Intro to the IntroThis Trip Report is about three retired guys who, instead of playing a round of golf or heading to the shuffleboard court, chose instead to walk across the Grand Canyon. The one that wanted so much to do it, traveled across an ocean and 3/4 of the way across another continent for the chance even though he'd never done anything quite like it before.
That's big medicine!!
We were in no hurry, limited only by the amount of time one can spend in the "Corridor". Truth be known, we would have stayed longer if we could have. Nowadays, many seem focused on how long it took. We weren't. I guess that instead, we were focused on what an amazing trek it was.
Oh, and just for the record, we did it in 98 hours and 50 minutes!
IntroRim to Rim has a cool sound to it, no doubt. Though it’s somewhat commonplace today, not all that long ago the idea of hiking across the Grand Canyon was anything but and it’s not something I even considered until an opportunity to go back to the Canyon came up recently. My brother-in-law from England was retiring in May of 2014 and he fancied a trip into the Canyon to knock off one of the first things on his “Bucket List”. After some initial discussions on the idea in September of 2013, we decided to apply for a permit for September of 2014. As we hammered out our plans via e-mail over the next couple months, the trip morphed from a simple down and back from the South Rim to a north to south Rim to Rim. Since I’d done the down and back thing a couple times and had never been to the North Rim, I suggested it and Steve, being Steve readily agreed to it. When I spoke of the trip to my buddy, Nelson, he expressed an interest in accompanying us. The more the merrier Steve said, “He can help you carry me out of the Canyon if I can’t make it!”. So be it. All that was left was to get our permit, make the necessary reservations, and to get in shape! As it turned out, getting in shape would arguably be the easiest part.
Long story short-We failed to get the September permit but did succeed in getting one that started on October 16th, the day the North Rim Lodge closes which, as it turned out, was about perfect. Getting the reservations for the Lodge and a couple meals at Phantom Ranch proved a difficult task but we ended up getting everything we wanted booked with 6 days to spare!
Nelson and I do a lot of hiking together and we kept that up, topping off the summer’s training with a long trip in the Wind River Range. Steve, who had never done any backpacking, trained by doing a lot of walking and running at home in the Northeast of England but I couldn’t help but wonder how well his training would prepare him for the rigors of crossing the Canyon. We’re talking going from 8,200 feet down to 2,000 and then back up to 6,800 all the while carrying a backpack, not to mention the heat in the lower reaches. Yeah, you could say that I was worried, just a little.
Last Minute PreparationsSteve arrived in Colorado on Wednesday, October the 8th, 6 days before our scheduled departure to the Canyon. I was somewhat relieved that he was able to come in that early. Living at sea level, I felt that he would need as much time as was possible to acclimatize to our rarified air at 5,000 ft above sea level not to mention the even more rarified air of the Grand Canyon’s North and South Rims. The day after his arrival, we shipped a box to our hotel on the South Rim that contained what we thought we’d need when we got there, like clean clothes! The last few days were spent fine tuning our gear, making sure we had everything we needed and paring down Steve’s share to keep it to no more than 25 pounds.
On Sunday Steve and I got a chance to get out for a hike. I wanted to see how he would do to get some kind of idea of how far his training had taken him. We went close by, to Lory State Park and climbed up to Arthur’s Rock, then looped around back to the trailhead. All tolled we hiked about 5 miles with over 1,100 feet of elevation gain and loss, topping out at 6,780 ft. It was a good outing. He seemed to be a strong hiker and had no obvious issues with the altitude. I was cautiously optimistic, but still, it was more of a quiz than a test and it was without carrying a pack.
On the RoadDay 1-Tuesday, October 14th, 2014
A trouble-free 9-1/2 hour drive got us to Richfield, Utah. Weather was good and the Fall colors were spectacular from Glenwood Springs to Grand Junction.
Jumped off I-15 at the Zion NP exit and continued on. Once we got past Hurricane, Utah, there was nothing but big, open, empty desert with few settlements, the biggest and last of which was Fredonia, Arizona, about 55 miles from Hurricane. We stopped for gas there and could tell right away that we weren’t in Utah anymore. The sign atop Judd Auto read-Lotto*Guns*Ammo*Beer.
