I thought I was prepared
for the Grand Canyon. I'd seen photographs,
read books, studied maps. I didn't expect
to be unmoved. What would be the point
in going if I was? But I knew how I
felt on first seeing spectacular scenery
- after all, I'd been to Yosemite Valley,
walked through the Canadian Rockies,
seen the vast granite walls of south-west
Greenland, trekked in the Himalayas
- and that was how I expected to respond
to my first sight of the Grand Canyon.
But it wasn't like that at all.
After a long drive
through flat wooded country the bus
from Flagstaff dumped me outside a rustic
building labelled Bright Angel Lodge
in Grand Canyon Village on the South
Rim. Tourists wandered everywhere and
a large car park dominated the view.
With darkness less than an hour away
my main concern was in finding the campground.
But first I'd take a quick glance at
the canyon. I ambled towards a low parapet
aware that an empty space lay beyond
it and then, suddenly, too suddenly
really, there it was; overwhelming and
Beyond the neat
wall chaos reigned. The ground fell
away into a confusion of glowing multi-coloured
rock towers, buttresses and terraces
that dropped into the dark hidden depths
to rise again in an even greater tangle
to the dark tree covered far rim - a
long, long way away. To either side
the contorted chasm disappeared into
the hazy horizon, a twisting slash in
the flat, forested plateau.
to comprehend the scale, I stared down
and tried to understand what I was seeing.
I felt overawed and not a little nervous.
Was I really to spend two weeks walking
in that alien world? Retreating into
the forest I sought the campground.
The next morning I went back. It was
still there - only now it seemed bigger
and more dominant. For the next two
days I prepared for my walk; buying
food, checking water sources, arranging
for a food drop at the bottom of the
canyon. Every so often I went back to
the rim and stared into the wild world
below. Slowly the swirling shapes formed
themselves into peaks and cliffs. Faint
pale lines were identified as trails.
This didn't help my morale. The scale
seemed even vaster than before.
The Grand Canyon
is indeed huge. The statistics are hard
to grasp. The length is about 280 miles
while the width varies from 4 to 16
miles. The South Rim, where I first
looked into the Canyon, ranges in height
from 6,000 to 7,500 feet, the North
Rim from 7,500 to 8,500. The Colorado
River, which cut the canyon, lies from
3,500 to 6,000 feet below. Inside this
massive gorge there are side canyons
that would be major landmarks in their
own right elsewhere and mountains that
soar 4-5,000 feet above the Colorado
yet still aren't as high as the rim.
Happily this stupendous wilderness is
protected in a national park though
plans for damming the canyon are still
put forward every so often as happened
to Glen Canyon not far upstream.
nature of the canyon, its incredible
presence, inspired one visitor last
century, a geologist named Clarence
Dutton, to name the many towers and
buttes after eastern religious deities.
Thus I was to walk below the Tower of
Set, Isis Temple, Cheops Pyramid, Buddha
Temple and, most impressive looking
of all, Zoroaster Temple. These names,
which would seem out of place elsewhere,
somehow seem totally appropriate in
the Grand Canyon.
Walking in the canyon
is like hill walking in reverse. You
start in the cool forests of the rims
then descend through the steep tiers
of rock, up to a dozen different ones
in places, to the hot desert below.
Then at the end of the trip, whether
it's a day or a month in length, you
climb back up to the flatlands above.
Inside the canyon it isn't all steep
rock however. Indeed, the topography
is just about ideal for long walks as
a wide band of gently sloping shale
lies about two-thirds of the way down
into the canyon. This forms a terrace
known as the Tonto Platform along which
you can walk easily for miles. Steep
red and yellow cliffs rise above while
dark, sombre crags lie below, rimming
the narrow Inner Gorge. Stream beds
and gullies break up these cliffs and
it is mostly down these that ways can
be found in and out of the canyon and
down to the river. Often passable sections
are linked by narrow terraces that run
dramatically across the cliffs to the
next place where a descent or ascent
can be made.
There are many paths
in the Grand Canyon but only a few are
maintained, the popular Corridor Trails
that link the North and South Rims.
Most paths are crude and narrow in places
with scrambling required at times. Rock
slides and dense vegetation may hide
the paths in places too. However, the
biggest problem in the canyon is water
- or rather lack of it. There are only
a few streams and some of these are
seasonal. There is the Colorado of course
but this can only be reached in a few
I had 12 days to
spend wandering in the Canyon. To fully
experience the walking available my
plan was to descend the rough but fairly
popular Hermit Trail to the Tonto Platform
which I would walk along for several
days. At one point I would drop down
for a night beside the Colorado, then
cross the river by one of the only two
bridges and head up to the North Rim.
Here I would spend a few days before
returning to the South Rim via the North
Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails - both
on a litre of water and a muffin I set
off down the Hermit Trail carrying three
litres of liquid and feeling more nervous
than I'm used to at the start of a backpacking
trip. This felt a very strange place.
My previous experiences didn't give
me anything I could relate to this.
