Sam McManis

Discoveries: Grand Canyon’s South Rim crowded but not overbearing

In this photo provided by the National Park Service, visitors to Mather Point on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, in Ariz., view a rare weather phenomenon - a sea of thick clouds filling the canyon just below the rim, Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014. Cory Mottice of the National Weather Service said the weather event happens about once every several years, though the landmark was treated to one last year.
In this photo provided by the National Park Service, visitors to Mather Point on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, in Ariz., view a rare weather phenomenon - a sea of thick clouds filling the canyon just below the rim, Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014. Cory Mottice of the National Weather Service said the weather event happens about once every several years, though the landmark was treated to one last year. AP

Triple-digit heat, and here sits Catherine Thomas in a rocking chair in front of the historic El Tovar Hotel on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, showing impressive manual dexterity in needlepointing a snowman.

Never too early for Christmas, apparently.

She looks up occasionally, between cross stitches, to gaze upon the steady stream of tourists stopping to admire the rutilant, shimmering sandstone folds unfurling 4,000 feet below.

At that moment, the bulk of her family – husband Mike, daughter Laurel, son Jacob and Mike’s sister, MaryAnn – sit astride mules heading down the dizzyingly circuitous Bright Angel Trail for an overnight campout at Phantom Ranch, hard by the Colorado River. But not Catherine. Nuh-uh. She’s fine just where she’s at, thank you very much. Her mother, Dorothy Smith, stayed behind, too, for moral support and company – and to chill with a cold drink on the portico.

“I’m desperately afraid of heights,” Catherine says, reclining on the veranda of the 1905 hotel built of limestone and pine. “My husband reserved a slot for me, too, when he made (the reservations) a year in advance, but I’ve been on the fence, not sure. And I just couldn’t do it.”

So, earlier that morning, the schoolteacher and mother of two from West Hartford, Conn., put on a brave face and waved to her loved ones from the trailhead as they descended down Bright Angel Trail, with two guides and two other families also saddled up and plumes of dust partially obscuring the posse’s progress.

“I’m a tiny bit nervous for them, but not really,” she adds, flipping over the canvas of her needlepoint and biting off the thread. “I listened to the whole safety spiel, and the guy said, ‘We’ve never lost a mule.’ Then he said, ‘Have people gotten hurt? Yeah. But not because of the mule.’”

Now, several hours after the mule-driven goodbyes, Thomas and Smith are joined on the portico by two sweaty but glowing hikers humping backpacks as hulking as overstuffed potato sacks. Lee Fenwick, of Butte, Mont., and friend Fara Illich, of Phoenix, have just completed a rim-to-rim hike, starting on the North Rim three days before and camping out on the river before making the ascent to the South Rim and the much-sought-after shade of El Tovar. They stretch their legs, tanned but with an extra scrim of beige trail dust, and quaff from Nalgene bottles.

Thomas puts down her needlepoint and chats up the two, asking if they happened to see the mule caravan heading down on their way up. They had. Both women praise, effusively, the mules’ collective demeanor, perhaps ladling it on thick to reassure Thomas. They also express wonder, absolute awe, at the journey they had just completed.

“You go through these different climatic zones, you know?” Fenwick says. “Our hands were numb at the start, it was so cold. Down in the canyon, it was hot, like 125 degrees in the sun. And then you climb back up. It was just beautiful, completely different terrain and experiences.”

Such is the allure of South Rim, the location most of the Grand Canyon’s 5 million annual visitors encamp.

You can choose your own adventure – even if that adventure consists of just rocking in a chair and engaging in active observation. Or taking a two-day mule trip down into the canyon. Or tackling the popular rim-to-rim hiking challenge. You can stay in historic, lovingly preserved hotels and lodges, or rough it at campgrounds or rough it even more by making camp in designated spots down in the canyon by the river. You can either hike vertically challenging trails such as Bright Angel and South Kaibab or stick to the flat Rim Trail or even eschew trails all together and take the phalanx of shuttle buses that drop people at observation points. You can enjoy modern conveniences – restaurants, ATMs, high-thread-count sheets – but still feel you’re “back-to-nature,” though a proposed major retail and resort development in a town 11/2 miles outside park boundaries could change the vibe.

Unlike Grand Canyon West, where photography on its famous Skywalk is verboten (other than official, pricey pics of you they hawk shamelessly), you can shoot all the selfies you want at viewpoints such as Mather Point, Desert View and Mohave, the latter a favorite for capturing burnt orange sunsets.

Unlike Grand Canyon West, where the “historic ranch” is merely an Old West facade that looks like a reject from a B-movie Western, the South Rim offers true historic sites. The Kolb and Lookout studios, which in the early 1900s captured photos of visitors descending into the canyon on muleback, have been turned into museums. The Bright Angel Lodge has a room dedicated to the Santa Fe railroad’s history on the South Rim, while the Yavapai Geology Museum names and explains rock formations dating 1.84 billion years, and the pueblo-style Desert View Watchtower, designed by famed architect Mary Jane Colter, looks out on the little-visited East Rim while offering a history of artists who drew inspiration from the canyon.

Yet, like Grand Canyon West, the South Rim can get crowded and certainly makes concessions to commercialism.

