Monday, December 31, 2018

Visiting the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon, North Rim
There are great pressures on scenic areas. The internet provides "best" lists, resulting in vast crowds coming to "must see" places. And yet I recommend seeing the Grand Canyon, one of those "must sees." It is a wonder of the world.

I have been to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon twice but never to the South Rim. You don't just cross over the Grand Canyon from north to south: it is a mile-deep gash in the earth, 277 miles long with no bridges. It is a long way from the overlooks on the North Rim to the overlooks on the South Rim. Yes you can hike, but a mile down, about 10 miles across and a mile up is a rigorous hike. And presumably you'd have to go back to get to your car.

The South Rim is more accessible, meaning it is closer to big highways and cities and has many more hotels and restaurants. To reach the North Rim you take rather long roads across national forest lands. And the few cabins at the North Rim are often full, so without a reservation you may be driving back that evening.

Of course the drive to the North Rim is a reward in itself.

At the turnoff:
road to Grand Canyon North Rim

Beautiful pine and fir forests and peaceful lakes

Fir Forest, Kaibab Plateau

Where it has been disturbed, aspen forest

Aspen forest on the approach to Grand Canyon North Rim

The first time I went was by myself in 1979. I was surveying the distribution of plants with extrafloral nectaries (glands producing sugar-water on buds, leaves, etc. link) in as many western North American plant communities as I could find. The road to the North Rim cut through several communities I wanted to survey.

Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon at the end of the trail was a bonus.
(Yeah, botanists get to work in some spectacular places).

Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon, from the North Rim
I was very impressed but thought then, and still think, that it is impossible to grasp the size of the canyon from the top.
within the Grand Canyon
Within the Grand Canyon
To go down in you have to have time and the right gear. Hiking into the Grand Canyon and back up again is arduous and there is no water in a very dry environment.

Horses, Grand Canyon
Riding tour on a break.
When I went in 2016, we took a mule ride part way down. The organizers took care of the preparations so we got a look inside with very little effort. Increasingly though, horse and mule rides into the canyon are being restricted because ever-greater numbers of visitors mean more congested trails and more hikers objecting the erosion and the manure on the trails.

within the Grand Canyon
within the Grand Canyon 
Even if you only stand on the rim, it is impressive. The Colorado River carved it, breaking up and removing millions of tons of rock.

Grand Canyon
View from the North Rim
Then the tree seeds blew in and grew on ledges and eroding slopes, perched precariously above the vast depths.

Canyons are rare, so when explorers and then settlers discovered the Grand Canyon, they were very impressed. It is not the world's largest, that is Tibet's Yarlung Tsangpo, and Africa has #2, Fish River Canyon, Namibia.

But the Grand Canyon of the Colorado is a spectacular sight. The rocks lie in brightly colored layers, the bottom is so far down as to be hard to see clearly, the canyon weaves out of sight without visible ending, condors soar below you, the air is fragrant with the smell of the old twisted pines and junipers, and wildflowers bloom in the grass.
Grand Canyon
The trees frame the vista
Look, under the log, a larkspur (Delphinum sp.)
As I write this, the U.S. government is in a partial shutdown, which has closed many National Parks. The concept of "closing" a natural wonder is a bit odd, but of course what we mean is that the visitor centers and restrooms are closed, trash pickup stopped and the staff was sent home so there is no one to ask or help out if you need aid. Thinking about those things makes me appreciate all the people that make seeing a wonder of the world easy and comfortable.

Grand Canyon, North Rim

In the particular case of the Grand Canyon, the state of Arizona has stepped in to keep Grand Canyon National Park open to visitors. This park is not closed.

Do plan for the conditions: cold in winter, hot in summer, moderately high elevation (above 6000'). Usually very dry.

This is a wonder of the world. See it when you can.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Related information:
Grand Canyon National Park home page link
One of the best places to see a California condor is the Grand Canyon link
On the age of the Grand Canyon link
Great canyons of the world link

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

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