One of my goals this year was to hike the Grand Canyon. Although you can get some amazing views from the rim, hiking down into the canyon is a totally different experience. As someone who loves physical challenges, I resolved to take on the canyon in a big way by hiking from the rim to the river and back in one day. I am fortunate to be local to the Grand Canyon, just 80 miles away, so this was a must-do experience for me.
I planned the hike for the first Saturday of May, when I knew the weather would be mild, since the heat all through the summer is extreme, making hikes much more dangerous and miserable. I hiked down the South Kaibab Trail, then west a little ways along the river to ascend Bright Angel Trail. All told, I hauled myself approximately 17.3 miles, descending approximately 4,800 ft and ascending another 4,400 ft for a total of over 9,000 ft elevation change.
This post wouldn’t be complete without a disclaimer. The purpose of this post is to share my experience and some nice pictures. I am not encouraging you to attempt this hike. This is not a casual day hike, it is a serious athletic endeavor. There are a lot of reasons I felt it was reasonably safe for me to attempt this hike, including timing, my physiological adaptation to high altitude conditions, and thoughtful preparation. Think long and hard before attempting anything like this!! Lack of sufficient preparation will put you at serious risk. If you want to see the inner canyon for a day, I suggest hiking only about halfway down. If you really want to see the bottom, you can take a rafting trip down the Colorado River, book lodging overnight at Phantom Ranch (and maybe even a mule ride down and up), or request a backcountry permit to camp and break up the hike. (Info is available via the NPS.)
The night before, we packed and prepped everything we could so we could grab it and go in the morning. I packed a variety of snacks: carbs, protein, fat, sweet, salty, etc. I loaded up my 3-liter hydration bladder as well as an extra bottle of water, plus electrolyte capsules since the conditions of this hike put you at risk for hyponatremia (“water intoxication” from losing too many elecrolytes through excessive sweat). I have a friend who works in the bottom of the canyon as a park ranger, and he suggested bringing a small umbrella as portable shade. Although I didn’t end up needing it, this was an extremely clever tip since the sun can make things feel unbearably hot otherwise.
I prioritized comfort and layers for my clothing choices. I chose some of my favorites: paris perfection cool racerback, spring has sprung speed shorts, and concord grape energy bra. Since the morning was going to be so cold, I also layered on my heathered paris pink define jacket, calm and cozy pants, and my trusty Mountain Hardwear hat. For shoes, I wore my nanos since I knew they would be comfortable and not give me blisters, which is a major concern for such a long distance. My pack is the Sirrus 24 from Osprey, which ended up weighing in around 10 or 12 lbs fully packed.
My alarm went off at the ripe hour of 3:45 am. I had been eagerly anticipating this hike for a long time, so I felt like a kid on Christmas. We slathered on sunscreen, took care of my dogs, and packed the last bits of food. We were out the door just a few minutes after 4, starting our drive by the light of a huge, low moon. I watched the sun rise out the window as we drove north through the (mostly) empty land between my house and the canyon.
We made our way to the parking areas on the western side of the park at Bright Angel Lodge so that when we finished our hike, our car would be right there waiting for us.
After getting everything situated, we boarded the hiker’s express shuttle as planned at 6 am with a solid crowd of others. After making a couple stops to pick up more hikers and winding around the slow-moving park roads, we arrived at the South Kaibab trailhead on the east side of the park at 6:30. It was about 40 degrees outside.
Down, down, down
The prevailing wisdom of Grand Canyon hikes is to go down the South Kaibab Trail. The canyon is made up of many nooks and crannies, and the South Kaibab winds its way out on a point, which you can see from this photo (the rock formation in the middle of the above photo with the little red “hat”). As you get further away from the rim, you get incredibly vast views. The trail is a shorter length making for a steeper descent that works its way down at a pretty consistent pace of 1000 ft vertical drop per 1.5 miles. The trail was very rough and jarring in places, and littered with smelly mule poop (mules are the primary mode of transportation in and out of the canyon for supplies and people who don’t hike).
We arrived at the aptly named Ooh Ahh Point in what felt like just a few minutes (where the pano above was taken, you can click through for a larger version). Sure enough, I was already ready to lose my sweatpants. My hat and jacket were soon to follow.
The canyon is so large and deep that from most vantage points, you can’t even see the bottom. We got our first glimpse of the Colorado River several miles in, the little sliver of blue-green in the middle of the photo. We had already descended quite a bit at this point, and this photo gives you an idea of just how much farther down is left to go. I bounded down the trail feeling like a little mountain goat, all happy and bouncy while I took in the sights.
After the halfway point, I started to feel some soreness in my ankles. My hams and quads were very “awake” too from all of the stabilizing. Still, I was feeling great overall and loving the day.
After a steep final descent, we reached the black suspension bridge at about 9, 2.5 hours after we started.
Right next to the bridge is Boat Beach, the sandy area in the pic above. This is one of the only areas along the trails where the river is accessible, so we made a quick stop there.
