Tusayan, Arizona Campin’
The town of Tusayan, Arizona borders the southern entrance to the Grand Canyon. Oh boy, the Grand Canyon! Well, not this trip, odd as it sounds. My goal was simply to see what the area is like for travel trailer campers like myself. To get a feel for the place. I have, and if you restrict the discussion to dispersed camping, it’s a mix that is the natural result of heavy commercialization.
On the way up here on 64, I noticed plenty of inviting National Forest roads branching off this way and that. Looking at a Motor Vehicle Usage Map , the Tusayan area is loaded with roads open to dispersed camping. I’m very curious to explore some of them in order to see what camping situations they offer, but I quickly found three impediments to doing that.
Those impediments are first, that the tangled nest of available roads cover miles and miles of range instead of being a tight pack with numerous branches.
Second, the easiest way to explore those roads is in the Ford. Up here, the distances involved make that an expensive proposition. Exploring these opportunities with a 9-10 MPG vehicle (at very low speeds) with a finite amount of service life is in direct violation of the Prime Directive. Cost-wise, I’d be much better off using my old Raleigh mountain bike.
The third impediment is that I’m lazy. Of course I don’t come right out and say that. Instead, I cite the distances involved, and relate that to the fact that the Raleigh is still putting way too much weight on my wrists and hands, a problem which has no good solution other than to dump it and find a less serious bike with a more upright seating position. This issue limits me to a round trip of about ten miles on level ground before I’m having to stop and try to get some feeling back in my hands so I can like, you know, brake and shift again.
I also weasel out of biking around here because the elevation change from town, just a half-mile away, is a 400-foot climb, according to the GPS. I thought returning to camp in Wickenburg was tough. This is a killer. Even getting off and walking up these grades makes me slow down and shuffle to get my breath. That means a two-mile round trip to a store, by bike or by foot (same thing), requires plenty of water and a decent rest once back to camp. No joke. Solutions are available, but not right here and now.
At any rate, at least NF 302, heading east from the bottom edge of town, is in very good condition and, thanks to a few passes by a road grader yesterday, is now free of even the limited washboarding it had. 302 is unique in that it begins to offer decent campsites within very short distances of the main drag through town. It’s conceivable that an open WiFi signal from one of the motels might make it through the trees, using a directional booster, but that’s just a possibility. I cruised through them with the trailer on, and they were “if you can’t find better” type sites. This applies strictly to me though, because I have to evaluate campsite length, maneuvering space, and sun or shade for solar. The main issue, actually, was that an incessant string of helicopters were struggling past, perhaps just 300 feet overhead! They were from the outfit that offers aerial tours of the Grand Canyon, and business was a’ boomin’! We’re talking less than one minute intervals. I had to go further out.
Although the Defiant’s length and ground clearance works against it on heavily-wooded land, I still managed to find a workable pull-through site that allowed my solar panels to work well. It’s right beside the road, but hey. In setting up camp, I had pine needles underfoot, and the scent was magical. In order to get level, I had to throw a length of 2 x 8 under one pair of the trailer’s wheels, and this was only notable because it broke with a dust-throwing crack as the tires rolled up fully onto it. Shallow dip on the ground, making the board flex as 1,700 pounds reached the center. Naturally, I hadn’t noticed the dip earlier, so watching the event in the side mirror as I put the tires up onto the board made me first wonder if I’d punctured a tire (because of the jet of dust coming out from under the board).
I had to orient the trailer “backwards”, with the solar panels on the north side, since shade from the tall pines beside the Defiant would cover them during the day in their normal south-side exposure. This meant that the panels needed to be raised over-center – that is, to be pivoted way up in order to catch the arc of the sun better. There’s a limit to how high the panels can be raised for maximum efficiency, but in summer sun, that’s not much of an issue. This has actually worked out pretty well so far: the panels get full sun all day, and are protected from the boisterous high winds that have plagued the area for the last three days. The trees nicely block most of it, but the trailer still occasionally rocks and the dust from the road swirls about as the south wind gusts. There’s no danger of a panel lifting and being pivoted over the roof, as is my normal concern. If anything, this wind wants to shove a panel down, so I’m simply checking now and then that the telescoping poles are holding their set lengths, to maintain their angle to the sun. Today is expected to be the windiest of the three, so we’ll see how it winds out. Mind you, this is the biggest problem I can think of as having these days, so you can see why I have a decided liking for this new-to-me lifestyle.
The good parts of this place are, well, look at some of these pictures! Trees, elk, hills, gorges, big rocks, big sky. Wow. Beautiful! I’m ambivalent about Tusayan strictly as an area to camp in though, despite the wonderful pines and great road conditions. That’s why touring the surrounding miles would be so potentially significant. Each of the drawbacks is based on the effects of heavy commercialization catering to visitors to the Grand Canyon. Nothing wrong with doing that, but it detracts from camping experience.
