Trip report II – Grand Canyon RIM-TO-RIM, north-south, 2 adults
Day Two – HIKE DAY, May 30th
The alarm clocks – on our wristwatches – went off at 4:15 a.m. I got up and made coffee in the room, then got dressed – which took about 3 minutes. I was very keen to see what kind of temperature we would be hit with. The forecast had been for about mid-30s early in the morning at the north rim. Well, contrary to my fears, it had been fairly warm the evening before when we arrived, and by the time we retreated to our room it was totally fine with the light jacket.
So stepping outside that morning at about 4:35 a.m. was a pleasant surprise. It was on the brink of cold for sure, but the previous year, earlier in May, when we had been waiting for the Hikers’ Express at the South Rim, a little later in the morning but earlier in the month – we had been shivering badly in the freezing cold wind.
I went and dropped off the key card in the lobby where the guy on duty at front desk blinked at me a bit surprised. Steve and his van were already there, as were three more passengers. We were promptly whisked up the road to the trailhead. It was already getting light, enough to see very clearly. I expected to be first out, at 5 a.m., but there were four people already at the trailhead, two hikers being sent off by two pals with picture taking and shoulder slapping and happy slogans. We grabbed the chance and had the two guys take our picture as well after their two charges had set off at a brisk walk down the trail. And then, at 5:07 a.m. we were off.
At first the trail led through the trees, tall Ponderosas, and we both agreed it looked a bit like in the Swiss Alps, just as long as you didn’t look to the right where you could already see glimpses of Roaring Springs Canyon, down which you make your way into Bright Angel Canyon … eventually. The trail started almost level, but changed after the first couple of minutes and the switchbacks started serpentining down … and down … not long and we were out of the tall conifers, and rock became the predominant feature. With each switchback the walls beside you become more soaring, even though we were still only in a side canyon of a side canyon.
The trail is a pleasant hiking trail, single file, and the ground is soft, but not deep, with few roots or rocks much of the way, so the going as such is easy. Even though you are obviously descending from the start, the trail as such is never really steep, it descends through ever more serpentines. Very soon the view opens up across the side canyon, far, far down. Very often the trail is hugging a vertical mountain side. You come on along and see this ledge in the far wall and wonder if this can possibly be the trail. Surely not, this is just a natural ledge … well, no, it’s the trail. As you are descending through the different geological layers, the rocks by your side and the color of the ground change color.
A word of caution: along here the trail is exposed, the canyon bottom is way, way down, and it’s really vertiginous. People with vertigo issues should really not hike this part of the trail!
After a bit over an hour we reached the first bridge over the chasm, and then after two hours we had reached the Roaring Springs campground, the eponymous ‘spring’ indeed cascading out of the opposite rock wall with a deafening roar, and falling to the creek bed far down. A sign informed us that neither this campground nor Cottonwood further down would have water, since there was had been a pipe break about 1.5 miles north of Phantom Ranch … oh well, no problem, our Camelbaks were filled to capacity.
We hadn’t been hiking long before Walt started complaining about something wrong in his right shoe. Damn sock wrinkled after all, it’s never done that before, he felt. Well, I suggested, take the shoe off and check. Yeah, and then what, I still need to wear the sock. Well, fine then, suit yourself.
On and on we went. The canyon widened, and now we could always see or at least hear the gurgling waters of the creek, sometimes right next to us, sometimes further down, and soaring rock walls on either side widened and then narrowed again, getting higher and higher as we kept descending. At one point we could actually see the south rim, and then the next turn obscured it from view again. The views were always changing but always spectacular, gorgeous formations and breathtaking colors, simply glorious, a wonderland of gigantic proportions.
North Kaibab trail led us out onto a wide open plateau with high-desert and semi-desert vegetation. The high-altitude Ponderosas and juniper pines had long since disappeared and now suddenly there was prickly pear again and narrow-leaf yucca, as well as large colonies of century plant in bloom – the unfortunately misnamed agave Americana.
Later we found ourselves crossing what was almost a swamp-area where I got a new insect bite on one of my legs – thank you very much. Then the trail meandered around always yet another turn in a narrow gulch, mostly rocks now; obviously harder rock, since the walls very almost vertical.
The closer we got to Phantom Ranch almost down by the river the more foot traffic there was, more and more hikers coming our way. Finally we espied a sort of oasis ahead of us, tall trees fed by the Bright Angel Creek, and with that we had reached Phantom Ranch after roughly 5.5 hours and almost 13.5 miles, and had descended down to roughly 2500 ft., having descended well over 5700 ft. by the time we reached the river.
