Hiking in the Grand Canyon

Here’s the second installment in the series of travel stories – if this topic doesn’t ring a bell, go back and read the beginning of this post here so you’ll understand where I’m going with this.

This story, as it were, is about hiking in the Grand Canyon, and, if you’re interested in any sort of chronological order, actually takes place before the previously described adventures on Mt. Olympus. Without any further ado, here we go:

*****

I was in my mid-twenties before I went to a national park without a member of my immediate family. Although this has been true for awhile, now, but I didn’t realize it until fairly recently.

I am indebted to my parents for many reasons that are obviously too numerous to exhaustively list here. One of the many reasons, though, is that fairly early on in life, they started introducing me to national parks. I’m grateful that they provided the introduction; however, the resulting experience of national parks after the introduction – i.e., when I was stomping around National Parks without my parents there – has been somewhat more involved. It’s also led to some bad choices, and (not coincidentally) some pretty good stories.

That this didn’t happen when I was hanging around with my parents is understandable, perhaps, as every time I saw a National Park with them, they seeing it in the context of what was supposed to be a relaxing family vacation for everyone. Even if there are no parks and no adventures involved at all, this is still a difficult prospect when driving cross-country with two kids in the backseat of a station wagon. The prospects for any sort of serious wilderness adventure under these circumstances is pretty much nil, unless dad decided that he doesn’t want to stop to ask for directions somewhere in the middle of Utah. (This, alas, never happened.) Looking back in retrospect, I’m just now realizing that driving across the continental United States with two kids in the backseat of a station wagon is pretty much enough adventure for anyone, but I don’t think that I’ll have the complete appreciation for actually how much of an adventure this unless I ever drive across the 48 states with a couple kids of my own.

In any case, when we saw the Grand Canyon – and Bryce Canyon, and Zion, and the Smoky Mountains, and Rocky Mountain National Park – the experience was heavily dependent on the views from overlooks, and the amount of hiking that took place was minimal. Given the circumstances, this is a great start, and the only practical way to see any national parks with kids that have been cooped up in the car all day. Sadly, it’s also the only experience that most national park visitors ever have. Most people seem to be able to be happy with this – I’ve heard some people say that if the view can’t be seen from the car, then it’s not good enough for them to bother to see. As long as I can remember, I thought that the “let’s just see it from the car” philosophy of seeing National Parks was a big steaming pile, to put it bluntly, and my inclination on seeing most of these sights was an immediate desire to climb to the top of them, or (in the case of the Grand Canyon) to hike to the bottom of it.

Two memories from the first time I saw the Grand Canyon, from when I was a little kid:

  1. The view from the overlook, of course. I remember this as being predictably awesome, and if memory serves (after all these years, I’m almost certain that it doesn’t) that I first saw it at sunset, or sunrise. The view was as good as advertised, and I was even more pleased to find that, years later, my memory was apparently incapable of exaggerating the view. Very few things in childhood are as big as I remember them being, but the Grand Canyon is. I recall feeling slightly dizzy when I stood on the edge and somewhat concerned that I would somehow fall over the edge, even though I was a few feet away and behind a solidly built railing. It’s a cliche that every aficionado of national parks repeats, but there’s no way to capture how big the Grand Canyon unless you’re actually there. It’s a cliche because, when you’re there, it’s obviously true, and the first view of it is absolutely mesmerizing, no matter how many pictures of the thing you’ve already seen. I suspect that that my sister and I enjoyed it more than my parents did, if only because we were not concerned about keeping tabs on the two hyperactive children that may or may not throw themselves over the side of the overlook just to see what would happen.
  2. I also have a vivid memory of hiking the first quarter-mile or so of some trail that went all the way to the bottom – looking back on it, this was almost certainly the Bright Angel Trail. My parents said that we could walk just a little way down and then we would have to turn around to go back to the car. We all just meandered down the trail for just a little bit, and I distinctly remember hoping that my parents would somehow forget to turn around and we would, as a result, find ourselves at the bottom after a few minutes. I was determined to do my part and not remind them to turn around, and also not to look tired, but this was pretty much the entirety of my plan for any sort of adventure. Not surprisingly, this didn’t exactly pan out like I hoped that it would, and after 10 minutes or so we turned around and trudged back up to the car. Still, for me, this was the highlight of my National Park experiences up until that time, and remained on the top of the list until we got to Rocky Mountain National Park and saw snow on the side of the road that was higher than the roof of the car. This resulted in a small snowman built on the roof of the car, and a snowball fight that was cut short by the rangers telling everyone to get down to a lower altitude because there was a storm coming. It was just as well: we had started the day at a much lower altitude and were all wearing shorts.

