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Scott Thybony’s Canyon Commentary: Rim Walkers

Former backcountry ranger and river guide Tony Williams stands at Yaki Point near the start of the Rim Trail on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon while on a hike with author Scott Thybony.
Scott Thybony
Former backcountry ranger and river guide Tony Williams stands at Yaki Point near the start of the Rim Trail on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon while on a hike with author Scott Thybony.

On a winter morning we find ourselves catching the hikers’ express, a shuttle bus to Yaki Point. Instead of heading into the Grand Canyon as usual, the three of us start walking along the Rim Trail to view it from the outside looking in. Mostly paved, the trail runs west for 13 miles to Hermits Rest and links many of the classic viewpoints.

My friends and I begin following the canyon edge above a deep, cliff-carved world. As we walk the scene keeps changing as cloud shadows slide across a serrated landscape.

Grand Canyon stretches 277 miles when measured by the river, but a surprising 1,373 miles if measured by the rim. While most visitors keep to a zone of several dozen miles along the South Rim, uncounted viewpoints continue. Wild and remote, most of them are rarely visited. Over the years I’ve traveled long sections of both rims, sometimes just to find a forgotten viewpoint. Some promontories open up 90-mile vistas, while a few over look nearly straight drops to the river thousands of feet below.

We follow the Rim Trail as monumental rock forms named for ancient gods spread out below us. It takes us past Mather Point, where many visitors get their first view of the canyon, and on to the museum at Yavapai Point. The geological displays prepare us for the next section known as the Trail of Time. Exhibits along the way show examples of water-sculpted rock from every layer, works of art in their own right. And each step on its 1.3-mile length represents a million years of the Earth’s history.

With nine miles to go we pass by the lodges and curio shops hugging the rim at Grand Canyon Village. Farther west we stop at a memorial plaque on Powell Point to pay our respects to John Wesley Powell. He led the first river expedition on record through Grand Canyon. Following tradition, I rub his bronze nose for good luck and continue walking.

As the hours pass, we encounter dozens of rim walkers. Most of them have traveled longer and farther than we have for a chance to see the great gorge. A few have set a pace as steady as a treadmill, while others stroll along with no destination in mind. For some it’s their first trip, and for others the last.

Serious rim walkers, those who go far beyond the trails, are rare. In 2007 a German nuclear physicist disappeared without a trace while exploring the Little Colorado River Gorge. During the search for him, we studied his maps and found he had color-coded every road he had driven and every route he had hiked. Checking one of them, I was surprised to see he had walked the entire length of Marble Canyon on both rims. He may have been undertaking a similar project along the Little Colorado when he went missing.

Continuing on, we catch a glimpse of the Colorado River running far below, broken by the whitewater of Granite Rapids. Finally, we reach the end of the trail at Hermits Rest marked by an old mission bell hanging from a stone arch. Built into the canyon side the stone hideaway often has a fire burning in the vaulted fireplace. But before getting a chance to rest next to it, we notice the shuttle bus is about to leave and climb onboard.

For hours we have taken in the continuous vista of an under-the-rim world. Despite the miles we have covered, the Grand Canyon keeps going without a visible end to it.

Scott Thybony has traveled throughout North America on assignments for major magazines, including Smithsonian, Outside, and Men’s Journal. An article for National Geographic magazine was translated into a dozen languages, and his book, Canyon Country, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He once herded sheep for a Navajo family, having a hogan to call home and all the frybread he could eat. His commentaries are heard regularly on Arizona Public Radio.