Phantom Ranch is the only lodging – apart from campgrounds for tents – down in the Grand Canyon NP. We passed cabins, and then the main buildings with the canteen, the corral for the mules, and then a bit further down along the creek we passed the Bright Angel Campground and then reached the T-junction where you turn left to get to Black Bridge and the South Kaibab trail, and right to get to Silver Bridge and the Bright Angel trail.
So, Walt goes, which way do we have to go now?
To the right (of course).
Are you sure?
Of course I’m sure.
If we go wrong and get lost I’ll get loud, believe me!
(Don’t we know it! – dramatic eye roll) – We went that way last year.
We’ve never been here before!
Of course we have! Last year we came down South Kaibab there and over Black Bridge (pointing to the left); then crossed this here selfsame bridge and then crossed Silver Bridge the way we’re gonna do this time.
Silence – conceding the point.
So after between 14 and 15 miles we had reached the Colorado River and Silver Bridge, and thus the end of the North Kaibab trail, a truly epic journey so far already, where the journey is the destination.
We’d walked for six hours now without really stopping, and by now I really wanted a break, so we sat down on one of the nice benches underneath the wide branches of big trees close to the river, at the bottom end of Bright Angel Campground, where there’s a drinking water standpipe, as well as restrooms, were the trail heads west out of camp to the Silver Bridge.
My feet were hot inside the shoes; not hurting, but hot. So Walt had collapsed onto the bench, then announced he wanted his water bottle refilled. He’d had trouble with his Camelbak; even though it was full it somehow didn’t work – maybe his second camera and second and third big lenses sitting on the tube … so I got back up and took his pint-sized bottle to go and refill it. There was a small group of hikers ahead of me, waiting to fill their own water bags and bottles from the tap. One was a group of somewhat rowdy bigmouths with bad language, but they were gentlemen and let me go ahead as they were waiting for more members of their group to reemerge from the restrooms … the age of chivalry is not totally dead and buried then. When I returned to our bench in the shade, Walt said he had taken off his shoe after all … and guess what, there was a small but sharp-edged rock inside his shoes, and he’d been walking on it now for six hours.
So what does the underside of your foot look like? I wanted to know. Don’t ask, he only said. Well, he should have checked when I said he should …
We rested for about 25 minutes, eating energy bars and apple rings (I’d eaten fresh apples as we were going along), and then got up again. I looked up at where we were going, the south rim, and you really need to put your head in your neck; it’s way, way up that vertical wall. But first you need to gain the Tonto Plateau. Next stop, Indian Garden, about 1300 feet up, right now as elusive as a mirage. I had seen by the restrooms that it was over 90F down here and it was around noon – and not a cloud in the sky; total picture postcard weather. I had long since shed my jacket and then the fleece of course. At the stop and once before when we stopped for three or four minutes we had taken an Endurolyte or a salt stick capsule since now we’d be perspiring. I would, too, even though I usually don’t for a long time, except where some elastic band or backpack strap is right on my skin. So, mineralized and hydrated, we pushed on for the second part of our journey, even though distance wise we were almost two thirds into it, but the real easy two thirds, since it had been down; cooler for the first part, and partly in the shade.
Head count: After the first hour or so we had never again seen the two guys ahead of us, bent on their own one-day rim-to-rim adventure. Another couple had been passing us, and then we had been passing them again. They seemed to be traveling at about the same speed we were, and as we were resting in the shade by the river, they had walked past us. And, actually, way up before Roaring Springs, two runners had come jogging past us down the trail, followed by a third one on his own some time later. Those guys of course were long gone … not that it mattered, this was not a competition.
So we walked the few hundred yards downriver, still on the north bank, to Silver Bridge. You walk on metal grating and can look right down into the water between your feet, and the view up and down the river is awesome of course. The bridge wobbles just a tiny, tiny bit. Once on the south bank we turned right, downriver, and followed the river trail – part of it through deep sand as if you were on the beach. Whenever I trudge through the deep sand of a wash or otherwise very soft going through loose and dry sand in the heat, I see in front of my inner eye these scenes from the John Wayne movie ‘The Three Godfathers’ … If I recall this correctly John Wayne is the only one of the three who survives and is left holding the baby – that’s as in literally.
