Desert View – the glorious Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is too far from Santa Fe to qualify as a day trip – it’s about a seven hour drive from here to either the main visitor’s entrance at South Rim, or to the closest edge of the canyon at Desert View, where Mary Coulter built her famous Watchtower.

The Watchtower, viewed from a lookout west of its perch

But the Grand Canyon is such an iconic feature of the American Southwest that you may very likely be making it a stop on your grand tour of the western states. If you are a European traveller this likelihood increases to about 100%. The confusion of tongues at Mather Point, just a short walk from the Visitor’s Center at South Rim, must be heard to be believed. The confusion of trying to find your car in the Mountain Lion parking lot, Section C, will nearly equal this babel. I just want to point out the fact that there are other ways of admiring the Grand Canyon that will preserve your peace of mind and let you focus on the True Star of the Colorado Plateau. Go camping at Desert View.

An inquisitive raven checking out our campsite at Desert View

Desert View isn’t any further from Santa Fe than South Rim. There isn’t any hotel-style lodging there, but there is a well maintained campground among the pinyon and Utah juniper where you can stay. I spent a couple of nights there with a friend earlier this year in September, when the last of the summer monsoon was wringing itself out over Arizona. It made for some spectacular atmospherics:

First evening’s look at the Canyon, wreathed in cloud

There was rain in the night, but in the morning, only a short walk from the tent, we were treated to this intimate scene from our improvised breakfast veranda:

Morning light at Desert View

The main visitor center is about 28 miles west of Desert View, and a good road with plenty of spectacular turnouts links the two places. Only a handful of tourists ever seem to be at these viewpoints at any given time:

“Do people ever fall into the Grand Canyon?” (on sign at Desert View)

A short scramble and you’ll have this masterpiece all to yourself:

Yours truly in his natural environment

The Grand Canyon is considered the greatest exposure of stratified rock on the planet. On the eastern side, the chasm cuts deeply through the flat-lying Paleozoic section, with familiar names like the Coconino and the Redwall, to expose tilted beds of almost unimaginable age:

The Grand Canyon Supergroup of ancient strata below the famous cliffs

I had no idea these rocks were so immensely thick.

So don’t let the threat of crowds and belching tour buses stop you from making a visit to the Canyon. Spend some time at the less visited parts, which are easy to access. And if you can camp, that’s all to the better. The Grand Canyon reveals its most subtle moods at dawn and dusk. It even saves some secrets for the night, when, if you are as lucky as we were, you can watch lightning playing over the mysterious North Rim in the darkness. Don’t miss it.

A morning shower over the South Rim