Are we losing the Grand Canyon?

Are we losing the Grand Canyon?


On a 650-mile trek, two adventurers faced danger and hardship—and saw how development could spoil an American icon.

Along a stretch of the central Grand Canyon, the deepest part of the inner gorge is composed of Vishnu schist, rock formed some 1.7 billion years ago. “Leave it as it is,” implored Teddy Roosevelt during a 1903 visit to the canyon. “You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”

Follow Pete and Kevin as they complete their Grand Canyon journey later this fall on National Geographic Adventure.

“If you break loose here, you can’t stop. You’re going into the abyss,” barks Rich Rudow. Normally he is unflappable, but as he knows too well, this is no place to let down one’s guard. We’re on a cliff roughly 3,500 feet above the Colorado River at the tip of the Great Thumb Mesa, a spectacular formation that thrusts out from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon like the bow of an immense ship. It is one of the canyon’s most remote spots, rarely seen even by the most hard-core backpackers. If you come this far out on the Thumb, there is no way to get down to the river without climbing gear, and the dwindling food in your pack won’t allow you to make the eight-day trek back the way you came. You have to move forward.

Jason Nez (background) and Renae Yellowhorse stand near the spot where the proposed Escalade Tramway would carry tourists down to the Confluence—the point where the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers merge. “We’re not opposed to development,” says Yellowhorse, “but it’s not appropriate here.” Right:

On the eastern side of the canyon, near the nexus of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers, Save the Confluence members gather on the Navajo Reservation. They say that the tramway would destroy their sacred lands.

Local tribes regard the Confluence, where the Little Colorado’s blue waters merge with the Colorado, as sacred. Developers hope to build a tramway here to carry up to 10,000 tourists a day to a riverside retail and food complex.

Just ahead, the ledge that we’ve been walking on for the past several days vanishes into a deep indentation, or bay, in the wall of the canyon. This place is known as Owl Eyes, named for two enormous oval holes punched into the center of the cliff that looms over the middle of the bay. It’s a spooky place. Besides its ominous skull sockets, Owl Eyes is part of a tragic story. Nearly four years earlier, on a sunny February day, a beautiful young woman, a friend of Rudow’s, was crossing this passage when she fell to her death.

Now we’re staring across the same terrain, in far worse conditions. A storm had lumbered in the previous evening and coated the canyon in nine inches of snow. This is not what we’d imagined when we started this venture, an end-to-end hike of the Grand Canyon.

It isn’t a particularly sane thing to attempt. There is no single trail or network of trails that stretches along the entirety of the North or South Rims. The most efficient way to travel the length of the canyon is to float down the Colorado River, which winds through the canyon for 277 sinuous miles. That’s why John Wesley Powell—who led the first documented traverse of the canyon—did so by boat.

After Powell’s achievement in the summer of 1869, more than a century would pass before the first known traverse by foot. During that time the canyon progressed from a forest reserve to a national monument until finally taking its place as the crown jewel of the National Park System and arguably the most recognized and beloved landscape in America. It became a vacation destination for hundreds of millions of families, its image captured on innumerable postcards. Yet nobody figured out how to walk all the way through the thing until a 25-year-old river guide named Kenton Grua completed it in the winter of 1976, some 65 years after both the North and South Poles had finally been reached, and 23 years after Mount Everest was first summited.

Pete McBride and Kevin Fedarko embark on a perilous adventure to make a sectional thru-hike through the Grand Canyon, a feat less than two dozen people have accomplished. Watch the team set out, uncertain of what lies ahead.

Think about that for a moment—and consider what it says about how complicated and wild this place truly is.

No one is sure of the exact distance Grua covered, but thanks to the countless bays, he probably walked more than 700 miles during his 37-day thru-hike along the south side of the river from Lees Ferry to the Grand Wash Cliffs.

He never publicized his feat. But as word of what he’d done slowly spread, a new challenge opened up to a tiny community of extreme backpackers, including an electrical engineer from Phoenix named Rich Rudow. By the autumn of 2015, Rudow had completed hundreds of hikes and slot canyon explorations in the canyon and felt he was ready for his biggest challenge: a 57-day trek moving east to west across the canyon’s north side.

Similar oases could be damaged by proposed developments near the park, which, if built, could diminish or contaminate the aquifer that supports life on the South Rim.Right: Forged by the wear of water rushing over rocks, Olo Canyon is concealed inside the Grand Canyon. Its alluring landscape includes natural springs and rocks shaped like cathedral amphitheaters.

