Ah, the Grand Canyon. The Big One. The feature that has launched a thousand roadtrips and crowned a thousand bucket lists.
You usually imagine this, right?
Vast rocky cliffs and gorges stretching into the desert farther than you can see.
The Grand Canyon itself lives up to that expectation… and exceeds it, for that matter. It was the drive through the outskirts of the national park and up to the main attraction that really surprised me.
After exploring the amazing Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, Amity and I spent the night in the tiny blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Kanab, Utah, just a couple of miles from the Arizona border. It was another one of those incredible wake-up calls where we’d arrived at our destination in pitch darkness and woken up the next morning surrounded by towering red rock cliffs (plateaus? mesas? I really need to brush up on my geology lingo).
We set off south on the 80-mile drive to the Grand Canyon, most of which is rugged wilderness that’s part of the larger Grand Canyon National Park. This is what I mean when I said that it surprised me:
This is just not what I picture when I imagine Arizona. First of all, it was freezing! The wind was cold and snow was flurrying on and off – but it was still bright and sunny and a very pretty drive.
The closer we got to the Canyon, the more I kept expecting the snow to stop, the pine trees to fade away, and the desert to appear… but the landscape looked like that right up until we pulled into the parking lot at Point Imperial and caught a glimpse of this through the trees.
The rock spire in the foreground of that photo is Mount Hayden, one of the most unique features at Point Imperial and apparently a popular spot for free climbers (no thanks).
We had Point Imperial completely to ourselves. There wasn’t another soul in sight, which was frankly magical. As if I haven’t said it enough already, I will forever be singing the praises of late fall/early winter as the best time to visit national parks.
Point Imperial is the northernmost overlook on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, so you can really see everything. The view puts every Pinterest photo and IMAX movie you’ve ever seen to shame. I’d been a little apprehensive that the GC was going to be one of those iconic sights that is so overhyped that it ends up being a little underwhelming when you finally see it for yourself. That, my friends, was not the case.
One of my good friends from London takes empty bench photos. I loved that creative photography theme and I’ve started texting these to her whenever I find a seat in a great location. It somehow makes it easier to imagine yourself back in that spot, and it’s sort of special to think about all the people who may have sat there in the past. It’s a good example of travel broadening your horizons and making you more aware of your surroundings.
We left Point Imperial and drove a little further into the park, heading towards the North Rim Visitor Center. The building itself was closed for the winter by this time, but it still boasts some incredible lookout spots. The trees were still so thick here that we only gradually started getting glances of the canyon as we walked from our van to the edge.
I hadn’t really been aware that there was such a difference between the North Rim and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon before our visit. The South Rim cuts through the dry, hot, and amazingly flat Arizona desert, while the North Rim drops away unexpectedly in the midst of acres of dense pine forests and wild hills. The South Rim is over a thousand feet lower in elevation than the North Rim, the temperature is generally warmer (meaning it almost never has seasonal or weather closures), and it’s more easily accessible (an hour or two outside of Flagstaff, a major city). All these factors combine to make the South Rim the much more frequently visited side of the Grand Canyon.
However, even though the North Rim and South Rim Visitor Centers are only about ten miles apart… those ten miles are across the canyon (I know, I’m dropping major knowledge on you here, folks). Amity and I were coming from the north and didn’t want to spend the time and mileage driving allllll the way around the canyon, so North Rim it was for us.
My mom and brother visited the South Rim a few years ago, so I just had my brother’s photos of horse trekking across the flat sandy desert to the canyon’s edge in my head. Even though both sides seem to offer a unique and surprisingly different experience, I was glad we visited the more secluded North Rim.
I think my reasoning is self-explanatory:
Another thing I was (perhaps naively) surprised about was how little it looked like the single huge canyon I had pictured in my mind’s eye. The deep, prominent gash you see in some of these photos is actually Bright Angel Canyon, which is carved by Bright Angel Creek and runs perpendicular to the main canyon and the Colorado River. Bright Angel and Roaring Springs (seen in the photo directly above with that crazy cool tree) are only two of the massive network of gorges of all different sizes that make up the entire Grand Canyon National Park system.
I found another empty bench, and one that just looked too lonely to leave empty any longer.
Amity and I braved the treacherous pathway out to Bright Angel Point (only tiny stone borders between you and a pretty scary drop-off).
…before heading back along the path in the other direction to take in the view from every angle.
The bright midday sun coupled with the thick clouds rolling past threw parts of the landscape into deep shadows while others were lit up golden, and the colors seemed to change almost constantly.
We were also extremely lucky with visibility – there was a sign saying that sometimes it gets so hazy that you can’t see the far side of the canyon.
About this time, we had a kindly stranger offer to take our photo for us, which we gladly accepted… but he immediately began coaching us into a dramatic side-by-side pose in which we both looked wistfully over the canyon, “taking in the majesty.” It was a very sweet gesture to be sure, but just resulted in a series of photos in which we’re looking slightly confused and/or trying not to laugh, and the Grand Canyon itself doesn’t even quite make it into the frame.
Good for a laugh and another story for the roadtrip bank, anyway! And we got a nice one later on.
Having filled our eyeballs and adventurous hearts pretty near saturation, we saddled back up in Kokapelli and ventured on to our next destination. I would love to visit the South Rim and check out the desert someday, but for now, I’m totally #TeamNorthRim. Who’s with me?
THE DETAILS: $25 entry fee per vehicle | North Rim open mid-May through Oct/Nov (variable); South Rim open year-round | Website HERE