Into the Grand Canyon and Out Again
There aren’t many places that outrank the Grand Canyon on your typical list of parental dream trips. Leave aside, for a second, the abundance of visual spectacle, all of it vivid enough to capture even the oversaturated imaginations of Generation CGI; the buffet of kid-friendly activities strains the table. There’s hiking. There’s rafting. There’s camping, if you’ve got the license (hint: not for amateurs). You can catalog plants, you can spot fossils, you can chase lizards and spiders and snakes of varying poisonousness. All these things are what you, as a parent, imagine you’ll do with your children in this most famous and magnificent of natural wonders.
But here’s one you, like me, probably didn’t spend time imagining. There’s no easy way to put it—and as it happens, in the Canyon, there’s no easy way to do it. I’m talking about Number two. Pooping. The great humbler of human existence, and a parent’s all-around nightmare for the first eight or ten or fourteen or, who knows, eighteen years of his children’s lives. Evacuation.
Which, as it happens, was what we’d come to, urgently, on a hard rocky bend of the Hermit Trail on a sunny and predictably warm day in August 2016, the grandeur of the South Rim stretched out below and above us, mesquite and pinyon pines and rocks many hundreds of thousands of years old staring back with what I took to be expressions of disappointment and shame.
My son, who’d just turned 8—he had to go.
* * *
This was day 6 of a two-week, four-state trek through the American desert southwest. My brother’s family—wife, two kids ages 7 and 9—had joined with my own—wife, one kid, age as aforementioned—to travel from California to Nevada and then through Arizona and Utah to visit 10 National Parks. It was 2016, the Park Service’s 100th anniversary, which made it as good a time as any to go—though if we’re being honest our kids’ ages was an even bigger influence: no longer little, but still driven by wonder; old enough to awe but not yet to be in those sullen, asocial, phone-imprisoned teen-adjacent stages. Two days in Yosemite were followed by an epic 9-hour crawl through dead-stop traffic to Vegas, where we picked up the two gleaming Airstream trailers that’d be our homes through the next 8 days and 9 parks. In keeping with the go-big character of the trip, our first stop was here, at the Grand Canyon, decidedly the deep end of trailer travel and Parks visitation combined.
Compounding our noob angst (those of you who’ve never followed the fourteen-point process for docking a trailer can keep your stones to yourselves) was the fact that this first site was what’s called a “dry” camp. Somewhat counterintuitively, this means no power or sewer hookups. In a soft pine-anchored glade in the South Kaibab National Forest we rounded and backed and shimmied and at last disconnected our trailers and their towing trucks (intimidating in their own right to this city-dwelling public transit rider), lit a fire in the camp’s central pit, and managed our urban anxiety over whether the batteries and water tanks would hold. We woke with headaches from having misbalanced the trailers’ heights, leaving us to sleep in a blood-to-brain-saturating tilt.
But this was, incontrovertibly, all around us, the Grand Canyon; we’d made it through the night, and now help was on its way.
* * *
“Help” rolled up in a small gray nine-seater at 8:45AM, bearing the name of Drew Schlachter and arriving an hour later than he’d wanted and an hour before we were actually ready. We’d never traveled with a guide. Visions of color-matched hats and flags on sticks plagued us, and though the van didn’t quite dispel these Drew himself did. He quickly got the kids—sleepy, mid-trip weary, skeptical of anything their parents dreamt up—out of their lethargy with sweets and low-key, treacle-free amusement. He got the adults in line with coffee and a quick diagnosis of our headaches, along with advice on how to reset the trailers’ balance.
Getting a guide in a place as well-traveled as the Grand Canyon may seem, to the uninitiated, like the height of laziness. That’s certainly how I saw it. And no doubt you can self-serve a rich, varied, endlessly stunning visit without one—and at some of the other parks, we did just that. Two reasons to give it thought, though. First, the Grand Canyon’s size is daunting. Options are limitless. Which rim? (South, most likely.) Which trails, and how far to take them? What features, what scenery or wildlife, how much time to hold out for each? Where to eat, and what to pack? Add kids to the equation and considerations bloom. Think of a good guide as your recommendation engine, the algorithm into which you’ll feed variables and quirks. What comes back is your personal chef’s tasting menu: the best of what the place offers, cooked just as you like it.
Second: access. Guides don’t just know the invisible and hidden, things obscure to ordinary travelers, even guidebooks; they can get you to them. In a park like the Grand Canyon, that’s the difference between average and once-in-a-lifetime. Or, better still, between dodging bodies and having the walkway—maybe the canyon itself, as far as the eye can see—to yourself.
Case in point: the Hermit’s Trail. During off-season from October to April, anyone can get in. But during high season, only backpackers with permits and—you guessed it—licensed guides can drive through. It’s as much about what you don’t get (hordes of visitors) as what you do: a medium-difficult climb that’ll tax you without serious risk, and that’ll show you the Canyon’s vegetation (lichen, pinyon pine, 167 species of mushroom), wildlife (mule deer and pocket mice), rock formations (limestone and sandstone and schist), and history.
