Life On The Edge Part III

A fascinating series exploring the Grand Canyon by veteran Southwest tour guide and historian, Les Graff.

The cool windy days of spring, with it’s cloudless skies, and freezing night time temperatures, slowly give way to the warmer days and nights of summer and it’s rainy season called “The Monsoons”.  Beginning in early July a huge High Pressure System sets up near the Four Corners area and the winds in the Southwest United States begin to change from the flow patterns of the last 6-7 months. Since early November the wind patterns,  originating in the north Pacific, have been bringing cold air from the northwest  into the canyon area. With the “Monsoons”, the clockwise rotation of the air within the High Pressure System pulls warm moist air over Mexico northward into Arizona.

The main summer events at the canyon are the “Monsoons” and the possibility of spectacular sunsets and sunrises. The thunderstorms tend to form in the afternoon and early evening hours and can be inspirational in their combined power and majesty. At sunrise the blue sky will be either cloudless,  or spotted with leftover moisture from yesterdays rains. The residual moisture will appear as layers of varied cumulus and stratus cloud formations creating white-gray “pancakes” and “popcorn” at different elevations in the sky, or as a white mist swirling and rising upwards along the cliffs below.  In addition, an added benefit of the monsoon clouds can be the best sunrises and sunsets of the year.  ( I discussed how to experience a sunset and sunrise in previous articles on the canyon ).

The moist air  of the “Monsoons” is heated by the sun and radiant heat rising from the bare rocks of the canyon walls. The heated air is lighter, less dense than the cooler air hiding in shadow areas within the canyon, and thus create variation in the temperatures in and around the Grand Canyon.  The presence of cooler and warmer air and their attraction for one another put the surrounding air into motion.

Invisible to the human eye, large bubbles of warm moist air rise upward into the stratosphere. As you travel upward into the atmosphere the air gets cooler.  Cold air cannot hold as much moisture as warm air  and so at  the elevation where the temperature is just right, the  moisture in the rising warm air condenses into visible clouds. That elevation where condensation begins often results in a flat bottom of the growing cloud.

The rising moisture continues upwards in ever changing rounded billowing explosions of condensation. If the storm is powerful enough the rising condensation will rise up into high altitude horizontal winds that can “cut off” the top of the growing thunderstorm and create an “anvil top”. This is a sign of a very powerful storm. Rising droplets of condensation can be carried high into freezing temperatures toward the top of the storm where they freeze and fall out of the cloud in the form of hail.

By mid to late afternoon a few of the puffy popcorn cumulus have grown dramatically in a vertical slow motion dance upwards into  the sky reaching elevations of 10, 20, 30, 40,000 feet, or more and earn the name Cumulonimbus – The Thunderstorm.

On a smaller scale, small bubbles of heated air rise up from the bottom of the Grand Canyon, where afternoon temperatures can reach into the 110*F/40*C range during the summer months, and are sought out by the local ravens, turkey vultures, and California Condors. You’ll see the large birds far below searching for and catching a rising bubble of heated air and then by staying in a tight circle, they’ll slowly rise up on the air, their wings straight out with no flapping needed in order to climb. Finally as they reach the level of the viewpoint they’ll quickly rise by you without a single flap of their wings. You can almost hear the ravens say, ” nee-ner, nee-ner”.

If you spend some time watching the birds you get the distinct feeling that there is some “play” going on the skies and down into the  depths of the canyon, particularly between the ravens. They mate for life and are considered by those who study them as being the most intelligent bird on Earth. They’ll chase each other across the sky, somersault , roll sideway’s, and tuck their wings to their sides, and together, dive at a steep descent into the depths of the canyon, only to catch another thermal and rise out of the canyon once again. It sometimes reminds me of scenes from the movie “Avatar “.

Over the thousands of times that I’ve seen the canyon my favorite time to visit are the stormy days. To luck out and catch a thunderstorm over the canyon,( As long as it’s not directly above you.) it’s flashes of jagged lightening  reaching down into the rocky depths, followed by the distant rumble of thunder making it’s way through the  many canyons of the Grand Canyon, is a “bucket moment”. Thunder is the only sound that echoes in the canyon.

A particular inspirational experience is to catch a thunderstorm at night as it moves slowly over the canyon. For an instant the lightening flashes will light up a section of the canyon below, like a giant flashbulb going off. The canyons steep cliffs, tree covered slopes and even the colors of the rocks will be visible  for only that brief  instant then be reabsorbed by the black of night. The near vertical sheets of rain falling out of the darkness wrap themselves around the flashes of jagged electricity, and for that instant they are imprinted forever upon your memories.

If the storm catches you out at a viewpoint get inside your car as fast as you can. Do not stand out at a viewpoint with a metal camera and a metal tripod taking pictures of lightening hitting below you. Nearly every year someone is hit by lightening at the canyon viewpoints. Don’t hide in your tent in the campground, get into your car or a nearby building. Don’t stand under a big tree to wait out the storm. Many of the big pines show vertical scars from previous lightening strikes that blew the bark off the tree as it grounded down the tree.

If you’re on a trail below the rim and get caught by a storm stay out of low places where the rain run off from the thunderstorm can become a flashflood.   Be aware the most likely time for rocks to fall from the cliffs above you is when it’s raining or shortly after the rain stops. Pay attention to the weather forecasts before you hike into the canyon. It’s actually very important to get educated about hiking into the canyon, particularly in the summer.  You must have healthy knees, healthy heart, and healthy lungs.  If you are missing any one of these physical attributes then enjoy the canyon from the rim viewpoints.
It can be 40F at sunrise and by the time you hike to the bottom of the canyon it can be 110F. Even expert hikers can get into serious trouble, very quickly, in the depths of the canyon on a summer day. It can be clear blue skies above you but a thunderstorm 10 miles away can send a wall of water churning it’s way down side canyons and wash you away if you’re not aware and prepared.

Summer at the Grand Canyon can be a season of extremes. While the night temperatures at the higher elevations of the North Rim can be near freezing, the afternoons at the bottom of the Grand Canyon can be as hot as Phoenix.
The South Rim, the most visited area within the park, has more moderate temperatures both day and night than either the North Rim or the bottom of the canyon.   Afternoon temperatures will often hover between 70-85 degrees , and the coolest temperatures, just before sunrise, will generally vary between 38-46 *F. At the North Rim viewpoints the temperatures generally will be 5-10 degrees F cooler than the South Rim, both day and night, while the bottom of the canyon will be 25-35 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than either rim of the canyon.

The summers can also be the busiest time of the year at the canyon when it comes to visitors. However most people don’t get started until around 10;00A.M. so if you get an early start to your day you can get ahead of the crowds and stay ahead of the afternoon thunderstorms.

The ultimate summer experience is to see a thunderstorm floating over the canyon with a full moon lighting up everywhere not darkened by cloud shadows. Every trip to the canyon is a truly unique experience, but a visit during the “Monsoon” season is highly recommended  for everyone’s bucket list. Have a wonderful, safe experience at the grandest canyon of them all.

-Les Graff

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