Updated: Sep 10
The Grand Canyon is a bucket list item. Now celebrating a centennial birthday, most can picture the multi-colored layers of rock carved incredibly from winds along the Colorado River. Enough reason to visit are the dozen endemic plants in the region, so after finishing the summer of 2014 in Yosemite, Nico and I set out on a long road trip with our new puppy, Daisy, heading for jobs at the Grand Canyon South Rim (no dogs allowed…) The beauty of the area is awe-inspiring and undeniable, but after the idyllic tent cabins of Yosemite employee housing, we found a lot about our new home disappointing. Living in Yosemite, most jobs were through hospitality titan Delaware North Company (DNC) so it was an easy transfer to rival conglomerate, Xanterra Travel Collection (Xanterra) at the Grand Canyon. We didn’t get to spend as long in Arizona as I would’ve liked, but this article is a personal comparison of the experiences.
We left from Yosemite and stayed in Fresno with Nico’s family, waking at dawn for the drive. We spent the first couple hours in a thick fog, as dense as if the interstate didn’t exist, until finally the October day warmed and we were greeted with sunshine. We crossed the Tehachapi Mountains near Bakersfield on State Route 58, heading for Needles, CA on the border of Arizona. Approaching five hours into the trip, we were already delirious. Excitedly skirting the southern border of the Mojave Desert, with nothing to look at except the long highway behind and in front, and the endless line of cars on it, we pretended to be pirates. On our way back we took the same road overnight, and this stretch was a long line of cross country travelers, lights creating a barricade across the dark, barren land. We made videos and jokes, taking pictures of the plants and sky changing, always trying to give our tiny puppy a comfortable spot among the clutter of all our belongings stuffed into Nico’s Chevy Tahoe.
In another five hours we were cheering as we reached the Arizona border, getting our first glimpse of the Colorado River. Nico was kind enough to pass me control of the wheel for a while, so I immediately took us on a detour towards Route 66, wanting to see the classic stretch of highway. Immediately I was on the wrong track and swerving into a pull out, intending to turn around. Stuck in the sand. Welcome to Arizona. Luckily there were quickly several people pulling over to help us. The first had a small car and wasn’t much help, but he jammed a bunch of logs under our tires and stuck around, for support and traffic control, as a truck with tow chains dislodged us. Back on the road we found Route 66 and continued. Our stop for the night was the Flagstaff Quality Inn, a clean room allowing pets for forty dollars a night, so we could prepare for our orientation the next day. When we finally arrived, we ordered a pile of room service and passed out.
The next day we dressed professionally and anxiously left the pine forests of Flagstaff for the park. We took State Route 64 across rolling plains and into the Kaibab National Forest, not seeing many rocks up to this point. Out here the trees were scarce and nothing was on the horizon. We passed Bedrock City and finally made it to Tusayan, the town bordering the park. Here it was. A relief, the ranger at the gate was really enthusiastic about Daisy. She gave her a good scratch and us a map, and pointed us towards Human Resources. Through pinyon-juniper woodlands and pine forests, we drove towards our future home.
Someone could study a map forever without really knowing what a place looks like. We craned our necks for a view knowing the canyon was close. First stop, the visitor’s center. Giving ourselves plenty of time to be a tourist, we parked and leashed Daisy. At this point she was always excited to get out of the car. A smooth-coated tricolored border collie rescue, only a few weeks old, she was a tiny ball of energy. Nearing November, the sub-alpine environment of scraggly spruce and fir was chilly but still packed with tourists. Elk sat in wooded thickets and walked between trees in and out of the parking lot. Daisy was dying to meet these large creatures and strained at the leash to reach them, running on and on until there we were, facing the canyon.
Spread out below, the Grand Canyon is more than a person can take in. The glory of the place is in its breadth. It extends as far as the eye can see, sheer sides dropping into a network of chasms spreading from the center. We walked past the thirteen mile Rim Trail lining the cliff edge in the park. Living nearby, I’d return often to run and walk Daisy. We walked down some stone steps and distracted many visitors with our cute pup, stoutly approaching with tiny tail straight up, unaware of the marvel around us. The commanding presence drew our gaze and we watched clouds go by below, and the colors of the canyon dramatically contrast in step with the elevation. Around us were shrubs braced for winter, perched on crumbling spires of different heights, the rim slowly eroding away. We wandered past interpretive signs until it was time to check in.
