We celebrated National Park Week and the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in the beautiful southwest for our spring break. 40 years on the earth, and I’d never been to the Grand Canyon. In fact, I’d never even been to Arizona. I know. It’s not as if you’ve been holding out on me. I’ve seen the pictures, read the stories, and daydreamed about the Arizona deserts, cliffs, and canyons for years.
Last week we made it happen, and it was magical, surpassing our expectations. I have lots to tell you about our trip, but today I want to share some secrets of Grand Canyon National Park. It’s a must visit destination, as I’m sure you’ve heard, but the grand views are only part of the adventure. Here are some of the coolest things about the Grand Canyon, and why, despite its popularity, you still need to visit.
Desert View Campground is Awesome!
There are three campgrounds on the south rim. Two, Mather Campground and Desert View Campground are run by the National Park Service. Trailer Village is a privately-run RV park located in Grand Canyon Village. If you don’t mind craziness and crowds, both Mather Campground and Trailer Village will serve you well, but if you want to escape the nonsense and immerse yourself in natural beauty, you have to check out Desert View.
This quiet campground is perched on the canyon rim at the eastern edge of the park. If you enter the park through the east entrance you’ll be just steps away from the canyon and worlds away from the crowds of Grand Canyon Village. There are fifty campsites at Desert View, each nestled among the gnarly pinyon pines for a bit of privacy. You can’t make a reservation at Desert View Campground, so plan on securing your spot by late morning or early afternoon, especially if you want site 46, which is our personal favorite (you’re welcome). Here are a few more tips to help you make the most of your stay here.
- There is a beautiful unmarked trail between sites 46 and 48. It meanders through the trees and along the rim, with the most beautiful views of the Colorado River below. We saw footprints out here, so I know people hike the trail, but Eric spent four hours exploring and relaxing on the rim and didn’t see another soul. Like I said — magic.
- Ravens will steal your food. Talk about opportunistic — these birds were bold and beautiful, just like the tv show. Do not leave your food unattended.
- The Desert View General Store sells fabulous local beer and wine, plus whatever else you need — t-shirts, potato chips, ice cream, beef jerky. You can easily walk to the store from the campground, so you’re not really roughing it. My kids especially appreciated this distraction from their parents.
- Be on the lookout for javelina. We saw two during our stay — one right behind our campsite, and another near the Desert View Watchtower. There’s lots of elk too.
Sunrise Will Blow You Away
I made my way to the canyon rim for both sunrise and sunset every day but one. Both shows were spectacular, but sunsets were pretty crowded everywhere we went (except on that secret trail). Sunrise was a different story – perfectly quiet, except for the singing birds. I set my alarm for 4:20 am, left the kids snoozing in their tent, and made my way through the park each morning. I’m sure there are lots of beautiful places to watch the sun come up on the rim, but my favorite was Moran Point, which provided a great view of both east and west. We were lucky enough to witness the full moon setting one morning while the sun bathed the canyon in its warm glow. More magic.
Sunrise -Moran Point
The Grand Canyon is Surprisingly Dog Friendly
As much as I love traveling with dogs, I don’t usually bring them to the national parks. I have not found the parks to be very dog friendly, and there are so many other beautiful destinations (national forests) that are. The Grand Canyon is a definite exception. Perhaps it’s because there is less emphasis on wildlife at the Grand Canyon, but we saw dogs just about everywhere. They are allowed in all of the campgrounds, within Grand Canyon Village, and on the Rim Trail. They are not allowed on the trails into the canyon, but there is an onsite kennel in Grand Canyon Village if you feel the need to explore without your dog.
California Condors are Thriving in the Grand Canyon
Have you been following the plight of the endangered California condor? It’s a pretty amazing story. Back in 1987, there were just 22 left in the wild, and not much hope for their survival. In a bold effort to save them, rehabilitators removed all of them from the wild and began a captive breeding program. Reintroduction began in 1991 with mixed success. Condors come to sexual maturity late in life, and they usually lay just one egg per year. They are also susceptible to lead poisoning because they readily consume animals riddled with lead shot.
Although the odds have been stacked against them, these amazing giants of the sky are making a comeback in the Grand Canyon, which offers perfect nesting sites, lots of food, and few natural predators. There are currently 480 California condors living throughout the western United States. Each and every one of them is tagged with a number and radio antennae so they can be constantly monitored. That’s how we know that 80 of them call the Grand Canyon home. There are currently (spring, 2016) six nests throughout the canyon, with at least one little one due to fledge any day now.
The California condor can be seen riding the thermals when the weather is cool throughout the Grand Canyon. Although they bear some resemblance to the turkey vulture, the California condor is much larger, with a wingspan of 9 to 10 feet across (2.4 to 3 meters). Turkey vultures also have white near the tips of the underside of their wings, while the condor has a white streak near the top part of the wing’s underside. Of course, all California condors are tagged with a number that is fairly easy to see. In fact, if you’re able to read the bird’s tag, you can find out all about it on the Peregrine Fund website.
Even if you don’t catch a glimpse of these beautiful (a face only a mother could love?) birds, you can still help protect them by not using lead bullets (if you’re a hunter) and properly disposing of your microtrash, like bottle caps, twist ties, and can tabs that curious condors might ingest.
Last Thoughts on Visiting the Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is a magical, but busy place. If you like your wilderness experience to be wild, consider visiting in the off season, between October and April. Leave your car behind, and hop on a shuttle bus to any number of spectacular trailheads. The South Kaibab Trail offers stunning views and relative solitude for not much effort, but be sure to pack sunscreen, snacks, and lots of water. Even meandering along the South Rim Trail from Grand Canyon Village will allow you to escape the throngs of visitors that never leave their car or parking lots.
As with any national park, an awesome visit to the Grand Canyon takes some advance planning, but as you hike along the rim, scout the skies for incredible birds, stand in awe of golden sunsets, and sleep under a billion twinkling stars, the magic of the canyon will reveal itself to you. And then of course, you’ll wonder why you didn’t make the trip sooner.
Are you a sucker for our fabulous national parks? Here are some more of our favorites:
I’m linking up the post with the Photo Friday link-up over at Pierced Wonderings and the Weekend Travel Inspiration, hosted by a number of fabulous travel bloggers.