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River Deep, Canyon High

Between Arizona and Nevada, the grand American landscape showcases carving canyons, picturesque lakes and imposing dams

It’s one of the most magnificent natural wonders of the world. Postcards and brochures only touch upon the sheer scale of the Grand Canyon. Its tortuous topography and ever-changing colours drop the jaw of every first-time visitor.

As I stand on its South Rim, I too am entranced. Squirrels bound silently between rocky ledges. All I hear is the whir of cicadas and the flitting swifts and wrens that fly between the ponderosas and pinyon pines. I feel refreshingly humbled by my insignificance.

Looking across to North Rim from Mather Point and Yavapai Point (16km away as the eagle flies) is a spectacular geological gallery sculpted and painted over millennia. It’s a swirling canvas of Kaibab limestone, Coconino sandstone, hermit shale, and Vishnu schist basement rock, itself 1.7 billion years old. And below me on the canyon floor is the 2,250km-long Colorado River, which arrives from the Rocky Mountains. It weaves through 445km of the Grand Canyon, into Lake Mead, and onto the Californian Gulf.

“Mesmerising canyon views twist and contort in all shades of ochre-red, purple and plum.”

VILLAGE PEOPLE
The Grand Canyon National Park was designated as such in 1919. And in 1979, it became a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here at Grand Canyon Village, President Roosevelt implemented a Civilian Conservation Corps camp during the 1930s economic depression. Over a decade, around 40,000 young men contributed to conservation work, learning skills such as masonry, carpentry and bookkeeping along the way.

One prominent local from the time was Mary Colter. Walking along the rim, I reach the Lookout Studio, designed by the master architect herself. Colter constructed the building in rustic Kaibab limestone, offering staggering views over the canyon. Nearby is the five-storey, Kolb Studio, dressed in attractive logs. Clasping dramatically onto the canyon walls, this was the early 20th-century home and photography studio of the Kolb Brothers. They shot images of tourists heading down the canyon on sturdy-footed mule trains. Inside are historic photographs, a vintage film projector, and the canvas boat in which the brothers explored the Colorado River. The young members of the Civilian Conservation Corps built the staircase behind the studio. They also constructed and maintained thousands of kilometres of national park trails across the USA.

Mesmerising canyon views twist and contort in all shades of ochre-red, purple and plum. Reaching the trailhead for Bright Angel Trail, I follow a section of its 13km descent, passing through a scenic tunnel and a wall featuring Native American petroglyphs. A series of rubbly switchbacks hug redwall limestone walls on this trail originally used by the Havasupai people who farmed at Indian Gardens below.

Hardy hikers puff passed me, having climbed up from Phantom Ranch (a stone lodge at the canyon’s base, also designed by Mary Colter). They’re coated in sweat and dust, and in smiles of achievement. One excited couple talks of spotting an elk in a cave. The trail is still serviced by mules that carry less energetic visitors.

NATIVE AMERICAN RESERVES
It’s a new dawn, and today I travel to Hualapai Reservation at Grand Canyon West. On ancestral lands around 250km west of Grand Canyon Village, the Native American community reside just outside the national park.

At Hualapai Ranch, the old Wild West is re-enacted for tourists with lasso throwing and wagon rides. Wrangler-led horse-riding is on offer in the arena or along the rim. I head to the Native American cultural village at Eagle Point to see examples of traditional dwellings of various tribes, including that of the Hopi and Havasupai people. I find buffalo hide-lined tipis, and mud and wood-constructed hogan huts. Traditional performances take place in the open-air amphitheatre, and stallholders offer Native American jewellery, arts and crafts.

Eagle Point is also home to the recently opened Sa’Nya-Wa Restaurant, offering traditional Hualapai dishes fusing Southwest and Asian flavours. And beneath it is the famous Skywalk, where the vertigo-free step out onto a horseshoe-shaped glass bridge suspended 4,000ft above the canyon floor. I’m most taken with the narrow escarpment beyond, resembling a giant bald eagle with outstretched wings. The Hualapai people believe it’s a protective spirit looking over them.

Reaching Guano Point is a breath-stealing moment. Its short but spectacular Highpoint Hike tracks a narrow promontory. The terrain is rough and rubbly, and without safety rails, but when taking in the 360o views of its steep ramparts plummeting down to the Colorado River, the sense of remoteness is arresting.

