Grand Canyon National Park protects 1.2 million acres in northwestern Arizona. The highlight of the park is, of course, the Grand Canyon, a massive gorge that is 277 river miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and 1 mile deep.
Unfortunately the day before we arrived, the National Park Service started a prescribed burn in the forest on the North Rim. As a result, the canyon was full of smoke during our visit, and the views were considerably muted. Prescribed burns are an important way to clear the forest floor of downed trees and other fuels that can cause uncontrollable and damaging wildfires, but their timing was lousy for our visit.
We knew going in that this was the final major park of our journey. We thoroughly enjoyed our grand finale in the Grand Canyon.
My wonderful wife Theresa bought us a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon for my 48th birthday. We chose to fly on Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters because they had good prices and the best reputation online.
The National Park Service has restricted flights over the Grand Canyon to just a few narrow corridors across the canyon. This is a good thing, because it means we can hike into the canyon in peace and quiet without hearing the constant buzz of helicopters overhead.
We took off from the Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim and flew parallel to the canyon just a few hundred feet over the Kaibab National Forest. When we reached the crossing corridor, we turned north and flew toward the canyon. The biggest rush of the flight was when we passed over the South Rim, and the canyon floor dropped beneath us a mile down to the Colorado River.
About 40 million years ago, the Colorado Plateau was uplifted a few thousand feet. The uplift is uneven, as the North Rim is about a thousand feet higher than the South Rim. The Colorado River subsequently cut through the Colorado Plateau, creating the Grand Canyon. One important thing to note is that the Colorado River has always been about the same width, about 200 feet across at its narrowest and 500 feet across at its widest. Therefore, the river gave the Grand Canyon its depth, but rain and wind gave the Grand Canyon its breadth.
For many years, the geologic consensus was that the Grand Canyon was 6 million years old. Then a controversial 2008 study used uranium-lead dating on calcite deposits in caves throughout the canyon to estimate its age at 17 million years. The study is controversial because it nearly triples the age of the canyon from prior scientific consensus. The controversy continues with a December 2012 study that suggests the Grand Canyon may be up to 70 million years old.
Regardless of its age, the Grand Canyon represents “one of the most complete geologic columns on the planet.” The rock in the Grand Canyon ranges from 2 billion years old at the bottom of the Inner Gorge to 230-million-year-old Kaibab Limestone on the Rim.
The 1450-mile Colorado River is the principal river of the southeast US and northwest Mexico, draining 7 US states and 2 Mexican states. In its natural state before damming, the amount of water drained by the Colorado River varied widely based on season, ranging from 400 cubic feet per second during the Dust Bowl days in 1935, up to 384,000 cubic feet per second during a massive flood in 1884. Flows at the mouth in the Gulf of California have declined steadily since damming began, and since 1960 the Colorado River usually runs dry before reaching the sea.
Can you see the rafts floating down the river in this photo? (Click on the photo to see a larger image.) When the Colorado River Compact was drafted in the 1920s, the plan was based on the prior three decades of riverflow records. But it turns out those were especially wet decades, and the historical average flow of the river is about 30% less. The most severe drought on record began in the early 21st century and has exasperated the situation. As a result, reservoirs in the Colorado River basin have dropped to historic lows.
On most days we hope to hike to a spot on the edge of a high cliff with a terrific vista of a canyon, mountain or waterfall. We sit and eat our lunch, then hike back to the trailhead. Here I am sitting on Skeleton Point on the South Kaibab Trail enjoying lunch. Normally we hike uphill on the way in, then have a relatively easy hike back downhill.
But when hiking into the Grand Canyon, all trails are what we call “Pay Me Later” hikes, for which the true challenge comes on the way back up when we are most tired. It typically takes 2-3 times longer for people to hike up the canyon than down. Combined with extreme heat and dry conditions, the Grand Canyon can become a death trap to hikers. Park officials rescue over 250 hikers each year in the Grand Canyon, and a majority of them are young, strong men who overestimated their abilities and underestimated the harsh conditions of the canyon and the difficulty of the hike out.
When architect Mary Colter was hired in 1930 to build a gift shop and rest area at Desert View on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, her goal was to “build a structure that provides the widest possible view of the Grand Canyon yet harmonizes with its setting.” Colter was a perfectionist who scrutinized every detail down to each individual stone, whose weathered faces were left untouched to give the tower an ancient look.
There are two pedestrian suspension bridges over the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, allowing hikers to cross river and hike from rim-to-rim. This is the Bright Angel Suspension Bridge, a 420-foot span that is suspended 60 feet above the river in normal flow but only 10 feet above the river at its highest flood rate. It was built in 1921 using packs of mules to haul supplies down to the river. On our hike down the Kaibab Trail, we encountered a young man who was finishing his rim-to-rim-to-rim hike. He started at 4:30 a.m. and was just finishing at sunset the 45-mile hike/run and 10,000-foot climb. One has to be in incredible physical and mental shape to endure this ultra-marathon.
On my birthday, we rode a helicopter above the canyon, then we took our dogs for a long walk along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. It’s the only trail on which dogs are allowed in this national park. The views into the canyon were grand the entire way, but as usual, the dogs seemed more interested in the squirrels on the rim.
The Grand Canyon is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. It’s not the deepest nor the widest nor the longest canyon in the world, but the overwhelming size and “intricate and colorful landscape” arguably makes this the grandest of all canyons, the aptly-named Grand Canyon.
Here I am on our final hike in our final park, saying goodbye to our journey of a lifetime.