Today I am letting my husband guest write this blog. Here is his story…in his own words and in the pictures he, my son and my daughter-in-law took. Still so proud of them!
“The Physical punctuated by the Beautiful”
I checked my watch. 5:15 am. Not bad, only 15 minutes behind our scheduled start time. We adjusted our headlamps and backpacks and then stood three abreast as my wife snapped a quick photo to record the start of the adventure. Only moments before, we all had exited our cabin on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, looked skyward, and wondered at the incredible number of stars blanketing the dark pre-dawn sky. At 8,200’ in elevation, this less-visited part of the park was the perfect place to stargaze, if only for a few moments.
The thermometer was just dipping below freezing at the North Kaibab trailhead, so we donned our hats and gloves and then said goodbye to my wife. My youngest son, daughter-in-law and I would use the trail to cut across the canyon and my wife would drive the four hours around to the south rim to pick us up once we finished. Our Rim-to-Rim journey would start in the dark, and we’d have to make swift progress to ensure we wouldn’t finish after sunset.
The three of us headed down the trail, my son in the lead with my daughter-in-law and I close behind, all of us armed with our trekking poles and backpacks. We disappeared into the forest of tall pines, yellow aspens and red maples, each illuminated by our three headlamps. We headed towards our first stop on the trail, the Supai tunnel. As we descended 1,400’ over the next 1.7 miles, we could see the headlamps of hikers farther down the trail glowing like fireflies. We stopped briefly and then passed through the tunnel and pressed on towards Roaring Springs.
We crossed over Roaring Springs canyon using the Redwall footbridge and followed the narrow trail carved into the redwall limestone.
A little ways down the trail, we could see and hear the water rushing out of the cliffside on its way down the canyon to form Bright Angel creek. As we pressed on towards the Manzanita rest area, we enjoyed the first hints of sunrise as the very top of the canyon glowed bright in the day’s first light. We arrived at Manzanita before 8 a.m., having descended 3,600’ and 5.4 miles of trail. My son was setting a great pace, but I was starting to worry that the soreness I was already feeling in my feet might become an issue with over 19 miles to go. We all shed a layer of clothing and I adjusted my hiking boots in the hopes of achieving some relief.
From Manzanita we headed towards the Cottonwood campground, crossing a footbridge over the Bright Angel creek.
As the trail tracked along creekside, we enjoyed a riparian environment of cottonwoods, reeds and willows. We arrived at Cottonwood campground having traversed 6.8 miles and descended from 8,200’ to now 4,000’ in elevation. We took a short rest and refilled our water. It was now around 9 am. We had a long, relatively level stretch of 6.8 miles to get to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon.
This would be the longest uninterrupted stretch of trail, as this section enters the inner gorge. The trail winds through rock that has been dated at over one billion years old. With massive cliffs and incredible beauty, the trail along the gorge was striking. This stretch is also known to be unbearably hot during the summer months with temps well over 100 degrees, but on this October day we enjoyed sunny skies and only about 60 degrees. We had a time goal to meet however, so we rested infrequently. At one short stop, I was enjoying a quick snack (a Clif bar ironically) along with my son and daughter-in-law when suddenly we noticed several rocks splashing in the gravel just a few feet in front of us. I made the mistake of looking up at the cliffside to see where they were coming from just in time to see gravity pulling another small stone straight at me. With no time to move, I took the blow right on the forehead. While keeping my sleeve pressed against the wound to stop the bleeding, we all quickly picked up our gear and moved away from the stony cliffside. The kids helped clean the small gash on my head and we slapped a Band-Aid over it. Wrong place, wrong time I thought. Though I was glad it was only a minor injury. I was also glad the stone had hit me and not my son or daughter-in-law. This trip had been my idea from the start and the thought of either of them being injured along the way would have unacceptable to me. The stone had my name on it, and I was OK with that.
We passed over several more bridges across the creek before finally making it to Phantom Ranch. At about 2,400’ in elevation, it is the lowest point on the trail. It was just before noon and the ranch was a warm 70 degrees. We quickly found an open picnic table and settled down for some lunch. The kids grabbed a small snack from the tiny canteen and we rested and ate lunch. We had covered almost 14 miles of trail. After just under half an hour which included time to change into fresh socks, we packed up and prepared for the last 9 miles of trail. Before leaving the ranch, I took time to read one of the historic signs on the way out. In 1913, Theodore Roosevelt had stayed right here, back when it was known as Rust’s Camp. So cool to think we were walking the same ground as TR.
