Travel Log: Back to the Canyon

(Williams, Arizona; May 16, 2021) –I’ve come back to the Grand Canyon.

I first laid eyes on this unbelievable place in October 2018 during the Grand Tour USA.  Once my decision was made last year to depart Washington State and repair to Tennessee, the Grand Canyon was the first place on my list of places to see.

I spent most of my time back in 2018 on the eastern half of the south rim.  The south rim is the most commonly visited part of the canyon, but the eastern end is not as crowded as the more famous venue for visitors—Grand Canyon Village, located pretty much mid-point on the south rim.  Grand Canyon Village grew up after the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe railroad completed its spur out to the canyon from Williams, Arizona.

This time around I took my parents’ advice and put out the money to ride the modern iteration of the resurrected Grand Canyon Railroad to the village.  I had planned to just drive out myself later, but I’m grateful I listened to them (it’s a fact of life, but your parents are often smarter than you!).

The Grand Canyon Railroad was founded in 1901 by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad. The railroad was resurrected in 1988 by the Grand Canyon Railroad, carrying visitors to the Grand Canyon Village on the south rim. Williams, Arizona. (Nathanael Miller, 15 May 2021)

I rode in a 1923 Pullman car with no air conditioning.  We had the windows down as we clacked across the desert, the Red Butte, Sleeping Giant, and San Francisco peaks in the distance as vast plains of sage, desert grass, cattle, and sun-burnt rock sped by.  Although unnoticed by most passengers on the train (as confirmed for me by our conductor), the telegraph poles along the track are the 1930s-era lines.  These lines were themselves the lines put in to replace the original 1901 telegraph lines.

All combined, the journey to and from the canyon gave me a vivid window into the experience of travelers from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century when such transport was the state-of-the-art technology for mass transit.

I drove through Grand Canyon Village back in 2018, but, as I said, spent my time in less crowded parts of the park.  This time I spent the day in the village’s area, which presented me an opportunity I was not expecting—the chance to actually descend into the canyon itself.

The Bright Angel Trail begins at the western side of the village, and is considered a ‘corridor trail’ (one of the major highways into the canyon).  Therefore, it’s regularly maintained by the park service, so it’s very easy to hike.  This maintenance, plus its trailhead being in Grand Canyon Village, makes it one of the most popular (and crowded) paths into the canyon.  In other words, it’s the kind of place I usually avoid in favor of more isolated spots.

The Bright Angel Trail is one of the most popular routes for a descent into the Grand Canyon. Grand Canyon, Arizona. (Nathanael Miller, 15 May 2021)

However, one does not turn their nose up at a chance to descend at least partway into the Grand Canyon when presented with such an opportunity.  To do would be imminently foolish, not to mention just plain rude behavior towards the spirits of this great place.

The Grand Canyon is so deep that, once you reach it’s floor, you’ve nearly descended to sea level.  I did not go down that far.  I was equipped for a good day’s hiking (water + extra water, sunscreen, food, walking stick, hiking boots, hat, sense of humor, Albus the Crab, etc.), but I only had a few hours before I had to catch the train back to Williams.  Even so, I descended slowly for about 45 minutes, dropping several hundred feet down.  I was far enough down that I had to crane my neck to look back up to the rim of the canyon.

The experience was one of the most intensely incredible hikes I’ve ever done.  As I descended, I stopped multiple times to examine the canyon walls.  Numerous other hikers stopped to ask me what I was looking at, and I’d point out the fossils I was discovering.  Seashells and fossilized worm tubes from the days when that strata of canyon wall was an ancient seafloor abounded.  With the exception of only one other hiker I talked to, everyone else was unaware you could see such wonders in the walls themselves.

Fossilized worm tubes from the era when this land was under an ancient ocean are visible in the canyon walls. Grand Canyon, Arizona. (Nathanael Miller, 15 May 2021)

One of the most moving experiences I had was watching California condors soaring both above and below me.  Although still quite rare, the condor is proving to be one of the great recovery and conservation stories in American conservationist history.  By the late 1980s, the condor population was reduced to a mere 27 individuals, and all those were in zoos and sanctuaries.  Today, there are still less than 600 birds in the species, but the outlook for the condor is good.  Watching them soar freely above and below me was something I thought I’d never see (I was fully convinced growing up in the 1980’s that condors would vanish).

I saw them in the wild yesterday.  You can’t buy that kind of moment or memory.

A California condor in flight over the Bright Angel Trail. Grand Canyon, Arizona. (Nathanael Miller, 15 May 2021)

Shortly after beginning the Bright Angel Trail, look upwards.  Ancient petroglyphs survive high on the canyon wall, protected by an overhanging ledge.  Known as ‘Mallery’s Grotto,’ the petroglyphs clearly show a herd of deer and, further along, human and other figures.  These paintings were used to mark the trail for an ancient people over 4,000 years ago.

Stop and think about those red-painted deer and human figures for a moment.  A people so ancient they’re pretty much a legend even to the ‘modern’ native nations living today drew those figures as a picture story guiding the way for travelers.  These mysterious ancients drew their story so well and so clearly that, 4,000 years later, visitors with no education in ancient petroglyphs can still read it and understand it.  This is the power of story—traveling across, not mere years, but entire millennia to loudly and beautifully proclaim the lives of those who went before us so long ago.

Ancient petroglyphs in ‘Mallery’s Grotto.’ Grand Canyon, Arizona. (Nathanael Miller, 15 May 2021)

Standing even just a few hundred feet below the Grand Canyon’s rim as fossils glitter, condors fly, and rocks painted the color of imagination surround you provides a deeply visceral understanding of why this is not just one of the great natural wonders of our planet, but why so many ancient and modern peoples find this a holy site.

I will come back again.  And again.  And again.  I plan to explore the little-visited northern rim next time.  But, in the interim, I will hold onto the breathtaking sights of condors, petroglyphs, fossils, and colorful natural forces shaping our world even now.  This is a place that strikes wonder into your heart, awe into your imagination, and beauty into your eyes.  This is a place not to miss!

Check out my video on this adventure at: https://youtu.be/B0tWBrfw1IE

Multi-image composite panorama of the Bright Angel Trail. Grand Canyon, Arizona. (Digital illustration by Nathanael Miller, 15 May 2021)

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