Travel

Trip to the Grand Canyon

 ... or is it?

by James Tierney

   
Is the Grand Canyon all it's "cracked" up to be? No pun intended. We traveled 2000 miles to spend seven days to spend seven hours looking down "holes" in the ground. A pessimistic attitude? Maybe. Then again, maybe, I was expecting more than I should have. Looking into the canyon at the North Rim we were able to see a very small portion of the canyon which is 277 miles long. If I had to do it over again, a helicopter ride over the entire canyon may have given me some of what I expected. It would have not only shown me much more of the canyon but also, the Grand Staircase, a vast expanse of cliffbound plateaus, that runs from Bryce Canyon,  Pink, Gray and White Cliffs, and Zion Canyon in Utah, Vermillion and Chocolate Cliffs, and Grand Canyon in Arizona, as the elevation decreases from 11,000 to 8,000 feet.



Zion Canyon

We stayed at the Casablanca Hotel/Resort in Mesquite, Nevada, a central location from where we traveled by bus, during the next several days, within Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. Our first stop was Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, named for Ebenezer Bryce who was sent by the Church of Jesus Christ because his skills as a carpenter would be useful in settling this area for the Mormons. When we arrived at the plateau it unexpectedly snowed pretty hard, hampering our view quite a bit as the canyon fogged in. Strangely, we had snow here with 23 degrees and hot sun later in the week with 92 degrees. Fortunately, the fog lifted enough for us to gaze down into a spectacular view of a series of horseshoe-shaped amphitheaters. Intricate erosion has shaped colorful limestones, sandstones, and mudstones into thousands of spires, fins, pinnacles and mazes. Some are named, such as Pope, Thor's Hammer and Sentinel. There's an eloquence to their forms which stirs the imagination. These unique formations, called "hoodoos", are whimsically arranged and tinted with colors too numerous to name. Legend has it that these sturdy rock pillars are men condemned to stand forever in stoic silence. Sunset Point and Inspiration Point are the two main viewing areas from the rim of the plateau, also allowing us a panoramic view of the three states spread beyond the park's boundaries.


Interstate 15 was our main traveling road between Utah, Arizona and Nevada. The next day we covered the Valley of Fire State Park, Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam. Valley of Fire, Nevada's oldest and largest state park, derives its name from red sandstone formations, formed from great shifting sand dunes during the age of dinosaurs and the stark beauty of the Mojave Desert. Complex lifting and faulting of the region, followed by extensive erosion, have created the present landscape. The hidden beauty of this area includes dramatic landscapes, mountain vistas, rock fortresses and towers. Nature is the master sculptor. One moment earlier the scene was different and one moment later it will be gone. Erosion seeks weakness in stone.The sandstone layers have soft interbeds allowing forces to erode differentially. Holes form where the rock is especially vulnerable. Fanciful forms result from the probing agent of the weather. It is estimated that this area has been eroding for 600 million years which isn't that long compared to the earth's 4 billion years plus age. What appears to be a replica of New Hampshire's Old Man of the Mountain indicates that he did not fall down but just relocated out west.



Bryce Canyon

We traveled through the Valley of Fire State Park along Lake Mead toward Hoover Dam. Lake Mead was named in honor of Dr. Elwood Mead. As Commissioner of Reclamation from 1924-1936, he drafted new specifications for a giant project that would dam the Colorado River, impound the world's (at that time) largest artificial lake and provide flood control, irrigation supply and power generation. We were fascinated viewing the dam and awestruck hearing about the building of it, with 1930 technology. It is estimated that the amount of concrete poured could pave a road from San Francisco to New York. The schedule called for six years to build but it was finished in four for $175 million dollars. Compare this with Boston's Big Dig, its overruns and $15 billion dollar price tag. It was called Boulder Dam, after the community created for the workers, but later renamed Hoover Dam in honor of President Herbert Hoover.




Hoover Dam

On the way to the Grand Canyon, we stopped at Pipe Spring National Monument, a little known gem of the National Park System rich with American Indian, early explorer, and Mormon pioneer history. The water of Pipe Spring made it possible for plants, animals, and people to live in this dry, desert region. In the 1860's Mormon pioneers brought cattle to the area and by 1872, a fort was built over the main spring. The fort, called Windsor Castle, after the first ranch manager, was built by the Mormon Church to be the headquarters of a large cattle ranching operation. This isolated outpost served as a way station for people traveling across the Arizona Strip, that part of Arizona separated from the rest of the state by the Grand Canyon. It also had a telegraph hookup. The Arizona strip -- part of Arizona -- is larger than the state of Massachusetts.



Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon, located entirely in Arizona (called the baby state, the last of the lower 48 to attain statehood), encompasses 277 miles of the Colorado River and adjacent uplands. One of the most spectacular examples of erosion in the world, Grand Canyon is unmatched in the incomparable vista it offers, although we viewed only a small portion of it from the North Rim. It is SO big, we can't fully comprehend it, and it's totally out of proportion to our daily lives. As I said earlier, a helicopter ride is the way to see it, unless you want to shoot the rapids of the Colorado River below over about a two-week period. You also have the option of a two-day journey to the bottom on foot or by mule, or a three-day hike from the North Rim to the South Rim. Width and depth of the canyon vary. At the South Rim it's a vertical mile from rim to river and 6000 vertical feet at its deepest point. The width from North Rim to South Rim is 10 miles and 18 miles at its widest point. The Colorado River is much longer than the Grand Canyon, flowing 1450 miles from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado to the Gulf of California in Mexico.

Next stop was the Zion National Park, Utah, one of the most beautiful and popular tourist attractions in the United States. We followed the Virgin River as we traveled into the park which emerges from the magnificent towering monoliths of multi-colored stone, nearly 3000 years old. We were down in the canyon looking UP at sheer, vividly multi-colored cliffs found nowhere else on earth, as opposed to looking DOWN into Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon. Zion is a geologic showpiece with sandstone cliffs among the highest in the world and features one of the last mostly free-flowing river systems on the Colorado Plateau. We took a shuttle bus ride along the base, stopping at significant sites with trail access, at Court of Patriachs, Zion Lodge, Grotto Picnic Area, Weeping Rock, and Temple of Sinawava. We saw climbers on the walls along the way. An added highlight was an Imax Theatre film, Zion Canyon, Treasure of the Gods, showing the history of the park and spectacular scenes.

A visit to this area must include a stop in Las Vegas, the fastest growing city in the country, with its lively glittering Strip, its majestic mountain panoramas, and it's indescribable hotels. The contrast between the slow erosion in the old canyons and the lavishness of the new hotels is mind boggling. Each time a new hotel goes up it doesn't try to "keep up with the Jones's" but, rather, outdo them with something newer and more innovative. There's a water show in front of the Bellagio, by far the best and largest hotel, St. Mark's place and gondolas in the canals within the Venetian, the Eiffel replica at Paris Las Vegas, a live pirate show at Treasure Island, a lion habitat at MGM Grand, nightly volcano eruptions at the Mirage, the Luxor Pyramid, the Roman streetscape at the Forum in Caesar's Palace, the Mardi Gras-style Show in the Sky at Rio's Masquerade Village, and the roller coaster and New York skyline in New York, New York. A far cry from the original Sands and Sahara where the rat pack held court. The hotels are really something to see while in Vegas. Incidentally, Las Vegas has gambling casinos, also.

Our last night was spent at the completely renovated Golden Nugget Hotel in old Vegas, known at Glitter Gulch. This area is a few miles north of the northern end of the Strip where the casinos are smaller, older, and less lavish. The area has its own theme attraction, the outdoor light show, The Fremont Street Experience, an exciting and unique pedestrian promenade located in the Neon center, surrounded by ten casino hotels. The show changes on the hour beginning at 9 PM and has different musical themes.

That old cliché comes to mind, "out with the old, in with the new" which is gradually happening in this area. Although it will take thousands of years more erosion in the canyons for the "old to be out", new hotels are being built all the time or old ones being demolished and rebuilt much larger and more luxurious (than the Jones's). We learned that Nevada has some unbearable summers, with temperatures often exceeding 100 degrees. We wear gloves for the cold and snow in the New England while people living in Nevada wear gloves to enter their automobiles which sit in the sun all day, making the metal parts untouchable. Yes, they can also fry an egg on the sidewalk. The fact that they have dry heat and it makes a big difference, is a myth.

All and all, it was a great trip. Like most places we visit, there is never enough time to see it all. However, we can now say we've seen the Grand Canyon in answer to all those people who, over the years, have suggested, you MUST visit the Grand Canyon. I would have liked to see MORE of it. Maybe, next time.


July 3, 2003


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