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The Grander Canyon

The early-morning view was different from the ochre sea of peaks and valleys visible from the North and South rims, the park's main gateways. Here, at one of its narrowest and deepest sections, the Grand Canyon is less than a mile wide. It actually looks like a canyon instead of a mountain range seen from above.

The scale is still as mind-bending, though, and the effect just as breathtaking. Steep walls of limestone, sandstone and shale plunge into schist nearly 2 billion years old.

Tuweep Point offers sweeping views of the Grand Canyon -- with few people to obstruct the scenery.

In 1870, explorer John Wesley Powell climbed up here from the river in search of three companions who left his expedition the year before and vanished. He didn't find them, but he did manage to appreciate the vista: "What a view is before us! A vision of glory! Peaks of lava all around below us. The Vermilion Cliffs to the north, with their splendor of colors; the Pine Valley Mountains to the northwest, clothed in mellow, perspective haze; unnamed mountains to the southwest, towering over canyons bottomless to my peering gaze, like chasms to nadir hell."

The Colorado River, invisible from many other overlooks, was a glinting green snake at the bottom. In the clear desert air, the river seemed deceptively close -- just a quick scramble down, an hour at most. Downstream, it hissed.

The rising sun revealed only a handful of other cars. Aside from the occasional boatload of thrill seekers far below, there were about a dozen other people within 30 miles. Compared with the McDonald's-and-Imax carnival at the South Rim, this is almost unbelievable. Tuweep gets about 15,000 visitors per year.

From the Lava Falls Viewpoint a short walk away, we could see and hear the biggest set of rapids in the park. A geologic fault crosses the river here. As recently as 30,000 years ago lava flows spilled repeatedly into the canyon, sometimes blocking the river for years to form huge lakes.

Flowing water always wins eventually, but the river was changed, blocked by rubble and churned to a manic froth. Lava Falls is legendary among boaters, earning the highest difficulty rating -- Class 10 -- of any rapid in the canyon.

"Toroweap" is a Paiute Indian word that means "barren valley," and we were reminded why as we drove across a dry, shallow basin to the trailhead. (The term Tuweep came later, with the arrival of a white settlement and the establishment of the park.) We filled our water bottles to the brim, took a few gulps at the car for good measure and hiked past the smooth contours of Vulcans Throne, a small volcanic peak.

This part of the park is so remote that rangers regularly fly themselves in and out. John Riffey, who lived and worked as a ranger at Tuweep for 38 years until his death in 1980, was well known for his hospitality, tall tales and his Super Cub "Pogo," which he would pilot down the river almost on the water. After his death, Riffey was buried near the ranger station beneath a headstone bearing a picture of his plane. Private airplanes land at the dirt airstrip from time to time, greeted by a sign that reads "Tuweep International Airport-Concourse 1, Gate 1."

A sign at the Lava Falls trailhead warned that the steep path descended half a mile in a 1 1/2-mile route to the river. We signed our names carefully in the register and stepped off the edge into a moonscape of black lava and stubby cactuses with spines like fishhooks. As we went deeper the cactuses grew taller, the trail became steeper and the temperature rose. (This last fact accounts for most of the 250 or so rescues that occur in the canyon each year.)

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