It was a Grand adventure with condors and hoodoos and cliff dwellings, fresh fruit in the desert and rivers running through it all
If you’ve been there, you know that you can ride by shuttle to different points along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, stopping here and there to take a stroll and be overwhelmed by the view.
It’s breathtaking, of course. If it doesn’t take your breath away, you might be holding on too tight.
Letting go was part of the process for Mary and me on our first visit to Grand Canyon National Park. To let go is to be appropriately overcome by the size and beauty and grandeur of the place.
It’s also a bit spooky the first time you stand, preferably behind a stone wall or sturdy metal fence, and peek down into the marvelous mix of colors and light and shadows, where the Colorado River offers glimpses of itself snaking through the maze of stone about a mile below.
About a mile below. Stop and let that sink in. The Grand Canyon averages about 4,000 feet deep, and reaches down 6,000 feet at its deepest.
It seems all of that and more when you look over the edge, as a tingle spreads up your legs to settle in your belly and your breath develops a sudden hitch.
Before we went, those who had been there said: “You have to see it to really understand.”
It’s true. We finally saw it — I in my 71st year and Mary in her 65th. And we understood immediately. It’s an understanding that, I think, will enrich the rest of our lives and probably inspire us to return.
That canyon experience was the main goal of our 10-day trip to the Southwest. It was a wandering sojourn of planned and unplanned stops hat also included Mesa Verde National Park, Four Corners Monument Navajo Tribal Park, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park.
Pretty impressive, huh?
Not quite Clark Griswold brief, but …
But before you get too impressed by what we managed to pack into 10 days of living out of cabins and motel rooms interspersed with pretty long stretches or road time in the F-150, I should make an admission: A couple of our national-park visits were the kind Clark Griswold might have pulled off in National Lampoon’s Vacation.
If you saw the 1983 movie, you probably remember the Grand Canyon scene with Clark Griswold, played by Chevy Chase, and his family. Upon arrival at a park hotel, Clark has an issue with a hotel clerk over his refusal to cash a check. He ends up leaving the check and grabbing some money out of the cash register when the clerk isn’t looking.
That makes a quick departure necessary. So Clark hustles over to the stone fence by the canyon rim where his wife. Ellen, (played by Beverly D’Angelo), is gazing out over the Grand Canyon with their two kids.
Clark tells the kids to “get your butts in the car,” which inspires Ellen to ask: “Don’t you want to look at the Grand Canyon?” Clark turns toward the canyon, puts his arm around Ellen, nods and shrugs his shoulders and leads her off toward the car.
That was that. The Clark Griswold moment.
They had a clerk to elude, places to go and a travel schedule to keep. Their main destination, after all, was a well-known amusement park in California named Walley World.
It’s funny, but it’s also a reality of travel. You have a goal and a time frame for achieving it. There’s only so much you can do at a given place along the way. And you have to make choices that might later on lead you to say, “Oh, man, I wish …”
Our stops at Zion — which was so crowded that parking was only available outside the park at the town of Springdale — and Canyonlands were not quite worthy of a spot in National Lampoon’s Vacation. And each was rewarding in its own way. But they were pretty short.
National-park binging is not a perfect process, especially when it’s done on the fly.
But again, the main goal of our trip was to get to know the big canyon and spend enough time there to understand a few things about it. We focused on the heavily visited South Rim with plans to return someday for a North Rim visit.
Anything beyond that was a travel bonus. Speaking of which, there were a couple of big ones. As in, the biggest birds of North America.
I was hoping as we headed for the Grand Canyon that I might catch a glimpse of a California condor.
Hoping against hope for a condor sighting
That was an iffy proposition. Very iffy. The condor is one of the world’s most endangered creatures. Once down to less than two dozen birds, the condor population has been rebuilt through captive breeding programs, releases into the wild, wild reproduction and better protection. Now there are almost 500 California condors, with more than half of them living in the wild.
Those birds hang out in a big area, however. Really big. Condor terrain includes some of the wildest regions of California, the Mexican state of Baja California, northern Arizona and southern Utah.
The best time to see a condor in the Grand Canyon is from late spring to early fall, through September. We were there just last week, so we were a bit outside of prime time.
Yet, we saw one, then two, thanks to a couple of raptor watchers for the nonprofit HawkWatch International.
It was all accidental. Mary and I got off a shuttle bus to admire the view at Yaki Point, not knowing that the point has been the location of a HawkWatch raptor-observation station since the 1990s.
We were enjoying the view, listening to the conversation of talkative ravens and watching the antics of rock squirrels (They’re cute, but leave them alone: their bites cause more ER trips among Grand Canyon visitors than any other animal in the park.) when Mary noticed a sign saying there was a HawkWatch observation station nearby. We followed the markers and came upon a standing Grand Canyon HawkWatch sign showing raptor counting totals from the day before and the counting period from mid-August to that date, Oct. 6.
It showed that 38 sharp-shinned hawks were counted the day before, along with 27 Cooper’s hawks, one Swainson’s hawk, 12 red-tailed hawks, 15 American kestrels and one peregrine falcon, as well as some unidentified raptors.
Beyond the sign and out of one of the countless rock flats that lead up to the canyon rim, a couple of relaxed-looking young men were sitting in low-slung lawn chairs not far at all from that rim, with binoculars in hand, scanning the canyon for birds.
They welcomed us, talked about their work and discussed the importance of keeping track of raptor movements as an essential part of population studies and management. I said we were hoping during our two night, three day stay at the South Rim to see a California condor.
