Visiting the South Rim
Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon for the first time was an experience I will never forget. I was in awe, with a total loss of words. No pictures, no video recordings can ever prepare you for the first glimpse of it.
The rock layers, each a different color, as you look deeper into it takes your breath away. It stretches on for miles and you can see all the way to the other side, the sheer size of it leaving you speechless. It seems impossible to fathom that a river carved it all. Here, in the desert of Northern Arizona, the rocks leave a valuable geologic record of what was going on over 500 million years ago on Earth.
Although it seems to stretch as far as you can see, looking at it from the top you don’t realize that it consists of thousands of miles of smaller canyons, mesas, volcanoes and a web of drainage that connects the Grand Canyon to the rest of the world. It all seems totally inaccessible.
Then you see the trails that lead into the depths of it, and you feel like you need to walk on them it, at least for a short distance, to feel like you are part of this wonder of the world. You hike a few steps on the closest trail you see, most likely the Bright Angel Trail. Quickly realize that it is descending so fast, it will be hard to get back out of it. So, you turn around and promise yourself that you will make it to the bottom one day. Just not today.
If you want to hike down to the bottom, you can find a few trails, as well as mules to carry your packs. You might want to stay overnight, in the camp ground on the bottom. But for now, just enjoy the scenery from the top, eye level with the birds.
The Grand Canyon Is Home to Indigenous People
The human history in and around the Grand Canyon stretches back at least 13000 years.
The Hopi, one of the tribes who still lives in the proximity, consider it sacred ground. For them, one of the points in the bottom of the canyon, is their ancestral home, their place of origin.
The Hualapai and Havasupai have inhabited the South side of the Canyon. The Havasupai still live on the bottom of the Canyon, far from civilization, since there is no road to their village, only an eight-mile long trail. You do have to hike there, if you want to visit them. They consider themselves the guardians of the sacred ground of the Grand Canyon system.
The Southern Paiute inhabited the North side of the Canyon and for them it is also holy land.
The Zuni have their place of origin in the depths of the Canyon a well.
The Navajos and the Western Apaches also inhabit the area, though they have arrived a bit more recently, but still hundreds of years before the Spaniards.
For all of these tribes, who have lived here for centuries, the canyon is sacred land, in one way or another. If you catch a glimpse of it, you will understand why.
You Are In a National Park
Given its beauty, geological and historical significance, you would have thought that the Grand Canyon was the first National Park in the US. It wasn’t so easy though. The first bill to establish the Grand Canyon as a National Park was indeed introduced in 1882. However, it took until 1919 (February 26th) to actually designate it as such. Miners opposed the bill, since they wanted to get to the copper, zinc and silver at the bottom. Developers wanted to build a railroad on the bottom of the Canyon, so they fought against the bill as well.
All is well if it ends well. After much debate, we have one of the natural wonders of the world designated as a National Park and as such, protected from developers. For now at least. Or so it seems.
My Visits Over the Years
The first time I’ve seen the Grand Canyon, I was visiting it as an out-of-state tourist, over twenty years ago. While it seemed a bit crowded, we were able to enjoy it. Now we live so close to it, we can see it multiple times a year if we want to. And we have seen too much development around it.
Now, there are moments when I get to the South Rim, to the Visitor Center and I want to run. There are so many people, I cannot get to the Canyon for a glimpse. But if you take some time, you can still get away from the crowds and have a moment to enjoy your surroundings. The view itself never loses its magic.
But you do have to walk to enjoy it. If nothing more, just walk the rim trail. Even on the busiest day, you might find yourself alone on some stretches of it. Take a break at each of the educational stops, and learn about the ages and consistency of the rocks that make up the Canyon.
Sure, you can take the shuttle. In fact, if you can’t walk, do take the shuttle instead of driving. Free to ride, it runs on compressed gas, so it doesn’t pollute like your car would.
