“The Grand Canyon is indescribable,” visitors to the iconic national park often say after they see it. Then, one month later, they are possessed to write long articles, essays and books trying (and failing) to accurately describe it. This is my pitiful attempt.
From Nov. 16-Dec. 8, I served as the Astronomer in Residence at the Grand Canyon in Arizona for the National Park Service. This meant that, for 22 days and nights, I lived, worked, taught and stargazed from one of the best, darkest and most pristine locations in the United States.
During my month as Astronomer in Residence, I gave 11 public programs to hundreds of people from around the world, hiked to the bottom of the canyon, observed a lunar eclipse, planets, sunrises and sunsets, and shared my passion for astronomy. It was truly a life-changing experience.
The Grand Canyon is …
Walking up to the edge of the Grand Canyon fills one with a variety of emotions. Wow! No way? What? Oh my gosh … Is this real? Gulp.
One feels awe, wonder, fear, disbelief and appreciation – all at the same time. Something so large, so deep, so vast. It’s scary and wonderful and terrible at the same time. It is not just a hole in the ground. It’s a spectacular hole in the ground.
Astronomer in residence
The Astronomer in Residence program was the brainchild of National Park Service Ranger, Rader Lane. Lane’s idea was modeled after the parks’ Artist in Residency program where they welcome artists to get inspired by the parks and create art in all media. Before Lane finished telling me his idea, “and I’m thinking it would be so cool if we could get astronomers to live …” I said, “I’m in!”
The Astronomer in Residency program, hosted by Grand Canyon Conservancy, began in June 2021 with astronomer and artist Dr. Tyler Nordgren serving as the first resident. I applied for the fall stint and was accepted to the program. Lane hopes that 3-4 Astronomers in Residence will serve per year and that the program expands to other parks.
Hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon
The highlight of my residency was giving astronomy programs at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, at Phantom Ranch, a small community about 10 miles from the South Rim and the destination for adventurers. But first, I had to get there.
The task was daunting: hike the South Kaibab trail, 7.5 miles and 4,780 feet down. I was all too pleased to have Ranger Lane go with me. He and other rangers take turns for weeklong assignments at Phantom Ranch delivering programs and responding to any emergencies (and there are always emergencies).
The first descent is a series of switchbacks that resemble an M.C. Escher drawing. Then the trail straightens out as you hike the spine of a ridge with sweeping vistas. I stopped at Ooh Ahh Point, the appropriately named picture spot, and marveled at the horizontal lines of color, the layers of rock that I was now inside of. We continued to Cedar Ridge, had a snack, then down to Skeleton Point. After hiking for hours, this was where I first saw the Colorado River, the fast-flowing body of water that helped carve this massive canyon. But I was still only halfway down.
The next stop was the Tip Off, the spot most day hikers should turn around. It’s a dangerous idea hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up in one day. We passed several hikers who were attempting to do so, some of which needed assistance later in the day as they slowly, painfully trudged back up in the pitch dark.
Past the Tip Off, the end was in sight. I had continuous views of the verdant valley surrounding Phantom Ranch. The curve of the green river and the roar of the rapids echoing off the canyon walls took my mind off my increasingly sore legs. We passed through a section of bright red rocks and soil that reminded me of the pictures from a Martian rover. I was entering an alien world.
Down more switchbacks and more switchbacks and finally, we came to river level. With a deep breath, we entered a small tunnel that opened onto the Black Bridge, one of two suspension foot bridges that span the Colorado River. We stopped at the middle of the bridge to take in the scene: river rushing beneath us, red canyon walls to the left and the green oasis of cottonwood trees and scrub brush at the delta of the Bright Angel Creek to the right. It looked like a Garden of Eden amidst the desert I just descended.
That was my home for the next four nights. I hiked by day, exploring the Colorado River valley and the nearby cliffs. At night, I gave star and constellation talks in their little outdoor amphitheater. It was so dark that we could see the Andromeda Galaxy clearly with the naked eye. The canyon walls obscured a portion of the night sky, but they acted as mere frames to the real star show twinkling above. We even had a telescope to share views of planets, star clusters and galaxies.
The visitors to Phantom Ranch formed an informal community – a bond of adventure. Each person had gone through a lot to get there, whether hiking, riding a mule or rafting through the rapids. After an arduous journey, it was a privilege to be there. I wanted to appreciate every single second.
My four days at Phantom Ranch went all too quickly. Then I had to hike back up. For the return route, I trekked the Bright Angel Trail, 9.5 miles and 4,380 feet up. From my cabin, I crossed the Silver Bridge and turned right to walk along the Colorado River. Before the last bend, I turned to take one last look at this magical place at the bottom of the world. With a heavy sigh, I turned back to the trail and started up.
The highlight of the trip
I made it to the top of the Grand Canyon without incident. The hike was more waking dream than reality. I traversed the steep and stark landscapes, the mini oasis of cottonwood trees at Havasupai Garden and then the brutal final 3,000 feet up.
Over the next week, I set up telescopes for passersby. I shared views of Jupiter and its moons, Saturn and its rings and several star clusters.
Several people told me that seeing so many stars and viewing through a telescope was, “the highlight of my trip.” Even amidst the most breathtaking earthly scenery of the Grand Canyon, the night sky stole the show.
The vast majority of people in the United States cannot see the Milky Way where they live. Seeing a truly dark sky full of stars is just as much of an attraction as the Grand Canyon itself. The parks’ new slogan is “Half of the park is after dark.”
The parks are striving to reduce light pollution, create darker skies and expand evening programming. My residency was just one small part of a huge effort. When you plan your next vacation, seek out dark places and make time to soak in a real night sky.
Dean Regas is the astronomer for the Cincinnati Observatory, and author of the books "100 Things to See in the Night Sky" and "Facts from Space!" He can be reached at email@example.com
Grand Canyon Adventure: Online Program by Dean Regas
What: Dean Regas chronicles his journey to the Grand Canyon and his month-long residency at this incredible location. He’ll share his tales from the road, driving the 2,000 miles there (and back) as well as what it was like to explore the canyon and the night sky.
When: Available until Feb. 14.
Tickets: $10 per household.
Information: After you sign up, you’ll get a link to watch the recorded presentation at your convenience. All proceeds benefit the Cincinnati Observatory.
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Grand Canyon Astronomer in Residence: Dean Regas recounts adventures