Last month, my husband, my father, my sister and I hiked the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim.Starting from the North Rim, we took the North Kaibab Trail down and across the canyon floor, 14 miles to Phantom Ranch. We camped at the ranch, then took Bright Angel up the South Rim.
Over the past 15 years, my husband and I have hiked all over North America. We’ve hiked in Lake Louise, Canada; Yosemite, California; Yellowstone, Wyoming; Zion, Utah; Badlands, South Dakota; Smoky Mountains, Tennessee; and Nueva Vallarta, Mexico. We’ve hiked a lot, but we knew the Grand Canyon hike was going to be a big deal. I’m not sure we realized, however, how much we would learn from the experience.
Here are some of the lessons I took away from the trails:
Weather – We were all concerned about the weather. Hiking in August can be deadly with temperatures at the bottom sometimes reaching 115 degrees. We lucked out. On the way down, we had good cloud cover. The hottest we saw was 98, and that was brief. On the way up, we ran into Arizona’s monsoon season. It rained about 2/3 of our trip up Bright Angel, and the temperatures stayed in the 70’s. The weather saved us because I’m pretty sure my sister would not have made it out of the canyon if it had been in the 90’s. Which brings me to the next lesson I learned…
Training is everything – I started training in January. Minimum of 20 minutes daily on our elliptical machine. By July, I doing 30-35 minutes on an incline. I was frustrated because I didn’t lose much weight, but when we started coming out of that canyon, I realized what a difference that training had made. I had little problem coming up Bright Angel. My knees got wobbly toward the end, and I was very sore for about 24 hours, but everyone is. My poor sister somehow underestimated the Grand Canyon, however, and she did not train adequately. My husband, my dad and I spent the hike up berating, cajoling, comforting and bribing her up the trail. Thank God for the cool weather or we would have left her down there.
Trail conditions – My husband and I have been on dozens of trails. Some have been rough, some steep, some long, some treacherous. The Grand Canyon trails are all of the above and then some. We had never seen trails that were alternately wet mud, slippery rock, deep sand, high drop-offs, awkward steps the whole way. Twenty-two miles of every conceivable trail condition. Oh, and did I mention the mule poop?
Mules are the poopiest creatures in the animal kingdom – We saw them a couple of times. I was actually surprised at first sight because they look like horses, not burros or donkeys like you see on TV or in movie depictions of the Grand Canyon. They’re lovely to look at, but they poop all over the trails. And it was raining. Need I say more?
Shoes – I will never hike again in anything but Salomon hiking shoes. One of the tutors in the University Writing Center has hiked the Appalachian Trail, and when she learned I was hiking the canyon, she brought in her Salomons for me to try. I worked out in them for a few days and liked them. After hiking the canyon with them, I love them. Light, strong and waterproof, the shoes ensured my feet never gave me a problem. My poor husband wore trail-runners, and the soles were not thick enough to protect the bottoms of his feet from the rocky parts of the trail. My dad wore hiking boots; the wide ankle openings caught rain and sand the whole way up. My sister wore Reeboks which did not give her enough cushion for her knees. Salomons, forever!
Shorts – I may have gotten the shoes right, but I screwed up royally with the shorts. I wore my silky Reebox athletic shorts that I always work out in. I didn’t consider that I would be sweating, rained-on, and walking for hours and hours. My poor thighs were raw by the time we got out. Next time – long cargo shorts like my husband wore!
Wilderness still exists – There are still a few places on this planet where you can’t get a cell phone signal or an internet service provider; the Grand Canyon is one of them. In fact, snail mail is delivered by mule. We sent our kids a postcard from Phantom Ranch. Pretty cool.
Pacing is crucial – Forgetting to eat when you’re hiking in 90-degree heat is a very bad thing. We ate lunch and then didn’t eat until we reached Phantom Ranch. We kept thinking it was right around the corner, and we had dinner reservations, so it seemed stupid to eat. But by the time we got there, my blood sugar had bottomed out. I felt drunk. Not the happy drunk, but the room-is-spinning-I’m-gonna-throw-up drunk. Snacks are good.
The Canyon skews people’s sense of distance – When you’re going up at a 20-degree grade, and the trail is rough and doing long switchbacks, it is very hard to get a sense of distance. Throw in the fact that there are very few mile markers in the Grand Canyon, especially on North Kaibab, and it becomes problematic. Pacing yourself is difficult when you’re not sure if you have 2 miles or 4 miles to go. My sister and my dad ran out of water on the way down because of this. My husband and I neglected to eat. My sister became half-delirious on the way up. Some mile markers would be nice down there. I know the National Park Service has had their budget slashed, but how much would a couple signs cost?
Remarkable individuals – Speaking of the National Park Service, at the Pumping Station on North Kaibab, we met a young ranger named Silas Aiken. He was a remarkable person for several reasons. First, he was raised at the Pumping Station house. His father was an artist and had a contract with NPS. Silas grew up in the canyon; his parents would carry him up and down until he was three years old. Then he had to hike it himself. Second, he had actually met my father 13 years ago, the second time Dad hiked the canyon. My dad remembered his father, who is a well-known painter; Dad also remembered Silas because he had been handing out Gatorade to hikers back then. Now a ranger, Silas has a Facebook page even though he doesn’t have internet access most of the time.
Light pollution sucks – We see so few stars in the city. We camped at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon. The night was clear, so we didn’t put our rain fly up. We fell asleep looking up at the entire Milky Way.
Phantom Ranch has great food – Of course, any food tastes fantastic when you’ve just finished hiking 14 miles in a desert canyon, but the salad was fresh and had every vegetable you can imagine. The beef stew was hearty and perfectly seasoned, and the chocolate cake was sinful. And for the first time since I was a little girl, I did not feel guilty about eating every bite of that dessert!
It’s a small world after all – At Phantom Ranch, we met a man from the east side of Indianapolis. His daughter still lives in Fishers, a suburb to the north of Indy. We also met a very nice couple from Chicago, and we talked with them about the Bears/Colts rivalry. We also told them about the White Sox/Yankees game we would be attending later that month. They were happy to hear we were Yankees fans rather than Sox fans. (They loved the Cubbies.)
Colorado River – The little green line you see at the bottom of the canyon when you’re standing on the rim? Yeah, that’s one big, bad river. It is wide, and it is wild.
My dad is my hero – My father is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. This was my father’s fourth time hiking the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim. You would never know it unless you asked him or one of his very proud daughters or wife told you. He has done some remarkable things. Quietly. He’ll be happy to tell you about it if you ask, but you could say, “Hey, we’re going to the Grand Canyon next week,” and my father would not take the opportunity to bring up his accomplishment. This was very likely his last time to do it, and he got even quieter than usual on the way up. I asked up if he was okay, and he admitted to being a little sad. “Probably the last time I’ll get to see this,” he said. He turned 70 about a week after he got home from Arizona, and he’d promised my mother he wouldn’t try it again because she worries too much. But the canyon is in his heart, and I couldn’t be prouder to be his daughter.