We're in a partial government shutdown, so what's it like to visit Grand Canyon right now? Let me tell you…

The Grand Canyon National Park is celebrating its 100th anniversary with a partial government shutdown.

While a battle in Washington rages over whether the national parks should also be closed ‘til the shutdown ends to protect them and their visitors, thousands of tourists have continued streaming into this breathtaking, majestic gorge 6,800 feet above sea level, one of the seven great natural wonders of the world. Although some national parks have been forced to close or have been reportedly plagued by vandalism, overflowing trash containers and overwhelmed water and sewage systems, the Grand Canyon’s mystique is undiminished. My visit there this past weekend was nothing short of magical.

Having only seen the continental site from an airplane at 30,000 feet, a friend and I were determined to visit the park, problems in Washington notwithstanding. Happily, the experience was undiminished by the lack of Federal support. The park this weekend was safe, clean, and efficiently operated; the canyon itself – stretching 227 miles long and an average of ten miles wide – awesome. But for how long?

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As a journalist, I’m an inveterate critic, someone accustomed to seeking and spotting deficiencies. There were some, of course. The park’s visitor’s center, for instance, was closed. And because only 70 of the park’s 300 rangers who normally work in winter were on the job, there were fewer people to rescue hikers in trouble, plow roads, hand out maps, and help visitors get where we wanted to go.

But thanks to $64,383.76 a week in state funds, the result of an executive order and an emergency plan issued last year by Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, the park has remained open since the shutdown began December 22nd. That aid, however, ended this weekend. Whether park operations will continue now depends partly on the weather, said Alysa Ojeda, a spokesman for the Grand Canyon Conservancy (GCC), the park’s non-profit partner which raises money for the park, operates some retail shops inside it, and provides guided educational programs about the park’s history, geology and culture. A huge storm could force the park to close if roads cannot be cleared and visitor safety assured, she said in an email and subsequent interview.

Until recently, the state’s emergency funding, plus assistance from the GCC and continued retail operations by the park’s two main private concessionaires, have given visitors continued access to trails, dependable bus shuttle service, trash collection, and snow removal. The concessionaires – Xanterra and Delaware North on the canyon’s famed South Rim – have kept the park lodges humming – pristine and fully stocked. The manager of the El-Tovar, the park’s oldest, grandest lodge where we stayed said that most of the lodge’s 78 rooms were still booked, though January is typically a slower tourist month between the booming Christmas season and late February, when attendance rebounds as school breaks begin across the country.

FILE -- Grand Canyon Park is also blessed by hosting a year-round community. <br data-cke-eol="1">

FILE -- Grand Canyon Park is also blessed by hosting a year-round community. <br data-cke-eol="1">

Because the park’s $35 per car entrance fee has been waived, the Grand Canyon has actually attracted more visitors than usual during the past Christmas winter season, concessionaire employees said. “There are only two seasons in the park—busy and bonkers,” said one of the few rangers I encountered. Last year, the park attracted over 6 million tourists, a record.

Grand Canyon Park is also blessed by hosting a year-round community. The canyon’s residential village, where an estimated 2,600 people live and work in winter, swells to at least a thousand more each summer. The private concessionaires have also helped avoid major disruptions.

My friend and I arrived at the park shortly before dusk. A GCC staffer welcomed us with a smile, gave us a park map, and waved us through, admission fees having been suspended. Because the main road that loops thru the park was clearly marked, we had little trouble finding the El Tovar, the park’s architectural crown jewel, a 115-year old hunting lodge made of native stone and Oregon pine.

As we walked along the canyon’s rim at sunset, the rocks turned red, orange, yellow – luminescent with the setting sun. From our room’s terrace at dawn, the sun’s rays slowly illuminated the stone pyramids and jagged rocks carved out by the Colorado River over the centuries, exposing two billion years of the earth’s history. Ice on the famed Bright Angel trail and on most of the other narrow trails that snake their way down to the Colorado River 2,000 feet below discouraged us from descending into the canyon. But the views along the South Rim were varied and spectacular. While the Park Service’s Visitor Center was closed, a GCC-operating book store and shop featured riveting highlights of the Grand Canyon Village’s history. At nearby Hopi House, opened in 1905, we saw an extensive collection of Native American handicrafts -- pottery, rugs, and jewelry.

As we ate breakfast, three deer meandered near the canyon rim, seemingly unfazed by visitors snapping photos of them as they searched for a morning meal. Our fellow guests came from throughout the world. We heard French, Japanese, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese.

The park never felt crowded. A hotel guide told us we were fortunate to be visiting in winter. In summer, 20,000 visitors a day sometimes prevent access to the canyon rim.

How long the park will remain open during the shutdown – or even if it should – is now being fiercely debated. Jon B. Jarvis, the National Park Service’s 18th director who now heads the University of California’s Institute for Parks, People, and Biodiversity, in Berkeley, warned in a recent op-ed for the William-Grand Canyon News that leaving the parks open without essential staff was like “leaving the Smithsonian museums open without any staff to protect the priceless artifacts.”

Only about a third of the 418 national parks collect entrance fees. And now that state funding has stopped, he said in a telephone interview, Grand Canyon is maintaining the park by tapping into its earlier collected fees. During an earlier government shutdown in 2013, he said, it cost about $75,000 a day to keep the park open. “Savings needed for maintenance are being depleted,” he warned. Eventually  there will be “ugly consequences.”

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National parks in Arizona have almost $530 million in deferred maintenance, experts say, nearly $330 million of which is at Grand Canyon National Park.

On Tuesday, Jarvis will argue his case for closure in testimony on Capitol Hill.  Whether Congress listens is another matter.

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