Upon reaching Human Resources, we situated Daisy across the street so no one would notice our four-legged companion. Then we had our orientation into to the park. Similar to my first day in Yosemite, the office staff was helpful and excited for us.
This is also when the differences in park experiences began.
Like Yosemite, we needed to pass a urine analysis drug test to even be there. With only a few other winter employees onboarding, this was quick and we were soon on our way to a hospitality class. Less formal than my multi-day cash handling training in Yosemite, we watched a video saying, “Give them the pickle!” (now an endless joke for Nico and I…) The phrase repeated throughout the film as a metaphor on providing outstanding customer service. Really I wasn’t sure how it applied to us since I would just be serving drinks (no alcohol) and Nico would be a lunch lady scooping a rotating menu. Next we split into smaller groups for location information based on placement in the park, later reuniting for a bus trip to Hermits Rest, an overlook on a restricted road seven miles from the village, another of my future favorite places to run.
We received keys to our room in Rouzer Hall during orientation, the couples dorm. Our first night in the park, we excitedly unloaded the Tahoe and started making the small studio our own. We noticed a chalky substance outside some of the other rooms and across our new mattress. It didn’t really bother us because we promptly went about cleaning the space and piling blankets onto the bed as extra cushion. I thought it was a type of sediment until the very next day we got a notice on our door. The entire building needed to be treated for bed bugs, a process requiring chemical extermination for the next month. Our dorm also housed many older full-timers and was therefore quieter than our employee housing in Yosemite, where the predominantly young community was fostered through shared kitchens and bathrooms.
No kitchen. No cooking. During orientation we were given meal tickets to use at the employee cafeteria across the street. Nico and I took Daisy for a walk at lunchtime, then went to check it out. We were told our dormitories wouldn’t have kitchens, so this was a cheap alternative. Just coming from the Curry Village Cafeteria in Yosemite, it was very similar. Basically every type of food for easy mass catering. Organic isn’t a term familiar to the purchasers though, and local items are scarce throughout the menu. Most the food served in the park is cheap, processed, sugary, and artificial. Fine for the day, but it didn’t make me want to go back. We opted out of an employee meal plan since we would both be working in restaurants and got a lot of free food in our last jobs.
Although still lacking organics, a grocery store run by DNC was a short walk from our dorm, including a café and sandwich bar. Missing cooking, we ended up breaking our housing contract (again, considering Daisy) by sneaking in a couple one burner stoves, one propane and one electric. In our bedroom, on our company provided table, we prepared meals on a cutting board, washing dishes in our bathroom sink, a window beside us looking out into a forest teeming with elk, deer, and squirrels all bulking up for winter.
Recently graduating from college, I wasn’t taking my job particularly seriously. Overlooking the rim of the canyon, I was a busser in the restaurant of the historic five star lodge, El Tovar. Although I can’t comment on the quality of the food sources, I can say the place had great chefs! Nico and I went several times in the morning for giant cinnamon rolls and eggs benedict. Basically broke and making the meagerly Arizona wage of $7.50, we never went to dinner there. We did however occasionally indulge in their world class desserts.
My next recommendation for dining is where Nico worked, in the Maswik Food Court. A large cafeteria style lodge, Maswik has a variety of cuisines and often hefty servings. Desert vibes can be found in the Arizona Steak House, an option for fine dining with a great wine selection, but it’s expensive and still second to El Tovar. The cheapest food you can find is in the Yavapai Dining Hall, a cafeteria near the market. Even with Nico often getting free meal vouchers at work, we avoided Yavapai.
In a rustic, log cabin style, El Tovar pays homage to local Native American tribes in textiles and glassware. Around Christmas, a huge tree appears in the reception area, just outside the dining room doors. We had numerous bakers working on decorating the restaurant with ginger bread cookies and houses. Fir garlands lined wall-sized windows and rock fireplaces constantly spit flames. Sunrise over the canyon was always my favorite part of the day.
Being a busser was a drag. Changing tables as quickly as I could on a packed night was stressful, carrying a tray all day with water and coffee sucked, and dressing in a penguin suit made me feel ridiculous daily. My uniform was a supplied white button down shirt with black slacks, bow tie and apron, and non-slip shoes. As stupid as I felt, I’ll confess the pants were soft like sweats! Customers were generally friendly and enthusiastic, calmly enjoying the views and relaxing with their meals. Of course other customers are entitled, and some are hard to read. One man asked me why the elk aren’t better behaved, because last time he visited they were all on display as he ate. He said we needed to train them better.
