Former NASA Employee Describes Her Exploration of the Grand Canyon

“Its canyon walls have stories that we will never hear and beholds a history that our eyes will never see. It is a spectacular illusion—a scene flattened onto an earthly canvas that you could almost reach out and touch. But if you stand and watch long enough, you’ll begin to see its vastness as fields of depth open up with every shadow touched by a glimmer of light,” writes Stefanie Payne about the Grand Canyon, as part of her exploration and documentation of all 59 National Parks in the United States in 2016. Payne, a former product development lead and content strategist with NASA’s human spaceflight program, describes herself as an “explorer” on her blog, where she discusses not only her personal experiences exploring the Grand Canyon, but also general information about the canyon with which many people are unaware.

Payne notes that the Grand Canyon is approximately 10 miles wide and 277 miles long, as well as 1 mile deep—an enormous natural creation that is difficult for the human mind to appreciate and understand. The vastness of the canyon ecosystem incorporates many different types of “desert wilderness” areas, including the North Rim, South Rim, Supai waterfalls, Colorado River, and Kaibab National Forest. Her goal in her writings is to introduce the reader to “the best ways to experience life beyond the South Rim viewpoints, ending with our experience—the epic rim-to-river-to-rim hike which challenged us to no end.”

North Rim

Fewer people visit the North Rim of the Grand Canyon than the South Rim, explains Payne, because the North Rim presents difficulties in accessing. It is located at a higher elevation, has a shorter season (because of the cold, hazardous winter climate), and has fewer easy-to-get-to points to enjoy the views. Payne recommends that first-time visitors travel to the South Rim first, to enjoy the easy-to-access and spectacular views. After that, a visit to the North Rim is recommended, because that is where a visitor can find the greatest solitude for enjoying natural backcountry hiking and camping experiences. Unique, less-traveled trails and viewpoints, such as that at Cape Royal, are available at the North Rim, making for excellent photography perspectives.

South Rim

Most people who have visited the Grand Canyon have visited the South Rim, where such popular vantage spots as Yavapai, Mather, Hopi, and Mojave points offer breathtaking views of the multicolored gorge. And these amazing views are within short walking distance from the park’s visitor center. Adding to the popularity of these viewing sites is the nearness of well-known lodges, restaurants, and stores, as well as convenient access to free shuttle buses, hiking trails, historical sites, and educational exhibits.

Hiking From the South Rim to the Colorado River

Payne and her hiking partner, Jonathan Irish, desired to get away from the South Rim’s hectic crowds and make a springtime hike down to the Colorado River that offered some sense of solitude and intimacy. To stay at the bottom of the canyon overnight, they had to first purchase a special backcountry camping permit. Their plan was to take a 17-mile route from the South Kaibab Trail to the Bright Angel Trail before spending the night on the shores of the Colorado River. Payne notes that indoor lodging is also available next to the campground, including a bar, restaurant, and hot showers. In the area between Bright Angel Campground, where they stayed, and Phantom Ranch, park rangers host nightly education programs on various subjects, such as the canyon’s geology and history.

The hike down to the river (and back up to the rim) was described as a “monster” by Payne, noting the need to descend 4,000 feet (and then ascend the same distance). She and her partner were happy that they chose to use a mule service to carry their heavy backpacking equipment. Mules are also available for people to ride along canyon trails and into the canyon interior.

Payne writes that even a springtime hike into the canyon can be unbearably hot in the desert environment. Despite the challenges, she writes that “this was one of the greatest backpacks of both of our lives. It was challenging, rewarding, and along a path to the Colorado River where one can see the Grand Canyon unlike any other way—from inside of it.” She stresses the importance of hikers exercising and training their bodies beforehand, making sure they have the proper gear, and talking to park personnel about appropriate safety precautions.

Helicopter Rides

Another way to get to the bottom of the Grand Canyon is by helicopter. Papillon Aerial Adventures offers day rides into the canyon, with pick-ups at designated locations at the canyon or at Phoenix, Sedona, and Las Vegas. Payne writes, “The unique vantage point upon entering has to be one of the most wonderful ways to get a load of the landscape and to capture one-of-a-kind photo ops.”

Rafting the River

Although Payne and her traveling partner had no time to raft the Colorado River on this particular trip, she writes that such a thrilling adventure remains on their “bucket list.” Rafting the river generally requires a time commitment of 10 to 15 days. Several reputable independent operators are available for hire when making such a trip.