With abundant free time while on holiday break, I decided to head south to the Grand Canyon to enjoy a classic route across the canyon in the cool autumn temperatures.
I took great pleasure in the beautiful drive through central Utah, taking my time and noting several locations which may be good for exploring in the future. Soon, the snow-capped mountains near Brianhead gave way to the red-rock sands of Kanab, Utah. I crossed the border into Arizona and enjoyed a truly spectacular sunset in the hills just above Page, AZ.
I arrived at the southern entrance to Grand Canyon National Park just after dark. While I was chatting with the ranger at the entrance gate, smoke began to pour out from under the hood of my car. Oh no!
I drove slowly into the park. After driving around for a while, trying to get my bearings in the sprawling Grand Canyon village, I eventually found a place to park near one of the lodges and away from the bright streetlights. I enjoyed a quick spaghetti and meatballs dinner in the cafe before throwing my sleeping bag down in the back of the car and settling in for the night.
I elected to run the canyon from the southern rim to the northern rim and back because I wasn’t sure if the northern rim road would be open or closed. (It turns out to have been open.) I chose the traditional route from the southern rim, down the Bright Angel trail to the river and then up to the north rim via the North Kaibib trail. Being so late in the season, this route afforded the most opportunities for water and should be well-traveled with hikers in case of emergency.
I slept surprisingly well and awoke just before 2:00 AM to prepare. I must have made a suspicious site, rolling around in the back of my Subaru in the middle of the cold night, trying to get my cold-weather gear on and pack prepared. Thankfully, nobody came over to investigate.
As I trotted over to the trailhead, I began to worry about the cold air. Would it be even colder on the northern side, which is at an even higher elevation?
As I stood on the canyon rim before beginning, I shone my light downward and beyond the rocks on the trails edge, it simply faded into darkness. Immediately beyond the edge of the steep cliff lay a very, very big ditch full of rocks, water and danger. I took a deep breath, took one last look at civilization and dropped in.
Almost immediately the cold air turned warm and after only a few minutes of running I stopped to stow my gloves and my hat. I was descending quickly into the canyon now. The trail dropped quickly and I ran switchback after switchback as I moved downward. I focused intently on the trail as I ran. Now was not the time to get lazy and miss a turn! That would be a long, long drop down.
I soon passed the 3-mile rest house and the sign below:
Relatively quickly, I reached the plateau on which the Indian Garden sits. I thought this site may not have water, so I initially tried to filter some water from the springs. A few feet later, however, I noticed a faucet. To my surprise, it worked! I dumped out my filtered water and filled both bottles to the brim.
I continued my descent down into the canyon. I could see the lights of the south rim twinkling. It seemed as though they were almost directly overhead, floating a thousand feet above in space.
Soon, I began to hear a dull roar that turned quickly into an all consuming thunder made even louder by its echoes off the canyon walls. I had reached the Colorado River. I was now down in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I was briefly disoriented at the pump house station but regained the trail after some wandering around. I continued along the shoreline trail through some very sandy pieces of trail.
Weirdly, a large blister had begun to form on my right foot. I stopped briefly to shake the sand out of my shoe. It only seemed to hurt on the downhills and so I cleaned my sock as best I could and just dealt with the pain as I motored along.
I soon reached Silver Bridge that stretched out in blackness over the mighty river. As I stepped out onto the bridge, I shone my light downward and could see nothing but a great and dark abyss from which the most incredible sound of power ran.
As I crossed the bridge, it swayed a little bit in the breeze. I don’t like heights one bit and was on high alert, alone in the darkness with the roar of the river somewhere down below me.
Soon, the other side came into view and I gratefully stepped onto the north bank of the river and trotted into Phantom Ranch.
At the ranch, I again found water and refilled both bottles and enjoyed a snack before continuing on.
The ranch was large and I made a few questionable turns as I found my way northward and onto the North Kaibib trail. Soon, I left the lights of the ranch and was making my way up the trail.
As I passed the Cottonwood Campground, the beautiful night sky came into full view. Many thousands of stars shone above, outlined by the steep canyon walls on either side. I saw many shooting stars as I ran, which added to the peacefulness and pleasure of being so deep in the canyon alone at night.
I soon passed the campground and tried to dim my light and stay quiet as I passed, though I’m certain that I must have startled at least a few campers as I came through.
As I passed the caretaker’s cabin, the true climbing began right as the sky began to lighten and the sun came up. Soon, the sky turned pink and purple and the red rock of the canyon walls began to come into view. The trail rose higher and higher and I shifted down from a run into a power-hike for the remainder of the climb. Many times I crossed Bright Angel creek as the trail wound higher and higher toward the canyon rim. I could see the trees on the rim above and though it seemed as though they were only a few hundred feet above, the trail always seemed to hover just out of reach of the rim.
