A Love Letter to the Grand Canyon

I still remember the first time I walked to the edge of Grand Canyon. With each step the canyon yawned open wider, revealing cascading rock layers stretching across the horizon. Inches from the rim, I took a deep breath and tried to comprehend the scenery.

It was 1996, I was 19 years old, and, having grown up in Maine, there was only one thing I could compare it to: the ocean. All that space, all those rippling natural patterns. But unlike the ocean, Grand Canyon seemed frozen in time—static, stoic, eternal.

Learning to Appreciate Grand Canyon

After spending a few minutes contemplating eternity, I pulled out a disposable camera, snapped a few shots, and headed to Las Vegas. The irony of my behavior was lost on me at the time. It did, however, put me squarely in the camp of most visitors. Ever since Spanish explorers set eyes on Grand Canyon, people have struggled to understand what, exactly, they are looking at. Some things—the best things—require more than an afternoon to fully appreciate.

Nearly a decade later, I returned to Grand Canyon. By that point I had stumbled into an unlikely career writing and photographing guidebooks to national parks, and Grand Canyon was next. I spent months exploring both rims, seeking out stunning viewpoints and observing how the light changed hour-to-hour, day-to-day, season-to-season.

One morning I watched the sun rise after a winter snowstorm. Clouds swirled through the canyon while a soft blanket of snow threw the red rocks into sharp relief. The snow melted to feed vivid spring wildflowers. The wildflowers wilted under a blazing summer sun. And the summer sun kicked up thunderstorms that lasted until autumn.

Learning to Appreciate Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon is not, I realized, a static place.

Learning about the park’s geology further heightened this awareness. On a human timescale Grand Canyon seems eternal. On a geologic timescale it’s barely there. Viewed over millions of years, towering rock formations melt away like ice sculptures. Sheer cliffs crumble while thousand-year floods tumble thousand-ton boulders like dice. Lava from nearby volcanoes pours over Grand Canyon’s rim, forming natural dams far larger than anything conjured by the most depraved government engineers. Each time a dam forms, the Colorado River slowly grinds it down.

The more I learned, the more I wanted to explore the depths of Grand Canyon. That opportunity came on a dory trip. Drifting deep into the heart of Grand Canyon, we descended through layer upon layer of geologic time. Five thousand feet below the rim we reached Vishnu Schist, a gnarled black rock nearly half the age of Earth. Floating through narrow corridors of Vishnu Schist was exhilarating and humbling—a rare glimpse into our planet’s distant past.

Learning to Appreciate Grand Canyon

After the trip, I returned to the rim. Gazing over a sea of rock formations, I found myself picking out familiar sights. A wide bend in the river where we slept under the stars. A side canyon where a faint trail leads to a hidden waterfall. Much remained mysterious, but Grand Canyon was slowly coming into focus.

Since then I’ve returned, year after year—exploring the rim, hiking the trails, hopping on river trips whenever I can. Although much has become familiar, the canyon still holds plenty of secrets. It’s simply too vast to fully comprehend. And while that’s disconcerting at first, it’s what I’ve come to love most about Grand Canyon. It means there’s always a new way to appreciate the scenery.


Photos: James Kaiser