Grand Canyon Holidays: Something to Be Thankful For - Backpacker
A holiday in the Grand Canyon requires planning, sweat, and maybe some food sacrifices. But one Arizona family discovers the memories are worth all the turkey in the world.

For plenty of Americans, Thanksgiving means gathering with family around a table inside, gobbling turkey until insensate, and possibly refraining from any movement outside of a remote click for the remainder of the day. Not Danny Giovale: For Thankskgiving 2015, his family — his wife Melissa and twin 16-year-old daughters Heather and Katie — leaned into 40-mph wind gusts and dropped down more than 5,000 feet of rugged desert terrain to camp near a roiling rapid. Nobody would brave eating the days-old turkey Giovale packed in except him.

“The rest of the family had given up on doing any turkey thing down there, but I wanted to have turkey, gravy mashed potatoes — I mean, c’mon, it’s Thanksgiving,” Giovale says. “I cooked the turkey breast and froze it, brought dehydrated mashed potatoes and gravy. By the time I heated it up, nobody dared try it. But I thought it was delicious.”

The view made up for the food. The Giovales had their Thanksgiving spread by the Granite Rapids of the Colorado River, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon on the notoriously challenging 16.8-mile Hermit Trail trek. They watched bright yellow rafts bobbing in the frothing torrent.

“The thing about the Grand Canyon is there’s no beginner or intermediate way to do a backpack,” Giovale says. “Over the five days we did the trip, I felt like for [the whole family] it was really a challenge — we had to work together to make that happen. We went for it, we pulled together, and we had an adventure.”

Grand Canyon thanksgiving

The Giovales aren’t the first to feel holiday magic drawing them magnetically to the world’s most famous chasm. The jaw-dropping scenery and a crackling energy that seems to emanate from the Grand Canyon has pulled humans into its reaches for millennia, from the Native Americans of the Southwest to the Powell Expedition. It makes sense that when we crack the windows on the spiritual forces that animate us on the holidays — be they familial, natural, or religious — a visit to the Canyon would only heighten the celebration.

It happened to Jonathan Pease on Christmas, when he opted out of the family hullabaloo in Colorado to embark on a holiday road trip to the Grand Canyon with his best friend in the world: Coda, a mushy-faced shar-pei-German-shepherd mutt who shares his sense of adventure. With a long-term goal to visit all 59 U.S. national parks, Pease uses holiday time to collect visits to parks.

When he arrived, he wasn’t alone: Hundreds of holiday revelers congregated on the South Rim (the North Rim is closed), all of them seeking solitude and peace in our national parks. But despite the company, Pease still found humbling moments of quiet, private reflection.

“Visiting the park in winter is exceptional — the days are incredible, with a mix of cool dry air and bright warm desert sun shining down,” he says. “A blanket of snow had melted some in the last day or two, so the red and orange rocks peeking out through the white snow made the Canyon even more dramatic. Getting a chance to walk the rim with my dog on Christmas and watch the sunset is something I’ll never forget. I couldn't help myself — I had to take a selfie with him.”

Not all holidays in the Grand need be dusted in sand and sweat. For New Year’s Eve, the historic El Tovar hotel hosts an elegant soiree from its wood and flagstone halls perched just above the South Rim. A $140 New Year’s Eve package includes a gourmet four-course dinner and champagne toast, and you’ll trade fireworks for multicolored views of the Canyon. Families who dress up to hike the Canyon by day on Halloween can trick or treat at candy-loaded business in nearby Tusayan by night. Adventurous families who don’t want to lug in the stuffing or turkey can even sign up for a Thanksgiving dinner at the bottom of the Canyon at Phantom Ranch, at the end of the Bright Angel Trail.

snow in Grand Canyon

But regardless of holiday, parties bound for the interior of the Big Ditch need to be prepared. Beyond solid physical fitness and planning, weather can turn ugly in the core holiday months, with snow and high winds common occurences. After experiencing a close call on a snowy descent in Italy’s Dolomites, Danny Giovale began a mission to develop ultralight hiking crampons. His handmade experiments led him to found the Flagstaff-based company Kahtoola in his parent’s garage almost 20 years ago. He carries new prototypes on almost every trip, including on his family ramble into the Canyon. With the information he gains, he and his team tweak designs to maximize traction, cut weight, and ensure durability.

“The challenge of the Canyon was substantial — all our family was fit, and it was hard for us,” he says. “We love the big family Thanksgivings, but it’s nice to focus on your nuclear family. Spending hours on the trail is such a different way of having that time together — for us and a lot of people. If you can manage it, it’s such a recharge from the hustle-bustle that usually dominates the holidays.”

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