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Grand Canyon, Native Plants, Barefootery . . . Hooray!

June 8, 2016


The Grand Canyon’s North Rim: one of my favorite places ever since I first visited there for three weeks as National Park Service Artist-in-Residence exactly five years ago.

Last week I was fortunate to be able to spend a week there as a Grand Canyon Association volunteer, doing revegetation work with a wonderful group of like-minded folks.


Our work consisted of . . . standing around with our hands on our hips? No . . . we busted our backs pick-axing basins in the bare eroding areas between the North Rim Lodge cabins; after hauling away many bucket-loads of rocks–marble-sized to fist-sized to foot-sized–we then filled the holes with water, let them drain, added soil amendment, planted the plants, sprinkled in some wildflower seeds, spread a light layer of wood chip mulch, and watered again.

Sometimes we’d go pull weeds just to mix things up a bit . . . below are photos of the noxious invasive grass Poa bulbosa, an unusual grass that reproduces via bulbs. Best tool for going after those bulbs: the vicious “pointed-tip rock hammer” . . . super-satisfying to smash into the root-base.

We worked all day Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday . . . which left Wednesday open for exploring. (Those Grand Canyon Association folks really know how to treat volunteers well; besides a welcome mid-week day off, we also were fed three meals a day and provided a lovely campspot to pitch our tents, including plenty of firewood for after-dinner campfire fun.)

Since I am headed back to the North Rim in just a couple of weeks for my writing workshop, I wanted to re-hike the Cape Final trail to see what was in bloom in preparation for taking workshop participants there.


The way to Cape Final is a lovely forest ramble past/under ponderosa pine, with sun-dappled mini-meadows where the lupine were in full show and scent . . .  a heady mixture of indescribable sweetness that whispered “sit and stay and sigh here a while.”

Was I experiencing shinrin-yoku?

“Shinrin-yoku is a term that means ‘taking in the forest atmosphere’ or ‘forest bathing.’ It was developed in Japan during the 1980s and has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. Researchers primarily in Japan and South Korea have established a robust body of scientific literature on the health benefits of spending time under the canopy of a living forest.”

And the forest flowers!


Pseudocymopterus montanus & friends


A lupine river . . .

One of the particular delights of hiking along Grand Canyon’s North Rim is the element of surprise . . . one moment you are meandering through ponderosa forest, inhaling the dry piney perfume, and all of a sudden the big trees are behind you and your breath is taken away by. The. View.


(This is Mike Wolcott of the North Rim Vegetation Program searching near Cape Final for Sentry milk-vetch (Astralgus cremnophylax), a rare-and-endangered plant that only grows in shallow soil pockets in the Kaibab limestone, and only within 25 feet of the edge of the Canyon. What fun it must have been to discover and name this plant: “cremnophylax” means “gorge watchman.”)


Another view connoisseur near Cape Final . . .

And a few more  of my favorite near-the-rim wildflowers: fantastic cactus!


Then there were these strange creatures: striking multi-colored tubular flowers arising out of the sandy soil with no visible means of “support” . . . nothing green in the way of leaves and/or stems. These delicate bloomers (Orobanche fasciculata) are members of the Orobanchaceae family: all (partially or fully) parasitic in their own lovely ways.



At Cape Final on the North Rim: cool view, cool plants, cool companions (also re-vegetation volunteers).

And then the week of volunteer work on the rim ended, and it was time to head into the canyon . . .

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Of course there were . . . wildflowers!

There was also plenty of colorful dust (depending on rock layer) for footprint photos:


I was even able to stop for a chat & photo with the North Kaibab Trail Barefoot Rock Monster . . . actually quite friendly and willing to hold still (for millenia, if needed) for a pose.


While taking this “foot-selfie” in the middle of the trail, wouldn’t you know that two hikers would appear around the bend and have to step around my awkward carcass . . .


(Almost) Youch . . . the bridge below the Manzanita Rest-house needs a little maintenance hammerin’ . . .


Seven miles down the dusty trail (that’s the south end of a mule train kickin’ up dust) . . .


. . . led me to this stellar spot at Cottonwood Camp. When it’s warm in the Canyon, no tent or sleeping bag is needed–just a groundsheet/poncho underneath and silk bag liner/bivy sack to crawl into when the gentle breeze picked up. Oh yeah . . . and a ridiculously un-padded Thermarest Z-pad. But it was lightweight, and that was the theme of this brief adventure.


In the morning, it was time to face reality: the seven miles and 4100 feet elevation gain back to the North Kaibab trailhead.

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Did I mention the excessive heat warning? But by leaving at 4pm to hike down, and 5 am to hike back up, I was able to enjoy the canyon with no worries about the dangers of heat illness. (But I did bring my reflective umbrella and extra water, just in case . . . )


Did somebody mention water? This is Roaring Spring, the source of all water for both North and South Rims . . . and the 5 million+ visitors a year. Amazing!

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What went down must hike up . . . and up . . . and up . . .


. . . past the hardy trail crew members doing heavy-duty maintenance. One of them commented as I skin-walked by (skin-walk=favorite new term for barefooting): “That’s pretty dope.” I’m hoping that’s what he said and not, “That’s pretty dopey.”


Then . . . the fun stops here . . . with the obligatory celebration photo at the North Kaibab trailhead sign.

And one last image, pretending to tightrope walk at Cape Royal earlier in the week . . . bringing a little bit of parkour to the Canyon . . .


Happy (canyon?) trails!

8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 8, 2016 8:41 pm

    Thanks for the inspiration and very cool pictures! I just hiked about 14 miles barefoot on the Tubal Cain trail in the Olympic Mountains with my wife’s hiking group. My feet were tender by the end, but it felt so much better than when I’ve hiked up there shod, especially stepping in the streams to cool down a little. Still learning how to hike barefoot on a rocky trail. I can’t imagine running on a lot of that. Makes me appreciate even more your Rim-to-rim run. Always more to learn!
    All the best,

    • June 9, 2016 7:39 am

      14 miles! Excellent! And having “water breaks” along the way is definitely one of the best things about shoeless hiking. (Sometimes it’s difficult not to do some friendly taunting of the booted hikers in the group as you’re refreshing your toes in cool water 🙂 )

      Do you use hiking poles? I’ve found those really helpful (actually, indispensable) on rough trails . . . they allow you to lighten the load on your feet a bit, especially when your feet land on pointy rocks . . .

      . . . I just looked up the Tubal Cain trail . . . wow! You live near some gorgeous trails!

      • June 10, 2016 9:44 pm

        Thank you Thea for the tip on the hiking poles! I’ll try that. Yes, I am shameless in my bare footed taunts, especially to anyone who has hassled me about going barefoot! I love walking through the mud and streams and just feeling the trail on that much more intimate level and I love telling people about it, which sometimes they don’t like so much.
        Yes, we are spoiled trail wise around here. We’ve got the Olympics, the local beaches, the Pacific Coast, plus a whole maze of local trails around town, and the weather is pretty mild too. My wife started the “Slow Pokes Hiking Club” years ago to have people to hike with and explore the trails around here. It has been a blessing. The Club Motto is: “We may be slow, but we’re out there!”

        All the best,

      • June 11, 2016 7:21 am

        I may have to borrow the Slow Pokes’ motto: “We may be slow, but we’re out there” is exactly right! Happy (shamelessly barefoot) trails! 🙂

  2. Gina permalink
    June 8, 2016 9:57 am

    TheeeeeeeeeeeAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Thanks so much for the vicarious thrill this morning. I am buzzzzzzzzzing. You are truly making the Grand Canyon feel like home. And by the way, it was definitely “dope” from the trail maintenance gent.

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