Visitors check out the view at Mather Point, the first viewpoint after entering the park.
Visitors check out the view at Mather Point, the first viewpoint after entering the park. Ted Robbins/NPR
Casey Murph manages mule operations on the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
Casey Murph manages mule operations on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Ted Robbins/NPR
Great Smoky Mountains
SOURCE: National Park Service for 2007
The National Park System includes:
- 58 parks
- 122 historical parks and sites
- 20 preserves and reserves
- 24 battlefields
- 1.5 million archeological sites
- 100 million museum items, including George Washington's inaugural coat and Carl Sandburg's typewriter
- Giant sequoia trees, the world's largest living thing
- Mount McKinley, the highest point in North America
- Mammoth Cave National Park, the longest cave system in the world
- Crater Lake, the country's deepest lake (1,932 feet)
- Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere (282 feet below sea level)
SOURCE: National Park Service
Grand Canyon National Park may be one of the planet's Seven Natural Wonders, but few realize how many people it takes to keep the 4.4 million annual park visitors safe, fed and happy.
For Casey Murph, who manages mule operations on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, the day starts well before sunrise. Beginning at about 4:30 each morning, he goes over the day's schedule, sets out buckets of oats for the mules and opens up the tack rooms in a huge, surprisingly clean 101-year-old barn.
Murph's look: straight out of central casting. He's thin, with a ruddy complexion, and wears jeans, boots and a thick mustache, the long ends tapered with moustache wax. But Murph is the real deal. His family has been ranching in Arizona for a century — almost as long as there have been mules in the Grand Canyon.
Murph's team of cowboys spread out in the corral, throw halters over the mules' heads and lead them into the barn to eat their oats and get saddled. As the day breaks and the cowboys finish their tasks, riders — some of whom booked the trip more than a year ago — assemble for their long ride down the canyon.
Murph warns the visitors that if they're afraid of heights, they shouldn't start the journey.
"Fact is, if you're scared to death of heights, you will freak out. And when you freak out, your mule thinks you have a good reason for freakin' out, and your mule freaks out, too," he says.
He's not bluffing. Weeding out the weak-willed is one reason there has never been a fatality on the trail.
"I hope that you are not imagining a pony ride at Disneyland. This is not the easy way to see that canyon, folks. There is no easy way to see the canyon," Murph says.
About an hour later, the riders climb onto their mules and head off down the narrow, winding trail.
At Mather Point, the first viewpoint from the entrance, you can barely see the Colorado River at the bottom. The river created the vast canyon by erosion and weathering.
It's more than a mile down, where it's 110 degrees.
It's cooler on the rim, thanks to the forest of evergreens. Few visitors realize that behind the trees, as many as 6,000 people live and work to keep the park running smoothly.
Take Shawn Perchowski, a dispatcher who gets a call to fix a campground toilet that won't stop flushing. Or Ranger Angela Boyers, who patrols the congested park roads.
There's also dispatch supervisor Laurie Tuttle.
She pulls out a book called the Grand Canyon Fatality Log. Most entries involve heart attacks. It's rare that visitors die by accidentally falling down the canyon.
Up to a half-dozen people commit suicide every year by jumping into the Grand Canyon.
And one fatality, she says, involved someone jumping out of a helicopter.
Beating the Heat
By far, though, the most common problem is the summer heat.
A string of heat-related deaths 10 years ago prompted the park service to start a preventive search-and-rescue program. Ranger Ian Buchanan hikes the Bright Angel Trail below the rim — no small task, even without 5 liters of water and a medical kit on your back.
"We get a lot of people who are unprepared for the elements, who don't go in with enough water, enough food or enough preplanning to know how hot it's gonna be," Buchanan says.
Buchanan says he tries to talk to everyone on the trail — even if it's just to say hello — because "just by hearing their response, you can tell how they're doing."
The park service estimates only 1 percent of park visitors ever make it to the bottom. Only 10 percent even go below the rim, especially when it's 90 degrees out at 3:30 in the afternoon.
As packed as the days are, the nights can be just as crowded. Even at 10 p.m. during a guided moonlight hike at Mather Point, ranger David Smith has to use a loudspeaker so his tour group can hear him.
The last activity of the day ends at almost midnight.
And then finally, after the last tour group has wrapped up and most of the visitors have left the park, the best adjective to describe the place might just be "quiet."