Hiking the Canyon

I’m not sure why we decided to hike into the biggest natural hole in the world. I guess it was the challenge. Most people glance over the south rim (a few feet from the car park) and get the familiar view of the canyons with pockets of shadows about one mile below. We decided to hike down into those shadows and to do it the hard way too from the north rim. We would have to camp on the canyon floor for two nights. It was certainly going to be an adventure.

It was still dark when we got up – a cold darkness. We had packed up our tent in the black moonless dead of night, hoping we had not left anything behind again. There are only a certain number of places you can substitute twigs for poles on a cheap tent.

Sleepy eyed we drove in our dust splashed little red car along the dirt track road. We passed the deserted ranger station and into the park and arrived at the trailhead in the pink first light. An exhausted hiker appeared out of the trees and collapsed against his car. A weary exhilarated expression spread across his face. We knew it was going to be difficult as we were by no means professional hikers. Gill’s first real hike was going to be a baptism of fire.

We packed all of our stuff (a tent, sleeping bags, water bottles, a stove, enough food for three days and warm clothes) on our backs and set off slowly down the North Kaibab trail. The fifteen mile long Kaibab trail weaves its way downwards from the north rim of the Grand Canyon until it reaches the base of the canyon and then about seven miles later it reaches the Colorado River. It is not the longest trail in the world but the terrain is rough and it is very hot with temperatures in the canyon soaring to unbearable highs. Our badly designed packs were already heavy and precious water leached from our leaky water bottles. We descended very gradually as we unsure of our footing on the loose rocks. The air smelt sweet pine and stale donkey dung, but it was very still with only the occasional hyperactive squirrel foraging against the cold. We warmed up quickly and started into a rhythm.

Two young muscular hikers with big packs panted as they passed us on the trail upwards. Their shoulders were even bent with exertion. We sighed fearfully as we were unfit. Gill got a fright. As we continued to descend we came through the trees and into a clearing where there was a water supply in a silent grove. After a brief respite, we loaded up and continued downward. The temperature rose rapidly as we descended. We went through an arch in the rock and then we could see the magnitude of what lay ahead; sheer rock extended downward for thousands of feet on one side of the trail. I jerked into a vertiginous response and looked at the ground. Gill was getting worried about her knees and was slowing up more and more. We were both determined we were going to do this.

The sun hit the rocks above us as we climbed down through the layers of historic rock. Occasional clumps of flowers clung to the side of the shady trail, which we could see wind through crevices way below. Some day hikers passed us speedily spiralling downwards. This did not comfort us even though we realised they had much lighter loads.

We continued down layers of limestone, shale and sandstone that were layered on top of one another in ancient times.  We left Permian, Devonian and Cambrian rock way above our heads. After about four hours hiking we arrived at Cottonwood Camp and lay down on the rocks in a shady grove under the pines. Our sandwich lunch provided us with sustenance. Gill slept for an hour or so.  The rushing water of the river soothed our weariness. We still had a long way to go that day but knew that the most difficult part of the hike was over.

We were in the canyon proper now and we just had to walk along the base of the Bright Angel Canyon for about 7 miles to get to the river. After a few hours rest and a bite to eat we started to walk.  We were lucky in that the weather was quite cloudy and cool. The walk took us over a ridge and then we started to go through canyons and the river that had helped create the canyons rushing alongside and below.

The trail crisscrossed the river and wandered through a marsh and finally twisted through a narrow canyon and reached a plateau and Phantom ranch. In a surreal moment, we met two strollers who passed us unfriendly with heads down just before we arrived. They were obese and very unfit looking; we knew we were close and thought simultaneously — poor donkey.  Phantom ranch is the most out-of-place motel environment in the US.  We moved through quickly to the campsite where at least we felt we were at one with those who had also pushed their bodies to the extreme. We set up camp and then we ate our gourmet meal of risotto with fresh vegetables. Food takes very good when you carry it on your back for a day. Even instant coffee does.

We walked to the Colorado River about half a mile along the trek and Gill crossed to the center of the bridge. My vertiginous attitude to life kept me on the bank. I didn’t like the swaying in the strong breeze effect. We were very tired and slept very well. The next morning we started on our way back to the campsite.

Orange and black together normally mean warning and when they are in slither form on a snake that warning is real. We were subsequently told it was a coral snake. It may not have been, but if it was then we came close to one of the most deadly snakes in the US. With the orange and black warning sign on its back it slithered off. We sighed with relief and my phobia returned to that hidden part of my mind where we all store our fears.

The walk back to Cottonwood Camp was a nice comfortable hike and we arrived in good time to set up camp and have a long rest before the big one up the hill the next day. In the afternoon, an impressive thunderstorm started and it continued well into the night. The tent started to leak in all directions. We were worried we wouldn’t be able to prepare any food when we most needed the fuel for the next day’s exertion. We had planned to leave at three in the morning. It was a sleepless night of anticipation and we woke around two. After a breakfast of muesli bars, we packed up our tired tent and set off one torched in the north rim direction. Progress was very slow with washed mudslides obscuring the trail and the difficulty of being with a minimum of light hindering our progress. One of us had to walk in the dark and invariably it was Gill as I am a notorious stumbler. We arrived at the first water stop after about an hour. Torchlights snaked up the trail behind us until we were joined by four other hikers. Two couples, of Polish descent, now resident in Chicago, asked us if we wished to join them. It started to downpour again and progress was really laboured. After about 20 minutes it eased off and we started to move slowly up the soggy trail. It rained on and off intermittently for about two hours. It was much easier in a group with the extra torches lighting up the path.

Then almost suddenly the light came and we could see a pink tinge to the overhead blackness as we climbed up higher and higher. The rain held off and the wetness of the ground hung in the air. We left our companions behind as we quickened our pace with confidence. We took brief respites to feed our bodies with muesli bars, oranges and water flavoured with some insipid isotonic powder that we had saved for this last push.  We were lucky in that it was cool in the early morning and we were not losing much water. We were racing against time as in the heat of the late afternoon this would have been an almost impossible climb.

Day-trippers started to appear in droves and we knew we were not too far away. Then the donkeys appeared heavily laden with prime American human beef. Fattened with their sartorial wealth, they were smug in the knowledge they didn’t have to try to hard to push the reluctant aching muscles of the servile animal downward. We were getting very close and our bodies were punishing themselves in that knowledge. Then suddenly we saw the carpark and we were there. We looked around us and stared at our car in disbelief. Too tired for any shouts of joy we both shared the one thought and desire – shower. We couldn’t believe we had made it so soon even though it had been six and half hours since we had left the campsite.

Getting There

The south rim of the Grand Canyon (road open all year long) is about four hours drive from Phoenix, Arizona and about six hours drive from Las Vegas, Nevada. The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is more isolated and is six hours drive from the South Rim (even though it is only ten miles straight across) and the road is only open from Mid October to May. There are few accommodation facilities at the North Rim and you will have to camp.


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