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Glorious Grand Canyon
By Charles Shugart, Jr.
In my opinion, Grand Canyon is the single most magnificent work of nature in the world. Its beauty and wonder are endlessly fascinating.
So is the geology, which goes back almost two billion years. Rocky material was deposited when the land was at much lower elevations, forming sandstone and limestone layers. Within the last 10 million years or so, the entire Kaibab Plateau slowly rose through the action of plate tectonics (or continental drift as it used to be called). The more the land rose, the faster the water moved and the deeper the rivers carved downward. Among the popular and most widely accepted theories is that as the land rose around it, the westward-bound Colorado River and its tributaries carved faster and deeper, creating the mighty and majestic Grand Canyon.
However, some say there’s another possibility. During those early years the ancestral Colorado flowed south and east into the flatlands of Arizona. Smaller rivers on the Kaibab Plateau were, however, carving out the beginnings of the Grand Canyon. This theory indicates there was quite a large canyon before those rivers broke through on the eastern edge of the plateau and the Colorado River joined them.
...Which theory is right? Don't ask me; I used to teach 4th graders.
Considering the Grand Canyon is 277 miles long, averages 10 miles across and is one mile deep, the few million years of erosion that created it was extremely fast—as measured in geologic time. That's because sandstone erodes more quickly than other kinds of rock. A combination of different minerals—including the rusting of iron in the rock—gives the Grand Canyon walls their stunningly gorgeous colors, made all the more beautiful during the warm light of evening.
Current Native American peoples found in northern Arizona include the Navajo, Hopi, Havasupai, Hualapai and Paiute. Here's a bit of interesting trivia: where will you find a nation within a nation within a nation? Answer: the Hopi Nation is completely surrounded by the Navajo Nation, which is completely surrounded by the United States of America.
The first Native Americans came from Asia—crossing a land bridge over what is now the Bering Strait—approximately 12,000 years ago. Over a period of several thousand years they spread throughout the Americas. In Arizona, the skeleton of a giant mammoth was found with rock spearheads nearby; and archeologists have established that the animal was killed 11,000 years ago. Along the road to Desert View, stop at Tusayan Ruins and Museum for some good information and insights regarding early societies that lived in the Grand Canyon area.
Into The Void
Most one-day round trip hikers take the Bright Angel Trail down to the edge of the Tonto Platform, where they can look straight down at the Colorado River. You might even see rafters and hear them screaming. How do I know they scream? Well, as a non-swimmer I rafted through the entire canyon...300 miles. We took basic 18-foot rafts, with no motors attached—just oars. Was it fun? I couldn't wipe the smile off my face for a week after I got home. Was it scary? My knuckles stayed white for two weeks after I got home.
Leaving the shade and fresh water springs at Indian Garden, there is only one way to go—up. You return on Bright Angel Trail, clomping the several miles of trail and 4000 vertical feet back up to the South Rim. So, what can hikers do if they get to the bottom of the canyon and decide they don't have enough energy to hike out? Mostly they rest in the shade until late afternoon, and then they hike out. It's much cooler at night. Oh, there is another way for the tired and down-trodden. It's called "drag-out." Somehow you make contact with the mule wranglers at the South Rim and ask them to send you a mule. Of course, you'll have to pay for the mule down and back. But that mule isn't going to leave the comfortable corral and walk down all by itself. A cowboy has to take it. And the cowboy isn't going to walk. So, you end up paying for two mules down and back and one wrangler down and back. So when hiking down into the canyon, consider that it is better—and a whole lot cheaper—to know when it's time to turn back, and then turn back.
There is only one objectionable part of the Bright Angel Trail. It's used by hikers and mules. Mules have been safely carrying freight and people for about 100 years, and the animals have several designated spots along the trail where they stop to pee. My advice to hikers is that unless there have been recent and heavy rains in the canyon, you should probably avoid stepping into any puddles, especially if you're wearing sneakers. Another important trail tip: Take high-energy snacks and plenty of water—and drink it! The Grand Canyon is a desert, and even in cold weather, you dehydrate a lot faster than you realize.
Every time I hike down to the river and back, I awake the next morning with really sore calf muscles. The morning after one such hike, I fixed a cup of coffee and hobbled to the rim for sunrise. Approaching the edge, I was joined by a man slightly older than I. He also staggered around in obvious pain. We laughed at our comical ways of walking, and I asked if he had hiked down to the bottom and back. Shaking his head, he replied that he had spent the whole day on the back of a mule. We agreed it was just a matter of where we hurt, but that no matter what, it was well worth the experience.
When You Go
North Rim is closed during winters. The South Rim is open all year, and offers lodging, restaurants, stores and campgrounds. Advanced reservations are required for mule trips into the canyon, or a stay on the bottom at Phantom Ranch, or to camp in the canyon. No reservations are needed for day hiking, but get in shape before you attempt it.
Most visitors of the Grand Canyon go to the South Rim, so there are many facilities, including Mather Campground and Trailer Village RV Park. Both take reservations. Twenty-five miles east of Grand Canyon Village is Desert View Campground, which operates on a first come, first served basis. There are some camping parks located just outside the South Rim park entrance at Tusayan.
During most of the year, the South Rim has restrictions placed on auto traffic. Westward from the Village to Hermit's Rest, the road is closed to private vehicles. There is, however, a free shuttle bus that stops at all the view points—and there's a Rim Trail. Hop off the bus, do your sightseeing, and hop on the next one. Which are the best view points: Maricopa, Hopi, Mojave, Pima or Hermit's Rest? That's easy....all of them. So stop and enjoy them all. While at each of the views you might want to decide which you want to return to for sunrise and sunset, because that's when colors are richer and the Grand Canyon is at its very best.
Shuttles also circulate through the entire village, stopping at every place you're likely to want to go. Why do they have shuttle buses? The South Rim has almost 5,000,000 visitors per year. With only one road along the rim, parking can become impossible, especially on the western section from the Village to Hermit's Rest. The much longer drive east from the Village to Desert View is less crowded and private cars are still permitted.
Acknowledged as perhaps the most impressive natural wonder in the world, a trip to Grand Canyon National Park should be experienced by all. No matter how many photographs you've seen, or TV programs you've watched, there is nothing that compares to standing on the rim and gazing into the Grand Canyon. At any time of the day or year, the national park is worth whatever time and effort it takes to get there. And please spend more than just a day. You simply must experience the changing light, shadows and textures. If Mother Nature is a painter, then the Grand Canyon is her best work of performance art.