Soon, I reached the Supai Tunnel and resolved to take a short break and enjoy the sunrise. I lay down on the ground and crossed my legs, hung my feet off the side of the cliff and watched the sun come up over the south rim of the canyon, now over twenty miles away. Thousands of feet below below my toes, fog filled the valley above Bright Angel Creek.
Soon, though, I began to shiver and arose to continue the final two miles upward.
Nothing went quickly, though I soon passed a few tourists hiking down from the rim and knew I was close. Finally, I hiked up over the side of the canyon and emerged in the high forests of the North Rim.
I didn’t even take a moment to rest, but immediately turned around and started to descend.
As I ran downward, my spirits improved tremendously. All I had to do now was return down the long staircase of the North Kaibab trail and then up to the South Rim and I’d be done. All seemed easy!
I was running very low on water, however, and resolved to take it easy and ration water, knowing that I had at least five miles downhill to the caretaker’s cabin with less than half a bottle of water left.
I soon encountered a single hiker, laboring up some steep switchbacks just below the Suipai Tunnel. He asked how far it was to the tunnel and I told him it was probably another ten minutes of fast hiking to get there. He asked what time I had started and I answered that I had started at two. He looked confused.
“Where did you come from?”, he asked.
“Oh. I started from the South Rim at two”, I replied.
There was a silence as he tried to figure out what I had just told him. It was as if I had just told him that I had parachuted in from Jupiter. After a moment, his eyes got very wide and his mouth opened slack-jawed as he realized that I meant two that morning. I’ve never in my life seen somebody in a state of such disbelief as this gentleman.
“How that is that even possible?”, he stammered.
“Dunno. I never stopped to think about it”, I said and I flashed a big grin and took off down the trail.
I kept up a solid run. Not fast, by any means, but moving well. The scenery was simply overwhelming and I stopped frequently to take photos of the incredible canyon walls.
In this section, the sleep deprivation began to be an issue and I had some difficulties with hallucinations. Rocks would appear as people and as I would approach they would turn back into rocks. Several times, I saw park benches along the side of the trail but when I came to sit down on them, I discovered they were just large boulders. Pretty funny.
I made very good time coming again into Cottonwood CG. I again stopped for a few minutes to eat and refill some bottles. While there, I noticed a sign that made me laugh.
Soon, I found myself in the deep box canyon of the Inner Gorge. Here, the walls are very steep and the trail is cut along the side of the rock walls, alongside Bright Angel creek.
The walls in this section are part of the Vishnu Schist formation and the rock is 1.7 billion years old. Amazing!
It seems as though the gorge would never end. Around each corner, it seems as though the Colorado River should be found and yet it never came. I alternated between a fast and a slow pace as I trotted under and along the great overhangs.
Finally, Phantom Ranch came into view. This was a great feeling, since it was still quite early in the day I knew I now had “only” the climb up the South Rim to finish the adventure and would surely finish well before dark, which was my only real time goal.
I again came to Silver Bridge — this time in the daylight hours — and paused for a few minutes to watch several rafting parties negotiate the tricky eddies on the side of the river. One raft got stuck for several minutes and we all loudly cheered the rafter when they finally escaped their predicament. “Well done!”, I shouted.
After crossing, I began the long climb up to the South Rim. Initially, I moved fairly quickly, running nearly everything. As the trail began to get steeper near Indian Springs, however, I began to slow considerably and bonk terribly. I resolved to get to the campground before stopping to rest and eat and this was a mistake. My mental outlook began to suffer.
After a very long time, I pulled into the Indian Springs campground. This was the last major stop before finishing. I stopped for a while and did my best to eat and drink as much as I could. In retrospect, I should have eaten more as the next section with its climb of 4,000′ feet proved to be the most difficult of the entire day.
On leaving the campground, I saw a park ranger who asked me how I was doing and I explained my crazy adventure. I was a little nervous that the park service might really approve of people doing such nutty things, but he was really enthusiastic about it. He gave me a thumbs up and told me to get after it and that I was looking great.
The final five miles up the Bright Angel trail were built by the Havasupai Native American tribe to access water at Indian Springs. I marveled that anybody would build such a trail, much less use it just to fetch water.
I no longer really cared much about moving quickly so I walked and tried to enjoy the magnificent views. I noticed that comments from day hikers had started changing from encouragement to concern — a sure sign that I was looking pretty ragged.
I set little goals to break up the climb. First I reached the 3-mile resthouse and then I set out to climb from the red-rocks of the mid-canyon to the white-colored rocks near the rim. Eventually, I reached them and had to sit down. I had a mile or so to go and was ready for a nap. I dug around in my bag and found some jelly beans. Success!
With the jelly beans in my teeth, I motored right on the final bits of the trail and before long, saw the buildings and final feet of the trail.
I reached the sidewalk in the village and lay down on the ground and looked out at the setting sun over the canyon. What a great adventure the day had been!
I was filled with gratefulness for so many things and thought of all the people who have brought me so much love and kindness as I sat on the canyon rim and watched the sun go down.
Lucky guy, I am. Very, very lucky indeed.