“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 (Grand Canyon expedition, 1859)
The two main trails leading into Arizona’s Grand Canyon from the South Rim are gradual, wide and painstakingly well-constructed, with switchbacks to ease a descent of some 5,000 feet to the Colorado River. These trails – the Bright Angel and South Kaibab – are so hiker friendly that people might overlook a deep and fundamental aspect of the experience: hiking the Grand Canyon is not simply an excursion from one destination to another. It is a journey back in time.
I’ve visited the Grand Canyon four times over the past 12 years, and it wasn’t until the most recent visit, in February of this year, that I finally began to feel my focus shift from the present to the timeless and fascinating realm of the past. The past had always been there, encased in stratified rock layers like a history book spanning nearly two billion years. But I hadn’t really noticed.
On several occasions I had unknowingly hiked past rock pictographs made by Indians 1,000 years ago, and marine fossils etched in the rock, remnants of sea creatures that lived in the shallow ocean that geologists say advanced and retreated from this region at least seven times. Weary from the seven-mile trudge down into the canyon, I barely gave the ruins of old pit houses near the Colorado River a second glance.
I think my perspective began changing after seeing the movie, “Grand Canyon – The Hidden Secrets” at an IMAX theatre in the small community of Tusayan, near the South Rim. Produced by National Geographic, the movie described some of the canyon’s earliest inhabitants, the Anasazi, whose history dates back more than 4,000 years and even today remains shrouded in mystery. These hunter-gatherers were nomadic, living off the canyon’s deer, bighorn sheep, fish, and other resources – often entering deep into the canyon’s inner gorge.
The film also highlighted the first explorations in the 1500s by the Spanish and in succeeding centuries by Americans; as well as the epic 217-mile Colorado River exploration through the canyon in 1859, led by Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell, a geologist. More recent history dwells on the area’s first miners, construction of a railroad and the Grand Canyon National Park development.
Experiencing the sweep of thousands of years on a big IMAX screen was compelling enough. But what really struck me came in a single word: hardship. From the canyon’s earliest human inhabitants to those who followed in their footsteps, life on the north and south rims, or in the canyon itself, could not have been easy. It is certainly breathtakingly beautiful. Yet it is also an extremely rugged, foreboding place. Summer heat is stifling, and at the high elevations of the canyon’s rims, winter cold punishes the unprepared. Scaling the canyon’s formidable cliffs, with their unstable, crumbling rock, is death-defying.
Archaeologists have identified at least 4,000 artifact sites within the park area, but they have no definitive answers for why the canyon’s earliest dwellers, the Anasazi, never stayed. There is some speculation that changing climate reduced wildlife and that exacerbated their already tenuous existence.
On that fourth and most recent hike down the South Kaibab Trail from the South Rim, I was a different visitor. Gazing upon the canyon’s red-tinted, deeply shadowed, tiered horizons, I possessed new eyes. I didn’t see a static, dry and lifeless landscape. I now saw a living place, a home – not only for the Anasazi, Havasupai, Haulapai, Hopi, Navajo and Pueblo Indians from the distant past, but also for their descendants who today live on nearby reservations. And I now possessed a greater awareness of the area’s wildlife; such as deer, elk, Bighorn sheep, California Condors, mountain lions, bobcats, eagles, reptiles and many other creatures.
When you behold the expanse of air between the canyon’s north and south rims – in some locations as much as 18 miles – you suddenly feel extremely small and insignificant. And pondering the timescale of how long it took the Colorado River to carve this immense chasm – about 1.7 billion years – the feeling is magnified.
But we are inexorably drawn there. To quote a passage from the Grand Canyon IMAX movie: “The canyon has no need of man, but mankind may face a moment in eternity when he will have a fundamental need to explore the character and timeless perspective that makes this such a wondrous place.”
Photo by Carl Portman
The millions of people who visit the Grand Canyon every year experience this natural wonder in their own way. Finally, after many trips down into its depths and back up again, I have found mine. On future sojourns I’ll keep eyes forward as I hike, but I’ll always be glancing backward in time, with my ears tuned for a subtle whisper from the past–hoping the canyon will reveal one of its ‘hidden’ secrets.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. To contact Frank: firstname.lastname@example.org