The Grand Canyon is dappled with ever-changing light
Grand Canyon's Timeless Gift
By Richard Carroll
Photography: Halina Kubalski
xpectations are high upon boarding the history-laden Grand Canyon train
in Williams, Arizona in the heart of the Kaibab National Forest. Recognized
as the "Gateway to the Grand Canyon," the town has the character
66, the Old West, and a 1940s movie set where a straight shot of
whiskey, scuffed boots, and a battered guitar set the mood. The Williams
depot, hosting Grand Canyon travelers since 1908, is the classic launch
point for the 65-mile, two-hour journey to the South Rim of the Grand
Canyon via a 1923 steam engine with restored coaches and a polished
Observation Dome Car.
The Grand Canyon Train that runs from Williams,
Arizona to the Grand Canyon.
First glimpse of the Grand Canyon, the eyes are met
by implausible layers of textures and colors on steep-sided pinnacles
and ancient buttes carved by the wind and rain, a compelling sun, and
the mighty Colorado River. The canyon's vastness and the ever changing
light, a mystical player of luminosity, effortlessly bewilder the human
eye. Deep in the canyon, rock and sediment formed under long forgotten
seas more than two billion years ago are now layers of time as revealed
across the walls and plateaus in ever-shifting vistas that hint at the
infinite in a hypnotizing tug of splendor.
Williams, Arizona, the homebase of the Grand Canyon
Train. Williams, is an earthy, Route 66 town where cow punchers reign.
The distance from rim to rim across the canyon's length
of 277-river miles varies from four to 18 miles, and plummeting downward
a lengthy mile, the canyon walls support five of the seven life zones
of the North American Continent (missing only the Subalpine and Alpine
Tundra). If only one could be a bird for a day and drift across this
grand expanse of glory, lifted by the thermals like a condor on the
hunt. However, in flight or not, taking in the ageless scene from any
viewpoint can quickly place life in perspective.
The historic Grand Canyon Railroad Station.
Far below the rim, the momentous Colorado River, the
indifferent waterway with a defiant agenda, winds tirelessly through
the Canyon, a wonder of history, intrigue, and fascinating deception.
For a split second a gleam of light reflects off the water like a wandering
beacon, a skittering cloud casts patchy hues on stratums of soaring
stonewalls, then the light shifts again and the river flattens out into
a dark mysterious ribbon.
The Grand Canyon trails used today were built by
and for the mules.
The untamed river with its try-me-if-you-dare stance,
was first tested by the unshakeable and fearless 35-year-old Major John
Wesley Powell, a one-armed veteran of the Union Army, who in May of
1869 with 10 courageous men, four bulky boats, and a load of supplies,
accepted the challenge. His grueling 98-day, 1,000-mile exploration
of the unknown from the Green and Colorado Rivers to the mouth of the
Virgin River, through the last significant uncharted expanse of the
West is now an essential element of our country's legacy.
The Grand Canyon from the South Rim.
Train visitors quickly realize that once inside the
Park, the family car is entirely unnecessary; there is little traffic,
and the sensation of being encumbered vanishes into the Canyon's vastness.
It's easy to find your own little world riding a rented bicycle to an
overlook where demanding squirrels scamper about, or hopping aboard
the free shuttle bus where one can begin or end a rim walk at any shuttle
The Grand Canyon late in the afternoon.
A four-hour narrated East Rim tour clarifies the history
of Native Americans who have continuously lived in and around the Grand
Canyon for thousands of years. The Hualapai Tribal Nation, the Havasupai
Tribe, the Navajo Nation, and the Pueblo People who consider the Grand
Canyon a holy site, were among the first humans to set foot in the Canyon,
and remain a presence.
The Grand Canyon, a mile deep, seen from the South
Later the sure-footed mules arrived and are the heart
and soul of the Canyon's modern heritage and a celebrated legacy. The
trails used today were built by and for the mules. Mule rides to and
from the Phantom Ranch located on the floor of the Canyon is a huge
attraction, and for many is the only way to experience the Canyon.
The wranglers believe mules, with eyesight capable of
seeing all four of their hooves, are smarter than horses who can see
only their front two hooves. This is encouraging news for visitors scanning
the steep switchback mule trails that the Canyon seems to swallow in
one big gulp. For those not enamored with switchbacks, the three-hour
South Rim mule ride along the top of the Canyon running through a forest
of towering ponderosa trees and scrub pines, past an occasional coyote,
lead to more awe-inspiring views.
The Grand Canyon's distance from rim to rim varies
from four to 18 miles.
Native Americans were among
the first humans to set foot in the Canyon and remain a presence
as seen in
the Grand Canyon museums.
The Canyon vistas are like a huge magnet luring one
to hop on the trail and hike back in time, though hikers do so at their
peril. For properly prepared hikers, the two day trek to the river and
back can be a marvel of visual splendor as the scenery changes with
every 100 feet drop or rise and with every passing hour. For the ill
prepared or reckless, the trip can be fatal. The Park Rangers explain
that every hot summer day up to 60 hikers are treated for heat-related
problems, and all summer long they rescue a huge number of hikers who
become sick from heat and exhaustion along the various trails. Many
don't carry sufficient water, are wearing pitiable shoes, or are simply
not in strong enough physical condition for a trek down and back up
on the Canyon trails.
Apart from the various trail activities, a charismatic
bonus for visitors is the 78-room El Tovar hotel, a National Historic
Landmark built in 1905 directly on the South Rim. Considered the royalty
of Historic National Park Lodges, the property with no two rooms or
suites alike sets a fine table, and offers full bell service, a knowledgeable
lobby concierge, and for those whose energy is sapped, in-room dining.
The entire property is designated Non-Smoking. If driving, it may help
to know there are no hotel parking fees. Life can be sweet when discovering
the natural world.
The 78-room El Tovar, a National Historic Landmark,
is owned and operated by Xanterra Parks & Resorts Company.
When You Go
The Grand Canyon National Park Lodges, which include
El Tovar, Bright Angel Lodge, Kachina, Thunderbird and Maswik Lodges,
and Phantom Ranch, are owned and operated by the prestigious Xanterra
Parks & Resorts Company.
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