Backpacking the Grand Canyon
Looking toward the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. (Photo by Gail Bertolini-Su. c 1989)
Edward Abbey once wrote to the effect that all visitors to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon should park their cars a few miles away and approach the Rim on foot, like religious pilgrims. I agree that it is awe inspiring. But I feel that the Grand Canyon is more than mere religious experience. There is a great earthiness there. It is an unpretentious place imbued with a sublime sexuality and beauty, providing an allure more potent than that of the Sirens' call for Odysseus and his men.
The Canyon, measured along the Colorado River, is 277 miles long, running from Lake Mead to near Glen Canyon. At its widest, the distance from the North Rim to the South Rim is 18 miles; at its narrowest, it is a mere 600 feet. The distance between the developed areas of the South Rim and the North Rim is 10 miles as the crow flies, 20.8 miles by trail, and 214 miles by automobile.
Exposed within the Canyon is a legacy of the past 2 billion years, showing evidence of forces that have shaped our planet: the fires of volcanism, the wrenching fingers of water and ice to lay bare the Canyon scarps, and the hot dessicating winds that play within the Canyon walls. One can no more truly experience the Canyon by vicarious methods than one can experience making love by watching movies. The reality far surpasses the expectations.
It is not hard to imagine the spirits so moved as to name such landmarks as Wotan's Throne, Vishnu's Temple, Cheops Pyramid, Zoroaster Temple, and others. The light and shadows play along the Canyon walls, reflecting colors from the shades of gray of the Vishnu Schist to the ochres and umber of the Cococino Sandstone or Hermit Shale to the reddish Redwall Limestone. When the light is right, with the clouds settling in over the opposite rim, when the night opens its wings, and the moon hovers forlornly in the evening sky, one can feel like a god--and yet embrace one's mortality in the sands of time. This dichotomy is an enigma, perhaps? The answer is in the experience, the sheer magical reality of the place.
While many opted only to see the Grand Canyon, we opted to feel it, i.e., to hike into it. We had that primitive urge to be close to the earth again, to submit ourselves to the whims of her hot passion and her cool detachment, to die a little, and then be reborn. For the Canyon can be a most prodigious challenge, as many a hot, tired hiker can attest to.
Canyon hiking is the opposite of alpine hiking. In the former, one goes downhill first and has the hardest part, climbing out, in the latter stages of the day. Also, the temperatures are much more severe in Canyon hiking. In mountain hiking, the high elevations usually mean more temperate climates in the summers. But Canyon hiking is best in the spring and fall. With summer temperatures that can easily reach 120 degrees F in the Inner Gorge (near the Colorado River), it is foolhardy to hike the Canyon at midday in the summer.
Still, many people do it. Some of the results were on display in the Backcountry office. I was especially struck by one picture that, at first glance, appeared to be a broken rag doll. I moved closer to inspect. "My God," I thought, "that looks like a body!" The body was in a cleft, naked except for shorts and hiking boots. It was grotesquely bloated and the skin had been ripped apart in many areas exposing the red muscle underneath. I asked the ranger about the picture. She said, "Yeah, that was a few years ago. Some guy thought he could hike up the South Kaibab trail in the heat of the summer with little or no water. It's seven long miles from the Colorado River to the South Rim and there is no water on it."
On the second morning, Gail and I got our backcountry permit. We were on the trail by 10 A.M. We had elected to go down the South Kaibab trail, which was shorter and steeper than the Bright Angel trail, and come up the Bright Angel. That way we would do a loop and we would be coming up the route that had water on it.
The grand vistas disappeared when we dropped off the rim. We were enclosed now in a womb of smaller side canyons and ravines. The South Kaibab Trail switchbacked quickly through the Kaibab Limestone and we reached Cedar Ridge quickly enough, about 1.5 miles below the Rim. We took a short break. Then, down we continued, down into the very bowels of the earth. Past millenia of the earth's history. Down into the volcano (what geologists considered was once a mighty volcano has now since been worn down by the Colorado River). The sun was higher now, and the temperature was climbing close to a hundred as we approached the Redwall Sandstone. It was a dry heat, not unpleasurable yet, mainly because we were not struggling uphill, loaded with a heavy pack, under the noonday sun.