By the time Rudow and two companions were ready to launch—almost 40 years after Grua’s thru-hike—fewer than two dozen people had approximated his feat by stringing together a chain of separate hikes along the length of the canyon, known as a “sectional” thru-hike. The number of trekkers who had completed a “continuous” thru-hike in a single push was even smaller. Before 2015 more people had stood on the moon (12) than had completed a continuous thru-hike of the Grand Canyon (eight).

When photographer Pete McBride heard about Rudow’s plans, he called him and asked whether we could join his group. Pete and I had years of experience boating in the canyon, but we were woefully unprepared for what lay ahead. The only explanation for Rudow’s agreeing is that he was swayed by our primary reason for wanting to do it: to look into disturbing reports we’d been hearing about the canyon’s future, which included new tourist developments, increased helicopter flights, and a uranium mine.

Since it entered the American consciousness, the Grand Canyon has provoked two major reactions: the urge to protect it, and the temptation to make a whopping pile of money from it. During the years after the Powell expedition, miners rushed into the canyon to lay claims for copper, zinc, silver, and asbestos. During the 1880s one tycoon wanted to turn the bottom of the canyon into a railroad corridor to haul coal from Denver to California. (He drowned in the Colorado, along with two members of his survey expedition.) In the 1950s a mining company tried to get rich by building a giant cableway to move bat guano from a cave and sell it to rose gardeners; that didn’t last long. There was even a government plan to build a pair of giant hydroelectric dams in the heart of the canyon, a project that would have transformed large parts of the Colorado River into a series of reservoirs whose shorelines today would undoubtedly be clotted with houseboats and Jet Skis.

Human activities may seem dwarfed by the 1,904 square miles of the Grand Canyon, but their impact could be wide reaching. Rising tourist numbers, air traffic, mining, and development have increasingly encroached on the park’s landscapes. Meanwhile the complex patchwork of federal, state, and tribal landownership complicates conservation efforts.

Shortly after it became a national park in 1919, the Grand Canyon hosted some 37,000 visitors a year. Today about 5.5 million tourists arrive annually. It’s the second-most-visited national park, after the Great Smoky Mountains.

and photographer Pete McBride are making a sectional thru-hike. They have completed seven sections of the canyon, with one more planned.

Colorado River

The proposed tramway would allow visitors to descend 3,200 feet to a planned retail complex and food court overlooking the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers.

Contamination has occurred near older sites, including Hack Canyon and Orphan Mines, where erosion and problems with containment have allowed uranium to seep into waterways such as Horn Creek.

The Federal Aviation Administration caps air tours at 93,971 flights a year. This limit doesn’t apply to the Hualapai, who are free to run unlimited air tours from their land. The FAA doesn’t track Hualapai flights, and the tribe declined to say how many they allow a year.

The successful campaign to stop those dams, spearheaded by the Sierra Club during the 1960s, established the idea that the Grand Canyon is inviolable. And yet Pete and I had heard about a range of new proposals—many of them driven by savvy entrepreneurs operating just outside the canyon’s boundaries in areas that were controlled not by the National Park Service but by the U.S. Forest Service or one of the five Native American tribes whose federally recognized reservations are located around the canyon. From every point of the compass, threats ranging from colossal tourist developments and unlimited helicopter tours to uranium mining were poised to spoil one of the world’s premier parks.

It seemed to Pete and me that the best way to understand what was really at stake was to follow Kenton Grua’s example and hike straight through the heart of it all.

A group of Havasupai, whose reservation lies within the Grand Canyon area, protest at Canyon Mine, expected to start producing uranium in 2017. “We are on the front lines of a contamination,” says Carletta Tilousi (second from right). Mines have poisoned springs in the region before, but Energy Fuels, which operates the mine, says it’s safe.Right: The Arizona 1 Mine has extracted uranium from public land outside of Grand Canyon National Park. The 1940s discovery of uranium in the area led to decades of mining throughout the region. In 2012 the U.S. interior secretary withdrew more than a million acres of public land near the park from new mining claims.

Almost 200 miles into the journey, winter sets in. Facing frigid temperatures, snow-obscured terrain, and dwindling food, the crew soldiers through—right down into the depths of the magnificent Olo Canyon.

“Dude, are you all right?” Pete murmurs, shaking me gently. “Wanna try and eat something before you totally pass out?”

It’s late September, the sun is about to set on our first day of walking, and I’m splayed across the narrow patch of dirt where we’re supposed to spend the night.

