We climbed out of the white Lincoln Navigator ready to be thrilled. The two-hour ride from the Red Rock country of Sedona was behind us, and the alien grandeur of the Grand Canyon was just yards ahead. It was early December and beyond chilly, but we had prepared for any weather eventuality. Or so we thought.
My husband, our two teenage daughters (one of whom was furious that we weren't in the Caribbean) and I walked toward the South Rim at Yavapai Point, where there's an indoor observation station with a scale model of the canyon. We passed a couple heading back to the parking lot.
"Fog," said one of them dolefully. "It's socked in. Couldn't see a thing."
Socked in? Couldn't see a thing? The Grand Canyon is 277 miles long, 18 miles at its widest and a mile deep. Were they blind?
We walked to the rim to view the canyon that wind and water had shaped over 6 million years. Instead, we saw a fog bank the size of, well, the 1,218,376-acre Grand Canyon. There was not an outline of a peak, a hint of a plateau, a suggestion of the westward-flowing Colorado River. And we -- our experienced tour guide included -- had no idea whether it would lift during our stay.
It was hard not to panic.
* * *
We'd decided to make the trip just a few weeks earlier. The canyon was tops on my husband's bucket list, and to mark his 50th birthday, we agreed to cross it off -- even if it was an unconventional time to visit northern Arizona. For obvious weather reasons, December is the third least popular month to visit, after January and February. July, when the average temperature is about 90 degrees, is the most popular.
The notion of a fast, four-day December trip, rather than the long summer national parks trip we never managed to arrange, had important virtues: No crowds. No debilitating heat. No in-season price gouging.
We discovered that we could afford to stay in stunning Sedona, Ariz., at one of the country's great resorts, Enchantment, with its world-renowned Mii Amo spa, because the rates were about a third of what they are in peak season. Because Enchantment wasn't full, the girls' room was upgraded to a junior suite at no cost.
We flew to Phoenix early on a Thursday morning and drove two hours north in our rented SUV. The American Southwest quickly declared itself. Distinctive columnar cactuses on the hills flanked Interstate 17, and later, cactuses that thrive in higher elevations, such as the prickly pear, dotted the landscape. Driving through sparsely populated areas, we passed such places as Horsethief Canyon (where thieves used to hide and change the brands on the horses they'd stolen).
It was lunchtime when we made it to Sedona, a 19-square-mile city in the upper Sonoran Desert of Arizona, 4,500 feet above sea level. With a population of about 10,000 and a main drag that's just about the only drag, the small city has become a tourist magnet over the past few decades for its jaw-dropping topography and its reputation as a spiritual mecca, with vortexes that supposedly possess special power to enrich the body and soul.
We headed for lunch to the Cowboy Club downtown, where we dined on excellent cactus fries (prickly pear cactus is also used to make a syrup for margaritas and desserts), buffalo brochettes and rattlesnake meatballs. Our vegetarian daughter was horrified, but the food was delicious.
Nearby Enchantment is a 70-acre resort designed to melt into the primeval soaring red rocks of Boynton Canyon. The lobby was under renovation, but a cheerful employee greeted us, in the mix of rain and snow, in a temporary reception area, then ushered us in and led us to our adjoining junior suites.
The accommodations did not disappoint. A huge bathroom (about as big, the cheerful employee said, as his apartment), a super-comfortable bed, two televisions, a living area and porch overlooking -- of course -- mesmerizing red rocks, now sprinkled with snow that looked, depending on your view, like powdered sugar or mold. Every day there are activities -- hiking, cooking demonstrations and more -- available to guests.
After unpacking, we headed for Mii Amo (a Native American word for "journey"), where Marc and I enjoyed massages and Maddy and Becca went into the outdoor hot tub. We made sure to soak in that hot tub every day -- even when it was snowing and briefly hailing. There are few better ways to unwind.
Mii Amo has an earthy tranquility that sucks the stress out of even the most anxious Type A person. There's a small gym, a library, a meditation room, an indoor pool and a relaxing area with comfortable chairs and couches in front of a fire. The spa has its own restaurant and guest housing and offers dozens of services, both traditional -- massage, facials, etc. -- and unconventional. The Circle of Power, for example, proclaims that it "helps an individual recognize when they are not in alignment with their own truth and to honor all aspects of the whole," and you can have someone help you revisit past lives.
We stuck with the more traditional.
We ate dinner that night at the resort's restaurant, which is also under renovation but has been re-created in the lovely ballroom, with massive picture windows that reveal the outdoors.
With the rain turning to snow, and the snow expected to become a storm, we checked with the concierge to see whether our plans to visit the Grand Canyon the next day would hold up. They wouldn't. The travel experts advised us to rearrange our schedule.
Well, that was unsettling. Not having to rearrange the schedule, but the thought that we might not be able to see what we'd come all this way to see. But I decided to shelve my anxiety. We'd carry on as if what we expected would of course come to pass. We'd see the canyon, one way or another.
* * *
The next day, instead of going to the Grand Canyon, we had a delicious Enchantment breakfast -- with prickly pear cactus juice, which has an off-putting smell but tastes like Hawaiian Punch -- and headed off to see Cathedral Rock, a spectacular geographic formation in the red rocks that has been used as the backdrop in many a movie. We tried to but did not find a famed vortex that we were told was a whirlpool in a creek near Cathedral Rock. Skeptics later told us that it wasn't surprising we didn't find it, but we had a nice hike anyway.
