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A Canyon, Not a Trash Can: Garbage at the Grand Canyon

Of the 63 national parks in the United States, Grand Canyon National Park is the second most visited park. In 2022, this meant over 4.7 million visitors came to enjoy the striking beauty of the Grand Canyon. With those visitors comes a major problem: trash in the canyon.

Although some of the trash in the Grand Canyon gets there unintentionally—it only takes a strong gust of wind to snatch the hat off a visitor and send it flying over the canyon’s steep walls—there are also those who intentionally litter into the canyon.

Some of this littering is of the traditional nature, where someone throws something like an empty water bottle over the canyon wall, rather than finding the proper trash receptacle for it. Other littering is more unique to the Grand Canyon. A surprising number of people use the canyon for “sports”; for example, one recent visitor posted a video of her hitting a golf ball into the Grand Canyon to social media. One of the biggest littering problems comes from those who make a wish and throw a coin into the canyon. In a similar vein, couples will bring a padlock to a viewpoint as a “love lock.” The couple locks the padlock to part of the fencing at the viewpoint, then throws the key over edge of the canyon as a symbol of their everlasting love. All this littering is illegal, and it can result in legal consequences for those who engage in the practice.

Those who litter at the Grand Canyon may view it as a harmless practice. However, it is anything but. Throwing garbage into the canyon can injure hikers and wildlife below. Plastic bags can ensnare and suffocate the park’s animals. Plastic bottle caps are attractive to various park creatures, who eat them. Two of the park’s elk are known to have died from ingesting these plastic bottle caps.

However, perhaps the biggest littering problem comes from those who throw coins and keys into the Grand Canyon. The shiny coins and keys are attractive to many park animals, but they are particularly attractive to the park’s endangered California condors. Condors see the shiny coins and keys, then eat them. Often, these coins and keys are too large for the condor to pass naturally. If a condor ingests too many of these large shiny coins and keys, it will kill the condor. At least two of the park’s endangered condors have died from eating these metal objects thrown into the canyon; one of the pictures accompanying this blog post is an x-ray of a condor stomach, where you can clearly see the coins it has ingested.

To help alleviate the problem of trash in the Grand Canyon—particularly in the most heavily trafficked parks of the park—the park has an annual cleanup of areas below the rim. For over 30 years, members of the Arizona Mountaineering Club have come together once a year to rappel over the edge of the canyon and collect garbage. They collect large amounts of garbage that not only mars the attractiveness of the Grand Canyon, but can injure or kill the park’s wildlife. Perhaps the best thing these volunteers do is to collect coins. In most years, the single day cleanup brings in over $100 of coins, which is then donated to nonprofit organizations that support the park—and keeps those coins out of the stomachs of park animals.


Want to learn more about Grand Canyon National Park? Pick up a copy of 101 Travel Bits: The Grand Canyon today.


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