If we felt like we were at the edge of civilization there, we surely must have felt that we’d fallen over the edge shortly after we left. A landscape void of any sign of civilization, save for the ribbon of road, stretched in every direction until we began the climb up onto the Kaibab Plateau. The forested plateau was a welcome change from the arid lands we’d just traveled through. To the north, the view was dominated by the Vermillion Cliffs, Bryce Canyon and the Escalante Mountains.
As we moved higher onto the plateau the forest transitioned from a pinyon-juniper woodland to one dominated by spruce, fir, ponderosa pine and aspen. The stands of aspen were colored in various hues of yellow and orange.
Onward we drove, past prescribed burns, burns that shouldn’t have been prescribed, Jacob Lake, where there is no lake and surprisingly, a herd of buffalo or were they beefalo?
When we reached the rim we found it to be a busy place, not busy like the South Rim but busy nonetheless. Got checked into our little cabin and then were off to the lodge for lunch and a bit of exploring around the rim. The short hike to Bright Angel Point was amazing! I found much to my delight that the views from the North Rim are quite different from and no less spectacular than those from the South Rim. Much color in evidence amongst the trees and shrubs. Took a bunch of photos on that walk.
There’s magic in the air on the last night of the season at the North Rim Lodge and there’s a feeling of comradery because all the guests and most of the employees have something in common-they’re all leaving in the morning!! That last sunset on the patio, that last dinner in the dinning room, priceless!
And so it begins....Day 3-Thursday
Up at 5:30, packed and hauled our stuff back to my 4Runner (Little Bob), then over to the lodge for breakfast which started at 6:30. It was our last look out those big windows into the canyon. Our perspectives would be dramatically different over the next five days.
Short drive to the trailhead where we were surprised to see only a few cars. The day before it and the sides of the road were packed with cars. Need to remember-Everything changes on the North Rim when the lodge closes. We got ready to hit the trail and said our goodbyes to Little Bob (I said a silent prayer in the hope that 15 year old Bob would be good to go when we returned, as mechanical help would be a very long ways off). It was a cold morning but we knew we’d be feeling the heat soon and dressed accordingly.
Temperature rose quickly as we descended down the very dusty trail. In spite of our small party the last guy in line was walking through a cloud of dust. After 1.7 miles and 1,441 feet, we reached the first water stop at Supai Tunnel. Got some water and took a short break there. And that’s where we met 2 young French girls who were also on their way across the canyon. They didn’t speak much English but just listening to them try was a delight! We’d run into them a few more times on the way down and when communication became difficult, we could always count on Steve to translate.
With temperatures rising rapidly we were exceedingly glad to be going down rather than up. Passed a few people heading up and the looks on their faces told the story. The trail was quite steep as we neared the lower end of Roaring Springs Canyon. Near the bottom we were amazed to see a large volume of water gushing out of the mountain-side across the canyon. Roaring Springs it was and after almost five miles of hiking in the desert heat, it was a welcome sight and sound! Our next water stop would be at the Pumphouse, just below Roaring Springs, 3.7 miles and 2,200 feet below.
Funny thing about the Grand Canyon-All the potable water at the Grand Canyon including the Kaibab, Bright Angel Trails and the North and South Rims, comes from Roaring Springs. Sounds crazy but it’s true and the Pumphouse is just that, pumping water up to the North Rim. Gravity takes care of getting the water below to Phantom Ranch, Bright Angel campground and even to the Indian Garden CG which is lower than Roaring Springs. From Indian Garden, it’s pumped to the South Rim.
Steve and I were both out of water by the time we got there and eagerly drank our fill. Oddly enough, there was a tent set up a short distance away and we observed a woman getting out of it and walking off toward the facilities. She said nothing as she went by and we couldn’t help but wonder why she was camping where camping was not allowed. We learned later that she was part of a group that went through and that she had issues with hiking out so she was allowed to stay there to recuperate. Don’t know how it turned out but this would not be the last time we’d see examples of people that overestimated their hiking abilities in the canyon.
