Hot Enough for Ya?

“Be careful…It’s hot out there” I said. “Oh, but it’s a dry heat” she replied with a laugh. That’s true enough. It sits at 104 degrees with a whopping 4 percent humidity. When I moved here from the Midwest I thought that humidity that low was lethal. Our body is made up of water, right? Don’t we need about 60% humidity to live? Well, apparently not.

 I remember Missouri days of 112 degrees and humidity of 80-90 percent. There are no words to describe that heat. Just the stupid question: “Hot enough for ya?”  Even squirrels were falling out of trees. Birds sat with their beaks open…panting. Some people were dying in front of their TVs.

 In the old days, long before AC, people would drag their beds out into the night. Residential boulevards in St. Louis — the ones with grassy center parkways — were nightly campgrounds. If you were lucky you had an elevated sleeping porch. If you were really lucky it was screened to keep out the mosquitos. The mosquito-borne St. Louis Encephalitis made its appearance in the 1930s as if the heat wasn’t enough.

It gets hot here in the high and dry New Mexico desert but the record is a wimpy 107 from a few years ago. The low humidity can trick you into thinking it’s not too hot. With a breeze and some shade, you might not feel so hot. You don’t sweat. The dryness sucks away any moisture. You must drink water and lots of it. The intense sun light, at over 5,000 feet will toast almost anything not in the shade. After a few years here I took a trip up the road to Colorado Springs and began sweating for the first time in years — I had forgotten what that was like. Later that year I spent the first week of September in St. Louis for a family reunion. I was moist, to say the least. I recall my Aunt and Uncle coming to visit us in St. Louis during the summer from California and listening to them complain and carry on about the heat. We didn’t know what they were complaining about — isn’t this normal everywhere in summer?  No.

So, yes, it is a dry heat…but it is still hot.  June is our hottest month and people will sometimes escape to cooler climates. I went to Steamboat Springs for a week and just got back. Tulips are blooming there and daffodils. It was in the low 50s in the morning and topped out in the 70s most days. When I was driving home my car’s AC died…I had been having trouble with it and it went belly up south of Fairplay. By the time I got south of Alamosa I could see the smoke.  The Jemez Mountains were burning again. I wonder, sometimes, how there can be anything left to burn but driving up through the mountains you can see that there is plenty of fuel left. The Jemez Mountains, about 45 minutes north of Albuquerque, are too popular for their own good. People go there to cool off and camp on hot weekends or to picnic. They build campfires and then walk off and leave them. On a recent weekend, the Forest Service had to douse thirty abandoned campfires. What kind of an idiot walks away from a campfire in a dry and hot forest? The current fire, the one I could see thirty miles into Colorado, burned a little less than 2,000 acres (so far, it is still burning) and was started by an abandoned campfire. There is no excuse for that. The cost has reached $1.7 million to fight that fire. 

Stay cool. Have a cold beer or some lemonade. Put out your campfire.

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Discovering Places – Georgia O’Keeffe Country

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I’m spending a fall week in southern Colorado and drove up north out of the Albuquerque area through Georgia O’Keeffe’s stomping grounds in northern New Mexico. I have never seen it more beautiful.

Georgia O’Keeffe lived in Abiquiu, New Mexico, for almost forty of years and was inspired by the surroundings. Here’s an example of one of her paintings from the O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe….a view of Pedernal Mountain, one of her favorite landscape subjects.

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Abiquiu is a tiny village north of Espanola. There’s not much there and there was probably less back in the 1940s when O’Keefe bought a house there for her home and studio. She moved there permanently in 1949. The parish church, Santo Tomas el Apostol, is most notable today.  The church was established in the 1700s but the current building dates to the 1930s, built in the old colonial mission style.  Visitors need advance arrangements to visit O’Keeffe’s home and studio and I will do that on a future trip.