But it’s a different kind of crowded. More orderly, less frenetic. It is a national park, after all, which means you can expect modern conveniences such as central air conditioning in the visitors center, Wi-Fi access (albeit spotty), a Chase bank branch, and sit-down, metal-utensil-using restaurants rather than the passel of food trucks and carts at Grand Canyon West. The South Rim shuttle buses that fork in three directions run continuously during the day and well into the evening, so prompt and numerous that people have begun parking at the visitors center and exploring via mass transit to avoid parking nightmares, a problem for decades. People seem less pushy, even when the queue for the popular Blue Line to Bright Angel Lodge snakes 50 deep.

“I actually thought it’d be more crowded,” says Joetta Lady, of Topeka, Kan., as she and husband Gary waited for the bus. “It’s not bad at all.”

Once the Ladys and others in the back of the line squeeze in, the Blue Line makes stops at the Market Plaza, the railroad depot (a tourist train arrives from Williams, 45 miles south, once a day) and the Bright Angel Lodge. At the first stop, the doors hiss open but no one exits. The driver, whose nameplate reads Danielle E., yells to those hoping to board, “Sorry, I’m loaded” – maybe a poor word choice for a mass transit operator.

Most South Rim visitors know what they are getting into and deal with the surging mass of humanity. Charlie and Donna Dybus, of Philadelphia, have brought their grandson Charlie Cutler, 8, for his first national park experience, with the younger Charlie being sworn in as a Junior Ranger after completing the National Park Service program’s “course work.” Dybus is a veteran national park traveler and knew to proceed strategically and carefully and not try to cram in everything in a day or two.

“We’ve been to quite a few parks – (Mount) Rushmore, Yellowstone, Ellis Island – and all these places are crowded,” Dybus says. “But to me, that’s a good thing. It shows a sense of involvement of the people. If nobody’s there, then nobody cares.”

The South Rim, after all, wasn’t always under national park protection. It became a national monument in 1908 and a full-fledged park in 1919. Before that, though, some crafty businessmen did what the Hualapai Indians are doing now at Grand Canyon West – charging people for just about anything. The Bright Angel Trail had been a “toll path” for tourists under businessman Ralph Cameron in the late 1890s. The Kolb brothers tried to corner the market on photos, and the historic El Tovar was originally commissioned by the railroad as a way to lure tourists to the Grand Canyon after the prospect of hauling copper from regional mines proved unprofitable.

Under National Park Service stewardship, the South Rim has straddled the line between catering to tourists and engaging in crass commercialism. Mostly, it has succeeded.

But outside park boundaries, beyond federal jurisdiction, several recent developments have concerned environmentalists and park purists.

A mile and a half from the South Rim’s entrance, in Tusayan (pop. 558), an Italian developer has proposed building 2,100 homes, a resort, a dude ranch, several high-end hotels, 3 million square feet of retail space and restaurants. It’s quite an escalation of commerce from the four modest hotels and handful of restaurants (Wendy’s, McDonald’s and three locally owned sit-down establishments) in town now. Approval would mean new roads and infrastructure and potential tapping of groundwater. The National Park Service, the development’s closest neighbor, has opposed the plan, fearing groundwater could be depleted and affect the park. Officials from the Kaibab National Forest, which has jurisdiction on much of the land, are mulling how thorough an environmental impact report is needed before signing off.

Residents in Tusayan, where many park visitors stay because of cheaper hotel fees and more dining options, are divided. Some fear rampant commercialization and being priced out of the housing market; others welcome growth because, Tusyan liquor store employee Scott Lynch said, “There’s nowhere to do laundry here.”

At least the proposed Tusayan development doesn’t directly affect the aesthetics of the canyon. To the east, well beyond national park boundaries, the Navajo Nation has proposed what some have dubbed the Grand Canyon Escalade, a gondola and trolly ride from reservation land at the rim to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. Arizona representative Albert Hale, former president of the Navajo Nation, has said the project will bring jobs and tourists. A spokeswoman for Save the Confluence has said the land is a sacred site that should remain unspoiled.

Park visitors are mostly oblivious to development matters, perhaps because little has changed within park boundaries. They are, understandably, just out to enjoy nature and bask in its sublime beauty.

Back at the South Rim, near high noon the day after Catherine Thomas waved goodbye to her mule-backed family, the clop of hooves and wisps of dust on the South Kaibab signals the posse’s return. Hikers spontaneously break into applause as the mules reach the rim. Saddle-sore but satisfied, the Thomases dismount and grab what’s left of their provisions.

“So great,” Jacob says. “The view looking up from where we came was awesome.”

What they found down in the canyon wasn’t bad, either.

“The place was packed down there,” patriarch Mike says. “But, even so, it didn’t seem too much. We could spread out under the stars.”

Thomas’ wife had a pretty good view, too – from the rocking chair.

The Grand (Canyon) Tour

Each year, nearly 5 million visit the Grand Canyon National Park, and thousands more make a trip to the Skywalk at the West Rim, run by the Hualapai Indians. The Bee recently visited the three most popular Grand Canyon destinations and provides a primer:

  • July 19: Grand Canyon West Skywalk
  • Today: South Rim
  • Aug. 2: North Rim