The stunning view from the South Rim of Grand Canyon arrested my breath the first time I saw it in person. Pictures didn’t prepare me for the vast depth or stillness of the landscape. My heart raced at the thought of exploring the trails within the chasm. But we had swung by for only a peek that day on a family road trip to Flagstaff, AZ. One April day, five years later, I returned with my friend Brian to venture below the rim.
We stood at the top of South Kaibab Trail wearing running hydration packs loaded with two liters of water and 2500 calories of energy gels, snack bars, nut butters, and tortillas, prepared to spend sunrise to sunset running and hiking between the rims. It was a blustery cold 35 degrees and we wore light jackets, long sleeve shirts, shorts, and gloves knowing the temperature would soon rise into the eighties giving us the luxury of a warm Spring day in the desert. The predawn light allowed us to stow our headlamps. My hands trembled as I snapped the buckles on my pack.
If you were a crow, you could fly the 10 miles (16 km) from the South Rim to the North Rim. If you wanted to hike rim to rim, the shortest path is 21 miles (34 km) on the North and South Kaibab Trails. Driving rim to rim is a 220-mile (354 km) road trip that takes you around the East end of the canyon. Our plan was to descend South Kaibab Trail, cross the Colorado River, ascend North Kaibab Trail, back track North Kaibab down to Phantom Ranch, and return to the South Rim via Bright Angel Trail. Our route, depending on where we turned around on the north side, would be 40-46 miles (64-75 km) with 10,000 feet (3,048 m) of climbs and descents.
Over the Winter a rock slide had damaged the top end of North Kaibab Trail so it was officially closed while trail crews worked to repair it. This meant our original goal of Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim would probably have to be scrapped. Though park rangers were clear about the closure at Redwall Bridge, we held faint hope that the trail crew would allow us through to the North Rim.
We stepped off the rim feeling both exhilaration and a vague sense of uneasiness. It was a firm commitment to an epic day ahead. The mystery of what lies ahead makes every journey an adventure from the start. Short of a life-threatening situation, we would deal with our challenges on our own. We knew there was no place to bail out in the middle of our route, no shortcuts to get back to the top, and no free rides should we feel too tired to move forward to the end. An average 250 hikers are rescued and about a dozen people die each year in this park. There are serious consequences for the unprepared.
Brian and I had experience running in wilderness. We had dealt with problems like unintended detours, mind-numbing fatigue, injured companions, sore joints, low blood sugar, dehydration, questionable water sources, looming thunderstorms, and miscalculated time estimates that resulted in finishing under the stars. We had learned something new every trip and our preparation reflected that experience. We had trained for this day, but a variety of unforeseeable problems can arise over the course of forty miles.
In addition to water and food, we carried things we hoped we wouldn’t need: first-aid kit, water filter, athletic tape, headlamps, and an emergency bivvy sac in case an accident forced us to stay overnight in the cold. The National Parks Service had turned on seasonal water taps at campgrounds along our route. There were several turned on along Bright Angel, one at the bottom at Phantom Ranch, and two on North Kaibab. Since it was Spring, the streams were flowing high, so we had plenty of water available that we could purify if the taps weren’t enough for our needs.
We resisted the playful urge to charge down the sweeping descent of South Kaibab, instead wanting to relish the canyon’s transformation from dim chasm to a panoramic spectacle of wrinkled stratified walls. Living colors emerged with the growing daylight. Various shades of sage and olive greens covered the hillsides, yellow and purple flowers popped along the trail, the cactus buds were on the verge of blooming into bright pink flowers. Lone spires of Utah Agave reached over fifteen feet toward the sky. The abundance of vegetation that thrives within the canyon is a hidden secret from people looking out from the rim. It all looks like bare rock from up top.
Hearty gray squirrels scamper about on the higher portion of South Kaibab. Near the bottom are more geckos, bumblebees and butterflies. Lizards, from the size of a thumb to the length of a forearm, darted away from the path allowing only a quick glimpse of their color and designs on their skin. A bright green garter snake slithered across the trail at my feet.
The Black Bridge, on the Kaibab Trail, crosses a calm section of the Colorado River where the water was a startling emerald-green color. I knew the same river in Moab and Glenwood Canyon to be reddish-brown from the suspension of silt traveling downstream. The name Colorado is Spanish for “color red.” I learned later, the green color is attributed to Glen Canyon Dam upstream. Silt suspended in the Colorado River settles to the bottom of Lake Powell, behind the dam, leaving the water crystal clear when it is released into the canyon. The river guides say the color varies with flow rate controlled by the dam and runoff from local rain storms.
