Saturday, January 14, 2017

Grand Canyon National Park

On December 26, the S.O., the Younger Daughter, and I headed north to spend a few days at Grand Canyon National Park. This was my third visit to GRCA. I'd been there twice while working for the National Park Service. Once in August for a List of Classified Structures/Cultural Landscapes Inventory workshop and once in December for Fundamentals II, which is part of the NPS employee orientation program. Both times there tourists around, but it wasn't insane.

This time it was insane. Visitation at the park has climbed steadily. It's now topping five million annually. That's a lot of people to cram into what in many ways is not a very big space. The park covers a lot of land, but not much of it is accessible to the typical windshield tourist, the park visitor who's only got one day in which to hit the highlights and then move on. Which is another way of saying that Grand Canyon Village, the part of the park where the historic lodges (El Tovar, Bright Angel), park headquarters, the Visitor Center, the mule barns, and so on are located, ends up bursting at the seams. For some naive reason I thought the park wouldn't be super busy in late December. I was wrong.

It did not help that we decided to go during the holiday week, the time period between Christmas and New Year's. One reason for doing so was it worked out well with the Kid's work schedule -- with one federal holiday (December 26) and her normal Friday off (she's on a 5/4 schedule) she wouldn't have to burn as much annual leave. Unfortunately, there were a whole lot of other people thinking the same way. And then when you add in the families that decide they'll do a special trip because the little barracudas don't have school and the skiers who figure they'll combine a trip to the Arizona Snow Bowl (north of Flagstaff) with a day of playing tourist at Grand Canyon. . .  holy wah. End result? Talk about an overused resource.

Part of me was thinking we should have waited until sometime in January, but from what I heard in talking with various staff people at the park (both NPS and concession employees) there is no longer a true "off" season. It is busy all the time. On the positive side, high visitation at GRCA does have a spillover effect on some of the less well-known NPS sites not far away, like Wupatki National Monument. On the negative side. . . just how much can you actually enjoy going to a place like the Grand Canyon if you can't find a place to park and there are so many crowds at the overlooks that you have a hard time actually seeing the reason you're supposedly there to begin with?

Well, despite the crowds, we managed. The bigger problem, at least from my perspective, was the treacherous footing. It snowed heavily on Christmas Day so it didn't take long for a gazillion visitors to pack that snow into ice on most of the trails. Conditions were still super slick on Tuesday despite daytime temps in the 40s and lots of sunshine. Simple snow would have melted off fairly quickly; packed ice is a little slower to go away. End result? I was too much of a wimp to try walking very much of the South Rim Trail with the Kid, and the portions of Bright Angel I could see looking down on it resembled a luge run a little too much. It would have been nice to do a short section of Bright Angel, like down to the first tunnel, but I kept having visions of slipping, falling, sliding, and becoming air-borne. One of my goals in life is to never make it into the Park Service Morning Report (the daily summary of creative ways people manage to kill themselves while visiting a National Park). I figured avoiding icy trails aligned nicely with that goal.

There were Yak-Traks (ice cleats to slip on over your boots) available for sale, but I'm one of those people who tends to trip over nothing anyway. I've always figured that for me ice cleats would be more of a tripping hazard than they would be a safety device.

Anyway, no actual hikes although we did log quite a few miles just wandering around. The Kid and I took the shuttle bus one way, got off by the railroad depot, checked out the Visitor Center in what was the Verkamp trading post (which was still a store the last time I was at GRCA), and did some of the obligatory staring over the rim into the Canyon. The display at Verkamp's highlights the history of Grand Canyon Village: the arrival of the first tourists, the various promotional efforts, what life was like (and is still like) for the many people who call Grand Canyon Village home. Most visitors to the park have no idea just how many people work and live there, although if you stop and think at all you realize it has to be a lot. When you add in spouses and kids, you're talking several thousand. But I digress. The thing that hit me at Verkamp's was how few people bothered to look at the exhibits. One half of the first floor of the structure is exhibit space; the other half is souvenir shop. Super crowded on the souvenir side; plenty of space to look at the exhibits on the museum side. Struck me as odd -- why buy souvenirs of a place where your knowledge apparently is going to consist of a few selfies taken with a giant hole in the background? But people are strange. . . .

We also did the obligatory excursion to Hermit's Rest, which has the usual souvenir shop and a snack bar. Parking was, of course, a bitch. During the "on" season there's a shuttle bus that goes out to Hermit's Rest, no private cars allowed, but in December you get to drive yourself. The Hermit's Rest structure is a Mary Colter design. Mary Colter was an architect who worked for the Fred Harvey Company; she designed many of the historic buildings at Grand Canyon as well as at many other locations where the Fred Harvey Company operated hotels and restaurants. Ms. Colter was a whiz at designing fake ruins, buildings that look ancient and crumbling but are actually built with steel framing and a lot of concrete. She was also skilled at designs that can make it hard to tell where the natural rock ends and the artificial stuff begins.

We almost didn't get to go to Hermit's Rest. There were so many assholes (no other good word to describe them) who had decided to park right on the road where it starts just past the Bright Angel trailhead they came close to blocking it. At that point, the road is a nrrow two lane road with no shoulders, but there were idiots who decided it would be just fine to park on the nonexistent shoulder (effectively the right lane) anyway. There was one lonely law enforcement ranger trying to deal with the mess. As soon he got one jerk to move his or her car, another one would try to slide into the same illegal space. I could never work at Grand Canyon -- sooner or later I'd give in to the temptation to thin the crowds a bit by starting to do some not-so-gentle nudges over the edge.

