IT IS 6 P.M. AND ALREADY BELOW FREEZ-ing. The sun is about to set and a long day of driving through the mid-February chill has gotten us to a place that could only be described as the middle of nowhere. We are in northern Arizona, miles from the nearest building, person, or water source.
The pinon pine and juniper woodland typical of this bump in the earth known as the Coconino Plateau surrounds us on all sides. We are alone in a tunnel of trees, traveling fast along a thin slab of asphalt that curved back and forth, following the slight rises and depressions of an area that is only slightly less flat than the western regions of Texas.
A few minutes pass and the sun is gone. Except for the immediate area illuminated by our headlights, the world around us has gone completely black. We are following the dotted white line by faith alone.
Another few minutes and the .small town of Tusayan comes into view and fades just as quickly. We find ourselves back inside the night until the south entrance of Grand Canyon National Park appears before us. We approach a set of gates that, during the height of tourist season, can he as full as the entrance to Disneyland. A sign asks us to go on through, ignoring the recently raised $20 per car entrance fee, because the attendants have all gone home. We do so gladly. We move through a little more forest and finally up on the right, we see our destination, the dimly outlined silhouette of the El Tovar.
The El Tovar is the quintessential National Park lodge. It was built to blend in, not compete, with its surroundings by architect Charles Whittlesey, whose rustic style drew on native materials and attempted to harmonize with its surroundings. The building’s walls are body-sized boulders shored up with rough-hewn timbers.
The rustic theme is carried on throughout the interior-the walls and ceilings are log cabin-style, the interiors are dark and calm. Small groups carry on quiet conversations in the sitting room in front of the roaring fire. The building begins to work its magic on me. Stress becomes a dim memory. I absorb the relaxed atmosphere like a sponge.
I look through the large windows of the sitting room but can see only my own reflection. The canyon itself is supposedly just beyond the glass, the EI Tovar being perched on the knife’s edge of the South Rim, but I can see nothing but darkness.
A HUNDRED YEARS ago, I would have been exhausted. Getting to the point where I found myself the next morning-the center of Grand Canyon Village on which the El Tovar borders-would have been quite a daunting task. Early tourists had to really want to come here. Catching the stagecoach would have taken up an entire day to travel the 70 miles from Flagstaff.
Mining this area had been tried early on, but it was quickly determined that tourism was where the money was. And tourism has defined the shape of what used to he called Grand Canyon City ever since. The earliest accommodations were at the Bright Angel Camp, but the EI Tovar, which began construction in 1903, was astonishing for the luxury it offered in this desert area.
During these early years, claims were staked and buildings were erected haphazardly, and multiple groups vied with each other for tourist dollars. But as soon as the area came under the ownership of the United States and gained National Park status, more careful planning was needed.
To this end. Grand Canyon Village was planned and constructed as a work of art. Each individual part had to contribute to the effect of the whole, and the whole, like the El Tovar, had to measure up to me incredibly high standard of the surrounding landscape, carefully fitting in and complementing the area’s natural beauty.
BUT ENOUGH OF WHAT MAN HAS made. I am ready to experience first-hand the reason five million people from around the world visited the area last year. I want to see the Grand Canyon itself.
Hiking is what this place is really about. And trails here span difficulty levels from wheelchair-accessible to grueling. A good place to warm up your hiking legs would be the South Rim Trail, where you can get the most scenery in the least amount of time with the least physical strain. It is perfectly flat, and the eastern third of it is paved. It has a total length of 9.5 miles, but it closely follows the West Rim Drive where, during the summer months, you can catch the free shuttle bus if you run out of juice.
Travel hint: Plan your Grand Canyon trip for the winter. In mid-February, the temperature during the day is in the 40-degree range and doesn’t usually get below 20 at night. Most people don’t realize how livable the canyon is during this season and stay away. You’ll feel like you have the entire place to yourself. National Parks are best experienced in solitude.
