Photograph by Pete McBride
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Former Grand Canyon ranger Amy Martin watches a winter sunrise over a section of the Colorado called Conquistador Aisle. No trails exist along 95 percent of the canyon’s North Rim or along 80 percent of its South Rim. Fewer people have now hiked the canyon’s length in a single trip (10) than have walked on the moon (12).
Photograph by Pete McBride

Nice Shot! Magical Grand Canyon Morning

A 650-mile trek along the length of the Grand Canyon brings its massive scale—and fragility—to life.

This photograph was captured at sunrise atop the Esplanade formation of the Grand Canyon, near Fossil Canyon, looking northeast. The overlook rock is perched some 3,000 feet above the Colorado River, like a primeval diving board. It took seven days of hiking ten hours a day—over 70 miles on tough terrain without a trail—to get here. This is one of the more remote spots in Grand Canyon National Park, so hard to get to that I’m not sure I'll ever see that vista again in my lifetime, nor will many others.

Kevin Fedarko, the writer of the magazine story, and I were about halfway through our goal of backpacking along the length of the Grand Canyon in a series of segments, something few have done before. To prevent wear on our bodies, we kept our loads as light as possible, which meant we were always hunting for campsites with water sources. This magical overlook not only offered stunning views but also a wonderful network of tiny potholes of rain and snowmelt that sustained us for another day of hiking downstream. We had planned to get close to there, but no one knew the vista would be so grand.

The rising winter sun, cresting the rim with dappled light, was anticipated magic. The preparation—keeping my only camera charged on a solar panel and the batteries warm (I slept with them in my jacket, as it was well below freezing)—ensured everything would be working and ready. The splash of soft sunlight that warmed our frosted bodies came and went quickly: The actual moment captured in the photograph lasted only seconds.

The challenge with the Grand Canyon is capturing its beauty in relation to its scale. Having Amy Martin, one of our hiking colleagues, standing on the overlook gives this image a human reference and highlights our humility and minute size in this confounding and captivating world of rock and time.

Pete McBride teamed up with writer Kevin Fedarko to trek 650 miles along the length of the Grand Canyon to see firsthand what's at stake should plans for development materialize. The pair is planning to complete the last segment of their trek in October 2016. Read more about their story in the September issue of National Geographic.