By Saul Schwartz
My wife Fern and I spent three very full days exploring one of the seven natural wonders of the world in late June/early July 2021. The weather cooperated with us (with temperatures in the seventies and eighties), allowing us to have a full exploration of the South and East Rims, with their incomparable vistas at every overlook. We had been prepared for more extreme weather, as typical in summer.
Currently, there are still some limited closures. The main Visitor Center was closed, there are no park ranger programs and only two of the shuttle bus routes were in operation. Nevertheless, almost all key sites are now open. With most activities outside, we had no COVID concerns.
With the America the Beautiful Lifetime Senior Pass, we did not have to pay a park admission fee. Normally the cost is $35 per vehicle for a one-week pass. Credit cards are accepted at the entrance stations. We entered at the entrance leading to the South Rim.
Located in Northern Arizona, the Grand Canyon National Park encompasses 277 miles of the Colorado River and its adjacent uplands. The Grand Canyon is one of the most spectacular examples of erosion anywhere in the world. The Grand Canyon contains many canyons within its borders.
Fern and I traveled to the Grand Canyon by driving from Los Angeles and then back to San Diego. These drives of about eight hours each went through desolate areas of Arizona and California. The roads (primarily Interstate 40) were very good, but services (i.e., bathrooms, restaurants, gas stations) are few and far between. Temperatures soared to 115 degrees in several locations. At one remote location we paid $5.50 per gallon for gas (during a time period when gas prices were about $3.50 in California). The nearest major airport is in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Hiking the Grand Canyon
Certainly, our hikes increased our joy in exploring the Grand Canyon National Park and they were good exercise. Hiking from overlook to overlook on either the Rim Trail or the Greenway Trail provided us with dramatic scenery. The National Park Service provides a helpful brochure entitled “Hiking Into (the) Grand Canyon.” At some points, the Rim Trail and the Greenway Trail are one and the same. Both are very good trails for the less experienced hiker.
The Rim Trail is a 13-mile trail between Hermit’s Rest and the South Kaibab Trailhead. This hiking trail (with no bikes allowed) provides exceptional views of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We enjoyed several hikes on the paved portions of the Rim Trail. Most portions were relatively flat, with an occasional steep portion. We also hiked portions of the paved Greenway Trail. This was also a 13-mile trail used for biking and hiking to several scenic viewpoints, trail heads and park attractions. Also mostly flat, this trail had occasional uphill grades.
We divided our hikes on these two trails into different portions. On our first Rim Trail hike (of under 2 miles) we went from the Village Route Transfer Stop to Hopi Point and we went by several overlooks (the Trail view Overlook, Maricopa Point, Powell Point and Hopi Point). This portion was fully paved, partly uphill and partly flat. This portion of the trail is serviced by the red shuttle bus. A geological timeline (called The Trail of Time) is described by metal inscriptions right on the ground and in signage on the trail, with information describing events go up to 4560 million years ago. The views are breathtaking, with red rocks and our first views of the blue Colorado River at the base of the Canyon. This was a hike on our first morning when temperatures were pleasant.
Our second hike on the Rim Trail began at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center as we went by Mather Point and ended at the Yavapai Geology Museum (about 2 miles away). This portion of the trail is accessed by taking the shuttle bus to the Visitor Center. Here the trail was fully paved and it was pretty flat. At the Visitor Center we noted the signage indicating that in October 1979, the Grand Canyon National Park was designated a world heritage site as a protected area with outstanding natural and cultural resources. On the way to Mather Point, a round monument is imprinted into the ground identifying the various native American tribes that have ties to the Canyon. At Mather Point, in addition to the magnificent views of the Canyon, red rocks and the Colorado River below, there is a memorial plaque for Stephen Mather (1867-1950), who laid the foundations for the National Park Service and its policies of conservation. The Yavapai Geology Museum is modest in size and some of the hands-on exhibit areas were covered up due to COVID. The museum contains a small park store run by the Grand Canyon Conservancy. The building provides a lookout for expansive canyon views from the inside.
Our third hike on the Rim/Greenway Trail was from Pima Point to Hermit’s Rest, covering one mile. This was a good afternoon hike when the temperatures were higher, and the sun was stronger. Hermit’s Rest (built in 1914) is one of the Grand Canyon buildings designed by Mary Colter. This hike provided extensive views of the Colorado River below and more cacti. At Hermit’s Rest, there is a rocky entryway under a stone arch with a broken bell at is top which was relocated from a Spanish mission in New Mexico. Touching the bell is said to bring good luck! In 1987, the Hermit’s Rest building was designated as a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service. Hermit’s Rest like other Colter’s buildings, fits visually with the Grand Canyon and blends into the Grand Canyon landscape. The building now contains a snack bar. From the observation area, you can walk to a hiking trail, the Hermit’s Trail. Hermit’s Rest was designed by Colter to resemble a dwelling made by an untrained mountain man using the natural timber and boulders of the area. It appears as a haphazard structure of stone and wood. Within the gift shop inside the building, there is a lovely stone fireplace.
