A Grand Birthday Adventure; Camping at the Grand Canyon
Updated: Oct 14, 2022
When it comes to my birthday, each year brings the usual birthday planning cycle; get immensely excited about some sort of nature outing, research the logistics for timing and location, and then reconsider everything once I discover that the daytime temperatures are still 100+ degrees. Which brings me to this year’s plans; an overnight trip to the Grand Canyon the weekend before to celebrate.
The benefit of my birthday is that a three-day weekend is always nearby, and due to the opportunity for an extra day off, we booked the trip a few months out, as we typically do. Like many of our trips this year however, we became increasingly apprehensive about it as the weather forecast leading up to the weekend included extreme heat warnings.
Unlike our previous trips that threatened rain, camping in extreme heat never sounds like a good time, nor is it the safest decision when your location is in the desert. Luckily, while extreme heat forecasts raged on at home, the temperature forecasts for the campground we were staying at were moderate; promising highs in the low 90s and lows in the mid 60s. While our previous camping trips were in anticipation of rain and thus included more layers, hot weather camping means less packing. Lighter layers, a little extra water (although we always bring more then needed) and a fan for inside the tent, just in case.
Packing up for our trip the previous day, we realized that while the three-day weekend was one of the enticing factors about the timing of our trip, it never occurred to us to put two and two together; that we were in fact going to a National Park on Labor Day weekend. Needless to say, the remainder of the evening was spent with the hope that it wouldn’t be super crowded.
With the exception of the whole early morning part, early morning road trips are always exciting. Beautiful (and at times blinding) sunrise views, a promise of a new destination, and the truck all loaded up, we were ready to go. As a result of the recent monsoons and high temperatures, most of the drive was made along bright wildflower lined roads that added a bit of romanticized magic to the landscape. (If I didn’t comment on how pretty the flowers were at least a dozen different times each way of the trip I’d be shocked.)
The benefit of a four-hour road trip is that it is just long enough that you feel a significant change in location and can begin to appreciate shorter drives, but it’s short enough that you don’t mind making the journey to get to an incredible location.
Three and a half hours down and then came that significant shift in landscape. I can’t begin to articulate how comforting the surrounding scenery is as you begin to approach the Grand Canyon. Breaking from the open desert leading up to it, the Coconino Plateau and surrounding Kaibab National Forest provide all the visual comforts to reenergize the soul at the end of a long drive. Here, pines, firs, and junipers surround the roadways, making way for the brush and wildflowers. Take me to a forest any day, I’ll be happy.
As we made our way through the town of Tusayan and approached the southern entrance of the Grand Canyon, is when the lines of traffic began. We were arriving with all the rest of the crowds, just before noon. Luckily, we have the best investment you can make for visiting the National Parks; an annual national parks pass, which means minimal wait and once we got within range of the front gate we got to enjoy the pleasure of bypassing most of the remaining lines and headed straight into the park. While the forest drive leading up to this point is beautiful, the remainder of the drive to Grand Canyon Village is even more exciting. The dense forests continue to grow and the canyon draws closer, and perhaps the knowledge that you are in fact within Grand Canyon territory helps add a bit more thrill to it all.
After parking at the village and having lunch in the courtyard, we made our way out to Mather Point where I made it a mission to recreate a photo of my dad. Although our first visit allowed me to find the general area where the photo was taken, this time I was able to find the exact spot he was standing, years before. With a little editing assistance to remove another sightseer, I was able to recreate the image. If ever there was an ability for quantum physics to merge time and space this would be one I’d embrace. Taking a moment to appreciate the overlap in location between my dad’s and my presence at the rim of the canyon, I smiled at the experience and the personal sense of evolvement I feel even from our first trip here, four months ago. When you lose a parent and a staple in your life, life takes you on a whole new journey of self-discovery and growth, how long that journey takes exactly is still a mystery.
We spent the next hour relishing in three miles of walking along the Rim Trail. Taking in the breathtaking views and awe-inspiring depths, this time, the views did not move me to tears, but they did still take my breath away. Able to keep my composure this time around, we stood overlooking the vast landscape. Seeing the variety of tourists doing the same, I found myself overcome with gratitude in the knowledge that here we were at a Natural Wonder of the World once again. The realization that people travel from all around the world to stand in this very spot, and we were visiting for our second time in six months. The resounding humility, that we live within driving distance of a natural beauty that many never get the chance to experience in person is huge. Regardless of having seen this view before though, each step brought new ridges and canyon breaks into view, and I couldn’t help but find myself staring out into the openness in awe.
After departing from the visitor’s center and arriving at our camp spot, the rest of the evening was spent enjoying walks to the watchtower and some hiking through the forest and along the rim of the canyon before digging into dinner and waiting for sunset. Enjoying the stillness of dusk, we missed sunset over the canyon, but still hiked through the forest a bit to what has become one of my favorite overlooks.
While the night was still, it was anything but silent. Continuous buzzing of what we still aren’t sure was crickets or cicadas rang out all night and the occasional chirping of bats sounded overhead. Forest hikes become much more ominous in the dark with bug sounds surrounding you, and yet there was still a sense of thrill in it all.
Back at camp I spent the next few hours out in the woods behind our campground for some nighttime photography. There I stayed, strategically placing and adjusting my tripod and camera settings and enjoying the occasional shooting star; ensuring proper time was taken to make a wish on each one, while occasionally shining a headlamp into the woods to ensure no glowing eyes were staring back at me. As thrilling as nighttime in the forest is, that lingering threat that something might want to eat you is still always there and in need of being extinguished.
Feeling refreshed and slightly underwhelmed from a new trail breakfast we decided to try, we headed back into the forest for one last hike to the canyon’s rim before saying goodbye to our camp setup and heading back to the visitor’s center.
With temperatures already in the 80s, we indulged in a refreshing smoothie, and a pastry in hand we made our final walk along the Rim Trail before grabbing a new headliner patch for Roxie and heading back to the city.
As we headed back to the city I thought about my birthday; closing out another year, adding another beautiful Grand Canyon trip in the books for the year. I also thought that as much as I love the hikes and overnights, I still can't help yearning for more. Then the realization; once again, the Grand Canyon has left me feeling resolute about accomplishing a rim to river hike in the future, and that ambition ignites a whole new sense of excitement for adventure.