South Rim to River to South Rim
via South Kaibab & Bright Angel Trail
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Okay, hiking The Grand Canyon, we figured it would be a once in a lifetime experience (see Grand Canyon 2000), but what do you do when a crew member’s mom has her heart set on hiking it someday too—you lace up your hiking boots and welcome a new member to the NBH Crew—that’s what you do! Dar, Pick’s mom, had always wanted to hike the Grand Canyon, and after Pick and I actually made the trek in 2000, she became obsessed. After we returned from our first trek, she expressed her desire to complete this incredible hike as well, and we responded by inviting her to join us for another adventure. Even though we had always figured that our first trek into the canyon would be our last, we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to be part of someone’s dream come true, and by so doing, Dar became the newest member of Natural Born Hikers. In 2001, Dar led the crew in life experience, having walked this earth for 5 decades, and she proved her determination and stamina on our first adventure together—read on to see how she did on this massive hike.
The canyon itself is one mile deep, eighteen miles wide, 160 miles long, and covers 1.2 million acres in northern Arizona. This amazing national park offers some of the best hiking in America, and unlike most hikes, trails in Grand Canyon start at the top and end at the bottom—this “mountain-in-reverse” style of hiking leads to some unique challenges. For one, a hike into the canyon seems deceptively easy on the way down. Another factor to consider is the temperature—the lower you go, the hotter it gets, with temperatures up to 20°F hotter at the bottom of the canyon. Indeed, the Grand Canyon’s Inner Gorge offers some of the most grueling hikes in the United States, regardless of what trails you choose to reach the bottom. Many trails lead to the Colorado River—the most popular are the Corridor Trails, namely the South Kaibab Trail, the North Kaibab Trail, and the Bright Angel Trail. On our previous trip, we hiked down the South Kaibab and up the Bright Angel—on our second trip we opted to retrace our steps. In contrast to our last adventure into the canyon, there were a couple of major differences—one was the weather, this time we planned our hike for March 25 and 26, affording us much cooler weather then our previous hike in June. This time the high/low on the rim was 65/35 and at the river, it was 86/55, a much more pleasant hiking atmosphere than the sweltering 100 degree temperatures endured on our June trek. The second difference was our backpacks—last time we carried just a daypack, this time our load was heavier and therefore we needed to use internal frame backpacks. The end weight, fully loaded was about 40 pounds each, making the hike even more physically challenging then before—if that is actually possible.
The three of us (Pick, Weisey, and Dar) set off on our adventure at approximately 10:30 am and Dar was full of excitement. It was refreshing to be in the company of someone so hyped up about a hike, her energy was contagious and it made the second time around just as fun as the first.
As we headed down the South Kaibab Trail, the first obstacle we encountered was ice on the trail—due to the chilly weather at the rim of the canyon the trail was still ice covered and there were patches of snow dispersed among the trees. Fortunately, the ice did not last long, and as we descended further into the canyon the ice disappeared and it was back to hiking as usual. This was good news because Dar tended to tiptoe along the trail trying to avoid the ice, which usually meant a death defying balancing act along the edge of the trail near the 1000 foot drop-offs—a scary thing to watch!
The hike was going along splendidly and we were all in great shape when we reached Cedar Ridge, located 1.5 miles from the rim—a popular day-hike destination complete with composting toilets. We took advantage of the bathroom break and the opportunity to take off our backpacks and rest for about ten minutes—we had to rush a little, since we had a steak dinner waiting for each of us at the Phantom Ranch at 5:00pm. Sadly, if you miss the dinner bell you are out of luck, so we pressed on down the trail. The weather was spectacular and the scenery was indeed grand, and Dar was hiking along like a pro and having a great time. The weather was very pleasant, and when we reached the restroom and emergency phone at the Tip-off, the temperature was about 80 degrees. At this point, our legs were a little shaky—this shakiness is a result of constantly “putting on the breaks” while trying to slow yourself down on the steep trail, causing your leg muscles to fatigue and then shake when they are no longer in motion. We rested our weary legs for about 15 minutes at the Tip-off before continuing our descent into the Inner Gorge.
When we reached Panorama Point, a section of the trail where you can see fantastic views of the Colorado River, we were all very excited. The river was a muddy brown this time—on our first trip it was a bright green—the brown tone most likely due to snow melt. At any rate, Dar thought it was really cool that she had made it that far without a problem, and we did too. Pick then pointed out the Phantom Ranch far below us and we all braced ourselves for the rest of the hike. As we got closer to Black Bridge, a suspension bridge that spans the Colorado, my knees started to give me trouble (as usual) and Dar’s legs were a little tired, but she was still going strong—Pick was in great shape and had no complaints. We finally reached the bridge and crossed the river with anticipation, eagerly waiting for the moment when we could ditch our backpacks at the Bright Angel Campground. Shortly thereafter, we arrived at the campground nearly five hours and thirty minutes after starting our hike—with just a few minutes to spare before dinner. Quickly, we stashed our gear at the campground and then headed to the cantina for dinner.
Dinner at the Phantom Ranch is an experience in and of itself, one that brings people of all walks of life together in order to share a good meal and tales of adventure—an experience well worth the price of around thirty dollars each. The dinner, served family style, provides the perfect setting for making new friends—we met some nice people from Minnesota who had taken the mule trip to the bottom. As we enjoyed our steak dinners, we exchanged impressions of the Grand Canyon and our journey so far, and then when dinner was over we headed back to our campsite and set up our tent. That evening, we went to a ranger lead program entitled “Search and Rescue” that began at 7:30pm—it was a great program and it passed the time well. That night we dropped off to sleep peacefully, gazing skyward through the screened roof of our tent towards the millions of stars that filled the sky—the perfect nightlight!
We awoke the next morning with tired sore legs but feeling rested and ready to go. We ate breakfast at 7:00am and then packed up the tent and headed for the Bright Angel Trailhead. The climb out of the canyon is always very strenuous and our packs were heavy, but we were ready to tackle the challenge. The trail was gorgeous with wild flowers in bloom all around us, and the weather was once again perfect. Thanks to the optimal conditions, it seemed like we made it to Indian Gardens in no time. Indian Gardens, an oasis of shady Cottonwood trees, is the perfect place to stop and eat lunch on your way to the rim—we allowed ourselves a one hour break at this beautiful location 4.4 miles below the rim.
The rest of the hike out was tiring and painful, but we made it in great time—it only took us 9 hours to get to the rim, whereas, on our first trek, it had taken us 11 hours—of course, we were fighting sweltering temperatures and heatstroke on that hike. Nonetheless, we were delighted with the pace Dar was keeping, and it must be said that she is an excellent hiker—one we are proud to call our own. She hiked the canyon with stamina and dignity, and I can only hope that I can manage that myself in another 20 years—congratulations to you Dar!
Our second journey into the Grand Canyon’s Inner Gorge was no less spectacular than our first, and I am sure that it will not be our last. The stunning beauty, fascinating geology, and spectacular hiking opportunities combine to make a paradise for the outside explorer. It is a place where you can feel special and invisible at the same time. In reality, if you feel special when you hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, it is because you truly are—a ranger told us that we should consider ourselves part of an elite group, because out of the 5 million visitors to the Grand Canyon each year, only 1% venture down to the bottom!