The Colorado River, the wild heart of Grand Canyon, has been tamed by civilization and harnessed for its energy.
After crossing the bridge to the north side the trail parallels the river in the direction of Phantom Ranch. We rounded a bend in the path and came face-to-face with a mule train.
“Step to the left” commanded the trail guide. I hopped off the trail to my left.
“Step to the left” he said again with authority. He was looking at me. Apparently, he meant we should step to his left so I jumped over to my right and stood next to Brian as mules ambled by, each bearing a smiling passenger topped with a straw cowboy hat.
The characters we met below the rim were more rugged than the tourists we encountered on the rim: a family backpacking with tween-aged boys, a woman in her sixties training to hike the challenging High Sierra Route later that Summer, several solo female hikers, and three pairs of hikers aiming to hike Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim in 24 hours. Tourists on the rim savor views of the Grand Canyon; people below seek to meld with the landscape.
One pair of 24-hour hikers timed their North Rim approach during the night when the trail repair crew was off work; they started their quest the previous evening at 7pm and were on their return leg. The other two 24-hour pairs hoped to convince trail workers to allow them through to the North Rim. I admired the intrepid spirit of the 24-hour hikers, but the thought of hiking the canyon in darkness didn’t sound fun to me.
We walked through Phantom Ranch and refilled our water at the tap. It was cool and breezy under the shade of the cottonwood trees. Ranch hands were loading pack mules with duffels and garbage from the guest ranch to be trekked to the rim. Mules have been the sole means of transporting goods to and from Phantom Ranch since the late 1800’s.
The North Kaibab Trail gently climbs along Bright Angel Stream for about nine miles before the grade turns steep up toward the North Rim. The temperature was near eighty and we noticed our pace was starting to lag. This adventure would have been easier for us in Fall after a full Summer of training high in the Rocky Mountains and acclimatizing to heat. Instead, we had been training all Winter in frozen dark mornings. The heat and dryness of the desert was taking a toll and we couldn’t seem to drink enough to keep up with our thirst.
When we got to the trail closure at Redwall Bridge, near Roaring Springs, we sat down among towering maroon walls and ponderosa pines to eat. The North Rim was 2,000 ft (610 m) above, taunting us with Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim bragging rights. Should we defy the sign, hike up the switchbacks, and beg the trail crew to let us through? Brian had conquered Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim twice before so he deferred the decision to me. We pondered our dilemma.
If we continued the last few miles to North Rim at our current pace, we would sacrifice sunset views from Bright Angel Trail at the end because we would finish in darkness. We also considered not wanting to be a nuisance to the trail crew and parks service. Trail runners were already under fire in the press for startling hikers as they blew by on the trails. We had been careful all day to greet and walk past other trail users and to slow to a walk through every campground. Runners ignoring a trail closure might inflame a smoldering problem. We chose to turn around.
Two seconds after we stood to leave, we heard from above the distinct rumbling of a rock slide. We froze. The canyon walls created a confusing echo effect and we couldn’t spot any movement on the hillside. The safety issue of hiking switchbacks below active trail workers hadn’t crossed our minds. After a quick nod to each other, we turned away from the North Rim, and bombed back down North Kaibab.
The trail surface transitioned under our feet in line with the strata on the canyon walls. As we descended through each layer we tread on progressively older rock, from 200 million years old at the top to nearly two billion years old at the bottom.
From the rim, Grand Canyon appears inanimate, like a finished sculpture. From below, we could sense the shifting landscape responding to gravity, erosion from wind and water, and the hands of mankind.
By the time we returned to Phantom Ranch we had traveled about 30 miles (48 km) and it was hot by our standards – nearly 90 degrees. In Summer, the bottom of the canyon can reach 120 degrees. We stopped to refill our water for the sixth time, thankful we didn’t have to go through the effort of filtering it. Admittedly, there are perks to having a touch of civilization in the canyon.
A group of river rafters were sitting nearby in the shade, their wetsuits peeled down to their waists. Their intent was to travel the full length of the canyon, from Lee’s Ferry to the Grand Wash Cliffs. They had already repaired a six-inch gash in their boat at least twice, using duct tape, but nobody had been dumped in the river so far. The most epic rapids, up to class 10, were ahead of them. We wished them luck and tried to imagine all they would see along the 277- mile (446 km) length of Grand Canyon.