But I always felt that we would miss something if we just rode the shuttle and stopped at each overlook. We dragged our kids, even when they were young, on the rim walk. They have complained at times, but overall, they had a better time. On our last visit, we would have missed the deer grazing by the trail, if we didn’t walk.
The park has seen too much development in the past two decades. A brand-new town was built just outside of the park’s boundaries, by the South Rim. Other than hotels and other amenities, it offers helicopter tours, and an I-Max movie theater so see the Canyon if you can’t make it a few more miles into the park. The problem is, the helicopter tours, and all sorts of other tourist traps are hurting the environment in the Canyon. If we want to keep it for the next generations, we need to take better care of it.
This natural wonder is fragile, and its National Park status protects it. But just outside the boundaries things are getting too built up. If everything that is proposed at this time happens, it will turn into an amusement park, instead of the National Park. I hope it won’t happen.
If You Go
Expect big crowds if you go, no matter the season. It is the worst during the summer, but it might still be crowded in November, even on weekdays. Try to walk in the morning, if possible.
No matter how crowded it gets, if you walk the rim trail, you might find yourself alone on some stretches of the it. Better yet, you can walk down a few meters either on the Bright Angel Trail or the Kaibab trail. You don’t need to go to the bottom to enjoy the feel of being in the Canyon.
You can take the shuttle at a few different points through the trail, if you get too tired or the desert sun gets to you. Please remember to carry water and wear a hat if you walk any distance.
As spectacular as the South Rim is, our favorite side is the North Rim, mainly because it is more remote. That’s where the historic Grand Canyon Lodge is, and you can stay in small cabins in the forest surrounding the rim. To visit that side, you need to make reservation well ahead.
Hope you get to go and see this Wonder of the World. Enjoy your time there, if you do.
A National Park or Nature Preserve is one of the best places to visit, no matter where you live.
In the US, an area designated as National Park has either scenic, scientific, cultural or historical significance. It is the same in other countries, though they may be called Nature Preserves instead of National Parks.
Designating an area as a National Park or Nature Preserve protects it from future development. We preserve some of the most beautiful, and most fragile ecosystems or historical sites for the enjoyment of future generations. In this day in age when everywhere I look, I see unending development, I find hope when I step in a National Park.
Why should you visit national parks and preserves, you might ask. I’m glad you asked. I’m dying to give you a list.
1. Animal Encounters in a National Park
Most of us live in cities, where we rarely see wild animals, or any kind of animals unless we have pets. But in a national park, no matter when you go, you will almost always see at least a few animals who share the park with you.
We see deer in most parks we visit, just about every time we go. During one of our visits to the Grand Canyon National Park, we saw an elk grazing by the road.
By far the most animals we encountered in one trip was in Banff National Park. We even saw a grizzly bear, right by the road. According to the park ranger, who was on the premise, to make sure people leave the bear alone and no one gets hurt, it was a “teenage bear” wandering off away from his mother.
I got pretty close to a porcupine, following my youngest daughter, on the shore of Lake Louise.
During the week we spent there, we had daily encounters with bighorn sheep.
You Might Even See Endangered Species
As we were driving out of Sunset Crater Volcano National Park, my daughter Karen suddenly exclaimed:
“It’s a pronghorn sheep! Wow! I can’t believe I’m seeing it! It is an endangered species!”
I caught a glimpse when I looked over, but I couldn’t tell what it was.
“Maybe it is a deer.”
“No, Mom. I know what I saw. It was a pronghorn sheep. I know my animals.”
She does. She plans to become a wildlife conservationist, she’s been studying wild animals in zoo camp ever summer, and that’s all she reads about. Yes, I did believe her.
Luckily, a few feet ahead we had an opportunity to stop at a pull-out. The two animals were fairly far from us by then, but we got the binoculars out, and we worked the zoom on the camera.
She was right, of course. We saw a couple of pronghorn sheep grazing in the meadow just outside Sunset Crater. The female was following the male, and they were moving in our direction.