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Abiquiu offers an interesting perspective on old Spanish colonial life in northern New Mexico. It was the starting point for one of the trading routes between New Mexico and California. There are still artists and galleries scattered around the village.

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The Rio Chama flows through the valley and was dressed in beautiful yellows and gold of autumn. Rio Chama is one of the major trout streams of northern New Mexico.

O’Keeffe first came to New Mexico in 1929 and stayed in Taos with Mabel Dodge Luhan, who hosted a number of writers and artists. She bought a Model A Ford in 1929 and began exploring northern New Mexico and eventually discovered Ghost Ranch a few miles north of Abiquiu. She acquired a house at Ghost Ranch in 1940 and spent much of her time there until finally moving to the renovated adobe home and studio in Abiquiu. Georgia O’Keeffe used the colorful hills and cliffs of Ghost Ranch as subjects of many of her landscapes. Today Ghost Ranch operates as a retreat, nature and educational center.

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Pedernal, the prominent flat-topped mountain, dominates the horizon west of Ghost Ranch and dominates several of O’Keeffe’s paintings. She never seemed to get tired of it. The shapes and colors are highlighted by the bright light and clear skies of New Mexico, the changing seasons, and shadows of sunrise and sunset.

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Perdenal makes an interesting subject and creeps into the horizon even from a distance.

This was my second visit to the area since my initial trip back in 1979 or 1980. That trip was also in October but I don’t remember being awestruck by the beauty of the area. As I recall, we were on a tight schedule. Georgia O’Keefe was still living in Abiquiu at that time. She lived to be almost 100 and was in failing health and losing her eyesight beginning in 1972. She hired a helper in 1973 (Juan Hamilton) who became her companion and business manager. When she couldn’t paint any longer, Hamilton, himself a potter, helped her take up ceramics and sculpture for a while. Her health declined further and she moved to Santa Fe in 1984. She died in 1986 at age 98.

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(Todd Webb photo – c. 1961)

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San Lorenzo Canyon

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI stopped at San Lorenzo Canyon (a BLM Recreation Area) on the same day that I scouted out the road to the Sierra Ladrones  Mountains. This was just sort of an add-on side trip and I had no idea what I was going to find. This seems to be a well-kept secret unless you live around Socorro, New Mexico.  But, hey, I’ll drive fifteen miles just to eye-ball a natural feature any day.

Getting there is a little tricky. Coming south on I-25 out of Albuquerque, take Exit 163 and cross over the interstate. This is San Acacia. Look for the frontage road heading south and turn right (south) and continue driving a couple miles. You will see two small underpasses that cross to the west side of the highway. Take the second underpass and follow the dirt/gravel road west several miles. There are several dirt roads…stay on the one that looks most travelled. You will eventually come to a sign  pointing the way to the canyon. These back country roads might require high clearance and four-wheel drive if weather and road conditions have deteriorated. It’s  about 5 miles on the dirt road. I’ve included a map at the end of this post that might help. There’s an alternative published route from a few miles to the south if you are in Socorro.  The area can be reached by taking the western frontage road north from Lemitar (along I-25) and driving about 5 miles. At that point, visitors follow a maintained dirt road west which will go to the main canyon. Google maps do not seem to be current in this area. Sevillita National Wildlife Refuge is just to the north of San Lorenzo Canyon (Strangely, the refuge office/museum is not open on weekends).

At any rate, it takes some effort to get there but it is well worth the trip. You might see other visitors as the place is locally known. There will be some evidence of horseback riders along the canyon road.

I only scratched the surface during my visit and I didn’t venture very far off the road. There are trails going this way and that so it seems like people just ramble up the canyon as they please.  Rather than having me babble on, I’ll just post some pictures and add a few comments.

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If you see this, you are on the right track. This is a pretty classic example of a geologic unconformity with horizontal layers of sedimentary rocks laid over a bed of eroded tilted layers. This is exposed as part of the Rio Grande Rift zone.

The first view of the canyon doesn’t give much of a hint as to what follows..

