Munching a peanut butter sandwich at the Grand Canyon, I finally took a deep breath.

After a year of virtually not going anywhere — not seeing family, not letting my guard down for a minute — I could finally enjoy life again.

Of course, after a year of homebound captivity, any escape was a welcome relief — but the Grand Canyon seemed like the perfect place to mark the beginning of living again.

Take it from me: Now’s the best time to visit the canyon.

Visitation has plummeted, according to the park service — reflecting the lack of international travelers.

In February 2021, the latest data available, just under 11,000 people visited the park. In February 2020, there were 253,000 visitors (a 96% decline).

Year-to-date visitation has dropped a stunning 65%.

Nationally, there were 237 million visitors to America’s national parks in 2020. The number represents a 28% decrease from the previous year due largely to temporary park closures and restrictions implemented in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

When we visited the park on March 20, vehicles still crowded the south entrance gate and it took 20 minutes to get up to the ticket booth. Luckily, once in the park, things thinned out, and it only took a few minutes to find a parking space in the El Tovar lot.

I have been to the Grand Canyon at least a dozen times and hiked into the canyon three times. I expect crowds — especially on the weekend. But the lack of visitors proved a pleasant surprise.

We jumped on the Hermits Rest bus, planning to ride it out to the end of the red route, getting off along the way to enjoy the various overlooks. No big treks were planned this go around as my burgeoning pregnancy belly limits my activity.

Social distancing protocols were in place, with masks required on all buses and every other seat roped off.

Normally, when you ride the buses, you are crammed in like sardines. This time, we had a window seat and plenty of room to spread out. Despite the limited seating on the buses, there were never more than a few people waiting at the stops.

We jumped off at Powell Point, an overlook dedicated to John Wesley Powell, and found a spot out of the wind for lunch.

Looking down into the canyon and the Colorado River, I reflected on my many adventures in this magical place — from rafting the Colorado in a wooden dory to hiking out of Havasupai on blistered feet. I was grateful for it all.

On this visit, I was seven months pregnant. A whole new adventure awaits, one that will likely pull me away from the canyon for some time. But I can’t wait to return next time with my daughter so I can share this wonderful place that has helped me through so many hard times.

Just like it did this year — a deep breath of hope after a dark year.

Contact the editor at abechman@payson.com

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