Well friends, it was August. I strapped 27 pounds of stuff to my back, walked into the Grand Canyon and back out the other side. Some of the time, it was really hot.
Here is the long story:
For the last few years, my dad, sister, brother and I have gone on a backpacking trip somewhere really neat. This time my dad was in charge, and he had a bold vision from the top of his bucket list: hiking the Grand Canyon, rim to rim to rim.
We each put in for the lottery for a cabin and dinner at Phantom Ranch, at the bottom of the canyon near the Colorado River, and when it came time for August winners, turns out we all won! (We won the chance to pay for it, btw, it wasn’t free, it’s confusing.) How about that! No reason for the lack of competition there that I could think of! August it is!
This is the second backpacking trip I’ve ever bothered to train for, because I was really very anxious about it. Maybe one reason was the multiple paragraphs attached to every email to NPS that went a little something like this:
Note: Your proposed hike is considered to be a very strenuous hike and is not recommended by our office. That day of your trip would involve hiking 14 miles in one day with 6,000 feet of elevation change. We rate this as excessive and encourage you to revisit your plans. If you are highly experienced at Grand Canyon and determined to keep this particular itinerary, a permit can be issued to you.
Stuff like that. We were not highly experienced at the Grand Canyon! We have never hiked in the desert in our lives! The last time I ascended 6,000 feet in a day was one of the most difficult days of my life, and it was not hot that day! But OK!!! Did you know that August is also monsoon season? That means thunderstorms! Hahahaha
Another thing I did to prepare was remove my glorious curls. My friend Nick did this for me after I’d had like, six units of alcohol with my friend Brian. Thanks Nick and Brian!
Got up early, hungover, and flew to Las Vegas to meet the my dad and sister. Steve had to drop out of the trip because he hurt his foot. He’s getting better now. We missed him.
Marisa checked our rental car for damages with the most attention I’ve ever seen paid to that task, and then we hit the road. Well, we stopped at In-N-Out and then we hit the road. We stopped at Hoover Dam for a “hike” up some stairs to the Hoover Dam Bypass. Getting out of the car was like stepping inside a hot blow dryer. We asked people coming down the stairs if the view was worth it. That thing has bronze plaques with pie charts on them celebrating that they finished the project on time and under budget! It’s something else.
As we drove into Williams, Arizona, we saw a man kneeling in the road at a woman’s feet, with another person holding a camera. It took me a minute to decide he was proposing marriage and then another minute to realize no, he was taking a picture with the Route 66 logo painted on the street.
We stocked up on Pedialyte powder, Cheetos, tuna, and spray sunscreen for my newly vulnerable skull, and got Marisa a lucky slice of grocery store cake. I’d booked us a “glamping” yurt another 30 miles closer to the canyon. This was maybe not worth the time we saved, as it had an outdoor shower and composting toilet (if you are unfamiliar, this means “a paint bucket you throw sawdust into when you’re done”). It turned out that the wooden bench built around the bucket to make it better resemble a real toilet just … fell apart when you put any weight on it. That was hilarious! The owner came by within minutes and swapped it for a functional frame and all was well again.
We tucked in around 9 p.m. for an early start. The yurt had a lot of bugs in it. It was warm, and we heard thunder. We heard coyotes.
Up early to try to swoop a first-come, first-served campsite inside Grand Canyon National Park, and to pick up our Back-Country Permit. The ranger’s attitude was less the low-grade panic of the NPS emails and more a “well, it’s not the best time to do this, but” thing. His equanimity (resignation?) was honestly comforting.
As we settled up, three young, healthy people in their 20s tumbled in, having hiked up from the canyon bottom that morning. That gave my dad more confidence, I think (after all, it only took them 5 hours), but I know that I am not 20 years old, so.
The rest of the day we wandered around Grand Canyon Village, a place abuzz with fresh-looking tourists. A blessed ranger gave us a site at Mather Campground, as close as we could get to the trail head. Nearly every worker and resident within 50 miles of the park casually mentioned the many times they had completed the rim-to-rim hike, in better weather and with a lighter pack. Cool!
Later we went back to the back-country office weigh our packs, water and all — no one had more than 30 pounds. Here is where I could write at length about my **GEAR** philosophy (anxiously paring down ounces, then whimsically adding half-pounds) but that’s very boring to most people reading this.
