The Greatest Show on Earth

The Grand Canyon's Hiking Pioneer

Harvey Butchart was hiking the canyon long before others thought to follow

Butchart rarely used a rope. He carried 30 pounds or less in his pack and hiked in bargain boots he purchased at Kmart. (P.T. Reilly/Northern Arizona University, Cline Library)
grand canyon

No one did more to explore and document the space between the Grand Canyon’s rim and the river than Harvey Butchart. Between 1945 and 1983, it’s estimated that he spent 1,025 days of his life hiking more than 12,000 miles and claiming 28 first ascents of high points in the area. In 1963, Butchart became the first person to hike the entirety of the canyon by foot. “For Grand canyoneering, Harvey will always be the undisputed king of backpacking and hiking. Even though people have had more miles, more climbs, more canyoneering descents, he did it in an era where there was not a big safety net,” says Tom Meyers, co-author of Grand Obsession: Harvey Butchart and the Exploration of Grand Canyon.

Butchart rarely used a rope. He carried 30 pounds or less in his pack and hiked in bargain boots he purchased at Kmart. Many young explorers interpreted his wool sweaters as a sign that they could keep up with Butchart, but they were promptly and severely humbled. He was the first white settler to hike nearly every trail between the rim and river. (Though the Puebloan people had traversed them generations before.) His three guidebooks—the first written about the area—are mind-numbingly dense with information.

“The ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s was an era when people were focused on the river. A river created the Grand Canyon, but most of the Grand Canyon is a desert between the river and the rim,” says Kevin Fedarko, author of The Emerald Mile, who himself hiked 650 miles through the canyon with photographer Pete McBride. “Harvey didn’t care about the river. He wanted to explore and take notes of that landscape. In that way, he was kind of revolutionary.”

Explore the Canyon
Pinterest Icon