Guardrailosaurus WReX Recently Discovered at Grand Canyon
OK, so there's only one known to exist, and he's still alive and well, but he did manage to shuttle the kids and me to the Grand Canyon a few weekends ago. For those who don't know, Guardrailosaurus WReX is the name of my '15 Subaru WRX. All of my cars get names.
After getting the kids up, dressed and out the door, then stopping for donuts and coffee, we finally managed to hit the road at about 8:00 a.m. That wouldn't have been bad if we were going to be up there for a few days, but we were doing a one day trip. At four hours up and four hours back, just the drive would have put us home at 4:00 pm. With little time to see sights and still be home at a reasonable hour, I set the cruise control for warp factor 1. With a potty stop in Camp Verde, we managed to make it to the park entrance by 11:30, shaving half an hour off of our estimated drive time. Figuring I could do the same on the way back, I set our estimated leave time at 3:00 in order to have us home by 6:30 or so. That gave us 3 1/2 hours to hit the South Rim vistas.
I had a definite plan of attack. We would first hit Mather Point, a vista that is near the park entrance and easily accessible by a short hike from the Visitor Center parking lot. From there, we would head east along State Route 64, catching Yaki, Grand View and Desert Vista viewpoints on the way. We would hit any roadside vistas on an impromptu basis as time allowed. The last time I’d been down this road was 32 years ago at the age of 14 (for those who just started counting their fingers, toes and any other appendages, I'm 46 now) in a 1971 International Harvester 1210 pickup with a cab level camper shell. The camper had prison cell sized windows over the bed and contained a 10'X16' tent, 8 sleeping bags, 50 gallon ice chest, 5 gallon water cooler, folding picnic table, several milk crates full of the food and supplies required for a two week camping trip and 6 children, one of whom not belonging to the Sullins clan, on a family vacation. On that trip, we drove from east to west, the opposite direction I would be traveling today (that detail will become important later). Needless to say, the visibility from our mechanical pack mule was less than spectacular.
Mather Point went off without a hitch. But in heading east, we quickly discovered that we would either need to hike or take the shuttle bus to get out to Yaki Point, as the road out there is closed to the public. With the turnoff for Yaki now in the rear view mirror and no time to change plans on the fly and still make Desert Vista, we continued east.
Seeing Desert Vista was one of my main goals for the trip. It's the last viewpoint of the Canyon heading east on 64. And at 25 miles east of the main entrance down a fairly narrow and curvy bit of highway, getting there would take a significant chunk of time; time we were short on already. I remember stopping there on our family vacation and seeing a totally cool, almost medieval watch tower made of local stone masonry. On all of my recent trips to the Canyon, I hadn't even been east of the South Kaibab Trail Head, which was the reason I was heading this way now. To see the tower again, 32 years later would be just totally cool, so that's what we were doing, Yaki be damned.
Continuing east, we made the turn to Grand View Point. This stop was TOTALLY worth it. Not only were the views spectacular, but there was still about 6 inches of snow on the ground from the storm the week before, and much of it was still pristine. Places in the shade without so much as one footprint were easily found. My kids hadn't seen snow since a trip to Four Peaks in 2008. Brody was only 4 at the time, and there was only enough snow to make a 6 inch snowman. This was a whole other ball game. I let the boys experience the snow while I walked around taking as many photos as I could. My daughter, Brittany, took a photo of a group of European tourists who then happily returned the favor. That photo is currently my Facebook cover photo.
After the photo session, the rare opportunity to play in the snow was too much to pass up. If you've never seen an autistic kid who hasn't seen snow in seven years have a snowball fight with his brother and sister, it's a sight that brings simple joy to the heart. To watch him experience a totally new sensation as he discovers that he actually can throw this at his brother and it won't really hurt lights up the spirit of a joyful father like little else can. While the kids were pelting each other with pristine snow, I set about building a snowman...a real one this time. I started rolling the snowballs, 3 of them, and ended up with a 2.5 foot snowman after all was said and done. I know it doesn't sound like much, but for a desert rat who can count on one hand the number of times he's seen snow in his life, I think I did pretty good. Once the snowman was erected, the kids set about bringing him to life. A couple of pine cones for eyes and twigs for arms, a nose and a mouth and it was time for a quick photo. It was also time to get going.
It was now 1:49 and the simple maps given to us at the park entrance gave little clue to how much farther it was to Desert Vista. However, traffic was light and maintaining a clip that was slightly elevated above the 45 mph speed limit was little trouble. In short order, we were pulling into the Desert Vista parking lot. It was now just after 2:00, giving us about an hour to have a look around before G-WReX would be called into service once again. A short hike from the parking lot was the Desert Vista watch tower. It was everything I had remembered, save for one detail. When I was here as a teen, it seems I remember being allowed to go all the way to the roof of the tower. Although you can still climb to the top (5th) floor of the tower, the roof is now off limits. I didn't miss it much though as the top floor has big windows all around it that offer a 360° view. The art work and decor inside the tower on the way up is Native American art and it's wonderful. If you get the chance to get to the Canyon, make sure you hit this vista. Although its views of the Canyon aren't the best, the chance to experience this tower are well worth the drive.
