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Natural Wonder or Just a Hole in the Ground? Two Differing Views of the Grand Canyon

Have you ever felt disappointed by a famous outdoor attraction? It happens all the time: While many visitors to nature’s grandest spectacles are utterly bedazzled, others somehow just don’t get it.

Todd Wiggins, who guides backpacking trips in the Grand Canyon for REI Adventures, reflects here on how he and his brother could have totally different views of the famous national park:

The Grand Canyon impresses each person differently and, surprisingly, some not at all.

Grand Canyon overlook

Take my brother, for example. Earlier this year, he and his wife were in northern Arizona for work, so I insisted they take the time to drive through the park to see the Grand Canyon. I didn’t want them to miss the opportunity to see this natural wonder of the world and the place I am privileged to call my “office” for 8 weeks each spring and fall.

As someone who has completed more than 60 rim-to-river trips in the canyon either as a guide or exploring new trails on my own, I know the Grand Canyon to be an entirely unique and awe-inspiring place. Surely, they would see it, too.

Unfortunately, my brother described the Grand Canyon, the place that attracts admirers from around the globe, as “a big hole in the ground.” To add insult, my sister-in-law said they could have saved their $25 park entrance fee.

Prickly pear cactus bloom

They are otherwise sensible people, so I scratched my head and theorized what could explain this difference of viewpoints. I eventually attributed their underwhelming response to 2 main factors:

First, hiking into the canyon is necessary to understand its true scale. Our brain can’t initially process the size or distance of what it is seeing. So, our minds rationalize and shrink everything down to comprehensible size. Looking down from the rim onto a spire of rock rising from the Tonto Plateau is a completely different experience than standing next to it from within the canyon as it soars above you.

Second, from a rim lookout, the canyon appears to be a sparse expanse of bare rock. One of the most surprising things about hiking far below the rim is the discovery that the canyon is a rich and diverse ecosystem of beautiful plants and trees, populated by fantastic insects, birds and other wildlife, each species highly specialized to survive and thrive in the canyon’s demanding environment.

Hermit Creek in Grand Canyon

In brief, you just don’t know what you’re seeing when you drive to a lookout and peep into the canyon still connected to crowds and pavement.

The canyon continually surprises me. It awakens from winter into a burst of spring flowers. On rare and lucky occasions, April snow dusts the rim as we hike along the remote and rocky trails that traverse through the canyon’s backcountry.

Rain is also an exceptional experience. Rain showers enhance the canyon’s already rich palette of color. Plants become a deeper shade of green, and flowers seem to open wider to absorb the water as it falls.

One distinctive characteristic of rain showers in the canyon is the smell it releases from one of the canyon’s iconic plants, the creosote bush. The creosote is one of the oldest living plants in the world and can host as many as 60 species of insects, nearly 1/3 of which depend solely on the creosote’s flowers for their survival. Inhaling this restorative and bracing aroma, it’s easy to understand why desertphiles describe this as the smell of rain in the canyon.

Tonto Lookout in Grand Canyon

Weather and clouds provide momentary relief from the sun and create a visually-striking interplay of shadows and sunlight across the canyon. Cameras click trying to capture this masterful blend of light and dark, but photos rarely communicate the experience fully to someone who hasn’t been there.

Banana yucca blooms in Grand Canyon

Springtime is also when cacti accent trails and hillsides with the color of their blooms ranging from delicate pink to deep fuchsia with yellow and orange appearing as the season progresses. The number of blooming plants and trees in the spring is astounding. The pink blooms of red-bud trees appear first. Then, spires of creamy flowers top stalks rising from yucca plants (shown at right). A wave of color follows with red paint brushes, purple sage, yellow brittlebush, pink and purple thistle, white pincushion, and daisies of yellow, white, and purple.

All these details of contrasting color and size, from the smallest flower to the sculpted rock monuments, are impossible to detect, much less to synthesize into your experience, when standing behind a guardrail on the rim.

Unfortunately, less than one percent of the canyon’s visitors descend one of the canyon’s steep trails, but the reward for those who do is a true understanding of the canyon’s beauty.

There is usually a noticeable reaction when a person transitions from passing tourist to someone who grasps and fully appreciates the scope and beauty of the canyon. This reaction is sometimes laughter or a broad, satisfied smile or, more often, a quiet and peaceful expression of gratitude.

Want to experience Todd's view of the Grand Canyon? Call REI Adventures at 1-800-622-2236 to reserve your spring 2013 departure date for the Grand Canyon Backpacking trip.

Grandview itinerary: April 4-7, April 11-14, April 18-21, April 25-28.
Hermit's Rest itinerary: May 2-5, May 9-12, May 16-19, May 23-26

All photos courtesy of Todd Wiggins.

Footnote: River and Desert Plants of the Grand Canyon, Huisinga, Makarick, and Watters, Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula, Montana, 2006.

Posted on at 10:00 AM

Tagged: Grand Canyon, Hiking and national parks

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I have not hiked into the canyon, but I am still in awe of it's beauty...even from the rim!

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immortal ben

A friend and I hiked part way down in December of 2011. There was snow all over and fog in the lower parts of the canyon. It was amazing to watch as the fog blew around in the late morning, lifted over a period of a couple of hours, and slowly drifted its way back down in the late afternoon.

Absolutely beautiful! In fact, my avatar pic is from that trip.


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