Anyhow, it was hot now, but there was a bit of a nice breeze. We came around a corner where the trail hugs a rock wall … and got stopped for about 10 minutes as the mule train had chosen this spot for a break. The mules were standing sideways across the trail, blocking it, and there was no way past them, so everybody was blocked and had to wait for them to move on. At least there was some shade – and the couple we’d seen before repeatedly was there as well. She was sitting flat on the ground on the trail, and he looked a bit, well, done in, and you could see he’d had a nose bleed.
And then the mules finally moved and we could get on. The river trail takes you up away from the river, but then you lose all that gained elevation again as it drops back down more or less to the river to where the small side canyon emerges. There’s a rest house there and the other couple headed for that. So we turned our backs on the swiftly moving waters of the Colorado River and started our long climb out from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We headed up the canyon which would take us to the Tonto Plateau and into Indian Garden, also way up there still. The narrowness of this side canyon meant there was some shade ... but not much of it now over noon…
There was once again some more foot traffic coming our way, out of Indian Garden, heading for the ‘beach’ by the river. There was no more breeze here, and it was really hot, almost 100 degrees, and it felt like the third degree of old – no, not really, that was so excruciating it would kill most of us softies of present times for sure. Anyhow, we climbed through switchback after switchback, on and on. It’s less than five miles from Silver Bridge to Indian Garden, but they were tough miles and stretched; it took us two hours from our last rest to get there. Towards the top we found ourselves in a narrow gulch, with water running and tall trees, happy harbingers of Indian Garden, and then we were up on Tonto Plateau and the lush green and verdant oasis up ahead was Indian Garden, as welcome to us right now as the Garden of Eden. Time for another break on a comfy wooden bench in the shade of the massive trees that hold their leafy branches over the weary and often footsore hikers’ heads like a canopy or an awning, offering a much welcome reprieve from hikers’ tribulations! Walt collapses on the first vacant bench he comes to, then declares he needs fresh WATER!, and where’s the tap anyway. I get up again and find water – right behind the next massive tree.
We sit here for another 25 minutes or so, swallow another salt stick capsule, and eat more apple rings. Alright, from here it’s ‘only’ another 4.5 miles, but they pack a hefty punch for sure. You have to climb another 3060 ft. to the top, the trailhead, which is at 6840 ft. I drink one of those small 5-hour energy shot flasks – basically a shot of caffeine, enriched with vitamins; not sure it’ll help, but if it doesn’t, it won’t do any harm either.
The indicator at Indian Garden also gave between 90 and 100F as we set out, and we were planning short stops at both 3-Mile and 1.5-Mile rest houses. Soon after Indian Garden, a group of three South Americans whizzed past at a good clip … right, well, they were very young. Walt now walked ahead, as I have no chance to keep up with his grasshopper legs when it’s uphill. While we had been sitting at Indian Garden, the bigmouths from the other bank had passed through, a bit more subdued and the color of their faces approximating that of a red cardinal; minus the feathers of course. We had been wondering where the other couple had gotten to … certainly not to Indian Garden yet, and we hoped they hadn’t made such a beeline for the resthouse by the river to get on the emergency phone.
I felt good and tackled the first of the last three 1.5-mile legs to 3-mile house enthusiastically. Soon enough I passed the three South Americans collapsed now in the miserly shade of a scraggly juniper by the wayside. Well … And now all it was all up, and up, and up … About 45 minutes later my eyes gladly fastened on the 3-mile house … really perspiring now for the first time on this hike and feeling a tiny bit weary; feet a bit heavier I make the shelter, where I find Walt as well as the bigmouths – VERY silent and somewhat apathetic, the latter taking off their t-shirts, holding them under the water and then putting them back on. Suddenly I’m almost panting, and it takes me three or four minutes for my heart rate to come down and my breath to get back to normal … I should know by now that I mustn’t try to keep up with Walt when it’s uphill. I’m no match for those long legs that work like pistons …I tell him I need another two, three minutes – and a salt capsule – but he can already go on if he wants … no, he waits since, as he says, it would only mean he’d have to wait longer at the 1.5-mile house if he went ahead now.
The bigmouths head out; neither hide nor hair of the South Americans; no sign of the couple from the other side. Across from me in the corner there was a young Indian woman (from India) doing a passable imitation of a statue titled ‘Misery’ – totally unmoving, leaning into the rock at her side and back, propping her up, woebegone doe-eyes wide and fixed, her male partner giving her what was probably a pep talk – which didn’t seem to have much of an impact any which way. She was an image of total ‘I’ve had it, and then some! I don’t wanna move no more!’, and I felt sorry for her, as she’d have to make the rim under her own steam, well, sweat and vapor, rather. As the sign posted near the top of the rim warns ‘Going down is optimal, coming back up is mandatory’, or words to that effect – the more discerning citizens get the hint.
