Video: Bighorn ram sneers at Grand Canyon hiker

A small herd of bighorn sheep on the trail at the Grand Canyon. (At Home in Wild Spaces via YouTube)

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GRAND CANYON — You never know who or what you'll encounter on the trail. That's especially true in wet and icy weather when trails are often less traveled. That was particularly true on one very frigid day, with snow dusting the rim and an icy bite in the air.

On this occasion, the normally popular South Kaibab trail was all but abandoned. And, in that uncommon stillness, this iconic and timeless landscape was less constrained by the chatter of park visitors, allowing the park's wildlife to move more freely along park trails.

Wildlife encounters are often similar to celebrity sightings for park and wilderness visitors. Modern life doesn't generally afford many of us frequent communion with nature or close encounters with the continent's diverse and inspiring suite of wildlife. So coming across a herd of bighorn sheep at close range in a place as majestic as Grand Canyon National Park is an uncommon treat.

But it's important to not let the excitement of the moment overwhelm good judgment. This is a beautiful, but harsh landscape and animals like bighorn sheep have a hard living to make from the land. Not only is crowding, feeding or harassing wildlife very poor taste, it's also illegal and hazardous.

From bighorn, elk, bison, snakes or squirrels, wild animals are not defenseless — regardless of how cute and cuddly they may or may not seem. Nor can they tell the difference between a foolhardy or overenthusiastic tourist and genuine threat. That is why, no matter where you travel, always yield the right of way to wildlife. It is, after all, their home.

Choosing to give wild animals space benefits park visitors, as well. Tip-toeing or racing closer to get that "perfect" picture is almost guaranteed to chase wildlife away. Giving them space allows greater opportunity and time to observe them.

That may sound fine, in theory, but, on at least one occasion, I was within arms reach of one of the sheep. Here's why.

I immediately stopped after noticing the sheep on the trail, giving the sheep time and space to go where they wanted to go. After a few moments, they continued up the trail (along the path of least resistance) toward me. I responded by backing up slowly at which point the ram began sneering.

While this might first be interpreted as a sign of potential aggression, it's actually the ram using its sense of smell. After sneering, the ram darted up the canyon wall and around me, as seen in the video. The ewes, on the other hand, were pretty committed to using the trail and proceeded past me.

I gave them as much space as I could afford, but with a steep canyon wall to the right, and a cliff to the left, options for two-way traffic were extremely limited. With the ram having demonstrated his prowess on the slopes by darting around me, and the ewes unwilling to abandon the trail, this was one of the rare occasions where the best course of action was to just allow them to pass.

Had the trail been cluttered with rowdy hikers, this memorable encounter may never have occurred. It's a reminder that some of nature's most precious experiences await adventurers who select the path or season less traveled and put in the effort to respect the landscapes they explore.

If you're considering a trip to the Grand Canyon, here is the guide series praised by the rim-to-rim hikers featured in the video. There is no substitution for quality preparation and reliable information in the backcountry. Both of which can be extremely difficult to come by in the modern age of "influencers." Make sure you get the best information possible.

A brief caution

There's a reason fewer adventurers frequent trails in the winter and icy months. Ice, snow and low temperatures bring their own set of perils for the ill-prepared or foolhardy. If you intend to explore America's wild lands in the winter, or during inclement weather, make sure you know how to brave the elements safely.

Consult invaluable resources like, and make sure you are properly equipped for winter conditions.

Nature doesn't play favorites. Your welfare and success will come down to the decisions you make and whether you overestimate your abilities or underestimate the elements.

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Mike is a writer, filmmaker and public speaker, who, along with his wife Michelle, owns and manages At Home in Wild Spaces Films, a film studio that produces informational outdoor adventure media and resources. Mike graduated from BYU with a degree in film and animation, and occasionally writes about entertainment and current events.


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