I love this about the Grand Canyon, that it defies commonly held laws and beliefs. Unlike every other hike I’ve taken (and that’s a lot), the trails into the Grand Canyon start by descending over 4,800 ft. It’s a canyon, of course, so that may be obvious, but my body has gotten used to the idea that gravity will help get me down off a mountain by skiing, glissading, scree skating, or sliding on my butt. Though many out-of-shape people hike the Grand Canyon, I was reminded of a the risk of this descent when one of my party, a fit and experienced hiker, sprained his ankle halfway down. It happens all the time; a rock rolls underfoot, and that’s that. When he reached the bottom, (without complaining, by the way) he learned that a hiker had ascended out of the Grand Canyon that same day on crutches in order to avoid the only other available exit: an expensive helicopter ride.
But it’s not just the “down then up” that’s surprising about the Grand Canyon. It’s also the shift from brittle cold at the rim to crisp hot summer at the bottom, the reverse of most other hikes, and the startling contrast of bright desert flowers against the muted colors of the canyon itself.
But the canyon is full of secrets, perhaps most surprising of all, a mossy little 10 x 10 ft. rainforest in the middle of the desert. Ribbon Falls is a 6-mi. hike from Phantom Ranch, the anchor of most bottom activity, and wends through a narrow box canyon. The grade is gentle enough that the Trans-Canyon Telephone line was built through the valley in the 1930s, one of many engineering marvels that probably wouldn’t be dreamed up today for all the expense and risk involved. The falls are a startling contrast of vivid green against the red rock surrounding them, and hikers appreciate the fresh clear drinking water (that must be filtered) and cool thunder of water on a hot head.