"Everything so new I can't judge
it", I wrote in my journal. Steep
switchbacks led down to tree-dotted
but waterless Hermit Basin where the
trail levelled off. The Hermit Gorge
is inaccessible at this point so I followed
the trail on a long traverse high on
the side of the canyon through the red
Supai cliffs, a breathtaking walk along
a series of narrow terraces. Below lay
the major barrier of the Redwall, a
very steep 500 plus foot high limestone
cliff stained red by seepage from the
rocks above. A series of tight, steep
switchbacks known as the Cathedral Stairs
eventually descended a break in the
cliffs. This descent takes you onto
the Tonto Platform and into a different
world. So far, I was very aware I was
descending steep cliffs into what looked
a vast but still narrow and closed-in
Once on the Tonto
Platform this impression vanished. This
gently sloping terrace, dotted with
pale green desert plants, is wide enough
to give a feeling of space just like
being on a high mountain plateau. The
sense of being in a canyon disappears.
There are indeed cliffs all around but,
rather than two confining walls, these
make up separate mountains and ridges
split by deep side valleys. Whilst I
knew that beyond the farthest, highest
tree-topped cliffs lay flat woodland,
I couldn't see this and my belief in
it was purely rational. My emotions
responded to the world I was in, a complex,
exciting, colourful mountain world.
My body however responded to the temperature.
Although mid-October it was hot...very
I spent four days
wandering along the Tonto Platform from
Boucher Creek to Lonetree Canyon; following
its sinuous course in and out of the
many side canyons, camping beside the
few trickling creeks in the shade of
spiny Catclaw Acacia trees and thickets
of Tamarisk bushes, and revelling in
the hot desert air and the sharp purity
of the dry terrain. The massive cliffs,
rising all around, changed continually
in the detail of their shape and colouring.
Yet in general form they were always
the same and clearly part of a huge
below, the winding green line of the
Colorado River could be seen, walled
by the steep dark foreboding cliffs
of the Inner Gorge. There are a few
breaks in this barrier and I followed
one, the canyon of Monument Creek, down
to the river where I camped on gravel
banks beside the roaring surge of Granite
Rapids. That the river could have created
the vastness of the Grand Canyon doesn't
seem so unlikely when you stand and
stare at the raging water.
From the Tonto I
descended the lower part of the South
Kaibab Trail, one of the Corridor Routes
and therefore popular with mule trains
and overnight hikers - descending one
day and climbing out the next. The trail
leads to one of the only two bridges
across the Colorado, both of them close
to the confluence with Bright Angel
Creek. These bridges make this such
a popular spot that on the north side
of the river there's a campground, where
I pitched my tent, and a lodge with
bar and dining room called Phantom Ranch.
There's a ranger station too and it
was here that my supplies were waiting
me for the second half of my walk.
Two days took me
from Phantom Ranch up the long North
Kaibab Trail to the North Rim. At first
the path winds through a narrow gorge
called TheBox, then follows Bright Angel
Creek through a wide valley to Roaring
Springs Canyon where it begins to climb
and curve round the cliffs on narrow
terraces before switchbacking steeply
up to the forested rim. En route a side
trip leads to pretty Ribbon Falls where
the lime-rich waters of Ribbon Creek
have built up a moss-covered cone of
soft travertine rock below the cascade.
The North Rim is
little visited compared to the south
and by lateOctober all the facilities
have closed for the season. My four
nights here, on two sites right on the
edge of the canyon, were spent alone.
During the days I wandered along the
rim watching the canyon below and observing
the wildlife such as the beautiful Kaibab
Squirrel with it's bushy white tail.
On one day I descended the rough, little
used Old Bright Angel Trail and was
surprised at how much bushwhacking through
dense, thorny bushes was needed. Although
most of the canyon is a desert whenever
you are near water there is much plant
My last two days
were spent crossing the canyon from
rim to rim in dull, rainy weather, a
sign of the winter to come. On the first
day I descended the 14 miles and 5,750
feet to the river then on the second
the 9 miles and 5,500 feet back to the
South Rim. By now I felt comfortable
in the canyon, felt I understood what
backpacking here involved, even felt
that I fleetingly grasped a little of
the reality that is the Grand Canyon.
The feeling of awe hadn't dimmed though.
Nor, many months later, has it done
so yet. The Grand Canyon remains perhaps
the most incredible place I have been.
One day I must return.
Hiking the Grand
Canyon, by John Annerino, Sierra Club
An informative pack size guide covering
all the trails as well as many details
of off-trail routes. Includes a pull-out
Grand Canyon Loop
Hikes I & II, by George Steck, Chockstone
Press. Entertaining guide to cross-country
routes below the North Rim.
Official Guide to
Hiking the Grand Canyon, by Scott Thybony,
Grand Canyon Natural History Association.
Pack size guide to the main trails.
A Field Guide to
the Grand Canyon, by Stephen Whitney,
Quill. Comprehensive natural history
The Man Who Walked
Through Time, by Colin Fletcher, Vintage
Books. The story of the first walk along
the length of the Grand Canyon and one
of the best backpacking books ever written.
Sadly it's never been published in Britain.
If you find a copy buy it!
Running Wild: Through
the Grand Canyon on the Ancient Path,
by John Annerino, Harbinger House. Astonishing
tales of running the Grand Canyon from
end to end.
USA The Rough Guide,
edited by Greg Ward, Rough Guides. If
you've not been to the States before
this is an excellent general guide.
There's plenty of info for those who
think they know the USA as well.
Handbook, by Chris Townsend, Ragged
Mountain Press/McGraw-Hill. Wilderness
backpacking manual, particularly useful
for walks in Western North America.