Saturday, July 23, 2011

Disneyland of the Grand Staircase

It all started because of Niagara Falls.

By the mid-19th century, the area surrounding the falls had become so commercialized and exploitative that foreign visitors would think less of America after having seen it. In order to prevent another Niagara, Congress created the country’s (and indeed the world’s) first national parks. Unfortunately, at the Grand Canyon – one of the park system’s crowning jewels – another Niagara is exactly what it has become.

Driving in from the east, I arrived first at the Desert View area, since that was to be where I would camp tonight. So after I set up camp, I went over to get my first look at the canyon. Before I could do that, though, I had to walk past 3 gift shops, all selling the same things, all within a few yards of each other.

The view of the canyon at Desert View is not as spectacular as I had hoped my first impression of the Grand Canyon would be. You’re basically looking down the length of the canyon, so that all its folds and layers just appear to stack up onto each other. You don’t get a very good sense of the enormity of the place there.

So I headed west on the main park road towards the main visitor center and Mather Point. Along the way were several more viewpoints and it took until the third or fourth until I finally started to be impressed with what I was seeing. I was starting to think that maybe, as I got closer to the center of the park, the views would become more and more dramatic.

Then came the main visitor center. Well, not exactly. Before I could get to the main visitor center I had to park. In the third satellite lot. Called Raven 2. It might as well have been called Mickey 2.

Since this is the most visited park I’ve seen so far (and therefore the highest funded), I expected the visitor center to blow me away. The plaza outside was newly renovated, complete with sweeping lines and curved paths, all leading to the illustrious door of the visitor center. In contrast to the rustic authenticity of the architecture at places like Arches and Bryce, the landscaping here bore little connection to the park’s main attraction and came off more like the Natick Mall.

Inside, I found 2 displays about the cross-sectional geology of the canyon (a lesson I heard in 3 separate ranger talks as well), 2 rangers sitting behind what looked like a ticket counter, and a vast empty space. In less than a minute, I had exhausted its usefulness.

However, the visitor center was only one piece of the Visitor Center Complex. Also included were a booth where guests could purchase a guided bicycle tour of the canyon as well as yet another gift shop. There, you could buy Grand Canyon t-shirts, Grand Canyon shot glasses, Grand Canyon stickers, Grand Canyon candy, and Navajo art (clearly labeled that it was not made by Native American craftsmen). None of this could you do, by the way, while actually viewing the Grand Canyon.

At this point, I actually started to feel bad for the canyon itself. Here, one of the Wonders of the Natural World, unmatched for its enormity, beauty, and incomprehensibility, was being blatantly exploited for every dollar it could generate, and it could do nothing to defend itself.

Giving up on the park idea, I turned to the canyon, hoping that focusing on it would improve my impression of the overall area. I headed to Mather Point – arguably the most famous viewpoint on the South Rim, named for Stephen Mather – the greatest champion the park movement has ever known. Mather devoted decades of his life, at great financial cost, to consolidate, manage, and improve all of the National Parks. The country is so indebted to him that at every park, there is a plaque honoring him and commemorating his service. So Mather Point at the inimitable Grand Canyon should be spectacular.

And it was, I think. It was hard to know for sure, since dozens of tourists crammed into a viewpoint the size of a school bus. I managed to elbow my way past several groups of Asian tourists, decked out in their Yankees shirts and shiny new Stetsons, some still sporting their tags. I got a few decent pictures of Mather Point, but as everyone will tell you, pictures don’t do the place justice. In fact, the place doesn’t’ really do the place justice. At several of the viewpoints, I spend a long time trying to grasp the scale of the hole in the earth in front of me. I tried following a single ridge of rock from the rim to the river, but inevitably it would make a turn or a cliff would be too steep and it would disappear from view. I’m still not sure I fully comprehend what a 5,000 foot drop is.

No way to show how deep this actually is
It wasn’t until I decided to walk a portion of the Rim Trail that I was able to escape the crowds and the organ grinders. Apparently, the 90% of the visitors who came from overseas couldn’t be bothered to take the time to explore the place for themselves. I walked about 2 miles before turning around so I could get back to Desert View for sunset.

Desert View is well known as the best place to watch the sunset at the Grand Canyon. So I was excited about how it would turn out. What’s more, there is a wildfire burning on the North Rim, with smoke blowing east, creating artificial clouds in an otherwise uniformly blue sky. In the end, though, I wasn’t all that impressed with the sunset, and returned to my campsite (Campsite 5 this time) to cook tonight’s gourmet dinner – hot dogs and Velveeta Shells & Cheese.

Desert View at sunset
As I was eating, I kept 1 eye on the sky. Since it had been such a clear day and the forecast called for a clear night, and because the moon had set early in the evening, and because I’m still in Dark Sky country, I was expecting to see (and maybe even photograph) quite the astronomical show. This time, the Grand Canyon came through in a big way.

First, just standing away from the fire, I could finally make out the center band of the Milky Way. I’d never seen it before and this was one of my goals for this trip. Another was to get a picture of it. So I set up the camera, did a few test shots to get the settings right, and finally, when the first 24-second exposure was complete, this is what appeared on the camera’s screen:

Full discolsure: night sky pictures rarely look good straight from the camera, so I did a little tweaking to these.  

I got a few more like it before quickly dousing my fire, jumping in the car, and rushing back to the canyon rim to try to capture the Milky Way over the canyon, itself. However, without a moon to light up the inner cliffs, this, like Bryce, was an exercise in me standing on the edge of a mysterious black abyss, convinced I was about to be eaten by a mountain lion. I handled the nerves a little better this time, managing to get 1 decent picture before running for my life.

There's a pretty grand canyon down there somewhere.
I also made a stop in the middle of the parking lot – the thought being that if a lion were to come upon me there, I’d see it coming from far enough a way to come up with a plan. Here’s what I came away from there with:

So that’s my Grand Canyon adventure. Tomorrow, I head for Las Vegas, which may not be as much of a culture shock as I had anticipated. I just have a few things to take care of here first.

I haven’t bought my Grand Canyon bobblehead yet.

1 comment:

  1. These are even more awesome than the sunsets! Seeing a star filled sky like this is definitely on my bucket list!