Cape Final

We were supposed to be well below the rim by now, but it's a lovely afternoon up here in the ponderosa woods.

The original plan was a two-night backpacking trip from the North Rim to the Colorado River and back. It would have been spectacular with scenery we've yet to witness and an encounter with the river that sculpted this land of thrones and temples. It would have also been oppressively hot with a high probability of thunderstorms and thus the risk of flash flooding. I got the permit months ago just so we'd have the option of doing the trek. Yesterday, we elected to decline the option.

There are far better times of year to make a descent that deep into the Grand Canyon. November, for instance, when the summer heat has abated and the monsoons have moved on. Why force it now? The canyon isn't going anywhere. This trip of ours is meant to be enjoyable and at least a little relaxing. We want to hike and explore, but we don't need to overdo it. There's still so much more ahead! Why push it? Yes, you could argue we are being overly-cautious, but I don't care. I am enamored with this view.

We are out at the end of Cape Final, a high peninsula of land that juts east from a larger finger of the North Rim. Our elevation here is just shy of 8,000 feet, putting us a full mile above the muddy ribbon of river barely in view below. The sun is descending towards the horizon, but there is still plenty of light to showcase the layered hues of the South Rim. A storm advances in the distance, its dark clouds adding to the drama of the scene. There are deep blues and purples in the sky, burnt reds and oranges in the rocks, and healthy greens in the pine and mahogany beside and below us. The Grand Canyon is never short on color.

With astonishing speed, something rips through the air before us. The racing blur sounded something like a car or plane zooming by, a faint, high, rushing noise crescendoing in a burst before fading just as quick as it came. I hear chattering both overhead and down below the rim and set my eyes to tracking the sources of all this noise: white-throated swifts. The small, agile birds are displaying their mastery of the air. They dive, turn, and glide around the rimrock with frenetic ease. Another burst of sound, this time from behind. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see the swift's profile shrinking in the distance, far out over the canyon.

Back in the forest, all was quiet. Our approach to this point was pleasant but rather sedate compared to this scene. There were no swifts tearing through the air around us. The ponderosa pines rustled a bit in the breeze, fence lizards scurried through the brush as we neared their sunning spots, and the occasional dark-eyed junco or Steller's jay added its voice to the subdued soundtrack. The real show is here at the edge.

The swifts are joined by other winged friends: spotted towhees and lesser goldfinches, western bluebirds and blue-gray gnatcatchers. The sky is no longer limited by the forest. Now its only constraint is the storm it brews in the south. To the east and west, it runs forever. The ponderosa pines are still present, but now they mingle with mountain mahogany, cliffrose, and Utah agave. And then, there is the geologic rhapsody below. The dusty brown forest floor vanishes at the brink of this chronology in stone. I don't have the rock layers memorized and certainly can't identify them by sight yet, but I know that somewhere down in the bottom lie rocks that are more than a billion years old. Perhaps they're visible from this vantage. Perhaps as we gaze down into the canyon we are looking a thousand million years into the past. Each layer, each shift in color and composition between us and the river is the product of some grand work that preceded us by incomprehensible ages.

I am making a vow to myself: the next time I come to the Grand Canyon, I'll go down to the river. I'll lose the elevation necessary to visit those ancient stones. Today, though, I will put those thoughts aside and focus on the beauty of this summer afternoon. How can I look away?



Naturalist, Photographer, Cartographer