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A grand last day

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Heide and Heather ready to scope out a canyon trail by bike.
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This is Part IV of IV of Red Dirt Report's Heide Brandes’ travels to and from California in September. Click here to read Part III.

Biking, hiking, exploring the Grand Canyon is always worth the time

OKLAHOMA CITY – Very few places in the world are as awe-inspiring as the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The extraordinary depths of this 277-mile canyon and the artistic swirls and colors of the mile-deep walls draw millions of people to the Grand Canyon National Park every year.

Standing on the edge of the southern rim of the park paints vistas of extraordinary light and hues. The pink and peach of the morning sunrise create a canvas of browns, purples, black and sand as the massive canyon spreads out among the dawn.

Describing the sheer size and grandeur of the Grand Canyon has stumped writers and artists since its discovery all those years ago, but the mystery of that task keeps bringing us back. Trails leading to the canyon floor and the paths around the rim of the canyon rare filled with tourists like Heather and me, all here to witness one of the greatest accomplishments of nature.

Except Heather and I were on bikes. Neither of us had been on a bicycle in more than 20 years, but as the old saying goes, “it’s just like riding a bike.” After a few wobbly pedals and harsh hits of the brakes, we were off to explore and ride the southern rim of the Grand Canyon at 8 a.m., peering for the elusive elk herd that roamed the area while we were at it.

We had pulled into Tusayan, a small town located seven miles south of Grand Canyon Village, at 2 a.m. the night before after a grueling 12 hour drive from Yosemite and through Death Valley. We were sticky with the unwise selection of luscious chicken wings as road food and ready for a glass of wine and bed.

The Grand Canyon was on our “must-see” list of places to visit on our way back from the car-nabbing adventure in California, but we had only the morning to explore it before the 18 to 20-hour drive that day to Oklahoma City.

We figured the best and fastest way to take in the Grand Canyon in only a few hours was to bike around the rim until we found a hike that would suit us.

So, armed with bike helmets and strong legs, we zoomed away to feel the canyon air on our faces and take in one of nature’s most jaw-dropping formations.

Grand doesn’t cut it

I have visited the Grand Canyon numerous times in my life, but the sight of it still flutters the butterflies in my stomach and brings tears to my eyes. Heather had not had the pleasure of seeing this wild, untamed place as an adult, so the sheer majesty of the Grand Canyon took her breath away.

The Grand Canyon is estimated to be approximately 6 million years old, and the three "Granite Gorges" found here contain crystalline rocks created during the Proterozoic Era, according to National Geographic.

The layered rock of the canyon allows scientists to peer back into geological time, thanks to the carving power of the Colorado River. The canyon walls are made up of 40 rock layers, but the biggest mystery is the Kaibab limestone found at the top layer. That deposit was created at the bottom of the ocean, yet it was somehow uplifted to the top at 9,000 feet where it remains today.

Humans have lived in this area for as long as 12,000 years. In fact, only 3 percent of the park has unveiled nearly 4,800 archeological finds.

To the rest of us, the Grand Canyon is a wondrous playground for outdoor enthusiasts and historians alike. Trails aplenty run through the canyon, as do historical and archeological sites.

The South Kaibab Trail is just south Yaki Point on Yaki Point Road. Though you can access the trailhead by shuttle bus, the two-mile bike ride to the trailhead was perfect.

The trail itself, however, can be a bit intimidating. The Kaibab Trail is the only trail at Grand Canyon National Park that holds true to a ridgeline descent, and while exhilarating and challenging, it is also not for the faint of heart. Little shade and no water is available along this trail.

It also goes straight down, and as we discovered over years of hiking, what goes down must also go straight back up.

Along the trail, we passed timid little women pressed close to the canyon wall of the trail, the fear of heights reducing them to shaking messes of nervousness. You can’t blame them. Walking along a trail that hangs hundreds of feet over cliffs can be unnerving.

Signs that show people throwing up violently warn hikers not to try to attempt to reach the canyon floor and back up in one day. Dehydration and heat stroke kill people in this park every year, so the warnings are to be taken seriously.

