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Trip Report December AZ trip: Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, Tucson, and Tempe

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Although I’d visited these places before, I found new places and new experiences in each. Had hoped for at least 1 new destination, but had a very enjoyable pace w/ this itinerary (Dec 17-28).

SUMMARY: 3 nights @ Bright Angel Lodge, hiking Rim, South Kaibab, and Bright Angel trails; 1 day in Flagstaff visiting friend; Walnut Canyon NM; 5 nights at Roadrunner Hostel Tucson; downtown & 4th Ave, AZ-Sonora Desert Museum, short hike Saguaro NP, zoo lights, Mission San Xavier del Bac, Barrio Historic District, Tohono Chul; Casa Grande NM en route to Tempe for family visit, Heard Museum, Desert Botanic Garden luminarias & Chihuly pieces at night

GRAND CANYON: Arriving by train pre-dawn in Flagstaff was a chilly awakening as I’d had an overnight in 80-degree Los Angeles first. Had an unexceptional but warm and filling breakfast at the friendly Downtown Diner and then as the temperature rose to about 20, waited with a frostbite-fearing Brazilian student for the Arizona Shuttle to the Grand Canyon, and watched intrepid cyclists pedal by. An easy ride on Rtes 40 and 64 (Williams and Valle) through ponderosa pines to the park. Greeted by quite unfriendly staff at the BA Lodge, I checked my luggage and headed by free shuttle to the main Visitor Center. I was a bit underwhelmed but it’s part of the experience, I suppose. Through mutual acquaintances, I’d arranged to visit the park’s native plant nursery. I was impressed by the variety of plants grown and the challenges of both growing and outplanting. Next, I walked westward along the only-slightly-icy Rim Trail, toward Hermits Rest. I wasn’t going to go far, but at each stunning overlook, I had to keep going, until I reached Hopi Point, about 5 miles round-trip. So much to see, with the snow powdering the multi-colored, layer rock, the yuccas and the conifers, the foraging birds, one of the cold war’s largest uranium mines, the story of condor re-introductions… Still, I was happy to finally get to my cozy room and the cramped but lovely-hot shower. My Flagstaff friend drove up to the south rim and took me off to a friendly holiday potluck, eliminating any need to make more decisions. Bed was very welcome.

After a huge breakfast at the Bright Angel Restaurant, I caught the 8 a.m. hikers’ express to the South Kaibab trailhead; all very friendly with chatting hikers. I started off with YakTrax and numerous layers of clothing, but peeled them off pretty quickly. In winter, when the lack of shade is not problematic, this is a wonderful trail, with non-stop great views going down into the main canyon. Even if you just go to Ooh Aah Point or Cedar Ridge, the payoff is excellent. I went down 3.5 miles, to the steep area just below Skeleton Point, which took about 3 hrs down, 3.5 hrs up plus lunch. (The recommendation is allow twice as long coming up, which I did, but I found that to be overkill in cool weather.) About every 1.5 mile encountered a rest stop w/ shelter and composting toilet. At one point could hear the Colorado River; with binoculars could see Phantom Ranch; and had a very close encounter with a soaring condor. Back at the top, I caught the shuttle on to Yaki Point—stupendous views and very cold and windy. Not crowded. Then to the VC for the slick, somewhat hokey, but visually impressive 22-minute film, and to warm up for sunset. I tried that at Mather Point. Watching the colors change was lovely but it was a cultural experience—a mob scene with everyone photographing each other and themselves.
I dined at Bright Angel Restaurant. Less good than for breakfast, with limited vegetarian options. Was the glass of wine a mistake? I couldn’t stay awake for star-gazing, but it’d been a full day.

