The seventeen mile hike down to the Colorado River and back up from the south rim of the Grand Canyon is definitely not a walk in the park. But to my way of thinking, if you have not taken the hike down into the canyon, then you have not really seen the Grand Canyon.
Like most people, I had heard of and seen pictures and film of the canyon but really had not thought that much about visiting there. I had travelled to the most of the southeast, and along the eastern seaboard, and the middle of the country, and even to several countries in Europe, but had never been out west.
Then somewhere around 1992, my son became a national park ranger. He was assigned to The Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. My wife and daughter decided that we would go out and visit him. Since both my daughter and I had taken our vacation time, we decided to make a two week trip out of the visit.
My wife did a good job of planning, and we visited many of the vacation spots, including, Bandalier National Park, New Mexico, Petrified Forrest, Arizona, The Four Corners, Mesa Verde, the Grand Canyon, and finally finishing the trip in The Rocky Mountain National Park.
We of course visited the south rim of the canyon as most everyone does when they vacation at the Grand Canyon. The big difference for us would be a side trip to the north rim. The canyon is said to be ten miles wide from the south rim to the north rim, but if you go by car it is almost a day’s drive.
My son hiked to the canyon floor from the north rim when he was on his way to Colorado. After hearing about his hike my daughter wanted to do the same. That was the reason for driving to the north rim.
At the time we were in good physical condition. I was running from four to ten miles per day, and she had increased her walking in anticipation of the hike. It was the week after the fourth of July, so we knew that it would be hot down in the canyon. The hike we would take was about ten miles round trip, so we decided to wait until a little after noon to begin in order to take advantage of a little shade from the canyon walls. The posted information signs told us that the average for this hike was approximately six and one half hours. This proved to be almost exactly how long it took us.
Since we made the north rim hike without trouble, we at once began making plans to do the seventeen mile round trip hike from the south rim to the Colorado River. We did not even consider attempting the trip in one day. A few years later we finally made our final plans for the hike. It was the fall of the year and she was finishing a tour of duty in the Rocky Mountains. I had to make a business trip to Dallas, so we decided that rather than flying back to Memphis, I would just take a flight to Denver, where she would pick me up, and then we would drive on to the Grand Canyon.
We obtained much coveted permits for two nights camping in the canyon. The only problem was that just before she left the Rocky Mountains, she sprained her foot. This caused us to have to make a change of plans. We would still do a canyon hike from the south rim, but we knew there would be no way that she would be able to complete the full hike with a recovering sprained ankle. We gave up our camping permits so that someone on the waiting list could have them, and we settled for a shorter day hike.
After beginning the hike it became something that I put on my list as a goal, and something that I considered a “must do.” I had no idea at the time that almost ten years would pass before I would have another opportunity, but I never gave up hope.
A little over ten years later my daughter was transferred to a city which about six hours drive from the Grand Canyon. It was nearing Thanksgiving so we made plans to visit her over the holiday. I mentioned to my son that I was thinking about giving the canyon another try. Neither, my wife or daughter thought it was a good idea. By now I had passed my sixty sixth birth day, and they felt that I should begin to slow down some. They all finally agreed that if I could get back in good enough shape to run six miles, and hike ten miles in the hills with a full backpack, they would feel better about the hike.
By a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving I had fulfilled their requirements, and had spent a full weekend hiking the mountain trails in the Smoky Mountains. I was ready for the south rim.
My wife took a flight out to our daughter’s house, and my son and I began packing for the three day trip to the Grand Canyon of Arizona.
We arrived at our cabin on the south rim the afternoon before the hike was planned. The day was the Monday before Thanksgiving. We planned to do the hike in November because we knew that the weather would have cooled somewhat by then. That is both good and bad. It is good because it is cooler, but can also be bad because you have less daylight. Most people do not wish to be caught down in the canyon after dark.
The cabin where we would be staying was located near the Bright Angel trailhead. That’s where our hike would end. We were up before daylight. Since we would be taking the Kiabob trail down to the bottom of the canyon, and the Bright Angel trail back up, we had to take the shuttle bus to the trailhead. We knew that we would be running short of time so we took the first shuttle. We hit the trail at daylight. It was eighteen degrees when we started out.
