For me the Grand Canyon is one of the Earth's most inspiring places. I saw its stunning beauty first from a small tour plane and then very briefly on foot in my 20s. I vowed to return. Four decades later in the fall of 2011 I got my wish when Bud, my husband and I did a cross county RV round-trip from Georgia to Arizona.
Bud and I will never forget our first glimpse of the Grand Canyon. It took a few minutes to absorb. We gawked in silence. Tears of wonder rolled down my cheeks. No picture can capture its grandeur. There are no words to do it justice. We sat for an hour in the shade of a juniper tree on the edge of the South Rim contemplating this strange new world. The profound silence was almost palpable. It invited us to think, feel and be still.
The canyon is so large the fusion of reds, whites, pinks and browns in the layered cake cliffs, buttes, terraces and arches taper away into a hazy distance.
Our five-day stay at the South Rim of the Canyon was the highlight of our month-long trip. We chose to go in the fall as the temperatures are cooler and the canyon is less crowded. To our surprise most of the tourists were from Europe and China.
It's hard to comprehend the Grand Canyon's size. A brochure said it is 277 river miles long, 18 miles wide, a mile deep and the South and North Rim are only 10 miles apart. The North Rim is around 10 degrees cooler as it is 1,000 feet higher than the 7,000-foot South Rim. The Grand Canyon is one of the seven wonders of the world and is the most visited park on the planet.
We were fascinated to learn that the Grand Canyon's rugged rock layers are a widow into time. It tells a two-million-year-old story. Although incomplete it is a record of the Earth's history.
Before the canyon appeared land masses at its bottom collided and drifted apart, formed mountains then eroded. Sea levels rose and fell. Then 70-million years ago the Rocky Mountains emerged when the North American Plate overrode the Pacific plate. The Colorado Plateau rose thousands of feet from sea level to form Utah, northern Arizona, western Colorado and part of New Mexico. Canyons formed as the Colorado River cascaded among the mountain peaks. The canyon deepened as the river, wind, rain and ice cut down and wore away the ridges separating adjacent side canyons leaving buttes and pinnacles.
The canyon's dark metaphoric rock forms the base. The molten rock in its cracks became light bands of granite. The remains of marine life became limestone, the river's sediment became mudstone and the dunes solidified into sandstone.
At first the canyon appeared empty and lifeless until we used binoculars. Hikers dotted the trails. They appeared and disappeared as they crossed the plateaus and snaked down the steep ridges. They looked like tiny ants.
The mighty Colorado River glinted in the sun where it peeped through small openings among the inner canyon walls. Through the binoculars we could see red rafts slowly meandering downstream. Bud stood riveted as he watched a couple of rafts lift and buck like horses as they negotiated a rapid. With the naked eye the tiny red specks looked frozen in time.
We loved camping among the juniper trees at Mather Campground. Mule deer and elk wondered around our RV without fear. Large glossy black ravens with wedge-shaped tales fluttered and squawked among the trees.
Grand Canyon Village at the South Rim, unlike the North Rim, is open all year. It has a visitors center, lodges, a campground, restaurants, two grocery stores and historical and geological displays. Free hop- on-and-off shuttle buses transport hikers to all the overlooks along the thirteen miles of rim trails from sunrise to sunset.
We hiked a short way down the Bright Angel and Kaibab trails. The trails were wide and their many switchbacks made them less steep. The views from the inner-canyon trails were just as awe-inspiring. We chose not to do an overnight hike below the rim as hiking to the Colorado River and back in one day is not recommended. There is limited shade and extreme heat and elevation change.
As long time river lovers and canoe enthusiasts we felt our trip would not be complete without spending some time on the Colorado River below the canyon. The 1,400-mile-long Colorado River is one of the great river basins in the U.S.
The Colorado River Discovery in Page, Arizona agreed to transport our canoe upriver from historic Lees Ferry. Lees Ferry is a major launching site for downstream whitewater rafting trips.
For a nominal fee we got “two” rides on the river. One upstream with the canoe on top of a motorized raft and the second paddling downstream in our canoe.
The 15-miles from Glen Canyon Dam to Lees Ferry is a gentler section than the rollicking whitewater rapids downstream.
Blue skies and distant white and black storm clouds burst overhead as our motorized raft sped upstream and rounded each canyon curve. John, our guide, said the river sinks 85-feet along this stretch and flows around four miles an hour. The chilly 45 to 50-degree water is pulled from the bottom of Glen Canyon.
John beached the raft on a sandbar and helped us unload our canoe at Horseshoe Bend. We had stood 1,000 feet above this circular 270-degree curve in the river only yesterday to watch miniature kayaks meander around the towering orange Navajo stone at its center.
People say the most spectacular views of the Grand Canyon are from the river and inner-canyon trails. It's true . The huge vermilion cliffs dwarfed our tiny canoe. It was thrilling and scary as we paddled alone.
The red afterglow of the canyon's cliffs, buttes and terraces became luminous in the setting sun. We felt exhilaration and relief when we arrived at our take-out at Lees Ferry.
The images and experiences at the Grand Canyon remain vivid back in Georgia. It changed us. We now see ourselves as a part of something much bigger, older and more magnificent. We feel inspired and humbled.