Hiking the Grand Canyon, Part Two: Who’s Dumb Idea Was This?

 

The following is part of a three part series on Hiking the Grand Canyon.
Part One: Eat All the Things
Part Three: Up is Mandatory

Worried Face

After practicing our McKayla Maroney impressions at Hoover Dam and grabbing an interesting meal at the Road Kill Cafe (“Do you wanna sit at the bar or the bullshit bar?” asks the 14-year-old boy who is old enough to take your drink order but not old enough to fill it), we made it to Grand Canyon National Park. We got to the mule barn just in time to give them our duffel bag, and went to the backcountry office to ask the rangers a few last minutes questions. Nikki saw a sign that showed 71% of fatalities in the canyon are men and remarked with complete sincerity, “That makes me feel better. We’ll be fine.” Of course those statistics are undoubtably based on the fact that far more men hike than women, but I didn’t want to be the Debbie Downer. We wanted to check out the rim before heading to our hotel, so we drove over and pulled in at the first overlook point we could find.

The Grand Canyon is exactly as massive as you think it is, and probably looked bigger to us because of how much time we’d spent in anxious anticipation. We took pictures and nervously joked about how it wasn’t too late to turn back, when I told my sister, “Hey, this was your dumb idea.”

“No it wasn’t,” Nikki replied.

“Yes it was,” I said. “You’re the one who asked about coming along, and you said we should hike the Grand Canyon.”

“Yeah, but you’re the one who told me about Phantom Ranch and needing lodging at the base.”

“Wait, so this wasn’t your idea?”

“No, I thought it was yours.”

Fantastic.

Katrina Watching the SunriseWe woke up the next morning at 3AM in order to park the car near the ranger station and catch the 4AM shuttle to the trailhead. On the recommendation of the website, we would be taking the South Kaibab Trail down, and the Bright Angel Trail back up. At least twenty other people were on the bus with us, and with the exception of one couple that hiked down just far enough to catch a good view of the sunrise, all appeared to be headed to the bottom. The South Kaibab Trail is beautiful and constantly winding around. We never knew where we were headed next, and often had trouble figuring out where we’d been. The Kaibab is also incredibly steep and rocky. Downhill climbing can be very difficult, and occasionally I could feel it in my knees. We never saw anyone climbing back up the Kaibab, and we couldn’t imagine trying. There’s absolutely no water, you’re in the sun almost the whole time, and there’s only one bathroom.

I had gotten it in my head that it should take four hours to hike down. When talking with Nikki on the trail she told me everything she read said six hours, and I realized I couldn’t remember where I’d gotten the four-hour estimate from. We made it down to the bottom in six, just in time to jump fully clothed into a stream as the heat of the day approached.

The Colorado River from aboveMany people have asked me about the Colorado River, which is the only reason I’ll bother mentioning it at all. It is a big river at the base of the canyon. It is large and green, and they recommend against swimming because of the current. It was fun to look for it on the way down as a way to gage how far we had left. At the base, we crossed a large pedestrian bridge of the Colorado to get to Phantom Ranch. When we left the next morning, we crossed another bridge to get back to the south side of the canyon. Other than that, we never really saw it or hung out near it. The clear, cold, waters of the creek running just below our campsite were plenty for us.

After eating lunch, settling in, and sitting in the creek for awhile, Nikki and I opted to take a nap for most of the afternoon. We set out a tarp in the shade near the creek and caught up on the sleep we missed by getting up at 3AM. When my half of the tarp creeped out of the shade I got up and wandered around for a bit, eventually attending a ranger talk on the California Condor. The Grand Canyon hosts one of the few existing flocks of California Condors, and in addition to learning a lot of other sweet things about the nearly extinct scavengers, I learned how to properly distinguish them from other Grand Canyon birds. Perhaps we’d catch a glimpse of one on the way back up.

