Life On The Edge Part II

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

As a child I became aware of the beginning of Spring when it began to get warmer on sunny afternoons, the blanket of snow that covered my world would begin to melt and form a dirty icy crust on it’s shrinking surface. I didn’t pay attention to calendars and scientific observations of the movement of the sun as it appears to move across the sky. Being outdoors was my world. Observing the wonder of nature was my playground.

Spring began with the magical appearance of green-brown buds popping out of the gray branches of deciduous trees and bushes. The buds would slowly explode into clusters of bright green leaves, it‘s branches quickly disappearing behind the green veil. It was as if the ‘dead’ trees would come back to life.

I still observe nature the way I did in my youth. I’ve visited the Grand Canyon for the last 16 springs and noted that spring at the canyon doesn’t match up with the scientific calendar for the beginning of Spring.

Spring comes to the Grand Canyon very slowly. Normally, Spring begins for the northern half of the world in late March, but nothing is normal about the Grand Canyon.

Because of the great differences in elevation of nearly a vertical mile between the Colorado River on the bottom of the canyon, and the evergreen forests growing along the South and North rims, spring and winter conditions can exist at the same time in different areas of the canyon. The first visible evidence of spring growth begins in late February along the bottom of the canyon, and slowly makes it‘s way up to the top of it’s lofty cliffs over a period of 3 ½ months. The climate at the bottom is similar to Tucson while the rim of the Grand Canyon is higher than the top of the Appalachian Mountains. There can be flowers blooming along the river and two feet of snow along the rim at the same time.

The first visible indication of the arrival of spring on the South Rim can be seen from Yavapai Point Observation Center in late February to early March. Looking straight down into what appears to be the middle of the canyon you can see a crescent-moon shaped patch of bright spring yellow-green. The color is created by the new growth of young cottonwood leaves in a slow motion explosion of life spreading outward along the tree’s network of branches. In addition you may be able to see the rectangular outlines of the buildings of Phantom Ranch beneath the canopy of leaves. To the right of the spring green is a arrowhead shaped patch of the Colorado River straddled by the black line of the South Kaibab Trail bridge spanning the changing colors of the river. What appears to be a tiny black line is actually a bridge big enough for mule trains to cross. It allows hikers descending the South Kaibab Trail to cross the river to connecting trails, Phantom Ranch and the top of the north rim.

Though spring temperatures begin to rise throughout the month of March along the river, the temperatures along the rim of the canyon rise more slowly with cold piercing winds and blowing snow possible into late April. Even when it warms up in early summer, with temperatures into the 60-70s on the rims, it can still drop into the twenties Fahrenheit by sunrise.

Spring rises onto the Tonto Platform through the month of March. The Tonto Platform is visible throughout the canyon as the flat land 3300 feet below you covered with what appears to be velvet-like dots. The “dots” are actually bushes and shrubs 3-6 feet ( 1-2m) in diameter. From the Canyon Village hotel viewpoints you can see the trees at Indian Gardens changing to spring green by late March.

In late March, along the rim, you could be dressed in shorts and a tee-shirt playing “lizard” in the warm Arizona sun, or bundled up in your winter coat as gusting winds are slapping your face with freezing snow. When visiting the canyon’s south rim in the spring it’s a good idea to bring a mix of clothes with you for everything from warm weather to sub-zero temperatures. A good windbreaker, stocking hat and a scarf are a must if you arrive when a mass of cold air is blowing through the viewpoints as it swirls eastward through the cliffs and buttes of the canyon.

As March turns into April the wind patterns of our world begin to change from their winter flow into a drier air flow. The southwest U.S. moves into it’s spring dry season where cloudless skies outnumber the days with clouds. Though the snows of the South Rim are generally melted by early to mid April it is still possible to get a snowstorm blowing through and short lived whiteouts can occur at the viewpoints.

My favorite time to be at the canyon are the storm days. If you’re really lucky and arrive just as a storm is clearing you get to see the mystical side of the canyon. The clouds swirl through the side canyons, and at times pour over the cliffs and engulf the buttes in a slow motion flood of gray white mist. Parts of the canyon disappear behind the clouds, then like an expanding telescope the clouds begin to thin and unforgettable view of the colors and shapes of the canyon appear like a ghost ship coming through the fog. Snowflakes change their form into tiny round “snowballs” creating for the less observant a hail storm. It’s not hail but tiny spheres of soft snow that can accumulate into a thin blanket 1-2 inches thick along the rim.

Sunrise can be bitterly cold through out the Spring even though sunset may be pleasantly warm. Once the sun goes down the temperatures drop very quickly throughout the year. As the night sky slowly rises from the east and day fades into the west the stars begin to appear. On a moonless night the stars come out in a display that rivals your first view of the canyon. It is a sight most visitors never see because after sunset most have dinner then retreat to their hotel room for the rest of the night It is an awe inspiring sight that is really a must when visiting the southwest.

When going out to observe the stars each person needs their own flashlight, and warm clothes. A blanket or a open sleeping bag makes good warm wraps. Find a place where there are no lights of buildings visible in any direction, and a good open view of the night sky. It takes a few minutes for your eyes to completely adapt to the dark but you will be amazed by the multitude of stars that will fill the sky above you. Avoid looking at any white lights while looking up at the stars. Red light doesn’t affect your night vision like white light. While looking at a star book to match up the constellations you need to cover one flashlight light so that it will give off a red colored light. This will allow you to see the charts in the star book without harming your night vision. If you go out to Mather Point you’ll find the canyon will be pure black below you an only broken by lights at Phantom Ranch and the North Rim Lodge.

As April transform into the normally cloudless skies of May and June the afternoon temperatures along the South Rim warm into the 70 and 80’s Fahrenheit, yet sunrise can be 30 to 50 degrees colder. As long as it’s not windy the temperatures will warm quickly once the sun begins to rise in the eastern sky. Once the sun comes up I suggest finding a good view away from the sun toward the western portion of the canyon. For the next hour, as the sun rises in the east, the light, shadows, and colors of the canyon will go through a dramatic kaleidoscope of changing patterns. Most people watch the sun rise, then leave immediately, missing out on the full extent of a Grand Canyon sunrise.
Finally by mid May, spring has arrived along the South rim of the Canyon, with wildflowers beginning to bloom at the viewpoints and the wonderful fragrance of the white-yellow flowers of the cliff rose shrub begins to permeate the air at the viewpoints. At the same time the temperatures at the bottom of the canyon along the Colorado river are approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit every afternoon.

The canyon’s North Rim Lodge and campgrounds have been closed since mid-October, and don’t open again until mid-May. Highway access, south of Jacob Lake to the North Rim, remained closed throughout the winter due to deep snow, The North Rim is only open in the summer and is a totally different experience from the South Rim, which stays open all year.

By mid-June, as Spring begins to turn to summer, the world wind patterns begin to change again and moisture begins to move northward into the Southwest from Mexico creating what is known as the summer rainy season, or the ‘Monsoon’s’. Mornings tend to be cloudless in early June with tiny cumulus clouds begin to appear in the afternoon skies, but as summer arrives officially in late June the summer cumulonimbus clouds, known as thunderstorms, begin to tower over the canyon.

Every season, every day, is a new experience at the Grand Canyon and worth more than one visit. When visiting the canyon allow yourself to see it through the eyes of a child. Let time slow down and your senses take over.

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

~Les Graff


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