• Ecology of the Southwest

A Tale of 4 Canyons

I'm afraid the stories are true - the west makes people wild. It makes them climb up cliffs and down canyons, eat chile peppers that are hotter than the desert sun, and abandon all hopes of maintaining clean clothes...


Thursday morning, we opted to wake up early and do a pre-sunrise hike in Sand Canyon, near Cortez, AZ where we stayed Wednesday night. It was our first real hike together, and it was lovely. We were the only souls in sight, and hiked on the red sand to a spot we deemed fit for greeting the sun as it came up over the eastern slope across the canyon.

Then we headed to Lower Antelope Canyon near the Navajo coal-fired powerplant near Page, AZ. It's the West's largest coal-fired plant, and provides jobs to 500+ workers - the majority of whom belong to the Navajo tribe. Only a short drive from the plant is the entrance to the Lower Antelope Canyon, but you wouldn't know it by looking around; this canyon, unlike the others we'd seen, is underground. Our tour guide pointed out the narrow, roughly 2-foot-wide crack in the ground that was the entrance to the canyon. So, being the wild ones that we are, we entered one by one, and were stunned at what we saw.

Shapely, curved walls, streaked with perfect white and orange-red stripes surrounded us on both sides and far above. Remember when you used to stare at clouds and see all sorts of shapes? Being inside the Lower Antelope Canyon is like that, but it's the rock walls that make the shapes. This is a sacred place for the Navajo, and it was easy to see why.


We arrived in Lee's Ferry, AZ Thursday night, and went for a hike early Friday morning. Our hiking destination - "Marble Canyon," technically a precursor to the Grand Canyon - was magnificent. The Colorado River wound its way around red, rocky sandstonse slopes bathed in fiery morning sunlight, and delightful white-and-black ducks skimmed skims the water's surface in neat little skipping-stone pulses. Perfect morning for peaking a canyon wall!

We started our hike along "Spencer's Trail." It was a steep, challenging trail that seemed to disappear after we were about a third of the way. So, we turned around and drove a mile or so to see a site where California Condors - America's most endangered bird species - tend to hang out. With our binoculars in tow, we saw on the rocky ledges above the river 6 condors - a species of which less than 100 individuals remain. One condor seemed to notice our spying, and sassily spread his wings with his back to us, covering his sleeping counterparts. What a pal.

We then met up with biologist Scott Rogers of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. He gave us an interesting talk about the natural history of the river, and the complicated politics that go into its current management. The talk was extremely informative, and left us all with a much better idea of how the many stakeholders of the river use the Glen Canyon Dam and other methods to achieve management needs. It also left us pondering the question of how "restoration" differs from "management" when it comes to land.

Then we did another hike in a nearby slot canyon (not quite Lower Antelope, but very cool nonetheless!) and enjoyed a delicious, home-cooked camping meal of sauteed mushrooms and onions, pasta with broccoli-sausage-marinara sauce and pesto, lovely salads, hot cocoa and tea. I think we all learned that with enough equipment, hands and headlamps, camping food doesn't have to be just hotdogs and trail mix. Good food under bright stars in Marble Canyon was just what the doctor ordered after our day of hiking.


This morning we rolled out for that king of the natural Southwest: the Grand Canyon. After looking out at the park's designated lookout site, we drove toward the southern rim of the roughly 10-mile-long canyon, where we had lunch and then started a hike about a mile down into the canyon and back up. Although it lacked the otherworldy shapeliness of the Lower Antelope Canyon, its sheer size was startling.

Now we're all bunked up in Flagstaff, AZ, and even doing some laundry! We're headed tomorrow to Organ Pipe National Monument.


Inside Lower Antelope Canyon, taken by Jessica
Smoke stacks from the plant hide behind canyon slopes, taken by Dr. Baack
Professor Baack descends into the Lower Antelope
Spencer trail in Marble Canyon: Look closely, and you can see Dr. Baack and Leif searching out the trail about halfway up the slope
A California Condor spreads his wings
Grand Canyon lookout
Michelle and Brian enter Lower Antelope Canyon
Hiking at Marble Canyon
Scott Rogers tells us about his job