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Hiking the Grand Canyon

October 14, 2011

I have flown over the Grand Canyon numerous times, but this was the first time I had actually been there. We arrived at Grand Canyon Village the afternoon before and I was able to get my first actual look at the canyon.  It is truly an amazing site that seems to go on forever.

We started from the south rim of the Grand Canyon at the South Kaibab trail head at 5:07am.  It was still dark out and everyone had headlamps and/or flashlights to find their way.  There were five of us in our group me, my brother and his wife (from Wisconsin) and two of their friends from Minnesota.  We were part of a group of 22 hikers,  a couple that live in Grand Canyon Village and others from around the United States, as far away as Rhode Island.  Elevation at the trailhead is 7,200 feet.

 

From the right is me, my brother Ed, his wife, Lori, their friends Caroline and Roxanne.

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The moon was full on October 12th, so it was still very bright when we started down the trail.  The first part of the trail is relatively steep with a number of switchbacks.  As we progressed down from the rim, it seems as though we were descending into an ethereal world. The moonlight made the rock walls of the canyon appear to be like an animated theme park.  This view faded to complete darkness when looking over the edge of the trail into the canyon below.  Occasionally, I could see a trail of moving little lights fading off into the distance, showing the path of the trails.

I am actually glad that we started in the darkness, as not being fond of heights, I think the view off the edge of the trail would have been a bit disturbing to say the least.  After about 40-45 minutes, we reached our first stop – Cedar Ridge.  The sky to the east was starting to show the coming dawn, drawing an incredible silhouette of the canyon rim.  The nearly full moon still shone brightly with Jupiter directly below.  We had traveled 1.4 miles and descended to 6,600 feet.  We took about a 5 minute break here, I took off my long sleeve outer shirt, and continued on. 

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After about another 20 minutes, we were able to take off the headlamps and stow these in the packs. The trail here also leveled out a bit, but still continued to descend.  A quick little picture break here (2.4 miles, now at 5,316 feet) as we approached O’Neil Butte.  The trail here goes a bit to the east as it moves around the butte, still descending as the sky continues to lighten.  The colors of the canyon in this light jump out with wonderful contrast and brightness.

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After passing O’Neil Butte, the trail remained relatively flat for another half a mile before dropping off the plateau, with another series of switchbacks taking us deeper into the canyon.  In the next ¾ of a mile, the trail drops almost 700 feet, finally easing a bit at around 4,500 feet.

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Another mile down the trail takes us to “The Tipoff” at 3,947 feet, giving the first view of the Colorado River, still almost 1,500 feet below.  The river is less than a half a mile straight away from here,  but the trail to get there is almost two miles.  The sun was now lighting the very tops of some of the highest points in the distance.

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After about 20 minutes, the first mule train of the day over takes us on the way down to Phantom Ranch.  Hikers are expected to step off the trail and wait quietly as the mules pass.  At this time, we were going down yet another set of switchbacks, so finding a place to step out of the way presented a bit of a challenge.  The mules seemed very calm and content as they passed, but they did stir up a pretty good cloud of dust.

Another 10-15 minutes and we arrive at a rest house with a bathroom.  The sun is now up and the moon is still bright in the sky as well.  By now we have been hiking for just under 3 hours, covered 6 miles and dropped down 4,200 feet from the rim to just under 3,000 feet.  Another 5 minute break here to have a Snickers bar, a Cliff bar and then back on the trail.

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Ten minutes farther down the trail brings us to the edge of the plateau, then down a cut to another set up switchbacks, taking the trail down a sheer rock face.  This takes us down the last 500 feet to the tunnel entrance and the bridge crossing the Colorado River.  Another half mile down the trail and I arrive at the first water stop since leaving the rim. I take a break here, having another Snickers and Cliff bar along Bright Angel Creek, refill my CamelBak (having drank the 3.1 liters I started with) before heading on to Phantom Ranch. 

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The first part of the journey  down the South Kaibab Trail has taken 3 hours 25 minutes, covered 6.7 miles and dropped 4,600 feet from 7,200 feet to 2,481 feet.

