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Saturday 28 Sep 2013
Grand Canyon, USA

Elk? What's that, apart from Santa's little helper?

One of the great things about American hotels and motels is the free ice machines.  We’ve been able to replenish our icebox at almost every place we’ve stayed, so we’ve always had cold drinks for the journey.  Stocked up as usual, we headed off along Route 66 towards Flagstaff.  On the way we passed the Grand Canyon Caverns, so we followed the turning to investigate.  This lead us down a very bumpy track to a ranch-style building surrounded by old 1950’s vehicles in various states of disrepair.  The wooden walls were covered in old metal signs and Route 66 logos.  The Caverns themselves were located a long way underground, accessed by an elevator inside the store, but they were quite expensive to enter so we decided to carry on towards Walnut Canyon instead.

Walnut Canyon is just outside Flagstaff, but none of our maps showed exactly how to reach it, so we played a guessing game and drove down several likely roads before asking for directions.  We finally found it and were able to use our ‘America the Beautiful’ pass to enter.  The canyon was created by a horseshoe bend in the river carving its way down over the millennia.  In the 1200’s, tribes of stone-age cliff dwellers were discovered in the area.  They still relied on hunter-gatherer skills, rather than cultivating their own food, but had developed an ingenious system of building their homes under the overhangs in the rock.  They built walls across the front and used chimneys to release smoke from their cooking fires.  Rainwater was diverted from the overhangs and channelled into collection troughs.  Many of these cliff homes still exist today.  The path ran steeply downhill from the visitor centre, around the outside of the pinnacle in the centre of the horseshoe bend, then back up the 250 plus steps to the top.  It only took an hour or so, but it was a very interesting stop off.

The visitor centre was once again very helpful, advising us on driving times and trails in the area.  We discovered that the main highway to Page had been washed out and an Indian Highway had been paved as a temporary bypass some way to the south.  This meant we had no hope of getting from the Grand Canyon North Rim to Antelope Canyon by 10am for our photo tour in a few days’ time.

After falling foul of rush hour traffic in Flagstaff, we crawled out of town and headed for the San Francisco Peaks on Route 180.  This was a beautiful forest drive, which wound higher until we crested at around 6000’.  From there, we headed north as the sun set on the road to the Grand Canyon.  We had dinner in a lovely steakhouse on the outskirts of the park, where I had my first taste of Prime Rib.  It was delicious!  I can safely say I will be having that again.

On our way into the park, we passed an electronic sign saying ‘Do not approach Elk’.  Verity looked at it, then said, ‘Elk? What are they, apart from Santa’s little helpers?’  I had to think for a moment, before replying, ‘Elk are like deer or moose… and I think you mean Elves?’  I may have tried to direct her down a railway line in Las Vegas, but I wasn’t going to let her forget that one!  We were still giggling when we reached the Maswik lodge 10 minutes later.  The street lighting was low level and discreet, which unfortunately made it quite hard to tell where we were going.  I drove us into the car park through a narrow gap next to reception and as we bumped down the low curb on the other side I began to suspect that may not have been entrance… Seeing it in daylight the next morning, I’d clearly driven across the pavement by mistake! Oops.  Maswik Lodge had several blocks of motel-style rooms.  The stars were so clear overhead that Verity was able to get some great photos from the car park right outside our room. 

Maswik canteen served an excellent hot breakfast before the gift shop relieved us of more cash (the magnet pile is growing already).  We drove up to the main Visitor Centre and got the shuttle bus east along the rim to the South Kaibab Trail.  This trail runs all the way to the canyon floor, but we only planned to follow it down as far as Ooh Aah Point, a descent of 750m. 

I have flown over the Grand Canyon in a helicopter, but even that hadn’t prepared me for that first look over the rim.  The Grand Canyon is simply enormous.  It is 11 miles across at its widest point and a mile deep in the middle.  Even standing there seeing it spread out in front of you, it’s almost impossible to process - you know you’re looking at something incredible, something which has taken thousands, if not millions of years to form, but it is just too big to take in.

Setting off down the Kaibab Trail, the path descends in a series of steep switchbacks, which wrap around one of the side valleys in the rim wall.  Every 5m there is another view, which demands to be appreciated.  The descent took at least three times as long as it actually needed to because we were so busy taking photos (none of which could possibly do justice to the view because it is so vast).

When we reached Ooh Aah Point – no prizes for guessing how it got that name – we found a small pinnacle jutting out, before the path continued its descent to the next viewpoint far below us.  We stopped to eat our lunch and take more photos.  A very friendly High Mountain Squirrel flitted about on the path looking for people’s crumbs.  He perched right out on the tip of the rocks, looking out across the Grand Canyon with the breeze in his face, looking for all the world like he owned the place. 

I posed for a photo myself, when a peculiar yellow insect flew up to me, attracted by my bright blue t-shirt.  It looked like a cross between a daddy long legs and a giant yellow ladybird, with shiny yellow wing casings held high and long legs trailing beneath its body.  I was curious but wary and flinched when it landed on my wrist.  The next thing I knew it was on my shoulder and I felt a sharp stabbing pain as it stung me.  It felt like someone giving an injection badly, and then twisting the needle.  OUCH! The little b****** had stung me right where my rucksack strap sat so it continued to hurt for the next two hours as we climbed back up.  We found out later it was something called a yellow jacket, something like a hornet.  I now freak out even more easily when something buzzes near me.

We took the shuttle along to Yaki Point for some beautiful panoramic views across the Canyon.  While we were there, one of the Rangers arrived to give a free talk on Raptors, such as the Californian Condor – saved from the brink of extinction and finally breeding in the wild – and Turkey Vultures, which could be seen spiraling up on air currents across the valley as we listened.  It was interesting, but I started to nod off after nearly an hour, so we made our way back to the car.

After dinner, we pitched our new tent at the Mather Campground.  It went up very easily and gave us lots of room to spread out (a 4-man tent was the smallest one Wal-Mart had left).  That gave us just enough time to head over to Mather Point for sunset, watching the colours slowly climb the rocks until it vanished from the Canyon completely.  Beautiful.

Mileage: 812

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Zoe's Big World Adventure Part II - #1 America

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