On visiting the Grand Canyon

It’s taken me a while to post this, the final edition of my honeymoon blog posts, as there were SO many photos and videos to sort through before I could write it! However, it’s finally here, and it’s been lovely to relive the experience through writing about it for you.

To get to the Grand Canyon, you first have to travel to Las Vegas, Nevada. You can drive from LA to Vegas, but it’s apparently a long and boring drive with virtually nowhere to stop for a break, so instead we said goodbye to our faithful hire car and boarded a domestic flight from Los Angeles International for a short flight across the red desert (past what we believe was Edwards Air Force Base, where the Space Shuttle used to land). I’m not going to write a blog post about Las Vegas – it was a horrible place – but I’ve written some brief remarks about it at the bottom of this post.

From Las Vegas, it takes about three hours to reach the Grand Canyon. This was to be the last big trip of our honeymoon, so we had booked a final treat in the form of the Float, Fly and Drive tour with Pink Jeep Tours. We were picked up from our hotel on the Las Vegas Strip at 6am. Our chariot for the day would be this VERY pink, VERY big jeep (pictured later in the day), which was air conditioned and very comfortable. We were joined by about eight others, so it was a small, friendly group. We were given some orange juice and water, and the lively driver/tour guide kept up an interesting commentary as we drove out of the city, telling us a bit about the history of Las Vegas.

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Our first stop was the famous Hoover Dam, which I hadn’t expected to see, so that was a bonus. Personally, I’m terrified of dams (what if they burst?!), but we didn’t get to see this one from its scariest angle (namely, from the bottom), so it wasn’t too intimidating. As you can see, the road goes across the top of the dam. It was actually quite hard to get one’s head around the fact that this was a dam, so low was the water level.

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You can see from this photo how low the water level is; the white rock is normally under water. There has been a prolonged drought that has severely depleted the water levels in the reservoirs, and it was something we were constantly aware of throughout our travels around California and Nevada, as all the hotels urge you to be conservative with water usage. Seeing this, we could see why.

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We had a short stop here for photos and to buy snacks from a small shop. We had a great view of this impressive bridge across the Colorado – the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, to give it its full name. This is the bridge between two states, and we had now crossed from Nevada into Arizona. A whole new state – how exciting!

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From there, our journey continued through the seemingly infinite Mojave Desert. Occasionally we would pass remote settlements and isolated dwellings like this one, causing us to wonder why on earth anyone would choose to live in such a desolate place. We saw a lot of these trees – they’re called Joshua trees, and are pretty much only found in this desert.

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We stopped at this isolated gas station for a loo break. I still had phone signal at that point, but it felt SO remote. The most remote place I’ve ever been, that’s for sure. It was already very hot, even though it was still early.

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At length, after many, many miles of scenery like this, we pulled up at a small airport on the West Rim of the Grand Canyon. You still can’t actually see the Canyon itself at this point, but this ridge of high ground signals its presence. We felt a tremendous sense of anticipation!

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You can sense how close you are to the Canyon owing to the steady stream of helicopters going to and fro. Eventually it was our turn, and for the second time in two weeks (the first having been our wedding day!), we climbed on board a helicopter.

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In no time at all, the land just falls away beneath you and you’re over the Grand Canyon, and let me tell you, it is every bit as awesome as you would expect.

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The scale absolutely takes your breath away, and I’m quite unable to do justice to its majesty in either words or pictures.

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This video of the flight gives you a better idea of what it was like. Click the play button to watch – sorry it’s a wee bit shaky!

The helicopter dropped us off and flew away, leaving us stranded on the Canyon floor in the searing heat. Soon it would be time for the ‘Float’ portion of our tour.

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To reach the small jetty on the Colorado River where we would board the boat, we had to walk down a dusty track that took us through some surprisingly green vegetation.

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Here’s what the boats and jetty look like. Luckily we got one that had some shade!

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Out on the water, the boat went quite fast at times, so we got splashed – but with the sun blazing like that, it hardly mattered!

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It was really cool to be able to see the Canyon from the bottom as well as from the air. Having several different perspectives definitely helps you appreciate the scale of it.

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Here we are, modelling the rather unflattering life jackets!

