Disney by the Ditch

Saturday-Tuesday, June 16-19th, 2007
Grand Canyon National Park

For the most part, our trip has been relatively uncrowded. Although many of the parks we’ve visited are reporting that visitation is up this year, we’ve been able to enjoy the great outdoors without the feeling of wall to wall people and cars.

That streak came to an abrupt end at the Grand Canyon.

Because Denise had visited the North Rim before (I’ve been to both), we decided to go to the South Rim. In hindsight I think this was a mistake, for several reasons. The North Rim is cooler for starters, because it is a 1200 feet higher. It gets less visitors, and it was much closer to Zion, our previous stop.

The South Rim, on the other hand is a zoo.....markets, lodges, more lodges, a few more hotels, churches, post offices, gift shop after gift shop, a train station, art galleries, ice cream shops, even an airport. Somewhere along the line the Park Service decided that their role at the Grand Canyon was to accommodate as many people as possible, concentrated into an area 2-3 miles long on the South Rim. The result is a chaotic mess. The canyon itself almost seems an afterthought, although it is impossible to ignore, as many of the structures are built as close to the edge as possible. I found myself almost wishing that Disney had developed the park – they would have done a better job.

I’m usually a big fan of the Park Service, but here at the Granddaddy of all canyons, they went horribly wrong. Cars line the roads for miles. Tourists wait in lines like cattle for food, beverages, ice cream, parking places…..you name it. The shuttle service is completely inadequate, with people crammed onto the busses like sardines. The real shame - a small town lies just outside the park gates, (only 5-6 miles off the rim) that could easily provide most of the services available in the park, much like Springdale, Utah does for Zion.

I found the following quote from a former Superintendent of Sequoia National Park. I found it a bit ironic that this statement was made nearly 60 years ago:

We should boldly ask ourselves weither we want the national parks to duplicate the entertainments of other resorts, or weither we want them to stand for something distinct…in our national life

- Colonel J. R. White

In fairness, the Park Service has a nearly impossible task at the Grand Canyon. As far back as 1978, then Superintendent Merle Stitt acknowledged that the NPS mandate to manage the parks “by such a means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations” was an unattainable goal at the Grand Canyon. There simply isn’t staff or budget to accomplish the task. In 1978 when this statement was made there were only 3 million annual visitors; today the number exceeds 7 million.

All that aside, the canyon itself is awesome. So awesome, in fact, that it is hard to grasp. The North Rim is 10 miles away, the canyon bottom so far down that only a few viewpoints offer a glimpse of the Colorado River. The Grand Canyon is so vast that it becomes hard to comprehend. Gazing at the canyon from the rim isn’t all that different than looking at a picture of it…..your mind simply can’t wrap itself around something that large. Because of this, I think many visitors to the canyon simply walk up to the rim, say ‘WOW’, snap a few pictures, then head on to the gift shops, having ‘done’ the Grand Canyon.

Denise and I really wanted to at least hike down into the canyon a little ways. On my trip to California in 1990, I hiked down the North Rim about half way down to Roaring Springs. I’ll never forget that hike, as you really appreciate just how huge the canyon is when you descend and ascend it by foot. What appear to be narrow bands of coloration in the rock from the rims become cliffs that are hundreds of feet high. The views down into the canyon from the trails are spectacular. So is the heat – the lower you go the hotter it gets, with temps at the bottom commonly reaching 110-120 degrees.

The heat is what ultimately stopped us. We were camping in Williams, Arizona, which unfortunately was about 60 miles away. Other than the campgrounds in the park, (which were full), this was the closest campground I could find. The park service strongly suggests that hikes into the canyon start before 7 am or after 4pm. Because of our drive back and forth, we never could quite motivate ourselves to get up early enough to make a morning hike, and it really didn’t cool off until sunset. Vance was less than excited about a steep hike in 100 degree heat, so we didn’t push the issue.

I’ve talked a lot about what the Park Service did wrong at the canyon, here is what they do right. There is a wealth of information about the trails, organized by difficulty and time required. The amount of water (in liters) needed is clearly displayed (about 1 liter per hour of hiking). The dangers of the hikes, largely due to heat exhaustion and dehydration are clearly stated. Never the less, you still see families heading down the Bright Angel trail with strollers, toddlers in their arms, and grandma and grandpa tottering along behind them. Hopefully they turn around before going too far, because I can speak from experience – it’s a long, steep, dusty and hot climb back up.

The Park Service treats multiple people daily for heat exhaustion, and deaths on the trails are not uncommon. One display talked about a young woman who died hiking the canyon from lack of sufficient water. The girl had run the Boston Marathon just a couple of months previously, but set out on what she thought was an 11 mile hike (it was 23) with only a couple of small bottles of water. Small mistakes like this can turn deadly in the canyon.

Grand Canyon also excels with their Jr. Ranger programs. Similar to Zion the park offers Ranger led sessions in addition to the normal Jr. Ranger activity booklet. Vance participated in the ‘Discovery Pack’ program. This was largely a naturalist workshop led by Ranger Andrea. The kids take temperature readings in the sunshine and shade, identify cloud types, and learned to identify plants by identifying specific characteristics (leaf shapes, color, texture, etc…).

Once the ranger led walk was completed, the prospective Jr. Ranger was sent out into the park with a backpack full of activities to complete in order to earn their patch. This was a great program which Vance enjoyed. The park also provided a Jr. Ranger hike, and the normal program (which Vance also completed) was divided into age groups – Vance earned the ‘Scorpion’ level badge.

All in all, a hot, crowded stay – not our favorite stop. From here we are heading for a short layover in Las Vegas to pick up our niece Ella, who will be traveling along with us for a couple of weeks. Vance is so excited about having a camping buddy along he can hardly stand himself!

Vance: It took the Colorado River 5 million years to cut the Grand Canyon. It was also carved by erosion. None of the canyon was cut by glaciers. If you look at the gorge today, you think “imagine all the force it took to create this”!
On our first day in the park, I completed a junior ranger program, went to a Ranger talk about caves in the canyon and enjoyed the majestic view. There was a tourist at Yavapai point that was disobeying a rule that usually cost people their lives, getting off the trail.


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