Approaching the Grand Canyon

My favorite kind of place is one I can return to time and again and slip into as easily as a comfortable old shirt. And while I enjoy the familiarity of the place, it always offers something new to discover, has moods and facets I haven’t experienced before, no matter how many times I’ve been there. For me, Grand Canyon National Park is one of those kinds of places.

I first visited the canyon with my brother Ed one August more than twenty years ago. We planned to hike all the way to the bottom, stay overnight at Phantom Ranch, then hike back up the next day. But Phantom Ranch was booked up, so Ed proposed that we hike down and back in the same day. We studied our topographic map carefully and decided that, with an early morning start and an easy pace, we could be cooling our feet in the Colorado River by late morning and make it back to the rim by sunset with time to spare.

With this in mind, we drove to the park and walked up to the railing at the edge, and I took my first look into the Grand Canyon. I believe the first words I spoke were, “You want to hike all the way down there?

I stood there gripping the railing, stunned by the sheer sweep and depth and beauty of this awesome gash in the earth. The vista before me nearly made me weak in the knees, a premonition, it now seems, of things to come.

Early the next morning, equipped with good hiking boots, plenty of water and food, and hats to protect our heads from the desert sun, we plunged down the South Kaibab Trail toward the Colorado, a vertical mile below. The only mistake we made that day was not turning back when one of Ed’s knees began to ache halfway down. By the time we reached the bottom, both knees were aching, and our easy-going pace had slowed considerably. Instead of having several hours at the bottom to relax, we started back up after only an hour, judging correctly that we would need much more time than we had planned to reach the rim before dark.

The hike up the Bright Angel Trail was agonizingly slow, with Ed limping painfully the whole way. Though he had to stop to rest his knees with increasing frequency, we managed to make it to the top at sunset.

We had at least tried to be well prepared, unlike many people we encountered along the way. Deep in the canyon in the summertime desert heat, we passed people carrying no water, others wearing poolside flip-flops, a large woman dressed in black from head to toe in what appeared to be her Sunday best (complete with dress shoes) at the bottom of 3 miles of switchbacks, panting as though she was about to pass out. As we reached our car well after dark, a man approached us and asked if we’d encountered his partner, who had gone down into the canyon for a jog around four o’clock that afternoon, wearing only his running clothes and carrying no water. Clearly all these people were not as intimidated by their first view of the canyon as I was. But they should have been.

I next visited the canyon with Sue eight years later. Our drive north from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon provided a dramatic introduction to Arizona’s diverse terrain and climate. The landscape gradually changed from a low desert studded with saguaro cacti around Phoenix to conifer forests covering the high Colorado Plateau, into which the Grand Canyon is carved. The previous night, a heavy storm had rolled across Arizona, unleashing flash floods in the desert near Phoenix and unloading a foot of snow around Flagstaff, about 80 miles south of the canyon.

By the time we approached the canyon this time it was dark. When we walked up to the rim, we encountered a vast black maw, a void in the earth, and while I couldn’t see into the abyss, I could sense its powerful presence. Even in the dark the Grand Canyon was awesome.

The following day we hiked along the rim, enjoying the changing perspectives. Dramatic as those views are, hiking into the canyon helps you get a handle on the place and gives you a better appreciation of its immensity, so on our second day we descended down the Bright Angel Trail. This time we were content to hike to the brink of the inner gorge, about two-thirds of the way to the bottom.

Our next encounter, a few years ago, was our most unusual yet: we arrived by train. The Grand Canyon Railroad runs an old steam train between Williams, near Flagstaff, and the Grand Canyon Village railway station, a short walk from the South Rim. I had never ridden on a steam train before, and after riding the train from Williams and back that day, I still hadn’t. The steam locomotive was being serviced that day, so our antique coaches were pulled by a diesel engine. Nonetheless, it was an exciting way to approach the Grand Canyon, providing us with a tantalizing glimpse of the canyon walls as we neared the train station.

Grand Canyon Railroad is run more as a tourist attraction than a mass transit option to driving and having to compete for scarce empty parking spaces. Entertainers roved through the coaches to provide amusement, and on the trip back we were subjected to a “holdup” by horse-mounted desperados. Frankly, I would have paid extra to just be able to enjoy the ride in peace and quiet, hold the holdup. Riding the rails to the Grand Canyon was thrilling enough for me.

That same trip we also approached the canyon from a different direction: north. The distance from Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim to Grand Canyon Lodge, on the very edge of the North Rim, is about 10 miles. But to drive between the two takes about five hours over 215 miles of road.

It is a detour worth taking, for the North and South Rims are strikingly different. For starters, low-growing pinyon pines and gnarled junipers dominate the forest along the South Rim. The North Rim, more than a thousand feet higher, wetter, and cooler, is blanketed by a thick forest of spruce, fir, and ponderosa pine interspersed with lovely meadows. It is also far less developed, calmer, and quieter than the South Rim, but because of heavy winter snowfalls, it is only open from mid-May to late October.

We spent a couple of days walking through the forests and out to the various viewpoints along the rim and stalking the elusive tufted-eared, white-tailed Kaibab squirrel, which lives only here. One afternoon we sat back and relaxed in rocking chairs on the terrace of Grand Canyon Lodge, listening to an interpretive talk given by a park ranger and watching the flicker of lightning over the South Rim. That evening, while we ate dinner in the lodge dining room, we saw a storm swept through the canyon trailing a rainbow behind it, a fitting finale to another memorable trip.

After we returned home, a neighbor of ours told me he had seen so many pictures of the Grand Canyon that he had no urge to actually go there. I thought this was a pity. For regardless of how many spectacular pictures you see of it, nothing compares to that first look over the rim of the canyon, no matter how many times you visit.

David Romanowski, 1998

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