Life On The Edge: Part 1


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

The Grand Canyon, cutting through the Colorado Plateau in Northern Arizona, is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Pictures can’t possibly prepare you for your first view of the canyon. It becomes even more fascinating when you discover that you can visit many times and never experience the thrill and beauty of the canyon the same way twice. In this, the first in a series of articles and photographs, I hope to offer a glimpse of the changing seasons, natural glory, and awesome wonder that is the Grand Canyon.

I’ve been taking people on tours of the canyon for 16 years and have seen the canyon more than two thousand times. I still have days at a viewpoint when I’m as much or more excited than my passengers, and always, always have my camera with me.

The many moods of the Grand Canyon are seen throughout the changing seasons. Each visit to the canyon is a unique experience providing possible wow moments with each new view.

In planning a visit it’s important to be prepared for the weather you might experience. At 7000 feet (2134m) above sea level the weather can change quickly.  Dressing appropriately can mean the difference between an awesome experience and a miserable memory. Every year is uniquely different when it comes to the weather, no two winters or summers will be the same.
In general the canyon has two wet and two dry seasons. The winter rainy season usually lasts from mid-November to mid-March. The moisture comes mostly from the northwest in the form of wet snow.  It is not uncommon for snowfalls of 2-3 feet (1/2 to 1m.) at a time. The roads are plowed but there can be icy spots on the rim highway in areas where tree shadows prevent the sunlight from warming the road. Due to winter weather the North Rim of the canyon closes every winter from mid-October to mid-May, however the South Rim stays open all year.

The summer monsoon season, usually runs from mid-July to mid-September. The wind patterns change during the spring, from the cold winter winds from the northwest, to the summer flow of warm moist air coming up out of the south.  The moist southerly air is further heated and rises upward into cooler air at higher altitudes to condense into growing flat bottomed towering cumulonimbus clouds. They usually develop from early afternoon into the evening hours, and often pack very dangerous lightning. Leave a viewpoint immediately if there is lightning in the area, take shelter in your car or Canyon Village buildings. Though spring and fall are dry seasons, and cloudless skies are more common, powerful storms, packing cold winds, rain, and scattered snow flurries can still occur, adding to the unpredictable wonder of the canyon.

Your first view of the canyon is one you will never forget.  What I often offer with my tour group is the option of not seeing the canyon out the window as we pull up to the first view.  Instead I suggest they look down and then as they step out of the vehicle I guide them over to the guardrail, have them stop, close their eyes, lift their heads and open their eyes. When they do, the Grand Canyon is spread out in front of them in a breathe taking panoramic wonderland. The wide eyed wow on their faces is priceless.

If hiking is on your agenda it is important to get educated about the uniqueness of the Grand Canyon experience. As you make your way down the  trails it gets hotter and dryer as you descend.  It can be 80 F.( 27 C.) on the South Rim and 110 F. (43 C.) at the river at the same time. Because of the elevation, temperatures and seasons at the bottom of the canyon along the Colorado river are similar to Tucson in southern Arizona. The rim of the canyon is higher than the highest of the Appalachian Mountains and the air is thin. If you have a history of breathing problems or a bad heart keep in mind you’re at 7000 feet ( 2134 m) above sea level on the South Rim, and 8000+ feet ( 2438m)  on the North Rim.  The weather can change very quickly and flashfloods and lightning can pose serious danger during the summer, while snowfall on the rim can turn into wet cold rain down in the canyon at the same time.

To hike down into the canyon you must have a healthy heart, good knees and good lungs. If you are missing any one of the three you should enjoy   yourself at the viewpoints or the Rim Trail. Hiking downhill is the easy part, it’s when you turn around and start up you find out that you made a mistake. A good rule of thumb is for every hour walking downhill you should plan on two hours uphill. It not only gets hotter as you go down the hiking trails but you’ll also have to deal with the elevation and thinness of the air on the walk back to the top. Besides appropriate clothing, a large brim hat and a good sunscreen, be certain to take along enough water and salty food for each person. Drink your water, don’t just carry is around like the cowboys in the movies. Dehydration and heat exhaustion happens quickly. Check with the Back Country office at the park for more information about hiking in the canyon.

