Grand Canyon, Ariz.: Ancient rock, eternal truths

A mule train winds its way down the Bright Angel Trail.
(Jeff Robbins / Associated Press)

If I close my eyes, I can almost see Bright Angel Creek spilling into the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I’ve been here only twice and don’t know if I’ll ever make it again because it’s a long, hard trip down from the rim — seven miles, losing 5,000 feet in elevation, along the South Kaibab Trail, the way I hiked into the Big Ditch in 2004, or a slightly more gradual 9.3 miles along Bright Angel Trail, the route I took before that on the back of a mule.

Five million people a year stand on the rim taking a gander at the 277-mile-long chasm, a stirring sight to be sure. But for those who make it down to the river there’s something even better: a strange little patch of paradise, halfway to the center of the Earth, it seems, where layers of ancient rock and a raging river speak eternal verities.

I’d imagined going there ever since my grandma gave me Marguerite Henry’s 1953 children’s classic “Brighty of the Grand Canyon,” about a free-spirited burro that toted water up and down the North Rim along Bright Angel Creek. So it was a dream come true to pitch a tent in the campground on the west side of Brighty’s stream, named by the great, one-armed canyon explorer John Wesley Powell.

On the mule trip I stayed at nearby Phantom Ranch, my favorite hotel in the world, built of logs and native stone by the Fred Harvey Co. in the 1920s. It has a corral for the mules, snug cabins and a rustic dining hall that serves steak and baked potato dinners, with chocolate cake for dessert.


After supper I’d sit on the smooth stone beach by the big river, cooling my blistered feet, waiting for God

to switch on the stars while the red-black Vishnu schist and pink Zoroaster granite canyon walls disappeared around me.

Nothing lasts forever, or everything does in one form or another; I don’t know which, but in a place like that I think big thoughts. And I feel lucky to be alive in America, beautiful from coast to coast and from top to bottom. Bottom, especially.

— Susan Spano


Spano is a longtime travel writer whose work frequently appears in the Los Angeles Times.