Grand Canyon: An Expedition

Grand Canyon National Park

by Samantha Adler

If you want a reminder that you are just a small, little speck in a huge, titanic, wondrous earth, go stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon.

I had expected it to be beautiful (it is one of the natural wonders of the world after all), but wasn’t quite prepared for its mind-altering majesty. We pulled through the park entrance and barely parked before I leapt out of the car, ran to the edge, and leaned over the metal railing in complete awe.

It’s easy to get lost in the Canyon’s beauty and forget that it’s an awesome force of nature. You’re advised only to hike in the wee hours of the morning and evening, as the sun is too powerful during the day. Fliers are stapled every five feet, with photos of 25 year old marathon runners who expired because they refused to drink the recommended amount of water and take breaks. This Canyon is not to be taken lightly, even for the most fit of us mere mortals.

So I woke up at 5AM, hopped on the GC bus (yes, the park is so big they have a fully functioning bus system), and stumbled onto South Kaibab trail. The dusty orange path switched back and forth on the cliff face, inching slowly towards the bottom of the Canyon. With every turn my perspective of the Canyon would shift, but it never got old and it never got less intimidating.

Taking a break on a jut out, I sat beneath the one tree (and single source of shade for miles) and admired the view. Growing up I had seen this place in photos, in National Geographic, and all over geography textbooks. But, imagine tracking the southwest American wilderness in the late 1800’s and stumbling across this huge crack in the earth? I would have pooped myself (and they probably did due to dysentery).

Joseph Christmas Ives (cool name) set out to explore the Canyon via the Colorado River (what shaped this crazy structure and runs through the middle of Canyon) in 1857 on an expedition funded by the US government.

The area at the time was uncharted,  just a huge blank space on US maps, so the government paid Ives to chart this area. He gathered a crew and set sail on his steamboat the Explorer (very practical, Christmas). Unfortunately, they didn’t make it far; his boat crashed at a smaller canyon right outside and they continued on foot for thirty miles, reaching an overland view of the Canyon. He wrote:

"The extent and magnitude of the system of canyons is astounding. The plateau is cut into shreds by these gigantic chasms, and resembles a vast ruin. Belts of country miles in width have been swept away, leaving only isolated mountains standing in the gap. Fissures so profound that the eye cannot penetrate their depths are separated by walls whose thickness one can almost span, and slender spires that seem to be tottering upon their bases shoot up thousands of feet from the vaults below."

It’s hard not to think in poetic prose when starring out on this vast maze of canyons.

Next up was Jon Weselly Powell, a one armed curious geologist and Civil War vet. Set out to conquer the wild Colorado (this river’s rapids are so powerful I could hear them from the overlook) with four man made wooden boats, an extensive knowledge about Ives’ journey, and ragtag team of civil war vets and trappers. The team made it further than Ives, crashing at the Lodore Canyon.

They then spent three months explore the upper canyons, eventually entering the belly of the Grand Canyon. However, by then the team had run out of food. Out of the original nine crew members, only six completed the journey. Powell named several important landmarks including the Lodore Canyon, Disaster Falls, and the Flaming Gorge.

Not to be deterred by his previous hardships on his initial journey, he returned again in 1871 with a group of scientists, set out to study the geology of the Canyon. The majesty of the Canyon changed him, and he dedicated his life to uncovering its mysteries one rock at a time. Afterwards he became the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, taking a keen interest on the geology of the American southwest.

If you’re a fit and brave soul, you can still trek to the base of the Canyon and ride the rapids of the Colorado (under the supervision of an guide and in a floaty raft). Sipping my water under the shade of a tree, I looked around at the deep and wide crevices all around me. I had walked for hours on groomed trails and I felt like an explorer. It’s not not to, despite having a path leveled for you, a hike still means braving an aggressive heat, steep inclines, and a new mind-altering view on every switch-back.

While I had set off to see a pretty sight once pictured in my text books, Powell and Ives went to study rocks in an area the government was too lazy to explore. And we had all stumbled on something that shook our foundation and reminded us we hold very little power next to a beast like the Grand Canyon.

* To learn more about the Grand Canyon explorers visit the Grand Canyon site here.

Devils Tower: Beneath the Pine

Outside of Hulett, Wyoming

by Cassia Reynolds

Keep it chronological! Check out my other two installations on Devils Tower or risk a serious case of FOMO: Devils Tower: A Massive Mystery RockDevils Tower: The Perimeter


I heaved my torso up and over the boulder, my fingertips digging into rough stone, the rubber soles of my hiking boots bouncing off the slanted edge of a neighboring rock. When I’d dragged myself to the top, I turned to take in the view behind me: dark pine needles, crusty bark chunks, and far below, hikers milling about. The hot sun blazed down on the world, casting deep shadows in the crevices and browning my shoulders.

