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Hiking the Grand Canyon - spectacular scenery and the rhythm of the sun

© By Hans Tammemagi

  The sun had barely inched over the horizon when my wife and I, shivering from the early chill and struggling under large backpacks, found the head of the South Kaibab Trail and with our hearts in our throats started tramping down a series of steep switchbacks into the depths of the Grand Canyon.
     For half an hour we zigzagged downward clinging to the edge of a foreboding limestone cliff. Suddenly, we turned a corner to face eastward and there, spread before us like a magnificent feast, was the Grand Canyon in its enormity. Smoke from a fire on the north rim had drifted into the canyon during the night and was draped over the lower valleys and rock spires. Long shafts of morning light cast soft velvety shadows and highlighted the pastel hues of the ramparts that stretched forever. It was simply awesome.
     We continued downward into the heart of one of the top natural wonders in the world. Soon we caught glimpses of the Colorado River far below, which like a surgeon's scalpel has neatly sliced through the geologic layers making an incision 1.6 kilometres deep, 29 kilometres wide and more than 450 kilometres long that reveals over two billion years of planetary history.
     The upper canyon consists of mighty precipices of limestone, sandstone and shale laid down in horizontal layers over 200 million years ago. Erosion from tributary streams has helped carve bizarre formations. A pinnacle rock called Vishnu Temple lay to the east and to the west O'Neill Butte loomed over us, tall and red. As the sun rose higher we gulped more frequently from our water bottles.
     Just as fascinating as the geology is the natural setting, for the dramatic change in altitude has created one of the most diverse ecological areas in North America. The rim, which is 7,200 feet above sea level, is a cool pinyon-juniper woodland. But our descent took us through different biozones that are home to lizards, scorpions, cactus, yucca and mesquite.
     After several hours we reached the Tipoff where the terrain steepens to almost vertical and a long series of switchbacks descends into the inner canyon, where the dark, contorted, and ancient (almost two billion years old) rocks form a discordant contrast to the peaceful layered harmony of the upper canyon.
     Finally, we reached the bottom and crossed the mud-brown Colorado River looking down at several rubber rafts pulled up in a small embayment. The last few hundred metres were a tough slog, for the canyon bottom (732 metres) is a blazing Sonoran desert. The sun radiated from the rock walls like a furnace and the sandy trail was a gauntlet of prickly-pear cactuses. We trudged past the foundations of an 800 year old Anasazi pueblo, almost too tired to notice. At Bright Angel campground the thermometer read 120 F (almost 49 C) as we dumped our packs and headed for the creek to cool our sore feet.
     Life at the bottom is a throwback to simpler times. With no electricity, cars or work schedules we settled into a rhythm controlled by the sun. We rose before dawn to use the cool time for activities. During the searing midday, flies droned, lizards scampered, but we napped, quietly chatted, and occasionally slipped out to splash in the creek. The majestic canyon walls were etched against a cloudless blue sky.
     In mid-afternoon when the sun fell behind the canyon walls, life in the camp reawakened. We explored a tiny slot canyon, where the cool shady environment formed a magical world of its own. Later we climbed a side trail until we had glorious views of the river and the endless switchbacks we had come down yesterday. A helicopter droned far along the other side of the canyon, reminding us of the exhilarating ride we had taken three days earlier.
     Hiking back to camp, we passed through Phantom Ranch, a collection of pretty stone buildings for those that prefer a roof and a bed to camping. We cooked dinner, hung our backpacks over a metal pole, and talked with a neighbour as the gloom deepened. Through the dusk we heard the clip-clop, clip-clop of a late-arriving mule train. By 7:30 it was dark with a sprinkle of stars high above, and by 8:00 the campground was silent.
     After three wonderful days we woke in the dark for a cool start at the long climb out. Our backpacks laden, we crossed the Colorado and plodded up the switchbacks of the Devil's Corkscrew. We admired the view from Plateau Point, one of the best sunset locations in the world. Several times we had to step off the trail as a row of nose-to-tail mules trudged stoically past bearing tourists or supplies. With legs aching, we finally emerged on the rim and had a passerby take our photo at the trailhead.
     We often think of the Canyon and have vowed to return to the spectacular panoramas and peaceful life controlled by the position of the sun in the sky.

Hans Tammemagi has written two travel books: Exploring Niagara - The Complete Guide to Niagara Falls & Vicinity and Exploring the Hill - A Guide to Canada's Parliament Past & Present. His work is often featured in Osprey and CANWEST papers.

Photo Credits
Hans Tammemagi

If you go
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Book mule rides and accommodation in Grand Canyon Village and Phantom Ranch
via Xanterra Resorts: 1-888 297-2757; www.xanterra.com
Helicopter rides: www.papillon.com
National Parks Service and below-the-rim permits (book early): www.nps.gov/grca
General Arizona information: www.ArizonaGuide.com
Planning road trips: www.ArizonaScenicRoads.com
Great travel deals: www.ArizonaVacationValues.com
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Kaibab_Trail

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Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
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Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/


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