You know how sometimes you just don’t have much to look forward to? Well, in early April I realized that I didn’t really have any cool outdoor adventures to look forward to in the near future. After some brainstorming and research, I decided that a rim-to-rim hike (23.5 miles) in a day of the Grand Canyon would be fun, and I figured that it wouldn’t be as wet and cold there as it is here in northern Utah. Plus I’d never been to the Grand Canyon, even after having lived a half-day’s drive away from it for the last several years.
So I went online and reserved a couple campsites. The plan was to drive down to the north rim of the canyon, camp, wake up very early the next morning, hike all day (from the north rim down to the Colorado River and then back up to the south rim), camp at the south rim, and then the next day take a shuttle bus back to my car on the north rim before driving back home that same night.
I left home at 9:00 in the morning on Tuesday, May 17. The drive to the north rim of the Grand Canyon took about 6.5 hours, including a stop in Kanab, Utah, for a Subway sandwich.
My first reaction when I got to the canyon was that it was kind of overrated. I’ve spent a lot of time rock climbing in southern Utah and have seen a lot of beautiful scenery there. Sure, the Grand Canyon was neat, but was it really *that much* cooler than everything else in the desert southwest?
Anyway, I checked in to my campsite and set up my bivy sack and sleeping bag. I still had several hours until it got dark, so I went to the little store in the campground and read The Scarlet Letter on my new Kindle (there were some tables and chairs in the store). Then I headed back to camp, boiled water for one of those just-add-boiling-water meals, ate, and got into my sleeping bag. That was at 8 pm, though I didn’t fall asleep till 9. It was chilly and got down to about 30 degrees that night.
I woke up to my alarm going off at 2 in the morning. I wanted to give myself as much time to do the hike as I possibly could. I didn’t know if it would take me 10 hours or 20 hours to cover the 23.5 miles to the other side of the canyon.
I packed up my bivy sack, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag (which I had to carry on my day hike because I was planning to camp on the south rim), ate a Clif Bar, taped up my feet to prevent blisters, and drove the mile or so to the trailhead.
I started hiking at 2:40. The descent from the north rim to the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon was about 6,000 vertical feet over 14.5 miles and took about 4.5 hours. The first few miles were comprised of a bunch of steep switchbacks, so I lost elevation quickly. I was using the light from my headlamp to follow the trail, but it wasn’t difficult; the trail was wide and obvious. I passed two small groups of hikers early on in the hike, but didn’t see anyone else for a while.
I passed a couple campsites as it was nearing dawn and turned off my headlamp at about 5 in the morning. At 5:15 I passed a short side-trail that led to a waterfall called Ribbon Falls. As far as I’m concerned, if you’ve seen one waterfall, you’ve seen them all, so I didn’t take the .25 mile side trail. I was able to catch a glimpse of it a few minute later, and while it was indeed pretty, I’m glad I didn’t make the detour.
Now that I could see more of the scenery around me, the hiking grew more interesting. There were beautiful cliffs and jagged buttes (called temples in the Grand Canyon) all around. This is also when my feet started to complain a bit. I wrote in my notebook at 5:16, “Tired.” At 5:40 I wrote, “Toes and ankles hurt.” At about 6 am, the trail went from following along a stream in a wide valley to following it in a narrow gorge. The trail was cut into the side of the cliff. This part of the hike in the narrows continued for what felt like a very long time, but I eventually made it to Bright Angel Camp, a campground at the Colorado River.
Right about then (7:15 am) is when it started to rain. Up until then, the weather had been cool and I’d been wearing a long sleeve shirt over my t-shirt. I crossed the river on a suspension bridge, took some pictures, and then stopped 5 minutes later to eat under the shelter of an overhanging boulder.
I’d only eaten a few energy gels during that first leg of the hike, so I choked down some trail mix and beef jerky. I also took off the long sleeve shirt and poured out some of the extra water I was carrying. I had started the hike with 4 liters of water and still had a 2 and a quarter liters left, 2 of which I poured out. I didn’t want to carry the extra weight, and I knew I could refill my water bottles at a camp a few miles ahead.
The long climb up to the south rim of the Grand Canyon (4,000 vertical feet over 9 miles) really wasn’t too bad. It was raining lightly but steadily, and it didn’t bother me too much. I made good time and kept moving. The trail actually wasn’t as steep as I thought it would be. I’m used to climbing straight up mountains, so a trail out of the canyon was a nice luxury.
I made it to the south rim at 11:10 am, exactly 8.5 hours after leaving the north rim and about 4 hours after crossing the Colorado River. I was really, really happy with my time. This was my first big adventure of the year and I didn’t know how good or bad of shape I was in. Turned out I was still in decent shape, and I was content.
As I was walking the last several hundred feet to the rim, it started to snow. Odd, seeing as how I had chosen to come to the Grand Canyon because I thought it would be warmer and dryer…
The south rim is the more visited of the two rims. As a result, there are all sorts of restaurants, gift shops, lodges, and campgrounds there. It was weird to have so much civilization so soon after the hike was over. Usually I still have to drive out of the mountains for a couple hours before I see that kind of stuff. But in this case I wasn’t complaining, and I scarfed a hamburger, soup, and hot chocolate at the restaurant.
While eating, I realized that it was only about noon. I thought I’d arrive much later in the day, thereby missing the 1 o’clock shuttle bus back to my car at the north rim. But I realized that I could catch the shuttle a day earlier, not have to camp on the south rim (I don’t particularly enjoy camping and I try to avoid it when possible), either drive all the way back home that night or get a motel room somewhere in southern Utah.
So even though I had carried my camping gear down into and back out of the Grand Canyon, I decided to get on that day’s shuttle and forgo camping. The drive took about 6 hours and was relatively uneventful. I spent most of it reading on my Kindle (yes, I had taken it on the hike with me…) and staring out the window at the various cliffs we passed. I did get into a good disagreement with the shuttle bus driver about whether it was possible to climb on some of the cliffs we were passing. Near Lee’s Ferry, Arizona, there are some massive (1,500’+) sandstone cliffs and I commented that I wanted to climb them. He told me the rock was impossible and illegal to climb because it was so rotten. I told him that it looked pretty good (after 15 years of rock climbing and several years of climbing on southern Utah’s sandstone I can tell these things) and that I’ve read about people climbing them. He wouldn’t believe me on either account.
Anyway, I eventually got back to my car. It was covered in snow and the snow was still coming down pretty hard. The 7 hour drive back home (it took longer because it was either snowing or raining the entire way) was long and epic (I could write a couple thousand words just about that), and by the time I’d gotten home and gotten to bed, I’d been awake for 24.5 hours. I’ve done several 20- and 22-hour adventures, but this was my first one that was longer than 24 hours.
The hike was fun. The drive back was epic. All in all, it was another fantastic adventure. Oh, and the view from the south rim is not overrated.