Things start to get interesting…

Hoodoo you think you’re foolin’?

 

There are a few brave survivors showing their blooms — and the invasive Tamarisk.

 

 

I mostly had the place to myself on the day I visited.

Alcoves, arches, a slot canyon and rock shelters line the route up the canyon. There are some springs, I’m told, up near the head of the canyon where you might see some wildlife.

Watch the sky — don’t get caught by a flash flood.

I only spent about an hour at San Lorenzo Canyon but this could easily be an all day trip in the right weather. There are no facilities so bring plenty of drinking water.

 

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Wandering Toward the Outlaw Mountains

cropped-p61200291.jpgIf you take a look at the header image on this blog you will see a huge expanse of New Mexico desert, green from a rare period of frequent rains, and in the distance a shadowy hulk of a mountain. The mountain is a cluster of mountains called the Sierra Ladrones, the Outlaw Mountains, and they are about forty miles off in the distance from the camera.

These mountains are isolated from any other mountain range and are considered a “massif” in geologic terms. They sit like an island, complete unto themselves. Unlike many of the other local mountains, the Sierra Ladrones are not volcanic but are an up-thrust of Precambrian rock that somehow, through ancient tectonic movements, managed to rise above the surrounding surface and withstood erosional forces over the eons of time. Ladron Peak reaches 9,176 feet in elevation, some 4,000 feet higher than the Rio Grande valley to the east. Monte Negro, a secondary peak, rises to 7,572 feet. Most of this is BLM land but Sevillita National Wildlife Refuge includes part of the southeastern slope.

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I have been fascinated by the Sierra Ladrones and always look for them when I venture south from Albuquerque. They play hide and seek. Now you see them — now you don’t. That’s because of the terrain and the Interstate 25 highway route that follows the Rio Grande south to Socorro and Truth or Consequences…that’s where the people live, after all. Not many people live up near the Sierra Ladrones; only a few isolated ranches and a few ranchers running cattle on open range. It would be a hard place to raise a family, albeit a beautiful place.

On a whim, I decided to see if I could get close to the mountains and maybe find a way to get up into them. I’m no mountain climber or even an endurance hiker so it would depend on finding a road. After a little searching on Google and my highway map I found that Socorro County Road 12 would be the way to get close. There are a few webpage accounts of hikers and climbers venturing up into the mountains and there is a wilderness study area described on one webpage — CR 12 seemed to be the preferred route. This is an unpaved road running from Bernardo, past the “ghost” town of Riley to Magdalena, on US 60. The sign says it all.

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The route out of Bernardo follows a portion of “old” Highway 60, or maybe “old” Highway 84 depending on the map. There’s not much there — a KOA campground and a rickety bridge over the Rio Puerco.  This is the paved part…okay, mostly paved…but the pavement runs out just past the bridge where you take a hard right onto CR 12. You are pretty much on your own from here. I think I saw three ranch trucks all day until I got back close to the interstate.

The road is certainly unpaved and for much of the early portion it has a jarring wash-board surface that almost makes you want to turn around. Maybe that’s intentional to keep the faint-hearted folks out. After that it gets better and turns into a bumpy but reasonably well maintained dirt and gravel road.

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This is mostly BLM land. Some of it it fenced and some is just open range. I didn’t keep track of my mileage but after about five miles or so you encounter power lines.   I lost track of the number of cattle guards I crossed but there were plenty. If you do see an approaching rancher’s truck you will see the dust long before you see the vehicle.  There was always a wave.

 

I’ve said often enough that I have the curiosity of a fourth grader even though I’m almost sixty-seven. I can’t remember the last time I took a walk and didn’t find something that caught my interest. A lot of times my pockets are full of rocks or seeds or something that warrants closer attention. When I’m out walking I’m looking at plants and the geology, mostly. There are animal tracks and burrows and places where some unseen drama took place. Luckily, I’ve not yet encountered a rattlesnake…yet.  Mostly there were lizards, a few birds and a desert cottontail. The ground was desert sand and dust. It made me think of decomposed tuff or volcanic ash, probably blown in over the centuries from the ample number of ancient eruptions. There is an active magma body under Socorro and TorC that fuels the local hot springs.

