The Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon from the rim


Like many of the parks I’ve been to on this trip, I had visited the Grand Canyon as a kid, and I remember I wasn’t particularly impressed.

On this visit I changed my mind: the Grand Canyon really is spectacular. I’d consider it one of the three AAA parks in the country, in terms of size and visitors (the other two being Yosemite and Yellowstone). There’s the normal multiple parking lots, shuttle service, etc. The funny thing is that there’s not a whole lot to do in the park – a few overlooks, a small museum, a few videos, and the famous lodges. The hiking along the rim is minimal, and extensive hiking below the rim is discouraged. The park is particularly popular with German tourists: I think 1/3 of the visitors were German!

Another view – crowds on the rim

The canyon is quite a shock. To start with, the area around the canyon is exceedingly dull, so you’re lulled into complacency. It’s the highlands (7,000 feet elevation) and flat, it’s relatively temperate and covered in low ponderosa forests. There’s no indication of anything like the canyon until you’re right at the very rim. The canyon is 10 miles across at parts, 6000 feet deep, 250 miles long.

Arriving at the park my first priority was to find a campsite: tough in a park this large, on the weekend. I asked in the visitor center and got a very confused volunteer who seemed to think they were full, but I decided to head to the campsite anyway, and they thankfully had plenty of spaces.

Then I took a shuttle to the rim and walked along. Like all these parks, the major overlooks were full but the rest of the trails were empty. At one point I had to edge past a grazing doe elk. These are really lawn mowers, the amount of grass it consumed, and the speed at which it consumed it, was astonishing.

Switchbacks in the canyon

The crazy thing about this (and other parks, like Crater Lake) is that the trails are right next to the rim, and for the most part there are no railings. Generally there’s 5 feet or so between the trail and the rim, so you won’t accidentally fall off or anything. But the parks basically trust you not to be stupid. And although I saw people doing stuff that turned my stomach (standing or sitting right above 200+ foot drops), the park service is right. There’s a book in the visitor center, “Death at the Grand Canyon,” and apparently only about 2 people per year fall off. Usually a guy in his early twenties “jumping from ledge to ledge for a photo op” and some elderly person who gets bewildered. I would have thought it would be much worse.

Elk near my site: bigger than a car!

The next day I was woken up early by some door slams, and also by what sounded like a really creaky restroom door. But when I left my tent and began to pack my bags and brush my teeth, I was shocked to look up and see a buck elk in the campsite adjacent to me. I never realized just how big some of these elk can be. When he ambled past on the road he dwarfed the car in a nearby campsite. The sound elk make is totally ridiculous, like a cross between a creaking door and a tuba (it’s known as a ‘bugle’). I saw some other people watching the elk and cracking up every time it bugled.

Afterwards I packed up for my big hike of the day (actually one of the big hikes of the trip). I wanted to hike from the rim, down to the Colorado river, and back. 15 miles down and up; a vertical mile of elevation gain from the Colorado river to the rim. There are plenty of signs about this hike, warning that it is dangerous. There’s even a sign saying “can you run a marathon?” about someone who ran in the Boston Marathon a few years ago and died on the hike. But reading the details, I was more impressed by her poor preparation than the difficulty of the hike.

The trail down

I packed a ton of water, (running out and suffering from dehydration is the biggest risk), bringing 1 and a half gallons. I was able to set out early, leaving at 6:55. This was the first hike where I started by going down and had to head back up at the end, and as I proceeded further and further down, I grew more and more nervous about the amount I’d have to ascend. Digging myself a proverbial hole! It looked as though it would be a rough return trip. A vertical mile is quite a bit: I was going down switchbacks for 6 miles, 2 and a half hours. It can be tough on the feet and knees.

These guys are used to move supplies and sometimes people

At the bottom I ran into a guy from Seattle and we talked and hiked for about an hour, had some snacks, took some pictures. He went to the ranch, near the river, for a beer, while I started my return trip. There are two bridges across the river, and it’s funny that they’re right next to each other. The reason is that when the park service formed the park, a private owner fought back via lawsuit and wouldn’t sell their trail into the canyon, so the park service constructed their own. Now both impressive suspension bridges are part of the park.

The plain towards the base of the canyon

At the base of the canyon it’s impossible to even see the rim. The reason: the top layers of the canyon are sandstone, which eroded quickly and broadly. When lower layers (the so-called ‘basement layer’) were hit, they were much tougher and eroded narrowly. So you only see this steep lower layer from down below. This also yields a sort of flat, grassy plain about 3/4 of the way down the canyon.

The Indian Garden, deep in the canyon

I started the hike up with some trepidation. It began flat and sandy, meandering along the river and then slowly ascending near a small tributary before hitting switchbacks. At one point you pass through what’s known as the ‘Indian Garden,’ a flat area with plenty of water that features incongruously green trees and dense growth. It’s a beautiful, calm location with the canyon walls rising far above.

There are strange spotted squirrels; those at the north and south rim are colored differently

It turned out that this was probably the best hike I’ve done, in terms of how I felt. The trip up was 9 miles (compared to 6 on the way down), and grew more strenuous as I went. For 8 of those mile I cruised smoothly, passing through a brief rainshower, but never feeling out of breath. This was the second hike where I felt so good, the first being Rainier. After 5 sedentary years I finally felt like my body was operating like it should.


I didn’t want to stop hiking and took few pictures; I didn’t even need much water. Everything was just incredibly smooth. I want to be clear, it was comparatively cool and the clouds obscured the sun for half the hike. The hike is no joke and was the most strenuous I’ve done on the trip. I wouldn’t take it lightly. But everything seemed to come together. When I looked at my watch I found I’d reached the rim in a mere 3 and a half hours – to cover 9 miles and a 5000 feet of elevation gain! My rate of ascent was the same as my rate of descent. I was incredibly proud of the hike and made myself sick with a half gallon of milk, ice cream sandwich, and box of candy as a reward.

Bright Angel Bridge across the river

The rest of the day I relaxed and read, and the following morning I headed south to Sedona.

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