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How I spent my summer vacation, or the debate over national park access


By Charles Bierbauer
CNN Senior Washington Correspondent

August 7, 1998
Web posted at: 11:51 a.m. EDT (1551 GMT)

In this story:

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Arizona (CNN) -- The choice was simple: Raft the Upper Grand Canyon and hike nine miles up, or hike down and raft the Lower Grand Canyon. We hiked down.

rafting on the river
The correspondent rafting the Colorado River in July   

It's a journey back in time from the head of Bright Angel Trail to the floor of the Grand Canyon.

The beige-toned Kaibab limestone formation at the top is merely 250 million years old. The black Vishnu schist exposed by the Colorado River dates back 1.7 billion years.

This is a special place. It's been changed by time, wind and water. It's been changed by man, with dams and development. These forces are sometimes in conflict.

My own experience, earned up close and personal, left me understanding development's needs but preferring nature's allure.

In a word: 'WOW!'

We hit the trail at 6:30 on a misty morning -- an old high school friend who for years shared my desire for this trek, my 21-year-old ultra-outdoor son and I.

We'd made the right choice. Upward-bound hikers had few smiles. By mid-morning it was sweltering. A pinkish Grand Canyon rattlesnake crossed our path halfway down and snuggled in the shade of a rock ledge.

We reached our raft rendezvous at Phantom Ranch in a little over four hours. Ahead lay nine days and 152 miles of rapids, waterfalls, adrenaline rushes and wonderment.

The Grand Canyon stirs as many dichotomies as whirlpools in the Colorado River. You'd like more people to be able to see this place. But you don't want it to get crowded.

Paddlers versus passengers, and the appeal of access

The guides boasted the inflatable raft was "the smallest on the Colorado"   

We chose to go for it, paddling our own way in 15-foot inflatables -- "the smallest on the Colorado," our guides boasted.

We flirted with rapids taller than our rafts. The biggest, Lava Falls, flipped one raft to let us know who's boss.

One guide, Tom, worried that motorized rafts -- with passengers, not paddlers -- are taking a greater share of the tightly regulated slots on the Colorado.

But Tom also felt people should use whatever means they can to share the river he cherishes. I agreed.

I watched two guides from another group gently assist an older woman climb Deer Creek Canyon to an idyllic set of falls and clear-water pools. It was the prettiest place I'd seen. Steep rocks had to be negotiated to get there.

Every step must have been perilous for the woman, whose knee was twisted and braced with an elastic bandage. Her glowing face left no doubt it was worth it.

The 'drive-thru' phenomenon

Five million visitors reach the Grand Canyon every year. Most lean over its rim, snap pictures, buy a T-shirt and are gone in a couple of hours. Been there, done that. It satisfies some.

But the National Park Service expects the number to rise to 8 million and is planning remote car parks and shuttles to bear the load.

It's not just the Grand Canyon that's getting crowded. Yosemite, Yellowstone and other national parks face similar dilemmas.

The dilemma for the park and the public is how to accommodate all who want to share in the national wonders with the limited resources of access, maintenance and preservation.

The financially strapped park service has raised its access fees. But fees remain modest compared to what artificial theme parks charge for a day of mechanically generated fun.

The dam debate

Hoover dam
The Glen Canyon Dam creates Lake Powell   

The Grand Canyon is not completely natural. Today's canyon is shaped by the Glen Canyon Dam erected upstream in the 1960s, creating Lake Powell and submerging 180 miles of Glen Canyon. The dam provides electricity to the Southwest and a steady flow to the river.

The dam is damned by many environmentalists.

"Friend of Lake Powell" is a bumper sticker now seen in nearby Flagstaff, Arizona. It's a counterpoint to the movement to decommission the dam, drain the lake and restore Glen Canyon.

You tamper with nature at your own risk and with no guarantee of results.

Two years ago the Bureau of Reclamation doubled the flow from Glen Canyon Dam to flush silt from the Colorado bed and restore beaches in the Grand Canyon.

Our trip leader, Mike, felt that worked -- for a while. But river guides say the beaches are still eroding.

Signs of civilization

River rafters are ecological zealots themselves. What you pack in, you pack out -- every piece of paper, every scrap of edible or human waste.

"Want to go eddy shopping?" guide Keith asked one day.

In one calm nook of the river, we picked up water bottles, soda and beer cans, sunscreen bottles, a lighter -- the refuse of other rafters. But I saw more litter in the Los Angeles airport on the way home than I saw in nine days in the canyon.

There are bits of civilization you do start to miss. Bathing in 54-degree river water is bracing. Tooth-brushing becomes obsessive: Teeth are the only thing you can actually get clean.

Crossing Lake Mead at the exit end of the Grand Canyon, we could see a waiting bus with AC, a WC and a CD. The hiatus from noise and news was about to be shattered. For a blessed nine days, no one cared about Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton.

The bus climbed into a desert forested with Joshua trees. Scrapes in the terrain were marked with road signs -- Hope Drive was one -- where bungalows and double-wides may some day stretch man's intrusion.

In 2 1/2 hours we reached Las Vegas. It takes less time to reach urban glitz than the four-hour hike that submerged us into nature's bliss.

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