Last year when Rhett and I went to the Grand Canyon, I knew that just seeing it from the top wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to hike it. I wanted to see the Colorado River, and view the canyon from the inside out.
Coming home from that trip, I mentioned it to my dad (the ultimate trip planner) and he emailed me an itinerary 2 weeks later for this past weekend in July. We invited the family, and then booked with Arizona Outback Adventures (AOA which is now REI Co-op).
We started in Scottsdale, AZ, and our guides Casey and Mike picked us up there. The way the guided trips go, they have a main guide and a safety guide. The safety guide helps the hikers decide if they are cut out for the task at hand, and gives helps give a way out if the hike ends up being harder than it was expected to be. The main guide stays with the group the whole trip, and helps to navigate the challenges of packing enough water for the next segment, where to hike, and in our case, helped us recognize the symptoms of heat exhaustion early so we would be able to complete the hike.
As we drove from Scottsdale to the North Rim, Casey and Mike were a wealth of knowledge. They told us about the first civilizations to settle the Phoenix area, asked us questions to get us thinking about why different areas would have been advantageous for those early civilizations, and even explained the challenges brought on for those early civilizations by the terrain. Casey and Mike detailed the mountains we passed, gave us fun trivia facts, and even had laminated maps (thanks, Mike!) to show us the big picture of the ground we were covering on the Colorado Plateau. If we had only had the car ride with our guides, the whole trip would have been worth it for me.
We arrived at the North Rim, and our guides showed us the daunting challenge laid out before us, and detailed the trail that we would be hiking the next day. They showed us some of the different layers of rocks that we could see from our vantage point, and we watched those layers glow in the sunset as we anticipated the days of hiking to come.
We camped on the North Rim, and woke up at a dark and early 3 am to get a good start on the hike before the sun (and heat) came up. We packed our sandwiches for the hike in the dark, and savored a cup of coffee before we started. It was a chilly 40* as we started hiking the North Kaibab trail with our food and water in our packs. Casey led us down the canyon, with Mike safety guiding and carrying our breakfast. The terrain slowly changed as we hiked down, and we could see the light peeking around the canyon as we twisted and wound down switchbacks past layers of rocks millions of years old. At the 3 mile mark, we ate a breakfast of bagels, fruit, granola bars and yogurt while Casey and Mike encouraged us that we were ready for this hike. Their encouragement was vital to us believing in ourselves that we could actually do this.
Mike then left us with Casey so he could drive the car around and pick us up on the South Rim. The heart these guides had to take care of us and anticipate what we needed on the trails was astounding. It was obvious that their heart was in these trips, and that they not only loved this trail on this canyon, but they loved bringing other people into their world to help guide them to see the depths of the beauty that could not be seen from the rim.
We would hike for a bit, and then Casey would stop us to show us a plant and tell us a little bit about it. We hiked a bit more, and then he would show us the changes in the rock. Casey not only had the head knowledge about the canyon, but he also had a heart knowledge, and wanted us to experience the fullness that the canyon had to offer.
On that first day, we hiked down the North Kaibab trail, and it went downhill for about 6 miles, and the last 8 miles was a little flatter, and mostly along a creek that we got to see from its origin shooting out the rock in the canyon, to flowing into the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon. This unexpected stream in the desert turned out to be such grace to help cool us as we hiked. Our first time crossing the stream, we all tried to not get too wet, but after feeling the heat of the desert, and the stagnant air of the canyon, every crossing after that we soaked ourselves as much as possible to keep away the heat exhaustion.
My first experience with heat exhaustion on the trip, I simply whispered to my mom that I felt sick, and she told Casey. He immediately asked my heart rate, and then gave me water to dump on my head. Within minutes I was feeling better, and so thankful for a guide who could recognize the symptoms before it was too late and heat exhaustion turned into heat stroke.
We then went into a section of the trail called “the Box.” It is a box canyon inside of the Grand Canyon, and the walls are tall and made of dark rocks. Those dark rocks absorb the heat from the sun, and then reflect it back onto the hikers passing through, making it feel even hotter. When in the box, it is easy to lose track of how far the hike is, and the miles drag on. The trail lead us to Phantom ranch right on the other side of the box canyon, and we got some lemonade and rest for the evening.
The AOA, now REI handled all our accommodations for the trip, and took care of where we were staying, and even food. (I can’t stop thinking about the stew they served for dinner at the Ranch. YUM.) They got the permits for us to stay at Phantom Ranch, a working ranch, operated by a full time staff that lives at the bottom of the canyon. The staff works in shifts of 10 days and then getting 4 days off. The catch is if they ever want to leave, they have to hike out! Yikes. Talk about a commute to work!
Casey gave us some options of fun stuff to do at the bottom, and we all promptly took a nap instead. The first day was 14 miles downhill, and to be honest by the time we got to the bottom, all I could think about was the fact that we were going to have to hike back out.
The next morning, 4:30 am came early. We woke up, packed our bags, and got breakfast before leaving the camp. It would be 5 miles until we got to fill up our water again, so we filled our packs up to 4L capacity with water. The first thing we came to was the Colorado river rushing blue. We hiked over the silver bridge, and up the Bright Angel trail. Hiking up was definitely harder than hiking down was, but it was a much welcome reprieve for our muscles that were sore from hiking down the day before. We hiked along the river for a little while, and then turned and were alongside another creek that flowed back down into the Colorado. This time, we were much more willing to soak our clothes for the hike, knowing the heat that lay before us on our way out of the canyon.
The progress made on the hike up was very visible, and seemed to go quick. Looking back, we could easily see where we came from, so it was encouraging to see the progress being made. Casey was again diligent in showing us little features in the canyon that we may have missed if it wasn’t for his guiding our gaze to parts of the trail that weren’t the places where our feet were stepping next. The first big stop for the day was at Indian Garden. It is visible from the South Rim, and looks like a grove of trees. We sat under their shade and ate lunch and filled up our water packs. We watched a deer eating her lunch not far away from us, and took a much needed refresh at this point in the hike. Because of all the downhill hiking from the day before, my knee had really started to bother me, so Rhett and my cousin Brandon took everything with weight out of my pack except my water and food, and I loaded up on Advil to finish out the hike.
The top part of the Bright Angel trail was the most difficult part of the entire hike. It wasn’t too steep, but it seemed never ending. It was slow going and as the elevation got higher, it was harder to breathe. Mike met us with 3 miles to go with watermelon, Gatorade and sweet tea. He had listened to all of our favorites on the drive up, and hiked them into the canyon for us to give us the motivation to finish out the hike.
The whole experience was wonderful. Casey and Mike were the best guides we could have ever asked for, and we could not have done it without them.
This trip was one of the hardest, most beautiful, and fun things I have ever done. Everywhere you looked there was indescribable beauty, whether in a plant, an unexpected stream, or just the canyon itself.
I was asked if I would do it again, and I think my answer is yes. I would do it again, but I would do a few things differently. The first, I would take Oofos to the bottom. After hiking all day, I want my feet in something comfortable. The second, I would put my feet in the Colorado river. I am still bummed that I saw it, but never got in it.
There is so much depth and beauty to the Grand Canyon that I would have missed had I been content to stay at the top. I wouldn’t have gotten an up close and personal view of each of the plants and the wildlife that we encountered. The Canyon is awe inspiring from the top, but intimate and revealing from inside of it. I am so grateful for the chance to hike it rim to rim, and experience it in such a personal way.