By Julian Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 12, 2004
Nothing banishes the early-morning cobwebs like waking a sleepwalk away from a 3,000-foot drop.
We knew it was there, of course, when we pulled up to the rim around midnight. But there's a difference between sensing the scenery disappear into yawning blackness a stone's throw from your sleeping bag and seeing it lit by sunrise, a geological wedding cake of earth tones and towers plunging half a mile to the glassy ribbon of the Colorado River.
The Grand Canyon has a back door, and its name is Tuweep. Or Toroweap. Sometimes, erroneously, Tuweap, or Toroweep. In any case, this little-known access to the canyon's north rim takes some extra time to reach, and you have to be more self-sufficient than at the national park's more crowded entrances.
But if you're willing and able, the reward is not only the usual phenomenal views, plus a free campsite on the edge and the shortest trail to the bottom of the canyon, but something increasingly precious in a place that sees more than 4 million visitors a year: solitude.
The night before, my girlfriend Laura and I had driven east from the lights of Las Vegas toward the emptiness of northern Arizona. You can visit this part of the Grand Canyon year round (weather permitting), but we chose May, before the heat of the desert summer descended in full. Cut off from the rest of the state by the canyon, the "Arizona strip" is one of the most remote parts of the country. When the Mormon Church outlawed polygamy in 1890, diehard splinter groups fled just across the Utah border to towns like Fredonia, where we filled our car with gas. Here it feels as if the past is not really past, as gingham-clad women pilot vans full of blond children.
A few miles west of Fredonia and about 40 miles west of the turnoff for the North Rim, a dirt road left the pavement heading south. A large National Park Service sign warned that there were No Services Beyond This Point, that the park boundary was 55 Miles Away by Primitive/Unimproved Road, and that beyond this point you had better be ready to Travel At Your Own Risk. (Plan Your Trip, it added, Accordingly.)
But as we sped across the plain, gray-green with sagebrush and tinted by sunset, our spirits were high. The road was wide and flat and we had plenty of food and water and a full tank of gas. Desert pronghorns fled our rooster-tail of dust. The fastest land animals on the continent, they leapt away in a blur of white rumps and stubby horns.
Ninety minutes later we passed a darkened ranger station and the road began to deteriorate. Despite the risk of a jinx, we couldn't help wondering aloud how awful it would be to break down this far from civilization. As we did, flashing lights grew from the gloom. They were the hazards on a black Jeep Cherokee pulled off the road. All four tires were flat, one shredded like a popped balloon.
With a prayer to the gods of automotive maintenance, we drove the last few miles with extra care, set up camp on the still-warm stones and fell asleep to the faint rumble of whitewater.
In the morning, our alarm clock was a raven croaking from a juniper. The sounds were eerily vocal; the jet-black birds can mimic like parrots, count to 10 and beat graduate students at tests of memory.
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.
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.)
Within a few hours, the rocks were almost too hot to touch. The sheer size of the canyon threw off any sense of scale -- the Colorado looked near enough to hit with a pebble, but never seemed to get any closer. We rested in small patches of shade and trickled water on our heads and backs, imagining how great it would feel to finally jump in the river.
It was hard to believe that where we stood had been underwater many times. Millions of years ago, when this part of the country was covered by an inland sea, these arid slopes were laid down as ocean sediments like blankets in a trading post. Lake sediments farther down bore witness to the times lava plugged up the river.
The last part of the trail was treacherously loose, stone Grape-nuts and baseballs over sand, but we were so eager to reach the water that we surfed down it like rivals in some prehistoric X-Games.
We plowed through the bushes and squealed like schoolgirls when our feet hit the water. Released from the depths of Lake Powell through the Glen Canyon Dam upstream, it's close to freezing. But in the heat (the high 90s), such sweet relief. We splashed in the muddy shallows, while overhead, khaki cliffs soared to maroon escarpments and a robin's-egg sky.
Two motorized rafts puttered by, and we scrambled downstream to watch them hit the rapids, whose growl grew to a roar as we approached.
At Lava Falls, the Colorado drops 37 feet in 100 yards, including one gigantic, boat-sucking plunge of 13 feet. Despite the name, these rapids were formed by debris spilling down the canyon across the river. Still, the image of magma meeting water is the one that sticks.
"What a conflict of water and fire there must have been here!" Powell wrote in his expedition diary. "Just imagine a river of molten lava running down into a river of melted snow. What a seething and boiling of the waters; what clouds of steam rolled into the heavens!"
The rafts disappeared over the falls like leaves down a storm drain. In seconds they were out of sight, and we were alone again.
Food always tastes better outside, and that night our curried rice with nuts and cheese was a gourmet feast. The sun set somewhere above, drawing a shade of black up the canyon walls. The dry air cooled quickly, and we wrapped up in our sleeping bags on the soft sand.
At first light we were up and climbing to beat the heat. To our relief, the hike out was much easier, especially in the morning coolness. At the top of the first slope an unmistakable dry whirring rose from a shaded patch of trail. It was a Grand Canyon pink rattlesnake, the most common of six species found here. The sound hits some primeval button; before its source even registered, our hackles were high.
But fascination soon outweighed aversion, and I leaned in to get a better look. The snake's delicate salmon color and smooth coils contrasted with the alien angle of its eyes and its nervously flicking tongue. Laura rolled her eyes and kept her distance. "I'm not carrying you out of here," she warned.
We ceded the right-of-way and kept going.
On the way up we passed a weary French photographer with more camera gear than water or common sense and a party of five that had wisely started down before dawn, but that was it for the entire hike. I think of the last time I took the crowded Bright Angel Trail from the South Rim, where unwise mothers push baby strollers down trails toward the river, and rangers occasionally have to rescue businessmen hiking in wingtips. This is another world.
By 8 a.m. it was officially hot again, but by then we were almost out. The climb out took half an hour less than the descent.
Back on the rim, the ranger was home. He told us how often people underestimate the trail. They usually make it out under their own power, he said, although often thirsty, tired and humbled. Occasionally he has to go get them.
Oh, and the Jeep owners? They got a flat and kept driving. Got another, kept going. And so on.
Our own respect for the Grand Canyon, a place that's as unforgiving as it is beautiful, had certainly been rekindled. Today the view from the edge was just as astounding as yesterday, but the river no longer seemed as close.
Maybe that's what the raven was trying to tell us: Unless you can catch a breeze and soar to safety, you odd, earthbound creatures, go prepared.
Julian Smith, a writer in Santa Fe, N.M., is the author of the award-winning guidebook "Moon Handbooks: Four Corners."