Treking the Grand Canyon
photos by Stephen Cosgrove
As I often convey an opinion or an observation with an unrelenting flurry of words, the lack of any commentary as I stand at Mather Point and look out over the Grand Canyon causes my fiancée, Lisa Gallagher, to ask me if something is wrong. My gaze pans back over the geological marvel to her and I simply say, “No. Nothing could possibly be wrong with this moment."
Time is written in the cracks and layers of rock that descend more than a mile downwards to the Colorado River. A space of 10-miles lies between the north and south rims, an expanse that displays layers of rock that predate nearly all life on this planet. We walk along the south rim trail our first night at the park, finding places along the way where we can maneuver out onto the cliff-side where we sit and soak in the magnitude of the experience.
I stop to take another picture, this time of a dead tree with gray bleached limbs extending over the canyon side. Crouching down to get a better angle, I unwittingly come nearly nose to nose with one of the seemingly thousand of small rodents that thrive on handouts from tourists. This particular varmint was a gray rock squirrel that looks very comfortable around humans as it searches for a snack.
A park ranger sitting beside a telescope kindly answers all of my questions as I try to figure out where we will hike the next day. We know any hike into the canyon will be strenuous, but are seeking to minimize our exposure to the summer sun. Other criteria for our preferred hike is that there be drinkable water at some point along the trail, a fair amount of wildlife and spectacular views of the Grand Canyon. The ranger suggested we hike to Indian Gardens in Bright Angel Canyon.
We start the hike nearly two hours later than we'd intended; it proved difficult to rouse all parties in a timely fashion to embark on our trek. One guidebook suggested the hike would take seven hours, making it doubtful we would be able to make it down and back up out of the canyon before the onset of the afternoon heat. With all of our encounters with the canyon's diverse wildlife we experience on the hike, though, it is difficult to complain for too long about our plans not going exactly as planned.
The trail is broken up into three one-and-a-half mile increments. At the end of each section is a rest stop with water, bathrooms and shade where it is recommended that weary and overheated hikers (which describes just about everyone we came across hiking up out of the canyon) sit for at least 20 to recuperate. Having just waited for 15 minutes for a mule train to drop dirt on the trail to fill in some potholes, we decide not to stop at the first rest station.
There is far more vegetation than I expected in the Grand Canyon. Like the layers of rock that give the canyon its well-known stratified appearance, the vegetation of the canyon alters as we descend. Evergreens such as ponderosa pines and juniper trees that ring the southern rim give way to Utah agave and prickly pear cacti that thrive in the drier, hotter interior of the canyon. With a single stalk that can grow upwards of twelve feet extending from a small, shrub-like base, the Utah agave is by far the most unique plant we see on our hike and one of the most unusual I've ever seen. It only flowers once after growing for more than 15 years and then dies.
Hiding in the bark of a Fremont cottonwood, a southern plateau inconspicuously guards the entrance to Indian Garden. With Garden Creek flowing year-round, the flora in this small oasis is significantly more lush than anywhere else on the trail. Lying underneath Fremont dogwoods and Gambel oaks, we nap in the heat of the day. Brown ground squirrels casually scamper to our bags while we sleep, intermittently rousing us for a moment to shoo them away before drowsing off again in the cool shade. A mule deer buck and and doe rest quietly in an adjacent thicket, likewise taking advantage of the shade in the hot afternoon.
I know the heat is out there waiting for us. We hiked down into the canyon and have to get back up. The knowledge of our impending four-and-a-half mile hike out of the canyon makes it easier to rest a little longer before resuming a hike that will see us gain 3000 feet in elevation before we are through. Finally we begin our long, uphill climb. Stopping at all the rest stops on the way back gives us a chance to converse with other adventurers from around the world making a pilgrimage to this natural shrine.
A black speck in the distance becomes a group of black specks as a flight of California condors soars across the jagged skyline. More than halfway up the trail - and in desperate need of another break - we sit in the shade of limestone overhang and watch eight of the endangered birds fly back and forth between the sides of Bright Angel Canyon. Unlike their smaller cousins the turkey vulture that also call the canyon home, a condor's wings are bisected laterally by a series of white feathers. It is truly a wonder to see the nearly extinct species in the wild.
Finally finished with the hike, we return to our campsite where I use my last reserves of energy to quickly race over to the hammock. With a cold beer settling in my stomach, and another one half finished beside me, I begin to nod off as I reminisce over the day's adventures in the quiet of the early evening. It was a day filled with breathtaking vistas, and countless encounters with the fauna of the Grand Canyon. My respite is short-lived as the hammering of hairy woodpecker abruptly rouses me from my slumber. As beautiful as nature is, sometimes I wish there was a mute button for it.