As a child, we visited the Grand Canyon so often I got bored with it. But no matter how restless I got, no matter how much I wanted to see something new rather than the same old views, I never forgot the first thing I learned about it:
Stay away from the edge.
Every year, people fall into the Canyon and die. The news is full of people meeting a perilous end there lately. But a lot of the news stories don't tell you how to stay safe, or what the more common dangers are. So today we're going to talk about how to view the Canyon's spectacular two billion years of Earth history without getting injured or killed.
We'll start with my most important childhood lesson:
1. Keep a respectful distance from the Rim
The trails and barriers are where they are for a reason. You can't see what's underneath you: close to the edge, it could be solid rock - or it could be a fractured, eroded overhang just waiting for an excuse to show you how the Canyon got carved as wide as it did. Even if the rock is perfectly solid, your footing might not be. Limestone and sandstone are often more slippery than you might expect, and loose stones, dry dirt, stray pinecones, and various other detritus are just waiting to slide out from under your foot.
And sure, there may be another narrow ledge right beneath the one you've climbed down to – but bodies bounce, so don't count on it saving you from a fall.
Be mindful of wind as well. Gusts can catch you unawares and muck up your balance. So it's best to stay well back; six feet or more from an unfenced or unwalled portion is usually good, but use your best judgment and stay further back if the area looks unstable. Don't climb the walls or fences, and enjoy the views from safety.
2. Don't wander off
It seems really civilized and busy at the South Rim, where an entire tourist industry and about five trillion people concentrate, but the Grand Canyon is in the middle of nowhere. Wilderness abounds. And it's easier than you might think to get lost. So stay on the marked trails, have a map, and know how to read it.
It's also not a good idea to wander alone, especially if you're hiking down into the Canyon itself. If you can't bring a buddy, make sure someone knows where you're going and how long you expect to be gone, and how to contact the park rangers if you don't show up close to the expected time. Carry a phone and an extra battery pack or few. Even if you don't get service, you should still be able to dial 911 in an emergency.
If you're off on one of the more isolated and less well marked trails, make a note of landmarks. Don't forget to look behind you! Things look rather different coming back. An easy way to remember your landmarks is to take photos at junctions and other important directional markers, because then you don't have to rely completely on memory. And having a visual record of even the prosaic bits of your epic hike can be fun to look back at later.
3. Listen to authorities
The park rangers and the folks who work at the Grand Canyon have seen it all and know the Canyon's quirks and moods, along with the ridiculous ways people have hurt themselves an others. So listen to them!
If they tell you something you're doing is dangerous, stop doing it.
If they tell you an area's off-limits, believe them.
Park rangers can alert you to dangers that you never would have thought of, so talk to them. They'll be happy to tell you about trail and weather conditions, and let you know if anything unforeseen has cropped up that may impact your safety.
4. It's a dry heat – it can kill you quick
Arizona's famous for its dry heat, and I can tell you from experience, it doesn't feel as hot as humid air does. Problem is, while you may not feel hot, your body knows what the temperature is. And you can go from feeling fine to being in distress very quickly.
Plus, while it might be breezy and cool on the Rim, it could be hotter than Satan's sauna just below. Add in the elevation (which at over 7,000 feet, few of us are prepared to cope with), and a quick and easy hike can become a rescue. Far more people get themselves into serious trouble hiking in the heat than by tempting fate at the edge.
So: bring plenty of water, and take advantage of the free water available in the park by bringing refillable water bottles. Drink lots of it. Wear loose, moisture-wicking fabrics, sunblock, and a good floppy hat. Get out of the sun when there's shade available, and take plenty of rest breaks. And know the signs of heat exhaustion and heatstroke, as well as the first aid needed to treat them.
5. Speaking of temperature, you actually can freeze to death in Arizona
We talk a lot about the heat, but the Grand Canyon is in the high desert country. We don't get a lot of precipitation there, but we get seasons, and winters can be bitter cold and wet. If you visit in late fall, winter, or early spring, prepare for adverse weather conditions. Check the forecast before you go and while you're there. Dress in warm layers. Watch out for ice and snow on roads, trails, and walkways, especially around the Rim. Carry traction devices for your shoes and chains for your car. Make sure you have an emergency kit for both your vehicle and hiking pack. And if you're not comfortable driving in winter weather conditions, give the trip a miss if there's a storm. There's a lot of isolated roadway leading to and from the Canyon: it may not be well plowed, and it may be a very long time before help arrives if something goes wrong.
6. You can drown in Arizona, too
Flash flooding is a huge issue in Arizona. Floods can happen at any time, but they're especially a risk during the summer monsoons. You'd be amazed at the amount of water sudden afternoon clouds will dump in the space of less than an hour. And all that water doesn't just soak into the ground: it runs off in washes, and wreaks quite a lot of havoc.
It doesn't matter if the skies above you are clear: any storm in the watershed can cause flash floods to roar down the side canyons and washes. So check the forecast for the entire area, and be extra cautious of anything that looks like a dry stream bed. Check with park rangers for flash flood hazards along your hiking and travel routes. When hiking or driving, watch for signs of flash flooding, and DO NOT ENTER flooded areas. I can't emphasize that enough: the water can be much deeper and be flowing much faster than it looks. Wait for it to drain, or wait for help to get across flooded areas.
For more information on surviving flash flooding, see this post.
7. Speaking of monsoons, watch out for that lightning!
Arizona's summer monsoons come with some spectacular lightning, even when there's no rain. When the thunderheads pile up, pay attention. If you hear thunder or see lightning flash, get indoors or into a vehicle if you can. Definitely stay off the Rim and away from open areas, where you will be a tempting target for any strikes looking for an easy path to the ground.
Absolutely do not shelter under handy tall trees! If you look closely at the towering ponderosa pines, you'll see grooves carved into many of their trunks from previous lightning strikes. Lightning loves a good tall tree! Do what my sixth grade teacher did if you're caught out in a lightning storm, and huddle miserably under a short bush instead. You'll be grateful you did when you see a bolt thwack the tree you were thinking of hanging out all nice and dry under.
8. You are not a Disney Princess; these are not Disney animals
You know what hurts far more people each year than all the gallivanting dangerously on the Rim? Squirrels. They're cute, and they beg, but they're wild and they can be bitey. So can most of the other wildlife there, some of which is poisonous, some of which carries diseases like rabies, and some of which can snap you like a twig or rip entire limbs off.
Don't feed the cute animals. No, not even if they beg. Feeding animals is actually prohibited, for both your safety and theirs. Keep a respectful distance from the wee little things like squirrels, lizards, and birds (and if you don't think lizards are dangerous, me and my childhood friends could fill an entire night telling you about the injuries we sustained playing with them in our rural back yards. There is blood involved). And when it comes to the big animals like deer, elk, mountain lions, bears, and many others, stay quite far away! Even deer can get violent and hurt or kill you with a well-placed kick. I probably don't need to explain the limb-ripping abilities of the big predators, but just in case: they have big teeth. They can shred you like cheese. Appreciate them all from afar.
Those are the basics, and they should get you started on having a safe and enjoyable visit. Go see some of the most spectacular rock layers on the planet, and live to tell the tale!
National Park Service: Staying safe at Grand Canyon National Park starts with YOU
Oh Ranger: Grand Canyon National Park: Staying Safe
Canyon Tours: Safety First: Keeping Your Kids Safe at the Grand Canyon
My Grand Canyon Park: 6 Hazards to Avoid in the Grand Canyon
My Grand Canyon Park: How Many People Fall in the Grand Canyon?