ZUNI, NM (Apr. 3, 2023) — Earlier this month, the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project had the opportunity to take eight youth participants on a backpacking trip in Grand Canyon National Park. ZYEP Youth Development Coordinator Kiara “Kiki” Zunie, Physical Activity Coordinator Josh Kudrna, and Cultural Advisor Keith Edaakie chaperoned the trip, which took place on Mar. 13-16. This opportunity was made possible by the support of 11th Hour Project, a program of the Schmidt Family Foundation.

ZYEP designed the four-day trip in such a way that participants could experience the Grand Canyon at different levels. The group camped at the top of the South Rim, hiked the 7-mile South Kaibab Trail to the bottom of the canyon, camped at the Bright Angel Campground on the Colorado River, hiked 5 miles up the Bright Angel Trail to the Havasupai Gardens Campground, and completed the trail’s final 5 miles on their last morning.

“The whole visit was brimming with wonderful small moments,” said Kudrna, who brought his medical training and expertise in outdoor recreation programming to the trip. “It was a really special experience and a pleasant group. We were supportive of each other and took the time to feel the spiritual weight of where we were.”

The first of those small moments happened on Monday, Mar. 13, before the group even set foot in the national park. After stopping in Flagstaff, Arizona, to purchase spikes for their hiking boots due to rumored snow and ice on the trails, they got caught in a 2-mile traffic jam of spring breakers waiting to enter the park.

“It ended up being a fun time of our group bonding in the van,” Kudrna remembered.

The ZYEP group caught their first glimpse of the canyon at the South Rim, where trip leaders pointed out the hiking trails and where future campsites were hiding in the deeper layers of the canyon. Then they set up their first campsite.

“Around the campfire that night, we discussed how we felt, coming to the canyon,” Kudrna said. “Many of us saw this as a healthy break from the stresses of daily life.”

On Tuesday morning, after a night of below-freezing temperatures, participants woke to see deer wandering through the campsite. After breakfast and organizing their backpacks, they dropped off their van at the park’s backcountry office and took a bus to the trailhead for the South Kaibab Trail. There, they met Mike Lyndon, tribal liaison for Grand Canyon National Park.

Lyndon spoke to the group about his role and how he connects with affiliated tribes, as well as his own connections with Zuni representatives. He and his daughter joined ZYEP on the trail to the bottom of the canyon, providing insights and different ways to access this sacred place.

“The South Kaibab Trail is a steep, 7-mile descent to the bottom of the canyon,” Kudrna said. “It’s a tough hike when carrying pack weight, so we took our time, stopped to rest as needed, and enjoyed the views.”

The air temperature increased dramatically as the group descended, encouraging them to shed warm jackets and hike in just shorts and T-shirts. They arrived at the Bright Angel Campground in the early evening, savoring the opportunity to soothe their aching legs in the freezing Colorado River.

During the evening, interpretive rangers stationed at the campground introduced themselves and invited the group to join a public discussion about the significance of the canyon.

“Once we finished dinner and cleaned up, we joined the other campers for the ranger talk,” Kudrna said. “Our group shared what ZYEP is, and Cultural Advisor Keith Edaakie and participant Brandon Laate talked about the relationship the Zuni people have with the canyon, as a tribe and on personal levels.”

On Wednesday, a light rain persisted throughout the day. Trip leaders gave the group space to be present that morning, so they could wander the area at their leisure and explore their own thoughts and connections. At mid-day, they packed up and began a wet, uphill climb along the Bright Angel Trail.

“The trail ran parallel to the Colorado River for a little over a mile,” Kudrna said. “We took the time to go down to the river and provide offerings to the ancestors.

“It was 5 miles to our final campsite at Havasupai Gardens,” he continued. “The group was far more chatty during this hike. They were comfortable with each other, and the hike was filled with great personal conversations.”

That social environment endured in camp, where the group shared personal stories and laughter. After dinner, they expressed thanks for the many things each person had done to uplift the group.

On Thursday, participants woke early, packed, and ate breakfast quickly with the goal of reaching the van by early afternoon. The final, steep hike up the Bright Angel Trail covered an additional 5 miles. It was slow going, but it provided additional opportunities to connect with Lyndon.

“Mike talked about the park and about Zuni, since he knew many of our participants’ family members through his previous work with the tribe,” Kudrna said. “He also talked with them about how they could continue to use the park as a resource.

“Eventually, we all made it out of the canyon,” he added. “We celebrated, because together, we pushed through such a physically demanding and special environment.”

On the way home, after dealing with an unexpected flat tire, Kiki Zunie led a group discussion about trip experiences and takeaways. Kudrna noted that many participants talked about the trip’s impact on their sense of self, their feelings of responsibility for sharing the Zuni culture with younger generations, and their new understanding of how capable they really are.

“Ultimately, there was a theme of gratitude, as well as excitement to share their experiences once they were back home,” he said. “Kiki and I felt that our biggest highlights were when we got caught in the long traffic jam, and we connected with other park visitors stuck around us; when people supported each other during the challenging hikes; and when group members opened up about their artwork, lives and ambitions.

“The fact that many people spoke about how they wanted to bring others to the canyon, or hike to the bottom again on their own, tells us that we successfully created a space that felt supportive, comfortable and empowering,” he reflected.

ZYEP is dedicated to providing its Zuni youth with access to sacred spaces. Kudrna said he looked forward to continuing the youth project’s relationship with Lyndon — and finding new opportunities to bring Zuni tribal members to the park in different capacities, and on their own terms.

To learn more about the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project and its programs, and for information about making donations, partnering with ZYEP, and volunteering, call (505) 782-8000 or visit zyep.org. And, to stay up to date on the latest news and events, follow the nonprofit youth organization on Facebook (/zuniyouthenrichmentproject), Instagram (@zuniyouthenrichmentproject), YouTube (/ZuniYouth), and TikTok (/zyep09)


Founded in 2009, the nonprofit Zuni Youth Enrichment Project is dedicated to promoting resilience among Zuni youth so they will grow into strong, healthy adults who are connected with Zuni traditions. ZYEP fulfills its mission by providing positive role models, enriching programs, and nurturing spaces that contribute to the healthy development of Zuni youth. ZYEP strives to provide every child with the encouragement and opportunities they need to reach their full potential.