Super Moon of the Grand Canyon. Where can you find solitude?

This was published in the Fall 2012 issue of Utah Adventure Journal.

“Where do you think the moon will rise?” I asked. Seated on a boulder made of scarlet sandstone, above the Esplanade Trail, in the southern border of the Kanab Creek Wilderness, Rachel pointed to the southeast horizon. Scanning past a gaping gorge in the surrounding desert stone our eyes rapidly climbed the spotted slopes of sandstone, shale and limestone and stopped at a juniper cover point beneath a sunlit cloud. It sat 3,000 feet above our current elevation and another 3,000 feet above the canyon’s floor. Lin, Rachel’s husband, guessed to her left, my wife, Jacki, guessed to his left and I to her left.

Saturday May 5, after the sun had gone, the four of us waited for the Super Moon. When Lin and Rachel invited us to backpack in Jump Up Canyon they promised an awesome weekend in a very special area of the Grand Canyon where “we’d explore like kids in a candy store… rock art, springs and blissin’ out”. This along with the full moon made it an easy sell, but I was still skeptical. I’d yet to visit one of the most popular destinations in the West over reluctance to share it some many others, but seated on our “Moon Rock”, having wandered the area for the day we had not seen another soul. As the sky deepened to cobalt blue any doubts I had about this weekend faded with the final light of day.

According to the Grand Canyon Park Profile 2012, compiled by the National Park Service, the area saw over 4,360,466 visitors last year. 4 Million of those visitors were passengers of the park shuttle, 132, 365 were train passengers, 106,467 floated the Colorado River, and 93,178 were backcountry users. Of the backcountry visitors only 41,000 used trails outside the corridor between the north and south rims. Fewer of these backcountry users spent the night and the number became even less for visits to Jump Up Canyon, a wash that feeds into the Kanab Creek, which joins the Colorado River from the north.

At 5:40 on a Saturday morning in May, my watched beeped. Lying among the low brush that popped from rusted soil south of Fredonia, Arizona, I left my bag. Friday night we had camped on the BLM land twenty miles north of the Jump Up Canyon Trailhead. The morning air smelled of sage. A large blood-orange moon hovered above the horizon.  Looking to the east the coming sun burned thin clouds into shades of red, pink, purple, orange and blue. There was no wind.

An hour later, driving south on highway 22, we entered the Kaibab National Forest and from the plains of sage we drove into woods of juniper and pinion, eventually finding ourselves in large stands of Ponderosa. 13 years before the Grand Canyon was designated a National Park; Theodore Roosevelt made this area of the Kaibab Plateau a game reserve in 1906. Hunters came from around the globe to bag deer, elk, big horn sheep, bobcat and mountain lion. In the reserves first 15 years there was a huge push to exterminate the cougar population. It was thought that the cats were in direct competition with hunters for deer. In less than 20 years the deer population exploded from 4,000 to 100,000. From 1924 to 1926 over 60,000 mule deer died of starvation. Biologists at the time argued the decline in mountain lion population was direct cause for the deer boom and bust. They predicted that had the cougars not been pursued in such an aggressive manner they’d have regulated the deer population to a level that could survive off the surrounding land.

1906 was also the year the forest service constructed the cabin at the Jump Up Canyon Trailhead. Today this simple and sturdy structure made from planed yellow pine set above a stone foundation dons a new tin roof along with stovepipe. A few single paned windows are nailed into place and two doors allow entrance. Finished wood floors, a card table and wood stove are the only furnishings. Open to the public, it was an option to camp at the cabin, but the destination was five miles down canyon to Lower Jump Up Springs. Ours being the only car at the cabin raised my hopes of a secluded weekend.

“Know The Canyon History, See Rocks Made By Time.” Treading past a band of limestone, Lin gave us a quick geology lesson. The first letter of every word in the saying correlated with the layers of rocks found in the Grand Canyon. Kaibab Limestone, Toroweap Formation, Coconino Sandstone, Hermit Shale, Supai Sandstone, Redwall Limestone, Muave Limestone, Bright Angel Shale and Tapeats Sandstone. After the Colorado Plateau was lifted thousands of feet above sea level the Colorado River went to work. Slicing through northern Arizona the river has exposed over two billion years of the earth’s history. Geologists believe the thickness of the crust beneath the plateau has permitted the rock layers to stay intact and allowed them to remain in Superposition; the rock layers appear in order from youngest to oldest, top to bottom.

After our eyes adjusted to the dry look of the canyon Rachel offered us knowledge of the flora by identifying dozens of blooming plants. We slowly picked our way down pausing at each new flower and plant. Mormon Tea, penstemon, globemallow, aster, paint brush, prince’s plume, prickly pear, monkey flower and Mojave blanket flowers kept our gaze low. It was the towering century plant shoots, some up to 20 feet tall, that brought our eyes back up to the kaleidoscope of colors from the cliffs, slopes, trees, brush and sky. Flesh colored stone ran downhill into sparsely vegetated swaths of land separated by scars of red sand gashed from the earth’s side.

