Does this look like the Grand Canyon? If I didn’t know better, I would say no. When most people think of the Grand Canyon, walking along a sandy trail is probably not their first thought. But the first section of the hike from the Colorado River back up to the south rim of the Grand Canyon is along a wide, relatively flat, sand covered trail. It’s a nice way to start what is a relatively challenging, but rewarding, hike.
Agave americana, also known as the century plant, has a rather interesting life cycle. Contrary to its name, it does not live for 100 years, but instead commonly lives for between 10 and 30 years. In its final year of life, it sends up a tall stalk which blossoms with yellow flowers, and the plant dies shortly after flowering. In the foregrounds of this photo, you can see a century plant which has just died, its stalk lying on the rock behind the plant. Behind the rock is the stalk of another century plant, almost ready to flower. Agave americana is native to Mexico and the southwestern United States, though it is now found in many warm climates across the globe. The plants in this photo were located near the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
There are two ways to reach the bottom of the Grand Canyon within Grand Canyon National Park. One is to hike down, the other is to ride a mule to the bottom as part of a tour. While it is logical to think that the mule ride is the easier way to the bottom, people who have done both say that they are more sore after the mule ride down than the hike down. Regardless, as this mule was making the trip back up from the bottom of the canyon (at a much faster rate than we were hiking at, I might add), his rider seemed to be enjoying the trip just fine.
This photo was taken at Phantom Ranch, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Each evening at Phantom Ranch there is a park ranger program on the canyon: about the wildlife of the canyon, the history of the canyon, etc. After the program is finished and it is completely dark, it is time to go scorpion “hunting” in the mule corral. The pillars of the corral absorb the heat of the sun beating down during the day, so the scorpions like to spend the evening on the pillars to keep warm at night. We managed to see a couple scorpions, just enough to experience seeing them, but not so many to be too freaked out about there being scorpions everywhere in the canyon that we are oblivious to.
As I mentioned in a previous post, it is a 14 mile hike from the north rim of the Grand Canyon down to the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon. It is a long, steep, challenging hike that begins in the cool morning air while it is still pitch black (if you’re smart) and ends in early afternoon heat that is likely to top 100 degrees. If you’re really crazy, the 14 mile hike isn’t 14 miles, it’s 15.5 miles, because three quarters of a mile off the main trail, tucked in one of the many side canyons, there is a beautiful waterfall named Ribbon Falls. This photo was taken just after completing our detour to Ribbon Falls, where we had enjoyed the shade, cool water, and beautiful views. The only downside was that it meant that the sun was high enough in the sky that by the time we returned to the main trail all shade was gone, but it was well worth a little extra sun to begin the second half of our hike feeling relaxed and rejuvenated.
While the scenery down in the Grand Canyon is wonderful, the most iconic views are from the rim of the canyon. The views are great all times of day, with the shadows in the canyon constantly changing with the angle of the sun. The National Park Service operates a great shuttle system to get to the scenic viewpoints on the south rim, which helps control the traffic during the busy season, while the more remote north rim requires driving along narrow winding roads to get to the best viewpoints. This sunset photo was taken from the south rim, we got on the shuttle without any plan of where we were going and had the decision made for us when the shuttle stopped at this viewpoint since it was almost sunset. The sun hitting the canyon walls was as warm as it appears in this picture, and the walls being lit by the sun really contrasted with the valleys deeper in the canyon that were already quite dark.
Hiking the Grand Canyon
Hiking through the Grand Canyon is an epic experience. Hiking from the north rim of the Grand Canyon down to the river requires a hike of 14 miles with nearly a mile of elevation loss and the hike up from the river to the south rim requires hiking another 9 miles and gaining most of that mile of elevation back. It is an intense hike that requires a lot of preparation but is well worth the effort. While the most stunning views of the Grand Canyon are from the rim, there is something special about being down deep inside the canyon, completely secluded from the outside world. It is serene and peaceful, surprisingly green with an environment that changes drastically throughout the hike. It is a little hard to put into words but it is unlike any other hike I have other done.
The heat of the canyon
The temperature outside is currently -20ºF. This is a stark contrast to the heat down in the Grand Canyon. During the summer, the temperatures get dangerously hot. The day in early June that we hiked down, the heat was not *that* bad, only a high of 104ºF. But it was enough that we started our hike down at just after 4 a.m. so that we could make it to the bottom of the canyon before the worst heat of the day arrived. The last section of hike down into the Grand Canyon from the north rim is called “The Box” because there are steep canyon walls on either side of the trail. As the sun beats down during the morning and early afternoon, the canyon walls absorb the heat and walking through “The Box” feels like walking through an oven. This is why we started our hike so early, so that we would be finished before the oven had fully pre-heated. While “The Box” can be hellishly hot, it is also a beautiful area of the canyon.