With wings as wide as that shuttle bus
They nodded and smiled.
“It’s an impressive bird,” one said. “It has a wing spawn as wide as that bus you were riding.”
They said they’d been seeing condors off and on, which is the way you see them. They move around, those birds, using their 9-foot wingspan and ability to ride thermals up thousands of feet and cover a hundred miles or more in a day, if the conditions are right and they’re so inclined.
They’re so good at managing the air columns and breeze that they can stay in the air for hours and rarely flap their wings.
“They can go from here up to Zion in a couple of hours,” one of the raptor watchers said, referring to Zion National Park across the state line in southern Utah.
And even if the hundred or so condors that commonly hang out at the Grand Canyon were there, it’s still a 1.2-million acre park, with most of it inaccessible to un-winged creatures. So it’s a pretty easy place for even the largest bird in North American to disappear.
(Note: Some wild turkeys might outweigh condors by a pound or two. But their wingspan is half the condor’s. And the flight capabilities of wild turkeys are limited and uninspiring.)
I was prepared to be satisfied with our conversation about condors, along with the various hawks and falcons that were being counted, when one of the raptor watchers said, “Wait, that looks like a condor there. And there’s another one.”
I didn’t have my binoculars, but the raptor guys shared theirs. And eventually Mary and I located the massive black birds gliding casually against the canyon wall below and to the west of us. A hawk flying near one of the condors gave us a great idea of scale.
The condors were huge!
“It usually doesn’t work this way,” one of the raptor guys said.
Four corners kiss right up there with condors
We were grateful that it worked that way for us, however. They never got close enough for a cell-phone picture. But they were plenty close enough to inspire. And we stood for five or 10 minutes watching the big birds until they sailed out of sight. Or, really, they sort of blended into the creases and colors of the canyon landscape in a way that made them seem to become a part of it.
And then disappear.
A highlight? Oh, my, yes. I texted my well-traveled son, Casey, who had seen multiple condors at even closer range while he and his wife, Wendy, were hiking with friends in Zion National Park some years ago. My daughter, Meghan, calls her brother and dad “the bird nerds,” a title I think we deserve.
I’m glad Casey and I now both have a condor sighting to discuss.
The condor experience ranks up there with the kiss Mary and I shared at the joining of four states — Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah — in the very nice tribal park run by Navajo Nation Parks & Recreation near Teec Nos Pos, Ariz.
Mary also did a down dog yoga pose with feet in two states and hands in the other two. I managed the same move, although more carefully and not so gracefully.
Prior to Four Corners, we stopped at Mesa Verde National Park to follow a few trails to cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloan culture, or Anasazi, and marveled at the complicated engineering it took to construct communities under and in the rock cliffs.
And then there were the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon
We saw so much ruggedly beautiful landscape in this trip that it was all hard to comprehend. After the Grand Canyon, you might expect to be underwhelmed by anything less. But other parks and their own southwestern magnificence never failed us. And some surprised us.
Bryce Canyon, for example, captivated not just with its fetching red rocks and pink cliffs but also with its odd, vertical hoodoos — rippled shafts of rock shaped in magical ways by erosion. We rode a shuttle from just outside the park to hike a trail along the rim of what is known as the amphitheater. Much smaller than the Grand Canyon, it was just as beautiful in a different way. An amazing way.
And we were especially surprised by our experience in Capitol Reef National Park, a place overlooked by the throngs of visitors at places like the Grand Canyon and Zion. The rock formations at Capitol Reef are beautiful in their own way. And we found the perfect hike down Capitol Gorge with looming canyon walls that both inspired by their size and shape and varied colors and comforted by the shade they offered.
The park also offers close-up looks at petroglyphs scratched by the Fremont and Ancestral Puebloan people who lived in the area from 300 to 1200 A.D.
Although a desert environment, Capitol Reef has a rich oasis of green along the Fremont River, which attracted Mormon settlers in the late 1800s. They established a working agricultural base and planted very productive orchards.
The community of Fruita has long since been abandoned. But historical structures remain. And today more than 3,000 fruit, berry and nut trees continue to produce in the orchards, irrigated as they were in the 1800s from the Fremont River and cared for by the National Park Service for their historic value as well as their delicious fruits, berries and nuts.
Depending on the time of the season, you will see “U-Pick” signs leading to parts of orchards where you can pick your own of whatever is ripe.
Mary and I picked some Grimes golden and red delicious apples. And they were delicious indeed. We also stopped at the historic Gifford Homestead for fresh-baked berry pie and ice cream. It wasn’t quite the Grand Canyon in grandeur, but it was the sweetest stop along the trail.
And all those rivers along the way
I was particularly fascinated by the Fremont River, which seems so out of place in the desert. But then, I was fascinated by streams and rivers throughout the trip.
Mary indulged my river and creek stops anywhere I wanted. And they began in Keystone, Colorado, on our first night of travel, in a place along the Snake River.
After that some highlights included the Blue River, the Arkansas River, the Rio Grande, the South Fork Rio Grande the San Juan River, the Animas River, the Colorado River, the Escalante River, the Dirty Devil River, the Green River, the Colorado River again and the Eagle River as we headed back up into the Colorado Rockies from Grand Junction.
I had some Clark Griswold encounters with all of those rivers and some deeper connections with a few. But each river or stream added life to a trip that had a single focus at the Grand Canyon but produced other grand experiences coming and going.
And, of course, there were those raptor watchers and the perfectly timed appearance of the condors.
We couldn’t have planned that experience any better if we’d tried.