Having grown up in Northern California, I knew without a shred of doubt that the best National Park was right in my backyard. My dad always told me that the most beautiful mountain range in the world was but a few short hours from San Francisco, and we were some of the luckiest people on earth to be so close. Considering he spent much of his life backpacking and traveling a large chunk of the Western United States, his opinion on all things ‘mountain’ was as good as fact in my eyes. Nobody can refute that California holds a special place in God’s creation, and folks from all over the world make the pilgrimage to catch a glimpse of her majesty .
Even with my geographic contentment, something deep down in me knew that I needed to broaden my horizons. Afterall, America is a big place, and California is just one state. And while the Golden State is pretty rad to wander around, it does the spirit good to get out and move around the country. When my mom asked me to come along on a family backpacking trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, I hopped on the opportunity. The reservations were already made, and all I needed to do was show up in Las Vegas ready to trek over 20 miles while navigating 10,000 ft. of elevation gain and loss.
While the Grand Canyon intrigued me, it wasn’t really on my travel radar. It was on my bucket list for sure, but just not toward the top. I’d been thinking of making a trek to Glacier National Park in Montana for years, but the logistics of traveling from San Francisco to Northern Montana on a personal trainer’s budget proved too challenging. Maybe it was a simple case of laziness, but it didn’t take rocket science to know that this was my chance to go out there and really shake things up.
No, a trip to the Grand Canyon does not hold the exotic allure of traveling to remote, sacred spots in Northern India or Bhutan. But rest assured, it is exotic and sacred. After a flight from SFO to LAS, an entertaining Cirque du Soleil show, a few margaritas, and a five hour drive in the family RV from Sin City to the South Rim of the Canyon, I rest my eyes upon a landscape I will not soon forget.
It was sundown as the RV approached Grand Canyon Village, and while pitch black sweeps the canyon after Helios makes his daily descent, I was mesmerized as I caught the sun’s final drenching of golden light upon the ancient red rocks. I gazed upon time immemorial. To be awestruck is an understatement, and words will never do the place justice. Vast. Silent. Remote. Brilliant. Splendor. It gives off a palpable vibe, and you see it in the smiles of the other travelers staring out upon this most magic monument.
My loop through the Canyon lasted four days and three nights. With 40 lbs on my back, I traveled over staircases, through craggy rock formations, past waterfalls, and over the Colorado River. I trekked not only over muddy and icy trails, but through vast stretches of time and solitude. You can’t help but think about the ancient tribes who called this land their home, whose civilizations were forged by its canyon walls and rushing river. Their spirits live in this land, and they enchant you as you travel through.
My family overnighted three nights at the famous Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Canyon floor. I met folks from near and far, all converging on this one spot to marvel at at a landscape that no better encapsulates the spirit of the Wild West. The camp itself is a collection of rustic cabins dotted around the confluence of the Bright Angel Creek and the Colorado River, with the camp’s Canteen acting as the main social gathering place. You can buy beer and wine, play games, trade stories, and learn about the best day hikes close to camp. The place is the classic American summer camp . . . just we were there in winter.
I was pretty tired on my second day, but I rallied the strength to set out for Ribbon Falls. To get there from camp entails a 12-mile round trip trek on a fairly moderate trail with little elevation gain or loss. One of the camp attendees who hailed from the Basque region of Spain explained that Ribbon Falls is considered the most sacred site to the Zuni tribe. He said it’s part of their creation story; it’s the place where they believe they enter this world from. He went further to share that the Canyon is considered to be the most sacred place in all of Native America. Hearing that, the history buff and spiritualist inside me shrugged off the lingering exhaustion from the day before to experience just a little more of this most special place.
Walking through the canyon is a meditative practice. Even when you hike with someone, you feel as though you’re alone with yourself. Sure, you check in with your hiking partner from time to time and trade notes, but the sheer beauty of the landscape lends itself more to quiet moments of pilgrimage. We reached Ribbon Falls a little after midday, and felt like our need for a day hike was complete. After paying our respects to this sacred site, we set out back for camp to close out our second day.
Our time on the canyon floor came and went, and before we knew it, we were awake bright and early on our last day ready to climb back up to the rim. 10 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation awaited. As we climbed out, I felt inspired to see my parents in their mid-sixties able to make such a strenuous trek. I felt humbled and lucky knowing that few men in their mid-thirties get the privilege to undertake such a journey with their family. No matter what the future brings, I will always smile when I think of my mom, dad, and sister making that trek together.
It took 7 hours for us to reach the top, though we budgeted for 10. As we made our final climb on Christmas Eve, old Chris Kringle swept past the rim and dusted the red rocks with the purest snow. The color contrast with the white and the red must be seen to be believed. I had been told by my barber in San Francisco that the best time to see the Canyon is when it’s just been blanketed in snow. I couldn’t agree anymore.
After reaching the top, we overnighted at the rim before departing back to Vegas in the RV on Christmas morning. Before we left, we splurged on a Christmas breakfast at the historic El Tovar hotel, which is perched directly along the edge of the rim. As I ate my eggs while looking out the hotel window and onto the white Christmas morning, I felt a sense of peace in this timeless place. I felt at home. A part of me lives there in the Canyon, along with the other timeless spirits who experienced it’s magic.
I returned to San Francisco, and as I made my way from the airport back to my apartment, I couldn’t get the red rock spires or the call of the condors out of my mind. San Francisco is a gorgeous city, but in the end, it’s still a city. And after you experience a place as unique and jaw-dropping like the Grand Canyon, it’s as though nothing can ever quite compare. So while I still consider Yosemite my “home” park, I’d like to think that during this centennial year of the National Park Service that I truly #foundmypark.