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The Long Way Down in Grand Canyon

There is a sense of surrealism when I get to the edge of the rift. The landscape, picturesque with fir and spruce yet flat as a crêpe, suddenly opens up in front of me. It is a mammoth gash, as if a colossal knife stabbed into the ground leaving an abrupt, yawning gap. Looking over the edge of the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, I see endless cake layers of red, orange, and brown. The multi-colored strata summon me to explore their cryptic depths. I choose the North Kaibab trail, running down the precipitous switch back as the canyon soars, its thin bands swelling into thick slices of geologic history. The farther I go down the deeper I enter into the story of our earth, my steps easily transporting me from the Permian period to the Carboniferous period to the Cambrian period. Each is a hundred million years worth of lost animals, plants, and tumultuous climate change.

“Present time vanishes as I race through the eras;”

the sun blazes overhead before I realize that I have traveled over seven miles into the gorge. The descent is so easy that I continue just a little further, then a little further on, until the rim is an indistinct slash across the sapphire horizon. Squinting at it, I wonder if I have made a huge mistake.

grand canyon pathThe day is dying and I forgot to calculate for the harsh climb back to the top of the Grand Canyon. I halt in my tracks, face about, then start the steep ascent darting past fellow hikers with determined faces and substantial backpacks; but scaling the trail is not like gliding down the ravine. The chasm bakes in exposed sun which bleaches the rocks into shades of beige and rose. Vapors shimmer from the sizzling walls warmed throughout the long day. My pleasurable trek turns into painful drudgery. Every stride sends fire arrows down my thighs. I pant and sweat in the late afternoon heat, while my head steams. I dig my cumbersome way up with my back bent forward, my nose almost pressed to my knees. I gasp step by step past the merry rovers traipsing down. At this hour no one is heading up the abyss with me. I lean against the rock bands to catch my breath. It is thirsty work so I take a sip from my canteen only to feel it unbearably light. I shake it to hear a faint splash. I peer in to catch a sliver of liquid. There is not enough water for my journey back. I might have made a huge mistake.

grand canyon stationThe hours tick by as my pace slackens. The sun sets in a crimson conflagration while I am still making my progress toward the Canyon’s lip. The colors, though gorgeous, symbolize the bodily and mental misery I am suffering. My throat is parched, my head throbs, and a thousand lead pins travel down my legs with every tread. I know I have made a huge mistake. I should not have gotten distracted by the effortless travel into the crevasse. I should have planned for the return ascension. I should have paced myself physically for double the mileage. I didn’t and now I am paying the piper.

“Yet even in my unfortunate condition I do not regret my mistake.”

If I had not entered this storybook world I would never know the thrill of discovering our planet’s past. I would never have touched those radiant lithographic slabs. I would never have experienced the dangers of hiking the Grand Canyon. It was an error I had to make in order to know firsthand the hazards of couloir tramping. This is not my first adventure blunder, but as I slog up the switch back in the waning dusk I recall all my other goofs —some humorous, some hurtful, and others colossal— both during my travels and in life. I have grieved over every one and often berated myself for making them when I should be thankful for each of them. They have enriched me with stories, they have painfully nurtured my growth, and they have made my life valuable.

The stars are just peeping through a cobalt velvet sky when I stumble up onto the rim. My trembling legs, my sore back, and my dust-covered hands have all learned an important lesson: always plan for the return portion of an up-and-back hiking trip. After a two-week rest in bed I will be able to laugh about this. It is not the last time I will make a mistake, though. What future blunders will I commit? I do not know, yet intend to embrace them as they guide me towards better decisions. My missteps will all be adventures in my life’s journey; without making them I will simply be left at the starting gate. Where is the fun in that?


The Grand Canyon is 6,000 feet (1,800 meters) deep with over two billion years of geology exposed through its delicate hued strata. Given so much history to peruse, it is natural to lose track of time examining the chasm walls. Always plan your hikes into the Canyon, bringing enough water for the return trip.

Have you visited the Grand Canyon? Have you ever made a hiking mistake?

43 replies »

  1. Oh that sounds scary – I nearly ran out of water on the Iceberg Lake trail in Glacier, but yours was a far lengthier and more strenuous hike. I’m glad you made it out okay – beautiful photographs, too!

