At home in the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon feels like home and it has since the first time I visited. I had a View Master when I was a kid and not very many many reels. Among them were a couple on the Grand Canyon. I looked at them a lot and so everything here seemed familiar from the start. This is my second visit to the North Rim. The North Rim is 8000 feet, about 1000 feet higher than the South Rim. It is cooler on this this side gets more rain, so there are more forests. I will write a note about that later.

Pictures, however, cannot do it justice. It is just one of the most strikingly beautiful places on earth and very interesting in multiple dimensions. Start with the actual multiple dimension of the rocks.

The Colorado River eroded through rocks that show millions of years of earth history. You can see it in the bands of different rock. The Colorado Plateau was once under the ocean. You can see that in limestone. It was a desert. You can see sandstone. It was a swamp, a forest and most other things and the evidence is in the rocks.

A couple of interesting facts. Most of the earth’s surface is made up of igneous rock, but much of the land surface is covered by sedimentary rock, so we think it is more common. The most common type of sedimentary rock is shale, which is essentially compressed & transformed mud, but the one we see the most is sandstone, since it stands out in cliffs and buttes. Sandstone, as the name implies, is compressed & transformed sand, but there is often shale underneath or holding it together. Limestone makes up around 10% of sedimentary rocks. It is made from the skeletons and shells of sea creatures and coral. That is why there are often fossils. And one more little fact. You do not find dinosaur fossils at Grand Canyon. I mentioned the layers. Evidently the Mesozoic layer was soft and washed away. There are lots of dinosaur fossils at the Vermillion Cliffs, which you can see from the Grand Canyon when the air is clear.

Above are a few pictures. The top you see that most of the good picture places are taken by others. There were strong thunderstorms at the Canyon. On the way up it rained so hard we had to drive very slowly and considered stopping as sheets of water rolled down the roads. From the Canyon rim, you could see the storms and lightning at various points. Everybody was trying to get a picture when the lightning struck.

A drive along the Grand Canyon

Cape Royale protrudes into the Canyon. Although it is still fairly high altitude, it is warmer and drier than the surrounding plateau. Here the ponderosa forest gives way to something more like the upper Sonora ecosystem. It features the pinyon pines, juniper and more desert-like brush.
One of the nicest things was the cliffrose, shown below. They are not attractive to look at, but they have a wonderful scent. Mixed with the juniper and the pinyon pine, it is just wonderful to walk. You could enjoy it with your eyes closed, which might, however, be a bad idea in this particular place. Notice the very interesting, but very steep natural bridge nearby. The other picture is Chrissy in “her” car. She loved that thing.

Feeble Imitations

The pictures I took of the canyon do not do it justice.  It is hard to get my camera to adjust properly to the combination of bright light and dark shadows.   Even when the light works, the colors don’t show exactly right and it is impossible to convey the depth.  But this is the best I can do.  You will have to come here yourself.

The light seems to spill into the canyon when the sun is just over the rim.  There is still a little haze in the air.  I think it is left over from prescribed burns to manage the neighborhood forests, as described in earlier posts.

Grand Canyon panorama AM

Above & below are canyon panoramas.  The bottom one was taken just at dusk, so there are not the shadows.   When you see the canyon in person, the shadows make it much more beautiful as you eyes can move and adjust.  But the pictures come out better w/o the sunlight.  I bet the nicest photos could be made when high clouds blocked some of the direct light. 

View Master

The best pictures of the Grand Canyon were the old View Masters I had as a kid.  The canyon seems very familiar to me today because of the many visits I made via View Master.  The simple technology worked great and the fact that we didn’t have very many options gave me the exposure I still remember more than forty years later.  

The Real Thing Requires a Little Pain

Everything goes in and out of the Canyon on mules or people.  They don’t bring machines, which makes the trails and facilities more primitive and much nicer. 

I hope it never changes. IMO, views and experiences are better when you have to earn them.  Some day I will be too old to make the journey and then I will have only memories and pictures. So sad, but so right.

I don’t want it to be made easily accessible for me or anybody else. Not only would that impact nature adversely, the experience of the Canyon would be different and much shallower if you could just drive down in air conditioned comfort or take an elevator.

It is that way with most things.  A rest you earn with good hard work is different and better than when you just get to lay around.  Achievement easily given is not achievement you value. 

Most people stay on top and marvel at the beauty in a more detached way.  Good. Keep it that way. The more spiritual experience requires a little more skin in the game. The sweat and exertion are part of it.  An erzatz version would be worse than nothing, or at best a feeble imitation.  We already have too much of that in today’s world. 

Four Legs Good; Two Legs Bad

Chrissy and I went down as far as Indian Gardens.  This is an oasis on the Bright Angel trail and it is the logical terminus of a day hike for a person in average condition.  It took us around three hours to get down but only around two and a half hours to get back up.  It doesn’t make intuitive sense.  I think it is because of all the rocks.  I walk gingerly among them going downhill.  We also had to get to the side of the path to let hikers pass who were coming up or mule trains coming down. There was less oncoming traffic on the return trip and no mule trains came past. 

Of course I am not counting the leisurely lunch-break we spent at Indian Gardens.  The cottonwoods and willow make very pleasant surroundings.  Both are fast-growing adaptive trees but are often unloved because of their weak wood, short lives and susceptibility to wind damage.   Of course, it depends on where they are.  As long as they are not near houses or roads, they do just fine.  Except that they grow in generations, i.e. a lot of them come up the same time and whole clumps grow, live and die together.  This is not a problem except during generational change, when the whole clump of cottonwoods begins to die back about the same time.


