I’ve seen this Grand Canyon story pretty much everywhere now. First one of my readers pointed it out to me (she was actually at the Canyon that day), and now I’ve seen it on a ton of blogs. It’s a very sad story, and it’s apparently turning some people off of going to the Grand Canyon. So here are my thoughts on the whole thing.
I’m not a parent, but I have been around a lot of small children and was even one myself. I’ve been at the Grand Canyon with Essay, and her toddlers were there (one still a baby) to greet us when we finished our overnight hike. I’ve seen so many children on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, so I can only imagine that even more children go to the South Rim every year (South Rim gets about 90% of Grand Canyon’s annual visitors). This is the first time a four-year old has died in the recorded history of the Canyon, and before this, the youngest to die was thirteen. There is generally at least one death per year at the Grand Canyon (average is two to three), and child deaths are very rare. Why? Because parents know what non-parents know: the Grand Canyon is a giant hole in the ground with massive rock face and deadly drops everywhere. This is no big secret — if you can’t figure it out for yourself, there are park rangers everywhere that let you know. There are signs up everywhere. Danger! Danger! Falling over the edge is really bad and could result in death!
Most people are overly careful (I know I am) at the Canyon, especially with their children. And parents should be careful with their children no matter where they are, and no matter what dangers are nearby. On a Disney Cruise, at Disney World with a bunch of strangers hanging around, when there’s a big hole in the ground a few feet away, when they’re playing at the park, when they’re around large dogs, camping at the lake, when they’re around people they don’t know, near a swimming pool… It’s called parental responsibility. I know the parents probably only looked away for a few seconds, but a few seconds is all it takes.
And there are ample railings at the Canyon. Generally, all of the edges at the topmost part of the rims have either stone walls or steel rails as impediments. Any place we visited that didn’t have railings, we made sure to stay a good two to three feet away from the edge (even where there were stone walls, because they’re high enough to block children but not so high that an adult can’t easily fall over them), and if it was windy, we basically hugged the wall of the Canyon (when we were down in it) or stayed even farther away from the railings (on the rim). The kid was with her family where there wasn’t a railing — I’m guessing they were on one of the hiking trails, and after you’re away from the highest elevations, the rails disappear and the trails (usually three to four feet wide) are very plainly laid out. It’s very clear: you do not deviate from the trails, or you could die at any second. Even on the trail, you don’t lean over the edge to get a good picture, you don’t slide down a shallow smooth face to get a little closer to nature (how will you get back up?), and you do not feed the wildlife. And you hold on to your kids. Responsible parents should have no problems with their kids at the Canyon — like I said, kids are on the rims and in the Canyon every day. I feel really bad for the family here, especially considering that her dad is a fighter pilot and risks his life for the country every time he goes up in a fighter, but the girl didn’t die because the Grand Canyon is dangerous — and it is dangerous — but because they didn’t keep a close enough eye on their daughter. It’s horrifyingly sad, but it’s the truth. It’s a little understandable because they apparently had multiple children there, but you just can’t let go of your small children on the trails — really you need to hold on to them no matter where you are at the rims. One couple says they heard a parent say, “Don’t move,” and then she went over the edge. So even catching your child right at the edge is not safe enough. You need to be able to catch them ten feet away from the edge and don’t let them venture any closer than that without your holding on to them, at least until they’re old enough to really understand what “your life is in danger if you disobey my instructions” means.
Do you know who is most likely to die at the Grand Canyon? Not children. Not women. Adult males. I was really scared before my first backcountry hike at the Canyon, so I asked one of the park rangers how likely it was that I would die. He told me the statistics and noted that adult males die more often than any other group and that it’s usually because the adult male decides it will be hilarious to pee over the side of the rim. So just don’t do anything stupid, and you’ll be fine, he told me.
All that said, I wouldn’t take my kids once they’re out of strollers until they’re about ten or twelve. Not necessarily because of the danger, but because younger kids (from what I’ve witnessed just watching the people at the Canyon) have fun for about five minutes, and then they’re bored. That’s when the crying and chasing and scream-giggling and whining starts, and that makes the serene Grand Canyon experience much less enjoyable for the rest of the family and the complete strangers, most of whom want peace when they go to the Canyon. Seriously, on the patio of the Lodge where you get the overall expansive view of the Canyon? People whisper their conversations out of respect for the other visitors. Most people don’t talk at all, they just soak in the surroundings.