The Grand Canyon and the Painted Desert

Published: April 29th 2016
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"It's a place that transcends simple descriptions..." blurted out a voice from the radio as we entered the national park. The spokesman was only partially right... it also defies complex description. How can you explain the majesty and grandeur of one of the wonders of the natural world? Mere words don't seem sufficient to capture its glory. I've heard it described as, "the one place that lives up to all the hype about it". As for me, I was left speechless, almost breathless, by my first glance over the rim.

Getting to the Grand Canyon

We had walked through the heat of an LA morning, having said goodbye to Brett and Michelle, to pick up a rental car. Here we'd gotten a shock... as we didn't have an American car insurance policy it was mandatory for us to take out liability insurance, which cost a significant multiple of the price of hiring the car. We stared down at an eye-watering sum of money but as our exciting plans for the next ten days depended on having a car, we had no choice but to hand it over. I was then REALLY annoyed when they also tried to charge us for an upgrade that they were going to give us anyway.

Driving out of LA was something I'd been dreading; its a huge city with a vast amount of traffic, which to me all drives on the wrong side of the road. It wasn't as bad as I'd feared, though LA's suburbs seemed to stretch on endlessly. At one point Lindsey said, "take the exit for Pasadena." This was not the most helpful direction as there were nine of them. However, after two hours of driving through beautiful mountainous Californian scenery, watching the sun dip over the desert landscape, we reached a partially completed outlet village in the small town of Barstow. We were underwhelmed and after a quick coffee at Starbucks moved on. We continued driving down the interstate as it got darker and darker until we reached Kingman Arizona. It was so dark in Kingman that we missed the turn for our motel. The next turn was ten miles further down the road so we were a bit irritated when we arrived. The motel was suffused with a strong smell of curry which masked more the timid odours of damp and cigarette smoke. When we asked about the microwave that was supposed to be in our room I was led to a dark room and told to carry one back to the room. It turned out to be dirty.

Next morning dawned cool and clear. We briefly drove around Kingman but didn't have time to soak up its small-town charms. It's a town that has obviously declined since the interstate replaced the old single-track Route 66 which it straddles. We soon hit the highway again and found ourselves on a long straight road, travelling through semi-arid plains, with only the constant presence of bushes to interrupt the endless subtly shifting vista of reds and yellows and oranges. In the distance a range of high rugged mountains came into view, looking mesmerising in the early light of day.

We arrived in the Grand Canyon a National Park around noon. The car park was filled with cars bearing license plates from every corner of the United States, Mexico and even Canada. We were desperate for a cup of coffee and didn't want to ruin our first view of the canyon so we found a café. We then grabbed our cameras and our lunch and headed to the rim.

First Impressions

The first view of the Grand Canyon is almost overwhelming. I felt like I couldn't breathe or speak or even think for a few seconds. This deep tear in the Earth's surface, testimony to the incredible forces that have shaped our world, is unspeakably beautiful. For the first time I understood why people become geologists. Far below, the Colorado River, looking deceptively tiny - like no more than a stream, winds through its valley, appearing only occasionally. The river is surrounded by lofty cliffs which sit below yet higher walls of rock. At the rim huge promontories of rock jut out. Below, the sheer crags fall away into nothingness until suddenly a ridge rises from the valley floor to meet it. The rock strata, which I'm sure speak volumes to the expert eye, are a rainbow of different shades. The reds of the mid-level rocks are striking, sandwiched between purples above and greys below. Occasionally a bird will soar out from a cliff and will soon be lost in the vastness of the landscape which is so huge as to make all perception of distance meaningless.

I found it impossible to contain my wonder at such a sight and was almost bouncing in delight. In stark contrast, we overheard an American visitor complaining of boredom and moaning that it all looked the same. I could not comprehend the lack of awe experienced by anyone seeing the canyon. Each view is unique - each position and time shows a different canyon as the light changes by the second. How could this woman prefer the view of her phone which she was avidly staring into rather than one of the natural wonders of the world? For my part I just wanted to sit in silence and drink in the wonder of the constantly shifting view in front of me. Sadly silence is a rare commodity around that part of the canyon due to the many thousands of tourists.

We ate lunch on a bench looking out over the canyon and then went for a walk along the rim trail. The path was covered with a thin layer of ice and was quite treacherous. I cringed as I watched people climb out onto the un-fenced jutting overhangs of rock.

