I would trade my entire journey, sacrifice the majesty and beauty of each park, to visit Grand Canyon with the woman I love – Unknown
Approaching Grand Canyon National Park from the south on Route 64, the flat Coconino Plateau offers no hint of what lies ahead. As the day’s light began to fade into the great pines of Kaibab National Forest, I wondered aloud what the explorers who stumbled upon this 277 mile canyon might have thought. What went through their mind when they reached the rim and looked out in amazement? They couldn’t have known that rock dating back 1.8 billion years lies at the bottom, some 6,000 feet below. Or that a river had been methodically carving the landscape for over 6 million years. All they had were their senses. I wondered how many of them dropped to their knees and wept.
Having stopped at several spots along the way, including Hoover Dam and Lake Powell, I was losing daylight. Mather Point is the first overlook along the south rim, so I pulled in and half ran, half skipped to the path leading to the edge. Several people were standing around, getting a final glimpse of the canyon before darkness swallowed her. I stood in silence, absorbing the majesty of color and scale, my heart leaping in my chest.
According to the guidebook, the panoramic view from Mather Point “extends from the lower end of Garden Creek, taking in some of the Bright Angel Trail, over the deep canyon of Pipe Creek…eastwards to Cedar Ridge/O’Neill Butte, along which runs the South Kaibab Trail starting from Yaki, the next point east.” At that moment, as the night slowly descended, none of those elements mattered. I didn’t need or want to dissect what I was seeing. I simply wanted to share the feeling of glory that swept over me. I wanted to hold someone.
A mile from the rim, Mather Campground is nestled under a canopy of Ponderosa pine, Pinyon, and Juniper trees. Pine needles and small rocks cover much of the ground. Finding and clearing the spot I had reserved a few days earlier, I set up my tent, pulled the mattress out of the van and settled in for the night. It was a beautiful star filled sky and I knew sleep would come easily. A couple of small kids and their parents had other plans. Chatter and laughter kept me awake long into the night. When they finally went to sleep, I quickly followed.
Sunny and warm. A perfect spring morning. I made a breakfast of eggs, english muffin and fresh coffee, before walking to Bright Angel Lodge, where five years earlier, on a whim, I asked if they had an open cabin at Phantom Ranch. “Can you hike down in the morning?” I was stunned. Slots fill up a year in advance and the last time I looked online it was completely booked. Without hesitation I simply said yes. When I caught up to Jo, Preston and his best friend Braden a few minutes later, I told them we had a spot at the bottom of the canyon the next night. The general response was, “cool.” The remainder of the story, perhaps for another time, was one of joy, discovery and pain. It also involved shuffling.
Spoiler: We all made it down the 5,000′, 6.3 mile descent, bone tired but intact. I won’t even begin to describe how good it felt to lay in the cold of Bright Angel Creek. The following day, beginning before sunrise, we made the 5,000′, 9 mile accent in temperatures topping 100 degrees. Bonus: A ranger taught me to shuffle in order to conserve energy. As a result, I believe I hold the record for the slowest accent of Bright Angel Trail. I can still hear Preston’s playfull “Come on old man,” and his little chuckle, every time I had to take a rest. Update: I plan on walking rim to rim next year. Walk, not shuffle. Okay, maybe a little shuffling.
Emery and Ellsworth Kolb arrived at Grand Canyon in 1901 and three years later opened their photography studio, perched on the south rim. Exploring and photographing even the most remote sections of the canyon, the Kolb brothers gave people access and understanding of places they would otherwise never have been able to see. Photos of a mule train on Bright Angel Trail. Distant finger canyons and a leafy oasis still inhabited by Havasupai Indians. Men, hanging by thick woven ropes, exploring deep into parts unknown. Touring America with their photographs and movie as “a record of the Colorado as it is, a live thing, armed as it were with teeth, ready to crush and devour”, the Kolb’s educated and changed the way people viewed Grand Canyon and the Colorado River forever.
Today, Kolb Studio displays many of the brothers original photographs, one of Emery’s early movie cameras and showcases other original canyon related art. A short clip of a grainy, black and white movie, shot in the early 1900’s, plays on a continuous loop. I sat for a while and marveled at the dedication and physical hardships the Kolb’s and other early explorers had to endure to bring the harsh beauty of the canyon to a wide audience. A life’s work of artistry and exploration embodied in a few jittery frames.
Rim Trail runs from South Kaibab Trail in the east to Hermits Rest in the west. Thirteen miles of mostly flat and sometimes paved walkway, with a few steep inclines. At various points along the way, the trail veres out onto broad viewing areas. From Kolb Studios to Hermit’s rest there are eight outcrops that provide views into the canyon and the river below. Each view is unique. Looking east from Trailview Overlook, the El Tovar Hotel appears to teeter on the edge of an abyss. Bright Angel Lodge looks small, somehow diminished when viewed across the depth of the canyon. Hopi Point reaches out into the canyon, affording east-west views of over 45 miles. Here, as much as any other spot on the trail, the canyon’s full grandeur is on display.
Before arriving at Hermits Rest, The Abyss and Pima Point provide two dramatically different perspectives into the canyon. Dropping a vertical 3,000 feet directly into the canyon, visitors protected by a single thin rail, The Abyss presents a vertigo inducing view of the Tonto Plateau, Colorado River and the Monument, a large sandstone column in the Grand Canyon. Further west, following the curve of the rim, Pima Point juts into the canyon with views of Powell Plateau and the distant Bright Angel Canyon.
From several points on the rim, horizontal scale begins to take shape. Our brains process horizontal distance. It’s how we move through daily life. If you tell me I am 10 miles from home, I know how to intuitively process the distance. Vertical scale is more complex. We understand vertical scale mostly in terms of looking skyward. Mountains, buildings, clouds. Even then it’s conceptual, since we don’t often move vertically. Looking down into the canyon and attempting to measure scale is a task to which few of us are accustomed. Looking down into a 3,000′ chasm, my seldom used vertical calibration was severely tested. As much as I love heights, this magnitude of depth is momentarily disorienting.
Reaching Hermits Point late in the day, a sandwich and ice cream were in order. I sat on a rock ledge, surrounded by upturned pines and aggressive ravens, as the wind came up from the the canyon and played in the trees. Afterward, as I waited for a bus to take me back down to Hopi Point and sunset, I met a couple from Colorado, who were also living the ‘van life.’ They were about my age and their love for each other was evident in their eyes and ease. We started a broad conversation about Grand Canyon and other parks we had visited. They were interested in my favorite park, which is a difficult question to answer. I see them each as their own entity, having their own unique features and beauty. It’s like asking me to choose my favorite son. It’s impossible. I love them all for exactly who they are.
“What about traveling solo? How difficult is it?” He asked.
“It has its rewards, but in many respects it’s difficult. Solitude has limitations.”
“Why are you traveling alone?”
“It’s a long story.” At that moment a bus arrived and our short conversation ended.
The colors of Grand Canyon shift dramatically depending on the weather and time of day. Shaded by hovering clouds, sunless, the canyon is dulled and muted. Soft browns and grey, lean into flat green. Plateaus appear to have fewer dimensions. The Colorado River flows nickel. In brilliant sunlight she awakens. Vibrant orange streaks through shale, as evergreen dots her crown. Grey becomes white. Browns are detailed with violet and pinkish hues. Rim hugging limestone shines yellow and the Colorado runs an iridescent green. She is ever changing and on this evening at Hopi Point, she would shine brightly, preening in color, before the sun fell behind a distant streaked horizon.