Grand Canyon - a photoessay
"You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths."
- John Wesley Powell
The Grand Canyon. Quintessential iconic landscape of the West. Dry desert land carved mile-deep by the forceful hand of the Colorado River. On bucket lists around the world, millions peer downward from its rim each year, but the story told through its pages of stone unfolds only in its depths.
The titles in this collection are borrowed from descriptions of the Canyon by the man most often associated with its exploration -- John Wesley Powell, one-armed veteran of the Civil War, geologist, explorer and twice leader of historic expeditions of the Green and Colorado Rivers. It's doubtful that Powell would have ever imagined the ease with which the Canyon would be accessed a century and a half later. Yet even so, its immensity and grandeur offer endless opportunities to escape into that elemental respite we've mostly forgotten to access in our busy lives.
Mentioning a trip down the Grand Canyon conjures images of riding high over the trail on a dusty mule train. While some do just that, we prefer using our built-in asses to riding rented ones, and so we awakened muscles long dormant on this, our second multi-day descent into the Canyon. Along with rafts, mules are still the predominant form of transportation in and out of the canyon, particularly for delivering goods (and travelers) to and from Phantom Ranch at the Canyon's bottom. And despite the volumes of traffic along this active corridor, those who dare explore find themselves miles from asphalt roads and whirring car engines.
The South Kaibab is one of several trails that links the South Rim to the Colorado River and the North Rim. Seven miles from rim to river, it descends steeply, nearly a vertical mile in total. Our day began in near-freezing rim temperatures which turned 50 degrees warmer a few hours (and several thousand feet of lost elevation) later.
A third of the way down, O'Neill Butte provides a prominent landmark to hike toward. The well-maintained trail marks the landscape like a sort of ghost of the Great Wall of China.
The path is largely exposed to the elements -- sun, wind and heat are constant companions. In this dry land, decay is slow. A tree's skeleton stands bare and statue-like, no indication of whether its last leaf fell a year or a decade ago.
But despite only 6 inches of average annual rainfall, life forges on in the Canyon's nooks and crannies. Plants adapted to the harsh conditions ward off would-be intruders with rough exteriors covered in spines.
While maintaining maximum moisture in its cladodes (paddle-like "leaves"), the prickly pear cactus attracts pollinators and passing photographers with its large, showy flowers.
Once at the bottom of the canyon, the Colorado River provides a sight for sore eyes. Flowing ribbon-like through the meandering topography, it is dwarfed by the sheer cliffs that surround it, seeming deceptively small and benign. In fact, it flows at a range of 8,000 to 25,000 cubic feet per second, at a fairly constant year-round temperature of around 46 degrees fahrenheit. The river flows south from Lee's Ferry, the cut-off point demarcating the upper and lower basins of the Colorado River, so split to determine which states and tribes receive what allocations in any given year. The flow to the lower basin (which includes Arizona, California and Nevada) is carefully prescribed at Glen Canyon Dam, where diversions began forming Lake Powell in 1963 by drastically altering the river's natural hydrology. This act helped seal the future of an overpopulated American Southwest with the promise of limitless water, and today, the Colorado is oversubscribed to 7 states, several Native American nations and Mexico. Most years the river dries up before reaching its terminus at the Gulf of California. Just 70 years before Glen Canyon Dam, John Wesley Powell appeared before the Los Angeles International Irrigation Congress and made a prescient declaration that fell on deaf ears:
"I wish to make it clear to you, there is not sufficient water to irrigate all the lands which could be irrigated, and only a small portion can be irrigated….I tell you, gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict."
From Plateau Point, the river is again dwarfed by layered geology of limestone, sandstone, shale and schist. One of the Colorado's tributary canyons, Bright Angel Creek Canyon, appears as a faint crack in the earth extending in an up and leftward diagonal.
Following Bright Angel Creek Canyon 7 miles north of the river, along the North Kaibab Trail, you come to a jaw-dropping site: a misty waterfall that, over thousands of years, has deposited minerals that have produced a 30-foot travertine dome. If that's not idyllic enough, Ribbon Falls is flanked by a natural amphitheater of dark red rocks. And should that still not be impressive enough, a trail leads behind the waterfall to the top of the mossy, travertine dome.
Steps from Ribbon Falls, the iridescent canyon tree frogs camouflage well against the rocks. Though small in size, their call, which sounds like bleating sheep, can be heard from great distances -- earning them the nickname "sheep frog."
The appropriately-named Garden Creek creates an oasis along the Bright Angel Trail, near Indian Garden campground. Bright Angel Trail is a longer but gentler route compared to South Kaibab, and provides many more opportunities for breaks in the shade.
The hike out of the canyon is replete with switchbacks along Bright Angel Trail.
More switchbacks offer weary hikers a chance for a new view and a short break at each bend. From here, Plateau Point and its faint trail are visible in the distance.
Whether by mule, raft, saunter or slither
the Grand Canyon collared lizard's message: "Come hither."