Speaking of the views, don't let the better views elsewhere keep you from stopping here. There is one detail about the views here that is only available in one other place in the world. This is one of only two places on Earth where you can simultaneously view two of the Natural Wonders of the World. You see, if you climb the tower and look east, the western edge of the Painted Desert is visible. The only other place where it's possible to view two of the Natural Wonders of the World at the same time is from the Petrified Forest, which is on the southern edge of the Painted Desert, also within Arizona. For somebody like me, the ability to do so is almost surreal.
One of the other interesting things about this vista is that the location of a horrific tragedy is revealed on a memorial to the 128 people who died when a United Airlines Douglas DC-7 and a Trans World Airlines Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation collided mid air above Temple Butte on June 30, 1956, which is inside the Grand Canyon and visible from Desert Vista. At the time, it was the deadliest aviation incident in history. As a result of this crash, the road to more standardized safety regulations and the creation of the FAA was paved, greatly reducing the fatality rate of aviation in the U.S.
A quick look at my cell phone suggested it was time to get going. 2:57, perfect timing. Heading back to the parking lot, it dawned on us that we hadn't eaten lunch yet. There was a trading post with a snack bar, as well as a general store on the short hike back to the car. We decided to stick our head in the trading post to see what kind of grub the snack bar had to offer. We were pleasantly surprised to find that not only were there hamburgers, hot dogs and pizza available at the snack bar, but they were reasonably priced as well. We ordered our lunch and sat down to eat. On the way out, we hit the restrooms, then returned to G-WReX who was patiently awaiting us in the parking lot. Lunch and the loo had cost us an hour. Now we were running late.
From Desert Vista, we had a choice. We could head back the way we came, or we could continue east on highway 64 to the junction with 89 which would also take us back to Flagstaff. It was a few miles more, but we headed east anyway. I remembered from the last time I had been through there 32 years ago that the road ran very close to the Little Colorado River Gorge and I wanted to at least get a quick look while I had the chance, so we continued east. Man, was that a good call. Highway 64 leaves the park just south of Desert Vista and the speed limit soon rises to 55 mph and then to 65 mph. Considering the 45 mph speed limit going the other way with sections of the road limited to 25 mph for curves, the additional speed would more than make up for the additional mileage.
This decision turned out to be the best part of the day for me. Having been to the Grand Canyon more than a few times now, I knew what to expect with the grand views and even the awesome watch tower, even though I hadn't seen them in 32 years. But what came next, I certainly wasn't expecting. Highway 64 does indeed run right next to the Little Colorado River Gorge, but viewing it heading east to west through the prison cell window of a camper shell over the bed of a '71 International stuffed full of stuff and people just doesn't do it justice. The Gorge is breathtaking in its beauty, as well as its steepness and depth. "Gorge" is truly the proper word for it as the parts of it that are visible from the road are perhaps 100-150 ft wide and 500 ft deep or more with absolutely vertical walls. I'm not talking nearly vertical here, I'm talking kick a pebble off the edge and only hear the one thud it makes as it hits the bottom and nothing else vertical. The Gorge is truly amazing. In addition, as the road descends the plateau, the western end of the Painted Desert is visible from an elevated vantage point. The view is simply stunning. Heading east to west as I had during my vacation with my family, this view is behind you. This only strengthened my belief that one should always try to travel a road in the downhill direction whenever possible so that the awesome views are in front of you. With the sun to our backs as we descended the plateau, the Painted Desert bloomed with brilliant and vibrant colors that make one cease to question the name. In fact, one ceases to question much of anything, lost in the awe of the beauty to which they are being treated. Trust me when I tell you, if you've never driven this road from west to east, you MUST do it at least once before you die. If you're going to do so, do so in the afternoon if it's at all possible. As we were in a hurry, regrettably I didn’t have time to take any pictures.
The astonishing views of the Painted Desert are consumed by the desert itself as you continue your descend into it. The vistas may have disappeared, but the stark beauty of the desert itself should not be overlooked. Once you reach the floor of the desert, the magnitude of the drive yet in front of you comes to the fore of your mind. Soon we were back in Flagstaff. A quick pit stop for fuel, food and a quick trip to the latrine and we were on our way home. Mr. WReX; warp factor 1. We arrived at home at 7:17, succeeding at cutting an additional 13 minutes from our drive time on the way up. The trip which had originally been meant to take an opportunity to take the kids on their first trip to the canyon turned into something much more. An all day road trip I will never forget. With any luck, neither will my kids.
Have you been on this adventure? What did you think? Comments and updates welcome by clicking here.
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