By Leslee Jaquette
Hiking up the Grand Canyon over President’s Weekend, the weather changed so dramatically so many times that my sons and I felt like we were part of a time-lapse movie. The rain, hail, snow, sun, fog, wind and calm took turns racing past during the six hours it took us to hike the 10 mile distance and 5,280 or so vertical feet from Phantom Ranch up to the South Rim.
By the time we arrived at the top of the Bright Angel Trail, we were tired puppies. But the sense of accomplishment paired with the togetherness factor and unparalleled physical beauty of the canyon, ranks our Grand Canyon experience at the top of our shared family adventures.
Although we recommend this round trip expedition for anyone over the age of 50, who loves to hike and is up to the challenge, Grand Canyon National Park offers an amazing array of other activities, lodgings and restaurants that are suitable for most seniors in winter and throughout the year.
Lace up the boots
In winter comfortable hiking boots are a must due to the volatility of the weather. Visitors who need snacks or gear such as instep crampons, a walking stick or rain poncho can find most everything they need at one of the park’s visitor centers.
The most popular day hikes any time of year are the Rim Trail (mostly flat), South Kaibab (steep with expansive views), Bright Angel Trail (steep) and Hermit Trail (steep and rocky). Visitors can hike down as far as they please or set a course for one of the resthouses that offer toilets, picnicking and shelter. Before any hike it is important to check the weather and conditions with rangers at visitor centers, Bright Angel Lodge or the Backcountry Information Center.
Built in the 1920s, Phantom Ranch is a wonderful piece of heaven that has been beautifully preserved. Operated by Xanterra South Rim, L.L.C., which has been the primary concessioner at the park for decades, Phantom Ranch sits on a lovely strip of aspen-wooded land alongside the Bright Angel Creek at the bottom of the canyon. The only way to get there is to hike or ride a donkey. In addition, all the food and supplies for the ranch are conveyed up and down by these hard-working animals.
Hikers need to reserve dorm space or one of the ranch’s stone cabins well in advance of their trip. The four dorms (for females and males) offer bunk beds for a total of 40 people with each dorm providing a sink, flush toilet and warm shower. The canteen offers delicious, family-style dinners for both dorm and Bright Angel Campground guests but reservations must be made in advance.
During our overnight at Phantom Ranch, we fueled up on the canteen’s famous stew, cornbread and chocolate cake. We were able to dry our rain-soaked gloves, socks and boots and even relax playing cards after dinner. At least half the guests that holiday weekend were probably card-carrying AARP members.
Activities along the South Rim
For those who want to forego forced marches or are visiting with small grandchildren, the park offers a long list of free programs that are family-friendly and wheelchair accessible. For example, at the Grand Canyon Village visitors can attend programs about the geology, peoples and animals of the park. Grandkids usually love these programs because they are ideal for meeting the requirement for the Grand Canyon’s Junior Ranger award.
This past winter, several special programs were offered free to the public. At the historic Kolb Studio, visitors could view an exhibit about the canyon’s enormous variety of plants (more than any other national park). Available through the seasons, the Artist-in Residence Program invites guests to attend workshops and presentations about all kinds of topics such as writing, photography and music composition.
Park lodging and dining
Built over many decades, South Rim lodging provides a range of accommodations, including those at the Bright Angel Lodge, Maswik Lodge and the El Tovar Hotel. Xanterra does an amazing job of maintaining these accommodations and providing some of the best customer service anywhere.
Similarly, visitors enjoy a variety of dining facilities that range from the Bright Angel Coffee House and Maswik Cafeteria to the El Tovar Dining Room where reservations are required. We found the menu inviting, the food exceptional and the prices reasonable at the Arizona Room, located in the Bright Angel Lodge.
Experience the moods
While winter weather can be volatile at the Grand Canyon, it offers a much quieter, less busy season that is often attractive to senior visitors. No matter what time of year, the free shuttle bus system conveys visitors to all the main vistas and attractions at the park. In addition, older guests can capitalize on the Interagency Annual Pass that offers a lifetime senior pass ($10.00) for U.S. citizens 62 or over and a free access pass for citizens with permanent disabilities.
Now in my early 60s, I find visiting the national parks among my greatest joys. As any parent might appreciate, spending a long, winter weekend tramping up and down the Grand Canyon with my sons, laughing, sharing and chowing down untold calories, is about as good as it gets.
For more information:
Xanterra South Rim: 928-638-2631 or www.grandcanyonlodges.com
Grand Canyon National Park: www.nps.gov/grca
By Leslee Jaquette