Sedona's famed Pink Jeep Tours, so named because the vehicles used to ferry tourists are bright pink open four-wheel-drive Jeeps that can comfortably seat eight people, hosted our next adventure. That afternoon, a former banker turned tour guide named Chip took us on an off-road tour called Broken Arrow -- the company's most popular tour and the only one that hadn't been canceled that day because of snow.
We rode -- literally -- on the red rocks, with dramatic canyon surrounding us, viewing Submarine Rock, a thousand-year-old tree and fabulous vistas. Blankets kept us warm on a cold, cold day.
The weather ruled out a sunrise hot-air balloon ride the following day, but we spent hours in lovely galleries and stores at an arts and crafts village called Tlaquepaque (pronounced Tla-keh-pah-keh). But the snow, rain and sleet stopped so that we could see stars in the sky that night.
Finally, the Grand Canyon beckoned.
* * *
There are things you can't do in the winter at the Grand Canyon. The North Rim is closed because of snow, and inclement weather can make hiking especially difficult. But there are rewards, too, some unexpected.
The fog turned out to be one of them.
There we were, staring at a wall of gray nothingness. For five full minutes, I stood with my eyes fixed on the fog, willing it to dissipate. It didn't budge. I started mentally making plans to change our flight home, scheduled for the next day, so that we could stick around until we could actually see the canyon.
And then, the next minute, I saw the gray outlines of rocks gradually appearing from behind the clouds. The fog shifted, and the canyon slowly revealed itself: First it was just a few feet, then a few peaks, and then everything -- peaks, plateaus, crevices, complete with ravens and a condor swooping into the canyon not far from us -- came into startling view. The sun threw light onto the rocks, bringing out the gorgeous red, orange and earth-tone colors and creating splendid shadows.
My jaw dropped, literally. I felt as if we were standing on the edge of some unknown, prehistoric nonhuman world, stark but rich, forbidding, mesmerizing. I imagined what it must have been like years and years ago, when travelers who didn't know that the canyon existed gazed upon it for the first time. Thoughts of nature's unbounded power and glory overcame me, and I felt very, very, very small.
For city folks who spend most of our time in man-made environments, this was a revelation. We hadn't anticipated being so moved by the stark beauty of the place. We couldn't stop staring. Our tour guide, Tina, from First Class Charter & Tours, an L.A. actress who'd found herself drawn to Sedona and had relocated, got weepy, saying that she'd never seen the canyon in such glory.
The flirtatious fog came and went until it finally burned off about an hour and a half later, and we could see clear across to the North Rim. It was like a staged reveal: First we saw a little, then a little more, then a lot more and finally the entire spectacle, layer after layer of carved rock, deep gorges, forests as far as the eye could see. We stared into the canyon as we walked, every few steps offering a somewhat different perspective.
We walked along the South Rim path to take in various views; had lunch at El Tovar, the historic hotel built in 1905 right on the canyon's edge; and stopped in at the Bright Angel Lodge to see the history room, which contains artifacts, books and maps about the canyon and the Southwest, including an original carriage from the days when there were no cars to take people to the rim. We didn't take a three-hour mule ride down into the canyon, but we did see a family of seven elk run past us as if we weren't even there.
Soaking in the hot tub when we got back to Enchantment, we couldn't stop marveling at the beauty we had witnessed. Our December gambit had paid off -- mightily.
> If you go:
Where to stay: Enchantment Resort, 525 Boynton Canyon Road, Sedona (800-826-4180; www.enchantmentresort.com). Luxury resort with a variety of housing options, restaurants, pools, numerous activities and the world-renowned destination spa Mii Amo (www.miiamo.com). February rates from $295.
El Tovar Hotel, Grand Canyon National Park (888-297-2757; www.grandcanyonlodges.com). Historic 78-room hotel, frequented by Albert Einstein and Theodore Roosevelt, just yards from the South Rim of Grand Canyon. February rates from $178.
Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins, Grand Canyon National Park (888-297-2757; www.grandcanyonlodges.com). Historic lodge designed by architect Mary E.J. Colter, near the South Rim. Rooms with shared bath from $70 (February rates), with private bath from $92.
Where to eat: Cowboy Club, 241 N. State Route 89A, Sedona (928-282-4200; www.cowboyclub.com). Family-friendly Southwestern fare, including buffalo and Angus steaks, and signature dishes including cactus fries and rattlesnake meatballs. Lunch sandwiches start at $9.50; dinner entrees from $15.
Red Planet Diner, 1655 W. Highway 89A, Sedona (928-282-6070; www.redplanetdiner.net). Outer-space-themed diner with updated traditional fare. Sandwiches and burgers start at $8, entrees at $11.
El Tovar Hotel. Large dining room with canyon views. Lunch sandwiches and entrees start at $10, dinner entrees at $18.
What to do: Grand Canyon National Park, 2 Albright Ave., Grand Canyon (928-638-7888; www.nps.gov/grca/index.htm). Seven-day pass to the park is $25 per private vehicle, $12 per person entering on foot, bicycle or motorcycle; age 15 and younger free. Annual passes cost $50.
Pink Jeep Tours, 204 N. State Route 89A, Sedona (800-873-3662; www.pinkjeeptours.com/our-tours). Various off-road adventures featuring Native American history, culture, nature, geology, vistas. Operates 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, weather-dependent. Tour rates vary.
Hiking: Sedona is said to be the nation's capital of one-day hikes. You can do it yourself, with the right gear and excellent maps, or go with a group. Area resorts offer guided hikes, sometimes for free. The center of hiking in Sedona is the Hike House, 431 State Route 179 No. B-1 (928-282-5820; www.thehikehouse.com). Price depends on hike chosen. Open most days, weather-dependent, February through December, with a more limited calendar in January.