Realizing that most people plan for months or even years before making a trip to the Grand Canyon, it's a rather strange feeling to casually drive to the park for a mid-day excursion.

With an excellent suite at very affordable off-season rates at the Hampton Inn in Flagstaff, we're using the high-speed internet Tourists stand on Mather Point overlooking the Grand Canyon Tourists at Mather Point to improve our family history. The weather has been above freezing and generally sunny during the day and below freezing with occasional light snows at night, which makes for good sleeping and pleasant luncheon trips to explore this friendly city and its surroundings. Actually the locals are upset about the lack of snow this winter; their winter festival may be spoiled.

Flagstaff is host to the BN and SF trains which pass through several times daily and sound their long low whistles for the grade crossing a mile or so east of the hotel. North of the city are mountains, including 12,000-foot Mt. Humphreys, the highest point in Arizona. Sedona, Prescott, the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest, Anasazi ruins and the Grand Canyon are all The reddish rock walls of the grand canyon covered with a light dusting
of snow reveal the thousands of strata. Light snow highlights the strata easy day trips from Flagstaff. Northern Arizona University helps to fill the city with young people.

So today we took off shortly after breakfast and made our first trip back to the Grand Canyon since we last visited it, 36 years ago. We had been planning to go for more than a week now, but we have had strong winds and occasional rain and snow showers which discouraged us. Today the sun was bright and the wind had dropped.

We drove north from Flagstaff through suburbs, and then state and national forest land. One experimental forest identified its trees as Ponderosa pine, and here and there were birch and aspen trees but most were evergreens. As we climbed we could see traces of the snow which had fallen yesterday afternoon and last night. We spotted a good-sized herd of deer grazing on a cattle ranch, and a lone coyote crossing the highway.

The five miles from the entrance station were slick with hard-packed snow and ice, and we pushed the button to A rocky point covered with snow seems to reach out into empty space Snowy rock at South Rim keep our truck in automatic four-wheel drive. But the morning sun and an assiduous cinder truck solved the problem.

A lot of changes happen in 36 years, most noticeably the prohibition of private vehicles from the popular roads. For nine months of the year - March through November - the visitor must travel on foot or by shuttle bus. From the size of the parking lots one can imagine the summertime crowds.

But this is January, and there were just enough visitors from around the world to make the Park seem populated. The wind was light, the morning sun lit the canyon and highlighted its immensity with shadows. We always muse at the fact that tourists love to frame a picture of themselves with a scenic attraction in the background. Often just the sign for the attraction is enough. Perhaps it's to reinforce a memory that they suspect may fail them, or because they believe evidence is necessary to convince their friends and coworkers that they really were there!

At Mather Point, the viewpoint closest to the visitor The Colorado River, here seen a mile away, carved the entire Grand Canyon Colorado River at the bottom center, we couldn't see the Colorado River, but we could make out the canyon walls where it flowed, and we had a fine view of massive Bright Angel Canyon slicing towards the Colorado from the north rim. The snow had dusted canyon walls perhaps halfway down to the river, and brightened the scrubby brush.

The immense Visitor Center seemed hollow, with just a sprinkling of tourists and an earnest grizzled Park Ranger waxing poetic about the geology. They still don't understand why the Colorado flowed across the Kaibab Plateau instead of around it -- 15 million years ago.

The east exit from Grand Canyon is quite spectacular, with some wonderful overlooks. A tiny strip of greenish water with some white flecks was actually a hair-raising mile-long The colors of white snows, pine boughs, light sandy rock,
make a beautiful contrast with the reddish canyon walls on the other side Another view of Canyon walls rapids! East of the park, every overlook was lined with stands for Native Americans to sell pottery, jewelry, and other crafts. Most of the stands were empty. In the distance we could see octagonal Navajo hogans and marveled at the Navajo preference for an isolated location. (The head of the housekeeping staff at our hotel, a Navajo, pronouced it "hoe-gone" with the accent on the second syllable. Her father, 87, still lives alone on the reservation, about three hours away, with his horses and his sheep.) The Little Colorado River has another beautiful canyon leading to the Grand Canyon.

There's no need for theme parks or even many elaborate displays. The Canyon is natural, it's awesome and incredible, and affords so many breathtaking views that the visitor needs little guidance. The staff just leans back (at least in this slow season) and lets nature do the rest.