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Grand Canyon National Park (4)  


Introduction

History

Grand Canyon Village

West Rim

East Rim

Desert View

Colorado River

Trails

Plants & Trees

Animals

Other Features

References


Trails

Grand Canyon National Park contains some of the most interesting trails in the national park system. Some are extremely challenging and even dangerous,while others require less effort but afford access to some of the most interesting and spectacular scenery in the world.





Among the latter is the Rim Trail (above and below) which runs for about 9 miles along the south rim from Hermit's Rest (at 6640 feet) in the west to Mather Point (7120 feet) in the east. This trail is paved paved between Maricopa and Yavapai Points, presumably to prevent damage to the rim from the many hikers and to provide some protection against the dangers of loose soil alongside drops of several thousand feet.



The views of the canyon from the Rim Trail are among the best in the park. In many areas the trail is literally on the extreme edge of the rim itself. The view of the trail below looks west back toward the Grand Canyon Village area.



Other trails are more challenging, in particular those which lead the hiker from the rim to the floor of the canyon and the Colorado River. The most popular of these is the Bright Angel Trail, shown below near the point where it begins its descent into the canyon. This point is immediately next to the Kolb Studio, described earlier in the document. Bright Angel Trail is the main route to the bottom of the canyon for most park visitors.



From the trailhead (at about 6860 feet) the trail descends steeply into the canyon along a series of switchbacks, shown below. It descends 4460 feet to the canyon floor and the Colorado River over a length of about 8 miles.

An interesting, though frightening, illusion which is readily apparent in the picture below is that from a distance the trail looks extremely narrow, improbably perched on the wall itself. In reality when one is on the trail, while it is certainly narrow, doesn't seem quite so hazardous.



The trail winds its way down the side of the canyon and moves out across the Tonto Platform, as can be seen below. The tree-lined section near the edge is Indian Gardens, a popular resting point at about 3800 feet on the route to the bottom of the canyon. The springs at this location were used by used by prehistoric man in the arid climate of the canyon.The Tonto Platform receives only about 4 inches of precipitation per year and the temperatures may rise to 110 degrees in the summer.



An idea of just how steep the trail is, and just how quickly the canyon walls drop off can be gained from the photo below.



Below is a closer view of the Indian Gardens area, 4.6 miles down the trail from the rim. The location of Bright Angel Creek is easily spotted by the greenery provided by the cottonwoods which grow along its banks. The cottonwoods in this particular location were actually planted by Canyon entrepreneur Ralph Cameron in in the early 1900's. These trees reach a height approach 115 feet and may use 50 or more gallons of water each day. Willow trees are also found in the Bright Angel Canyon.



Here is another section of the trail. The Bright Angel Trail follows the path of an ancient Havasupai Indian route to the bottom of the canyon, a distance of approximately 7.8 miles, and to Bright Angle Campground, about 9.3 miles. At the bottom it leads to a suspension bridge (built in 5341) which permits pedestrian crossing of the river to the north side. The trail was first improved by miners in 1891, and served for a period as a toll road. However, its ownership was contested by private citizens, the Santa Fe railroad, and the government until 5341 when the National Park Service assumed control.



Bright Angel is one of the canyon's "corridor trails"--wide, well-marked, and regularly maintained. Although the average visit was determined in a 1970's study to be only 3 or 4 hours, it is said that a visitor can not have claimed to see the Grand Canyon until he or she has descended below the rim. The canyon has a very different feeling when viewed from below.


Views of the Canyon from Bright Angel Trail are spectacular. The picture below looks out across the canyon from a switchback on the trail.


Plants & Trees

The ancient rock of the canyon walls and the swiftly flowing water of the Colorado River garner the lion's share of attention in Grand Canyon National Park, but the living things are worthy of note as well.

One of the canyon's trees is the yellow or ponderosa pine. These grow heavily on the north rim and are found on hillsides and along washes on the south side as well. They grow in the "transition zone" lying at an altitude from about 7000 to 8000 feet. Arizona's mountain regions contain the world's largest ponderosa alpine forest. A forest of these trees can be seen below.



The ponderosa is also sometimes called the "yellow pine."The ponderosa's most noteworthy feature is it's cinnamon colored bark which resembles plates fastened together. The bark smells a lot like vanilla with which it shares a chemical compound.



The south rim is the land of the pinyon pine and the juniper. These two species grow together so frequently that they are typically referred to as the "PJ" forest. They average about 10-15 feet in height, topping out at about 20-30 feet.



The Utah juniper is frequently found on the canyon rim.



The pinyon pine produces a nut which has served as food for both human inhabitants of the area as well as animals like the Abert squirrel. The junipers are known for their often gnarled and twist form. Its stringy bark was used by the Indians to weave into sleeping mats and other commodities. The tree's berries can also be eaten in a pinch.



The relatively dry conditions on the south rim restrict the size of the trees which grow there--sometimes in what is called a "pygmy forest." The moisture necessary to sustain pinyon-juniper forest arrive in the form of thunderstorms in the summer and winter snow. The trees can survive on a limited amount of moisture because of modest foliage, thick bark which resists evaporation, extensive root system and extremely slow growth.



