Havasu Canyon, Grand Canyon: Above the National Parks

Zion National Park

“Wait, did you quit your job to go to the Grand Canyon?”

I was on a tour bus somewhere in rural North Carolina. Next to me was Steve, the inspiring executive director of a conservation organization in northwestern Illinois. We were in North Carolina for the annual Land Conservation Conference. We’d been on a rainy field trip most of the day and now were on our way back to Raleigh. I had been telling Steve about our upcoming Grand Canyon trip, less than a week after the conference. In thinking through the timeline, Steve realized that I would not be in Chicago for my former employer’s very important event, which he was going to attend. It was the sort of function that a staff member would not dream of missing.

“I won’t necessarily say that I quit my job to go to the Grand Canyon, Steve,” I replied with a grin. “But if you want to spread that rumor, I won’t stop you.”

I returned to Chicago from the conference, where I had delivered a well-received workshop on making a stronger case for conservation, and dove into a whirlwind week of packing, client meetings, and even the ballet. Sean’s week was hectic too, and it got the best of him. He came down with a cold, and by Friday night he had to pass on a dance performance that he had long been looking forward to. He needed to rest up for Saturday morning and our flight to Las Vegas to start our Havasu Canyon adventure.

On Saturday morning, October 26, I rose at six to get some final emails sent and some bits of work off my plate before rushing to get dressed and packed and out the door. Poor Sean was lagging because of his cold and turned on Years and Years to get his pep up. When Josh buzzed at our door at a bit before 8:30, Sean was still in the shower and I was pulling on my pants. Happily, it didn’t take us long to finish up, and soon we were waiting for a Lyft to O’Hare.

Since it was Saturday morning, there was no traffic, no wait to check our packs, and no wait at security. The only mishap we had was that Josh left his Nalgene at the ticket counter. He briefly thought about going back for it, but ultimately decided he’d get a new one in Nevada.

At long last we were able to introduce Josh to our National Park adventure tradition of eating at Frontera before our flight. It was great to have him with us.

In short order we were on board. Sean showed Josh how to access the in-flight entertainment before settling into a viewing of Scream on his phone. I worked on editing photos from the “Shasta” trip as we flew across Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska. Our flight path took us just south of Denver, and what followed was the most spectacular game of National Park spotting from the air I’ve yet encountered.

First up, the Rocky Mountain Front Range.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Out there in all those mountains was Rocky Mountain National Park, although I didn’t know enough about the topography to pinpoint it exactly.

Canyonlands National Park

We left Colorado and entered airspace over Utah. Beneath us, Canyonlands National Park.

Canyonlands National Park

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Tracing the route of the Colorado River, we came in sight of Lake Powell like a great blue salamander stretched across the redrock desert of the Colorado Plateau. National Park Unit #3: Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

We flew over Page, Arizona as we began our descent.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

North of us in Utah, we could see the tangled canyons of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Given our route, I knew that the Grand Canyon was south of us on the other side of the aircraft, but we would likely get to see Bryce Canyon and Zion. I began scanning the middle distance.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Sure enough, unmistakable across from the Aquarius Plateau, there were the hoodoo-laden cliffs of Bryce Canyon National Park.

Zion National Park

Most spectacular of all was the view of Zion National Park. Easily visible were the town of Springdale at the mouth of the canyon, the Watchman, the Three Patriarchs, Great White Throne, and even the fin of Angel’s Landing.

Cedar Breaks National Monument (upper left), Zion National Park (lower left), and Bryce Canyon National Park (far right)

Further out beyond Zion, we saw the pink smudge of Cedar Breaks National Monument. Now three Park units were all in view.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area

We continued our descent over Arizona and Nevada, with Lake Mead swelling along the state border.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Of course, both Lakes Powell and Mead are really the Colorado River impounded behind Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam, respectively.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area

The drought-reduced level of Lake Mead was easy to see from the line of bleached rock along its shore. The situation is serious enough that even some water managers of the West have joined with conservationists in calling for the draining of Lake Powell. The thinking is that it makes no sense to have both lakes at significantly reduced levels because of drought. A tremendous amount of evaporation occurs each year because of the huge surfaces of the two lakes. Lake Powell also has a seepage issue, with much more water lost into the bedrock than had been thought when the Glen Canyon Dam was originally designed and constructed. Ultimately, the argument goes, topping off Lake Mead by draining Lake Powell would save more drinking water for the West more securely.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area

The ghost of Edward Abbey would likely approve.