I dove forward, using all the momentum I could muster to throw myself across the gap to the next landing.

I’d been scaling boulders for at least forty-five minutes and I was only three-quarters of the way up Devils Tower’s rock fields, a graveyard of shed stone. As I moved further from the main trail, the wild hills of Wyoming became visible over the treetops of the pines. Near the highest point, I took a break, sinking down, my legs dangling off the edge of a boulder. I inspected the chartreuse lichen that grew on these Tower bits-and-pieces and wondered if this was what gave it the gray-green hue.

While resting, an unnatural glint of light caught my eye. When I turned toward it I could only see a single persistent pine wedged between the boulders off to my right. Before I moved away, the breeze came back and the reflection returned. There was something over there.


I clambered over to the skinny, twisted trees, ducked between the lowest branches, and pulled myself into their shade. And suddenly I was surrounded by colorful knots of fabric. Strips of faded red, yellow, and cream fluttered and fell with the breeze. And in the middle of it all, I found the light-reflecting culprit, a teeny dreamcatcher decorated with glittering green beads.

Tied to the dreamcatcher was a card with a print of a rose. It had been slipped into a plastic sheath to protect it from the elements. Drops of condensation stuck to transparent walls. And dangling down from the same bunch was a slender, metal branding tool with one end molded into a skinny “P.”

I admired the bundle as it spun around and around with the wind.

What I’d stumbled across was someone’s personal prayer offering to Devils Tower, a part of one of many traditional ceremonial activities still practiced by Native Americans in the Midwest, today. Over twenty tribes are connected to Devils Tower and many have their own creation story for this strange rock formation.

The foundation of many of these legends is similar: a group of children or a woman meet a gigantic bear in the woods. The bear chases them and they pray to the heavens, begging for help. The ground beneath their feet rises up, carrying them into the sky. The angry bear tries to climb the newly-and-spiritually-formed rock, dragging his claws down the sides and leaving the column-like ridges that still exist today.

In my favorite version of this tale, told by the Kiowa, it is a group of young sisters that runs from the bear. When they are lifted to the sky, they are taken so high that they become a part of night and survive today as the twinkling Big Dipper constellation.

Lying on my back below the pine, I squinted up at Devils Tower. From upside down, the ridges all along the sides really did look like claw marks.

As cool as my excursion across the boulder fields was, the real adventure-seekers visit this site to crack climb its steep, choppy walls. I’m talking 127-hours style, jam-your-fingers-in-gaps-between-the-rocks-to-propel-your-body-upwards climbing. The kind of special technique that has its own equipment and grading scale. Devils Tower has multiple crack climbing routes with varying degrees of difficulty, many of which are advanced.

I saw multiple hikers on their way to the top while I wandered around the boulder fields and along the mostly-flat trails. Their tiny figures were just blobs of bright color dancing between the ledges.

While the art of crack climbing is badass, the increase of climbers at Devils Tower has caused a stir over the years. Many Native American tribes consider this recreational climbing a desecration of the sacred site. To compromise, the National Park Service has set aside the month of June, in which many Native American celebrations surrounding The Tower occur, as “Voluntary Climbing Closure” month. It’s not mandatory to respect this tradition, but it’s suggested, and the the act has resulted in an 80% reduction of climbs during the month of June.

It’s a start.

The confusion and miscommunication between Native Americans and the American Government has been a long running theme (as we all know but especially) at this first national monument. Long before it was dubbed Devils Tower, it was known to Native Americans, among other names, as Bear Lodge or Bear Rock. The oh-so-Satanic namesake realised from a misinterpretation of the original name in 1875. A colonel interpreted “Bear Tower” as “Bad God’s Tower” which eventually led to “Devils Tower.” Still no explanation for that (aggravating) missing apostrophe, though.

The idea of a national monument, where the US government rushes to decree ownership over a piece of land or a memorial, offers a glimpse into the minds of American leaders of the past; what makes each one important and why? And most importantly, to whom are they important?

I sat up and brushed off the dust from my back, preparing to leave the little dreamcatcher and the prayer cloths, and as I did, I wondered if Devils Tower was less a tourist attraction and more a sacred space. And if this mini-sanctuary was hidden on purpose by its founders.

As I contemplated the teachings about Native American beliefs from my middle-school-days, I realized that ownership of this land didn’t matter. There was no “ownership” of nature, no real way to say that a rock was America’s besides a piece of paper with a list of “rights” on it. It was all Mother Nature’s, and that’s something that we need to respect.

A piece of paper can fade, can flutter away in the wind.