Respecting the RouteI would set aside two months for the journey. I knew that I could probably force a passage through the Canyon considerably faster, but to do so would mean making my journey a battle. And what I wanted, if I could manage it, was something closer to a picnic. Or perhaps I mean a pilgrimage.
from The Man Who Walked Through Time
by Colin Fletcher
It had been over 20 years since I read Colin Fletcher’s The Man Who Walked Through Time, but with less than a week before my Rim to Rim hike in Grand Canyon I decided it was time to pull it off the shelf and read it again. I would be very glad I did!
Despite the fact that this would be my first trip to Grand Canyon, a place I had wanted to visit for many years, for reasons that I couldn’t explain, I never seemed to get excited about going. I was going to be hiking Rim to Rim which should have only made me more excited. But it didn’t! The more I thought about it, I realized the source of the problem was the route itself
My issue was that I just refused to take this route lightly. More stories than not seem to romanticize the challenges of single day Rim to Rim hikes, or better yet, the Rim to Rim to Rim hike. While many of these exploits are physically amazing and sound great, they probably cause some people to underestimate the difficulty of this hike. I refused to join their ranks. With a distance of 24 miles and 4,400 feet of elevation gain, with nearly all of that elevation gain coming in the last seven miles, and add in the possibility of 100+ degree temperatures deep in Grand Canyon, Rim to Rim in a single day is challenging. Late into my day on the trail I would witness firsthand how difficult this route can be.
But with the big day less than a week away I realized I needed to change my focus, so I pulled The Man Who Walked Through Time off the shelf and read it on my flight(s) from Indianapolis to Phoenix. Reading about Colin Fletcher’s 60 day adventure hiking through the entire Grand Canyon raised my spirits. It wasn’t so much inspiration, but the book helped me refocus my attention on what was important to me, which was making sure I made the most of this one day of hiking and to soak in as much of Grand Canyon’s beautiful scenery as possible in a 12 hour window.
I was fortunate enough to go on this adventure because one of my best friends John moved from Fort Wayne, IN to Tempe, AZ just over two years ago, and shortly after moving there he met up with a group of people that hike Rim to Rim every fall. John went with them in 2008 and had invited me to come along but I chose not to go due to some prior commitments. But for the 2009 trip I promised myself that I would make it.
This trip was all preplanned by the group organizer and by no means were we “roughing it”. About all I had to do was show up with my backpack and hiking shoes. All the other details were taken care of. Having everything preplanned actually made me uncomfortable. On most of my hiking trips I am normally the one doing all of the organizing. This left me feeling a little unprepared, as I tend to enjoy sweating the details.
Our bus left Phoenix for Grand Canyon at 7 AM on Thursday and we would spend the night at Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim. We stopped at Marble Canyon for lunch and then made a quick stop at Point Imperial.
We arrived at the North Rim around 4 PM. which was great because it gave me several hours to soak in the views. I was overwhelmed to say the least. John and I headed to Bright Angel Point, a short quarter mile walk on a sidewalk, to catch the sunset. The canyon colors became more and more spectacular as the sun dropped on the horizon.
From this vantage point John was able to point out portions of our route on the North Kaibab Trail, as we had good views down to Roaring Springs Canyon and Bright Angel Canyon.
North Kaibab Trail to Bright Angel Canyon
We were on our bus at 5:30 AM on Friday morning for the transfer to the North Kaibab Trailhead. It was about 5:45 AM and a cool 30 degrees F when we started off down the trail. At first I was concerned that this was too early of a start as it would still be dark, which meant I wouldn’t be able to see the canyon views. When I’m hiking in Colorado I have no problem with a predawn start. I realize the necessity of having to hike in the dark during monsoon season. But this trip was about seeing Grand Canyon! I wanted to soak in every possible view I could in the one short day of hiking that I was allotted. Fortunately I was able to ditch my headlamp less than 15 minutes down the trail. I wouldn’t miss a thing!
John invited his Uncle Dave to come on the trip and the three of us would hike together for most of the day. Our pace was dictated by Dave and this worked out great. Dave’s pace was slow but steady so I went to the back of the line, which allowed me to stop as often as I wanted, to gape at the glorious views in the canyon, and take as many pictures and as much video as I wanted. Due to this John and Dave always seemed to be as much as a ¼ mile in front of me as we descended Roaring Springs Canyon. But with Dave’s methodical pace it was easy to catch up with them.