After days and days of hiking, Heather and I were not looking forward to the mile-long straight hike back up the trail. Our glutes and quads were already tortured from uphill hikes of the past days. Our lungs scraped in air in the high altitude, but strangely enough, the vertical hike was easier that day.

Our bodies were adapting.

Because we were on a time-crunch, we managed the bike ride, the 2-mile hike and the bike ride back to the Visitor’s Center in an hour and a half.

What a shame to have such little time in such a grand area. But, don’t use lack of time as an excuse not to visit the fourth largest canyon in the world.

Art in all its forms

As we peddled our bikes along the south rim trail to The South Kaibab Trail that morning, we passed artists who perched on the canyon rim like eagles, their paintbrushes and charcoal pencils poised like talons.

One artist, a young woman from Utah, explained that the week we were visiting was part of the Grand Canyon Celebration of Art.

Each year, artists from throughout the nation are invited to the Grand Canyon National Park for the Celebration of Art, presented by Grand Canyon Association. Proceeds from the event go toward a fund to establish a permanent art venue at Grand Canyon.

The Celebration of Art is a fantastic top tier plein air event held each year in September in the park. Visitors sometimes sit and just watch the artists as they create pieces that reflect what they see in the canyon, from the layers of history in vibrant colors to the shifting light and shadows of the amazing land forms to the untamed energy of the animals that roam there.

Hosted each year by the Grand Canyon Association, the Grand Canyon Celebration of Art is an annual event that includes six days of art events, followed by a month long exhibition in Kolb Studio on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park.

Each artist brings a completed studio piece with them and then creates more artwork on site during the "Plein Air on the Rim" and Quick Draw events. During the auction that follows the Quick Draw event on Sept. 17, park residents and visitors bid on the work in order to bring a piece of Grand Canyon home.

You can see this year’s art here.

The building of women

As we drove east out of the park, Heather and I stopped at the Desert View Visitor’s Center.

There, a massive stone lookout tower juts out of the rim rock. It looks prehistoric, as if it was created by the ancient Native Americans who lived along the Grand Canyon, but it is actually the work of one of America’s most under-celebrated architects.

These rough-hewn structures built of stone and timber are often mistaken for ruins from the pioneer days or prehistory. The buildings’ architect, Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter (1869-1958), meant her creations to look that way.

One of America's earliest women architects and one of the first architects to give American buildings a site-specific sense of place, Colter graduated from the California School of Design in San Francisco in 1890. She was one of only 22 female architects in the entire country.

A chain-smoking, tough woman, Colter designed numerous structures at the Grand Canyon, including the Hopi House, which was modeled after the flat-roofed Hopi dwellings. Built by Hopi workers, this simulated pueblo sold Native American crafts, which helped sustain tribal artisans.

We visited her Desert View Watchtower, built in 1932.

The tower was designed to resemble an Ancient Pueblo Peoples watchtower, but it is much larger than any Pueblan-built tower.

Colter was a stickler for Native American traditions. She studied indigenous building techniques and the natural materials they used, and she delved deep into Puebloan ruins and the Hopi culture. These influences all came into play when she planned the Watchtower. 

If you’re at the Grand Canyon, the Desert View Watchtower and Colter’s other creations at the park are well worth a look.

The end of a trip

By noon, Heather and I were on Interstate 40, driving east to finally return to Oklahoma City. Nearly 20 hours later, we pulled into the 405 at about 3 a.m., covered in road stench and shaking from the gallons of coffee and junk food coursing through our bodies.

Sick of the feel of the road, the memories of biking along the magnificent rim of the Grand Canyon or hiking through the old forests of Yosemite seemed years ago, but we still carried them in our blood and our hearts.

Travel is essential. I truly believe that. No matter the circumstances, no matter where the road ends, take time to explore this splendid world. Adventure is easy. Discovery is easy.

Just hit the road and find the answers you seek.

Photos by Red Dirt Report's Heide Brandes.

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About the Author

Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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