Travel Diaries: The Grand Canyon

Landing in Tucson at 1830 there was an air of excitement. I had arranged to meet my girlfriend in her hometown but this was a surprise, I was arriving a week early on Christmas day. I’ve traveled to America before but only the east coast so the landscape was all new to me, replacing trees for saguaros and rolling hills for red rocks.

When you’re dating someone that essentially lives in the desert you learn that quite a lot of preconceptions aren’t exactly true, such as deserts being categorically warm places. I knew that it was going to be cold, more so than at home in frosty Britain anyway, but nothing could prepare me for the foot of snow in Flagstaff that we received overnight – but we’ll get to that.

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During the months leading up to my arrival Ciara had planned a roadtrip to the Grand Canyon via the scenic route of Sedona. Departing from Tucson we embarked upon the notoriously dull leg of the journey, the I-10 to Phoenix. This was mainly two hours of dusty horizon, you can see for miles without very much to look at apart from some rocky peaks and mountains in the far distance.

After a couple of nights in Phoenix we began on the real part of the journey, heading North on the I-17 the temperature started to drop drastically as the scenery improved. Boring freeway gave way to sweeping bends, hills and moody skies and for the first time it felt like we were on a real roadtrip. Only taking a break from scanning the surroundings to make time for a little radio karaoke when the Foo Fighters came on.

Stopping for gas (and McDonands – cough) near Prescott we didn’t even want to step out of the truck it had gotten that cold, I’ll put my hand up and say that I made the heroic dash for McDonalds – that’s just the kind of guy I am. After a while we got off the I-17 and on to highway 179 to Sedona where things got really … Red Dead Redemption.

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Obelisks of soft beige stone towered along the sides of the highway and into the distance, sending me right back to 1890 when the West was Wild. If it had been warmer it would have felt even more real, instead snow capped the mountains and higher ground creatied a landscape I’ve never seen portrayed anywhere before.

We then took the 89A to Flagstaff where it was noticeably more snowy, at an elevation of nearly 7000ft Flagstaff is one of the coldest cities in the entire region. When we woke up in the morning after a night in the Ramada Inn there was almost a foot of snow on the truck, the roads were icy which made me an incredibly nervous passenger considering the Dodge Ram was rear wheel drive and had no weight in the back – the perfect recipe for a massive accident.

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Expecting highway 180 to be snow and ice the whole way didn’t fill me with confidence about the journey, I had no doubt in the Mrs’ capability I just thought it would take ages, luckily though, it didn’t. Within a couple of hours we were in Tusayan, the last stop before the Grand Canyon, cutting wide open plains in half along the way with mountainous backdrops and biblical rays of sun piercing the clouds as we made our lonely journey.

These are the type of roads that you see in movies and think “I’d love to go there and drive that road”, it’s impossible to take it all in. Whoever invented the camera phone, thank you – I really appreciate it. It still doesn’t do a vast landscape justice but it’s a lot better than a flakey memory.

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Upon arrival at the Grand Canyon there was bad news though, it turns out that today was a bad day, weather wise. Visibility was about 100 metres / 300ft and clearly the Grand Canyon is considerably bigger than that. Sat full of mist to the point you couldn’t even tell there was a Canyon there, a rocky cliff tumbled away from our feet and then there was white… similar to looking out of an airplane window while flying through a cloud.

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After a quick explore of the lodges around the south rim we decided to head back to the hotel in Flagstaff and get some food, we’d be making our way back to Tucson in one straight shot the following day so we needed some rest. On the way back from the Greek restaurant in Flagstaff it started snowing again, heavily. An omen of what we would have to battle through to get down from the elevation the next day.

We woke up to the sound of snow ploughs, another six inches of snow had fallen overnight and had turned the roads into what looked like a ski resort, not exactly what had pictured when I imagined Arizona. Driving as if on eggshells for over an hour, Ciara brought us down through the cloud,back to where the road once again held traction to the tyres. All the while being treated to ridiculous views of wild America.

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Interstate 17 had a surprising amount to offer in that sense, a world apart from the drab motorways that I’m used to in the UK where if you’re lucky enough to see over the embankment you *might* see a few fields. Certainly not far enough into the distance to see anything worth writing home about. We cruised into Tucson a few hours later, watching the Fahrenheit climb steadily along the way, up to a comfortable 64F as our elevation dropped. That’s about 18C to the rest of the world.

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Doing this trip in the winter gave us some of the most picturesque scenery you could imagine, snow has a tendency to increase beauty by about 100%. I’d like to do this again in the summer though to get the real desert experience, red rocks are more at home with scorching temperatures and the Grand Canyon is a lot easier to see when there’s not a cloud in it.

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