Ecologist Dies on Rugged Grand Canyon Trail After Falling in Gully

On a warm late August afternoon, 51-year-old U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist Daniel Sarr was hiking in a remote and rugged area of the eastern Grand Canyon as part of a study of riparian ecology when he fell into a gully and died. His is the eighth death so far this year in the Grand Canyon.

Sarr was out with a co-worker, and two men were supposed to meet up with other researchers at the bottom of the trail near the Colorado River. They were about 20 minutes away from the water when every desert hiker’s worst nightmare came true: They ran out of water.

Luckily, someone from the main group happened to be hiking up the trail to meet them and found the two thirsty men before anything bad happened.

For reasons that remain unknown, the three men decided that Sarr should stay behind while the other two hiked down to get more water.

But when they got back to the spot where they had left him, he wasn’t there.

At some point, they discovered his body at the bottom of a relatively shallow gully – approximately 15 feet deep by 15 feet wide.

Whether the two men had a satellite phone on them or had to hike back down to the river to use the group’s satellite phone remains unclear, but at 5 p.m., an emergency call was placed to the Grand Canyon Regional Communications Center reporting that a man had fallen to his death.

Emily Davis with Grand Canyon National Park calls the situation “horrible” and confirms that he is the eighth person to die in the Grand Canyon this year.

Because no one saw him fall, the circumstances leading up to it are entirely unclear, she says, adding that “the area they were hiking in was over in eastern Grand Canyon and part of what we consider Marble Canyon.”

She explains that the route begins on the Navajo Nation and eventually becomes part of Grand Canyon National Park near the river. “It gets a little hairy about whose trail it is” at certain points, she adds.

“The area is remote, and like most Grand Canyon’s trails — actually, I wouldn’t even call it a trail; It’s more of a route — it's not maintained, it’s rugged, and it takes a considerable amount of skill to navigate.”

The Park Park Service says the path they were on is called the Fence Fault Route and is near Colorado River mile marker 29, and Davis estimates the route is about 15 miles long.

Daniel Sarr lived in Flagstaff and has worked as both an adjunct professor of forestry at Northern Arizona University and at the USGS Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center within the Southwest Biological Science Center. Before his current positions, he spent 13 years with the National Park Service’s Klamath Network Inventory and Monitoring Program.
His USGS professional profile page says his research focus was watershed conservation ecology, particularly the monitoring and analyzing of riparian vegetation along the Colorado River in Grand Canyon.

“We are currently exploring the role of guild classifications of riparian species to guide riparian and river management in Grand Canyon,” he wrote.

Sarr’s work has appeared in a variety of scientific journals and publications, and he received the National Park Service Superior Performance Award in 2011.

Davis says the Park Service is conducting an investigation into his death, and the Arizona Daily Sun reported that the USGS also is looking into it.