“Would you consider yourself an experienced desert hiker?” asked my college-aged son while consulting a Grand Canyon trail guide. “Well since this is the first desert I’ve ever seen, I don’t think so,” replied his middle school brother. “We’ll call that a ‘Yes’,” quipped college son.
There are numerous trails of varying difficulty in Grand Canyon National Park. Easiest is the Rim Trail. As the name suggests, the trail takes you several miles around the walkable parts of the South Rim. There are many vantage points along the way and many photo ops, but the viewpoint is basically static. Let me rephrase that. It’s eye-poppingly beautiful, but only from one general point of view. You’re always looking down into the hole. In order to gain a different perspective you have to hike below the rim. We settled on the most popular of the trails leading down from the rim, Bright Angel Trail.
As an aside, a friend once told me that wherever he visited he liked to step into the indigenous body of water with bare feet. This is something that I had also enjoyed and did not realize it might be a widespread practice. In a perfect world we would walk the length of Bright Angel Trail (8 miles) to the Colorado River and stick our feet in. It is reputed to be shockingly cold. But at a 10% grade and in the 90-plus degree heat and with young children, the guideline for day-hikers on Bright Angel Trail is to stop at the 1.5 mile water source and turn around. This guideline was reinforced by the friendly park ranger we encountered. We heeded the advice. It is much easier to walk downhill than up.
Our walk on Bright Angel Trail was fascinating, and not just for reasons you would expect. Yes, the Grand Canyon is beautiful. This is not the most original observation. But walking on a downhill trail enables you to look up at the rim. At 1.5 miles you are looking hundreds of feet up at the rim which is impressive, but you are still looking thousands of feet down into the canyon which is mind-boggling. The rock faces tower above you. You can touch some of them. They are in some places sheer, impassive walls. In other places they have characteristics of modern architecture, in still others human faces. Some of the rock formations towering above you seem precariously balanced and insufficiently supported.
The scenery depicted in the old Roadrunner cartoons is pretty close to the truth.
Some sections are arid, others teeming with life. We were amused to spy a bighorn sheep observing us from behind vegetation thirty feet above the trail. A short distance away we observed a deer and a mountain goat snacking on different parts of the same bush. Also interesting was the diversity of the hikers we encountered. There were young and old, couples and families and hiking groups. I asked my son if he had noticed the attractive young European women and he assured me he had. My daughter pointed out that they were accompanied by young European men, whom she had noticed. Among French, German, Spanish, Asian dialects and others, we became aware that as English-speakers we were in the minority. Clearly this is not only a national landmark but an international one.
The trail itself is hot and dusty. It is hot from the sun’s energy radiating from the rock surface without a lot of help from any appreciable air movement. It is dusty from being an arid trail. The dust changes color as you change elevation. Now it is tan, now it is red, now it is gray, symbolizing different layers in the geological scheme of things. This would be interesting to consider if you weren’t huffing and puffing from walking up a 10% grade.
Why are you doing this again?
Not to get all Edward Abbey on you, but this is the way to explore nature. Use all of your senses and get as close and personal to this moment as you can. This doesn’t have to be all hardship. This is the trip of a lifetime, a moment that is not experienced by a lot of people. It could be argued that the beauty of this moment waited millions of years for you to blunder down here and be overwhelmed by it. Take a break, linger a minute, have a sip of water. You’ll remember this moment in a couple of weeks when you’re washing this dust out of your daughter’s tennis shoes.
Your feet? The Colorado River? The quest lives on.