We got some souvenirs, ate mediocre park concession food, played games, read, and turned in just after sunset. It was warm. It rained a little bit. The thunder rolled.
Monday | South Rim to Phantom Ranch via South Kaibab Trail (7.2 mi, 4,780 feet down)
We woke up at 3 a.m. to break camp, eat some bananas, and suit up for the 4 a.m. shuttle to the trail head. The shuttle also carried two solo hikers and a couple from Minnesota, all in high spirits (with their day packs). They asked us our trail names and we gave one to the French solo hiker (“Rulebreaker,” because he had tried to take his coffee on the bus.) It’s hard to get a good “start of hike” picture before dawn.
We had two things on the agenda for the day: get down to the Colorado River and eat a steak at Phantom Ranch. Hiking by headlamp, we watched our feet. Marisa is afraid of heights and objected anytime my dad or I turned our heads to look out and below us, the light following. We’d descended to the top of the Coconino sandstone layers by dawn — still a little dark for a photo shoot at a place called Ooh Ah Point, but dramatic to the naked eye. Did you know that Coconino sandstone is made from the remains of a gigantic wind-blown dune known as an erg, and it’s apparently a huge deal for creationists vs. geologists? Those are the two things I know so now we’re even.
The sun was peeking out by the time we made it to Cedar Ridge, where we chatted with the mule drivers bearing our steaks, potatoes, Tecates and cake mix down the canyon. They were for real wearing chaps and cowboy hats. They had time to make it to the bottom, unload, turn around, load up with trash and postcards, and come back up before we made it down. Not that I was there to race mules.
At ominously named Skeleton Point, the trail stops messing around and is just blasted out of the rock. You can see the holes where the dynamite was. Bright Angel Trail is the other one that gets you down to the bottom, but for a long time, it was run by a private citizen with mining claims who charged a toll and made a bunch of money. I guess this made NPS mad, so they built South Kaibab two miles shorter (though without a single water source of any kind, and no shade at all) to compete.
With the sun up, we kept heading down to the Tipoff. There were at least 65,000,000 switchbacks and I bless every one of them. By 9 a.m., somehow my knees and toes were in good shape, I still had a bit of water, and we got a brief glimpse of the silty Colorado below. It felt pretty far down because it, in fact, still was (we had 1,520 feet to lose in 2.6 miles ha ha ha!)
I first lost it on the bridge above the Colorado River. The trail had flattened out completely, we were in sight of shade and water, and a canteen that sells lemonade. But my breathing was shallow and short, my face turned bright red, and my brain got fuzzy. I kept trudging (truly, trudging) until Bright Angel Campground just across the river, where my dad and sister made me sit down and splashed water on my face.
Then they hiked up to Phantom Ranch to see about our accommodations for the night and I sat there blinking dumbly for a little while. I gained the presence of mind to take off my boots, socks and pants and put my entire body in the creek, letting the tiny fish bump into me. I almost instantly felt better, and soon they were back with ice-cold lemonade. It was 10 a.m.!
Dinner wasn’t for seven hours, so we had time to kill. The Phantom Ranch canteen sold me a Tecate, which I drank s l o w l y in the swamp-cooled air (still probably about 95 in there though). I wrote a few postcards (CARRIED BY MULE). We made ramen (I believe MSG is an electrolyte) and I spilled half mine on the ground. A squirrel slurping up the noodles with his tiny hands provided much amusement later.
We got access to our cabin in the afternoon and tried to nap, but even with a real air conditioner it was oppressive in our tiny home. Meanwhile, of course, it got hotter and hotter outside, and cicadas made a racket. Later another camper showed us a picture of the thermometer outside the campground — 140 in the sun. I took a picture of her picture and it’s one of my favorites.
The best thing to do was get back in the creek. I will love that creek for the rest of my life.
At 4 p.m. we attended Ranger Brendan’s talk, and Marisa won us prizes with her knock knock joke. Dinner was hearty and endless, we sang “happy birthday” twice (to half the Minnesota couple, in part), we showered (and I gossiped with the other half while waiting), and then attended Ranger Brendan’s night time talk on lizards and snakes. We learned a lot and it came in handy later! Plus he had black lights to show us scorpions!
My calves were really sore from the time we got to the Ranch. This felt like a pretty normal thing, because it was just day one and I had done the same motion all day with no variation really. Later I was told that my calves were so sore because I was walking correctly (that is, protecting my knees and toes). With this experience now a week distant in my memory I declare the safety of my knees and toes a win. But I never really got into “trail shape” after that day.
