Joe's Ultralight Trip Reports

Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, 5/98


I started planning my latest Grand Canyon excursion last January. I'd been wanting to backpack the Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim for a long time, and I was finally going to do it! I decided May was the best month - the snow would have a chance to melt on both Rims, crowds wouldn't be too bad, and the summer heat wouldn't be roasting the lower Canyon yet. Camping below the Rim requires a permit though, and they go fast. Faster than I realized, in fact. I faxed my application in mid-January, only to find out that all the campsites had already been booked for May. Yikes! It's possible to "crash" a permit by showing up to the backcountry office a few days before you want to hike in, but that's always a gamble and you may walk away empty-handed. Argh!

That's when I got to thinking (always a dangerous situation *8-) ). You only need a permit to *camp* below the Rim, not hike. I'd done some day hikes in the Canyon before (Rim-to-River-and-Back, etc.) and had a great time. Being an ultralight backpacker and liking to hike long, slow days, I was in a perfect position to attempt back-to-back Rim-to-Rim dayhikes. But was it possible for me to travel that far in two days and not only be safe, but enjoy myself as well? The shortest route would be South Kaibab Trail to North Kaibab Trail, 21 miles and nearly 10,000 ft. of elevation gain/loss along the way. The safer route was Bright Angel Trail to North Kaibab Trail. It had more water along the way, but was over 24 miles each way. I'm not into "macho" death marches, I backpack to enjoy myself and unwind. I had to decide if I could do this and still be wearing a smile on my face the whole time. Not only that, but the rescue/idiot fines would be upwards of hundreds or even thousands of dollars if I couldn't make it.

(NOTE: Hiking to the River and back as a day hike is NOT recommended for most people, even those who are in good condition. Canyon hiking is different from what everyone is used to. The first part of your day is spent easily going downhill, dropping thousands of feet into thicker air. Then when you turn around, you have a 4,000 ft climb to face, with thinning air all the way. It takes most people by surprise, for the worst.)

The next weekend I loaded up my backpack with my all my gear (at the time, all 13+ lbs of it ;-) ) and headed for a favorite local hike, 8 miles of hills. Spent mid-day relaxing, then headed out for another 8 miles of hills. After wandering the 16 hilly miles with full pack, I felt good and still had four months to train for the Canyon. It could be done! I decided to hike South Rim to North Rim in one day, take a rest day on the North Rim, and wander back to the South Rim on the third day. Nice, relaxing, conservative.


The day was finally here. My pack's total weight, including my carefully designed low-power HF ham radio station and 3 days of food (but minus water), was 19 lbs. I'd been taking long 10-15 mile dayhikes with full pack and was eager to travel the width of the Canyon today. I had arrived at the South Rim dark and early at 2AM. Pulled up near the Bright Angel trailhead and slept in my car until the steel-grey light of dawn woke me up. My feet were ready, my legs were ready, it was 6:30am on a cold South Rim morning, and I was planning to spend 14 hours slowly wandering across the Canyon and enjoying the sights and sounds. I made my way to the Bright Angel Trailhead and started my journey.

The first thing that struck me was how the Canyon was at once loud and quiet. I watched a doe munching some breakfast off in the trees, never making a sound. Higher up, darting around the cliffs like crazed faeries were cliff swallows of some kind, having far more fun than most of us and making one heck of a racket. Squirrels scampered about, and lone ravens on patrol would skirt the Canyon's walls. The occasional hiker's voice would echo up through the Canyon far below and, much to my amusement, a group of folks would sporadically shout, "Ricola!". Darn near fell to my knees from laughing so hard as it echoed through the side-canyons. OK, so I'm easily amused. *8-)

The scale of the Canyon seems nearly impossible to grasp, and if you're going to have even a remote chance of doing so, you really need to be *in* the Canyon. While seeing it from either Rim is impressive, the Canyon saves its true splendor for those who venture inside. The morning and evening colors can be incredible, and throughout the day, as the shadows grow, shrink and warp, the Canyon landscape itself changes around you.

Even more dramatic is the rate at which you traverse biozones. On the North Rim (8,000 ft) it's a sub-alpine environment, complete with white-barked aspen trees, pines, green grasses and cool skies. Down at the bottom near the Colorado River (around 2,500-3,000 ft near Phantom Ranch) it's a true desert environment with prickly pear cactus, lizards, snakes, and other sun-bleached critters. Along the various streams and rivers are full-blown riparian zones nearly bursting with life and greenery. Almost every other kind of environment you can imagine seems to fill the space in between these extremes.

Finally, the geology itself is amazing. Traveling from either Rim down to the Colorado River, you pass through nearly two billion (yes, billion) years of geological history. As the strata unfold before you, every layer tells a different story - from the marine sediment layers of Kaibab and Toroweap limestone on the Rim, to the dark, truly ancient Vishnu Schist along the River.