Phantom Ranch is a half mile up the North Kaibab Trail. Here I meet up with my brother and sister-in-law, where we take a break.  I have half a peanut butter sandwich, another Cliff bar and some Gatorade.  We don't spend much time here, as it is already noon.  We are now entering "The Frying Pan", which is one of the hottest sections of the trail. We want to get through this section before the heat of the day sets in. When we left the south rim, it was around 50 degrees.  The temperature now is up to 85 and "The Frying Pan" is in full sun with almost no shade in the afternoon.  Here, I switched out my hat for a bandanna to keep the sweat out of my eyes, but kept my hat handy for when we get in the sun.

About 10 minutes outside of Phantom Ranch, we come across a small buck mule deer. I had seen a doe and fawn earlier, just as I was getting to Phantom Ranch.  They are not hunted here and do not view humans as a threat, so they just kind of look at you then continue whatever they are doing.  The buck was 5-10 feet off the trail and didn't even look at us as we passed by.

 

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The trail starts to climb from here, but very gradually.  The canyon walls grow higher, easily 500-1,000 feet, and in places the canyon is only 200-400 feet wide.  Approximately a mile from Phantom Ranch, we enter “The Box”, a section of the trail that winds through an even narrower canyon. The walls of the canyon in this section are high enough that I lose signal on my GPS for the next hour or so.  The sound of Bright Angel Creek grows louder as it resounds off the narrow canyon walls, but at least the high walls still offer some shade.  Through this section, four bridges cross back and forth over Bright Angel Creek

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Eventually, the canyon widens again, but the shade gives way to full sun and growing heat.  The trail still continues its gentle climb, now up to 3,600 feet.  Off to the left, Ribbon Falls comes into view.  I have been warned about this section and now arrive at “The Damn Hill”.  This lovely piece of real estate climbs almost 300 feet in less than half a mile. Adding in the full sun makes this section brutal, forcing me to stop 2-3 times on the trek upward. 

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After passing “The Damn Hill”, about a half a mile down the trail, is a true little paradise.  Here, the trail crosses Wall Creek, just above a little waterfall.  This area offers welcome shade and a chance to cool off in the chilly, flowing water while relaxing to the sound of the waterfall.  This break makes the last half a mile to Cottonwood Campground a breeze.

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I arrive at Cottonwood Campground 8 hours after leaving the trailhead, 15 miles later.  We have dropped from 7,200 feet to 2,600 feet and have now climbed back to just over 4,000 feet.  During the break here, another peanut butter sandwich, some beef jerky, crackers and a Cliff bar washed down with more Gatorade serves as lunch.  This break also offers the chance to soak your feet in Bright Angel Creek.  The water is cold, to the point where it hurts, but feels good.  I also rinse out my shirt and wipe down in the creek.  After about an hour, a fresh pair of socks, a packet of GU and another 3.1 liters of water in the Camelback, we are on our way again.

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The trail now starts to climb more steeply, gaining 300 feet in the first mile.  The canyon remains relatively wide, but the walls on each side grow steadily higher.  Sometimes even the canyon in front seems to disappear into a solid wall.  The area along the sides of the trail is littered with large boulders that have fallen down from the cliffs high above.  Many side canyons now lead off the trail.

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Three hours and three miles after leaving Cottonwood Campground, we get to Roaring Springs Pumphouse. We have climbed over 1,000 feet, now up to 5,000 feet. Across the canyon from here is Roaring Springs. As the name implies, the spring actually roars as it comes out of the wall of the canyon and tumbles down over 300 feet.  A quick break here for some more Gatorade and another packet of GU and we continue on.

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The trail now grows progressively steeper, passing the mile high mark.  Switchbacks and steps are now the norm.  Shadows are now starting to stretch across the canyon.  Looking back offers a beautiful panorama and looking forward shows cliffs growing higher and steeper.  The colors once again come alive as the bright sun works its way to the west.

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Throughout the trip, my body has grown progressively more tired but the climb now really starts to hurt.  We have been careful to remain hydrated, keeping the electrolytes in the system, not over heated, rested when possible and fueled, but now over 11 hours of hiking, covering 18+ miles is starting to take its toll.  Finally, after pushing on as far as I can, my thighs begin to cramp up. The only thing I can do is lay stretched out on the trail until it passes.  From here on, it becomes a cautious battle, paying very close attention to my legs and stopping to rest when I feel my thighs start to tighten.