The final stretch to Cottonwood CG was another 1.4 miles but it was easy compared to what we’d all ready done as it only dropped a little over 500 feet. We dragged our tired asses into camp around 2 PM, picked a site after looking them all over, took off our packs and relaxed in the shadow of the single tree that shaded our little picnic table. Walked a short distance to the creek to cool off and found it a difficult jaunt as our calf muscles were trashed from the descent. The water was cool and very refreshing! Later, we were filling our water containers at the spigot when along came the French girls. The one that spoke a little better English told us that they’d picked up a permit on the trail and wondered if it was ours. Sure enough, it was and we thanked them for getting it back to us. Don’t know what would have happened if we didn’t have it when we got checked and glad we didn’t have to find out.
After some rest, relaxation, and rehydration we felt good enough to tackle the hike to Ribbon Falls, about 1.6 miles down the trail. We’d heard it was a “must see” and thought it better to do now rather than in the morning. I was surprised that Steve was up for it after the taxing day we’d had but he was, so off we went. It was late enough in the day that the shadows were lengthening and the temperatures were cooling slightly which made for a pleasant walk to the falls.
The falls were amazing!! Not a lot of water there but in that desert environment it seemed like Niagara! Took a lot of photos and enjoyed the coolness of that little side canyon. Nelson climbed to the next level and got some nice photos, including one from behind the falls.
Made it back to camp just before six and got some dinner going. Turned in around 7 something and fell fast asleep watching the stars through the tent’s netting.
Got up early and were glad to see mostly cloudy skies. Today’s hike had the potential to be brutally hot especially in the section of the trail known as “The Box”. After a quick breakfast we packed up and were on the trail by 8. Next camp was at the Bright Angel CG, 7.2 miles farther and another 2,480 feet below. Once we got moving, most of the pains from the day before faded and we were feeling pretty good. Nelson and I continued to be greatly impressed with how well Steve was doing. We even started to think that maybe we wouldn’t have to carry him out!
Even with the cloud cover, the Box was pretty warm but nothing like it would have been if the sun was out.
As we made our way through, we started to encounter more people, almost all of which were day hikers from Phantom Ranch. Also came across a couple mule deer crossing Bright Angel Creek.
Rolled into the campground at 12:15 where we found plenty of open sites. Picked out a nice, large one that offered a good deal of shade. Permit checker came by to check our permit and ended up giving us a mini-lecture on not hanging stuff from the tree branches (guilty, my socks were hanging) and headlamp etiquette (use the red light instead of the white!). Once we digested that, we were off to the Ranch for some cold beers to wash it down. Getting up from the picnic table, we found it extremely difficult to walk as our calf muscles were locked up as tight as a tourniquet! I guess walking 5,700 feet downhill over 14 miles in two days will do that to you. Good thing the Ranch wasn’t too far away!
After a good deal of rehydration on $4 Tecates we returned to camp, where I chilled while Steve and Nelson hiked the two bridges loop. Following their return, we were off to the Ranch again, for our dinner at 6:30. It was nearly dark when we got there and a group of people were gathered outside, waiting for the doors to open. At the appointed hour a loud bell was rung and the doors were opened. Our host, the only employee present, checked everyone in and told us where we were to sit. Steve and I had the Hikers Stew, Nelson had the Veggie Chili and both were good. Our fellow diners seemed for the most part, to be part of groups who were staying at the Ranch.
Walked back to camp in the dark with the only light coming from our headlamps and the stars. Ahead in the darkness, we could see lights coming toward us from the trail below, moving swiftly, bobbing up and down as they approached. It was Friday night and this we came to learn, was the telltale sign of the weekend, rim to rim, trail runners. We turned in shortly after getting back to camp, a little after 8. We were bushed!!