Our final hike on the Rim began at the Village Route Transfer Stop, but this time we headed towards the Visitor Center. This hike allowed us to stop at some of the historical buildings of the Grand Canyon Village (Kolb Studio, Lookout Studio, Hopi House, and Verkamp’s), as well as several of the historic lodge buildings. This portion of the Rim Trail is paved and flat. One particularly interesting stretch of the trail contains geology exhibits featuring preserved ancient and colorful rocks found in the Grand Canyon with descriptions of their age (including Diamond Creek granite from 1736 million years ago, Trinity granite from 1730 million years ago and Phantom granite from 1662 million years ago).
Hiking into the Grand Canyon is easily accessed on the Bright Angel Trail (with the trail head near the Grand Canyon Village lodges) or on the South Kaibab Trail (by a stop on the orange shuttle bus). Both of these trails are extremely strenuous hikes, first downhill and then back uphill, as you enter into the Grand Canyon itself. They provide a different perspective of the Grand Canyon.
Grand Canyon Village
At first glance, the Kolb Studio is simply a structure built on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I found it incredible how such a building was built on the brink of the canyon. Originally constructed in 1904, this building was the family home and photographic studio/photo lab of Emery and Ellsworth Kolb. The studio sits nearby the Bright Angel Trailhead and the Bright Angel Lodge. The structure was built on a rock shelf blasted out of the Grand Canyon wall and it has clung to the side of the Grand Canyon for over 100 years! This studio was one of the earliest tourist destinations on the South Rim.
We enjoyed hearing how the adventurous Kolb brothers left their (and my hometown) of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and secured a very prominent place in Grand Canyon history by recording (in movies and still pictures) their boat trips down the Colorado River and within the Grand Canyon. The pioneering brothers ran the rapids, hiked the Canyon and photographed it all. One current exhibit is entitled “The Amazing Kolb Brothers” and includes one of their original movies.
Major additions were made to the studio to include an auditorium and darkroom. It is now five stories high and contains twenty-three rooms (although only a few are open to the public). The studio is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It currently contains an exhibition venue with a photography gallery which includes colorful Grand Canyon paintings, a curio/bookstore and an information center operated by the Grand Canyon Association. One of the Kolb’s boats is also on display, along with antique cameras. The views from the studio are incredible. Although the structure is Victorian in style, rooms were added over the years here and there. The building is open daily.
Nearby and just down the rim from the Kolb Studio, sits the Lookout Studio. This studio was constructed in 1914 by the Fred Harvey Company in an attempt to run the Kolbs out of business! This second studio was designed as a location where visitors could take pictures of the Grand Canyon from its edge and use telescopes to observe the natural beauty the canyon offered. This masonry building is also built right out of the Grand Canyon.
The Lookout Studio was one of the beautiful buildings in the Grand Canyon Village designed by architect Mary Colter, the chief decorator for the Fred Harvey Company. Built on a precipice near the El Torvar Hotel, the Lookout is a rustic studio built out of stone and log timbers. Colter designed the exterior stonework to convey an American Indian structure. The interior is divided into several levels. The viewing windows and terraces allow dramatic Grand Canyon views from its edge. Today the Lookout Studio serves as a souvenir and gift shop and it is open daily.
We thought that this 1905 building may be the most beautiful of the eight Mary Colter buildings in the Grand Canyon. This large multi-story stone masonry building resembles a 1000-year-old Hopi pueblo. The Fred Harvey Company commissioned Colter to design an Indian Arts souvenir shop and the Hopi House continues to sell those products. The sandstone walls are reddish in color and tiny windows allow in only small amounts of light to keep the structure cooler. In 1987, the Hopi House was designated as a National Historic Landmark. Many original furnishings on the main level are still preserved. This may be the best place to buy native American products in the Grand Canyon.
Also located on the South Rim in the Village near the Hopi House, Verkamp’s was built as a curio shop and family home. It now houses a small visitor center which includes a walking history timeline on its floor detailing information on the Grand Canyon National Park over the years, such as the increasing number of visitors, important moments of local history, etc. The exhibit area focuses on what it was like to live and work on the brink of the Grand Canyon.
The current building was opened as a business by John Verkamp in 1906, inspired by the tourist trade. The ledger for his first day of business showed that he made $4.98. The curio store operated for more than a century, featuring native American artisans. In 2008, the National Park Service purchased the building and opened it as a small visitor center and Grand Canyon Association bookstore/museum store. The black two-story building is easily seen, placed back away from the South Rim.
