Untainted Beauty Despite the Circus
Even though it’s listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, I have avoided visiting Grand Canyon National Park my entire adult life.
I knew it would be awe-inspiring. I didn’t earn the name Grand Canyon for nothing, and I’ve seen the pictures. They’re impressive. I knew it would be a great place for adventures. I recently listened to a podcast where speed climber Libby Sauter shared about a 44 mile rim to rim run (from one side of the canyon to the other) which encompassed at 10,500 feet elevation gain and loss. Her description of the experience made me want to hike (not run!) the canyon too.
I also knew that it was the mother of all tourist traps. There would be crowds, jee-jaw trinkets, and selfie sticks galore. My greatest fear was that the commercialism circus of the Grand Canyon might destroy any personal connection or reverence for this geographic wonder. I’ve experienced the power of this destructive force before (usually at National Parks), where the overwhelming humanity so envelops a geography that it ruins what should be a moment of awe. Instead of refreshed or inspired, my soul feels poorer for the visit and grieved at the desecrated beauty surrounding me.
There were elements of my visit that fulfilled this fear. I was not a happy camper while staying at the crowded Mather Campground on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Sites were crammed within several feet of each other and we had the misfortune of being neighbors with a group of former fraternity brothers who drank and told LOUD, colorful stories into the wee hours of the night, long past the 10:00 p.m. curfew.
The Market Plaza “General Store” was way too much civilization in a National Park. Call me a camping snob if you will, but it had more food, alcohol, clothing and novelty-item merchandise than many urban grocery stores I’ve visited.
And of course, it was incredibly crowded. I was shocked by the number of visitors in mid-March during three consecutive weekdays. I shudder to think what it must be like on the weekend during high season.
Despite the crowded conditions and the snobby poodle with a diamond collar who rudely cut in front of me in an overlook line, the good of the Grand Canyon still outweighed the bad.
Much like Zion National Park, Grand Canyon National Park has an extremely efficient and easy to use bus system with four different routes that service any of the visitor centers and trailheads for the major hikes. Cars are not allowed on many of the roads that parallel the canyon, so parking in the lots and riding busses is the best option.
While the campground and amenities of the park might be too tender-footed for my taste, the hiking trails are not. In fact, the park’s website warns visitors, “There are no easy trails into or out of the Grand Canyon!” I can wholeheartedly confirm this fact.
My family and I are used to hiking in the mountains of Colorado, but canyon hiking is another beast altogether. Early one morning we gathered our gear and set out for a hike on the South Kaibab Trail. This was one of the most beautiful trails I’ve ever hiked, and I learned several lessons along the way:
Hiking canyons is much different than hiking mountains. With mountain hiking, the most physical exertion will occuring the first half of the journey. With canyon hiking the opposite is true: the return portion of the hike is the hardest. Do NOT wait until you are tired to start your return portion to the trail head. If you do, your legs and lungs will viscously betray you halfway through the return hike (you will look like the moron who’s never hiked a day in his life, but still decided to conquer the Grand Canyon).
You will drink a lot of water. Wrong. You will drink an unbelievable amount. According to the park’s website, “Fluid/electrolyte loss can exceed 2 quarts per hour if you hike uphill in direct sunlight and during the hottest time of the day.” Even if it’s heavy, pack at least twice the water you’d take on a comparable mountain hike.
Unlike mountain hiking where you add layers during your excursion, temperatures rise as you descend into the canyon. For every couple hundred feet we descended, the temperature rose several degrees. Consider this as you dress for your hike, but remember, you still need to pack a poncho or jacket; especially during monsoon season (mid-July to early September). Afternoon thunderstorms can be sudden and intense.
There is no photograph, no painting, no other canyon vista, that can prepare you for the magnificence of the Grand Canyon. No matter how long I stared into its depths, I felt as if my brain could neither comprehend nor fully appreciate the grandeur of the geographic marvel. I would have been content to spend a lifetime trying, and at the end of every hike, every moment spent at an overlook, I wanted to protest, “Wait. That wasn’t long enough. I haven’t really seen it yet!”
Hence, my advice for travellers to the second most visited National Park in the United States: keep your eyes on the canyon. Not the loud frat boys in the tent next to yours. Not the snobby, diamond laden poodles. Not the girls doing yoga poses on dangerous rock overhangs for their instagram accounts.
If you keep your eyes on the canyon, the distractions and annoyances fade into oblivion and you will be able to bask in the presence of boundless beauty.
The Grand Canyon lies at the southernmost border of the 11,000 foot high Colorado Plateau that dominates the landscape of most of the Southwest. The canyon was formed as the Colorado Plateau uplifted and split the landscape. The Colorado River filled the gaps and began to carve the canyon both wider and deeper through the years. The Canyon’s mile-high walls display a largely undisturbed cross section of the Earth’s crust extending back some two billion years. Nearly 40 identified rock layers form the Grand Canyon’s walls.
The Grand Canyon show evidence of human inhabitants for at least 12,000 years. Since that time it has been continuously inhabited by Paleo-Indian, Archaic, Basketmaker, Anasazi/Ancestral Puebloan (Kayenta and Virgin branches), Cohonina, Cerbat, Pai, Southern Paiute, Zuni, Hopi, Navajo, and Euro-American peoples.
While a few ranchers and lumberjacks eked out a living in the area during the 1800s, the Grand Canyon did not become a part of the American consciousness until the early 1900s when the country as a whole experienced a tourism boom.
After visiting the park at the urging of naturalists like John Muir, President Theodore Roosevelt began proceedings to have the Grand Canyon designated a National Park in 1906. However, because of prior mining claims, his quest was mired in legal battles until 1919 when Woodrow Wilson was able to officially declare the Grand Canyon and adjacent areas the 17th National Park in the United States.