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Surprises in Grand Canyon

Our walkabout on Wednesday turned out perfectly. The Grand Canyon is far from being just a “big ditch” as I’ve heard people cynically describe it. It has been a place of surprises and learning for us. Our route has been the Rim Trail, an easy paved walk that offers spectacular canyon views every step of the way. We picked it up where we left off on Tuesday afternoon and moseyed our way westward, stopping often.

Everything along the Rim Trail is worth investigating. The Grand Canyon is one of those older western parks that is developed with man-made overlooks, lodges, and restaurants, so the paved portion of the Rim Trail is not a place for quiet solitude, but it is accessible to just about anyone. Tired? Sit on a bench or catch the next shuttle bus. Hungry? Drop in on one of the many restaurants. Overloaded with scenery? Hit one of the four or five shops. It’s as easy as Disney World.

Fortunately, there’s still a lot of Grand Canyon that isn’t highly developed. And for those who don’t go to national parks for the eating and shopping, the historic architecture along the Rim Trail is fascinating. The Hopi House, El Tovar (lodge), Kolb Studio, and others are examples of the innovative architectural styles explored in the western national parks in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. They reflect a mix of Adirondack style, western style, Fred Harvey, and Victorian style all at once.

Grand Canyon Bright Angel .jpg
Bright Angel Lodge

The Adirondack/Victorian mix, called “Parkitecture”, is particularly well demonstrated by El Tovar. It’s the classic brown wood style that is associated with state and national parks developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. You’ve seen it, I’m sure. We’ll have an article on how Parkitecture came about in the Fall 2007 issue of Airstream Life magazine, coming out in August.

Near the Bright Angel Lodge (circa 1880s and still in use today), we began to spot California Condors soaring over the canyon. It turned out that a dead Bighorn Sheep was down in the canyon and the condors, being scavengers, were showing up in big numbers.

Grand Canyon Condor 1.jpg

These massive birds with their nine-foot wingspans are ancient relics. They survived mass extinctions on the planet over two hundred million years ago when thousands of other species died, but today they are a highly endangered species. Lead poisoning, attacks by humans, and collecting of eggs by scientists contributed to their decline.

All of the California Condors alive today are tagged and known because the entire remaining wild population (22 pairs) was taken into captivity in 1987 in a last-ditch attempt to save the species. They did well in captivity and now over 200 are roaming California and Arizona. A lot of them are here at the Grand Canyon right now according to the guy who tracks their radio tags, and the best place to spot them is from the patio at the Artist’s Studio, just west of Bright Angel Lodge.

Grand Canyon bird photogs.jpg

That’s where I ran into half a dozen other photographers, including one fellow who is writing a book on them. He’s snapped photos of all but ten of them. I surveyed the photographers and most were using fast 70-200 Canon zoom lenses, some with multipliers for effective lengths up to 320, and some with image stabilization. I was using my slower 55-200 Nikkor zoom, with no multiplier or image stabilization and finding it difficult to get good shots, but I did manage a few OK ones.

The condors kept us entranced for over an hour, and then we caught a Ranger talk on condors, and then Ranger walk on fossils. Emma loves fossils, and she spotted numerous brachiopods (shells), as well as coral and sponges. Grand Canyon isn’t a major place for fossils but there is a spot right off the Rim Trail to find thousands of them.

Emma’s Junior Ranger book is just about full. She has completed two ranger programs and one campfire program, hiked, spotted all kinds of plants and wildlife (including an elk that wandered by our camp last night), written a haiku, and written her impressions of the park ( “I feel amazed and relaxed. The air smells sweet.” Etc.) We’ll drop it by the Visitor Center at some point today to get her badge.

With all of the stops we made, our total hiking distance yesterday day was less than three miles, but it was a very full day and both Emma and I returned with full memory cards in our digital cameras. Today we will do the same, walking the less-developed and unpaved section of the Rim Trail toward Hermit’s Rest, to see how else the Grand Canyon’s rim can surprise us.

One Response to “Surprises in Grand Canyon”

  1. Michael Young Says:


    If you’d like to see some photos of Calfornia Condors up close, take a look at the album called “Big Sur Coastline” at our web site

    They were along Route 1 posing for tourists.