But this slow pace is what I wanted. I had one day to enjoy Grand Canyon so based upon the estimated 12 hours I figured I would be on the trail I planned on taking things nice and slow and to soak up as much of the canyon’s grandeur as I could in that minuscule amount of geologic time. This “take all day if you can” approach definitely put us in the minority on this route as my general observation about Rim to Rim hikers is that most of them are in a hurry. Most seem to view the route as an endurance contest, and while I do enjoy endurance events, that wasn’t what I was looking for on this short visit to Grand Canyon.
With so many of the hikers moving fast, we were able to get some solitude over the course of the day. Rim to Rim is not a route to hike if you are looking for solitude! There are some trails and summits in this world where if you can get a few brief moments of solitude it is a rare treasure. Rim to Rim is in that club, so my moments away from the crowds were rare, but appreciated. Most all of the North to South hikers were on the trail by 7::30 AM. So for the first few hours of my day there was a steady stream of people passing me at regular intervals. I’m sure well over 100 hikers passed us. We saw fewer hikers the farther we descended into Roaring Springs Canyon, which allowed John, Dave and I to hike alone for a significant amount of time on this portion of the route.
We were still high on the trail in Roaring Springs Canyon when a small feeling of depression came over me. I was thoroughly enjoying this hike, but I had already figured out that a half a day in Grand Canyon would not be enough. I found myself wishing that I had 18 hours of daylight, so I could slow down even more, and enjoy this wonderful experience a little bit longer. I quickly got over this feeling, accepting my one day fate. Grand Canyon would still be here for years to come and I already knew after a few short hours in its depths that I would be back.
Bright Angel CanyonThe solitude in Roaring Springs Canyon ended sometime in Bright Angel Canyon. Shortly after passing Cottonwood Campground, 6.9 miles into our day, we started to run into the South to North hikers. There weren’t nearly as many people hiking in this direction, but there was still a steady stream, and again, most of them were moving fast.
The beautiful scenery we saw while descending Roaring Springs Canyon continued on into Bright Angel Canyon, although the experience was much different looking up from the floor as opposed to down into the canyon. There were several short stretches in Bright Angel Canyon that reminded me a lot of Zion National Park. These were some of my favorite portions of the trail.
Phantom Ranch to Indian GardenWe made it to Phantom Ranch at 1:15 PM, 7 ½ hours into our day. Like I said, we weren’t setting a blazing pace. A few miles before reaching Phantom Ranch I started to feel a little tired and my feet were getting sore, particularly my toes. I picked the wrong shoes for the hike! I made the mistake of wearing my most comfortable pair of running shoes, and while they are great for a long run in the city, they weren’t quite large enough for walking downhill and I ended up with “toe jam”. Crazy as it may sound, I would be glad to start walking uphill. Dave’s pace had slowed prior to reaching Phantom Ranch. This made me nervous as we still had a long day ahead of us and I figured that we wouldn’t reach the South Rim before dark. We took a 30 minute break at Phantom Ranch and everyone seemed to feel much better and our pace quickened as we headed for the Colorado River.
At this point John wanted me to go on alone, so I could make it to the South Rim by sunset. I had the camera and he didn’t want me to miss the beautiful colors on the canyon walls at sunset. With 10 miles of hiking and all 4,400 feet of elevation gain in front of us I told him we still had too far to go and that from a safety standpoint it would be better for us to stick together for the time being. Once we got to Indian Garden we could see how everyone felt and we’d reevaluate the idea at that time.
The climb up from the Colorado River to Indian Garden was beautiful. It was amazing to see the subtle changes in scenery as we ascended. We reached Indian Garden at 5:15 PM. As we approached, Dave started to get more tired and his pace slowed. John told me to head on up the trail on my own, as he was feeling fine and would finish the hike with his uncle. We still had 4.6 miles to go and about 3,000 feet of elevation gain left, but with John feeling good I felt it was safe at this point leaving them behind. I would have to hustle to make the South Rim by sunset but I would give it a shot.