On Thursday after another Bright Angel breakfast, I hit the Bright Angel trail around 8:45. This shadier trail made the YakTrax worthwhile for the 1st 1-1.5 mile down, though I saw plenty of people doing without. Though this trail lacks the visuals of the main canyon in its upper reaches, it is a spectacular side canyon and the changing geological formations and vistas did not disappoint. I hiked down 4.5 miles to Indian Garden and was delighted to make it to this lush, flat, birdy oasis for lunch. I want to camp there someday! Then you turn around and after ~ 1 mellow mile, you see what looks like a vertical wall looming ahead of you—the route out! With storm clouds threatening, I pushed hard and made it back with only a few flurries at the very top. That last push was challenging! On both hikes, solitude is unlikely, but there were a few stretches of time when I was alone, esp. in the a.m. Only the top mile was crowded, and I’d guess much less than in warmer weather. Plus I felt totally safe as a solo hiker with the heavier trail use. Some day I’ll try for a more wilderness experience. A waiter recommended Grandview Trail, but couldn’t have gotten there w/o a car.

I made a quick visit to the Kolb Studio before returning for a welcome hot shower, and then the Arizona Room for dinner. Friendly staff, excellent view, and fresh, tasty meal. Why hadn’t the BA desk staff given me an orientation to let me know of this option? The evening proceeded very enjoyably with a concert at Shrine of the Ages by former artists-in-residence and a fun after-party. (Grand Canyon has a yearround program, with a new artist every 3 weeks). Back at my room, I realized I hadn’t had neighbors the 1st two nights—now I could hear coughing and normal conversation-level voices almost as if in my room. That woke me early the next day. Other than this issue, the unhelpful staff, and a bleachy smell, I was happy staying at the BA. Great location, historic cabins, comfortable room and bed, lots of closet space, and for the basic shared-bath room, a decent price. But no central common area to relax in.

Temperatures were dropping Thursday evening, and woke up Fri to several inches of new snow. At 7 am. I walked to the El Tovar, enjoying the white-covered trees and the fog across the canyon. By 8:30, the fog had filled in the canyon and the visibility was ~ 20 ft down from the rim. Magical feeling, but thanked my lucky stars I’d seen the views the 3 previous days and wasn’t a day-tripper. El Tovar, the 1905 hotel, was certainly worth a visit, especially with the full-force Christmas decorations. For only a few dollars more than BA breakfast, you get a phenomenal view, attentive service, an elegant dining room with historic china etc. A real treat.

FLAGSTAFF: My friend hooked me up with a great ride and we took 180 instead of passing Williams. I marveled at the views of the sunlit snowy San Francisco Peaks against blue skies. The next 24 hours were low-key and relaxing. At our arrival, my friend showed off her fully shoveled steep driveway and suggested we have an evening at home to avoid the inevitable icing-up of the hill. We went downtown for a tasty Thai lunch (Pato), hit some fun stores for Christmas shopping, stopped for a tasty glass at the Mother Road Brewery (you see the tanks in the same room as the bar), and stocked up on groceries. Cooked dinner, caught up on life, and then I (esp. my still-sore calves) greatly relished a long soak in the outdoor hot tub with stars peeking through the trees. Next day had a leisurely home-cooked breakfast and then headed to Walnut Canyon NM, not too many miles away. Unfortunately the trail right to the ruins was closed due to snow, but it was a cool spot to get a glimpse of the Sinagua dwellings built right into canyon walls.

TUCSON: From Flag to Tucson took 2 shuttle rides, about 6 hours with a layover at PHX airport. The first leg was spectacular as you see the transition from the ponderosa pines of the Colorado Rim down over the dramatic Mogollon Rim to pinyon-juniper, then the Verde Valley and high desert scrub, then crossing Black Canyon, suddenly you’re surrounded by saguaros. Phoenix to Tucson less dramatic and mostly in the dark, with no reading lights in the shuttle. Tucson was disconcertingly empty around the U of A, a bleak walk to downtown. A friend was to arrive at the hostel quite late and when I got there, I found they had no record of her reservation (the system is quite casual). That made a rough start, esp for her, but by late Sunday a.m., it had been straightened out so we each had a private room as planned. I went to the nearby Thunder Canyon Brewery for a late supper. Cavernous room; was delighted to find they sold their many brews in 4 oz. glasses, perfect for lightweight drinkers or those who want to sample a few.