The bottom of the canyon is deceptive. Much like you often can’t see the river from the rim, you can’t see the rim from the river either. The steep faces of the lowest tier of rock obscures most of the views, so you don’t get the sense at all that you’re standing in the bottom of such incomprehensible vastness.
After a stop at Bright Angel Campground to refill water, we made a little excursion to the famous Phantom Ranch. The walk there was one of my favorite parts of the day. You walk alongside a creek, which is flanked by trees and plants growing lusciously green from the availability of water. There was a serenity in the bottom of the canyon unlike anywhere else I’ve been. I was a little jealous of the overnighters who would get to soak all of this up for hours.
We arrived at Phantom Ranch and plopped ourselves down at one of the tables for a break. The canteen sells lemonade and a few other small refreshments. They only charged me $3 for my lemonade! I’m pretty sure you couldn’t even get an empty cup for $3 at touristy locales like Disney, and this is the bottom of the Grand Canyon, which is not only unique, but poses logistical challenges since you can’t exactly drive a truck full of supplies down. I would’ve paid much more without a second thought, not to mention would’ve felt good about my money going to support the park anyway.
After several hours of hiking and sweating, the cold, sweet lemonade tasted like the nectar of the gods. We refueled with snacks and enjoyed the brief time sitting somewhere that wasn’t hot.
What goes down must come up
Feeling refreshed from the food, drink, and relief from the sun at Phantom Ranch, we made our way back toward Bright Angel Trail. We crossed back to the south side of the silver suspension bridge at 10:30, an hour after our arrival at the river and 4 hours into our day.
The beginning of Bright Angel winds west along the river, wrapping around the rock formations with portions of the trail as sandy as an ocean beach. The scenery changes starkly from the beautiful, lush oasis we just left to sand, sparse brush, and unfriendly-looking rocks carved out by the furiously rushing river.
The last stop before you leave the river is Pipe Creek Beach. Unlike Boat Beach, Pipe Creek is very rocky. We stopped, and I took off my shoes to cool my feet in the water and rinse off the insane amounts of dust I had kicked up on my lower legs on the way down. The water was so cold it hurt my feet to stand in it for more than a moment.
After leaving the beach, the trail works its way progressively further back into a nook of the canyon. As soon as we started the upward portion, the effort of it hit me like a ton of bricks. My pack suddenly felt like it must’ve weighed at least 700 lbs. Right from the start, my muscles burned angrily with each step. In the space of maybe half an hour, my mood plummeted from buoyant and excited to pretty demoralized.
As you work your way back toward the rim and deeper into the nook of the canyon, you don’t get anymore panoramic views, just rock towering high around you, though the stark views were contrasted by a couple of rainbows we spotted in the clouds. The rim loomed so high above I couldn’t even comprehend it, and I didn’t want to anyway. Using photo time stamps to calculate, we were moving about 2 mph at this point.
After a couple hours, the plant life became happy and green again as we reached Indian Gardens, a shaded oasis and hiking rest area. Indian Gardens marked the halfway point of the ascent in terms of mileage, but only 1/3 of the way up in terms of elevation. We took a long rest of about 30 or 40 minutes and I ate half of my sandwich. I worried that eating more would’ve turned my stomach, and puking on the trail was seriously the last thing I needed. The thermometer read 90 degrees.
Getting moving again to leave Indian Gardens was painful. I didn’t feel any better after resting, and my morale languished pathetically. My pace felt absolutely glacial as I willed myself to keep taking one small, plodding step after the other. I got to the point where I was so focused on conserving energy and continuing to breathe that even speaking seemed like an overwhelming task, so I resorted to hand motions or the occasional single-syllable grunt. I told myself the remaining 4.8 miles wasn’t too far.
Storm clouds gathered above us, and though it never rained, they provided a bit of natural shade, which was extremely welcome since I was hot and sweaty enough. With the rim still impossibly far overhead, I pressed on, focusing on just going a little farther before resting to breathe, and willing the next landmark to be just around the next bend. There’s a popular saying about the canyon that hiking down is optional, but hiking up is mandatory. There is no quitting in the canyon. You hike yourself in, you hike yourself out. Period.
At the 3-mile resthouse (i.e., 3 miles from the rim) I snacked on some trail mix, getting a brief infusion of energy as the carbs hit my system. I felt ok for about 20 minutes, and we chatted briefly with another hiking duo, which helped take my mind off things, too.
Each time I looked back, I could see the landmarks where we had been just a couple hours before. They looked so far away, and I felt a little incredulous at how I could’ve come so far and yet still have so far to go. (In the photo above, you can see the dark green patch of trees next to the rock formation that marks Indian Gardens far off in the distance.)
The last 3 miles of the hike are the most punishing, ascending 1000 ft with every 1.5 miles, literally more than twice as steep on average as the earlier portions. After Indian Gardens, our average pace slowed from 2 mph to about 1.75 mph.