Descending the switchbacks, we saw a hiker squeezed beneath a small overhanging lip of rock, scrunching himself into every available square inch of shade. We mumbled hello and plodded on. It was too hot to stand around and be civil. The sun was on our necks and backs; we were still not in the Inner Gorge where the narrower canyon would have afforded us some shade with its steeper sidewalls. Finally, at about 1:30 in the afternoon we reached the Tipoff, a small plateau that marked the beginning of the descent into the Inner Gorge and the Colorado River. We met a couple going up. They were hot, too, not communicative at all, concentrating at the task at hand . . . going uphill. I wondered to myself, Why so late in the day?
Finally, we saw the Colorado River and the suspension bridge. We crossed the river and stumbled in amongst the cool cottonwoods of Bright Angel Campground. We doffed our packs, set up the tent, and relaxed . . . but for all the flies. We explored the area and were amazed to find flush toilets! The reason: Too many people venturing into the backcountry.
The afternoon and evening were spent on a guided tour and evening lecture. We also stopped by the famous Phantom Ranch, the final destination of all those mules and their passengers. There was a small store and snack bar at the ranch, and we partook of cool refreshments at dusk and mingled with the mule riders and wranglers. It was a small place, ringed in by the steep escarpments of the Inner Gorge. The guests slept in wooden huts, and the mules were let out to graze in the corral, half their work done. Tomorrow, like us, they must climb out. But theirs was a far heavier load.
We broke camp at 6:30, wary of the noonday sun. We wanted to be as far up the Bright Angel Trail as possible before the heat leached the moisture from the air and turned our mouths into cotton. We crossed the river and paralleled it for a while before we climbed ever so gently. Then the way steepened as we turned south, toward the rim. We rested among the Redwall Limestone, looking backwards to see a party of hikers inching up the trail behind us like ants.
Luckily, we had high clouds, and we made good time. Indian Gardens was reached by 9:30. We were surprised. Five miles in 3 hours?
Heading up the final four miles, we played hopscotch with other hikers. Like lovers of art, there was a common bond between us. Sometimes we would take a break together, sharing snacks, sharing stories, but always our eyes were drawn north and below us, staring at the sinuous path we had just tread, set against the immense landscape.
The sun was getting higher now. Even though there was a high overcast, the heat was still a living, breathing animal that sucked the very moisture from your body. The way was steeper; the weight on my back seemed heavier. We rested often, standing breaks, then off-with-the-packs sitting breaks, drinking Gatorade and snacking. In the shade.
"How're you doing?" I asked Gail.
"I'm fine," a smile cracked her dustcovered face.
She got up, pulled out her camera, then angled for her shots. I smiled and rested.
Finally, we glimpsed the Rim, and we pushed with the determination of tired, thirsty horses smelling water. Fewer breaks now. We wanted this to end quickly. Firmer, faster steps. We wiped our brows, plodded on, plodded on. Ah . . . there it was, the end of the trail.
We rushed like mad dogs towards the snack bar, then came back and relaxed in the shade. Tired and content. We idly looked out over the spectacular vistas and pointed out to each other the microscopic features of the landscape where we had just been. We slowly licked our ice cream, and we smiled. A grand, lazy, postcoital smile.
Most hikers suggest hiking the canyon in Spring or Fall. We did our trip in late May. Earlier might be better; certainly later will be hotter.
To stay overnight at Bright Angel Campground, the National Park Service requires reservations. These are often booked as much as six months in advance. But since we did not know when we were going to be at the Grand Canyon, we opted to play it by ear. (We did three national parks: Bryce, Zion, and the Grand Canyon). We knew that there was about a 40% no-show rate. If you allow for an extra 1-3 days on the rim, then you should be able to fill one of the no-show slots.
For more information, write: Backcountry Office, P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023. Or call: (520) 638-7875 between 1-5 PM, M-F, Mountain Standard Time. Or click here: Grand Canyon Backcountry.
This article was first published in Fishwrapper!, a local (now defunct) Bellingham alternative newspaper.