This building is the only remaining structure from the original early pioneer settlement. The cabin was built in 1895 by William Buckey O’Neill as a two-room office and bunkhouse. The cabin was built with v-notched logs, rough mortar and a native stone chimney. O’Neill promoted the Grand Canyon railway to promote his tourism and mining interests. The cabin can be rented, as it is now part of the Bright Angel Lodge, as two different rooms. It appears as a traditional looking log cabin.
The scenic Desert View Drive goes for about twenty-five beautiful miles from the Grand Canyon Village to the Canyon’s East Rim (also known as the Desert View). The road is open to private vehicles and contains a series of six scenic overlooks of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. The drive is a part of State Route 64, but it is entirely contained with the park. The shuttles do not go to the East Rim.
At the end of the Desert View Drive, the East Rim contains a large parking area where a short walk takes you to the Desert View of the Grand Canyon, which includes desert, the Colorado River and forests. From the overlook, we were able to see magnificent views where the Colorado River makes a dramatic bend to the west. To the east, we were able to see the cliffs which mark the eastern most point of the Grand Canyon. At the East Rim, there are extensive bathroom facilities and a small marketplace (trading post). From this location, we could easily see the north rim about ten miles away.
At the East Rim, the Desert View Watchtower is another Mary Colter designed building. The tower itself is closed due to structural issues. A ground level giftshop is open daily and contains an attractive fireplace designed by Colter. The unusual stone Watchtower (1932) was designed by Colter to be in the style of an ancient pueblo watchtower. As we got closer to the building, we saw how well it blends into the rock of the canyon walls that begin where the tower ends. On the outside of the tower, there are petroglyphs on several stones which were brought to this site from nearby locations. In 1987, the tower was designated as a national historic landmark. It appears on many Canyon photos.
At the East Rim, a marker informed us about the June 30, 1956, Grand Canyon aviation accident. Information here explained how TWA and United Airlines planes collided over the Grand Canyon in a tragic accident which helped lead to the creation of the Federal Aviation Administration and national standards for airline safety. In 2014, this site was designated a national historic landmark. As a result of the collision, there were 128 deaths.
The Tusayan Ruins and Museum are about 22 miles away from the Grand Canyon Village. Due to COVID restrictions and fire danger, we were unable to see the pueblo site or museum. It lies off of the Desert View Drive, just several miles from the East Rim.
We had two excellent dinners at the El Tovar Hotel on the South Rim within the Grand Canyon Historic Village. Although dinner reservations are very highly recommended, we were seated within one hour of signing up for the wait list. Dinner goes from 4:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. This is most elegant of the Xanterra food offerings within the park. Dinner takeout is also available. The ambiance is rustic with casual elegance. The dress code is casual, as well. The wait staff was very friendly and courteous.
Fern and I really enjoyed the bread service, with a nice variety of rolls, including a very tasty rye. I had an excellent salmon both nights, served over rice with a vegetable, while Fern enjoyed two different salad offerings. The prices were reasonable for such nice meals. The menu, although limited, integrated both Southwest and international influences. Desserts are available, as well.
Both nights we were fortunate to be seated at tables with Grand Canyon vistas. The celebrated and majestic dining room is constructed of native stone and Oregon pine. The colorful murals on the walls reflect the customs of four native American tribes (the Hopi, the Apache, the Mohave and the Navajo). I would highly suggest at least one meal in the El Tovar Hotel dining room during your trip. Breakfast and lunch were also available daily.
There were several other food options available within the Grand Canyon Historic Village, including a food court at Maswik Lodge featuring sandwiches and snacks (from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.), a food truck outside the El Torvar Hotel with hot dogs, novelties and non-alcoholic drinks (from Noon to 4 p.m.), a fountain at the Bright Angel Lodge with coffee, baked goods, snacks such as pretzels, sandwiches, hot dogs and non-alcoholic beverages (from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.) and the Fred Harvey Tavern within the Bright Angel Lodge offering sandwiches, burgers and cocktails (from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.). We were unable to be seated for dinner at the Fred Harvey Tavern without a reservation. All of these food and beverage offerings are run by the contractor Xanterra.
While sitting outside the fountain at the Bright Angel Lodge one evening, we saw a very tame mule deer come by for its own version of dinner. The mule deer is a North American deer species, named for its large mule-like ears. The mule deer are bigger and heavier than white-tailed deer. This particular mule deer was snacking on shrubs, leaves and needles from trees.
Outside the Grand Canyon Village, we had one lunch at the Market Plaza General Store. We were pleasantly surprised at the food offerings from the store’s large supermarket and counter service. I enjoyed a black bean burger with fruit, while Fern ate hummus with healthy crackers. The General Store is open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. We were able to eat outside at an umbrella shaded table. Nearby the Market, there is another food venue at the Yavapai Tavern, which is open from Noon to 9 p.m.