We headed out of the ranch and past the Bright Angel campground. Before long, we were at the Colorado river and the Silver bridge. By far the largest bridge on the trail, it is only used by hikers. Mule trains cross at the Kaibab bridge just upstream.
We crossed the muddy Colorado (which is Spanish for “colored”) and start to parallel the river downstream on what is known as the River Trail. Vertical walls of rock rose over 1,000’ on our left as we followed the muddy river, even passing through a small area of sandy dunes. The trail led us to the River Resthouse where we took a short break before heading up the Bright Angel trail. The trail here follows Pipe Creek. The lush creekside environment and its tiny waterfalls made for a pleasant distraction as we started our slow climb towards the Bright Angel trailhead, still 7.7 miles and 4,400’ away.
My feet were no longer sore. I really hadn’t noticed when they had stopped bothering me. Instead sore shoulders and a sore lower back accompanied a slow fatigue. But there was no stopping now, and ever since we crossed Silver bridge I knew that we were going to finish. I just didn’t know how long it would take us to reach the trailhead. I did have a goal in mind however, to finish in 12 hours and 59 minutes or less. That kept me moving. My son and daughter-in-law were kind enough to let me take the lead and set the pace. Though I knew that they could cover the last 7 miles of the trail faster than I was hiking, I was very happy to have their company and to stick together. Months ago, I had originally planned a solo hike on this day, not knowing that anyone would want to join me. When the kids volunteered to come along after I mentioned my plan in a phone call, I knew the hike would be much more memorable with the three of us making the journey and my wife as our support crew.
We continued to head up the trail towards our next stop, Indian Garden. We hiked up the switchbacks appropriately named the Devils Corkscrew and then up through an area of pancaked sandstone called the Tapeats Narrows. At one point, I was so focused on putting one foot in front of the other that I didn’t even notice the single deer grazing about six feet off the trail. Fortunately, Daniel did notice and we stopped for a couple of pictures. Finally, after 3.2 miles and over 1,300’ of elevation gain, we had made it to Indian Garden.
Indian Garden was a beautiful section of the trail, with massive cottonwood trees and fed by several springs, it was certainly a garden among the desert trail. We rested there for a while, finding some empty benches directly next to the water source. Here we met two gentlemen who were “running” rim-to-rim-to-rim, over 46 miles! They had passed us on the North Kaibab trail shortly after we started and here they were coming down from the Bright Angel trailhead on their way back to the North Rim. A journey that they expected would take them to 10 or 11 pm, more than 17 hours from start to finish.
After a short rest, we headed out for our next stop, the 3-mile resthouse. We were now only 4.9 miles and just over 3,000’ down from the south rim. It was 1.7 miles between Indian Garden and the resthouse which included a 900’ elevation change. Just prior to the resthouse, we hiked up through another series of switchbacks known as Jacobs Ladder.
Another short break, and then we pressed on towards the 1.5-mile resthouse. Up another 900’ of elevation and about 50 minutes of hiking and we had made it to our final official rest stop. I had cell service for the first time during the hike and sent my wife a quick text “ETA 5:45 – 6:00 p.m., all are well. Luv u. C,” so she would know we’re on the way.
It was just after 5:00 p.m. when we left the resthouse and I was feeling every bit of the previous 22 miles of hiking. The last mile and a half proved some of the most difficult steps of the journey. As we climbed over 1,000’ of trail, I found myself needing to stop about every 10 minutes. We hiked through one small tunnel as we approached the rim. We knew we were close when we started seeing more tourists who had hiked a short way down the trail for better photos. I chuckled inside when I thought of their short journey compared to the over 12 hours we had been hiking.
As we passed through the last short tunnel, and by more tourists, with only a few hundred yards left to go, we finally spotted my wife up at the top. She, of course, had seen us much farther down the trail with the benefit of her camera and had been busy capturing the end of our journey. I was very happy to see her—she was a sight for sore eyes and tired bones. We made our way over the last few yards of our hike and arrived at the top of the south rim.
We had been hiking for 12 hours and 50 minutes, and the sun was still 5 minutes away from disappearing in the western sky. On top of the rim there were hugs and big smiles all around as well as a “we’re done!” photo. We had descended 5,700’ over 14 miles of trail down from the north rim to the bottom of the canyon and then climbed over 4,300’ over 9.5 uphill miles to reach the opposite rim. I was exhausted but happy—it had truly been a journey of the incredibly physical punctuated by the absolutely beautiful.