130 DegreesI went back to the campsite, where Nikki was talking with the enforcement ranger (the ranger who makes sure you have your permit in order). We asked her a few questions, and talked about our plans for the next day. We’d been told many times not to hike between 10AM and 4PM, but we had gotten some conflicting information about how far up we should plan to be when we stop for the afternoon. After sizing us up, the enforcement ranger said to aim for the Indian Gardens rest spot, but that we could probably keep hiking “if we were feeling good.” This was a surprise to us, since we’d been told time and time again not to hike in the heat of the day. The next day Nikki and I would come to the conclusion that they give everyone the safe advice, but after seeing that we were both young, fit, and not at all suffering after the hike down, the ranger figured we’d be okay. It probably helped that when the ranger stopped by, Nikki was in the middle of a Bikram Yoga session, which she opted to do in the sunshine. The sunshine temperature was 130 degrees, which is 25 degrees hotter than hot yoga is meant to be. Of course, Bikram also requires 40% humidity, and we had 1%.

We had a great meal at the lodge and got to talk with some of the other hikers. It’s a lot of fun being down at Phantom Ranch. You are a member of a very exclusive club. It’s possible to ride a mule train to the base rather than hike, but the mule ride isn’t a walk in the park either. Everyone at Phantom Ranch had to work to be there, both in planning and in physical exertion. We were warned by another hiker that as you get near the top, you start to hate everyone you see. They’re all tourists who have no idea how hard a Grand Canyon hike is, and have no respect for the place they’re visiting. He turned out to be right, but more on that in the next post. After dinner we went to another ranger talk, this one about a pair of brothers and their adventuresome and photographic history with the Grand Canyon. The interpretive ranger leading the talk offered to grab her black-light and take people on a quick scorpion hunt after the talk, which I was happy to participate in. Nikki and I opted to leave the rainfly off the tent, and slept on top of our sleeping bags since it was still 90 degrees outside. We set our alarms to get up for the 5AM breakfast, and fell asleep looking up and the night sky and wishing we knew more about astronomy.

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Who Knew the Grand Canyon Was So Popular?

It has occurred to me from time to time that I can’t do this whole thing flying by the seat of my pants. While many who have come before me have encouraged me not to over-plan, even they will admit that sometimes reservations must be made. While different sources will tell you different things, most will agree that making concrete lodging plans about two weeks in advance is usually enough. My guess is that will be the case for most places I want to stay on my trip. Except of course, for the biggest one.

Not long after my blog was public, my sister emailed me asking when I was going to the Grand Canyon, and how important the “solo” part of my solo road trip was.  We quickly hatched a plan for her to take a few days off work to meet me as I pass through Vegas, drive to the Grand Canyon, and hike the length of it as a team. I knew hiking all the way to the bottom and back was no small feat, but I also knew that hundreds of amateur hikers do it every year. I figured as long as we were prepared, we’d be fine.

I asked my sister to look into lodging at the base of the canyon (you can’t go down and up in a single day, so you must either camp or get a room in the Phantom Ranch hostel at the bottom). Meanwhile, I was listening to ranger podcasts and reading up on the “must pack” lists to ensure we wouldn’t get heat stroke or lose all our salt by sweating. The more I navigated the national park’s website, the clearer it became: if you want to hike the full canyon this summer, you should have been planning last spring. Phantom Ranch makes a point of opening reservations no more than 13 months in advance, and tells people to expect the phones to be busy the first few days of every month due to the mass of reservation calls they get when next year’s beds are opening up. So of course, Phantom Ranch was full.

Though the thought of lugging a tent and sleeping bag up a vertical mile sounded abismal, I was willing to try for a camping permit. My sister sent in the request form, and I resigned myself to the thought that it would never happen. I started thinking of alternative plans. A week went by.

Then one day I’m at work and see that I’ve got a voicemail from my sister. I play it and the first thing I hear is her singing, to her own invented tune “We’re hiking the Grand Canyon!” Apparently even the man who booked it was shocked that they still had a spot open. Our camping permit allows us to pitch a tent at the base of the canyon, and now we’ll try to get a reservation for duffle service. Explained to us as “half a mule,” duffle service is a way to get a small amount of luggage down and back up the canyon without strapping it to your own back. If we can swing that as well as a few meal reservations at Phantom Ranch, this whole thing just might work out perfectly.

This may seem strange, but somehow I after hearing such fantastic news, I ended up with the song “Sixteen Bars” stuck in my head. In subject matter it’s from out of left field, but by the end of the song I feel like the sentiment of trying so hard to get something impossible is spot on to how I feel right now. We’re doing this.