved a canyon view, but there were several cabins vacant when we arrived on Friday afternoon — probably had much to do with the weather forecast. A very accommodating registration associate gave us a list of available cabins and told us to go pick the one we wanted. Even with the view upgrade, our lodging totaled about $150 per night. Also pleasantly surprising, our cabin wasn’t nearly as "rustic" as some online reviews had suggested. Although small and not quite soundproof, our cabin was wonderfully clean and comfy, the bathroom was tiled and sparkly, and most important to me, the unit was perfectly insulated, airtight and warm. Had it not been for my weather app, I'd never have known when the temp dropped to minus 9° F, and I could have left my travel-size electric blanket at home. Bright Angel is among a handful of historic lodging options operated by Xanterra in Grand Canyon Village. For more information on Bright Angel Lodge and its sister properties, follow this link:

The Sunny Scenery: We took advantage of our first balmy afternoon — sunny with a high of 27° F — to view the Canyon from Mather Point, Yavapai Point and the Bright Angel Trailhead. The top picture, from Mather Point, shows the largest crowd we saw the entire weekend. We were alone at some lookouts, or shared them with six people or less. The majestic canyon, in solitude, was spectacular.

Click here to see more of my Grand Canyon fair-weather photographs.

Mother Nature Stirs Up Some Fun: Early on our second day, it was clear, windy and cold (about 10° F). We drove west from the Village toward Hermit’s Rest, an 8-mile route that we couldn’t have taken a week earlier: It’s restricted to Xanterra’s free hop-on-hop-off shuttles March 1 through November 30. We really didn’t see the few stoic tourists we encountered at the lookouts along the way — they were invisible like us, in piles of down and wool hats. Needless to say, parking wasn’t a problem.

As gorgeous as the canyon views were, that morning I most enjoyed the warmth emanating from the massive stone fireplace inside Hermit’s Rest. Thank you, Mary Colter — America’s first renowned female architect — for making Hermit’s Rest, its fireplace and many other Canyon structures worthy of their grand surroundings.

A 3-hour Tour: Around noon, because the snow was coming soon and the wind was already brutal, we opted for a 3+ hour, 50+ mile Xanterra interpretive (heated!) bus tour, thinking it best to leave the driving to a professional. Jolly, optimistic me, I thought it was our good fortune to be the only couple on the bus. (Once again, that might have had something to do with the weather forecast.)

Yaki Point Access Road

Yaki Point, our first stop on the tour about 10 minutes in, turned out to be our last. With the snow falling fast and sticking, our driver decided the road conditions weren’t safe (we wholeheartedly agreed!) and our tour fee was refunded when he dropped us back at Bright Angel Lodge. Click here to see my YouTube video with the howling wind at Yaki Point; notice I was nowhere close to edge.

Not to be put off by a small blizzard, we immediately left the lodge and traipsed through the whiteout conditions to enjoy a fantastic lunch in the nearby historic El Tovar Dining Room. Our next stop was next door at another Mary Colter masterpiece, Hopi House. This national historic landmark displays museum quality artifacts and has been selling authentic Native American arts and crafts to visitors since its doors opened in 1905.

Day 2: Cabin Window, Bright Angel Lodge
Silly of me, you think, to be enjoying dining and shopping, with such natural majesty just footsteps away? Fact is, there was no Grand Canyon to see: The photograph is a shot from the same cabin window as the one above, about 24 hours later.

Don’t get me wrong. It was heartbreaking to be in the Canyon without hiking her trails — they were icy even before Saturday’s 5 inches of snow. We missed other vistas because the storm closed many park roads. I was delighted to be on clear pavement once we exited the park headed back to Vegas on day three, but disappointed because I’d only experienced a tiny taste of her glories. Yet, the Canyon is so amazingly grand that just that tiny taste filled me with awe — so much so that I can’t wait to get back. Should my next opportunity come when the weather is less than optimum, all the better. I like it when no one’s blocking my view!

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Black Bean Soup

Over-easy Eggs
Dining: In addition to our great lunch at El Tovar, we had four very good, reasonable meals in the casual Bright Angel Lodge Restaurant. We were surprised to see calorie counts for all items on the menu, which included a range of very healthy ( Spinach Salad) to indulgent (Biscuits and Gravy) options. Although a tad peppery for my taste, I thought adorning my black bean soup with a cream holiday tree was a nice touch. I'm especially picky when it comes to breakfast, and when these perfect over-easy eggs arrived, the chef instantly had a new best friend.

Shopping: Sorry, Walt, but when we're a captive audience as we were inside Grand Canyon National Park, we expect to endure "Disney" prices for everything. Instead, we were pleased to find fantastically warm wool hats, handmade in Nepal, in the Bright Angel Lodge shop for less than I'd found them at home in Raleigh, N.C. We found the same reasonable pricing on other clothing and souvenir items.

Getting There and Navigation: We chose to drive to the South Rim, but questioned that decision while the snow was falling. Parking was easy because few people were there and with the weather clear on our travel days, as predicted, it worked out fine. We might have planned differently had we known about before our trip. Xanterra, the corporation that manages most Canyon guest services for the National Park Service, also operates the historic Grand Canyon Railway, which transports visitors between the South Rim and Williams, 65 miles south of the park, daily. They also offer train and lodging packages with accommodations in Williams or a park lodge. Follow this link for a great downloadable NPS South Rim Map that shows lookouts, parking, dining, lodging and shuttle routes and stops.