We spent a good half hour watching them, as they made their way in our direction. Eventually they walked farther into the distance in disappeared from our view in the tall grass. Understanding that we were watching endangered animals made us enjoy the encounter even more.
2. Learn About Different Ecosystems
Each National park protects a different, most of the times, very fragile ecosystem. The visitor centers are great places to stop and learn about them, then it is a treat to walk on the trails and experience what you have learned.
What is an ecosystem, you might ask. You’ll learn the answer and a lot more in any Visitor Center of a National Park. A very short answer: an ecosystem is a community of all living things (plants, animals, organisms) and their environment (soil, rocks, sun, weather, atmosphere) in a given area, interacting with each other.
Each National Park protects an ecosystem, some of them very different from each other. You’ll find forest, desert, grasslands, aquatic (both freshwater and marine) ecosystems within the National Parks.
3. Understand Earth’s Formation and Geology
How do canyons, rock formations, mountains form? Instead of reading about it, you can see the answer for yourselves when you visit a National Park like the Grand Canyon, Bryce, Sunset Crater or Crater Lake.
Walking the rim trail on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon gives you a glimpse of how the different layers of rocks formed the Earth’s surface. The exposed rocks themselves are a visible geologic record of what was going on over 500 million years ago on our Earth. For a great learning experience, stop at each level on the interpretive trail, and read about the layers at different levels.
In Bryce Canyon you understand a newer geology. You see, how the soft rocks, like sandstone are eroded, forming exquisite natural sculptures, named hoodoos. You also gain an understanding of how the same formations get eroded over time, forming a lower whole.
Visiting Sunset Crater, or Mt St. Helen’s gives you a glimpse of the volcanic activity that form mountains.
In Sunset Crater you have the opportunity to walk on lava rocks or sand, and marvel at the way that new vegetation grows, new forests form.
At Mt. St Helen we witnessed an eruption a few years ago. As we entered the park’s Visitor Center, we noticed a note saying: “Contrary to general belief, Mt St Helen is erupting right now.” As we watched in the distance, we could see smoke coming off the mountain top, and we watched the seismograph record small earthquakes.
4. Learn About and Understand Human History
The first National Park set aside to preserve “the works of men” was Mesa Verde. Walking through the ruins of an ancient civilization gives you a better understanding of mankind, of the way our ancestors lived in different environments.
Chaco is another great example of this kind of park in the US, as well as Aztec, Wupatki and a lot of others scattered through the Southwest and beyond.
5. Unplug from Electronics
The lodges in the national parks don’t have televisions. In most places within the parks you won’t have cell connection either, or it will be very poor. The wi-fi works sometimes, but you can’t count on it either all the time in all of the parks.
This gives you a great opportunity to connect with your family or companions. You might want to read a book, draw sketches or write in a journal. Clear you mind from the constant buzz of electronics.
6. Teach the Next Generation About their Heritage and the Importance of Keeping Our Environment Clean and Protected
The Junior Ranger program for kids is a great way to get the younger generation involved in preserving the environment around them, and learning about it all, as well as about history. They enjoy getting a badge after completing the booklet and learning answers to questions they might not know they had.
As Junior Rangers, they lead the way in cleaning up the pristine forests.
Years ago I hiked up to a pristine lake in Washington (State) with my oldest two kids who were preschoolers at the time. They were still new to the Junior Ranger program, just got their badge in Mount Rainier National Park. We took it slow and made it to the top of the mountain. On the way, they picked up every single gum wrapper, plastic bag, tiny piece of paper, and anything human-made that did not belong in the forest. Let me just say, my backpack became a garbage bag by the time we got back to the parking lot.
We felt good, they felt good, and knew that they made a difference, however small. They must have saved at least one bird or animal that might have ingested some of the wrappers or plastic pieces.
7. Enjoy Nature Around You – Go camping in a National Park
You can camp in virtually every National Park, and enjoy the surroundings.