Alright then, next 1.5-mile leg – the penultimate one. I announce that I’m now going to slow down and take it easy! One step at the time will ultimately get you there, and there’s no rush, we’re further than I had thought we would be by this time … I walked more slowly and the going was easy again, well, maybe not easy, but not taxing either. Sometimes I stopped and looked back … Indian Garden already way, way down there – good – and the rim IS closer now!
Strangely enough it was just another good 50 minutes to 1.5-mile house even though I felt I was slower now. Walt was there, sitting in the shade by the wayside – not necessary to go up to the actual house - as were the bigmouths, one of them smoking a joint. I sat down for a few minutes as well – drink, salt capsule and on, now for the finish line, the final 1.5 miles up to the trailhead. Even though we were slow now we passed people, nobody passed us.
On this last leg now there were quite a few people, actually going in both directions. Some of the trail was now in the shade, and that was welcome. And up there you can now see Kolb Studio perched on the very edge like where eagles dare. Once in a while there was a bit of a breeze, and that was welcome too. Last year we’d almost been blown off the trail, this year Aeolus was lazy.
Then the first tunnel, up and up ... second tunnel, almost there! Then two very young guys – one with a bare upper body and dreadlocks – and sandals; don’t worry be happy out of his natural habitat - coming down ask me if they can get down to the river and back before sundown – it’s now after 4 p.m.. Uhm, well, honestly, no.
You’re saying we can’t go down to the river?
No, I’m not saying that. But it’ll take you 3 to 4 hours to get there, and twice as long up.
Three times as long, a voice wheezes behind me tortuously.
The two guys go on, to hie themselves thither, how far I have no clue … maybe still river-bond, it takes all kinds.
Just before reaching Kolb Studio I catch up to a group of four men; two of them the ones who had hit the trail a minute ahead of us over 11 hours ago, one of them listing very badly, truly on his last legs. I guess had he been on his own he would have become a case for the ranger rescue. Now his colleagues were nursing him home. No clue where the other two sprung up, but they say they also started at the north rim just after 5 … and one of their party is sick, suffering badly. So much for stating the obvious. We discuss it and no, that guy hadn’t been taking any salts and electrolytes on the way … well, there!
I give them a wave and push on, not willing to linger now. I want to find Walt and sit down somewhere. Stepping off Bright Angel Trail and onto the Rim Trail, I arrive at the South Rim at 4:30 p.m. after a bit under 11.5 hrs. – a good hour accounts for breaks, thus a hiking time of about 10:15 hrs.
I espy two guys sitting leisurely outside Kolb’s, wearing t-shirts whose backs proclaim in large script ‘I Hiked Rim to Rim!’ Oh yeah!
Excuse me, where did you get these t-shirts? I accost them without delay. Bright Angel Lodge gift shop, I’m told. Well, that’s convenient! I want one of those; like an award, a badge of honor.
First things first; where’s Wally, oops, Walt? Ah, right there. Dusty and disheveled, he’s sitting in a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed group of polished spic-and-span tourists listening attentively to a ranger talk. I sit down and tell him about the t-shirt. I probably also look like a scarecrow that’s been in a tornado.
I don’t want to walk back there, Walt says.
Well, we’re basically sitting in front of it.
We go inside and gratefully, they have the required sizes for us.
Okay, what now; let’s take stock. I’ve since found an accurate map with distances, on http://www.nps.gov/grca/index.htm - well, duh, where else would you look:
Bright Angel Trailhead to Bright Angel Campground 4380 feet (elevation change) 9.5 miles (distance)
North Kaibab Trailhead to Bright Angel Campground 5761 feet (elevation change) 14 miles (distance).
Thus we have walked 23.5 miles, not to mention the down and back up. Did I hurt? No, nothing, except my hips from the backpack strap. Was I exhausted? Not at all; a bit weary and tired, yes, that was all. Feet hot inside the Ariats, but no pain at all, not anywhere. In endurance racing, with the horses, the vet has to pronounce your horse ‘fit to continue’ 20-30 minutes after you cross the finish line or you get eliminated. So am I fit to continue? Absolutely! Sore, cramped, ready to drop – absolutely not.
