What started as a crazy Grand Canyon notion among an assorted group of empty nesters, mid-lifers, one twenty-something, and an eleven-year-old from Northern Virginia became a collective reality, and a substantial Southwestern adventure accomplishment for me and my son back in 2014.
All I wanted to do was take my youngest child–on the precipice of becoming a teenager–on a memorable, somewhat significant trip. In all honesty, I had never heard of hiking the Grand Canyon from rim-to-rim, and I certainly never imagined doing it in one day. The more conventional experience is to hike down to the famed Phantom Ranch, spend a night or two camping at the bottom of the canyon, and then hike out to the North Rim. Instead, we were going to hike from one rim to the other in one day
Ranging in age from 11 to 62, our group of 15 men and women, and one child hiked the rim-to-rim in 2014. This undertaking includes 23.4 miles, 11.5 hours, 7 miles down the South Rim, 9 miles across, and 7 vertical, winding miles up and out to the North Rim. Weather conditions can make any crossing experience vastly different and more-or-less extreme from one day to the next.
This isn’t a hike recommended by park rangers, I assume because hikers so frequently misjudge hydration and fitness needs even for the shorter hikes, and become stranded. Indeed, not long after we attempted this hike the National Park Service made similar hiking groups acquire a Special Use Permit in order to attempt a rim-to-rim in a group of this size. You’ll see online that some websites specifically discourage rim-to-rim hiking, while others promote ultra-style, rim-to-rim-to-rim runs of the canyon, and the like. All I can tell you is, as we began our ascent up to the North Rim, we passed a tiny helipad, and minutes later a small aircraft took off with a woman who had reportedly broken her ankle. The risks and logistics are real, and the rescues difficult, not guaranteed, and expensive.
That said, we too had a new hip in the group, knees that needed replacement, tendinitis, tight IT Bands, lower back issues, poison ivy, and blisters. In fact, my son had been rushed to an urgent care after landing in Phoenix two days earlier because of a sudden ear infection. So, while we were a tough, conditioned group–most of whom met via a 6a.m., all-year-round, outdoor, boot camp–we had plenty of potential health issues that could have become an issue at any point.
An Early Start
The day of the hike started at 4:40 AM when we all met outside our South Rim cabins to catch the shuttle to the South Kaibab Trailhead, the shorter, but more steep way down. It was an ideal 38˚F. We were told no water is guaranteed on these trails until you hit the bottom, so everyone carries their own. We paused at the start of the trail in the company of other hiking groups heading out for adventures of their own.
By the time we reached the bottom the temperature could reach 90˚F or higher, but we were lucky and these extreme conditions didn’t materialize on this late May day. However, there was a little lightning as we hiked, another regular threat, but it stayed well in the distance. (Distance being a relative term on foot and within the Grand Canyon.) We each also carried a change of clothes and toiletries for when we reached the North Rim Lodge, which seemed more like a dream as the day progressed and the miles underfoot accumulated.
We marveled at the awesome natural spectacle of the early morning canyon, the tips of the layered, red rock walls painted with a warm glow of sunlight as our feet and toes hammered down the well-traversed, sometimes stepped trail, spattered by mule dung and giant, puddles of vaporizing mule urine that by the time we reached the North Rim functioned as smelling salts for at least one in the group–me. I can only imagine how more intense this smell would have been on a hot day.
As we descended, the excitement grew as we caught the first glimpses of the distant, calm, emerald green portion of the Colorado River we would soon cross on the heavy gauge wire and plank suspension bridge.
We stopped and ate the boxed lunches at Phantom Ranch, which we’d pre-arranged via the National Park Service system. Some of us soaked our feet in the super cold water of the nearby stream, which was a mistake I would later regret.
Rain, thunder and lightning could not dampen the group spirit as we headed towards our last break at the encampment called Cottonwood early in the long 5400 foot climb up the North Kaibab Trail. The average grade is 21%. We took only two extended breaks during the day to eat and use the rustic, hole in the ground bathroom facilities, and limited our time at these spots. We wanted to finish in daylight, but were prepared with headlamps if we didn’t make it in time. We nibbled on trail mix and various incarnations of jerky. We continued to be amazed by the grandeur of the canyon at every turn, but more and more our gazes remained on our feet, and the strikes of the hiking poles getting deeper as we began the long climb out.
As the Day Wore On
While we stopped and posed for photos frequently on the way down, this activity became an unnecessary use of valuable time and energy on the climb out. I had developed a few blisters, and the pounding of my toes within shoes not quite sized right had started taking a toll. At least that was the slightly dehydrated thinking that was going through my brain. The camera mounted on my forehead was beginning to chafe the skin as it bounced up and down, but that pain was nothing compared to the one manifesting in my feet and thought process. I had long since packed away my Nikon D7000. I took only two photos on the climb out, while being chided by the climber sporting a new hip for not taking in all the scenic points behind me. I was in too much pain. Plus, I failed to dry my feet completely after soaking them in the stream earlier, which spurred the hot spots developing. During some relentlessly steep stretches and endless switchbacks my breathing sounded as if I had just completed a series of wind sprints. “I was in better than average shape.” I was saying to myself, “And this climb is kicking my ass!” Thinking back, I was probably carrying too much water and too much camera gear, AND had spent too much time making sure my son was eating and drinking enough.
We spent a glorious night at the North Rim Lodge. I couldn’t tell you what I ate that night. The dining room overlooks the canyon. We could see the lights of the South Rim as nighttime came. My son fell asleep at dinner, the table served as his pillow. We woke the next morning to the full scale glory of a sunrise at the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.