As we approached and passed the 1.5 mile resthouse, I began to really feel like the end was within reach. 1.5 miles is practically nothing! Or, so I told myself. Unfortunately, not only were my muscles burning more intensely than before, my joints had joined the pain party, too. My hips especially ached from the effort, making each step absolutely agonizing on multiple levels. My honey, who has a much more substantial endurance capacity than I, was starting to suffer from fatigue and joint pain too. At this point, we only exchanged the occasional “you ok?” Of course we both knew the answer was a resounding “UH NO”, but that wasn’t really the point of the question. We were a miserable pair, to be sure. I overheard a tourist complain “my legs hurt” and I laughed in my head at the absurdity of it–you think YOUR legs hurt?!
Seeing the lower rock tunnel was one of the most beautiful sights since it meant we had only 3/4 of a mile to go. Less than a mile! I could positively kiss the thing! It also brought back fond memories of when my mom visited just a few weeks ago and we hiked down to this same tunnel. I recalled that it had taken my mom and me about 40 minutes to get back up since there was still several hundred feet left to ascend. Although the distance seemed tantalizingly short, 40 minutes seemed like an eternity. The somewhat morbid thought crossed my mind that if something happened to one of us and we couldn’t keep going, we were definitely close enough now that at least we wouldn’t need to be helicoptered out.
After just one or two more stops to catch my breath, we rallied for our final ascent. I must’ve started moving just a little bit faster with the promise of the finish line so near, because the ascent from the lower tunnel somehow only took 25 minutes instead of 40. I passed lots of tourists in all manner of casual attire, toting their souvenir bags, herding young children, and being vaguely annoyed at each other like vacationers do. All of us sharing the same trail in the final, desperately tired moments of my hike seemed utterly incongruous to me.
Finally, finally, finally, I rounded the final bend and spotted the sidewalk just a stone’s throw from me. Much to my chagrin, a line of tourists decided that was a great time to gather side by side RIGHT at the entrance of the trail to look around and point at who knows what. After all I’d endured that day, I had a momentary surge of indignation that these people would block my path–I almost had to physically jostle them to take my final steps out of the trail because they did not make room for me as I approached. I imagine they were just caught up in the moment and didn’t realize how inconsiderate it was to stand there but… Way to kind of spoil a special moment, tourists.
The final steps felt surreal. It was now 4 pm, and I’d hiked for a total of 9.5 hours. Out of that, I hiked uphill for about 6 hours (which is at least twice as awful as it sounds) and all in one rather unceremonious moment, I was done. As I sat/collapsed down for a moment on a bench, tears filled up my eyes because after such a huge day, I just had so many feelings.
We stumbled back to the car to make the drive back home. Back in town, we rolled into the grocery store covered in sweat and dirt, and literally limped up and down the aisles to grab some celebratory beer (for him) and donuts (for me). I practically inhaled 4 of those glazed miracles (along with some real food) before soaking in an epsom salt bath in hopes of mitigating some of the inevitable soul-crushing soreness.
Fortunately, all joint aches had disappeared by morning. Initially, I was monstrously sore and felt like doing absolutely nothing but eating and sleeping, but the soreness went away quicker than I expected and I was even able to loosen up with a light workout on Tuesday after the Saturday hike.
1. My biggest mistake was definitely food. I was trying to eat better than usual in the week leading up to the hike, but unfortunately this meant I just wasn’t getting that many calories. Before a long, energetically demanding ordeal like this, it’s be helpful to eat much more than normal for a few days as a way to load your body with an excess to draw from, especially since eating a lot during the hike was not an ideal option. Honestly, I should have prioritized as many calories as possible over clean food. That’s not to say I should’ve gorged myself on cookies and pizza all week, but eating fewer clean calories was a greater evil than eating some less-than-ideal food if it meant getting a ton of calories that I clearly needed. Although it’s hard to pin down exactly how much this affected me, I think I would’ve stayed in better spirits and not crashed nearly as early if I was better fueled. My body just did not have the energy it needed.
2. If I did the canyon again, I would use trekking poles for sure! I think the reduced impact would’ve really helped with the joint pain that came later, and maybe help with muscle fatigue a little bit too.
3. I definitely should’ve left the sweatpants in the car! Considering I only wore them for maybe 20 minutes out of 9.5 hours, they were kind of a waste of weight. Generally, anything I could’ve reasonably done to pack lighter would’ve been a good idea. Even just a pound can make a big difference.
4. I think one of the reasons that the ascent was so soul-crushingly difficult for me was that I hadn’t really felt the effects of the downhill yet. I was totally blindsided by the fatigue that hit me on the way up, and I think the mental effect that had on me translated to physical effects, too.
Overall, this definitely ranks pretty high among the most physically challenging things I’ve ever done. Still, I’m really glad I did it. It was truly an experience like no other and I’m proud to have checked this beast off my list. And yes, I would do it again. Just not anytime soon!!!