* * *
All of which Drew narrated as we hiked.
Hermit’s Trail runs from its trailhead at Hermit’s Rest all the way down to the river. It’s a relic of the Canyon’s bright youth, when the Santa Fe Railroad began developing a former horsethieves’ trail in the Hermit Basin—named for Louis Boucher, a solitary 20-year trailbuilder and resident—as an alternative to the then-toll-blighted Bright Angel Trail. It serviced Hermit Camp, a luxury site that at one time, believe it or not, featured a tram running all the way back up to the rim. Hermit Camp closed in 1930. The trail continued to be popular until cumulative damage from rock slides and erosion dimmed its luster. Still, it’s not hard to sense history as you navigate slate shelves and bony switchbacks on your way down. The manicured tameness of the park’s more genteel corners gives way here to wildness, unpredictability, scrub mesquite and the occasional snake. And now and then you round a corner into the open, and there it sits, the Canyon’s basin, the distant trickle of the river, cavernous and dwarfing below.
Drew kept us occupied. More importantly, he kept the kids occupied. He named plants and flowers, told stories of the canyon’s history. My son had a tendency to lag, caught by trailside details. We’d find Drew beside him, pointing and spelling things out. He seemed to have infinite patience. He was a father himself, he told us. Once we discovered them bent over what looked like a rock but was in fact a fossil, Drew explaining how there’d been an ocean here once, aeons ago, and we were peeping the remains of some primitive sea life.
Eventually we turned and headed back up.
* * *
The Grand Canyon turns 100 today. Not as a natural phenomenon, of course—as that, its age is somewhere between 6 and 70 million, maybe more. Maybe a lot more. But on February 26, 1919, after an 11-year fight with mining claim holders and railroads, Woodrow Wilson signed the act that transformed Theodore Roosevelt’s National Monument into the 17th U.S. National Park. It hosts 5 million visitors each year, most of those—80-odd percent—from here in the U.S. They can reach the canyon’s base by foot, by mule, by helicopter or by skydiving—though the park asks that they please don’t try to hike down and back in one day. It issues more than 10,000 backcountry camping permits each year and hosts a 24-hour, 78-mile marathon. It is or has been home to the Pueblo, Yuman, Havasupai, Hualapai, Paiute, and Navajo peoples, not to mention the Spanish and roughly 12 species of plant that can’t be found anywhere else on earth. It is, quite simply, one of the vastest and most awe-inducing spectacles available to humankind, at once the planet’s definitive moment and its most outrageous, an explosive drama enacted in imperceptible increments over unimaginable time.
* * *
It’s also where, coming around a bend on our way back with a hard rocky shelf to our right and a copse of mesquite that masked a steep drop to our left, my son paused and dropped to a crouch, and one of parenting’s least impressive moments came to pass.
“What’s the matter?”
“OK, let’s go. We’re low on water. We need to get back.”
“So what’s the matter?”
We went on like this for a handful of seconds. He wouldn’t relent. I grew terse. I grew angry. I raised my voice. I threatened various punishments. Finally he motioned for me to come close, and he told me.
I panicked. “No,” I told him.
He gave me a pained expression. “But,” he said, plaintively. There’s no sound like your own child’s voice gone plaintive; it’s multilayered. But I held firm. I didn’t see a choice. We were in the Grand Canyon, for pity’s sake. In it. “We have to go.”
I don’t know how long we went on like this, heating and spiraling, his distress intensifying and now compounded by embarrassment, by my lack of understanding. I couldn’t imagine a way out except to get out. Leave no trace, we’d been told. I intended to stick to it. We both dug in.
And then there was Drew, at my elbow. “No problem,” he said, assessing. “I’ve got a kit.”
Here’s the thing about guides—good ones, anyway: they’ve seen it all, and they come prepared.
* * *
We did not leave no trace, alas. But we did recover, and we did get out, thanks to Drew’s ingenuity—or maybe to his own superior skills as a father, or just his experience.
He took us to Moran Point, where we spied on the Colorado through a portable telescope, watching its slow-motion slashing of the rock. Chocolate milk, one of the kids called it. And from that distance, yes, it did look so.
We ate lunch from atop a stump at Grandview Point—simple things, sandwiches, potato chips, tasting better than they ever had before. A storm moved up the canyon, wrapping the North Rim in a lurking gray shroud. We kept expecting it to come to us but it didn’t. The canyon is vast; it contains regions, weather zones that brush each other but might not cross. On the way out Drew told us about his time in the Forest Service, and explained the intentional burning of the trees—how it’s essential for the health of the forest—as rows of blackened trunk husks filed by.
That night we slept soundly in our Airstreams in the copse among the ponderosas, balanced and blood-level and unworried, this time, about the fact that we were still camping dry.