I usually have a good memory for this sort of thing, but I can’t remember exactly how this trip came together. We all love to travel, and we have talked a lot over the years about where we want to go, but there’s always that moment where talk becomes reality. I am on this quest to see the National Parks, and most of them I will be visiting alone, but I found it pretty easy to convince my friends to come see Grand Canyon.
AshleyD, Linda, and Nicole all flew into Los Angeles on Thursday morning, and we meant to get on the road quickly, but we stopped for snacks and by that time we were ready for lunch and then Linda wanted to see my apartment and so it was the afternoon before we were on our way. My car has room for four people and about half of their luggage, so it is a good thing we all like each other so much.
We drove through California to Arizona, stopping only to eat at a 60s diner decorated in pink and teal. We couldn’t see much of the landscape of Arizona because it was already dark by the time we got there, so we turned off of I-40 and headed into the middle of nowhere. There has been a moment in all of my National Park trips so far where I felt like I was leaving normal life (and usually cell reception) behind to enter a different kind of world. We arrived late, checked into our hotel, and drank red wine until it was time to go to sleep.
I have been reading more about travel lately and doing a lot more traveling myself, and I am so interested in how we romanticize travel when so much of it is completely unromantic. Even On The Road is full of moments when Kerouac would have rather been at his mom’s house in New York than living the beat life. There is no day of travel where everything goes right. Between the four of us, we had like seven minor emergencies, including a death in my family and a trip to the doctor for Linda. It is just that the contrast is so high--the level of beauty so unimaginable and the feeling of friendship so strong--that everything is sharper, and even the bad becomes an important part of the story.
Before leaving, I heard mixed things about Grand Canyon. Many people told me it was the most amazing thing and I would not believe it, and some warned it can be underwhelming and is not as beautiful as Bryce Canyon and Zion. After wandering around the parking lot, literally unable to find a giant hole in the ground, we finally started catching glimpses of the canyon and then walked up to the rim and said, “Oh my God.” I’ll have to compare it to Bryce Canyon after I visit next month, but I was really moved by Grand Canyon, and the only reason I had to find it underwhelming was that it did not look real. Aside from what you can see immediately in front of you, the rest of the canyon looks like a painting. I kept looking back at it, expecting it would reveal itself as false--that I might see a streak in the paint or the edge of the canvas.
We decided to spend our first day walking the Rim Trail, which takes you to various points along the edge of the canyon, some of them made safe by guardrails and some of them left completely natural. I was rarely worried about getting too close to the edge myself, but I had to look away when I saw strangers climbing out on precarious ledges just for a picture. AshleyD and Nicole and I visited Mather Point and then ran from a squirrel who we had been warned might be dangerous before we picked Linda up from the doctor where she was being treated for an eye infection. We stopped briefly at the general store (aka, the only place in the park with free WiFi; we are internet people and also human) and then headed to Grand Canyon Village. Linda hadn’t seen the canyon by that point, so we acted like experts and showed it off. She does not consider herself a nature person, and I wasn’t sure how she would react, but I think it was love at first sight. We all spent the rest of our trip saying, “Guys, look!” and then ooohing and awwwing at our beautiful surroundings.
We ate lunch at El Tovar Hotel, which is a historic lodge right next to the canyon, and then walked the rim to Lookout Studio and the Kolb Brothers studio. We checked out the trailhead to Bright Angel Trail, which we knew we would be becoming very familiar with the next day. Then we drove 25 miles around the rim of the canyon, stopping at a couple lookout points on our way to Lipan Point to watch the sunset. We took approximately one million pictures and then secretly drank Blue Moon while we watched the sun disappear. Sitting there on a rock at the edge of Grand Canyon with three of my favorite people was one of the strongest, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is” moments I’ve ever had.
I worried that March would be too early to visit, but we could not have picked a better time. It was windy and cold after the sun went down, but the park was not crowded and we didn’t have to deal with overwhelming heat. Even in the winter, they strongly urge you not to try to hike to the bottom of the canyon unless you plan to stay there for the night. I would like to do that on a return visit, but we hiked down Bright Angel Trail to the 3 Mile Resthouse before turning around, and that was a big enough challenge for our first trip. The trail itself was beautiful and gave us completely different views. We would all be focused on the hike until someone said to look up, and then we would stop to take pictures.
Walking into a canyon is pretty easy, but every step you take down is one you’ll have to take back up. Or, as the sign warned, “Down is optional. Up is mandatory.” We ate lunch at the rest house and then wandered around and ended up on the edge of a cliff where we took turns taking pictures. On our way back up, we would keep referring to that cliff, using it as a point of reference for how far we had come. I had a sinking feeling the minute we started hiking back up and I was tired before we had gone any distance, but I quickly fell into a rhythm and though one girl will strongly disagree with me on this one, I was surprised by how quickly we got back up to the top.
All the people we met in the park were incredibly nice, but I felt a special bond with the people we ran into on the trail, even when we didn’t share any words. One man told us that only three percent of the people who visit the canyon hike into it and that people do fall off the sides, but they are usually between the ages of 18 and 25, so we cheered for the first time that we’re (mostly) 30. When we made it through the last rock archway and to the top of the trail, we gave the biggest cheer we could muster, and then we went to the lodge for a cold (smug) beer.
We could not leave the park without seeing the sunset again, so we bundled up and went back to Mather Point, which we discovered is not a great place to watch the sun go down. We had a stranger take the last picture of us with the canyon, then we waved a sad goodbye and headed back to the hotel. We ate and drank and soaked our sad muscles in the hot tub.
On Sunday we drove back to Los Angeles as fast as we could. Since it wasn’t dark this time, we got to see how beautiful Northern Arizona is. Some of it reminded me of Washington and some of it was unlike anything I had seen before. The other girls aren’t even used to seeing mountains, so they were impressed. After the long drive, we went straight to LACMA; Nicole and Linda checked out the museum for an hour, but since it was closing so soon and we had just visited it a month ago, AshleyD and I drank museum wine and people/dog watched. We ate dinner at Bottega Louie (amazing) and then went to our hotel where we laughed so loud that we received a call from the desk saying there had been several noise complaints.
On Monday morning we grabbed breakfast and then headed up to Griffith Observatory to revisit our new friend nature and take a look at the city. Then we rushed to Santa Monica to put our feet in the ocean before going to the airport. We forgot to hug before getting in the car, so at each stop to drop someone off whoever was left got out for a group hug. TRAIN.
I have found that my interest in National Parks has given me a new way to connect with people, since so many have a history with the parks, but it was fun to let two of my different worlds collide and experience nature with friends I have spent the last few years traveling big cities with. Now we have even more places to visit.