One of our favorite spots to camp is in Sunset Crater National Park, in the Lava Bonito Campground. We use a tent, but the campground is designed to be both tent and winnebago-friendly with hookups.
No matter how you do it, camping in a National Park brings you closer to nature, giving you a better understanding of your surroundings.
The best part of camping in any National Park? The night sky.
8. Learn About Astronomy
Far from the light pollution of cities, the parks feature some of the best night sky views on the planet. Many times we got up in the middle of the night to look at the Milky Way outside our tent. We see it so clearly, I understand why my ancestors called it the Road of Warriors (Hadak Útja) or why the Ancient Maya called it the Celestial Monster.
It is hard to fathom our place in the Universe, but watching the clear skies in a National Park, we understand it all, we see it with our own eyes.
Chaco National Park, for example, has an observatory, to enjoy the night sky and understand its significance. The campground in Chaco is right by an alcove of ancient ruins.
In Bryce, one of the exhibits in the Visitor Center compares the night sky in cities, smaller towns and the park. After understanding the difference, you’ll want to go outside in the middle of the night to see it all.
9. Improve your Health
In a National Park you will have to hike at least. Even the shortest walks will improve your health, since you are outside, in nature, far from pollutants of the cities.
You will improve your mental health by doing the outdoors activities in the Parks. Researchers established a link between outdoor activities and decrease of depression, and stress-related illnesses.
10. Protect and Support Your National Parks
The National Park System celebrated its centennial anniversary in 2016. But the first National Park was established well before that day. Do you know which park was the first?
Yellowstone became a National Park on March 1st, 1872. By the time the Park Service was established in 1916, the “Organic Act” that President Woodrow Wilson signed was protecting 35 established National Parks. Today, we have over 400 parks, protecting and preserving different landscapes.
They offer us a glimpse into the beauty of our environment, a place to see wildlife and experience nature first hand. In our day-to-day stressful lives they offer an oasis of calm and relaxation, a way to unwind and remember what really matters.
Make it a point to visit a National Park next time you have a chance. In addition to learning a lot, you’ll know that you are contributing to protecting the environment.
11. Find Your Own Reason
Every one of us has a personal reason above and beyond the obvious. Find your own.
Many parks offer horseback rides on their trails, if it is something you like to do. You can even ride a mule to the bottom of the Grand Canyon if you’d like that experience.
If you are a rock climber, you’ll find opportunities to climb in some parks, Zion among them.
You can ride your bicycle in most parks. At the Grand Canyon, and most other parks, you can rent a bike as well, if you didn’t want to cart around your own.
I’m sure you can come up with many more reasons to visit a National Park if you think about it. No matter the reason you end up there, you’ll always have a great time in any of them.
One of our latest weekend trip took us to Bryce Canyon National Park. It has been over ten years since our last visit, but the landscape and the park hasn’t changed.
Although geologically speaking, hoodoos, the rock formations that Bryce Canyon is famous for, don’t last long, one lifetime in human years doesn’t make a difference in their shape.
What Are Hoodoos?
Tall, skinny spires of rock, hoodoos seem like tall totem poles, carved by nature. At Bryce Canyon, they range from 5 to 150 ft tall, and come in all shapes and widths.
I see hoodoos as children of a parent rock, slowly parting from the whole family and becoming their own beautiful, separate selves. The “family” that supports them, the rock formation that forms them is called the Claron Formation in Bryce. This rock was “born” 30 or 40 million years ago in an ancient lake.
Hoodoos are formed by different weathering processes. The extreme temperatures on the plateau cause freezing followed by thawing. This process gets repeated more often here than in other places.
The melting snow seeps into the cracks of the limestone, then it freezes, which makes it expand. (Yes, water expands when freezing. If you need to see the process, freeze water in a plastic bottle, and watch what happens.) In the case of the limestone, this freeze/thaw process causes cracks to appear. This process is called frost wedging.