I paused at a dry arroyo but there was no exposed bedrock. About a third of the rocks I saw strewn around on the surface was milky quartz — sometimes an indicator of a nearby vein of some type of ore. Where I’m from I’ve seen that with a little silver and tungsten ore. There were also some nice examples of reddish feldspar-rich granite. I always wonder how these fist-sized rocks appear out of nowhere.

Some of the plants I know, like the Apache Plume growing wild through the area. They sell that as a popular ornamental and out here it looks healthier than in my yard. There was a woody, yellow-flowered bush that I didn’t recognize. It seemed to be full-grown at about three feet tall.  Most prominent is the cholla forest stretching all the way to the mountain. Some were in bloom and being visited by bees…who manage to survive out here somehow.

There doesn’t seem to be much available for cattle to eat or enough water to keep them alive. They seem to do quite well, anyway. I saw several young calves running through the cholla and a small “herd” staring at me on one of the tracks leading off of the county road.

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As I said, I was out here wandering with no particular agenda or goal. I had no expectation of actually getting up into the mountains but was just looking for a possible route. I got a late start and it was well into the afternoon and I was twenty-some miles out on an unpaved road. It was a gorgeous day and it lifted my spirits…I’ve been a little glum lately.

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From the higher elevation you can look back towards the Rio Grande valley and see the dark colors of the river bosque and the wetlands and across to Black Butte and the mountains beyond the valley.

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Clouds were building by the late afternoon and it was time to head back home. The danger is more from lightning than from rain but there are some arroyos that would be subject to flash flooding. I’m satisfied that I’ll be able to continue this trip at a future date. There will probably be a part two at some point.

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Quick View of Canyon de Chelly

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m posting this partly to cement my commitment to return to Canyon de Chelly on a better day when I have more time. I decided to visit almost spontaneously as I was driving home from Flagstaff. I already had motel reservations in Gallup and the drive from Flagstaff was so short that I would be there by 11 AM. What to do?  I already went through the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert — you can see that here . Sitting in a McDonalds in Winslow, I looked at a map and my watch and figured I could make it to Canyon de Chelly just for a quick visit and then go on to Gallup. I’ve never been to Canyon de Chelly.

One of my few complaints about family vacations as a kid was that my dad figured that if we couldn’t see something from the car window as we drove down the highway it wasn’t worth seeing. I’m just the opposite and I dilly-dally my way across country and purposely make advance motel reservations about four or five hours apart. As they say, we may never pass this way again.   But…here I was trying to squeeze in a side trip that deserved much more time.

So off I went.  It took a little longer than I anticipated to get there so that left me with maybe two hours to see what I could see and then get back on the road for Gallup. I stopped at the Visitor’s Center and got advice and a map. I would only have time for the south side of the canyon. The advice was to go all the way to Spider Rock and then work my way back.

I quickly learned that looks are very deceiving at Canyon de Chelly because you lose proportion and context a little. You don’t realize how high the canyon walls really are…and how far down it is to the canyon floor. This is especially true in my case just coming from a visit to the Grand Canyon.

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Spider Rock is over 700 feet tall from the floor of the canyon… and you are looking down on it. I was raised in St. Louis and learned to gauge tall things by the height of the Gateway Arch.  Spider rock is almost 100 feet taller than the Arch.

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The day was moving on and it looked like maybe we would see some snow. I headed back along the south rim road and stopped at s few spots.