Good, absolutely none the worse for walk. What now? Well, I should have known, we make a beeline for the El Tovar Lounge like homing pigeons – they have BEER on tap, and cold Coke for me, which is infinitely more alluring than tepid to warm water …
We sit in the same corner where we sat a bit over a day ago – ah, bliss, getting off my feet does feel good, and I stretch me legs gratefully.
Some beers and Cokes later the next test: can we get up and walk on after having sat down immobile? I get up and walk away, all fine, Walt is a bit, well, like a fakir apprentice after his first walk-on-hot coals practice went wrong. Next question: are we going to take the shuttle to the Market Plaza or do we walk along the rim. We walk, so another roughly 1.5 miles (total now up to 25 miles – sometimes I’m really impressed with myself – but then this is not even marathon distance – strictly speaking) later we’re at the Market Plaza and at the Jeep where we change into sandals and then go check in at the Yavapai Lodge, feeling we have really accomplished something special! Hiking in the Grand Canyon is a very special treat indeed, but this had not been a hike for snivelers!
The main building of the Yavapai lodge is also right there at the plaza and we checked in. Check in staff at the front desk were nice and friendly and helpful.
Our room was in Yavapai West, where rooms are lined up motel style in buildings grouped along loop roads in the woods, two loops with a total of ten buildings. Yavapai East is on the other side of the access road. This means you have a guaranteed parking spot outside your door.
Our room, some $135 for a night at the end of May, featured two kings as well as a chest of drawers, a table with chair, an armchair, a floor lamp and a large TV set, a coffee machine and a fridge. The bathroom was roomy and very nice, with three dispensers above the bathtub/shower: shampoo, conditioner and body wash. The hand soap came out of a dispenser as well, and there was an additional dispenser on the wall with moisturizing lotion – very nice. The room had a nice and homey feel with a pleasant atmosphere.
Next: showers!!! I also treated my skin all over to the moisturizing lotion from the dispenser on the wall: Green Tea Lemongrass – very fragrant – meaning I came away smelling like a Thai dish I guess. Now, food, but after the showers and everything that had gone before today, we really didn’t feel like getting back to the El Tovar, very likely standing in line before we got a dinner table – which we would have had to reserve first in any case. So it was clear for us we were going to put our “We Hiked Rim to Rim” – in one day - celebratory dinner on hold for a day and eat in less style for right now at the Yavapai Cafeteria.
Well, the place is really large. It is bright and very clean, but has no charm, but you couldn’t reasonably expect that at a cafeteria. As we were walking to the counters we passed a guy who was gobbling down something that smelled like a dead skunk on the highway. Well, actually, in dubio pro restaurant, give the joint the benefit of the doubt: maybe it was the guy’s socks, he looked like it. I love salad, but the self-service, pay by weight salad bar didn’t really appeal, so I chose the fish of the day – tuna – including two sides, so I added vegetable of the day – broccoli – and a baked potato. Walt had the tuna with rice, as well as a small bowl of fruit salad. For a cafeteria it was expensive. The portions are okay, not large, not small, the food was not great. The tuna was nicely seasoned, but very dry. My baked potato was fine, not too dry; Walt’s rice had quite some hard kernels in it. The fruit salad was good, it was fresh fruit cut up, not from a can. I would go there again when in desperate need of prepared food right away, another case of any port in a storm, with this being the much, much nicer port than the Deli in the Pines on the north rim, just saying - just keep your expectations sorta low, always keep in mind it’s a cafeteria. It’s conveniently placed and there is some choice; none of it was outright bad – and you pay the location, obviously.
Then back to our room and to bed. The beds were great, which was wonderful after hiking roughly 25 miles in about 11 hours from north to south rim – and we got a good night’s sleep.
The Yavapai Lodge was a totally nice and pleasant experience, and we would definitely stay here again, happily. Coincidentally, when we checked in I was surprised to see a ‘rooms available’ sign put up at front desk – and the day before, the Bright Angel Lodge had had that sign up as well – just saying.
The Day After
The final test was getting up the next morning. I’d slept really well, and now hopped out of bed around 8 or so as if nothing had happened.
Walt was moaning and groaning he was never ever going to walk that far in one day again – no siree. Rim to rim never again, no way Jose … we’ll see. His legs were sore and cramped and aching, but not too bad.
We had breakfast in the room, then checked out and headed home, driving the scenic route. Out the south exit and down 64 as far as Valle, then across on 180 to Flagstaff, on down through Oak Creek Canyon and via Sedona and Jerome to Prescott, where Walt treated himself to two more glasses of beer at the historic The Palace Saloon. From there another good hour took us home to Wickenburg.