The Rim Trail is a great paved trail, for hikers for all levels and is wheelchair accessible. The trail extends from the Bright Angel/El Tovar hotel area in both directions along the edge of the canyon toward the west and Hopi Point, and to the east past Mather Point. It can be one long hike or can be broken into pieces over a period of days.  You can park your car and take the free shuttles to a variety of viewpoints and hiking trails.

One of the must see events at the canyon is sunset. What many visitors don’t know about sunset at the canyon is that Sunset isn’t toward the sun, but instead, put your back to the setting sun and watch what happens to the cliffs and canyon walls to the east. As the sun sets in the west the low angle rays of sunlight flood the canyon and cliffs to the east creating spectacular colors, and stark contrasts between light and shadow. Sitting in quiet along the canyon rim and watching the sunset is one of nature’s most unforgettable events. The last hour before official sunset and the 15 minutes after the sun goes down can be the most spectacular time of day at the canyon. And depending on clouds, the sunset can be different every day.

After the sun disappears and the bright light fades from the eastern view of the canyon, then turn to where you can get a good western view. If you’re really lucky there’ll be scattered cumulus clouds floating over the canyon in all directions. which may light up in brilliant colors and patterns in the fading light. Once the sun has gone over the horizon you then have about 15 minutes to find a place to sit and watch the sunlight coming over the curve of the Earth and light up the undersides of the clouds. If you stay at the rim to watch day fade into night be sure that each person has a working flashlight, and stay safely back from the edge of the canyon. As twilight slowly takes over the canyon the show isn’t over. Act II is about to begin.

If it’s a moonless night the view of the star filled night sky can bring gasps and wows  that rival the first view of the canyon itself. At sunset, when the sky is cloudless you can see the shadow of the Earth rising just above the eastern horizon as a dark gray-blue line parallel to the horizon.  A faint, soft pastel rainbow of colors often lies in horizontal layers just above the shadow of the Earth. The dark gray-blue, has been called <i>cloak of night</i>. It will rise over the top of us and when it reaches the western horizon, the stars will appear.

As the Earth rotates toward the east, Arizona and the Grand Canyon turn toward our window to the stars – the night sky. With the lack of city lights it becomes so dark you can see the colors of the thousands of twinkling stars above in red, blue, white, yellow and orange. The soft glow of the Milky Way, the disk of our galaxy, stretches overhead from horizon to horizon. There are so many stars that it can take time to find easy constellations. City dwellers will be, in particular, amazed at the view of the stars. Planets don’t twinkle like stars and will be moving east to west across the southern sky. A group of volunteer amateur astronomers often set up their telescopes at Yavapai Point and share their knowledge with anyone interested in learning about the night sky. Check with the Visitor’s Center for times.

When the moon is full, the sunlight bouncing off the surface of the moon blinds out much of the stars but lights up the Grand Canyon into a surreal panoramic landscape. The light of the full moon is bright enough to see details in the cliffs and depths of the canyon. The rim trails are so bright that hiking during a full moon is a safe and unforgettable experience providing you stay strictly to the paved trails. The shadows are deceiving and the canyon will look different so stepping closer for a better look can be a bad idea. Mather Point and Yavapai Point are excellent for night visits to the canyon. Check with the Visitor’s Center for times when Park Rangers do star and moon gazing activities.

With sunrise everything is reversed. You want to be at the viewpoint 30 minutes before official sunrise and watch the colors the rising sun will create in the clouds before it clears the horizon. Most people leave as soon as the sun appears, when in fact this is the beginning of the canyon’s unique sunrise display. After the sun rises find a good view of the western canyon and then stick around for the next hour and watch what happens to the canyon cliffs as the sun rises higher and the brilliant, low angle morning sunlight descends deeper into the canyon.

Both sunset and sunrise are sheer poetic artistry at its finest. If you visit the Grand Canyon and miss either event, you’ve missed half the experience.
The more times you visit the Grand Canyon, with its varied seasons, moods and quiet raw energy, the more you will find yourself in a state of awe and wonder again and again.

Most people get to visit the canyon only once in their lifetime. If you can, I suggest at least three visits during different seasons, once during the winter snow season, December through mid-March,  a second visit during the summer rainy season, mid-July to mid-September and a third during the fall dry season from late September to mid October. The canyon rarely looks the same two days in a row and each visit will be as unique as the first.

Photos by Les Graff. Additional material for this article kindly provided by Roberta Treadway.

~Les Graff

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