“Postcards only touch upon the sheer scale of the Grand Canyon; it drops the jaw of every first-time visitor.”

The afternoon sun blends the canyon’s palette of colours to an incandescent orange. Meaty black ravens perform aerobatic swoops and loops off the precipitous ridge, cutting the silence with their glottal call. Devoid of wind, or even a breeze, I watch others bask in the timeless beauty of this ancient land, as heat bakes the afternoon to a standstill.

LAKES, GORGES AND DAMS
On my last day exploring America’s sensory southwest, I head just west of Grand Canyon West. Hemenway Harbour is where the Colorado River pauses. At Lake Mead, I board the Desert Princess, a Mississippi-style paddle-wheeler. The lake is 177km long (when filled) and boasts 885km of shoreline.

Cruising along, we view close up the cliffs of Hemenway Wall, mottled with schist rock and striated gneiss rock. We pass Boulder Island and Sentinel Island, but it’s the extinct volcano of Fortification Hill that’s most attractive, with its raspberry ripple-like slopes.

Lake Mead is home to rainbow trout and catfish, and in the canyons around it, mule deer, coyotes, bobcats, bighorn sheep, and desert tortoises reside. Our skipper has us keep an eye open for the endangered peregrine falcon.

Various States draw much of their drinking water from Lake Mead. It irrigates fruit, vegetable, hay and cotton farms in South Nevada, South California and Mexico. And it is America’s largest man-made reservoir—all thanks to Hoover Dam.

After repeated floods in the early 1900s, the Colorado River burst its banks causing major damage to riverside farms. Being too wild a torrent in spring, and just a trickle in winter, farmers called for a dam to control water flow and distribution. Black Canyon was selected as the best spot.

In 1929, engineer, philanthropist and President, Herbert Hoover negotiated an agreement between the seven states that shared water rights: Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, California, Wyoming and Colorado. Construction for Boulder Dam began in 1931, with Boulder City constructed for the workers. With the dam completed in September 1935, Roosevelt named Boulder Dam (renamed in 1947 to Hoover Dam).

As our boat navigates Black Canyon, it’s thrilling to think we are floating near the top of Hoover Dam, on the other side of which is a 220-metre drop. With that ominous thought in mind, I book myself onto a group tour of this National Historic Landmark.

Arriving at the mighty structure, we descend 64 metres into the belly of Hoover Dam to see first-hand how this feat of engineering works. Exposed volcanic conglomerate rock appears cold and wet. We view the pipes that transfer 96,000 gallons of water per second to the power plant’s generator turbines, which supply power for 1.3 million people in various states. You don’t need to be an engineer to be impressed by that. A circular black and white floor pattern underfoot represents the Native American symbol for water and power.

Heading back up, I walk across Hoover Dam’s 379-metre crest. With Lake Mead to my left, and the Colorado River slithering hundreds of metres below to my right, I’m again humbled with an appreciation for what humans can achieve.

Midway, I cross the state border of Nevada and Arizona. It’s a great vantage point from which to view the enormous intake towers. A moment for reflection comes at the memorial dedicated to 96 souls that lost their lives constructing the dam. It reads: They died to make the desert bloom.

From canyon to dam, I leave the USA feeling utterly enthralled by its indigenous heritage, its magnificent natural landscapes and its ingenious manmade structures.

TRAVEL INFORMATION
Getting there
Emirates flies daily between Dubai and Las Vegas (via Seattle or San Francisco). www.emirates.com

Touring
Grand Canyon Tour & Travel offer a variety of Grand Canyon, Lake Mead and Hoover Dam itineraries. Once at the canyon, free shuttles operate on a loop. Travel from Las Vegas (with courtesy hotel pick-up and drop-off) by deluxe coach or bespoke Mercedes Benz Sprinter. For a variety of itineraries and packages, visit: www.grandcanyontourandtravel.com

Visas
Travellers to the USA require a visa (except citizens of a country on the visa waiver program). For further information, visit: www.travel.state.gov

Resources
www.nps.gov/grca

WORDS AND IMAGES: MARIE BARBIERI

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