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Post Cards From the Edge of the Quiet Canyon

September 30, 1990|JAMES T. YENCKEL | WASHINGTON POST

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. — Alone in one of America's most popular national parks? It seemed, well, almost unnatural.

But a ranger at Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona suggested that I catch the sunrise from Point Imperial on the North Rim--the highest point (at 8,803 feet) on either rim of the canyon. So the very next morning, ever the dutiful tourist, I made the 12-mile, sleepy-eyed drive from my cabin, arriving just in time to grab a seat on a flat rock for the first rays of the sun's colorful show.

The dawn danced quickly across the canyon walls, spotlighting hues of red and orange and purple like a spinning kaleidoscope gone wild. Morning is the best time to view the colors before they are washed out by midday glare. A slight breeze, stirring the pines, hummed a daybreak anthem to accompany the display.

Except for two rock squirrels playing tag on a nearby pine, I was alone. It was both surprising and wonderful.

In a year, the Grand Canyon attracts about 3.5 million visitors. On a busy August day, like the one just then aborning, more than 20,000 tourists will be on hand, most of them at bustling Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim.

When conservationists talk about America's overused parklands, one of the places they generally have in mind is the village--a hub of hotels, lodges, a youth hostel, museums, restaurants, snack bars and curio shops on the canyon's edge. Crowds pour in from the parking lots in waves.

No one except me, however, had been tempted by Point Imperial's sunrise on this particular day. I have swarmed with the photo-snapping throngs on the South Rim in the past, but on this visit I went in search of some of the park's special solitary places. You can, I was discovering, still find solitude in the Grand Canyon without wandering far from the well-trod paths.

Many visitors, I suspect, arrive at the South Rim village, walk a few steps from the parking lot to peer into the giant chasm and figure they have seen the Grand Canyon. I thought so, anyway, on my first trip 30 years ago. The three of us, recent college grads on a Western camping spree, spent maybe an hour at the South Rim, part of the time buying post cards, and then left feeling strangely disappointed. Only on later visits did I come to realize that the canyon impresses most when you get to know it better.

Once I swept through the canyon on a nine-day rafting adventure, camping under the stars each night on sandy beaches beneath the towering walls. The trip was exciting, but I was surprised how varied the scenery was deep down at the bottom of the canyon. Every twist of the river yielded a new perspective.

Our raft held only 15 people (including two guides), and only rarely did we float past another raft. Thus, I got my first taste of the park without the crowds.

I even began to appreciate the South Rim, once I had stuck around long enough to learn about the West Rim Trail. The trail begins roughly at the front door of El Tovar Lodge, an elegantly restored historic hotel in the heart of the village, and follows the sweeping curves of the canyon west for eight miles to Hermits Rest.

For the first mile or so, the trail is paved and as packed as any downtown street, but traffic thins quickly the farther you walk. Every yard you cover offers yet new canyon views and an inviting perch on which to sit and contemplate them. I packed a lunch and made a day of it.

The trail is mostly level and well-worn, and you are never very far from rescue should you tire along the way. Parallel to the trail but usually just out of sight is West Rim Drive. During the busy summer months, the drive is closed to all vehicles except passenger shuttle buses.

The buses make pickup stops along the full length of the drive, so you can hike the trail one way and take the bus the other. Remember to walk with the sun at your back so that you can see the play of light on the canyon walls ahead.

If I had so easily overlooked West Rim Trail on my initial visits to the park, I wondered, what else must I be missing?

So when my schedule allowed a brief return to the canyon last August--this time to the North Rim--the first thing I did was put the question to the park's staff, and ranger Dale Schmidt, supervisor of programs at the North Rim, obliged.

An eight-year veteran of the canyon, he filled me in on several short day-hikes that would give me little-seen, unjostled glimpses of the canyon. And then, as if to tempt me to a return visit, he disclosed some of his favorite hidden spots in the most remote corners of the huge wilderness park.

I met Schmidt when I signed on for an afternoon's hike that he was leading along the Widforss Trail. On our trek, I told him of my interest in the Grand Canyon's less-visited areas. My query prompted him to gather his flock of hikers for a brief lecture on the differences between the park's South and North rims. For visitors who want to avoid the park's crowds, he told us, the North Rim is the place to begin.

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