  2. I can see myself doing that! Arizona and Utah parks are so overwhelmingly, remarkably beautiful that it’s easy to fall into a trance and forget just how dangerous and unforgiving they can also be. I am glad you got out and can laugh about it. I understand your joy at this experience.

    • It’s good to be able to make mistakes one can learn from, but using common sense is the best resource. But I so agree with you that there are times when the sheer gorgeousness of a natural landscape makes me forget to keep my wits about me.

  3. Lucky, lucky punk.
    I went there only once, and the rangers said if was the foggiest day they had had in years. You could only see about 100 feet out and 200 feet down. The mystique was gone.

  4. Marvelous memoirs from your Grand Canyon adventure. I really like the mental imagery you’ve created with phrases about the landscape, “picturesque with fir and spruce yet flat as a crêpe.” We journeyed to the Grand Canyon in 2012, but could only spend a few hours there. Someday I would love to make this hike to the canyon floor, heeding your wise words, of course.

    A hiking mistake, you ask? The first one that comes to mind was an early-morning trek through the forest around Heidelberg, Germany. I went solo on this occasion, and encountered a wild boar mama and her babies. I immediately froze in my tracks, feeling quite ashamed that I hadn’t let anyone know I’d gone strolling in the forest all on my own. As I instinctively searched for a tree trunk to scale, the mama and her little ones waddled off. It took a while for my adrenaline to subside! 🙂

  5. Great writing and photos, I have to say I was getting very worried about you, even though I knew you’d got out otherwise you wouldn’t have been able to write about it! I visited the GC in 2010 and that first sight is a jaw-dropping experience that I’ll never forget, although my jaw was to drop many times during that road trip. I learned my limitations in 2000 when climbing up the Grampians in Australia’s state of Victoria and decided, when faced with slope of scree, that this just wasn’t fun any more. I’m still inquisitive, just not quite as foolhardy as I once was. Thoroughly enjoyed this post, and VERY glad you got out of there without mishap.

  6. Fantastic photos of the awesome canyon and yes I have walked down in 1990 and staggered step by painful step back up, high stepping, 2 steps then stop, then another 2 steps, over the steep ruts left by the mules as they carried their passengers down and up the easy??? way ( but I think nerve wracking and painful for other parts of the anatomy!!!) Your description brought all those memories flooding back. Thank you for taking me there again.

  7. What a great tale, and a wonderful collection of photos for all your effort. I love the change in atmosphere as you turn back and begin your long climb….I bet your legs hurt for a while after this…..but so worth it for these beautiful shots, and as you say a descent into prehistory 🙂

  8. Beautiful photos and narrative of your tantalization and scary hike through the magnificent Grand Canyon.I remember visiting it many years ago when my children were younger and was so scared every time they wondered too close to the edge. I was on edge the entire time, and the signs warning of impending death should one get too close didn’t help. I’ve never hiked but what an amazing tale you have to tell and thank goodness you came out of there as you did.

    • Thanks Sherri. I think the photos don’t truly capture how enormous and frightening and gorgeous the Grand Canyon is! Being at the very edge of it is scary and I have heard of many unfortunate accidents happening when people were not careful of how near the rim they stood! Glad you had a chance to see this with your children. Do they still remember the trip?

      • Everyone I know who has tried to capture the Grand Canyon with photos says the same, me included! My photos are disappointing in my mind but I love yours. Yes, the children do very much remember it. I’m so grateful to have had the chance to take them to there. Have a wonderful weekend 🙂

  9. Oh wow! You just know this is the kind of mistake I make, AG! How else to get such spectacular shots? 🙂 🙂 I know- a little planning never hurt anyone! I’ve been known to forget the water but not on this hike!!!

    Can I link this to my walks next week? It really is fabulous. And did you see the links to the ‘nuts’ both me and Jude left you?

    • I know Jo: we would make terrible (but fun) walking companions without supervision! 🙂 I would be delighted if you linked my story to your walks next week! Thank you so much for including me! Yes, I just went to the Leeds art link you and Jude provided. Thanks to both of you for taking the time to look into this for me. 🙂 Reading the description I don’t know if I get the “boat” shapes, but now the barley seeds make sense.

      • I was confused by the boat shapes too. You’re very welcome. Your work is always so beautifully written. It’ll be a pleasure to put a link in for you. 🙂

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