The South Rim trail has plenty to offer. Walking east from its connection to the El Tovar, you should make a stop at the Kolb Studio. Emery and Ellsworth Kolb began a photography business and became the first to make a motion picture of an entire Colorado River rafting trip. Your hike will also take you past many so-called “points”- areas where the rim juts oui to its furthest extremes over the canyon. Pima Point, near the western terminus of the trail, will allow you a good view of the Colorado River frothing into the Hermit Rapids Whitewater just about a mile below you.
Just to the west of the Kolb Studio is the beginning of the Bright Angel Trail, one of the so-called “corridor trails”-pedestrian thoroughfares actively maintained by the Park Service. You can use this trail to test your mettle-walking even a few miles on it will give you a good idea of what it takes to backpack this rugged terrain. (Rule of thumb: Because of the steepness of the trail, it will take you twice as long to climb back up the trails as it did to walk down.)
The trail was actually created long ago by beings wiser than mere mortals-it follows paths decided upon by the ancestors of the bighorn sheep that currently populate the area. As you step off onto the trail, you leave civilization behind and are immersed in the canyon itself. A person standing on its rim simply cannot understand what it’s like to actually be down below-on one side you are blocked by walls so steep and tell you could never hope to climb them, and on the other you are left unprotected by the shear depth of the notch the Colorado River has torn. This odd combination of boundaries and no boundaries has its effect on you, causing simultaneous nervousness and contentment. Walking through the canyon brings to you the realization of why it has attracted the attention and fired the imagination of so many throughout the years.
In the summer, however, during the middle of tourist season, this trail is often jam-packed. But there are better places to experience what the Grand Canyon has to offer.
When I ask the ranger behind the information counter how to get to Shoshone Point, he replies, half-jokingly, “Oh, that’s a secret!” This unmarked trail is not on any of the official park maps and will therefore afford the adventurous hiker all the solitude he or she could want. To get to it, drive east on the East Rim Drive. Eventually you’ll see a sign that marks the turnoff to Yaki Point. Keep going 1.25 miles and you’ll see a small parking area nestled below some trees. The trail that leads from this parking area is easy to find, and after a mile or so of mild terrain, you will suddenly pop out of the woods, with the entire canyon spread out beneath you. Be brave and follow the trail all the way out to the point, the place marked by the large white balancing rock, and leave the crowds and civilization completely behind.
It’s been a long day. Night again covers the area and 1 retreat to the El Tovar. I fill myself with food from the excellent restaurant, wander through the gift shop, and end up before the great fireplace in one of the sitting room’s well-used chairs. The picture windows are still black, but I’ve lost last night’s sense of emptiness. 1 know what’s out there now, can feel, even from here, that hole in the ground I’m perched on the edge of. I lean back in the chair, close my eyes, and contentedly fall asleep. The other guests notice, understand, and walk quietly around me.
Just the Facts
What you need to know before you go.
WHERE TO STAY
EI Tovar Lodge, RO. Box 699, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023,303-297-2757. Rates: $114-$279.The El Tovar is the only lodge in the park with concierge and room service,The best canyon view suites should be booked a year in advance.
Bright Angel Lodge, PO. Box 699, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023, 303-297-2757. Rate: $70. More rustic than the El Tovar. but still very nice.
WHERE TO EAT
El Tovar Dining Room, 520-638-2631. The chef was trained at the Culinary Institute of America and his menu includes dishes such as a trio of buttermilk, blue cornmeal, and buckwheat pancakes with honey pistachio butter for breakfast and fresh Atlantic salmon with red bell pepper marmalade for dinner. Not bad after a day in the wilderness, Arizona Steakhouse, 520-638-2631 x. 6296. The place to eat after a hard day on the trail, offering steak, chicken, pork, and seafood, and a selection of beer and wine,
WHAT TO BRING
Hiking boots. sunscreen, lots of water.
WHEN TO GO
Be brave and go in the winter,The crowds are gone and you have the place to yourself. As a compromise, autumn is also a great time to come. The crowds have substantially diminished, but the weather is still generally excellent.