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We are now working our way up the trail that has been cut into the face of a cliff.  At one point on this section of trail, we are less than one half a mile from the lodge at Bright Angel Point, but it is over 2,000 feet up a sheer cliff wall.  We continue on, climbing to over 6,100 feet before dropping back down to the bridge that crosses the canyon. The bridge is 3 miles from the trail head and 1.2 miles from the Supai Tunnel, but we have another 2,200 feet to climb.

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Following the bridge, the trails turns to switchbacks cut into the redwall limestone. This 1.2 miles take about an hour and 15 minutes to cover, my thighs forcing me to stop frequently.  In some places, the trail is actually ¾ of a tunnel, undercutting the stone wall above with the only open section to the left, which opens to the canyon.  We rest at Supai Tunnel and I take in another GU packet and more Gatorade and add a little more water. 

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By now, it is dark again and getting colder by the minute.  For the last section, I put my long sleeve shirt and hat on for warmth.  We press on, now at 6,800 feet, having 1.8 miles and a climb of 1,400 feet remaining.  This section of trail has many steps and switchbacks, which are killing me.  I have to cautiously take each step, setting both feet, then pushing up with both hiking poles as I step up.  Once I am up the step, I have to wait a few seconds, feeling if my over fatigued muscles are willing to continue or if I will be forced to rest again.

The final 1.8 miles in the dark, takes an hour and 45 minutes. We do meet a few other people on the trail.  One pair of women had only one flashlight for the two of them, so I give them my spare flashlight to help them out.  Just when we seem to be past the last step, we progress forward, only to have another set of steps appear in our headlights.  When on just the trail tread, I can move at a much faster pace.  My GPSr finally shows that we have reached 7,900 feet – only another 300 feet to climb – only 100 yards…but that is the length of a football field, and not to the end of the trail, but UP!

We plod along through the seemingly endless maze of switchbacks and steps.  Up ahead I think I see light.  I stop and ask Ed, “Is that light up ahead?  Have we died?  Is that Heaven?”  Ed replies “I think I heard a car door slam.” and gets on the radio, telling them to slam a door.  I tell him to have them honk the horn. We immediately hear the horn honk!!!!  Finally, we are within reach.  The last remaining adrenaline in my body kicks in and we push up the last couple hundred feet of the trail.

 

The entire hike Rim to Rim hike has taken me 15 hours and 36 minutes and covered 23.4 miles according to my GPSr (the distance may not be exact as the signal was lost for an hour or so and I had to piece together the tracks).  This was by far the most physically demanding thing I have ever done.  It felt great to finally finish even though it completely kicked my ass.

 

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I lived in Arizona for a few years, thank you for the stellar photos of the canyon! You

can't describe that hike to people,  you have to do it to truly know all that it entails.

 

Your photography skills are evident,  better than some of National Geographic's shots

of that canyon... and Arizona Highway's!!  :thumbsup:

 

Thank you for the breath- taking photos!  :arigato:

 

 

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I lived in Arizona for a few years, thank you for the stellar photos of the canyon! You

can't describe that hike to people,  you have to do it to truly know all that it entails.

 

Your photography skills are evident,  better than some of National Geographic's shots

of that canyon... and Arizona Highway's!!  :thumbsup:

 

Thank you for the breath- taking photos!  :arigato:

 

 

Thanks for your comments.  You are exactly right, the pictures and my words don't come close to doing justice to the canyon.  I had a little over 700 pictures with about 400 from the hike to sort through.  I will be adding more later.

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This is as close to the bottom of the Grand Canyon as Im ever going to get my friend. I can only guess how many times hikers have crashed and had to be helped out of there. I had no idea how many different pastels of color there is there.

 

This was a tremendous effort on your part Fat Guy along with this post. Great pictures good explanation and a lot of effort posting them. Thank you.  :arigato:

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Thanks for your comments.  You are exactly right, the pictures and my words don't come close to doing justice to the canyon.  I had a little over 700 pictures with about 400 from the hike to sort through.  I will be adding more later.

 

I will be looking forward to seeing them!

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This is as close to the bottom of the Grand Canyon as Im ever going to get my friend. I can only guess how many times hikers have crashed and had to be helped out of there. I had no idea how many different pastels of color there is there.

 

This was a tremendous effort on your part Fat Guy along with this post. Great pictures good explanation and a lot of effort posting them. Thank you.  :arigato:

 

Colin Fletcher hiked the the Grand Canyon back in the late 60's and wrote pretty neat book called The man who walked through time.

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