Just outside the Grand Canyon Park’s gates, there are about ten additional restaurants open in Tusayan. Some are fast-food (including Wendy’s and McDonalds) and others are sit-down. In advance of our trip into the park, we stocked up on drinks and breakfast or lunch items at the Safeway in Williams, Arizona at 637 West Route 66. For most travelers, Williams is the gateway town into the Grand Canyon. This grocery store had a wide variety of food and beverage items that we put into the refrigerator at the lodge.
- Beat the heat: The sun is strong, so it is important to either wear sunblock or sun protection clothing. We saw many tourists whose skin was red and burned. The South Rim’s high elevation and dry climate may surprise you in an adverse way. It is important to drink water regularly. Some of the free water filling stations in the park were closed due to COVID.
- Keep a safe distance from wildlife for your sake and theirs! In addition to several mule deer that we saw in the Canyon, we saw a bear when we first drove into the park.
- Ride the free shuttle buses: The shuttle bus drivers were helpful and informative. The buses are a much more convenient alternative to driving around. The orange route is currently running in one direction from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center to the South Kaibab trailhead, Yaki Point and the Pipe Creek Vista. A shuttle bus took us from the Village Route Transfer to the Visitor Center, where we boarded the orange route. The red route is currently running in two directions from the Village Route Transfer to the Trail view Overlook, Maricopa Point, Powell Point, Hopi Point, Mohave Point, the Abyss, Monument Creek Vista, Pima Point and Hermit’s Rest overlooks. The orange route ran from Noon into the early evening, while the red route ran from the early morning until one hour after sunset. We were particularly pleased that after watching the sunset one evening at Hopi Point, there were extra shuttle buses to take visitors back to the Village Route Transfer point. It is my understanding that an additional route (i.e., the blue route) is soon to be reopened. Masks are required. The buses run frequently.
- Restrooms are limited: Unfortunately, there are not restroom facilities at all overlooks. The National Park Service identifies the location of restrooms in its pocket guides. We really could not understand why there wasn’t at least one portable restroom at each overlook.
- Stay inside the Grand Canyon Park at one of the lodges: Although more expensive, you cannot beat the convenience of staying within the park at one of the lodges. Reservations need to be made well in advance. By staying at the Maswik Lodge, we were able to walk to the Grand Canyon rim in about five minutes (about one quarter mile from the South Rim). The lodges are also run by Xanterra. At Maswik, the 280 contemporary air-conditioned rooms are spread out in the nature of a more modern two-level motel structure, with twelve buildings. The king room included a television, a large refrigerator, a coffee maker and a nice outdoor picnic table with two additional chairs tucked in a quiet ponderosa pine forested area. The internet rate was $262 plus tax per night. Parking by the room was plentiful. Several times per day, the historic Grand Canyon railway train went by tooting its horn as the conductor headed to or from Williams, Arizona.
- Even if you are not staying at the Bright Angel Lodge or the El Torvar Hotel, both are worth viewing. The two lodges are right by each other just off of the South Rim in the Grand Canyon Village. The inside of the El Tovar features hunting motifs, including stuffed animal heads and paintings of the Canyon. The Bright Angel Lodge, first constructed in 1885, contains some of the oldest remaining buildings in the Grand Canyon Village. Inside the Lodge, an unusual fireplace was built with the rock native to the Grand Canyon. Information inside the Lodge provides explanations for some of the Mary Colter buildings. The Lodge is one of the Colter buildings and is a good example of her rustic design and attention to detail (e.g., the exterior chimney is ordinary from the outside, but the inside contains the interior fireplace layered with stone from the geological layers of the Canyon).
- Internet service is spotty: Although we weren’t in the lodge rooms all that much where we sought to log into the internet, we frequently were unable to connect. Of course, it is best to enjoy the beauty of the park and avoid work or leisure activities where you need the internet.
- Sunset views upon the Grand Canyon are not to be missed: The canyon turns specular colors as the sun sets daily. Different portions of the canyon turn red, yellow, brown, green and white. We picked Hopi Point for our sunset viewing, as it offered approximately 180 degrees worth of views. Although somewhat crowded, we were well spaced apart. Sunset may be the most amazing time to view the Grand Canyon from an overlook, but at some of the overlooks the canyon walls block out the sun as it sets and the view is not as good (e.g., near the Grand Canyon Village by the Bright Angel Lodge or the El Tovar Hotel).
- Be careful as you approach the ledges of the Canyon: Every year several individuals die at the Grand Canyon by accidental falls.
- The Grand Canyon National Park is a bucket list trip that I would recommend extremely highly. Fern and I felt that three days/four nights allowed us to see all of the major areas of the South and East Rims.