My trip to the Grand Canyon with my father began like road trips usually do in our family: a groggy wake-up before dawn, sweet coffee and greasy donuts at a gas station, and hours of talk radio as the sun came up and the city faded into desert highways.
And though I’d grown up in Arizona and driven hundreds of familiar miles across the state, our 3-day road trip would still make me feel like an explorer: Arizona isn’t the kitschy cowboy state of golf and retirement that it used to be.
As Highway 87 took us north, and as the sandy desert turned into rolling hills of pine trees, my father turned and asked, during a lull on the radio: “So how have you been?”
I’d been back home for the holidays for awhile, but (with the madness of shopping and cooking) we didn’t get a chance to talk until there was nothing but an empty road before us.
So I complained about my job and my father laid out plans for his retirement. Our words came easier and purer in the silence with no TV running in the background or phone notifications as distractions.
And even though our family was no longer all piled together in a station wagon, I realized that road trips are still what they used to be even when so much else has changed. Despite the wrong turns and the bickering, they’re still times for bonding and creating memories.
We spent the first day of our trip in Pine, an unincorporated community roughly 100 miles north of Phoenix that’s a quickly growing vacation spot.
We stayed in a wooden cabin, and once we washed up and unpacked we spent the rest of the afternoon walking through the surrounding hills – pine needles scrunching under our feet and crisp air filling our lungs. I spotted an old mule deer through the trees munching away slowly and unfazed by our footsteps. A chubby, black-and-white cat stared at us from a nearby porch.
Yes, there are plenty of snowbirds (visitors from the colder states who spend their winters in the Arizona sun), but there are also increasing numbers of young people who are buying up wood cabins for weekend escapes, and chic Airbnbs with rolling porches that overlook the pine forest.
That evening we headed to Old County Inn for a few craft beers over pizza baked in a wood-fired oven. Inside was packed with people and the wood paneled walls were decked with antlers, green neon lights and old landscape paintings. A gay couple next to us at the bar joked with the cook about writing the great American novel. The vibe was more reminiscent of Brooklyn or Shoreditch than a community in rural Arizona that only hit a population of some 2.3k people in the last census.
With a long drive ahead of us tomorrow, we called it an early night and went back to the cabin. I nestled in under some thick blankets with my packed bags by the nightstand.
The next morning, my father and I piled into the truck to drive a few hours further up north and arrive at the Grand Canyon National Park when the lines at the entrance were still small.
THE GRAND CANYON
Considered a holy site by the Pueblo people, Spanish invaders would later call the Grand Canyon “profound” and marvel that some of its rocks were bigger than Seville’s great tower. It reaches depths of over a mile, formed over some 70 million years.
The national park is huge and covers some 1,900 square miles. Alongside the looming canyon that stretches out like an ocean into infinity, there are two Visitor Centers, a Market Plaza complete with a post office, a few lodges and a hotel.
It’s easy to get lost, and we did soon after we parked the truck. I finally asked a park ranger: “I’m sorry, but where’s the canyon?” She pointed us in the right direction and soon we were looking over its edge.
Not even National Geographic photos can convey the dizzying mix of fear and awe you get when you’re overlooking the canyon. It’s an empowering feeling of unrestrained space.
Unlike the usual horizon line, which neatly divides space into earth and sky, the horizon line at the canyon is ragged and blurred. It doesn’t mark a neat division, but swoops and plunges deep down to the Colorado River to show you the vastness and depth of the earth – and our fragile place in it.
A brief moment of inattention with an unruly selfie stick, or an overzealous attempt at the perfect Instagram photo, could send you plunging towards death. Of the 4.5 million people who visit the Grand Canyon each year, an average of 12 people die.
There were times when I got lightheaded and had to grab on to a railing, and other times when I walked pathways that skirted too close to the edge and left me grasping rocks or trees for a sense of stability.
Though we never ventured past the well-worn trails marked out for visitors, but others did. I saw a family egging on a young girl to pose at the edge of a cliff while they snapped photos, and a woman protesting as her husband laughed and enticed her further down a steep trail.
It soon got claustrophobic with all the crowds and the selfie sticks. I looked at my map of the South Rim, and a thin red line in the left-hand corner beckoned. It was called Hermit Road.
This 8-mile scenic route includes 9 overlooks with canyon and river views, and ends with Hermit’s Rest (which boasts a snack bar and toilets). It is the route less travelled and we were lucky to be at the canyon when private vehicles are allowed through (December-February).
The Hermit Trail and a few other features in this part of the canyon are named after the Canadian-born miner and explorer Louis Boucher, who most interestingly had a mule named Calamity Jane. Though he wasn’t a true hermit, Boucher carved a trail into the canyon and lived alone for years near a spring.
We drove towards the Trailview Overlook and it felt like we were back on the road trip we’d begun in Phoenix. My father drove slowly as we gazed out into the abyss of the canyon and the green hiking trails along the road.
People walked their dogs, sat in the gravel admiring the views, or jogged and bicycled down the shady trails. It was a slower, more leisurely vibe than the crowded lookouts near the visitor centers. Though to be fair: this was the off-season, and if you go in summer it’s very crowded (and very hot) everywhere.
We made our way down the road, pulling over at whichever stops looked good. The most incredible lookouts on Hermit Road include The Abyss, a dizzying view that goes 2,600 feet straight down, and Hopi Point, which looks farther out into the canyon than any other viewpoint. We finished the ride at Hermit’s Rest with some chips and coffee.
The sun was now starting to decline and we turned to leave. Back on the road, we stopped to eat at a drive-through and then browsed the souvenirs at a nearby gift shop. My father bought me an ochre yellow map of Route 66, which now hangs on the wall in my home in Cairo. Inspiration for next year’s road trip?
It was dark when we got back to our cabin in Pine. I had a couple beers and watched a documentary about The Nutcracker. We had already gone over our plans for tomorrow – and had some exciting landmarks circled on the map.
IF YOU GO:
Old County Inn • 3502 N Hwy 87, Pine • Tel: (928) 476-6560 • oldcountyinn.com
Hermit Road: This guide includes great descriptions of each lookout.
Part II of this road trip (Montezuma’s Castle, Jerome and Prescott) is coming soon!
I would love to hear from you. Do you enjoy road trips? What are your most memorable trips that you’d recommend?