One of the many things that I hadn’t prepared for is that there’s nothing gradual about this initial stretch of the journey. The canyon sucker punches its challengers with some of the most punishing territory right out of the gate. Add to that our 50-pound packs and an early autumn heat wave that pushed temperatures to 110 degrees, which wrung every bit of moisture out of our bodies and had begun peeling away the soles of our hiking shoes.

The canyon provokes two major reactions: the urge to protect it, and the temptation to make a pile of money from it.

By the next morning Pete felt even worse than me. He had muscle cramps so intense that when he removed his shirt, it looked as if a mouse had wriggled into his abdomen and was scurrying from his shoulders to his stomach and back, just beneath the skin.

On day six we acknowledged that we were in over our heads and bailed, leaving Rudow and his partners to continue. On the trek out, Pete was delirious and disoriented, and once back in Flagstaff, he was diagnosed with hyponatremia, a heat-induced imbalance of salts and minerals, which, left untreated, could result in death.

A flight over the upper Grand Canyon offers a view of the edge of the Navajo Reservation (far side of the canyon). No single spot provides a view of the whole canyon. Its scale disguises its fragility, says Roger Clark of the Grand Canyon Trust. “Our greatest challenge is making people understand just how truly vulnerable this place actually is.”

In late October, intimidated but not defeated, we descended back into the now much cooler canyon and resumed our journey at the milepost where we’d pulled out three weeks earlier. Over the next several days, we threaded a route along a dizzying set of limestone ledges that dropped almost a thousand feet straight down to the river. Near river mile marker 32, we could discern the shadowy portal of the cave where archaeologists have found artifacts of the ancestral Puebloans, who inhabited this landscape for more than 10,000 years, as well as the remains of Harrington’s mountain goat (Oreamnos harringtoni) and yesterday’s camel (Camelops hesternus), now extinct creatures that flourished until the end of the Pleistocene, about 12,000 years ago.

A daily pattern emerged: Each morning we would stuff ourselves with oatmeal, then set out on a 12- to 14-mile slog that usually involved hauling our packs up as much as a thousand vertical feet, descending impossibly steep slopes, or pushing through thickets of thornbushes. This would go on until the sun began to set, at which point, battered, scratched, and bone-tired, we would boil water, wolf down some rehydrated dinner, then lie back and gaze at the night sky while listening to the words of Edward Abbey on an audiobook Pete had downloaded onto his phone.

The book was Desert Solitaire, Abbey’s homage to the country of the Grand Canyon’s sister parks, Canyonlands and Arches. Although I was usually too exhausted to stay awake for more than a few sentences, I often asked Pete to replay the part where Abbey warns readers not to jump into their cars next June and rush out, hoping to see some of the wonders he had attempted to evoke:

In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.

Although that passage seemed to speak most directly to me in the moment, I always willed myself to stay awake for what followed:

In the second place most of what I write about in this book is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You’re holding a tombstone in your hands.

Picture of tourists photographing a helicopter flight in Grand Canyon National Park

Left: Hualapai boat tours ply a section of the Colorado River adjacent to the tribe’s reservation. In principle the river divides the reservation and Grand Canyon National Park, but the tribe and the Park Service disagree on the exact boundary. The tribe believes their land extends to the middle of the river. The Park Service says it ends at the high-water mark on the south bank.Right: Tourists document a flight into Grand Canyon West. In 2015 helicopter tours helped draw over a million visitors to Hualapai land. Last spring, in an area known as Helicopter Alley, National Geographic counted 262 flights in five hours. Busy days can see 450 or more.

Those words, which Abbey wrote in 1967, carried a disturbing prescience because the wilderness of Arches that he once reveled in is now overwhelmed by so many visitors—1.4 million in 2015—that the entrance to the park had to be closed intermittently on Memorial Day weekend last year. And due to a dam project, the wonders of Glen Canyon, said to rival the beauty of the Grand Canyon, now lie beneath the surface of a 186-mile-long reservoir named after John Wesley Powell.

As Pete and I were about to discover, changes that bear a disturbing resemblance to the forces that Abbey had warned against—growth, development, and the pursuit of money—are unfolding inside Grand Canyon.

Sixty-two river miles downstream from Lees Ferry, the reddish brown Colorado encounters its largest tributary within the canyon, a river known as the Little Colorado, whose waters often run a brilliant shade of turquoise. The point where the two streams merge, known as the Confluence, holds profound spiritual significance for many Native Americans whose ancestral lands lie within the canyon, including the Havasupai, the Zuni, the Hopi, and the Navajo.

