Monday, July 27, 2015

Grand Canyon

I headed to northern Arizona to see the famous Grand Canyon :).

I think the canyon can be hard to appreciate because it's so dang big. You see the vastness, can barely see the other side (I was on the more popular South Rim) and can't always see the river that looks so small you can't imagine how it truly created this. There is a trail you can hike from one side to the other that is roughly 22 miles and you start on the North Rim because it's 1,000 feet higher. Some big time hikers try to do that in a day. A ranger told us just within the week prior someone tried and didn't make it. They had to camp out 1-2 miles from the top of the South Rim. It's difficult because the climb up is pretty steep. They tell you not to try a down (to the river) and back in a day. They also suggest you start hiking as early as 4am. Because when the sun comes up, it gets hot and stays hot. The rocks at the bottom of the canyon heat up all day and keep baking you after sunset like an oven. I stayed sufficiently cautious :).

I got in late in the afternoon the first day and headed to one of the ranger talk locations to hear about California Condors. One the way I met this gal (elk are all over the park).

On my way out, I stopped by the visitor center. It was closed already but I usually stop to see what information is available. Especially at more popular parks, there's a lot of info outside to help you plan. When I saw the temperatures posted, I knew I had hit the weather jackpot. Early June is not usually a high of 70. Also, this is the temperature at the rim. The temperatures at the bottom of the canyon are 15-20 degrees higher. 

Back to the condor program. I like big birds. I don't know why but they interest me. The condor did not disappoint. First, the condors went extinct. Well, the last 22 were captured in 1987, so officially they were no longer in the wild. But they're back! Everyone worked really hard to ensure the remaining birds reproduced. People would even step in to help raise the baby birds. Here is the ranger with a condor puppet used to feed the babies....give them meat or just distract them while meat is thrown into the nest.

Condors are HUGE. The biggest bird in North America. The ranger showed us. First she said that if a condor would sit on the ground next to you, it'd be up to your waist (if you're an adult). It weighs almost 30 lbs. And the wingspan is long. She pulled out a tape measure and started naming off birds at different lengths, hawk, vulture, eagle. The longest though is the condor at almost 10 feet.

Fortuitously, there were two condors flying around the rim just near where our talk was. But they were all captured? Almost 30 years ago, yes, but since then, they've been reintroduced into the wild because of the success in captivity. Now there are over 400 condors. Researchers tag them and keep good record of where they're sighted, who they mate with, which offspring belong to them, etc. If you see a condor, on the bend in their wing you may also see a number (with your binoculars) on the top and bottom of the wing. Once you know the number you can find a whole history on that specific bird. Currently they've been reintroduced in California and the Grand Canyon (and are seen across the four corners region - being the intersection of AZ, UT, CO and NM). Below are the two condors. Pretty far from my camera, so I was glad the ranger set up a telescope so we could actually see the birds :). They are sitting on the ledge or outcropping that you see towards the middle of the pic. A black speck.

I actually camped in the Kaibab National Forest. It was full, but a bit secluded outside of town. Because so many people visit the Grand Canyon, the park is busy. They actually provide bus transportation and won't let you drive on some roads. The buses even come to the town just south of the park and near the forest campground. I thought the bus was super convenient. Because it was so busy though, I decided to shorten my stay to two nights. The next day I would hike and sleep before I hit the road early. 

One of the visitor center billboards showed a good map of the South Kaibab Trail that I hiked. This was a ranger led walk down to the Cedar Ridge rest stop, so only about a third of the way down into the canyon. However, based on the temperature/weather, time of day (although we only started at 7am) and a new willing friend I met, I went on to the next rest stop at Skeleton Point.

I was worried about being late, so I was awake before sunrise and almost an hour early to the trailhead. Lance was our leader and led us down into the canyon. This also happens to be the pack mule trail and so the trail smelled a bit different than I expected at some parts :). The Grand Canyon is made of many layers of rock going back a couple billion years. The Colorado River cut the canyon. The water cuts deep and then erosion helps clear out the wider top part of the canyon as the supporting rock underneath is carried out by the water. This takes a really, really long time :). The was also a point in history where a big hunk of land, called the Colorado Plateau, was lifted upwards from underground forces. Which is why the Grand Canyon rim is at an elevation and the river cuts over a mile below to the floor of the canyon. I think the South Rim was around 7,000 feet elevation.

We finished our guided walk to Cedar Ridge in an hour or so I think. You'll see those clouds in my pictures above. Those aren't typical for this time of year. Rain is not common. Usually temps are a lot warmer. So if there was a day to continue on, I had it. The one thing to remember is that going down in the beginning is so much easier. And cooler. You start the climb when the sun is on you and you've been hiking for a couple hours already. You still have a long way back up :). But, my new friend Kristi said she would be up for it if I was, so we continued to Skeleton Point. Only later did I see the sign below. We had picked the most difficult day hike in the park :).

Squirrels. They are everywhere and like the human food. I found this to be common across the parks. If you set down your backpack, keep an eye on it. Those squirrels are dangerous.....

....they apparently carry the plague!?! I didn't know the plague still existed. Within the last year, someone (a ranger or park worker I think) was bitten and died from the plague. Serious business.

We had our rest at Cedar Ridge and avoided the squirrels. Then, we headed down to Skeleton Point and arrived just as the clouds started rolling in and looking ominous. When I saw lightning and had metal trekking poles in my hand, I was ready to head back.

It was pretty amazing to see the storm, the very rare rain storm, roll through (and mostly evade us). You could see parts of the canyon go black and then light up. I'm not sure if the pictures truly capture what it was like. It mostly rolled past us....the first part at least :). As we were up the trail, it started raining harder and luckily there was an overhang for cover to wait it out. And I was glad we did because it began to hail, maybe just larger than pea sized. Here's Kristi in our waiting spot. 

It didn't take too long to pass over and as we were almost ready to start climbing again the pack mules came. There's a cabin below, so they carry down supplies and carry up garbage along with backpacks for hikers who don't want a heavy load.

We continued on. Then I spotted it. California Condor. I was so excited I knew how to spot it (they are often confused with smaller vultures). Never got close enough to see the tag number though :(.

Here it is perched on the rock. It gives a little better idea of the size. A little hard to spot at first, it's about in the middle of the picture on the rocks (could only see the back of it).

Then it took off soaring. Probably looking for food. They are like vultures in that they eat dead meat.

We were done by about noon. It was weird to still have most of the day left after you'd done a big hike. I went to the other end of the park on the South Rim and found a good view of the river from there.

It was a great day spent at the canyon and I think a trip down to the floor would be pretty awesome. We met one guy who had hiked with a group for four days along the river. It sounded great, though he said it was super hot and a rough climb up on the last day.

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