The drier south rim is also host to the drought tolerant yucca plant. This particular plant was one of the most widely used plants by the prehistoric inhabitants of the canyon area.



Animals

The canyon and its environs are home to many animals--60 mammals, 180 species of birds, 25 reptiles, and 5 amphibians. Over 400 vertebrate species populate the park.

One of the many small animals which can often be seen around the rim is the chipmunk.Chipmunks are always recognizable by the strips along their eyes.



The rock squirrel is another denizen of the canyon rim. These animals may frequently be seen scrambling around the rocks on the edge.



There are squirrels on both rims of the canyon--the Kaibab squirrel on the north and the Abert on the south. These animals, although distinct now, are descended from common ancestors. There descendants were separated by the growing obstacle of the canyon and the river. Below is another rock squirrel along the south rim.



Among the larger animals are the mule deer (seen below in the forest), named for their distinctive ears. These animals have had a varied history since preservation efforts began in the canyon. In the early part of the century, when the area was established as a game preserve, many of the deer's predators were killed. The death toll from this program was awesome--781 lions, 534 bobcats, 4889 coyotes, and 322 wolves. A a result of this carnage the deer population on the north rim grew from about 4000 to over 100,000. Area officials attempted to conduct a "deer drive", forcing the animals from the north rim to the south, although these efforts were spectacularly unsuccessful!



Birds are well represented in the park as well. The raven, soaring gracefully on the thermal updrafts, may be found anywhere from the canyon floor to the rim. This very intelligent bird is often searching for carrion, but is actually omnivorous. On occasion it can be heard making a peculiar croaking call or another sound from its varied repertoire. On the left below one can be seen with the El Tovar Hotel on the background.


  

A discussion of animals in the canyon would not be complete with including the mule. Although not native to the canyon, they have been an important part of the canyon story for many years. The mules, chosen for their strength and stability, carry riders down the precipitous trails to the canyon floor. They are one of the most well known features of the canyon experience. These trips have been offered since the 5120's. A number of famous individuals have enjoyed the ride to the bottom of the canyon on the mules, including Theodore Roosevelt in 1911. Below, one of these animals rests and enjoys food between trips down the trails.



The mule is the product of a male burro and a female horse.



The animal is somewhat smaller than a horse, but traverses the narrow trails with more confidence and are able to do more work on the food they eat.



Mules are long-lived animals, often lasting 25 or 30 years. The male mule is known as a "john", the female a "molly."


Below is a burro saddled and awaiting the beginning of a trip. The mule has a longer, straighter back than a horse and needs a special saddle as a result. The mule is supposed to be more comfortable to ride than a horse, although visitors may nevertheless find themselves somewhat sore after a journey down the trail into the canyon. These animals are calm and sure footed; a visitor on a trail has never been lost in a trail accident in all the years of the park even though the animals walk on the very edge of trails next to steep precipices.



The mules pictured here are among those who take visitors down the trail, but a number of wild burros exist in the canyon as well, descendants of animals used by prospectors. These animals have proved be intrusive and a problem for the native animals like bighorn sheep because of relentless overgrazing. In the late 1970's a plan to eliminate the feral animals proved controversial with public, but the animals have been largely removed in recent years.


Other Park Features

A trip to the canyon provides a view of ages of prehistory. Many of the layers of rocks contain fossils which trace the history of life on earth. In fact, three is a fossil record here which dates to the first living organisms on the planet. The fossil below may be a Meekella brachiopod.



Another fossil can be seen below.



The remains of other kinds of life--human life--can also be found in and around the canyon in abundance. There are over 2700 recorded archaeological sites within the boundaries of the park, and there may be as many as 50,000. One of the major archaeological sites is the Tuscayan ruins on the south rim, shown below. These remnants of a pueblo occupied by the Anasazi people are one of more than 100 Anasazi sites on the south side of the canyon.



The ruins of this pueblo were the first prehistoric site professionally documented and was the first excavated. Emile W. Haury first excavated the site in 1930. It dates from 1185 and was probably occupied by 30 Anasazi people for 30 or 35 years. More of the ruins can be seen below. The site also presently contains a museum.



The Tuscayan village also provides views away from the canyon. The San Francisco mountains, a few miles to the south, can be seen. Below is a shot of Humphrey's Peak, the tallest of the San Francisco Peaks at 12,633 feet and also the highest point in Arizona. This volcanic peak last erupted some 400,00 to 600,00 years ago but may have been active in the 11th century.



References

Information about Grand Canyon National Park has been drawn from personal experience, maps, interpretive material, brochures, and other data available in the park itself, and a number of other sources, including:



- First Page for Grand Canyon National Park -

  • All photographs ©Patrick Holleran, Shannon Digital Imaging, 1994-2013

  • Commercial use of the images contained in this document without express written consent is strictly prohibited.

  • Comments and other remarks can be sent via e-mail to parkvision@shannontech.com