Indian Garden to the South RimI filled my water bottles and then took off from Indian Garden at a very fast pace. I was surprised that I was still feeling so good despite having over 19 miles of hiking in at this point. I’m sure the fact that the thermometer never got above 90 degrees F helped. It easily could have been 10 to 20 degrees hotter and under those conditions I’m sure the day would have been more difficult.
While earlier in the day I had been wishing the day could last longer, after 12 hours on the trail I was getting ready to call it a day. A cold beer at the Lodge sounded pretty good by this time. So now the tables had turned, as I became one of those Rim to Rim hikers in a hurry. While I still stopped to shoot a number of pictures I realized I was no longer enjoying Grand Canyon as I was earlier in the day, and it wasn’t because I was getting tired. It was strictly because of how fast I was moving.
But my race against daylight was all for naught. I did get to see the incredible colors on the canyon walls as I ascended the trail, but by the time I reached the 1 ½ Mile Resthouse it was dark enough that I needed to put on my headlamp so I finished out the last push to the South Rim at a slightly slower pace, finishing around 7:30 PM, making for a long, but still wonderful day in the Grand Canyon.
One Route in Two PartsBut my little race to the South Rim confirmed my belief that this is a route not to be taken lightly. For the first 19 miles John, Dave and I didn’t pass a single hiker, as everyone on the trail was hiking faster than us. But shortly after leaving Indian Garden I started to pass quite a few people. Within our own group, Dave had started to slow down considerably prior to reaching Indian Garden, and it was the same for a few dozen others that I passed between there and the South Rim. Most of these people were just tired and slowed their pace, but there were a few that appeared to be struggling. Not in serious trouble yet, but I worried that serious trouble wasn’t far behind, so I was happy to see the 911 phones available at 3 Mile Resthouse and 1 ½ Mile Resthouse. As I passed people I did stop and ask if they were alright and if they needed any help. As expected, everyone said they were fine, and as they didn’t appear to be in serious trouble there wasn’t anything else I felt I could do, so I continued on up the trail.
I received a text message from John at 10 PM stating that they would be out of the Canyon shortly so I headed over to the bar at Bright Angel Lodge and met them for some dinner and a celebratory beer. The last three miles were very hard for Dave, but other than being tired he looked good and was in great spirits. We sat at the bar celebrating the joys and challenges of the day, rehashing our favorite stories.
Sunrise SunsetWhile I will argue that going Rim to Rim in a single day is not the way to hike across Grand Canyon if you want to enjoy its splendor, I’m not going to promise that I won’t do the route this way again. Overall it was a great way to spend a full day hiking. If repeating the endeavor I would shoot to finish in 12 to 13 hours, which is all the daylight we had in early October. This will still allow for plenty of time to take in the views and for numerous short breaks.
But one day in the canyon just wasn’t enough. By the time we left Phantom Ranch, I had already started formulating a plan for doing the route, along with plenty of off trail hiking as a three day trip. Use day one to hike from the North Rim down to Phantom Ranch, use day two to hike on the Clear Creek Trail and then hike out to the South Rim on day three. This would make for a nice itinerary. On my one day Rim to Rim hike I noticed several side canyons that looked like they would be fun to explore. Besides, I wanted to make the short hikes to Ribbon Falls and Plateau Point as well. A three day trip would allow for some of these extra side hikes and allow me to slow down and not think about continually moving. I could still make three high mileage days out of such a trip, but they wouldn’t be 24 milers! With the cabins at Phantom Ranch and all the water sources available on these trails this could easily be accomplished with a daypack and eliminate the need for a heavy load and backpacking. Getting the reservations at the cabins would probably be the biggest challenge so I assume such a trip would have to be planned well in advance!
After a good nights sleep at the Maswik Lodge, we headed to El Tovar and had a wonderful breakfast and then spent time at the South Rim site seeing. Since it was dark when I exited the canyon I wanted to get a good look at the route out to the South Rim.
Our bus was leaving for Phoenix at 11 AM so I ended the trip by heading to the Maswik Lodge gift shop to pick up my souvenirs, which included the Falcon Guide Hiking Grand Canyon National Park and a Grand Canyon topographic map. I’m definitely planning on coming back, to hike Rim to Rim on a multi-day trip, and to get to some trails that are off the beaten path!