Despite the mess-up, I was eventually glad to be at the hostel. The rooms are tiny and basic, and the downside is that the indoor common space is dominated by the TV, and the porch and patio by smoking. But it was a friendly place, convenient downtown location, and welcome to have laundry and cooking facilities. Coffee and waffles come with the stay.

Eventually we got organized and walked downtown as far as the Presidio. Some lovely historic buildings are stuck in between ugly modern buildings and the plazas are not lively. We made it as far as the Visitor Center and then realized we needed food, so went over to Fourth Ave and found a good café (name escapes me) where we enjoyed a leisurely outdoor lunch. On to Antigone Books and the Food Conspiracy Co-op. Provisioned for the next few days, we went back and cooked dinner at the hostel, had a couple of those tiny beers at the TCB, and worked up our plans. We wanted to see Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Saguaro NP and had an abortive attempt to set up a tour but decided to see what we can figure out from the hostel. That’s the joy of hostelling. A guest told us we could easily walk from ASDM to a Saguaro trailhead—we’d missed that completely. And the manager told us one of the staff might take us on his time off. We arranged to pay him $20 to drive us there and scheduled a pick-up taxi for $30. We didn’t get tons of time in Saguaro but it was much more affordable than the $120 pp tour price.

That outing was a highlight of the Tucson visit. I knew from the forum etc Tucson is very sprawling and doing it car-free challenging. But we did it. Driving up into the hills, seeing the desert full of saguaros and the mountains on 4 sides, leaving the strip malls behind, I knew this was want I’d wanted. ASDM was quite crowded, of course, close to Christmas. Yet had some good plant exhibits and though it’s a zoo, it’s a zoo of animals who live in that environment, and if you don’t approach it as a wilderness experience, there’s lots to see and learn. Plus at the end of the day at the picnic area, I had the best looks I’ve ever had at a black-throated sparrow, curve-billed thrasher, and cactus wren.

After a couple of hours, we crossed Kinney Road, walked up ~ 100 yds to a parking lot where we picked up the unmarked Gould Mine Trail and looped back on the King Canyon Trail. Now we were really out in the desert, the former trail being just a light path through a wash, without much traffic at all. Some boulder scrambling; quiet; good views across to the south; and we’d been alerted to, and found, some petroglyphs. I would have liked to see lots more of Saguaro NP but relished this taste (about 2.25 mile loop) as an introduction. On the return, as a bonus the taxi driver took us up Sentinel Peak (A) for panoramic views of this huge plateau of a city.

We probably should have rested on our laurels, but I pushed for us to go see the zoo lights at Reid Park Zoo, to the east of downtown. Nothing wrong with it, but we got there 30 minutes before closing and found big lines. Still plenty of time to see it. All the animals had been moved out of their cages except near the end, we watched a lone rhino head off into the dark. Odd. And then I made the mistake of ignoring a local’s suggestion to go up to Broadway for a more reliable bus. Yup, would have been more reliable than our 45-minute unsuccessful wait, so ultimately we headed back into the park and up to Broadway. Nighttime bus schedules not so great, and I’d forgotten to check the return. We ended up at the 24-hr Shot in the Dark Café near 6th Avenue and happily tucked into the George Carlin burger.

Unfortunately I made another tactical bus error the next day, en route to Mission San Xavier del Bac. We had a very very roundabout route to Laos Transit Ctr, departure point for service to the reservation. Luckily my good-natured and bus-loving friend pointed out how much of Tucson we got to see. Well off the tourist track, too. The Mission and the reservation were definitely worthwhile, another world. The church is dramatically beautiful from the outside, fascinating inside, and the views impressive. We really wanted to come back for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day mass, but the bus situation did not permit it. But the much faster return trip included a circle around the reservation, and the hour or so we had at San Xavier was rewarding.

