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
The 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 very idea that a transportation company would be concerned about the comfort of its customers seems alien to us today but back then it was more common. 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 the Harvey Company 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 three Grand Canyon concession facilities: Hopi House in 1905 and Hermit’s Rest and The Lookout in 1914.
Colter’s first proposed design was for a large stone structure but Harvey Company 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. 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 Rim 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 sixty 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
Besides 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. I think in nice and warmer weather you would find me on the porch.
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 or restaurants are inexpensive but there is no other place quite like this so you end up paying a premium price.
* * *