Fifteen years or so later, I’m capable of passing for an adult in most social situations, to no one’s surprise but my own. I’ve somehow acquired a job (that I still have, incidentally) that involves quite a bit of traveling, and the company that I work for is happily flexible when it comes to travel situations. If it happens that there are two trips – back to back – in the same area of the country, we’re typically given the option of staying out in that area of the country over the weekend so that the number of plane tickets that the company has to buy is reduced. Prices being what they are, this typically saves the company quite a bit of money even if they foot the hotel bill for the weekend, which they do. It’s worth noting, however, that this is a much better deal if your travels have taken you to Florida in the middle of summer, or Southern California, well, any time of year, than if you end up in, say, Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the middle of January. Generally, we try to take the good with the bad. Still, Ann Arbor in January? In that particular situation, management isn’t going to blame you if you want to come home as soon as you possibly can. Most of the time, it works out well – getting a weekend in Florida or out west is generally welcome (for me, anyway) just about any time of year.

In any case, this past spring, work had me out in Utah and Arizona last spring, and the schedule worked out in such a way that I’d be able to stay a few extra days. A trip to the Grand Canyon seemed like a good idea, but I figured out that I was going to be traveling only a week before I was going to be in Arizona. This doesn’t work so well for trying to hike the Grand Canyon, because if you’re planning on spending the night in the canyon, you need a wilderness permit – essentially, a permission slip from the National Park Service that says you can spend the night somewhere in a wilderness area. In the Grand Canyon, this typically translates to anywhere below the rim. Most of the time, the NPS allowes hikers to reserve them for a given day up to three months in advance, and you had better believe that by 2 months and 29 days before that day, the wilderness permits are pretty much gone. A week beforehand, when I found out that I would be there, there was no way I could get one of reserved ones. However, there was a last hope: in addition to the ones that you can reserve ahead of time, there are a few that you can get if you actually show up at the wilderness office and get put on a waiting list. This – for lack of any better ideas, really – was the plan.

The night before this ordeal got underway, I was staying in Flagstaff, AZ. Flagstaff is about a two hour drive from the Grand Canyon, and because I wanted to make it to the wilderness office early – I would be leaving Flagstaff two hours earlier than that. When I got up that morning, it was dumping snow – not the sort of start that I had envisioned, but I drove through it anyway, and by the time I got to the Grand Canyon, it was nice and clear. After a few quick stops at overlooks, and after a few tourist-style pictures, I found the wilderness office and wandered in to see if I would be able to get a wilderness permit.

Inside the wilderness office was a nasty surprise: I learned that when you get a wilderness permit in person, you’re not getting one for that day. You’re getting one for the next day. The ranger described to me that they start handing out the wilderness permits at precisely 8 AM, and because the line starts well before they open, if you’re not there by, oh, 7 AM, you probably aren’t getting one. So, as I realized, I couldn’t get a wilderness permit for the day I was there, because I was not there yesterday. Because I am having this conversation with the otherwise helpful ranger at roughly 8:30, it looks like I can’t get one for tomorrow, either. He tells me, however, if I show up early tomorrow, that I will be able to get one for the following day so I can spend Sunday night in the canyon. Or, if I want to get a two-day wilderness permit, I can spend Sunday and Monday night in the canyon.

This does exactly fit into my plans, as I was planning on being back in Flagstaff by Sunday night, and I’ve got work-scheduled stuff on Monday, so this isn’t really going to work unless I am willing to miss my flight home, which isn’t exactly a career-enhancing plan.

Still, the plan of spending two nights in the canyon is a good one, and isn’t all that unusual. In my specific case the seed of this idea can be blamed on my geeky fanboy attitude towards the books of Don Miller. Don got a lot of attention a few years back for his book Blue Like Jazz, a memoir which became something of a fad in some Christian circles. However, it wasn’t Don’s first book, and (in my opinion, for whatever that’s worth) it also wasn’t his best.

