Hiking the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim is one of those bucket list items that pays off in ways you cannot imagine. It feeds the adventurous, forges lifetime friendships and pushes the physical body to places you’ll never forget.
For those unfamiliar, the hike from the South Rim to the North Rim of Arizona’s Grand Canyon is about 24 miles via the South Kaibab Trailhead. When you start at the Bright Angel Trailhead, the hike is longer by a couple of miles. Of course, we took the long way.
Hiking the Grand Canyon
I ventured into the Canyon once again last summer. This time, with four amazing women – two teachers, a nurse and an attorney – who I now consider lifelong friends.
Fessing up, here. I grossly underestimated two things about hiking the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim in the summer months: (1) the heat at the bottom is intense and could sap the energy from a wind farm in a millisecond, and, (2) 14+ miles of ascending the North Kaibab Trial while gaining more than 5,700 vertical feet after enduring hellish heat will slow humans down considerably.
My estimate of a 12-hour day evolved into a 16-hour jaunt that left our bodies empty, exhausted and grateful to be upright. The lesson learned here is if you’re planning a Grand Canyon hiking adventure, shoot for the early fall months. September-October, the temperatures are much more tame in the bottom of the Canyon.
I shouldn’t whine, and normally I don’t. I matched our training leading up to the epic hike to what I had done previously. After channel-checking with my experienced hiking friends, we were confident we were ready.
We hiked every frigging weekend for six months, built up our mileage, tested multiple pairs of socks, discovered where we needed to strategically place moleskin to prevent blisters, ingested a variety of trail food and fluids, all of that.
The night before the hike, we celebrated. We marked the occasion by consuming enough BBQ ribs to feed a pack of wolves. Washing them down with Grand Canyon Brewing Company beer, we toasted merrily as we chatted in excited tones.
High-Fiving and hugging, we busted out a few impromptu and awkward dance moves in the dining room of our hotel. We sauntered into the gift shop and confidently purchased T-shirts emblazoned with the words, “I Hiked the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim.”
Nerves & Leaky Water
Sleep was laughable with a 2 a.m. alarm. Tossing and turning with anticipation, I jumped out of bed at the appointed hour and whispered “bring it on” as I gulped down a cup of coffee and a protein shake. Dear Lord Jesus please keep us safe. This would not be the first time I spoke with Jesus that day.
With a pep talk and a prayer, we loaded the gear in the truck. And that’s when I discovered the 100 oz. water bladder in my backpack was a dribbling a trail of cold water behind me in the parking lot. What the hell! This can’t be happening. I can’t hike the Grand Canyon with a leaky sieve on my back.
I was pissed, and nearly found myself in full-blown panic attack. That’s when my dear friend Sue – aka the Handywoman – whipped out a roll of duct tape and we tried to seal up whatever was leaking. Didn’t work. Oh crap. Now what?
That’s when my other dear friend Heather – aka the Caregiver – pointed out the pressure in the overfilled bladder was forcing water through the screw-top closure. Dump out some of the water. It will be fine, she said matter-of-factly. Disaster averted.
Off We Go
Off to the trailhead we ventured. We arrived at the Bright Angel Trailhead and began our headlamp-lit descent into the eerie darkness.
It was pitch black down there, with only the bright eyes of a pair of deer and what appeared to be a homeless man who approached us coming up the trail. He had no light, no hiking gear, no nothing. Very strange, and it was way too early in the trek to be hallucinating. He either went into the Canyon drunk the night before and mistakenly wandered down the trail or was a mass murderer stalking the SheTribe. My imagination went to town on that dude. We never saw him again.
As the sun rose, we descended downward – losing about 4,000 feet of elevation – until we reached a trailside oasis known as Indian Garden. It was green, lush and inviting. Drinking water, campsites and bathrooms. I wanted to stay there and mentioned to my companions that we should hike down someday and camp out for a few nights – rather than enduring the grueling daylong journey we had signed up for. Why take the easy way, they echoed back to me? Right. Onward.
70s Sitcoms and Breathtaking Scenery
We hiked and hiked, singing theme songs from ‘70s sitcoms. As we rounded what seemed like the zillionth switchback, the next big breathtaking scene unfolded. I’m certain I heard a choir of angels.
Ahead was the mighty Colorado River, a wet-and-wild beauty carving her way through the desert floor. Big smiles. Lots of photos, and we forged ahead to the bridge that would carry us over the river and to Phantom Ranch, our lunch stop and brief respite in its air-conditioned cantina.
