Written by Brian Burnham of Cirque Productions, Creators of TREK – A Journey on the Appalachian Trail
Browsing through my photo albums from over a decade of traveling and adventuring I found great scenery and memories from my hikes on the AT and bike travels out west…..but one glaring hole really jumped out at me. I had never been to Arizona, and therefore had never hiked an icon of the Great American West, The Grand Canyon. I had to remedy this blemish on my trekking resume, so I checked my frequent flier miles and called my AT hiking buddy Max in Tucson to get things rolling.
Max is always down for some hiking but wouldn’t let us just leisurely stroll down to Phantom Ranch and enjoy the desert scenery. He wanted to push things just a bit and attempt a Rim-to-Rim Hike, which entails hiking 24+ miles including over 7000 ft of descending one rim and then 7000 ft of climbing the opposite rim at the end of the day. Even though Max is a professional Tucson fireman, who trains everyday and is in far better shape than I am (he thinks), I agreed to give it a shot.
Hiker overlooking the Grand CanyonOur trip was scheduled for the first week of November, so heat and crowds wouldn’t be even a consideration. We strolled into the backcountry office to register and grab some permits. Overcrowding wasn’t an issue, but the ranger did question our sanity for attempting a Rim-to-Rim hike. As a policy they discourage hiking to the Colorado River and back in one day, let alone across the entire Canyon. He reiterated his point by saying each year they helivac over 250 people out of the Canyon at 10K a pop, and countless people die hiking out from heat stroke or exhaustion. We’re still young, invincible, and stupid though so we didn’t listen to the guy that only worked there, and we set out on our journey.
Unlike most natural wonders that you can see coming a long way off, the Grand Canyon kind of sneaks up on you. You feel like you’re in the middle of desert flatlands right up to the point where the Canyon sweeps open in front of you. Its hard to imagine how deep and grand the Canyon actually is. I think of the highest peak in my home state of North Carolina, Mount Mitchell soaring to over 6600 feet, and how it would fit inside the canyon with some room to spare. The weather was perfectly clear, and November granted us cool and crisp days for hiking. I knew the only way to truly see and understand the magnitude of this place was to get down into it, so we set off down the South Kaibab trail en route to Phantom Ranch.
Four hours and an unbelievable amount of switchbacks later we rolled into camp. As I assessed how tired my legs were I couldn’t help thinking that that was the easy part, and getting out was going to be quite a challenge. Hunger soon took my mind off such matters, and Max and I set camp in the sparsely populated ranch at the bottom of the Canyon. A quart of pasta went down pretty smoothly and we strolled to the ranger station for a bit of evening entertainment. We enjoyed an incredible lecture about the history and making of the canyon that dated back to its formation millions of years ago, and also a full history of the building of the park in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corp. I always enjoy a good history lesson, and they always hit home when everything you learn about is right in front of you to see, smell and feel.
With twenty miles in front of us, we got an early start on our second day in the canyon. The trail was cut into the side of the canyon right next to the water, so the first 10 miles of the day’s trek were rather leisurely. We ate lunch in the shade of magnificent cottonwood trees planted by the Civilian Conservation Corp, and the campground at the base of the north rim was absolutely deserted leaving us in complete silence to prepare for our climb out of the Canyon.
We went with the slow and steady philosophy to make it thru the afternoon task. The trail up the North Rim is very similar to its partner in the south. It’s fully exposed with no real vegetation to speak of. It is wide enough for one hiker or mule, so dusty even gaitors struggle to keep your socks semi-clean, and winds endlessly straight up the canyon wall past countless colored layers of history so that you can look straight down and see your tracks from the hours before winding down towards the river. Making sure to stop on the hour for food and water, we slowly but surely wound our way up the switchbacks as the darkness and cold rapidly set in. We were greeted by no one at the top, and had to search for water to make dinner for the night. Finding a place to camp was no issue, so we cooked yet another pot of pasta and watched the last bit of sunlight fade over the far side of the canyon. Torrential rains in the Arizona de sert weren’t high on our concern list either, so we cowboy camped under the stars again. With no lights…. or people for that matter, the stars shown brightly to the horizon on all sides, the temperature plummeted below freezing, and I zipped up the down bag to get some rest for the next day’s 24+ mile Rim-to-Rim attempt.