Tuesday | Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood Campground via North Kaibab Trail (7.2 mi, 1,600 feet up)
Up well before dawn again, this time to get through “The Box” as soon as we could. The Box is some very dark schist in a narrow canyon that is famous for holding in heat for hours and hours. It’s functionally an oven. We’d been warned about it by just about everybody. God bless the coffee Phantom Ranch set out at 3 a.m. for the hikers heading through it well before dawn. I had that and plain tuna for breakfast, bid goodbye to the sheets and chairs and running water, and off we went into the night.
As the sun came up we saw the pink-and-black swirl of Vishnu schist and Zoroaster granite in macro and micro. It reminded me of Hot Topic?
We followed a creek much of the way, though often it was tantalizingly out of reach through thick reeds or down a steep four or five feet. I stopped to wet my shirt and bandanna as much as often as I could. I wasn’t handling the heat as well as my family — even at 4 a.m. it was as hot as Oakland ever gets.
I gripe about night hiking (I’M HERE TO SEE THINGS) but watching first light filling the inside of an otherworldly pink canyon was really something. This part of the trail had plenty of water, so we started to see cottonwoods, reeds and some delicate wildflowers, along with the cacti you’d expect from cartoons.
The canyon finally opened out, and we were covered by clouds! The Great Uncomformity, site of one billion years of missing geology! For me, this part of the hike felt endless. It was largely flat, but my calves complained at anything that wasn’t an incline. It was like that feeling that wakes you up in the middle of the night with a leg cramp — every time I put my foot down. I was anxious about being not even halfway done (per rim to rim to rim, making it out the North Rim would be 50%) and feeling as bad as I did. I hiked well behind my dad and sister (she was singing “The Song That Never Ends” to pass the time, which is a crime almost beyond mentioning) because I was in a bad mood.
We plunged into camp by noon, where my dad immediately a) walked into a cottonwood tree, giving him a shallow but bloody head wound and then b) walked into a cactus, collecting spines all over his legs. It took him and my sister at least half an hour to pull them out. I was busy reading or something.
Lunch was mashed potatoes and Cheetos. This campground had a sign with lots of good advice, including “eat double your normal intake of carbs.” We had a good laugh at this idea.
Ranger Brendan had told us about lizards who do push-ups. We saw so many of them, including one who lurked just outside our campsite. Marisa somehow had the energy to challenge them with push-ups of her own and worked hard to get a Boomerang of them doing it.
We spent the rest of the day sitting in the creek, reading, napping, doing puzzles, and throwing a plastic bottle into a small waterfall to see where it would pop out. (This last game filled hours).
I was hobbling awfully, enough that I thought I’d pulled a muscle. Any uphill felt like a relief, so taking the stairs to the outhouse felt therapeutic. My sister tried to roll out my calves with her water bottle and I screamed bloody murder into a pile of clothes while my dad laid quietly reading two feet away. Luckily the only way out was up.
By now, I was really worried about repeating the feat in reverse (meaning, hiking up, then down again, then up again — the original plan). Some hikers we met doing rim-to-rim in a day mentioned the shuttle from North Rim to South, said it was $85 or so, and that sealed the deal. I had one day of hiking left.
My dad knew he wanted to complete the entire original plan, but he was starting to think about day-hiking it instead. Marisa decided she’d go with because he needed supervision. I said I’d take their heavy stuff on the shuttle and tried not to worry.
We decided we didn’t need to be up until 5 a.m. the next day, and turned in a little later. A final dip in the creek made sleeping seem possible (it was 88 when we turned in); being really tired helped. It rained overnight, cooling it off just enough for me to have some rare and precious uninterrupted camp sleep.
Wednesday | Cottonwood Campground to North Rim via North Kaibab Trail (6.8 mi, 4,161 feet up)
My mood had improved markedly Wednesday morning. I woke up a little sad and anxious about deciding to “quit,” but really, I am glad this day was entirely uphill, and I am glad that at the end of it, I was done.
North Kaibab Trail is a wonder. The switchbacks are humane, the water stops are frequent, and the views of waterfalls and rock walls are gorgeous, and you hike through “every ecosystem to be found between Mexico and Canada” (a statement from an NPS handout). This trail was built to replace one that had crossed Bright Angel Creek 94 times, which sounds like a nightmare for trail maintenance!! We crossed the creek less than half a dozen times instead.
