Thirty Years In: An Interview with Tom Vail


Read an Answers magazine interview with Tom Vail, founder of Canyon Ministries.

Answers Magazine (AM): Could you give us some stats about your trips (how many times have you rafted through the canyon etc.)?

Tom Vail (TV): I’ve been running trips through the canyon for over 30 years and have made the 277-mile journey over 200 times, but I stopped counting a long time ago. Over the years, I have taken several thousand people through the canyon, both when I was an evolutionist and now, as a creationist.

AM: After all these years, what keeps you going back trip after trip?

TV: Coming to know Christ as my Savior in 1994 changed the answer to that question dramatically. My joy today is being able to share the canyon with fellow believers, and seeing them come closer to the Lord, not by anything I do, but by the evidence they see in the canyon that supports and upholds the Word of God. Just seeing people “get it” as they travel through the canyon is amazing. The canyon gives you just a small idea of how big our God really is. I’ve had more than one person say at the end of a trip, “I’ve been worshiping a God who was way too small.”

AM: How do you think your past and God’s work on you has helped you as a tour guide?

TV: The fact that I began guiding in the canyon as an evolutionist helped me first learn the evolutionary model of the canyon very well. Fifteen years later, coming to Christ got me interested in the creation model. In fact, one of my first exposures to the creation model of the canyon was from Dr. Gary Parker at an [Answers in Genesis] seminar in North Carolina. I began teaching the two models side-by-side, at first not disclosing which I favored. Now, however, I am blessed by running only creationist trips and can speak openly, teaching both models, including the challenges and unanswered questions in each.

AM: Could you give a little detail about your speaking ministry? What sort of impact has that had on you as you tour the country and talk about God’s creation?

TV: First of all, it is a humbling feeling knowing the Lord has put me in a position to speak to others about the truth of His Word. When I go out to speak, the number of people who show up amazes me! I’ve spoken for several creation groups where they had record crowds. But they sure did not come to hear Tom Vail speak, as most of them had never heard of me before. But so many people have some level of curiosity about the Grand Canyon, and that’s what brings them out. Plus, they probably heard I have lots of really pretty pictures.

When speaking in churches, I find the concept of a young earth is a brand new idea for many. It is not that they doubt God’s Word; it’s just they have never thought through the issue and its foundational implications.

AM: During your rafting trips, is there one particular spot that you really enjoy stopping at? What makes that spot special?

TV: I guess that would have to be Blacktail Canyon. Blacktail is a slot canyon where the basement rock is exposed with the first of the Flood deposits sitting right on top of it. You can stretch your hand across the line between God’s creation and His judgment. Then, you look up and see 4,000 feet of Flood deposits above you. To me, it is one of the few places where you can really get a small glimpse of just how significant the impact of the Flood was on the earth.

AM: Have any of your trips ever included those overtly skeptical of a young earth?

TV: Most of the folks who join a Canyon Ministries trip already believe in a young earth, but not all. For those who don’t, it can be challenging because they come to realize just how foundational the subject of origins is to their worldview.

AM: What sort of impact does the trip make on them?

TV: For some, it is life changing; for some, thought provoking; and for others, troublesome. I don’t believe you can go through the canyon with an open mind and not come out at the other end without at least questioning [the] old-earth position, both biblically and scientifically. The evidence doesn’t support it, and neither does His Word.

AM: If someone went on a trip with you, what’s the main thing you hope they take away from it?

TV: Of course, I want them to have a good time. The canyon is one of the Lord’s most beautiful cathedrals, and the rapids are exhilarating, at least for most. If they’re tentative at the beginning of the trip, they’re often yelling, “Go for it!” by the end. But more than that, my prayer is that everyone who goes on a Canyon Ministries trip will be brought into a closer relationship with their Lord and Savior and for them to have a renewed excitement for sharing what the Lord has done in their lives.

A Grand Canyon trip opens many doors of evangelism. Everyone walks away from a trip with a lot of pictures, but more importantly, some little nugget of evidence they want to share. And when they get home, everyone wants to know what their Grand Canyon trip was like. Just the simple “Tell me about your trip” opens the door to say, “You would be amazed what I learned about how the Lord . . . .”

AM: What would you say is the most important thing Canyon Ministries is doing?

TV: Without a doubt, it is the Christian Leaders Trip we conduct in partnership with Answers in Genesis and The Master’s Seminary. Through the generous giving of many, each year we [provide scholarships for] an entire trip (twenty-four men) for seminary and Bible college professors, pastors, and ministry leaders to show them the evidence found in the canyon and how it relates to the Scriptures and, ultimately, the gospel. Not all these men come as young earth creationists. Some are but don’t know why, other than they believe it is what God’s Word teaches; and others accept millions of years. Over the past four years, we have taken almost 100 men from seven nations and representing over forty-five different institutions, organizations, and churches. And I think it is safe to say they have all been changed. They may not all believe in a young earth. But those who do have been strengthened, and those who don’t have been challenged.

It is important for all of us in creation ministries to continually remind ourselves the creation/evolution debate is not a matter of salvation. And it is on these trips that this fact strikes me more than any other time. All of these men are godly men who love and serve the Lord, but often have differing opinions on how Scripture should be interpreted. We may not have it all right; in fact, I’m sure we don’t. But in the long run, just as there is only one way to heaven, there is really only one truth found in God’s Word—no matter what any of us thinks.

AM: What are your plans for the future of Canyon Ministries?

TV: That is a hard one. But as I often say, “You are asking the wrong person!” The Lord has blessed me with health and the physical ability to do these trips, but obviously I’m not getting any younger. I will continue to do them as long as the Lord allows. But I am praying the Lord will bring the right person along to take the helm and steer Canyon Ministries into something much bigger than it is today.

Until then, I’ll continue to “suffer for the Lord” in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, speak on the message of the Grand Canyon when asked, and work on expanding the True North Series of guidebooks, which present the creationist perspective on our national parks. We have completed the Grand Canyon Guide and the Zion & Bryce Guide. And, Lord willing Your Guide to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks will be out next spring.


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