The great thing about the Grand Canyon — apart from the obvious — is that you never really know it’s there until you almost fall in. The terrain near the South Rim is high in elevation but flat in aspect, so unlike most of the world’s signature natural landmarks, such as mountains, glaciers, and buttes, there’s nothing looming in the background when you’re in the vicinity. You just wander out of a pine forest and get the wind knocked out of you by the sight of the the striated abyss. It’s a fantastic effect, a clever twist Mother Nature chose to inflict on the unsuspecting.
To score that thrill, you can cruise up the smooth asphalt of Arizona State Route 64, pull into the South Rim visitor’s center and mosey on over to the fence, selfie stick in hand. Or you can do what I did with a group hosted by Nissan: Scramble through the woods along the same trail used by stagecoaches to get from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon more than a century ago. (Fun fact: Back then, the trip cost $20—the equivalent of $500 in today’s money.)
We didn’t do the entire stretch — most of the trail has yielded to civilization — but we bounced over enough miles of ancient, hard-packed ground to get a sense of what a grand, miserable adventure the whole experience must have been riding on top of a stagecoach, cutting-edge as its suspension may have been at the time. We, on the other hand, were tackling the terrain in vehicles designed in the 21st Century for just this sort of adventure — a fleet of Nissans modified for overland expeditions.
This included, most notably, the new Destination Frontier, a variant of the company’s compact pickup designed to keep overlanding costs down to Earth. For less than $40,000, the Frontier Crew Cab Midnight Edition (base price: $32,295) can be fitted with a Nisstec three-inch lift kit, a Leitner bed rack, Baja Designs lights, rock sliders, a WARN winch, and even a Dometic freezer/refrigerator among other gnarly overland accessories. A CVT Mt. Shasta tent sat perched on the roof, though unfortunately, we didn’t get to try it out.
On the trail, the seemingly-top-heavy truck made the extra load feel nonexistent as it gamely rolled over the undulating terrain. Everything felt as secure as the contents of a true Conestoga wagon — absent the tin pans clattering about on the sides.
Our other rides included a selection of conventionally-outfitted Titan XD pickups and a beastly orange Nissan Armada dubbed Mountain Patrol. This vehicle, built on a stock 2018 Armada 4WD, debuted last year at the Overland Expo West—where the Destination Frontier debuted during the 2019 event—and it features 17-inch Icon Bronze Rebound wheels with 35-inch Nitto Ridge Grappler tires. These sit beneath a Calmini six-inch lift kit and Icon coil-over suspension with extended A-arms. Up top, it has Baja Designs lights mounted on a Rhino Rack Backbone cargo system. It also has a Warn winch, Calmini rock rails and its own roof-mounted Mt. Shasta tent, as well as ARB drawers, air compressor and refrigerator.
Not to be outdone—and easily the greatest surprise of the group—was a NV3500 SL van similarly tricked out for overland expeditions. That’s right: Nissan’s homely passenger transport, most commonly seen as an airport shuttle or church-mobile. With the right tires, a lift kit and a partial drivetrain transplant from a Titan to give it four-wheel-drive, it too can conquer Forest Road 320 on the way to the Grand Canyon.
On our drive in this armada of the Armada, the Titans, the Frontier, and the NV, we stopped at Moqui Stage Station, which still possesses the remains of a watering hole for replenishing stagecoaches and their horses, before reaching the Grandview Lookout Tower on the Arizona Trail. This structure, tucked in the Kaibab National Forest, rises above the trees and gave us our first glimpse of the Grand Canyon, which — unbeknownst to us — was lurking barely a mile away.
We covered the short remaining distance quickly to reach the end of the trail, then finally emerged from the pine trees for our first full, all-its-glory view of the Canyon. Sure, we ultimately wound up in the same place as everyone else, doin the same thing everyone else did — parking at the visitor’s center and moseying over to the fence, selfie-sticks in hand — but I’d wager that our approach to the massive maw made our visit all the sweeter. Absent the modern road, countless billboards, roadside restaurants, hotels, and souvenir stands that line Route 64, we experienced the G.C. the way Mother Nature intended: a breathtaking surprise at the end of a long trail through an ocean of green pines. Having seen it like that, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.