The first book that Don published was called God and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance, and although it’s a pretty good book, it didn’t really generate much of a following. A few years later, after Don was more well known, it got republished under the new title of Through Painted Deserts, at which point it, since this didn’t go according to the publisher’s plan, it continued to not generate much of a following.

Through Painted Deserts, in any case, is more contemplative travel literature, really, and it recounts the time in Don’s life when he moved from Houston, Texas, to somewhere in the state of Oregon (eventually Portland, although he doesn’t get all the way there by the end of the book), a trip that took place in a Volkswagen van that, to put it as charitably as possible, made every day even more of an adventure than it would have been otherwise.

In any case, at the (arguably) climactic scene in the book, Don and Paul (who owns the van) get to the Grand Canyon and, incidentally, go through the same process with the wilderness office that I was did. The outcome is different, though, because as they have no specific time schedule and no airplane in Phoenix to catch later in the week – they’re able to hang around for a few days and get the wilderness permit that they had originally wanted. The trip that Don and Paul hiked, as near as I can determine from the descriptions in the book, is to go down the South Kiabab trail to the Colorado River on the first day of hiking. They spent the night at Phantom Ranch, the campground at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and the next day they hiked about 1/3 of the way up the Bright Angel Trail, and spend the night at Indian Garden, the campground there. This unfortunately leaves the most difficult hike for the last day: the hike the rest of the way out of the canyon up Bright Angel Trail.

This was more or less the trip that I wanted to take, and up until the part where I determined that I wouldn’t be able to get a wilderness permit, it seemed like a perfectly reasonable plan.

The ranger at the wilderness office explained to me that even if I didn’t have a wilderness permit, I could still hike – as much as I wanted – as long as I didn’t spend the night below the rim of the canyon. I decided that I should at least try to get down into the canyon even if I couldn’t make it all the way to the bottom, and so off I set down the Bright Angel Trail after packing the backpack full of the various goodies that I needed for the day. After a few minutes of stomping down the trail, it dawned on me how different it was to be in a National Park without my parents (or anyone else, for that matter) for one primary reason: there is no one there to tell you to not do something that is border-line stupid.

The rangers and the guidebooks give a few rules of thumb for hiking in the canyon, and two of the most important are:

  1. Going up is harder and takes longer than going down. Assume, while you’re planning, that it will take you twice as long to get down as it will to get back up. In addition, and
  2. Whatever you do, don’t try to hike all the way down to the bottom and back up in one day.

As I was beating feet down the trail, I did a bit of math: if I had x hours until sunset, and it would take twice as long to get up as it would down, then only 1/3 of x could safely be spent going down. As soon as 1/3 of x had elapsed, it was time to turn around. With these two rules in mind, I couldn’t help but notice that the faster I got down the trail, the more ground I would be able to cover before it was time to turn around. (What I didn’t realize at the time was that if I worked harder going down the trail, not only would I have less energy for getting back up the trail, but taking only twice as much time to get back became less and less realistic.) Happily ignorant of these observations at the time, I made great time. By the time I got to Indian Garden it was still fairly early in the morning, but unfortunately it had started to hail. The more immediate concern, however, was finding a bathroom (thanks to the signs, an easy task) and refilling all the water bottles (also easy, for the same reason).

At this point I briefly considered turning around, mainly because of the hail. Bad weather is the sort of minor setback that would have made an ordinary person turn around, especially, as I’ve already mentioned, I probably would have too, if I had someone with me to tell them to not do something stupid. The hail wasn’t actually very large hail, and seemed to just be bonking harmlessly off the goofy wide-brimmed hat that I was wearing, so I did not turn around. I also blame this decision, in retrospect, on my love of photography. A bit of explaination is in order: most people, when faced with bad weather in a national park, tend to head for the car, the hotel, or any shelter that is available. Most people don’t actively seek out this kind of weather – unless that person is a photographer. Just about any landscape photographer can’t help but notice that the vast majority of memorable pictures taken in national parks are shot during what normal people consider to be bad weather. There aren’t too many landscapes that can’t be made better by either storms, sunsets, or (ideally) a combination of the two. Consequently, while bad weather at the Grand Canyon may send casual tourists running for the Bright Angel Lodge, it also seems to bring guys carrying camera bags, tripods, and the like strapped to them – alternately excited about the better-than-average views but also worried that their beloved camera gear is getting wet.