1869 was the year that John Wesley Powell began mapping this area of the Colorado Plateau. By floating the Colorado River from Green River, Wyoming to Grand Wash Cliffs, near present day Lake Mead, Nevada, Powell went down in history. The 99-day adventure included numerous rapids for the expedition to negotiate. Before entering the Grand Canyon they would portage their boats when possible. Once in the canyon, having cliffs on both sides they had no choice but to run the rapids. At the final and largest rapid of the journey three members abandoned the expedition. Having heard rumors of enormous waterfalls the men believed they had a better chance of survival trying to climb out of the chasm than running what is now know as Lava Falls Rapid. After heading north from the river the three men were never seen again.

Crossing the Esplanade Trail after drifting down the broadening wash of the upper canyon I realized how hard that decision must have been. Leaving the river for the dry, unexplored terrain above they must have been desperate. Having a map and knowing where the spring was located we continued down Jump Up into a narrowing slot of sandstone. Densely grouped cottonwoods, oaks and willows welcomed us to the lower spring. Croaks of canyon tree frogs echoed off the Supai Sandstone walls. Seeps appeared, trickling down the cliffs and all at once water burbled from the wash. We made our camp near.

May 6, 2012. I awoke before my watch beeped. The desert air was only slightly cooler than when I’d fallen asleep. Alone, I scrambled out of Jump Up Canyon. Instead of taking the Esplanade Trail to the west, back to Moon Rock, I headed east. The sky appeared grey with only the thinnest clouds spreading west to east. The clean smell of desert penetrated my lungs. Leaving the rustling leaves of the spring behind I entered silence. Soft foot steps upon soft sandstone, relaxed breathing from a relaxed being. Coming to a Gooseneck Point I stopped. As the sun kissed the limestone rim to the west I sat in solitude and pondered the landscape.

Today native cultures of the Hopi, Havasupai, Paiute and Navajo, call the Grand Canyon region home. Artifacts dating back 12,000 years have been discovered within and before these present day tribes inhabited the area, Paleo-Indians and Ancestral Puebloan’s hunted and gathered here. Proof of their existence can be discovered in pottery, pictographs, points and mutates found by observant eyes.

Sunday afternoon we wandered deeper into Jump Up. The cliff walls seemed to be swallowing us as we came to a significant drop. Delicately, we used a ladder constructed of sun-bleached timber lashed together to negotiate the “jump”. Next to a cool pool of water below the pour-over Jacki and I waited for Lin to join us.

“It sounds like two men are coming down canyon.” Earlier we’d joked that if we did encounter anyone else it would be someone we knew. Sure enough, Mike from St. George had come for a day hike and of course Lin knew him. Wanting to be home before nightfall, and perhaps not wanting to intrude, Mike quickly exchanged greetings and carried on alone as we slowly wandered among weathered stonewalls and steps of pouring water. As the world shrank back to our small group this one encounter with another person failed to raise my skepticism about the area being overrun.

At the junction with Sowats Canyon we headed upstream. Arriving at Mountain Sheep Springs we found a panel of pictographs with a flat grinding stone seated below. The gurgle of the spring and the croaking frogs were the only sounds. Before returning to Jump Up we top off our bottles from a pool of water as orange damselflies rushed through the air.

Saturday night, sitting on Moon Rock, Jacki and Lin practiced yoga while Rachel and I absorbed the vast scenery. It was mind boggling to comprehend. A mile deep gash in the earth and there we sat at the half way mark. Filled with ancient history and nobody around, the moment surrounded us. Just before nine a glow appeared on the horizon. Rachel had won the bet.

Dr. Tony Phillips of explains the Super Moon like this; the occurrence happens once a year and it’s when the moon is closest to the earth and is full. From its farthest to its closest position to our planet, the moon’s size varies up to 14%. That sounds significant until you realize the variance is separated by at least six months or six other full moons. The difference when compared with the previous month’s full moon and the one following is about 2%. Still, when backpacking in a solitary section of the Grand Canyon, it was something to see.

Sunday evening we would come out of Jump Up Canyon. We would say good-bye to the spring, pass the junction of the Esplanade Trail and retrace our steps up the cheat grass-covered wash back to the cabin. We’d build a fire in the steal ring out front and wait again for a waning moon to appear. But on Saturday night, May 5, 2012, we sat, mouths open, as a giant, illuminated, sphere soared above the skyline. The evening atmosphere suspended the moon over the south rim of the Grand Canyon and for the moment it was if we were the only four people on the planet.