We had clicked off just over 10 miles. We were pooped, yet we all knew the hardest part of the journey was ahead. Noshing on an overpriced bagel with warm cream cheese and strawberry jelly, I silently reflected and savored an icy cup of lemonade. The heat outside was rising. The next leg of this hike was going to be a bitch.
Welcome to the Box
Top off fluids. Check. Reapply sunscreen. Check. Dry socks. New moleskin. Reorganize pack. Check, check, check. Away we ventured from the last glimpse of civilization we would see for many hours.
While temps climbed into the mid-80s – no big deal, you think – the compound effect of the deep Canyon walls and heat radiating off the rocks made it feel like Hell. Very little shade. Dusty trails. Cactus.
Welcome to “The Box,” a roughly seven-mile inferno across the North Kaibab Trail that rim-to-rim hikers simply muscle through. It was effing hot. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Our goal was to make it to Cottonwood Camp where we could get water before embarking on the final, steep ascent.
Cottonwood Camp was a mish-mash of weary hikers and campers who did the wise thing and hung out down there for a night or two to rest their legs before the climb out. We perched on a picnic table under the welcome shade of a big tree and contemplated the climb ahead of us.
It was going to be a heads-down, ninja mind control experience that would require extreme effort. We summoned up what was left of our inner badasses, made a pit stop to pee and off we went.
The Only Way to Go is Up
The next 6.8 miles were precisely what our legs feared, but our heads said GO. The only way out is on your own two feet, so get a move on.
We chattered aimlessly, stopped a few times to take a load off and refuel, and met a lovely Asian couple who we kept leap-frogging along the trail. Every time we passed them, they cheered and clapped. And every time they passed us, we returned the jubilation. It became a game, a distraction and a reminder that we were not alone. We all had our eye on the prize and encouraged one another along the way.
The Grand Canyon is the Boss
A few miles up the trail, we encountered a grim scene and a reminder that the Canyon was the boss. A man was laid out flat on his back on the trail, only to be found by another group of hikers who quickly went into Good Samaritan mode, ran up the mountain to the Ranger station and got help.
As primitive as it was, the Park Ranger directed hikers down to the edge of a nearby creek to refill plastic gallon jugs over and over again to pour on the man and cool his body temperature.
We passed by slowly – gawkers – realizing that this could happen to any one of us. We heard through the grapevine a couple hours later that rescuers carried the 300+ pound man up the trail to the Ranger station where he would stay for the night and recover from heat exhaustion.
No Place for Sissies
This is no place for sissies, and Mother Nature continued to bitch slap us up the hill. March, two, three four. Our group got strung out, and I found myself alone in the dusky hours before sunset.
It was about that time that I started talking to God. My legs ached, my left IT band was flaring, forcing me to take the giant step-ups with only my right leg. “Jesus, take the wheel. Walk with me. Get me out of here safely.” I repeated the Lord’s Prayer over and over again as I trudged up switchback after narrow switchback. I figured if anyone was going to keep me from falling over the edge on wobbly legs, it was God right now.
Surrounded by Nightfall
Nightfall surrounded us as we dug headlamps out of dusty backpacks. The heat was gone, and a soft chill returned to the air. We made it to what we knew was the final milestone – the Supai Tunnel – before we would see the stone steps that heralded the end of our journey. One more rest stop, one more opportunity to gather our wits, and it was time to make the final trek hiking out of this very Grand Canyon.
When we emerged, the parking lot was dark. We spotted other weary hikers experiencing the same joy and relief of being done. One guy was hunched over vomiting, and apologizing at the same time, saying he was still feeling the effects of heat exhaustion.
Reunited, and it Feels So Good
My SheTribe was reunited. These amazing women had done what a lot of people cannot do. We are so grateful for the feet, the legs and bodies that carried us 26 miles across one of the world’s most amazing natural wonders.
The Grand Canyon hiking experience is a test of physical and psychological limits, even for experienced athletes. The connectedness with the earth is like no other. Your teacher is Mother Nature, and she will rap you on the knuckles if you get cocky and forget for a second who is in charge.
God, the Universe or whatever higher power you subscribe to, is your guide. Your courage is earned by facing your fears at the edge of a steep and narrow trail. It is amazing, powerful and soulful, and I would recommend it to anyone.