We had enough light to see; I turned back every so often to look at what I’d accomplished (and say goodbye, since I wouldn’t be hiking back down). We stopped for a second breakfast around 8 a.m. (more Cheetos and tuna straight outta the pack).
This day was not easy, as much as I preferred hiking uphill. Trailing the group never feels good, and I’d been doing it for three days. I put on music which blared gently from the brain of my pack and sang under my breath. I walked and sweated and looked around me and breathed. We had cloud cover, too, which was such a blessing.
We saw a snake on this trip! It was a pink rattlesnake and it did not care about us one bit, hanging out in dynamite-blasted rock face. About a mile up the trail from this, we crossed Redwall Bridge, with more and more day hikers passing us in either direction. Half an hour after crossing the bridge, we heard a rumble behind us. At first we thought it was people goofing off on the bridge but it was much too loud — it was a rockfall!! We watched boulders the size of a washing machine seem to just unlatch from the wall of the canyon above the trail we’d hiked not long before, and tumble down and down. Of all the catastrophizing I’d done for this trip, none involved “crushed in a rockfall,” which just goes to show ya.
We were nearly to the top when we met a couple day hiking down to Supai Tunnel for the view. They stopped to eat sandwiches while we re-wetted our shirts and hats for the last three miles. When we asked the Volunteer Ranger Sean if there was a shuttle from the trailhead to the lodge, he started describing a 2-mile bridle trail and we were crestfallen. The couple overheard this exchange and offered to shuttle us themselves. They passed us not long later, assured us they’d be waiting at the top, and cheered us on. I cried a little with gratitude.
When we made it to the top I nearly burst into tears. All that stopped me was Volunteer Ranger Sean and our heroes, who threw our packs in their trunk and let our dusty, sweaty selves pile in. They gave us a real gift: actually being done walking at the trailhead.
We checked into our little cabin, this one with two restaurants, a saloon, a post office and a gift shop nearby. I hobbled around buying stamps and beers and reading while the other two napped and called loved ones back home. I bumped into Volunteer Ranger Sean and he invited me to join him and a friend on the patio. He lent me his binoculars to show me points on the trail I’d hiked down before down just two days before, and passed me chunks of Parmesan and fresh, cold radishes. Another hero in our midst.
I retrieved Marisa and dad before dinner, as we watched a thunderstorm drench the canyon. It rained steadily for a few hours, cooling the air. They went to bed early — up at 3 a.m. again for the long hike out — and I sat under the awning watching the rain for a while longer.
Thursday | North Rim to South Rim via Transcanyon Shuttle (213 miles)
I blindly said goodbye to Dad and Marisa well before dawn, then went back to sleep without an alarm. Vacation!
I had opted for the 2 p.m. shuttle rather than 7 a.m. since I’d never been to the North Rim before and I wanted the opportunity to look around. Well, I was up by 6 a.m. and made all the coffee-pod coffee they had in the room while reading and savoring easy access to running water and clean sheets. Then I hobbled out to Bright Angel Point (a half-mile hike), talked with the native craftspeople there, got confused about the time (when my phone switched to a Navajo cell tower), chatted up a cute ranger, had a beer, had lunch, read a book, then ran out of things to do.
Shuttle’s here! It was a 4.5-hour ride with four new friends who were about to do what I’d just done. The driver told me all about his off-grid home, what he could and couldn’t grow in his garden, coyotes, monsoons, water rights … you know, 4.5 hours of conversation. On the way he predicted my dad and sister would make it to the top before we did.
And they did! Marisa called me when we were still 10 minutes out. The shuttle driver, an actual angel, picked them up, congratulated them, and took us all the way to the bumper of our rental.
Have you ever been so hungry and so tired that you can barely move your mouth to chew and you just want to cry instead? Dad had a burger.
We ended up back in Las Vegas, which is a weird place, and even weirder after you’ve been shitting in buckets for a week.
Lessons learned: “The transcanyon shuttle is the best $90 money can buy.” — Miranda
“Cheetos are amazing, and if you’re gonna go on a side hike, make sure you know how to get back to the trail” — Marisa (ask her for details on this!!)
“Stretch the calves. Don’t bump into cacti and watch out for low-hanging branches.” — Dad