Hiking rim to rim across the Grand Canyon is one of the most iconic wilderness adventures in the United States. The hike is 23.5 miles long, loses ~5,700′ and gains ~4,400′ of elevation. I planned this trip a year in advance because getting rooms at the Grand Canyon Lodge North Rim is pretty tough on Memorial Day weekend. This is when the hotel opens for the season. That said, if I waited too long, the weather would likely be too hot. May 25th was the best window we’d get this year.
I had hoped for up to eight fellow adventurers, but as the time grew near, the team ended up being Manny Castaneda and myself. Manny and I suffered together in Falling Rock Canyon and had a failed attempt at Condor Peak most recently. On Friday, I picked him up at 4 am and headed to the South Rim with virtually no traffic. I hadn’t seen Manny in quite a while, so it was great catching up on the long drive-in. We arrived about 11:30 am, grabbed lunch, then took the Trans-canyon Shuttle to the North Rim – arriving at 6 pm. We were pretty worn out from the travel.
As soon as we walked past the hotel entrance to the observation platform, the view took my breath away. I had been there before, but it still had the same effect on me. It’s so much bigger than the image you have in your mind. It’s hard to comprehend. It just makes you stand there with your mouth open trying to interpret what you are seeing.
It snowed for two days just before we arrived and there was still a lot of snow on the ground. Our cabins were small, but nice. After loading up on carbs, we turned in for the night about 8pm. Not the best sleep I’ve had. Manny said he didn’t sleep well at all, which was a bummer because we had a big day of hiking ahead of us.
Descending into the Grand Canyon
We got up at 3:30am the next morning to catch the 4am shuttle to the trailhead. We started our descent with headlamps. It was a cool 40 degrees and the hiking was easy. First light came at 4:30am and by 5:30am we turned our headlamps off and were enjoying the amazing views of the canyon below.
A trail runner passed us, the locusts of the hiking trails. I admire their fitness, but they always seem to run up on you when you are not expecting them. She had come across from the South Rim the day before and was heading back that morning – 50 miles in 24 hours. Pretty impressive. I loaned her my gloves because she was complaining of being cold, and she left them along the trail for me to pick up a few hours later.
The trail descends down switchbacks with exposed cliffs on one side. The path is wide, so it feels very safe. Much of the trail was carved out of the rock with dynamite by the trail builders. One is keenly aware of the vastness of the canyon on this segment of the trail.
Bright Angel Creek
At the bottom of the canyon, the trail meets up with Bright Angel Creek and follows it for miles through narrow, lush canyons. This was my favorite part of the hike. This segment continued for at least eight miles with breathtaking views of narrow canyons, lush vegetation, and a lively population of vocal birds. When we reached the Colorado River, about the halfway point, we felt pretty good. We had been descending since the trailhead and the hardest part was yet to come.
Crossing the Colorado River
The mighty Colorado River was quite a sight, but also quite muddy. We passed a campground and some stables that were unimpressive. The whole area was a little smelly from the animals who took people and supplies up and down from the South Rim. I doubt if I will ever stay there. It just didn’t feel like wilderness anymore, so we pressed on past the river and up to more scenic views.
Coming out of the Colorado River area, we left the shade that we had enjoyed all morning and got a lot more direct exposure to the sunlight. It definitely changed the feel of the hike. As we climbed out we started getting altitude. From the map, it didn’t look that far but there were a lot of switchbacks. We had about 7 miles to go from the river to the South Rim.
After ascending away from the river for a while, I thought we had about three miles to go and it ended up being four and a half. The hot sun was making everything seem a little longer and harder. Those last three and a half miles were pretty tough because at that point we had already been 20 miles in. We were tired.
The sun was out in full force past the river. I don’t think it was over 70 degrees, but it felt like 80 just because the sun in the desert has a way of feeling a lot hotter than it does normally. It reflects off the ground and it just fatigues you much more.
Having hiked this trail, I now realize why so many people die out there. According to the ranger, about 48% of fatalities in the park occur from heat stroke, and another 48% from cardiac arrest. The other 2% are from other causes. People dying while taking selfies gets the most publicity, but these are rare. You actually have to try pretty hard to die this way in the Grand Canyon.
A lot of folks just stroll down a few miles into the canyon, not realizing how hard it is to get back up. Combined with the heat, this can be quite dangerous.
As we approached the top of the South Rim, we saw more and more and more people who had ventured down a couple of miles to see the view in the canyon. The trail got pretty crowded and we were tired. Toward the end of the hike, I have to confess, I wasn’t exactly “in the moment.” I was more just putting my head down suffering through the rest of those final few miles.
On the drive home, we were both pretty wrecked. We had a discussion about how the wilderness often humbles us. Predictably, true to our male nature, our humility was short lived. This is our text exchange less than 24 hours after we felt “humbled”…
I think this should be on everybody’s bucket list, but before you go, make sure you’re healthy enough to do it and make sure the weather is good. Fortunately for us, it snowed two days before we got there and we had perfect weather the day of. (The day after was cruddy, stormy weather again.) We just had this beautiful, perfect weather window that you always hope you’re going to get.