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The transition from the South Rim’s busyness to the canyon’s serenity unfolds gradually. It’s past 7 p.m. on a July night, when most visitors are enjoying dinner, sipping cocktails, or watching sunset at one of the viewpoints. Some have already retired, worn out from the day’s activities. Meanwhile, my wife Melissa and I plunge deeper into the Grand Canyon on the Bright Angel Trail, relishing twilight.
We have reasons to begin our excursion this late. The first, of course, is practical: It’s cooler. Less water is required, so our packs are lighter. (Not to mention, midsummer permits are infinitely easier to acquire than high-season permits in spring and fall.) The second reason is solitude: Trails are predictably deserted. And the third reason, perhaps the most important, is night itself: Moonlight renders the familiar unfamiliar, even oft-trodden paths such as this. As a personal challenge, I refrain from turning on my headlamp as long as possible, using my night vision like a muscle that needs training.
Night trekking requires attitude adjustments. It means embracing darkness instead of trying to avoid it. Ancient light—from stars possibly already extinguished—on ancient stone will humble any hiker. Compared to the galaxy milling around us, even the canyon is young. Quiet places become quieter, colors subtler. I make out bats cutting curlicues into lavender space. As I descend deeper into the Grand Canyon, senses other than sight take over. I realize how the day’s jug band of cicadas differs from the cricket night shift in rhythm and pitch. Heavier air concentrates the scents, so rich that they seem tangible. The vanilla smell of cliff-rose overwhelms me.
While color drains from the sandstone, Melissa and I wait by a poisonous, hallucinogenic datura plant, used by Native Americans in sacred rituals. We watch the porcelain-trumpet “moonflowers” unfurl within minutes for a one-night stand with the sphinx moth, their pollinator. It reminds me of another time, when on a night float through southern Utah’s Dark Canyon without a headlamp assist, I was able to recognize our camp by the same lemony perfume of datura that I smell right now.
But night also poses challenges. We should have waited two hours for the moon to climb high enough to illuminate the canyon. With our handicapped depth perception, the trail’s steps need to be taken with “soft knees,” slightly bent legs that provide buffering should the drop be higher or lower than expected. Sturdy poles are a must for probing in front of us.
Melissa coasts far ahead—and promptly runs into wildlife. When I catch up, she tells me how she called out to me at one of the hairpin turns, addressing a black shape by the trailside, only to realize “me” was a stately mule deer statue-still in the night.
Once, deep in an Escalante canyon, before dawn had blushed the sky, I noticed two pale-green discs fluorescing in the beam of my headlamp, trained on me. The critter was on the move, coming closer, its silence and fearlessness a bit eerie. Each time I turned my back, the stalker slunk back from obscurity. But when I focused on the eyeshine, a fluffy, zebra-striped tail and fox-like body took shape. A ringtail! It was the first time I’d met one of these seldom-seen relatives of raccoons.
I recall that encounter now. We’re heading for the river on one of the park’s most popular trails, but everything feels fresh and new, like it has never been seen before.