Hiking the Grand Canyon

On March 6 through 8, Devin and I hiked the Grand Canyon. You can see, just by the size of the packs, that Devin knows how to hike light. I have all my gear from the 1970ies. His stuff is brand-new. His pack was at least 10 pounds lighter than mine. I learned a lot of lessons from my son on this trip.

We left from the South Kaibab Trailhead a little after noon on Sunday, March 6. The South Kaibab is the steepest trail from the rim to the river in the Grand Canyon. In 7.2 miles of trail, we descended from 7,150 feet to 2,400 feet, almost a mile down. We did it in a little over four hours. Here is the track map of the first day (dark green):

The one dangerous thing about hiking in the Grand Canyon is that at first you go downhill. While it is hard on the knees and the feet and all the muscles on the legs, going downhill usually does not get you winded and exhausted. It’s just painful. So many people get into trouble, going down too far to come back up. Annually, 250 people have to get rescued out of the Grand Canyon due to extreme exhaustion. The average person getting rescued are white males between 18 and 40, in good shape, too cocky to know what they are getting themselves into.

Here is Devin after hiking downhill all day just before the tunnel leading to the hanging bridge over the Colorado River, which is visible on the left edge of the picture. We’re definitely ready for camp.

We found a camp spot at the Bright Angel Campground just a few hundred feet from the famous Phantom Ranch. Our tents were pitched, and here you see Devin heating water for dinner and checking the map. While the temperature at the rim was in the 30ies, here it was an outright balmy high 60ies, and even overnight it did not drop much lower than 50. It was very comfortable.

The next morning we broke camp and hiked halfway back up on the Bright Angel Trail. This is about a 9.5 mile trail up to the South Rim. Halfway up is Indian Garden Campground, where we spent the next night. The dark section in the map shows the hike for the day, about five miles.

The problem, of course, is that it is five miles straight up.

Here are our tents at Indian Garden. There are even covered canopies over the picnic tables. That turned out to be a savior, as we had a major storm that evening. Heavy snowfall at the rim meant driving rain at Indian Garden at 4,000 feet elevation. Fortunately, we had put our tents at a slight slope. However, we had to dig little ditches around them to keep water from flooding under the tents. The main storm hit while we were still up.

It was dark, we had eaten, cleaned up, and with the heavy weather there was nothing to do. I wore all my layers, my jacket, and the rain poncho over it, sitting at the picnic table, shivering, wet through, from the rain almost coming in sideways and spray covering everything. I wore my headlamp and I was reading on my Kindle which I had brought along just for times like this. Devin said I’d be a perfect advertisement for the Kindle: A dripping wet, freezing, huddled, dirty hiker, in complete darkness, headlamp putting a spotlight on the Kindle, wiping the rain off the device with a bandana. I sat there as long as I could stand it, reading, a lone spot of light in a cold and dark canyon.

It was a miserably long and cold night. My sleeping bag was at the cold limit. Another 10 degrees less and I would have had a serious problem. The rain fly of my tent leaked, but fortunately most of the rain was over by the time I crawled into the tent.

The next day, thank goodness it finally came, was bright and clear and very cold. Hot coffee and granola warmed us up, and we headed out for the final five miles of hike and a climb of about 3,000 feet.

Here you can see in dark green the last day’s hike, essentially straight up the wall.

The picture above shows the trail soon after we left camp. We are heading straight for the wall in the center of the picture. It does not seem possible from this angle that there is a way up. There is. At the top of the picture in the center you can see the faint rim. That’s where we’re going.

We saw quite a number of mule trains. In the Grand Canyon, unlike at other hiking locations, the trails are always relentlessly steep, either down or up, and  there are always walls on one side and cliffs on the other. Sometimes there is a vertical drop of hundreds of feet right next to a three-foot wide trail.

Don’t. Look. Down.

I am amazed how the mules do it. Also, watching them climb up or step down is fascinating. For the riders, it must be a strong effort of complete trust in the animal’s experience and abilities to do what does not seem possible.

When hiking in terrain like that, it is very important to be careful about foot placement. Twisting an ankle could require a rescue at the least or cause a fatal fall at the worst.

I always wondered how the mules do it. Yes, they can see their front legs, and watching them walk the steps, it’s obvious that they are doing exactly what we are doing: they watch carefully where they place their feet. But what about the rear legs? They can’t see those. So I made a point of observing this time: It turns out that the rear leg is invariably placed EXACTLY where  the front leg was. There must be some body memory in quadrupeds that makes this possible. The rear leg steps precisely where the front leg stepped every time. 

The last two trail miles were covered in snow and ice remaining from the storm of the night before and of course from ice accumulations of previous cycles of melting and freezing water. It was treacherous going. Not expecting sheer ice surfaces, we had not brought crampons. Devin and I each took one of my poles, and we plotted along carefully over the snow and ice surfaces. We asked about the mules. It turns out they get special horse shoes in the winter, with titanium spikes to allow them to walk on ice without slipping.

We arrived at the South Rim around 2:00pm in the afternoon on March 8. Every muscle hurt, and we were happy.

Next, we will hike from the North Rim to the South Rim, about three or four days in the Canyon, spanning more than 20 miles. The best time to do that is October. Time to put in for reservations now.

4 thoughts on “Hiking the Grand Canyon

  1. Eric Petrie

    First, you make me jealous, you lucky guy, getting to hike in unforgettable settings with your son.

    Then, you remind me of the one time I hiked in the Canyon. Your exit path looks to have been the same as mine; I remember something like Indian Garden and that sheer wall.

    Last, your talk of the mule train reminded me of one of my favorite sentences by Cormac McCarthy, which I share free of charge:

    “The following evening as they rode up onto the western rim they lost one of the mules. It went skittering off down the canyon wall with the contents of the panniers exploding soundlessly in the hot dry air and it fell through sunlight and through shade, turning in that lonely void until it fell from sight into a sink of cold blue space that absolved it forever of memory in the mind of any living thing that was.” (_Blood Meridian_, p. 147)

  2. No doubt to say that you spent a very nice (though hard) time at Grand Canyon. I enjoyed Grand Canyon Hiking at early 2010. It was one my memorable time in my life.Congratulation to you and your brave son.


  3. According to my mother, i have “technically” been to the Grand Canyon, but then she was 9 months pregnant with me, so i don’t recall much. Hopefully in the next couple of years i can finally see this wonder. Thanks for the awesome article and pictures.

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