In any case, my enthusiasm with regards to photography has always exceeded my skill, and although I don’t honestly expect that to change anytime soon, I at least know enough that bad weather shouldn’t – at least from a standpoint of trying to get the perfect shot – prompt a sprint for the car: continued adventure down the trail meansthat odds will be much higher than average that a better-than-average picture will result.

With these arguably masochistic ruminations in my mind, I continued happily stomping down the trail, fully expecting that the penance of hiking through the hail was the price I would have to pay for a memorable view of the canyon in a storm.

As I continued down the trail, the anticipated great view didn’t materialize, but at least the hail stopped. I was probably another mile down the trail before it occured to me that I’d probably be able to make it to the bottom of the canyon while still observing Rule #1, even if, in the process, I broke Rule #2. Since I was still breaking a rule that I had originally set with the intention of observing, it was time to rationalize: in order to impress on all the hikers the seriousness of Rule #2, the rangers had thoughtfully provided some rather horrific examples of what would happen if you broke the rule. All of these examples, I couldn’t help but notice, took place in the summertime – the main danger, it was implied, was the heat and resulting loss of water. Clearly, this wasn’t a problem for for me right now: it was cold at the rim of the canyon, and I had started hiking with three layers on, actually – even at the bottom of the canyon in the hottest part of the day, it was only about 75 degrees.

I think it was Robert Heinlein that said “Man isn’t a rational animal. Man is a rationalizing animal,” and, like many other of Heinlein’s churlish observations, it’s true in most cases. I was still rationalizing when I got to the bottom of the canyon, at which point deciding whether or not I came around a bend in the trail and saw the Colorado River. Further rationalization became irrelevant: I was there. Getting down to the bottom is optional; getting back out is mandatory, so continuing onward took on a flavor that was decidedly more urgent.

The problem at this point, though, was twofold: First, no one wants to hike back out the same way that they came in, and secondly, as long as I was at the bottom, it seemed like a waste to not take at least a little bit of time to keep looking around. I mean, since I live in Alabama, it’s not like I can get down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon just on whenever odd weekend that I happen to drive by. The map that I was carrying provided me with what seemed like a good solution: I could take the river trail east down down the Colorado River until it hit the North Kaibab trail – the other main South-Rim-to-Colorado River trail that was just about a mile downstream. I could then take the North Kaibab trail back out of the canyon about 1/3 of the way to the top, at which point it would run into the Tonto trail – an east-west trail that connects the Kaibab trail with Bright Angel. I could take the Tonto Trail back to Bright Angel, and then take Bright Angel the rest of the way out.

This appealed to for a couple reasons – it resembled – at least a little bit – the trek that Don Miller made when he was in the canyon, and I’d also be able to make an enormous loop, and see more of the canyon without ending up at the wrong trailhead when I got done.

After planning this out, I started down the River Trail, which runs roughly parallel to the Colorado River. Being close to the swiftly-moving Colorado provided a fascinating view, and I started to get excited about crossing it. There are two bridges across the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon – one for the Bright Angel Trail and another for the Kaibab Trail, and they’re both fairly close together. The bathrooms and water fountains are on the north side of the river close to the Bright Angel Camp Ground, so I crossed the Bright Angel Trail Bridge and quickly found the rest area, which was errily deserted. After a quick refill of the water bottles – and a nervous glance at my watch – it was time to continue. I was on the north side of the Colorado River for only 15 minutes.

Crossing the Colorado River

Crossing the Colorado River

The bridge for the Kaibab Trail – which I crossed, to start going back up – is right next to a small beach where rafts that go down the river use as a rest stop. It’s a bit weird to run into an abrupt instance of civilization when you’re so far in the middle of nowhere. A few rafts were pulled up on the beach, and the sight was a bit jarring.

“Civilization,” of course, may not be the best choice of words, here, but “raft” isn’t the best word to use, either. “Raft” seems to suggest the tiny inflatable boats that we all flipped in the neighborhood swimming pool at some point when we were kids. These things that were pulled up onto the beach didn’t really fall into the same category – they had outboard motors, huge coolers embedded in the center consoles, and enough room to sit at least a dozen people. Running across something so jarringly artificial like that – when you’ve hiked that far into the wilderness – comes as a bit of a shock.