The morning later I my complaining muscles reminded me that I am no longer in the top condition I used to imagine.   The pattern of pain was interesting, more characteristic of overdoing cross country skiing than overdoing ordinary hiking.  I suppose it is because of the poles. 

My legs hurt a lot less than I would have guessed, but my arms, chest and lats are screaming. 

I used to cross country ski a lot when we lived in Norway.  I am sure I used the poles the way the Norwegians taught me, which is to push off in back of your body instead of leaning forward on the sticks. I recognize the feelings.   The good news is the pain confirms that the poles worked.  I pulled myself out of the canyon w/o overstraining my legs or knees.  

As they say (for different reasons) in “Animal Farm”, “Four legs good; too legs bad.”


The link to my earlier trip down the canyon is at this link.  That time we did it in 117 degree heat and went all the way to the river and back.  That was stupid.  The bottoms of my shoes melted off on the hot rocks. Really. 

This time we had perfect weather. Cool at the top and only warm near Indian Gardens. AND we didn’t go all the way down.

Grand Canyon

I woke up this morning with no way to hold my body that didn’t hurt. Hiking from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River at the bottom and back in one day is not easy. The National Park Service warns you. Their brochures and webpages threaten dire consequences for those foolish enough to make the attempt. Men between the ages of 18 and 40 are the target audience for the campaign. Members of this benighted crowd, evidently high on testosterone and overconfident of their strength, try to do too much. The ads say that most of the people the rangers rescue are young men, and they curse the day and hold their manhood cheap whenever anyone speaks of it. Since I passed the upper limit of the group more than eight years ago, I wasn’t worried, but I have to admit it was a tough trip.

The biggest challenge is the heat. It was 117 degrees on the canyon floor. The sun fixes its blank and pitiless gaze on the canyon from about 5:30 am until 7:00 pm and heats up the rocks so that they radiate heat like a rotisserie grill. During most of the day there is almost no shade anywhere. You literally cannot drink enough water to prevent dehydration if you move around in the sun between about 10 and 3:00, since your body can absorb only a liter of water an hour and you can easily sweat out two liters. If I ever do this again, it will not be in the middle of summer. The payoff is truly breathtaking scenery. The pictures I included do not do it justice. No pictures I have ever seen can capture the true majesty, but I do suggest you consult a site that features taken by professionals with more skill and better equipment.

I went down with my brother in law Alex Sandoval and one of his neighbors named Bob. Bob is an eagle scout who had experience walking up and down the canyon. Although he was only about sixteen years old, the kid was our guide. Both Alex and Bob are young, in excellent condition and are indigenous to this hot, dry climate. I was outclassed. As the kid ranged effortlessly ahead, I kept on thinking, for reasons I can’t explain, of Yoda and said to myself, “Wonder whether you this good will look when you my age are.” It didn’t make me feel any better when he complimented me on being so old and still able to walk relatively well – not in exactly those words of course, but it is like complimenting an old lady by telling her that she must have been very good looking when she was younger.

We started down the South Kaibab trail at 5:30 when the temperature was still pleasant. It only took us about 3 ½ hours to get to the bottom. The kid set a grueling pace. We passed many people along the trail. Some carried what looked like ski poles. It was a good idea, takes some pressure off the knees and generally improves balance. I have included pictures from the trip down. There were many breathtaking views, but my pictures insufficient to express them. At the bottom there is not much to do except lay in the cool streams. This pleasure is not to be underestimated, but you can only do it so long, especially because the sun is high and hot. We finally hunkered down in a shelter probably build by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The CCC boys did a good job. We stayed there, protected from the worst of the sun until about 3:00. Then we started up the hill on the Bright Angel trail.

Bright Angel is very beautiful but I would have enjoyed it more if it had not been so hot. If it is 117 in the shade, the ranger told us that is probably 130 in the sun. The hot rocks actually destroyed my shoes. They were old and I would have thought it was just their age, but Alex’s shoes also came apart and the ranger told us that part of her shoe gave out. Anyway, the bottom came off my right shoe. I had to put a sock over it to keep shoe and sole together. This expedient worked until almost the end of the hike. It is a very tough hike. The Grand Canyon is like a reverse mountain – first you go down and only then – when you are tired out – you do up. Bright Angel follows a little stream much of the time. We dunked ourselves on several occasions to stay cool. About halfway up the hill, you come to “Indian Garden,” an oasis of cottonwood trees. It is very pleasant and there is drinkable water. We got there about 5:00 and for the first time the walls of the canyon shaded out the sun in many places. I would have liked to stay in this little paradise, but it was still 4 ½ miles to the top with an elevation gain of more than 3000 feet. The last three miles were the hardest. Up and up, more up and up again. My enthusiasm was waning, but I kept on putting one foot in front of the other. It was a perdition highway with about fifty lost souls slogging up the hill at the end of their day. Of course, I felt more virtuous than most, since we had hiked all the way down and back. Most day-trippers hike down to Indian Gardens and back only. Logs designed to limit erosion on the trail are placed just a little too far apart to allow you to step from one to another. Between are potholes, so you are always stepping up and down and unable to get a decent rhythm. My shoe fell apart just before I got to the rim. The flapping of my shoe attracted attention and made it harder to walk. Finally, I just cut the bottom clean off and walked on the foam.

Well, it is a tough job but somebody has to do it. I would not have made it if it had not been for Alex. He made sure we brought enough water and salty snacks, and he understood that we had to rest as well as walk. Yesterday at about 7:00 I would have paid a thousand dollars for someone to drive me to the top and I promised myself I would never get into a situation like that again. Now sitting in air-conditioned comfort, I now look forward to my next hike.