Bright Angel Trail undulated along the Colorado River for a couple of miles before turning up a narrow canyon for a gentle climb to Indian Garden campground. Campers sitting on benches near the water spigot were aghast when they learned we intended to hike “all the way to the top” that day. It was late afternoon and we were on target to finish by sunset. We had five miles (8 km) to go and our fatigue was undeniable.
“It’s super steep,” said a young man, “and rough . . . watch your step.”
“It’s soooo hard” said the girl beside him.
We must have looked dejected because they shuffled their feet and glanced at each other, then shifted their tone to be more encouraging.
“It’s not too bad . . . just steep for a little bit after Mile 3 Resthouse,” said the man.
“Once you hit the tunnels you’re home free,” said the girl.
The higher we climbed on the switchbacks of Bright Angel Trail the more hikers we saw. It is the most popular trail from the South Rim for good reason: you see towering maroon and black rock towers, skirt along cliff faces, and hike through strata that transition from deep red to pinks and off-white. Bright Angel Trail was in better shape than South Kaibab, which has huge ruts from plodding pack mules. Near the top, I turned to look over my shoulder and saw the last touch of sunlight in the canyon, crowning the walls in the distance. Sunrise to sunset, I thought, perfect!
The wind picked up and the temperature plummeted when we reached the South Rim. As I slipped on my jacket, my thoughts drifted to the 24-hr hikers who wouldn’t be done until the wee morning hours. Hopefully, they were on their way back from tagging the North Rim.
We lucked out and caught the last shuttle of the day back to the Visitor Center where we left our car at 5:30 am. Had we missed the ride we would have had to walk another two miles on the road in cold wind.
“Go to the back,” the bus driver said to us. “You don’t look disabled.” I imagined we didn’t smell great either.
We sat in the back row. In front of us, sitting facing each other, were two older couples wearing winter jackets. A silver-haired gentleman looked at us up and down, taking in our ultra-running gear and shorts.
“What did you do today?” he asked.
“We ran down Kaibab to Phantom Ranch and up toward the North Rim, to where it was closed, then back up here on Bright Angel Trail,” I said.
“What was it like down there?” the woman in front of me asked. The silver-haired man stared at us agape, his brow furrowed.
“How far is that?” he asked, before I could answer the woman.
“40 miles,” I said to him, “We’re tired.”
“It’s beautiful down there . . .flowers everywhere,” I said to the woman. I pulled out my iPhone to show her pictures of the cacti in bloom.
“Beautiful!” she said. “What was the . . .”
“That’s a marathon and a half!” said the silver-haired man, “. . . with rocks and stones . . . a mile down. . .and up.” He shook his head.
I glanced around at the passengers on the bus. They were that other breed of tourists who stayed on the vistas along the rim. I started to feel freakish with my dusty legs and pink shorts.
“What was the river like?” asked the woman. I scrolled through my photos to find the one of the smooth emerald green river.
“How many calories is that?” asked the silver-haired man. “How many calories did you eat?”
Brian and I looked at each other knowing our calorie burn rates were dramatically different and neither one of us knew what was left in our pack.
“I probably ate 2,000,” I said, being truthful but knowing that would sound low for the distance we traveled.
“I have a friend who does Race Across America on his bike and he eats 8,000 calories a day,” said the silver-haired man.
“Wow! That’s just crazy!” I said, feeling a little less freakish.
We paid two dollars for hot showers that lasted for 8 luxurious minutes and then crashed in our tents while the campground was still abuzz with conversation and campfires.
I was glad we didn’t make it to the North Rim. It gave me an excuse to return.
Tips for your Visit to Grand Canyon National Park
- The park has an excellent website for planning your trip. They list which water taps are operating, shuttle schedules, campground and lodging information back country information and more.
- If you only have time for a short hike below the South Rim, choose Bright Angel Trail – it is astonishingly beautiful.
- Train your legs by hiking up and down stairs or hills 2-3 times per week for several weeks (or more) before you hike below the rim.
- Best times to visit are April/May and September/October. Summer can be brutally hot, and snow is common in Winter. Spring offers longer daylight, plentiful water, and blooming cactus. The North Rim is closed Oct 15th – May 15th.
- Drink lots of water. You get dehydrated just standing in the arid climate.
- Be aware that high elevation can make you slow down and feel tired. South Rim is 7,000 feet (2,133 m). North Rim is 8,300 feet (2,530 m) Phantom Ranch (at the bottom) is 2,460 feet (750 m)
- Plan to catch sunrise or sunset (or both!) from the rim of the canyon. It’s magical.
- Check out my earlier post: Great Reads: American Southwest for books filled with adventure in the desert southwest