Dusty-looking orange and red rocks, a muddy brown and green river . . . and then a fleet of florescent inflatable rafts. Strange.

After crossing the bridge, I immediately started trudging up North Kaibab, though, and although the trail was steep, I made great time starting out: it was practically the first time all day that I had to walk uphill. North Kaibab is steep, though, and I slowed down pretty quickly – I learned later that it’s not recommended to hike out using North Kaibab. Whichever path you’ve come down, it’s recommended to go back up Bright Angel. Before I got to the worst that North Kaibab could dish out, though, I came to the Tipoff – the intersection of North Kaibab and the Tonto Trail, which was just about when it started dumping rain.

Thankfully, at this point, there wasn’t much of a decision to make, and at least it wasn’t hail bonking down all over the place. There was no where to go but up, and heading back to the Bright Angel Trail was the only logical decision. Besides, I was hot from climbing up the Kaibab trail, and the rain was welcome. I started heading west on the Tonto Trail, and after a few minutes, the rain let up.

Rain from the Tonto Trail

Rain from the Tonto Trail

For most of the day, I had been running into other hikers on occasionally – not frequently enough to spoil any sort of feeling of being in the wilderness, but frequently enough that I , but the Tonto Trail was deserted. I was on the Tonto Trail for about three miles, and I didn’t see anyone. The feelings of solitude were almost palpable – the canyon felt deserted and desolate.

The mind does weird things when faced with that much solitude, and pretty soon I began wondering if I had missed Indian Garden. This would have made the day much more interesting, to say the least. After Bright Angel, it’s something like another eight miles before the next next trail that goes up to the rim. After a few miles, though, it’s hard to tell where you are just by memory – unless you’re really paying attention, quite a few of the landmarks inside the canyon tend to look pretty similar.

The Tonto Trail was deserted

The Tonto Trail was deserted

Fortunately, the Bright Angel Trail is well-marked enough that it’s nearly impossible to miss, but still: just because there was no possibility of missing the trail didn’t mean that my mind didn’t want to contemplate worst-case scenarios.

Probably about 20 minutes before I would have started getting concerned, Indian Garden appeared around the next bend. I knew where I was and had been there just a few hours earlier, so all that remained was getting back up this last part of the trail.

Not surprisingly, this was the most exhausting part of the hike, and it began to feel urgent – as I gained altitude and afternoon began to turn into early evening, the temperature began to cool off, and rain showers were still sporadically soaking parts of the Canyon. The rain, which had seemed so welcome earlier when I was hot, began to seem more ominous: if I got wet out here, I probably wouldn’t be able to get warm or dry until I made it back to the car.

Still, though, being out in the bad weather paid off: the sun beginning to go down with the storms across the canyon made for some of the most memorable views of the day, and my favorite picture of the hike, too.

Headed back up the Bright Angel Trail

Headed back up the Bright Angel Trail

I didn’t make it out without getting soaked one last time, but I was close enough to the rim of the canyon that I just hiked through it. I finally made it back out of the canyon – before sunset – wet, tired, and hungry, but pretty pleased that I made it. I sat in the car with the heater going for awhile to dry myself off, and then found dinner.

*****

The next morning, I wasn’t particularly surprised to find that I so sore that I was barely capable of walking on level ground. Trying to go uphill – no matter how slight the slope – pretty much just didn’t happen at all. I hobbled around to a few overlooks and generally didn’t do anything more physically taxing than shuffle to the car and take aspirin, and watch tourists tell each other how big the canyon was. What surprised me is that I wasn’t any better the day after that, so I more or less repeated the same itinerary.

So I guess, in a way, the park ranger was right: a day of hiking followed by two days of recovery doesn’t really seem like a better idea than doing the whole thing over three days. It takes the same amount of time, and 2/3 of the days are substantially less fun.

I’m guessing, if I had told the ranger at the wilderness office what I had done – and how it had all worked out – he probably would have had the last laugh. There’s really no way that I could have told him, though. The wilderness office is on top of this little hill, see . . .

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