Sunday, May 31, 2009

North, Part 2 - Arizona's Biggest Erosion Problem

O.K., we've left the pines behind temporarily on our journey to the "big ditch". As we drop out of the area surrounding the San Francisco Peaks volcanic field, the relatively flat terrain of the Pinyon-Juniper woodland emerges. Home to many wild animals, you're likely to spot mule deer, elk, pronghorn, coyote, or if you are fortunate, the shy and elusive javelina. At about 47 miles north of Flagstaff, you'll reach the junction of U.S. 180 and Highway 64 (coming from Williams). At the crossroads (this bump in the road is named Valle) are a couple of interesting sights: Turn left to visit the Planes Of Fame museum, where vintage aircraft are on display. For a visit to the days when "tacky" best described roadside attractions near National Parks, don't miss Bedrock City, home of the Flintstones.

A lot of people visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time are confused by the topography. Looking around from the intersection of Highway 180 and 64, they don't see anything resembling the Grand Canyon they've seen in pictures, even though the road signs tell them the Park is only 21 miles away. Ah, but wait - what most don't realize is that the Canyon is carved out of the surrounding high plateau, and your first glimpse won't come until you're nearly at the edge. Drive on!

The Grand Canyon

A rancher living in the area of the Canyon had never actually visited the natural wonder. One day he made the trip to see what all the fuss was about. Standing on the edge of the great chasm for the first time he was struck dumb with wonder. A companion asked him to say something about his thoughts on the subject. The old cowboy waited a minute, then finally said: "It's a helluva place to lose a cow".

There's not much I can add to the volumes written about what is arguably considered the world's greatest natural wonder. The Grand Canyon is so massive as to defy easy understanding or description. It stretches for 277 miles along the course of the Colorado River, and it yawns a mile deep and nearly 18 miles across at the widest. What I will say is this: Most visitors to this immense geological playground barely scratch the surface.

People travel from all over the world to see the Canyon, but the average length of time spent in the Park is less than 2 hours. It is understandable - the Canyon is not an easy place to experience, and it takes a real commitment of time and energy to explore beyond the sterile and safe boundaries of the established
facilities. Most folks visit the viewpoints, walk around the rim, take in a Ranger program or two, and then leave, feeling as though they've "seen" the Grand Canyon.

When you stand on the rim, at first you feel as though you are witnessing something beyond your comprehension, and you are right. The lack of recognizable and measurable landmarks denies the average visitor a sense of scale, and for many the Canyon vista quickly becomes two dimensional. It is not until you
descend below the rim that your mind can start to make sense of the grandeur that is before you. I realize not everyone is able or willing to hike on trails into the gorge, but if you can take the time, the rewards are well worth it. Even a short trip on the Bright Angel or Kaibab trails will give you a better perspective, but heed the warnings - the interior of Grand Canyon is not a place for the faint of heart.

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