There are signs posted many places advising that you should never try to make the hike down to the river and back up in one day. It is said that even seasoned hikers should not try to do so. We felt that we could make it, and also, it was something I had set my goal to do.
We were told that each person needs about four gallons of water, or a portion could be something like Gatorade. With the weather being cool we took about five gallons of liquid together. That proved to be enough, and even that much, along with our food, flashlight, and other necessities, made for a heavy back pack. Also, because of the cold we each had to wear a heavy jacket, which would also have to be placed in the pack once the weather warmed some. We knew that by the time we reached the canyon floor the temperature would be up to about seventy degrees.
We passed the first rest station in a couple of hours. This is where we lost the most of the so called, “day hikers.” I had made it fine up until here. I knew that I was physically strong enough to make the hike. What I had not counted on was that I would have trouble with my knees. I had experienced no problem with them when my daughter and I hiked the north rim. However, that had been over ten years before, and I had suffered a broken foot during that time.
The Kiabob Trail is said to be some shorter, but is also steeper. In addition to that, this is the trail that the mule pack train uses to transport supplies down. The big problem is that they have placed timbers for steps along the trail. The constant travel by the mules has caused holes to be dug out on the down side of the timbers. So it is not a matter of just stepping over the timbers. You have to step over the timbers, and down in the hole at the same time. This really places pressure on the knees.
By the time we were a little over half way down my knees were really giving me trouble. My son had really become concerned. First off, he said that at the speed we were walking it was going to be after dark before we made it out of the canyon. I told him that I was not tired, that it was my knees, and that if I could take my time I would be fine once we reached the bottom. I felt that the knees would not bother me on the climb back up. This proved to be true. Though I was tired, I made it much better after we started the climb back up.
We reached the bottom of the canyon. There you have a choice of two trails. You can take the one down by the inside of the canyon which cuts off some of the hike out to the river, or you can take the foot bridge across the Colorado River, walk down canyon to the Phantom Ranch, and then take another foot bridge back across the river and hit the Bright Angel Trail for the hike back up.
My son had advised me to not try the full hike when we were about three quarters of the way down and he saw the problem I was having with my knees. He said, “Dad, I am not telling you this as your son, but as a park ranger. You should turn around here and go back up.” The only thing was that I had waited too long to undertake this hike, and also, I felt that it might be my last chance. Also I felt that if I did not take the trail on out to the river, and down canyon to the ranch, I would not have made the full hike.
I crossed the bridge and walked down to Phantom Ranch. I ate my lunch and then found a bench and rested for a few minutes. Now it was back down to the bridge, cross the Colorado, and hit the trail for the hike back to the top of the canyon. It was almost one in the afternoon. There was not much doubt now that we would not be out of the canyon by dark. For that reason we had packed a small flashlight.
It was just as I thought. I had no problem with my knees on the climb back up. By sundown we had reached the plateau where my daughter and I hiked to on our day hike. I was very tired. About every ten feet my son would turn and ask if I was alright. I could never convince him that I was doing fine. But that I just needed to rest more often. I am sure he was also pretty tired.
We knew that we would be the last hikers out of the canyon. That proved to be true. That is except for one girl. She kept stopping along the way, and we would pass her. In a little while she would catch up, but would then linger as if she was just looking at the sights. She finally passed us when we were near the top. As it turned out, she was a plain clothes ranger. Apparently it was her responsibility to make sure everyone was out of the canyon.
We made it out of the canyon about an hour after dark. I guess some people would be scared, and it is probably not a good idea to be on the canyon trail after dark. It would be very easy to make a wrong step, or even startle a rattlesnake. They are said to come to the trail at night. But if you have never been down in the canyon at night, then you have really missed something. That night as I looked up at the stars that seemed so close, and heard the night sounds of rocks falling, and the sound of the animals and birds, I was happy that we were the last ones out.
Will I try to hike the canyon again? Probably not: I am five years older and am still recovering from another broken foot. Would I do it all over again? Absoutely!
By M.G. "Russ" Russell