When my grandchildren come, I want them to see this place the way that my ancestors saw it … We do not want to see Disneyland on the edge of the canyon.

On the morning of November 2, we emerged on the north side of the river, inflated a pod of tiny rafts that we’d been carrying at the bottoms of our packs, and paddled across to begin an arduous 3,500-foot climb through a series of steep breaks in the cliffs that eventually delivered us to a remote stretch of the canyon’s eastern rim and the western border of the Navajo Reservation. We selected this route because it runs parallel to the path along which a group of developers from Scottsdale intend to construct the Escalade Tramway. Eight-person gondolas would shuttle tourists from the rim to near the river’s edge, where the developers plan to erect a retail complex, food court, and amphitheater overlooking the Confluence.

The tramway would be capable of delivering as many as 10,000 people a day to a spot that now rarely hosts more than a few dozen people on a typical summer day, and often none during the winter. There has never been a development like it inside the canyon.

The driving force behind this project is R. Lamar Whitmer, a political consultant who has persuaded a group of Navajo politicians that it would bring much needed revenue to the tribe. The opposition includes environmentalists as well as virtually every tribe in the region, including a group of Navajo who say that Whitmer and his associates tricked some tribespeople into supporting the project with misleading promises. (Whitmer denies he misled anyone.)

This group calls itself Save the Confluence. When one of its members, Renae Yellowhorse, got word that Pete and I were scheduled to pop out of the canyon at a spot overlooking the Confluence, she telephoned a friend and asked him to drive her 41 miles from her home on the western edge of the Navajo Reservation, so that she could share a pot of traditional mutton stew and give us a piece of her mind.

Former Grand Canyon ranger Amy Martin watches a winter sunrise over a section of the Colorado called Conquistador Aisle. No trails exist along 95 percent of the canyon’s North Rim or along 80 percent of its South Rim. Fewer people have now hiked the canyon’s length in a single trip (10) than have walked on the moon (12).

According to Yellowhorse, the reservation was now abuzz with rumors that Whitmer and his allies were assembling investors to finance the billion-dollar project while simultaneously forging new alliances with Navajo legislators in the hopes of making an end run around Navajo president Russell Begaye, a prominent opponent of the project. “We’re not opposed to development, but it’s not appropriate here,” declared Yellowhorse, a fiercely determined woman in wire-rimmed glasses and leather moccasins. “When my grandchildren come, I want them to see this place the way that my ancestors saw it. We don’t want this area developed—we do not want to see Disneyland on the edge of the canyon.”

As it turned out, the friend who had driven Yellowhorse to meet us, a man named Roger Clark, was able to provide some context for that statement. As a program director of the Grand Canyon Trust, a conservation group that has spent 30 years battling an array of threats against the canyon, Clark is deeply troubled by the tramway plan. But he is even more worried that this project is part of a larger ring of threats that present an unprecedented assault on the integrity of the canyon.

One of the other issues that concern Clark and many other environmentalists is Tusayan, a small town composed of a strip of modest tourist motels and gas stations two miles from the park’s main entrance at the South Rim. Tusayan has been taken over by a consortium of investors who want to transform it into a resort, with potentially thousands of new homes and millions of square feet of commercial space, including luxury hotels, a European-style health spa, and a dude ranch.

All of this will require lots of water. The developers, led by an Italian company called Stilo, say they are reviewing ways to bring in water, including by train or a pipeline tapped into the Colorado River. But they also have the right to punch wells through the surface of the arid South Rim to access an aquifer that drives many of the springs and seeps deep within the Grand Canyon. These tiny pockets where water trickles from cracks in the bare rock make up less than 0.01 percent of the surface area inside the canyon, but each little oasis supports a web of complex plant and animal life. Thanks to the 6,000-foot elevation difference between the Colorado River and the North Rim, the canyon boasts five of North America’s seven “life zones”—more than any other national park. In latitudinal terms, it’s the equivalent of walking from the deserts of northern Mexico to the boreal regions of Canada, all in the span of little more than a vertical mile. Biologists say anything that might taint these springs or induce them to dry up would reverberate throughout the canyon’s biome.

Clark didn’t know it at the time, but the U.S. Forest Service would soon refuse to review the town’s application for a road easement that is crucial for the project to go forward. But Tusayan’s backers already have overcome many obstacles, and if they find a way to clear this final hurdle, little will stand in their way, reports national geographic.


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