After El Morro National Monument and Petrified Forest National Park, we pulled into Flagstaff, AZ late at night. The plan was to visit Lowell Observatory for some nighttime viewing, but we were wiped, and as I kept telling Anton, we absolutely had to be up and out the door by 7:30 the next morning. (As a side note, this is about the fifth time I’ve been in Flagstaff and planned on visiting Lowell Observatory at night, only to have my plans foiled. One day I’ll look through that refractor!!)
The day’s main attraction, as you may have guessed, was the Grand Canyon (the leftmost “B” on the map above). It was also the day of my 25th birthday and I was bursting with excitement, more so for Anton than myself. See, I was worried that I had talked up the desert southwest way too much to him in the several months leading up to this. There was no way it could live up to the expectations I had set. But as a birthday present to myself, and hoping to give him an experience of a lifetime, I secretly arranged for us to take a 30-minute helicopter tour over the Grand Canyon before entering the park. I’m not good at keeping secrets when I try to surprise someone, but I managed to hold it in. Sure enough though, the secret was somewhat ruined when I turned into the airport parking lot and couldn’t find the company for 10 minutes, all while ignoring Anton asking what we were doing there.
Before I start rambling, let me just say that the flight was breathtaking. We started off over flat forested land and flew for just long enough to think “let’s get to the canyon already!” Right at that point, you see the ground open up beneath you, and there really aren’t any words to describe it.
The two main options for helicopter rides were 25-30 minutes and 45-50 minutes, regardless of the company you flew with. We went with the 25-30 minute Papillon tour of the North Rim, for $179/person. Extensive research indicated that as far as the 25-30 minute tours go, there isn’t much difference between companies. Some companies use different helicopters, but the best are reserved for the longer tours. While the company doesn’t seem to make a huge difference, general consensus is that the 45-50 minute tour is a much better deal, because you see way more. With this in mind, I saved some money so we could switch last minute if we chose to. However, we were eager to get into the canyon as well, so we stuck with the short teaser flight.
Special Note: We had the option to pay $50 extra per person in order to get preferential seating for the front of the helicopter. If you got seated in the front, you paid $50; if you didn’t, then you didn’t pay anything extra. Previous helicopter tours have led me to believe that the weight balancing is fairly strict, and that getting seated in the front, or by a window, depends on a lot more than whether or not you offered up $50. So this seemed like a ripoff to me, almost like saying “we’ll be glad to take $50 from you if you happen to get lucky in seating,” when the seating arrangements would be the same regardless of your money. I will be the first to admit that I am not a helicopter pilot; there could very well be more leeway in the seating than I am aware of. However, as a poor graduate student, I felt a little funny about this offer and tried to game the system another way: leading up to the tour, I called every couple days to see how many other people were on our flight. Only if it was full would I consider paying the extra $50 – otherwise our chances of great seats would increase with fewer people. This was most likely a waste of time, because these flights seem to always fill up, even last minute. But it was worth a try!
We ended up in the back, but this was the first time I’ve ever gotten a window seat, so I was pretty stoked with how things ended up. Our pilot was great, and the 25-30 minute tour was perfect for us (especially because I took my Dramamine too late and was feeling nauseous). The flight was at 8:50am (the earliest offered), and while people will say that any flight is amazing, I do think it’s best to go in the early morning or late afternoon, when the sun isn’t so high, and the shadows offer depth to the canyon.
After the helicopter ride we entered the park ($30/vehicle for 7 days), a short drive from the airport. Since it was already after 10:00, the park was crowded and we had to go to overflow parking at the Market Plaza. There are shuttles throughout the park though, and we were able to quickly reach the starting point of our desired hike, the South Kaibab Trail. This is one of the main trails leading into the canyon for rim-to-rim hikers, but the trail is also good for shorter, day hikes. We wanted to try reaching Skeleton Point, which was 3 miles down and 3 miles back up. Since we were starting later than anticipated though, we played it by ear.
Common advice says to allot yourself twice the amount of time to climb back up as it took you to hike down. Keeping the rest of our day in mind, we stopped at Cedar Ridge for lunch and turned back, for a 3-mile roundtrip. We actually made it back up in about half the time it took us to get down, which was quite unexpected. This was mostly due to us stopping for pictures every five feet on the way down. With nothing to do but climb on the way up, it was a strenuous ~45 minutes, and I had to stop several times for breaks. A better way would be to hike down fast, and use picture-taking as an excuse for breaks on the way back up. That being said, even I wouldn’t be able to follow my own advice, because it’s impossible not to want to stop and take pictures every other second. It’s too hard to remind yourself that the same canyon will be there on your way back up. And, depending on how long you’re hiking, the light will change and your start/end pictures will look entirely different!
The goal was to be at Horseshoe Bend, about two hours away, for sunset. That didn’t happen, because we were just too enthralled with the Grand Canyon. We for sure could have used more time, and hopefully one day we will return to do a rim-to-rim hike! Also on my list? Just hanging out at the rim and watching the colors change with the sunlight throughout the day. Even the pictures above, taken from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, show drastic color changes. I would love to see the colors from sunrise to sunset one day!
I normally wrap up a blog post by sharing whether or not I would recommend visiting that location, but I don’t think I need to encourage any readers to visit one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
Stay tuned, because up next is a place we liked even more than the Grand Canyon, if that’s even possible.