Number one is the aircraft. The airport is at the south end of town, and 302 is sort of in line with the runway. O’Hare airport in Chicago chants the mantra of being the busiest airport in the world. The tiny runway of Tusayan must be the runner up on some days. Helicopters, and smaller fixed-wing aircraft of all descriptions criss-cross overhead, most at twice-treetop level. From 8AM to 6PM, choppers are obviously the worst offenders for altitude and noise, with a few types generating a sound pressure that you can feel as vibration. Things are still much better than they might be, however. The tour service operating the choppers uses them enough that the old ones are worn out and long gone. All of their equipment is modern or current, with comparatively lower noise levels than would be the case with vintage machinery. The amount of traffic varies wildly from day to day, and most days are livable. But boondocking along 302 is not your typical “getting away from it all” experience.
Number two detractor is the town of Tusayan itself. With a four-lane, low speed boulevard coming down out of the mountains, Tusayan is build completely around the businesses related to serving out-of-state touristas who have money to spare and want to see the fabulous Grand Canyon. The main drag is all there is, and consists of major motel chains, souvenir shops, gas stations, a few restaurants, and a general store with a grocery section resembling a very nicely-stocked gas station mini-mart. As long as you restrict yourself to processed items that come in a bottle, can or box, you have a fighting chance to find something edible. A real grocery is claimed to be available in Grand Canyon, along with a dump station in one of its pay camps, so I’ll be checking that out before long. What’s significant here is that there is no residential housing to speak of, and no infrastructure support businesses. “Residents” are employees living in employer-provided rooms. The rest of the employees commute in from somewhere else, which is a trick because Tusayan is quite isolated.
As one might expect in an isolated town existing solely to make money off tourists coming in from all over the world, prices are a bit high. I tanked up before I came at $3.82 a gallon before discount at a Safeway. Here, $4.29 is the tab. Naturally, it’s not all gouging, because it costs more to get stuff to places that aren’t on the way to anywhere else, but let’s just say that many costs are higher, and the types of businesses that have common value to RVers are in short supply in this immediate area. Grand Canyon may be a different story.
Just to underscore how different this town’s aura is, I was alarmed one evening, several days ago. At 5PM, I heard yet another slow aircraft go overhead, only this one sounded different. It was laboring, and losing the battle. In other words, the engine sounded for all the world like it was slowing down despite being at wide-open throttle. You know, that kind of open-throated, louder honk that carbureted engines make at full song. Only this one was moaning and losing RPM. Then it went silent. Had the power train seized? What happened? Had an aircraft gone down? A minute later, sirens. Several of them, and they went on for several minutes. Oh boy.
Couldn’t be the tour service. They’d been in operation since something like 1929, and they’d be obnoxiously hyper about maintenance and safety procedures. I got out and looked around in all directions for a smoke column, but thankfully, the surrounding trees blocked my view.
The next morning at 5AM, it sounded like someone had their radio turned way up. Announcer and music, mixed. I’ve heard of such campers, but it was hard to believe someone who was getting away from it all would be invigorating themselves at 5AM. And it went on until 7, and then off and on from there.
I decided to ask about the sirens in town on my trek to see the general store’s rudimentary post office. It was a hike, maybe 80 degrees or so by thermometer, but the sun adds a lot on top of that. There was some kind of walkathon going on on the sidewalks, or so I thought. A county sheriff who volunteered his service explained that it was a “half-marathon”. These were ordinary people, many of which had no business trotting/walking miles in the hot sun. I think the majority were women. Wide age range, wide span of body types. I was pretty concerned about a few who looked flushed and like they were about to plant face on concrete as they struggled to make the last eighth mile. Their goal was the parking lot of the National Geographic souvenir shop, where an announcer with music was, along with a couple of fire department paramedics on standby. I had a very strong suspicion that the marathon began at 5AM.
When I asked one of the paramedics about the aircraft I’d heard a couple of days before, he said that two experimental (home-built) aircraft, like those that gather in Oshkosh Wisconsin every year, had come in at that time of day. It seems that one was underpowered for Tusayan’s thin air, and barely made it in under full throttle, collapsing the landing gear on landing. Thus the fire engine sirens as they rolled out just in case. Nobody hurt, except perhaps the wallet of the pilot may have been badly injured. “These guys fly in, and figure they have a chance because it’s flat, but between the 7,000 foot elevation and the heat, the air’s so thin, a lot of ’em just don’t have the power they need to get lift. The pilot wasn’t hurt, but he busted his plane.”
So what I had heard overhead was a rather surprised pilot discovering that he had unintentionally exceeded his plane’s performance envelope. The saying “Speed is Life” is or was a motto of combat pilots who knew that brief high-speed hit & run attacks on other fighters were far more survivable than getting mixed up in the prolonged maneuvering contest of a dogfight. The faster your aircraft was moving, the less likely it was that you’d be intercepted and shot down. Here at Tusayan’s high altitude airport, the same saying seems to relate better to wing lift. More power = more speed = more lift. In outboard motors and especially aircraft engines, power = cubic cash. So homebuilts are usually not bristling with an abundance of power. Oh, they’re safe and perform well, but I guess the owner has to make it a point to recall what his kit’s published performance specs were with the engine he chose, and to know how healthy his engine is. Since a plane’s performance envelope can’t possibly stretch at any given power level, forgetting those limitations means that you might someday fly through something instead of over it. Considering the surrounding trees, this guy was most fortunate, whether he needed a change of underwear or not.