An off day for us with the plan being, after sleeping in a bit, to hike up the Clear Creek trail to check out the views. The trail starts off with a brisk climb of 1,200 feet in the first mile before it mellows out atop the Tonto Plateau which was in sharp contrast to my recollection of it being an easy hike. But, easy or not, it is a spectacular walk above the mighty Colorado!
Took a break at the same dry wash that I’d stopped at three years prior to rest, rehydrate, eat and to play some music. It’s a tradition with me, starting with a harmonica the first time I visited the canyon in 1970, love the acoustics! Steve brought his penny whistle and I carried my wooden flute. Our plan to play a duet didn’t work out as our instruments turned out to be in different keys, so we each played something solo. It’s kind of trippy to be there, in that magnificent setting, listening to the notes bouncing off the canyon walls. Nelson had gone ahead to photograph Zoroaster while we were playing and he said it sounded great from where he was!
The heat was starting to get to me and I could see that it was also taking a toll on my not-so-used-to-seeing-the-sun, British Isles dwelling brother-in-law. We divvied up our remaining water and started back down the what was now, a very hot stretch of trail. After an hour of marching we were very glad to find ourselves back in the shady confines of the Phantom Ranch, relaxing over a few cold ones.
Back on the freeze-dried food for dinner but looking forward to a “real” breakfast in the morning!
Up at first light and then off to the Ranch for our breakfast. Wondered if they’d ring that loud bell at 6:30 AM, they did! Great breakfast, following which we packed it up and hit the already dusty trail. Good weather, blue skies with a few clouds overhead.
We got on the trail at 7:45, along with many others.
Luckily, we hiked in the shadows almost exclusively until we got into the upper reaches of that dreaded stretch of the trail known as the “Devil's Corkscrew”. Once out of the shadows, we got a big dose of the desert heat, as we had the day before, though this time we were climbing with full packs on. For a short time the sun beat down on us unmercifully and it became brutally hot.
By now, the trail was becoming more crowded with day hikers, trail runners, guided backpacking groups and the occasional barefoot hiker. We were glad to find some relief from the sun once we turned a corner and entered the shaded, little canyon of Garden Creek, the beginnings of the mini-oasis that is Indian Garden.
Steve and I came up behind a trail runner, just below the campground, that had been talking to some folks sitting by the trail. He hadn’t noticed us as he continued on but being fairly close, we could hear him mumbling about something to himself. On seeing us, he began directing his rant in our direction. Apparently he was upset about the practice by some trail runners of pissing on the trail as they run. We could see the wet, dribbly trail in the sand that had set him off and could only agree-It’s disgusting!!
Right after that we turned into the campground and began looking for a spot. It was 11 AM and we were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves having covered 4.7 miles and 1,400 ft of elevation gain in a relatively short time. The first three days of our trek had prepared us well! So glad that we were able to do most of the climb in the morning shade. Earlier in the year, we would have been in the hot sun most of the time.
Indian Garden Campground was very shady, quiet and nearly empty when we arrived. It was also noticeably cooler than down at the Ranch. After camp was set we had a little lunch. Neighbors from one of the guided hiking groups stopped by to share some salmon salad that apparently they had too much of and weren't too keen on carrying to the South Rim. We graciously accepted their offer and found it delicious!!
While Nelson and Steve went off to a ranger program on the Sounds of the Canyon, I went on a photo walkabout. Started by trying to climb the hill behind the campground-Bad idea!! It was a lot steeper and tougher to climb than it looked and I felt good about making it back down with no broken limbs! Ended up just hiking the trail above the campground, checking out the heli-pad and taking some photos from the dry creek bed.
Met back up with Steve and Nelson returning from the ranger talk and decided to take the 1.5 mile hike out to Plateau Point. Spectacular 360 degree viewpoint of the Canyon 1,400 feet above the river!!
On the way back to camp we passed was one of the guided groups making their way to the Point. The group, which consisted of 6 women, carried nothing but water bottles while their guide bore a sherpa-like load on his back. Ah ha, we thought, they’re going out there to have a sunset dinner and the guide is toting everything needed to make the meal. What a great experience that would be! Saw two more groups heading out, apparently to do the same.
