I suppose I have my father to blame for my incessant desire to explore old terrains. After all, he brought my sister and me across Arizona when we were kids for a summer vacation. The orange, red and purple walls still to this day draw me to the Canyon like a magnet.
It was one of our first trips. We went to the Painted Desert, Sunset Crater Volcano, the Petrified Forest and for the finale – the Grand Canyon. Yes, it was then, in a car with Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” playing on repeat, that I felt joy in not only the open road and destination, but also being with family.
Today, spending time with my family is extra special, since we now all live in different states. Dad lives in Virginia and sis in California, while I hold down the fort in Arizona. It makes sense for us to meet up at the Grand Canyon since it’s the foundation of some of our favorite memories.
Driving into the Grand Canyon the air smells clean, with the Ponderosa pine, aspen and oak trees towering outside our windows. We roll down the windows a bit further to let the scent of pine saturate our car, and I'm suddenly taken back in time.
As a kid, hiking Bright Angel Trail and Grandview Trail were my favorite. Dad woke us up early – 5 a.m. early – to rise before the sun. I loved taking a journey to an unknown place, watching the landscape change along the way. Those distinct canyon smells, colors and sights are amplified, making the views at the end all the more worthwhile.
All three of us were at the little airport in Tusayan, waiting anxiously to board the Gateway airplane to see the Grand Canyon from a new vantage point. Tusayan is easily accessible – just a mile from the park entrance – and you’ll find the Grand Canyon National Airport there with helicopter and airplane tours departing daily.
Although visiting the Grand Canyon itself is an adventure, if you wish to push these boundaries further, then Grand Canyon Scenic Airlines offers plane rides for a gorgeous overview of this natural world wonder stretching 277 miles.
Never ones to refuse an adventure, we board the Vistaliner airplane. The engine roars and we zip off to fly over the Grand Canyon. The plane tour is about 45 minutes, lengthier than a helicopter tour and with the benefit of feeling smoother than a chopper.
My eyes are glued to the large, panoramic window. Within minutes we’re flying over Zuni Corridor, a jagged land with colorful vistas that look mesmerizing as the light hits. I’ve never seen a bird’s eye view of the park like this, and we’re all silent for a few minutes as we take in the stunning views.
“Girls, look!” dad says, pointing out the confluence of the Little Colorado River. The green Colorado River mixes with the muddy waters of the smaller Little Colorado River – part of a sacred site within the Navajo Nation. I take a moment to appreciate how much it means to be here with my family.
The icing on the cake about being back at the Grand Canyon this time is the Centennial Celebration.
In 1917, park supporters maintaining the Grand Canyon turned their sights towards the National Park Service, then just one-year-old. In February of 1919, the bill was passed to move the Grand Canyon under the care of the National Park Association. The incredible protection and conservation efforts over these last 100 years have given not only the state, but the global community as well, something to shout about.
Park rangers and the local community of Tusayan are putting on a year-long celebration to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the canyon’s National Park status. To name a few of the special events, festivities include Centennial Summer Fest in June featuring telescopes to take in the night sky, July 4th parade complete with a laser light show and – what I’m most excited about – the Hawk Watch from mid-August through November. My dad has always loved birds, and he tells me he remembers the eagles flying over the canyon during that first trip that we went trailblazing.
After an incredible morning spent soaring over one of my favorite places on Earth, we stop for lunch in Tusayan. At RP’s Stage Stop, named after one of the first settlers in Tusayan – “RP” Thurston – I feel part of the rich history of the Grand Canyon. The casual-dining restaurant has brightly colored walls and American Indian artwork displayed along with various decor that reflects the early 20th century culture in Tusayan. We enjoy some custom-ordered sandwiches with avocado, spinach and turkey alongside revitalizing smoothies. The food tastes fresh and is the perfect spot for a quick breakfast or lunch.
Last time we stayed at the cozy Yavapai Lodge, right in the heart of Grand Canyon, but this time we are going for firsts and decide to take advantage of the campgrounds. After we set up the tents, dad gets the fire going. When we hear it crackling, Ashley and I emerge from our tent, the orange glow lighting up the already starry night. Ashley goes for the bag of graham crackers and chocolate bars, while dad cozies himself on a log.
The three of us keep laughing while watching each other roast our marshmallows the perfect amount. I’ve always loved s’mores, especially with my family, since sitting around the bonfire has a way of bringing people together – that much more so when there’s chocolate involved.
On our last day, my dad reminds us with a wink that we’ve still yet to hike down to the bottom or raft the Colorado. It sounds ambitious, but I know it won’t be long before we’re back to form more memories at the Grand Canyon.
As we reluctantly pack up our campsite, I take comfort in knowing that the Grand Canyon will still be here for the next century and that new adventures await us. I can’t wait until we join in more of the Centennial activities later this year.