After tearing ourselves away to book a hotel room for the evening we returned to the rim to watch the sun go down. The shadow of the South Rim was already long when when we arrived back but the parts that were still illuminated were bathed in golden-orange light which really emphasised the redness of the rocks. Each time we blinked the light was more intense but covered less of the scene. It isn't possible to describe the feeling that watching the sun set over the Grand Canyon provokes. We could only leave once the very last rays of sunlight had gone despite standing there in freezing temperatures in a t-shirt.

Return to the Canyon

Next morning I woke to find sunlight streaming through the window - a bad sign as we had planned to be at the canyon for sunrise. Lethargically, we packed and checked out a couple of hours later than planned. Our aim for the day was to walk down to the floor of the Grand Canyon. We arrived and found the trail-head, not thinking much of the signs warning that the trail was icy. Sadly, we hadn't gone more than three hundred metres before I slipped and fell. We could see that the path ahead of us was clear so we pushed on. The path got steeper and I slipped again. This time I couldn't get any traction and it took me about five minutes just to stand. As the path was getting yet steeper and narrower and the drop more precipitous we decided that we couldn't go on. I struggled back to the top, gutted that I'd been beaten by a bit of frozen water.

We took a walk further along the rim trail and finally found a less frequented spot where we could sit in silence and contemplate the vastness before us. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to take in the grandeur without distractions.

We then moved on and drove along the rim edge to different scenic spots. Some of the viewing points were nameless but we also stopped at some identifiable lookouts. Grand View Point did not disappoint with its spectacular views down into the depths of the chasm but I preferred Navajo Point where the character of the canyon seemed to change. Before us, at rim level, was a plain with a strange shaped mountain in its midst. This suddenly dropped away to sheer cliffs which marched away from us until they reached the Colorado River, which was much clearer from here. Beyond the cliff, cutting into the plains, were more canyons and beyond these, yet more. Here, looking down on the magnificent vastness below, I felt really tiny.

Not far from Navajo Point lie the ruins of an eight hundred year old Pueblo homestead which we briefly wandered around. From here we got a great view of the lofty San Francisco Peaks in the distance. It wasn't long though before we headed off to find more spots to view the canyon from. Our last point in the park was Desert View. Here an ugly (in my opinion) watch-tower had been built on the cliff edge. We stopped for more stunning views before heading out of the park.

The Painted Dessert

Our destination was the town of Page, Arizona, where we planned to spend the night. To get to Page we had to drive through the Painted Desert. Even after seeing the immensity and beauty of the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert was still unbelievably beautiful. Here the landscape became more arid and took on a deeper shade of red. Hills which started out looking like small slag heaps gradually got larger until they formed a mammoth ridge, of multi-coloured strata looming over one side of the road. The other side was completely flat. My words just cannot do justice to the splendour of this part of Arizona. I really loved this landscape for its hash, rugged, colourful, inhospitable, glorious desolation.

Twenty miles before Page, we turned off the road and headed for Marble Canyon, another feature of the Colorado River. The sun was low in the sky as we went through the other-worldly landscape and we spent the next half hour chasing the light, trying to see as much as possible and take in the awesome sunset which cast bright reds and oranges across the huge empty sky. We snaked our way through a landscape of canyons and cliff faces, past immense monoliths, towards the tiny hamlet of Lees Ferry - the point where the Colorado enters the Grand Canyon. Here we found orange-trimmed mountains reflected in the dark waters of the river. Driving back we crossed Navajo Bridge and paused here to take in the immense gorge below the impressive double road bridge. By the time we reached Page it was completely dark and we were very tired. We got an early night because we had another action packed day ahead of us in the morning.

Additional photos below
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30th April 2016
Painted Desert

Painted Desert
SW USA has to be some of the world's most spectacular landscapes. Great to read of your excitement and awe of the striations of colours changing as light and time adjusted and your incomprehension that same is not captivating to all. We drove through the Painted Desert covered in heavy snow but fine weather in early 2015 and the colours and contrasts were astounding. Looking forward to where you go next.
30th April 2016
Grand Canyon

Simply amazing view!!!
10th May 2016
Grand Canyon

Re: Wow...
Thanks Arif, it's an amazing place.

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