Sunday, July 19, 2009

Ducking lightning at the Grand Canyon

Originally published in the Post Register.
When we first pulled up to the parking lot at the Grand Canyon’s Cape Royal overlook, it was raining hard. There was no break between the flashes of lightning and the accompanying cracks of thunder.

Not a good time to be walking along the rim of the Grand Canyon carrying a metal camera tripod.

We waited out the rain and let the storm move up canyon before venturing from the car. Still, the delay between the show of lightning in the distance and the accompanying clap of thunder told us that we were still in danger – some strikes were less than a mile away. (Sound moves at roughly one mile every five seconds – 1,085 feet per second at 32 degrees F. – so by counting off the time between the sight of lightning and its thunder clap, you can estimate its distance from you. Anywhere within five miles puts you in the danger zone – inside a mile puts a big, red bull’s eye on your chest.)

Despite the danger, we crept along the edge of the canyon, uselessly ducking when we’d see lightning in the distance or hear thunder.

The result was great photography – rainbows arching over the canyon, light streaks reflecting off the rock. When I’d shot a half roll, my wife, Kathleen, and I got the heck out of there.

It rained hard again that night as we were waiting to dine at the North Rim Lodge, with thunder and lightning all around. As that storm cell moved off, I took time-exposure shots of lightning in the distance, probably 15 miles away. As we ate a late dinner, the lightning across the canyon created all the ambience we needed.

The vast majority of visitors to the Grand Canyon go to the South Rim, mostly because of its accessibility. It’s closer to an airport, it has more lodging and dining, and it's open year-round. The North Rim, particularly for anyone driving from eastern Idaho, is a better bet. The drive to the North Rim is about three hours shorter than going on to the South Rim. Even though the two areas are separated by only 10 miles of space at the top of the canyon, it requires a drive of more than 200 miles to get from the North Rim to the South Rim.

The North Rim is a thousand feet higher than the South Rim, and therefore gets more snow and is closed through the winter. During its season from mid-spring through mid-fall, it’s a better way to see the canyon. The views are just as spectacular as those on the South Rim, but you’re sharing them with about 10 percent of the crowd that is drawn to the South Rim. That, alone, makes the North Rim a better alternative.

The North Rim also is about 10 degrees cooler in the summer, when temperatures can approach 100 degrees on the canyon rims and be well over 100 degrees inside the canyon.

Regardless of which side you choose as a base, the Grand Canyon presents some of the most challenging hiking anywhere. Not only do most trails lead more or less straight down into the mile-deep canyon, but summer temperatures and the relentless desert sun make getting enough water and replenishing lost salt reserves difficult but essential. More people die from dehydration than falls from steep trails at the Grand Canyon. The Park Service makes more than 400 rescues a year, most of people who over-estimated their fitness or under-estimated the heat and severe elevation difference between the rim and the floor.

Both areas have rim-top trails that are more or less flat, with access to viewpoints up and down the canyon. If you choose to take one of the many trails into the canyon, however, don’t do it on a whim. Know the trail, know your physical limitations, carry plenty of water and other supplies, and remember that every step down requires a step back up.

Some heroes think they can grab a liter of water and tromp down to the canyon floor and back in a day hike. Fat chance. Only the fittest can make such a loop without overnighting inside the canyon. The most popular option is to get reservations at Phantom Ranch on the canyon floor and hike down one day and out the next. There are campgrounds on the canyon floor as well.

The main drawback to choosing the North Rim is its lodging and dining limitations. The North Rim Lodge is the only place to stay inside the park on the North Rim, and the only options outside the park are 30 to 60 minutes away. In the summer, you must make dinner reservations at the lodge dining room a month in advance. There is a snack bar and convenience store as well. These are small inconveniences, really, for the comparative solitude you’ll enjoy on the North Rim.

If you insist on going to the South Rim or your visit comes during the time between mid-October and mid-May when the North Rim is closed, the Grand Canyon still won’t disappoint. During peak season, shuttle buses operate along the South Rim to reduce traffic. The crowds can still be a little distracting, but it doesn’t take too much effort to find some peace and quiet – just walk 10 minutes down any trail and you’re likely to find yourself more or less alone.

Both rims also have a number of viewpoints accessible by car. Each offers a different perspective, and each view changes as the light shifts during the day and with each season.

If solitude is a priority, check out the Toroweap section of the canyon. Accessible only via a dirt road out of St. George, Utah or near Colorado City, Arizona (the two routes come together near the canyon), the Toroweap section is very remote and unlike the eastern sections of the Grand Canyon. Here, the canyon walls are a sheer 3,000-foot drop instead of giving way in layers. This area is undeveloped, with only primitive campsites and no railings at the overlooks. It’s a spectacular area with few visitors, and worth the time to see – just exercise extreme caution and keep the little ones close at hand.

Amfac Parks and Resorts (303-297-2757) handles all lodging reservations for all areas of the park. For out-of-park lodging near the South Rim, the village of Tusayan just outside the park entrance has a reasonable variety, though the town is not our country’s most attractive national park gateway. Flagstaff, Arizona, is about 90 minutes away. The nearest lodging outside the North Rim is the Kaibab Lodge (928-638-2389) near the park entrance or Jacob Lake Inn (928-643-7232), less than an hour from the park.

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