Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim: August 2001
The Grand Canyon is one of those hiking destinations one never gets weary of. After hiking the South Kaibab/Bright Angel loop in 1991, I vowed to return to the Canyon and hike it again. In 1991, I was fairly new to hiking and made a lot of mistakes during the trip which I felt made the hike not as enjoyable as it could have been. I didn’t have the proper clothing, didn’t drink enough water, drank too much beer at Phantom Ranch, etc. Otherwise, I never forgot the Canyon and knew I should someday return to do it right. .
For years I had told my wife, Jackie, the story of my hike in 1991, and about the mistakes I had made. She told me one of her goals in life was to hike the Canyon rim-to-rim. We immediately began planning and making reservations. As most people know who hike the Canyon, the logistics involved can be overwhelming. With permits, reservations, etc., this can be a daunting task. Luckily, I had been down this road before and knew what to do. So...with reservations for a hotel in Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon Lodge, dinner at the lodge, Phantom Ranch, and the rim-to-rim shuttle, we were set. Our plan was to hike the Canyon rim-to-rim from the north rim down the Kaibab Trail to Phantom Ranch, then hike out on the Bright Angel Trail to the south rim, a total of 23 miles. Its better to do this trip from north to south due to the north rim being 1500 ft higher than the south rim.
After a 12-hour drive and an overnight in Flagstaff, we arrived at the south rim to meet our shuttle. The north rim shuttle only runs once a day and costs $65.00/person. It’s a 16-passenger van and is almost always full. After storing all our gear on top, off we go for the three-hour drive to the north rim. Remember . . . everything you take to the north rim in the shuttle, you have to carry on your back or wear it on your hike to the south rim. So a little planning is necessary to ensure you don’t take any unnecessary clothes or gear. Of course, being in a van for three hours, you meet all the people you are riding with. The most interesting was the woman who lived at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Mary Aiken and her husband, Bruce, have lived near the bottom of the Grand Canyon in Roaring Springs for 20 years. Bruce is an artist and tends the water pump in at Roaring Springs on the north rim trail. We conversed for three hours while she spoke of raising her three children and life at the bottom of the Canyon.
We arrived at the north rim and Mary was dropped off at the trailhead where she had a five-mile hike to her house. I must say that the north rim of the Grand Canyon is the best kept secret of the park. It’s cooler, quiet, not as many tourons, and just nice. It gets only a tenth of the visitors that the south rim gets and it shows. The extra three-hour drive to the north rim is worth it. After checking in at the lodge, we poked around the shops while waiting for our dinner reservation. With views of the Canyon from our table, salmon fettuccini and a bottle of chardoney topped off a great day. We got to bed early in anticipation of a full day of Grand Canyon hiking.
5:30 a.m. and we’re at the shuttle stop. It’s still dark when we arrive at the trailhead where Mary got off the day before. We exchanged photo opportunities with a couple of other hikers and hit the trail. It was only about 45 degrees and we had our jackets on. It didn’t take long for the Arizona sun to begin peaking over the rim and splash over the east facing walls of the canyon. We descended rapidly down interminable switchbacks and met a few hikers coming up the trail, including a whole troop of Boy Scouts with full packs. Otherwise, we rarely met anyone on the trail.
Roaring Springs is a lush place thick with cottonwoods. Mary Aiken met us at the trail with a glass of lemonade. She’s run a free lemonade stand for years and it was a welcomed site upon arrival. After a chat, we headed off, anxious to get to Phantom Ranch. The day bears on as the sun gets higher and the shade gets scarcer. It’s sometimes hard to think about the heat when the views you have of the canyon surround you. But, it’s about 90 degrees and we began to dip our shirts and hats in the river to keep cool. A slot canyon near the end of the trail proves to be the hottest with temperatures more than 100 degrees. More frequent dips in the river are what saves the day, and we arrive at Phantom Ranch around 1:00 p.m. after a 14-mile hike from the top of the north rim.
Phantom Ranch is a quaint, quiet place. A nice breeze was blowing through the trees and we checked in at the main building. Phantom Ranch is always booked up. You can make a reservation up to two years in advance (which is a good idea). The cabins are the most difficult to get; otherwise, it is the bunkhouse most people get. There is one bunkhouse for men and one for women. Since I had been there before, I knew the routine. After a cool shower and a nap, we were in the main building having a cold one. The main building hosts the family-style dining room, which doubles as a game room, social room, gift shop, post office, and bar. Yes, there is cold beer at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, thanks to mule teams. In fact, everything at Phantom Ranch is brought down by mule. The employees there are proud of their jobs at the bottom of the canyon and only a select few get the privilege of working there. Dinner is a choice between steak and beef stew, either of which must be reserved in advance. There are only so many meals available, so again, book early. The crowd at dinner was an international mix of Americans, Europeans, and Asians. The language was the same . . . hungry. After dinner, we enjoyed a walk by the Colorado River and a nature talk by the rangers. With a full day, a full belly, and full of ourselves, we hit the bunks.
5:00 a.m. and time for breakfast. Phantom Ranch breakfasts are good, but they serve them too late for most canyon-savvy hikers. Smart hikers pack in a cold breakfast to eat and be gone long before the tourists get up and start their mule rides back to the south rim. Getting an early start is essential. With a 11-mile hike and 4400 feet of elevation gain, it’s important to get an early start to avoid the intense heat of the bottom of the canyon. Again, starting in the dark, we are first greeted by a huge suspension bridge over the Colorado River. The trail then meanders along the river until turning south and beginning it’s climb about a couple of miles later. Several miles and a thousand feet later, we take a break and enjoy the views while snapping photos. A change of socks is in order to keep the ol’ dogs dry and blister free. We arrive at Indian Gardens for a much needed rest, lunch, and shade.
Indian Gardens is located on the Bright Angel trail about halfway from the rim to the Colorado River. You can see it from the rim and a lot of people think it is closer than it actually is. There is a ranger station, a couple of other buildings, and more important . . . water. It’s easy to hike down to Indian Gardens . . . but then you have to hike back up. The hike up is a three thousand-foot ascent via dusty switchbacks. I must say it’s the worst part of the hike, not so much for the ascent and switchbacks, but for the tourons that infest the trail. A touron is a combination of a tourist and a moron. This is a person who has no respect for the land, other hikers, the wildlife, or anything else. However, enduring the tourons was a small price to pay for the pleasure of being in the Canyon.
Anyway, we watched touron after touron hike down to Indian Gardens and struggle back to the top constantly complaining that there was no convenience store nearby. The switchbacks are a challenge, but not impossible. There are several shaded rest stops and water available every mile or so. We stopped at one of the shaded rest stops to have a snack. Squirrels abounded and we amused ourselves by watching them scurry around. After getting nipped on the finger unexpectedly, I concluded that the squirrels had probably been fed too much.
We were greeted at the top of the switchbacks by throngs of tourists, looking at us like we were from Mars. We quickly ducked into the restroom for a sink bath and a change of clothes which we had stored nearby in the car. The next hour or so was spent in the bar on the rim drinking beer with one of our trail buddies we had met the day before. Next...a short drive to Flagstaff for a hotel, then the long drive home while reflecting on our adventure.
Unfortunately, a trip like this is nearly impossible to do on the spur of the moment. But, with careful planning, the bureaucracy of a Grand Canyon trip can be overcome. I would consider this a perfect trip, with no hitches in logistics, reservations, or anything. The Grand Canyon was just as beautiful as I remembered it, this time with the added pleasure of enjoying with my wife.
See the same trip report with photos here.