And while I'm on the subject of crowds and parking headaches, as we were heading back to the Village from Hermit's Rest, I noticed shuttle buses labeled "Sunset Tour" pulling into the parking area for Hopi Point, which is reputedly one of the best overlooks in the park to view the sunset from. The parking lot was full already with private cars and multiple buses were going to disgorge more gawkers to watch the sun set. Holy wah. That must be a real special experience, watching the sun set over the Grand Canyon while being pinned in what amounts to a mosh pit of humanity all trying to get positioned to take the absolutely perfect photograph of the experience. Just thinking about it may have contributed to my purchase of alcohol to occupy the evening meal.

Location of head frame for Orphan Mine is just barely noticeable.
We did stop at a number of the overlooks along the Hermit's Rest road, including one that gives a good view of the Orphan Mine site. The preservationist in me was hoping they'd preserved the head frame, maintenance nightmare that it would be (see this post for a photo showing what it used to look like). They didn't. There is a wayside that provides a little information about the mine, but there isn't much physical evidence of it left. Even the railroad spur leading into the mine is long gone; it's hard to tell now that it ever existed.

We also did the obligatory trip to the other end of the park, Desert View. Desert View overlooks the point where the Little Colorado River joins the Colorado. The Desert View tower is another example of Mary Colter's ability to design something new that comes out looking really old. One of the nice things about Desert View is there's almost always a Native American artist or musician demonstrating his or her craft. The day we were there a potter was demonstrating her craft and there was a Hopi musician who played the flute. The musician was the grandson of the artist who painted many of the images on the interior of the tower. He gave a really informative talk on the second level of the tower. It was fascinating. Naturally, 90% of the tourists present weren't interested at all in learning anything about either Hopi history or what the paintings represented; they were just interested in going up and down the tower to get up to the top level. It floored me -- the guy's giving a talk, he's got a decent sized group around him who are obviously listening, and the asshole tourists couldn't even shut up for a few minutes as they passed through that level. I swear people are getting ruder and dumber by the day.

Tusuyan Museum
One place where we did escape the hordes briefly was the Tusuyan Museum and Ruins. When we pulled in there about 9:30 in the morning, we were the only visitor car in the parking lot. The typical Grand Canyon tourist, it's abundantly clear, is not real interested in the heritage resources. The Museum was built in the 1930s to house some of the artifacts found in the park. It's located next to the remains of an ancient pueblo. The museum is small but quite interesting. An interpretive trail loops around the ruins; a slightly longer loop has signage explaining how various plants and trees served as food sources or were used in other ways.

Interpretive trail at Tusuyan Pueblo Museum
As usual, there were signs everywhere pleading with people to stay on the trails, don't walk on the vegetation, please don't climb on the ruins, . . . all of which, going by the footprints in the snow, had been ignored. In fact, one of the don't walk on the vegetation signs was bent in a way that suggested someone had recently tried to steal it. The museum may not get the hordes of visitors other sites in the park do, but it's pretty clear it does get the usual high percentage of idiots and asshats. I swear I don't know how the NPS personnel who get stuck working with the public manage to keep smiling. I couldn't do it.

So you say you'd been thinking about visiting (or re-visiting) GRCA but now are having second thoughts? Don't. The park is definitely worth visiting. Just do a little more pre-planning than we did. We did a couple smart things -- we stayed at Yavapai Lodge so were both right within the park and walking distance from the Market Plaza so had easy access to groceries. Yavapai has mini-fridges and coffee makers in the rooms; we couldn't cook hot food but we didn't have to rely on restaurants for ever y meal. We knew about the shuttle and used it. We also did something a lot of people appeared unwilling to do. Grand Canyon Village is laced with walking and biking paths; we didn't see many people walking anywhere other than milling around in the most congested areas. The Kid and I combined the shuttle and walking, although not as much as we probably should have. In retrospect, we should have used the shuttles more. In any case, if you can swing it, stay in the park, either camping or at a lodge. The lodges aren't cheap, but being close to everything eliminates a lot of headaches.

Pueblo ruins at Tusuyan Museum
And, speaking of the lodges, want to pick a good time to visit? Go to the lodges' reservation pages (Yavapai is operated by Delaware North; the others are all Xanterra; there are links on the web site) and look for times mid-week when there are lots and lots of rooms available. If you have trouble booking a room, if pickings are slim, that's a sign it's going to be crowded. It's advice I should have followed instead of thinking about saving the Kid one day's annual leave.

Then keep in mind that one of the problems at the park can be too many people and not enough dining out options. Yavapai has a bizarre system in place apparently designed to remove some humans from the equation -- you place your order and pay for it on a computer screen and then get to stand and wait to pick it up just like you would at any cheap fast food place, except it's not cheap. I don't know about the average diner, but if I'm going to pay inflated prices for prime rib, I'd kind of like an actual human to come to the table and take the order instead of dining in what's basically a cafeteria. We ate at Yavapai one time (had an extremely mediocre pizza that was cold by the time we got it), in the restaurant at Bright Angel Lodge once, the food court at Maswik once, and the deli in the supermarket in the Market Plaza once. Bright Angel had good service and the food wasn't bad (although they did make my Monte Cristo sandwich the wrong way)(on the positive side, they didn't dust it with powdered sugar, which is one of the stranger things I've seen done to that particular sandwich over the years), the deli was good, and the food court was better than average for a food court. Prices overall were on the high side, but that's exactly what you expect in a place that's crawling with tourists. Except for the deli, there were long lines and a lot of waiting time every place that served food. In short, pack a cooler so you're prepared if the lines are longer than you feel like dealing with or you're on a schedule where you absolutely have to eat at specific times (e.g., you're an insulin-dependent diabetic). If I had to do it over again, we'd have picked a different week and we would have had more of our own food with us.

Desert View
So would I go back? Probably, but not to the South Rim. Having been there three times now, I think I'd like to see the giant hole in the ground from the other side.

Next up in the road trip reports? Wupatki National Monument. 

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