“This landscape is animate: it moves, transposes, builds, proceeds, shifts, always going on, never coming back, and one can only retain it in vignettes, impressions caught in a flash, flipped through in succession, leaving a richness of images imprinted on a sunburned retina.” From Downcanyon: A Naturalist Explores the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon by Ann Zwinger
I’ve always liked Jules Verne’s writings, and from my first reading, I was captivated by his novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. The fantastic adventure commences in Iceland, or rather under Iceland, for the most part. The movie versions never could compete with the fantastic images that Verne’s words produced in my mind’s eye. And as a child, I became curious about this place called Iceland, and was captivated by the photos of the landscape I found in the library and National Geographic. And amongst the photos that most evoked the sentiments in me that Verne’s book had, were the ones not of volcanos, but of the canyons. It was at that point that I made an emotional connection between canyons and the Journey, and I can’t separate the two very easily to this day. I have not explored Iceland yet, nor attempted my own visit to the center of the earth, but I have found some caverns and more than a few canyons. And in truth, I have not fully abandoned the whimsical dream that the Lidenbrock’s Path that Verne wrote about might exist somewhere at the bottom of a canyon, probably a grand one, at that.
When one refers to the Grand Canyon, it is usually the magnificent 277 mile long gorge cut by the Colorado River through Northern Arizona. Usually, but not exclusively as it turns out. There are canyons and gorges in many states that are referred to as “Grand” in some fashion. Kind of like the way iconic people are referred to as the “Babe Ruth of” whatever it is they do. There is Letchworth State Park’s “Grand Canyon of the East” in New York, not to be confused with Maine’s Gulf Hagas or West Virginia’s New River Gorge, both also dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the East”. Alabama’s Walls of Jericho is called the “Grand Canyon of the South”, as is the gorge in Breaks Interstate Park in the Virginia portion. The “Grand Canyon of the North” is an open pit mine in Hibbing. MN, and the Waimea Canyon in Hawaii is known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”.
Wyoming has the “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone”, while the “Grand Canyon of North Carolina” is Linville Gorge, and “Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon” is Pine Creek Gorge. Features called “Grand Canyon Of ” are found in Michigan, Tennessee, Idaho, Oregon and Texas as well. Interestingly, “Little Grand Canyons” also are found in Vermont, Mississippi, Illinois, Utah, Nebraska, Missouri, Georgia, California and Washington. That’s Washington State, not DC, although I’ve scrambled along some pretty steep banks fishing along Rock Creek in the District, our first National Park incidentally. I am sure I’ve missed a few “Grands”, but you get the picture. The park services, chambers of commerce or tourist bureaus are not trying to deceive you, they are merely paying homage to the ultimate one in Arizona. And for the record, Arizona is not immune to a little hype either, their state moniker being “The Grand Canyon State”.
I guess everyone who has been to the Grand Canyon has a memory of their initial reaction to standing on the rim and beholding what was now in front of them. Most people don’t say behold to describe what they see, but it is the only word that fits, and it is not really enough. We all have seen the pictures and film, or read accounts dating from the Spanish explorers to John Wesley Powell to the aforementioned National Geographic. But as cliche as it sounds, all that doesn’t do it justice. First fully explored by Powell after the Civil War, it was dedicated a National Monument by Theodore Roosevelt roughly forty years later. Roosevelt’s words on the plaque with his likeness at Roosevelt Point on the rim pretty much sums it up. “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, and for all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American … should see.” It is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and the superlatives and awe are all warranted.
My first visit to the Grand Canyon was in winter, when we took a break from trout fishing along Oak Creek near Sedona, Arizona. Driving north through Flagstaff, we approached the Grand Canyon traveling along a sagebrush plateau dotted with pinyon pine and juniper, and revealing an occasional pronghorn. My first view of the canyon was then of course from the South Rim. The exact spot was at the Bright Angel trailhead. Because of icy conditions there, we did more viewing than hiking. My clamp on ice creepers or a pair of YakTrax would have changed that, but they were 2,600 miles away in my ice fishing bucket. But the viewing was ample and the landscape was like none I’d ever seen. As I stated, I love canyons, so I’ve seen a few, but nothing remotely like this. Not only in terms of scale, but of vantage point as well. And perhaps the single most compelling thing to me from there and several other vistas, was the narrow green ribbon snaking along the bottom of the the gorge as far as you could see.
Although I knew what is was, I could not reconcile easily the appearance with the physical reality of the flow at first. It was of course the Colorado River, but I’d never seen any water so far below me except while on a plane. The virtual trivialization of this mighty river was stunning. The sight of the Colorado looking more like a varicose vein than a river is one of my most vivid memories of the canyon, right up there with the overall surreal scale of the landscape. We often use the phrase “as far as the eye can see”, and probably use it accurately enough in most cases. But here on the South Rim, glassing the otherworldly aspect that the Canyon evokes, it took on a new dimension. And in that moment when my breath was literally taken away by both the scope and beauty of my surroundings, I was re-filled to bursting with a particular thought, quickly becoming knowledge.I knew beyond a certainty that there were more places lying before me than I could ever explore in a lifetime. And right there, under my moon-eyed gaze, were places no one else had been. Boulders where no one else had warmed themselves in the sun, box canyons as narrow as city alleys that no one had followed to the end, rock faces no one had scaled, tiny gravel beaches no one had stretched their legs on, pools that had never seen a lure, and seepages that had never filled a canteen. It both thrilled and amazed me, and scarcely a day passes that I do not re-visit that feeling, a lasting gift of the Canyon.
But, there were other aspects of our initial exploration of the Grand Canyon that allowed a more measured observation of the landscape. A deserted trailhead access for the Hermit Trail provided a rare solitude that day along the rim. On the way there, we passed many coyotes and mule deer, the larger mammals most frequently encountered in the Grand Canyon National Park. Hiking down into the Canyon pleasantly afforded us a more micro view of the environment, micro of course, only in comparison to the rim views. The Hermit Trail is rough and steep along much of it’s 4600 elevation drop to the river. But the upper third that we trekked along was not unreasonable, and unlike the upper portions of Bright Angel Trail, the Hermit Trail was ice free that February afternoon. Hiking through the rocks, sagebrush and a few Englewood spruce, gave us a chance to bask in the below rim experience. Two golden eagles, several ravens and a peregrine falcon soared overhead on the thermals as we made our way down the trail. At a switchback we chose as the terminus of our hike, we sat and watched the lenticular clouds forming over the rapidly shadowy Canyon.
As the temperature perceptibly began to drop a well, we headed back up the narrow but relatively stable trail, I felt secure in the fact that our packs were weighted not only with an extra fleece and water bottles, but headlamps and flashlights as well. All but the water bottles never left the packs, as despite the fatigue of a long day, our pace was quicker ascending than it had been descending. That was so, partially because there was less to see in the fading light. Reaching the trailhead parking lot just before dusk, the Canyon had one final surprise for us. As we drove around a sharp bend, a small herd of elk crossed the road in front of us. The size of these animals is awe inspiring, especially to one whose home woodlands have only the whitetail deer as ungulate representatives. An enormous bull elk stood in the middle of the road staring at us until the cows and calves had moved well into the trees, before trotting away and disappearing like a ghost into the dusk and brush, but never from our memory.
Photos by the author and Sherry Yates