Then rain, sun and wind slowly erodes the rocks and separates the hoodoos from their parent rock.
Of course, the same process that forms hoodoos, will eventually erode them, too. We don’t see the difference since the erosion happens at the rate of 2-4 feet every 100 years. But in another few million years they won’t exist as they are now.
We are the lucky ones who get to enjoy them.
Hiking to the Bottom of Bryce Canyon
While my husband decided to walk down and into the canyon on the most strenuous (but most spectacular) trail, my daughter and I took the easier, more traveled one. I usually choose the less traveled path, but sometimes, when I am out of shape, I don’t mind easy.
In the morning, to catch the best light, we set off from the Sunrise Point on the Queen’s Garden Trail. It was pleasant, an easy hike (of course, it was downhill), though slightly crowded. The short trail got down to the Queen’s Garden. Queen Victoria, that is.
“Why would they name that rock formation Queen Victoria?” asked Karen. “She’s never even been here.”
Yes, I know. I guess whoever named the rock has seen the queen and felt that it resembled her, looking over her garden of other hoodoos. It took me a while to see the resemblance, but I finally got it while sitting in the shade of a tree in front of it.
Instead of returning the way we came, we walked through the canyon for about a mile, and took the Navajo Loop Trail back up, through the Wall Street formation.
Given the fact that it was sunny and hot by midday, when we got there, Wall Street was the highlight of this particular hike for me. We spent a fair amount of time in the shade of the tall rocks surrounding us.
Of course I was a slow turtle going up the steep switchbacks, but I made it. It was worth it, every step of the way both down, and up.
When we first arrived the day before, we drove to the Southernmost edge of the park, and stopped at Rainbow Point. The easy hike on the Bristlecone Loop, through a pine forest took to Yovimpa Point, offered a far view into the Four Corners area.
We stopped at the Natural Bridge overlook, where we enjoyed the view of the arch.
After we settled in the lodge, we walked the rim trail between Sunrise and Sunset Points, with a great view of the amphitheater below.
Now, after a relatively long hike, we were on the shuttle to Bryce point, with an overlook of one of the most scenic vistas of the whole amphitheater. Different view, different perspective. The Peekaboo trail, a harder hike into the canyon, starts there, but I left it for another time.
Before leaving the park, we stopped at the Fairyland Canyon overlook. One of the most strenuous, but also most spectacular trail starts here, about eight miles long with an elevation gain of over 1100 feet. In comparison, the combination of two trails that I did was a little over 3 miles long and an elevation gain of about 600 feet. I thought that was high. Of course, I left without hiking the Fairyland trail. I need to train for that, if I ever want to make it.
As I walk through the ancient structures in Chaco Canyon, I think of the people who once called them home. It is hard to imagine them surviving in the harsh desert, let alone thriving. Yet, they built a civilization here, lived and died here for a few centuries, before moving on to a slightly more hospitable land. They left behind their ceremonial center and homes, for our present-day archaeologists to study and the ret of us to wonder about them.
Chaco Culture National Park is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the Southwestern US, and it is also a World Heritage site. It preserve structures built centuries ago, witness to human history.
Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito
A Hike to the Mesa Top
Casa Rinconada, the Great Kiva
The People of Chaco
Who Were the Chacoans?
Where Did They Go?
Back to the Present
Standing in the middle of this deserted city, the canyon is so still, I can hear the leaves rustling in the breeze. The walls of Pueblo Bonito glow red in the setting sun.
The deserted structures stand witness to an ancient burst of human activity. Chaco tells part of the story of human history, with its good and bad parts.
We have a long way to go to get back to civilization, so we need to leave. I know we will be back. Every time we come, we find something new, or we see the same in a different light.
Chaco. A Cultural Legacy, text by Michael Strutin; Photography by George H. H. Huey. Published by the Western National Parks Association, Tucson, AZ