 

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Ansel Adams photo – book cover

It was a cold day and I’m certain that I missed several places along the way. I finally reached White House Ruin overlook. If you are familiar with Ansel Adams you will probably recognize White House Ruin. You can easily find his photograph just about everywhere.  I’m guessing that this is now one of the most photographed spots in the west but it is hard to capture it. Adams was on the floor of the canyon looking up at the ruin. When you get there you expect it to be larger and almost expect to see it in black and white. There is no easy access to the canyon floor…and you usually need a guide or Navajo escort because this is a sacred place. Most people don’t climb down the long trail to the canyon floor to take a picture. It is a long way up again. So…the first challenge is that you are close to a mile away and the ruin is quite small.

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In Adams’ iconic photograph you only see the upper ruin in the rock shelter. There is another ruin on the canyon floor pressed against the rock wall that is as big or bigger than the sheltered one.  Adams found a vantage point that concealed the lower ruin so he could focus on the white ruin tucked into the rock shelter. I don’t know much about his method or equipment but he must have had plenty of time and patience. This was two generations before the birth of digital photography.

 

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My day was running out and I had to get on the road. I wasn’t quite sure of the route back to Gallup. I will come back here and spend more time.

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The Canyon & Waiting for the Snow

We are supposed to get snow today and tomorrow but the forecasts are a little confusing. They make it sound like a major catastrophe is bearing down on us and then we get an inch and a half of snow and it is gone in six hours. This is New Mexico where the weather is mostly the same from day to day within the slow seasonal cycles so anything that varies from the norm gets a lot of attention.  I’m actually hoping for a little snow — not eight inches.

I recently spent a couple days at Grand Canyon — just before Christmas. That is a wonderful time to visit because there are so few people there and the snow decorates the canyon walls. So, as I await the coming blizzard (or snow shower) I’ll post some Grand Canyon pictures.

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The weather was a little unsettled first day at the canyon but the second day was clear with a beautiful blue sky. The lack of clouds or atmospheric variations tended to wash out the depth of the canyon and it was hard to get good distance photographs. I was there partially for the architecture of the 100 year old park buildings so I enjoyed that as much as the canyon shots.

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While not exactly empty, the park is not anywhere as crowded as it is in the summer and you can take as much time as you want and see it on your own terms.  One thing I noticed in the snow is the foot prints of the other visitors. They apparently ignore the safety railings and climb out on the farthest and most precarious perches. This is dangerous in warm and dry conditions but in snow and ice it is a little foolhardy. Sometimes the footprints went out to the edge but didn’t come back. I wonder how many people go missing.   Anyway, the park was mostly empty except for me, several bus loads of Chinese tourists and some hardy winter backpackers.

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Well…the clouds have moved in so I guess it will start snowing soon. I’m ready.

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In Praise of Old Hotels — Part 11: Bright Angel Lodge, Grand Canyon

I was recently on a week-long vacation to Flagstaff, Arizona as a pre-Christmas holiday. I’ve discovered that I enjoy going places in mid-winter when everyone is in pretty good spirits. I’ve always wanted to see the Grand Canyon in winter so I took this opportunity to schedule a vacation within a vacation and spend a couple days on the South Rim. I booked a night in Bright Angel Lodge in a cabin positioned close to the canyon rim.

The Canyon is not crowded in mid-December. It was cold and snowy and there were a few hardy winter back-packers and a couple dozen Chinese tourists and a few others. I have always been to the Grand Canyon in warmer weather with hordes of people. This seemed almost empty by comparison.

The drive up from Flagstaff is only about two hours. I took my time and stopped at some Indian pueblo ruins and at a few spots along the Little Colorado River gorge. We had snow the previous day and it was a pretty drive with very few other cars. I entered the National Park at the east entrance and stopped along the rim drive at several places to take pictures. I got to Bright Angel Lodge around 4 PM.