Luckily our next bus outing was efficient and involved friendly chat with a local. We had a reservation at Feast on Speedway for Christmas Eve dinner and it was an unmitigated success. The restaurant is located in strip mall (there are many!) next to a tire place but once inside, you feel like you’re in an elegant, special place. The food was creative, unusual, beautifully presented, and delicious. Shared an almond/corn/tomato risotto, a fabulous kale and brussel sprout dish, pear and cauliflower ravioli on the world’s most delicious spinach, bread pudding and 2 small chocolate truffle cookies, and each had a gorgeous, strong, unusual cocktail. Great service, not snobby, and the chef even came around to greet customers. Perfect for a holiday celebration. Afterwards we checked out the very historic lounge at Hotel Congress but had to stick to seltzer after those cocktails, and no midnight mass materialized so called it a night.

On Christmas morning we went early to a Spanish mass at nearby St Augustine’s. Lovely big church, friendly feeling, and even a full pageant with a live baby Jesus. Ritual completed, we hurried back for the promised home-cooked hostel breakfast. The manager outdid himself—waffles + strawberries + whipped cream, potatoes, omelets to order, asparagus, plus for everyone a Christmas card with a lottery ticket. Can’t beat that for a warm feeling far from home. My friend and I exchanged gifts, then walked to the Barrio Historic District—interesting to see the colorful adobe houses and the squares but again, oddly deserted. Returned to the ever-reliable Shot in the Dark, then I walked her over to the Ronstadt Transit Ctr—an easy bus ride to the airport. I heated up the Tucson Tamales we’d bought and then kicked back with my novel.

Dec. 26: I successfully planned my bus route to the north part of town and got to Tohono Chul Park soon after opening. This private 49-acre park had numerous well-labeled displays, many of the plants native and generally organized around different desert ecosystems. I could have spent several hours, but the 2 or so I could spare gave me a great overview in the best part of the day. Only 3 visitors in the park and lots of bird activity. Saw a dozen or so species with 2 life birds (Phainopepla and Abert’s Towhee). Made me want more time outside in the desert, but a relative was picking me up at noon for the drive to Tempe, where we have family.

TEMPE/PHOENIX: We stopped along the way to check out Casa Grande NM—long detour but small enough for an interesting overview in a quick visit—and then hit Nico’s Mexican Restaurant (little parking lot shack in—guess what?—a strip mall), written up in Arizona Highways as one of state’s top 10 burritos. No complaints on the huge, cheap breakfast burrito. As the driver hates interstates, we took Rte 347 up through the AkChin reservation. I was glad. From our late afternoon arrival until noon on Friday, we were fully occupied with family visiting, eating too many sweets, drinking too much coffee etc. After some round-and-round, my cousin took me aside and told me to make a decision, so I asked for the Heard Museum (downtown Phoenix, American Indian art & cultures). Museum is pricy but very well-arranged and with great exhibits. We checked out the one on chocolate, chile, and cochineal, took a crowded, long-winded, but interesting tour of the main exhibits, and saw some Georgia O’Keefe displays. I wish I’d been able to see more of the place, but a couple of hours was good for us. We had also discussed the Desert Botanical Garden, of which I am a big fan from my previous, springtime visit. We’d heard tickets were sold out for several evenings (night display of Chihuly glass pieces, luminarias, other lights, and holiday music) but were able to show up at 5 p.m and get 5 tickets immediately. It’s a huge place and hard to imagine they’d sell out. This was one place I didn’t mind the crowds. It was festive, spectacular, almost other-wordly. While I missed the full flora experience, seeing the Chihuly works lit up among desert plants was a fantastic treat. My relatives then repeated their Tempe Christmas lights tour for my benefit. A lovely end to a fun trip, as I flew home from Phoenix the next day.

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