After dinner we did a couple shots then went to the evening’s ranger program which featured a 1920s, silent film about running the river. It was pretty cool and the house was packed!
Got up before the sun, a little after 5. This was the day of the big climb-3,060 feet in 4.8 miles and we wanted to get an early start. After coffee, tea, breakfast and a bit of lollygagging, we were on the trail by 7:45.
Weather was looking good and the morning air felt pleasantly cool as we started off. Thankfully, the time of day, time of year and the 3,000 foot canyon walls kept us in the shade once again, for most of the climb.
We reached the Three-Mile Resthouse in good order and took a short break there. Only another 3.1 miles and 2,100 feet to go!! Most of the people we saw there were heading up like us but we started seeing some that were going down. By the time we reached the Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse, a mile and a half and 1,000 vertical feet further on, the trail was starting to get crowded. The growing hordes that we encountered were no longer hikers or backpackers, they were tourists. They were young, they were old, they were skinny, they were fat, they were fit, they were out of shape, they were on mules and,... they were all over the trail.
In this mass of humanity descending the Bright Angel trail we saw a guide leading what appeared to be a group of special needs kids along with a middle aged woman wearing leg braces and using crutches. We overheard the guide mention that they were heading to Phantom Ranch. WOW!! After wading through the crowds which included hundreds of young schoolchildren we finally made it to the rim.
Interestingly, Steve led the way to the top! We could only conclude that he had worked himself into incredible shape for the trip or, he was so motivated by the prospect of not sleeping on the ground, not eating freeze-dried food and not spending another night in the tent with me that he cruised up that 3,000 foot climb like it was nothing!
Once we reached the South Rim, the thought of carrying that pack any farther had lost some of it’s allure for me, so, we took the bus to our hotel.
Arrived at the Maswik Lodge in a few minutes where we checked to make sure our box of clean clothes had arrived (it had!), stashed our packs because it was too early to check in and headed over to the lodge’s Pizza Pub for some food and grog! With bellies full, we set out for the El Tovar Lodge and the rim to kill some more time.
Stopped at the hotel lounge for another beer and realized that we were 2/3 of the way through what could be called a “Rim Crawl’, having a beer at every bar on the South Rim. A new challenge that we were more than up to! On the way to that last stop, the Bright Angel Lodge, we walked along the rim, looking across the Canyon at the North Rim in the distance. It felt a lot different looking over the canyon at what we’d done versus looking at what we were about to do. After completing the crawl, we walked the short walk back to Maswik, got ourselves checked in and cleaned up before putting on our snazzy, El Tovar dining room, South Rim duds.
With a little time before our dinner reservation, we followed the well worn path back to the Bright Angel Lodge’s bar and resumed our efforts to maintain a wet whistle. With whistles sufficiently wetted, we were off to dinner which was spectacular!!
Fortunately we had carried warm jackets for walk back on a chilly, October night. Too bad we forgot to bring our headlamps! Thankfully our keen sense of direction got us back to our room without incident. We’d had a full day and turned in without further ado. Our accommodations were quite a bit fancier than the cabin on the North Rim and a good nights sleep on a real bed started as soon as our heads hit the pillow.
Reality arrived at 5 AM in the form of all our phone alarms going off simultaneously. After an uninspired meal that left me longing for a freeze-dried breakfast, we checked out of our room and hiked over to the Bright Angel Lodge for our 7:30 shuttle check-in.
Got on the shuttle at 8 and began the long drive back to the North Rim. We’d walked about 25 miles to reach the South Rim, the drive back is over 200!!
Made it back to the TH and Lil’ Bob, who started right up, at 12:15. Spent the night after a very long day’s drive in Green River, Utah. Pulled into the driveway at home a little over 24 hours after we left the Canyon. All tolled, 1,800 miles, 30+ hours behind the wheel, 24.8 miles and just under 99 hours on foot. And worth every minute of it!!