Visitors flood to the park during the holidays, creating a hectic work environment. Servers and bussers danced between each other in the kitchen. Then servers decide how much of their tips they’re willing to share with their paired bussers. The minimum wage in Arizona is meagerly, so tips were our main form of support. Nico didn’t get many hours, so I spent eight hours a day rotating tables and taking drink orders. At this rate, we weren’t able to buy much for ourselves or save. We lived paycheck to paycheck, barely able to afford food.
Besides the hourly state wage being significantly higher in California, positions are similarly entry level food service and hospitality types. If you want a more interesting job and are qualified, go for a Forest Service position or something! Compared to my management in Yosemite, I had more respect for my El Tovar bosses. However, my coworkers were distinctly less encouraging and collaborative. I made several amazing friends, but also found more animosity from our servers than I never found from colleagues in Yosemite.
Options are plentiful in Yosemite regarding recreation. Paved and unpaved trails line the valley, leading from employee housing as far as anyone could want to go. Beaches along the river abound, bike and raft rentals are available, horse trails exist, and secret location gems lie in every cranny of the place. Solitude is easily found if sought. I was imagining the canyon being similar, but we were disappointed to find almost no climbing and few trails offering access to its depths. At over 8,000 ft elevation, we were also easily exhausted trying to exercise. Running a mile was difficult, but were both in great shape consequently!
Adjacent our dorm was “the village.” Although lacking in organic foods, the parks are a great place for holiday shopping! The Village Store had a lot of souvenirs. I’ll always give the DNC buyers credit for their gift shop material. Several local artists are featured, there’s a selection of outdoor gear, a Pendleton wool collection, and a lot more. Only a short walk from our dorm, this was also the location of the Grand Canyon post office and local bank. In Yosemite, for a similar selection visit the Ahwahnee Hotel.
Employee Community Center
Both locations provided a community center for employees with a gym, computers, and frequent activities. The Grand Canyon had a pool table we played at almost nightly. As the temperatures dropped, we were often in the gym. Any time karaoke happened, we could also be found. One highlight of this trip was Nico singing “Kickapoo” from The Pick of Destiny. As he swore repeatedly, a family walked in with two little girls. I’ll never forget his face as he abruptly started making up cleaner lyrics on the spot. The facilities at the Grand Canyon were significantly nicer than those in Yosemite, but we had a lot more fun in that little mobile home in the valley.
Yosemite Valley, although now heavily developed, is far removed from urban sprawl. The borders of the national park are near small mountain towns where many amenities aren’t available and pop-culture doesn’t necessarily hold value. The Grand Canyon is similarly remote, however a larger population lives within the park. Both locations are astounding, historic, and rich with opportunities to appreciate nature and exercise. Wildlife wander among the masses, and people are always too eager to approach. At the Grand Canyon we saw elk as tall as moose, with racks wider than a car.
No Place for Pets
With frequent walks and lots of attention, we tried to make Daisy comfortable. It was nearly impossible to keep a dog a secret, as much as we tried, and we shortly had neighbors and coworkers lavishing attention on her. Housing found out and told us they too were dog lovers (hush hush!) I wouldn’t recommend trying your own luck though. Anyone who works full time shouldn’t have a pet at all, unless your pet always has access to the outdoors or pet friends. Dogs also aren’t allowed in the canyon, so we couldn’t take her hiking without leaving the park. Among all national parks, leashes are a requirement and leave no trace principles apply. There are Yosemite cats living happily among the tent cabins, but mostly it’s a hassle.
As is standard in outdoor recreation, there’s more male representation than female. Therefore us ladies have more of a dating pool than our man friends, possibly leading to jealous boyfriends (at least in my case!) Also some awkward interactions with management, who sometimes obviously promoted stereotyping. If you’re single, the parks are a great place to meet people! In my experience, diversity is welcome. The more the merrier, the crazier park parties. Men can be sweet, sometimes dense, sometimes jerks. There were all kinds.
Parks are shared between concession companies, community organizations, and the park service. Something called a “park ranger” patrols the area, searching for anyone misrepresenting themselves. They respond unfavorably to nudity in certain places, and if you try to fight your boss. You can still work in the park if for some reason you’re kicked out of housing. Rangers can arrest though, and the worst offenders are labelled persona non grata.