I’ve just returned from a seven-day backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon, and can list what makes for a great vacation.
This requires overcoming my dislike of air travel, but well worth it. To make it more bearable, I fly out of a regional airport that’s easy to drive to and stretch my legs during the inevitable layover. Sardined into my seat during the flight allowed me to read without interruption. Vacation begins.
Go somewhere new.
I’d never been to Arizona, and the drive from Phoenix to Flagstaff was the first hint I wasn’t in Vermont anymore. The sun bore down as we climbed to seven thousand feet, passing saguaro cactus, brown earth and sage flora into the Ponderosa Pine, juniper and pinyon trees that live at altitude.
Explore on foot.
We chose a hotel right downtown so we could walk. As luck would have it, ours was not just comfortable and new, it was also LEEDS Certified, meaning it was constructed to high environmental standards. It didn’t hurt that there were complimentary drinks in the evening and coffee and breakfast at dawn. The friendly staff steered us toward some local eateries; from the get-go, we ate well, whether it was New American Regional or the local burger joint or the food our outfitter provided on the trail.
Learn about a new place.
We had a day before hiking into the canyon, so we went to the Flagstaff Arboretum, to acquaint ourselves with our new environment. That’s where I started collecting names of flowers: New Mexican checkermallow; wild candytuft; Oregon boxleaf; blue sheep fescue; whiplash daisy; Manzanita; cloud walker stonecrop; little leaf pussytoes; fringed sagebrush; snowberry; Prairie smokebush; rubber rabbitbush; straw foxglove; twinberry; Saskatoon serviceberry; pineneedle pestemon (aka figwort); Arizona coral drops; deer’s ears; Franciscan Bluebells; nodding ragwort; ephedra (aka Mormon Tea); banana yucca, nodding onion; Apache Plume; thoroughwort; Arizona bugbane; showy fleabane; and caramel alumroot – to name a few.
We left Flagstaff at 5am and arrived at the trailhead on the North Rim shortly after noon. The first day we descended 1,700 feet in just a few miles along a trail with innumerable switchbacks. As we descended, we walked back in geologic time and into different climatic zones. I saw agave and prickly pear in bloom as well as rock formations of breathtaking beauty in a landscape both incomprehensibly foreign and exquisitely gorgeous.
That was the beginning of our seven days hiking a total of about fifty-five miles through slot canyons down to the Colorado River and back. While I’d braced myself for extreme heat, we lucked out with cool weather, rain, hail and snow. We witnessed a flash flood, where Whispering Grotto transformed from a delicate rill of clear water to a shouting riot of molten fudge – and back again to innocence in a matter of hours. We saw water begin to fall, grow to a thousand-foot cascade, and retreat all in an hour or less. We had sunshine and hail; our last day, it snowed at the North Rim.
Challenge yourself mentally and physically.
We walked through slot canyons that were rivers of loose rock. I concentrated on foot placement with each step where the creeks were dry, and I waded through water past my knees where they were flowing. In some places, we had to climb over boulders the size of small houses, passing our packs up and down where passages were tight. In one place, we made an unprotected lateral move from one four-inch ledge to another across a foot-wide gap over an abyss with a single handhold. I hesitated for a moment, then made up my mind to just do it – and did. We also faced a weather challenge as we returned through a narrow slot canyon with no high water escape. With a storm cloud chasing us, we hurried through and reached high ground in advance of the rain.
The walls of the canyons are magnificent. At every jaw-dropping view we’d try to make sense of what we were seeing through similes: Rock formations like sentinels, dolphins, birds, devils, the Guggenheim Museum, castles, fortresses, the Flat Iron Building; ledges that look like the steps of the Metropolitan Museum; undercut cliffs like subway platforms; formations like the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey; a boulder that looked like a giant paper wasp nest.
I put my phone on airplane to save battery power and used it as my camera, but I wouldn’t have had service even if I’d kept it on. We were deep in slot canyons and could usually see only a small slice of sky. Living without chimes and alerts and the interruptions of connectively was remarkably restful. Aside from my camera, I had my Kindle with me – and time to read.
Exertion and rest.
JP, our guide, didn’t just provide skilled leadership and guidance through the foreign and unmarked pathway from water source to water source down Kanab Creek, he also planned and cooked all our meals – including brewed morning coffee – making this a true vacation. All I had to do was carry my belongings, a share of the food, and hike up to nine miles a day. Not so bad.
Meet new people.
JP (from California) led five of us into the canyon and back: Steve (from the UK), Doug (from Ontario), Kathy (Florida), and Tim and me (Vermont). JP’s in his thirties and carried an eighty-pound pack. The rest of us were all gray-haired and fit, comfortable with 35-40 pounds on our backs. We were well met and became a congenial group of adults having the time of our lives.
In the canyon, we learned the history of rocks, each of which has a name and story of its own. The day after we climbed out, four of us toured the cliff dwellings at Walnut Canyon and the ash cone and hardened lava flow at Sunset Crater, where the most recent volcanic eruption occurred about 1050.
Return home renewed.
I love how living outdoors 24/7 helps me return to the elemental. I love how walking, sometimes in silence, sometimes in conversation and often in awe at the natural beauty around me, helped me remember how to concentrate and to be present. And I’m happy to return home feeling more energized, greater clarity, and physically stronger than when I left – hallmarks of a great vacation.