Finding a Backdoor: Sneaking into the most heavily guarded national park

April 14, 2006

by Wiley Davis

It has long been my philosophy that if you’re going to do something, you should do it right. So for my first visit to the Grand Canyon, I decided to do things a little differently. No way was I going to go to the South Rim, which everyone knows is infested with picture-snapping, thimble-buying tourists! In fact, I decided that due to principles, I wasn’t even going to purchase a permit. No self-respecting person is going to pay hard-earned cash to some Ranger Rick type, for use of his own land…that’s ludicrous! So to avoid the fees, and the masses, I needed a backdoor. A quick check of the map revealed a chunk of user-friendly BLM land that butted up against a five-mile long side canyon that provided direct access to the Grand Canyon itself! An hour later, the plan was set into motion.NOTE: To preserve this route for the die-hards, and to keep the lazy people away I won’t tell you how to get to this canyon, but I will tell you the name of it, and start this story there. That way if you want to go badly enough, a quick map-check of your own will yield pleasurable results.

Heaving our overloaded packs (Torry, my hiking partner, insisted on taking a can of SPAM with us) we descended into North Canyon, the small inlet that would be our backdoor to the heavily guarded Grand Canyon National Park. It was a narrow defile, about 300 feet across and 150 feet deep. As we walked farther into the canyon, the rim above our heads shrank further away. Thunderheads in the distance reminded us of the flash-flood danger, and by the time the canyon had narrowed to about 100 feet, the rain was unleashing its vengeance with glee. Undeterred, we pushed on through the downpour, wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. Three hours later, the rain finally stopped, and we came to an extremely narrow crevice that opened up into a spillway thirty feet below.

The extra weight of the SPAM had begun to take a serious toll on our bodies, and the terrain ahead was getting severe, so we decided to set up a base camp on the rocky ledge above the spillway, and continue the rest of the way unencumbered. After a hearty lunch of that rubbery, meat-type stuff, we were off. Without the packs we felt like agile mountain goats (we smelled like mountain goats at least), and we started making better time. The canyon was now a narrow gash of rock, embedded deep in the earth. Smooth white sandstone ebbed and flowed down toward the Grand Canyon, forming what would have been a perfect waterslide if that flash flood had ever materialized. Small silver-colored frogs were everywhere, and several of the emerald-green pools of standing water were filled with the largest tadpoles I had ever seen. To bypass one of the pools, we were forced to traverse a heavily overhung section of rock that threatened to send us flailing into the puddle, which we were certain was filled with man-eating frogs and other unsightly creatures.

We descended into a series of hollowed-out bowls in the rock, each one spilling over into the other one below. Sliding down into the third bowl, our hearts sank. Ahead of us was a 60-foot sheer cliff that opened up into a gigantic rock cathedral. There was no way down, and no way around. Not without climbing gear, and we had none.

Not willing to admit defeat, we climbed out of the bowls, and scrambled up the rocky-edge of the canyon, hoping in vain to find a way around. Torry saw it first, I saw it a spilt second later. We both looked at one another, a grin spreading on my face. In the bushes just above us, was what appeared to be some sort of homemade rope ladder! We rushed over to the pile of PVC pipe and steel cable. Sure enough, it was a rope ladder! Who knows who had left it there, but we knew that opportunities for adventure like this rarely come along, and that we would be fools for not taking advantage of it. So what if the ladder looked rickety, and had been sitting exposed to the elements for years. This was high-adventure, and we were going over that cliff!

The ladder was long enough, and the 3- foot rock that we had looped the ends of the steel-cable around seemed secure. I’m no rigging expert, but I lived on the engineering floor my freshman year in college, so I consider myself knowledgeable when it comes to matters of structural integrity, I figured it would hold…more or less.

As I shifted my weight from the safe confines of solid ground, and out onto the creaking, swaying contraption hanging over the edge of the cliff, the confidence in my engineering prowess began to wane. What was I thinking; we had no idea if this thing had ever been tested. For all we knew it could have been put together by halfwits, it certainly didn’t feel stable. My arms were wrapped around the rungs of the ladder like a couple of scared boa constrictors. With every shaky step down, I made sure that my feet were at the edges of the rungs, because I didn’t trust the one-inch PVC pipe with my weight. After an eternity of precarious dangling, I finally reached the bottom, and yelled for Torry to follow. I snapped a few pictures to document the heroics. We had to have evidence; no one would ever believe this hair-brained rope ladder story without hard proof.

Once Torry was on the ground, that feeling of supreme confidence overtook us. We had just stared fear in the eye, and called it a ninny, right to its face! Oh, if only there were girls to see us now, we knew they would have no choice but to be impressed. We had yet to make it to our destination however, and we had no idea what else lay ahead. Our delusions of grandeur had to be put on hold, so that we could focus all of our attention on the task at hand.

Still high on our recent victory, we galloped down the canyon. All was looking good, until we galloped right up to the edge of a pool filled with murky-green water that completely blocked our path. It was standing water, and it looked as if it had been standing for quite some time. A thick sludge had formed on the surface, like the head on a Guinness that has been left out for a few days. We knew that insidious flesh-eating bacteria must be thriving in such a spot, but we had no choice other than wade across its ten-foot span. Torry went in first, and when it became apparent that the flesh-eating bacteria didn’t like the taste of him, I waded in as well. The water was room temperature, and didn’t smell too bad. You never know about those flesh-eating bacteria however, sometimes they wait for weeks to strike after latching themselves onto your skin.

It was after the pool of water that we began to see footprints, so we knew we must be close to the Colorado River, and the base of the Grand Canyon. Ten minutes later we saw the rapids, and the muddy burbling of our destination…we had made it! After all the worry of imprisonment, drowning, and being eaten alive by bacteria, we had arrived at one of our Arizona’s treasured natural wonders. Was it all worth it, getting to the river the hard way? I say absolutely! You can have your gift-shops, your railings, and your informational kiosks. I’ll take the narrow chasms, the bacteria-filled pools, and the rickety rope ladders any day.

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