One thing I didn’t really believe I would get from the Grand Canyon was goosebumps – well not due to the temperature anyway.
We visited in September after researching the best time to go and, with what I would assume were relatively few other visitors and daytime temperatures in the mid 20s, we were pleased with our choice. It did mean early mornings and overnights were anything but what you might immediately think of as desert like. We experienced an overnight low of -4.
Thankfully we were no longer sleeping in a tent. In Vegas, we had collected a Jucy campervan, which Nigel won a week’s hire of. I don’t know how cold our most extreme night was in Mammoth, where we struggled to sleep because we were so cold, but assuming it wasn’t that far below freezing, it was a relief not to still be sleeping under canvas. Well, Nigel was, to be fair, in the tongue-in-cheek named penthouse – a top box on the roof of the van, but with snuggly duvets and blankets provided by Jucy, he was toasty too!
We stayed in Mather Campground on the south rim of the canyon, which proved to be conveniently central and excellently served by the extremely easy to navigate free shuttle bus system that takes you to all notable points. The helpful drivers go out of their way to ensure you have all the information you need and know where to get off.
We were prepared for the basic nature of the National Parks Service campground after our stay at Yosemite, though this site was relative luxury with clean toilets and a central laundry and shower block.
Our decision to stay three nights had raised some eyebrows with other travellers who thought that too generous but we’re delighted we did.
I had previously thought I wanted to experience the glass Sky Walk at the West rim of the canyon and, in honesty, I think there is still a little regret on Nigel’s part not to have seen the canyon from the sky, but what we opted for at the south rim felt like a less plastic experience.
We hiked a tiny way into the canyon on the Bright Angel trail. A fairly easy walk down in the moderate heat which allowed us to have a picnic actually sitting inside it. We viewed it from a myriad angles, saw its colours change from pink to rusty dark orange at sunset. We were advised a good spot for this was Yavapai Geological Museum. I suspect somewhere a little further out would have been better as even in this less high season time there was a reasonable crowd jostling for photo and selfie positions. l preferred the half-hour after sunset when many of the other people had left, the dusk colours were most impressive to me and we could look out in more serenity.
We cycled from Hopi Point to Hermit’s Rest with the Bright Angle Bicycles. As this was our major canyon event I didn’t want to scrimp and opted for the guided tour. Our tour guide was great, the trip was fun and, with only a dozen people in it, the group was small enough to feel intimate. By being guided we got some commentary on the canyon and some quirky additional extras – for example a direction to sniff a Ponderosa tree (vanilla-like!).
I do feel opting just for a hire would likely have been just as good if a little less informative. The firm provides a free shuttle to make the route 90 per cent downhill and extremely accessible. The cafe at the hire centre was also extremely good value – surprising and refreshing considering the captive audience.
We’d have loved to get down further into the canyon, ideally through a Colorado River raft but Our Little Man was just under the age eight threshold for those options. As those massively expensive tours get booked up up to 18 months in advance we probably couldn’t have managed it on this trip anyway.
Our relaxed schedule did allow us to complete another Junior Ranger programme (as good as those in San Francisco and Yosemite), ponder Yavapai Museum and take in the visitor centre and it’s informative video. All very worthwhile and interesting points to aim for to keep Our Little Man engaged in various rim walks which all offered new and ever changing views.
On the way to the canyon we’d laughed at some of the indicators of just how vast America is and how huge the distances between things could be. My husband clocked a billboard announcing 93 miles to McDonald’s. “Imagine a sign in Peterborough trumpeting a McDonald’s in London!”
The distances were something we were mindful of in our trip planning. We made a concerted effort to restrict driving to around two to three hours a day, both to try to enjoy something of each area we passed through and restrict fatigue. Even then some of the stretches felt long enough and were straight and uninspiring. Others offered chances to stop off at wonderous places such as a little known structure called the Hoover Dam. Pretty impressive it turns out.
Despite our best efforts the route from the canyon 490 miles to LA did turn out to be more about getting from A to B than relishing what we saw along the way. However, one of our trip breaking stops was a real highlight for me.
A bizarre combination of tourist tacky and almost authentic was Oatman, reached by a curving section of historic Route 66. The road was by far the least well maintained we travelled on in America. I expect the advice I had heard that any distance on the famous route quickly loses any romance is right, but that one section was a picturesque, twisting and undulating and it was good to have experienced it.
Oatman itself – a former gold rush town – is described as a living ghost town. We learned these ghost towns were plentiful on the routes we travelled though their value as a visitor varies. In Beatty, at the mouth of Death Valley, we stopped off in Rhyolite, hailed a top attraction of the area, which is pretty concerning for the area. It held our attention for around five minutes and we left bewildered. A couple of piles of bricks, worn information boards which offered little and a very odd outdoor ‘art’ collection.
By contrast Oatman is in tact and quite thriving albeit primarily as a string of gift stores. Regardless it has been maintained to look like a real country and western town and that illusion is underlined when, every day, volunteers come out into the middle of the road, blocking through traffic, and have a five minute ‘shoot out.’ It’s all done for a donation, raising money for charity, making the amateurish nature of it totally forgivable. That attraction combines with wild burros (donkeys) that wander freely, stopping traffic at will and not even flinching at the ‘gunshots.’ They happily handfeed on food sold to visitors for a $1 a bag by many of the shops.
It felt a bit like a mini theme park and a quite poetic bridge between the physical delight of the canyon and awaiting manmade attractions of LA where our three-week roadtrip and cycle of human and physical geographic American eyepoppers came to a close.