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Once we were back on dry land, it was time to wait in the shade of a small gazebo for our helicopter back to the jeep.

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This video shows us taking off from the Canyon floor.

The helicopter flew around a bit before taking us back to the jeep, giving us more breathtaking views of the Canyon. It was certainly one of the most memorable flights I’ve ever been on!

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After we landed, it was back to the jeep and onto another location for a free lunch of roast chicken and vegetables. It was rather an odd, out-of-the-way place run by the Native Americans who I believe own the Canyon. We saw several Dust Devils (small whirlwinds caused by thermals) sweeping their way through, but they don’t last long so I didn’t manage to get a photo of one, unfortunately.

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Suitably refreshed, it was onto our next destination, Eagle Point, 4,000ft above the river below. It was, again, AMAZING.

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It’s called Eagle Point because the shape of the ridge looks like an eagle with its wings spread. Can you see it?

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This part of the Canyon is famous for something called the ‘Skywalk’, a glass-bottomed cantilever platform that juts out over the Canyon, which you can see on the far left in this panoramic photo. Entry costs about $32 each and isn’t included with the tour, so we decided not to go on it – after all, the views were quite spectacular enough without going on it! If you do decide to do the Skywalk, bear in mind that you’re not even allowed to take your own photos – you have to pay extra to have one that they take for you. We definitely weren’t in the market for being ripped off like that, and there really was no need when the views were this good!

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This video gives you a sense of what it’s like to stand near the edge. Luckily we had the stick for the GoPro, so we didn’t have to get too close! It’s a long way down, and my legs actually felt quite shaky with fear!

We were given a good amount of time to marvel at the views and take photos, before heading back to the jeep for the final stop on the tour, Guano Point.

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While we were all milling around admiring the views, one of the members of our group proposed to his girlfriend and was accepted, so there was lots of cheering for them when we got back to the jeep!

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Guano Point is named, surprisingly enough, after bat poo, which was discovered in a cave near the bottom of the Canyon sometime in the 1930s. Bat droppings are apparently rich in nitrogen and very useful for fertiliser, so they went to great lengths to extract it. The mine is, of course, long disused, but the machinery is still there. This would have brought the droppings all the way up from the other side of the Canyon. Rather a lot of trouble to go to for some poo!

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You can just make out some more of the mining-related structures on the left of this photo.

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Before we left, we set the camera up on a rock and got this photo of us looking out over the Canyon. It’s one of my favourite photos from the trip, and a great note on which to end our honeymoon!

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After that it was back to the jeep for the long journey back to Vegas, stopping at a couple of isolated places for snacks on the way and arriving back at the hotel at 5.30pm. It was a long and tiring day, but well worth doing, and it’s definitely something everyone should do at least once in their lives! I’d definitely like to go back and see some more of the Canyon, probably from the South Rim next time. The area’s other national parks also look pretty amazing (Death Valley, Zion, Bryce Canyon), so it would be great to combine a future trip with seeing those as well.

Postscript: a word of warning on visiting the Grand Canyon with Las Vegas
Las Vegas is effectively the gateway to the Grand Canyon, but I would think carefully about how much time you want to spend in Vegas if you’re planning to visit the Canyon. It’s the sort of place that you either love or hate, and it won’t take you long to work out which of these emotions so-called “Sin City” evokes in you. For us it was a pretty much immediate ‘hate’ (I disliked it so much that I’m not even going to write a post about it). We arrived about 4pm on the first day, and by the end of that evening we’d seen more than enough! The whole Las Vegas Strip pretty much consists of hotels, which, apart from their occasional gimmicks (the Bellagio’s fountains, the Mirage’s Volcano, the Flamingo’s real live flamingos), are all the same – noisy, smoke-filled casinos with little to distinguish them once you’re inside. We killed the hours by walking, going to the cinema (twice) and going to see the magicians Penn and Teller, who were superb. If you like casinos, smoking, drinking, prostitutes, noise and general vulgarity, you’ll love Las Vegas, because that seems to be all there is to this horrible place. If not, you will probably not enjoy your time there, so do consider minimising your time in Vegas when booking a trip to the Canyon!

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