Bright Angel Lodge

BA_Hotel_1910The Grand Canyon became a national park in 1919 but there had already been a great deal of activity and tourist development prior to the park’s existence. Individual developers and entrepreneurs had lodging and tour businesses but it was quite rustic. The original Bright Angel Hotel and camp was built around 1900 as a mix of tent and rustic log-cabin hotel accommodations. Ownership passed through a several hands until the Grand Canyon Railroad acquired the property along the south rim of the canyon. Tourism was picking up and in 1905 the railroad constructed the sprawling El Tovar Hotel operated by the Fred Harvey hotel chain.   The rustic Bright Angel Hotel operation, upgraded to cabins instead of tents,  continued after the National Park was established with the El Tovar Hotel serving as the primary grand hotel at the canyon.

The Santa Fe Railway, owner of the Grand Canyon Railroad,  wanted quality lodging for the visitors to the park and saw the need for improvement at the Bright Angel operation. The railroad was already heavily engaged with Fred Harvey beginning in 1876 when he opened his first railroad restaurant in Topeka. There were Harvey Hotels scattered along the railroad’s major passenger routes in the west.  In 1930 the railroad teamed up with Harvey and Harvey’s architect, Mary Colter, to replace the aging Bright Angel Hotel with a new Harvey-run hotel to be called the Bright Angel Lodge.  Colter had already built two Grand Canyon concession facilities:  Hopi House in 1905 and Hermit’s Rest in 1914.

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Colter’s first proposed design was for a large stone structure but Harvey and the railroad opted for a more rustic stone and timber lodge. The main lodge building, completed in 1935, is an impressive re-thinking of the original rustic hotel.  Like the original, it is perched on the rim of the canyon and equipped with large stone fireplaces and log cabin style sections interspersed with rough stone walls.

The interior is styled as a mountain hunting lodge with large fireplaces and a soaring vaulted ceiling of timbers. The “Bright Angel” is the Thunderbird image over the main fireplace. There is a second large fireplace in what is now the History Room that is constructed with the same sequence of stone that one would find in the stone layers of the canyon.

The restaurant has been modernized but you can still see Colter’s design in the rough log wall decorations and the ceiling beams. Earlier pictures show this as dark stained wood but now it is much brighter. I ate in the main restaurant (there are two) and the food was good and unusually expensive.  I had trout for dinner and my breakfast was a typical sausage and eggs. This was not fast food…plan to stay a while. There were guests at breakfast who were unhappy with the service and the food but mine was fine…just slow.

I also took advantage of the bar and had a couple beers during happy hour. Selection was limited but okay. It was a cold day and there was a constant stream of guests looking for coffee or hot chocolate. Unfortunately the hot chocolate machine broke down earlier in the day. I could have made a killing with a hot chocolate concession. I suspect that the hotel staff might be somewhat reduced in winter months and service is slower.

The Cabins, where I stayed,  were also designed by Mary Colter. and are perched along the canyon rim or scattered to the west of the main lodge. These are a mix of semi-attached and stand-alone structures.

I stayed in a “partial view” cabin which is maybe thirty feet from the rim and has a nice view of the canyon. Most of the cabins do not have a canyon view. In mid-winter I would recommend sweaters and warm clothes if you stay in a cabin. There were a few cabins with fireplaces but mine had baseboard heat and was a little chilly. Considering that the cabins are eighty years old they are comfortable and in good condition. They are not as rustic on the inside as they appear from the outside.

 

El Tovar Hotel

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABesides Bright Angel Lodge there are plenty of other accommodations close by. El Tovar Hotel, constructed in 1905, is the grandest hotel in the park. You can imagine hotel guests arriving in stage coaches from the railroad station and being greeted by the “Harvey Girls”. I didn’t stay there but roamed around the lobby and the large sitting porches that look out over the canyon or the front approaches where the carriages or touring cars would have pulled up.

There are modern hotel and motel accommodations as well. The Thunderbird Lodge offers another option close to the canyon rim and it is located between El Tovar and Bright Angel Lodge. None of the canyon rim lodging options are inexpensive but there is no other place quite like this so you end up paying a premium price.

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