It was quite a cool total of spotting public lands from the air: four National Parks, two National Monuments, and two National Recreation Areas.

We banked over suburban Henderson.

And soon we were on the ground, practically on the southern end of the Strip. I pointed out the Luxor, our future home-away-from-home.

Baggage claim at McCarran International has a carnival atmosphere with all its slot machines and blaring advertisements for various Las Vegas shows. We collected our packs while some vaguely creepy midway music blared.

Then we were off via shuttle to the rental car center, where we chose a Ford Escape to get us to Arizona.

At the Henderson REI, Josh got a new Nalgene, and we selected our backpacking dehydrated meals and a bunch of fuel canisters. We also got a few extra warm things. The forecast, at this time of year usually highs in the 70s and lows in the 50s, had turned, and we were looking at the possibility of 30s by the end of our time camping. Sean was tempted by a sort of wearable sleeping bag, a quilted poncho with a hood to provide extra warmth.

We each got one. He named his “Cate Blancho.”

At the register, the REI staff asked if we were headed to Havasupai. We said yes and asked how he knew. “We’re the last stop for gearing up between here and there, so we get a lot of people headed there. Have fun! It’s amazing.”

After a run to Target to get our non-dehydrated food supplies, we went to Shake Shack for a late lunch/early dinner.

Then it was time to get out on the road for the 2.5-hour drive to the motel.

We stopped at a rest stop overlook to see Lake Mead, then headed on.

Colorado River, Lake Mead National Recreation Area

After crossing the Colorado just south of Hoover Dam, we pulled over to have a look at it and the Black Canyon Wilderness Area that it flows through on its way between Lake Mead and Lake Mojave.

Black Canyon Wilderness, Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Poor Sean’s cold was none improved. He was feeling it.

We didn’t linger long and soon we were headed south-southeast through the Detrital Valley of far western Arizona. We were in the Basin and Range province, punctuated by north-south oriented mountain ranges. To the east, the White Hills and to the west, the Black Mountains.

Sean turned on the marvelous podcast, Dolly Parton’s America, which was just about the perfect companion for this drive.

We stopped for gas in Kingman, Arizona.

Then we headed northeast on Route 66 toward the Colorado Plateau. A sign for Supai indicated we were headed in the right direction.

Old Man Coyote crossed the highway as we headed toward the Hualapai Reservation and the rise of the plateau. We passed a hoppin’ country Western bar and Josh and Sean joked about going in and flirtin’ with the fellas.

Darkness came on as we curved east-southeast and began to climb up onto the Colorado Plateau, through which the Grand Canyon winds.

We passed through the town of Peach Springs, and it was quite dark when we arrived at Grand Canyon Caverns Inn. We weren’t sure where to park because of the scattering of run down vintage vehicles in the front gravel yard of the motel.

Rick and Erik had arrived a couple hours earlier. Of the four motel buildings arranged in a row behind the main structure, they were in the far eastern building and we were in the far western building. They hadn’t eaten yet, so they headed into the town of Seligman to get some food while Josh and Sean and I exploded into the motel room.

We needed to convert our packs from airplane luggage to well-executed backpacking packs for our 4am wake-up call the next morning. It was a bit rough because of the extra warm gear we’d purchased.

Rick and Erik returned and brought wine and peach pie to our room for a vacation celebration treat. We hung out gabbing and packing and then finally turned out the light around 10pm, ready as we’d ever be for our huge adventure to begin the next morning.

Image: Josh Coles

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