In short, folks this is one awesome gopher hole! :)

After meeting various folks on the trail and chatting here and there, I finally made my first stop at Indian Garden. It was my first time there and I was surprised by how green it was. Large cottonwood trees towered over the area, and it seemed like half the hikers in the Canyon were sitting under them, relaxing in the shade. Turns out most of them were getting ready to hike back up the Bright Angel Trail to finish their trips. Listened to a few stories, reports on trail conditions, and swapped the obligatory trail jokes, then it was time to get moving. 4.5 miles down, 19.5 to go.

Leaving the shade of those large Cottonwoods, I was finally about to appreciate how irreplaceable my 7-oz travel/shade umbrella would become. The sun was sitting higher in the sky and I was starting a hot, exposed trail section down to Phantom Ranch. Shade was going to a rare and valuable commodity for the next 5 miles! Unless you happen to be carrying an ultralight umbrella, that is. ;-) The constant shade was wonderful, as were the full breezes that blew around my head. No more hats for me on this trip. For the rest of the trip, I'd get envious glances and comments from fellow hikers. On one particularly hot, nasty section of trail one fellow looked at my umbrella and completely shaded body and said he wasn't sure if it was genius or cheating. I told him it was both. :-)

The few miles to the River were a pleasant stroll. A small creek stayed close to the trail (or more likely, the trail stayed close to the creek), creating a nice ribbon of greenery to follow down the side-canyon. I took a short break at the little rest house near the River, signed in, and took some time to read what others had scribbled in the "comments" section. Interesting stuff, almost like a freeze-frame of a backcountry Internet chat room. I could only imagine the relief of the fellow who wrote, "Worm-free for three days!" Yeesh! :-)

As I slung my pack over my shoulders again, I was hoping that (for the first time) I'd get to see the Colorado River flowing emerald green. Every other time I'd hiked down to it, recent storms and runoff had filled the River with eroded debris, turning it into a furious chocolate brown, like some bizarre twist on "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory". As I exited the side-canyon near the little beach (Sand Beach Trail?), I happily found the River to be in an accommodating mood. Emerald green it was!

Bright Angel Trail turned east to follow the River for a few more miles until it crossed at the Silver Suspension Bridge. When you first get to the bridge, the first thing that comes to mind is "yikes!" For a footbridge, it's *very* long, narrow, and you can see the River far below through the metal grating beneath your feet. Actually the bridge's main purpose is to support the water pipe that carries water from the North Rim to the South Rim. Yes, that's right, ALL the water used by Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim is piped 20+ miles ACROSS the Canyon, from Roaring Springs to near the Bright Angel Trailhead.

After a careful crossing of the River, the trail passed through the ranger facilities, a rustic oasis of greenery, shade and drinking water. My first thought was how the heck does a person get lucky enough to have a job there?!? :-) Another 1/2-mile or so to the entrance of Bright Angel Campground, and a frisbee toss further along was Phantom Ranch - my lunchstop destination. Phantom Ranch is a near-paradox. After hiking 10 miles down into the Grand Canyon wilderness, you stumble across a collection of small cabins, a snack bar/diner, bathrooms with sinks and mirrors, and *gasp* a payphone. Weird. Weird but welcome nonetheless. I pulled off my pack and set up lunch in front of the cantina. I was a little behind schedule, but no worries. The pace was easy and I was taking in the scenery all along the way. Beautiful day!

Lunch had been eaten, I'd wallowed in the shade, and watched the lone Northern Cardinal show off its bright red colors against the green backdrop of the cottonwood trees. It was time to pick up the pack and keep on walkin'. Turning north, I stepped onto the North Kaibab Trail. 10 miles down, 14 more to go for the day. It was amazing how lightly traveled the North Kaibab Trail was compared to the Bright Angel and South Kaibab Trails. The South Rim "corridor" trails were not the place to find solitude, but here on the lonely stretch to the North Rim I was free to revel in the quiet and focus of being alone. Just me and the Canyon, a marvel of Nature. Deep thoughts. Thoughts of philosophy, of life, of meaning. Or so I had hoped....

It happened before I could take any protective countermeasures. The worst, most horrific experience I've had to endure in many years. Here, in the exquisite desolation of one of the world's Natural Wonders, my mind latched onto... The Macarena. AAAAAIIIEEEEEEEEEE! No, I SWEAR it's true! I hate that song with a passion, but somehow it got started and I couldn't get it out of my head! Cruel Fate, why must you mock me YET AGAIN?!? I tried to ignore it, I tried to drown it out by singing other tunes, even getting desperate enough to try other nefarious songs such as the theme to the Brady Bunch and Gilligan's Island. All to no avail. I walked on, a cursed man in paradise.

Eventually (slowly, painfully, but eventually) my mind drifted elsewhere. The heat of the day was reaching a peak as I hiked through a very narrow, hot, notorious section of the Canyon known as "The Box". Even with my umbrella shading me, I was roasting. The only people I passed were those sitting by the river in the shade, beneath one of several sturdy metal footbridges along the way. But have umbrella, will travel. My portable shade was working great! I happily (if sweatily) trodded along, listening to the low roar of the river, the crunching of my boots along the trail, the hollow thump of my walking stick as it hit the ground.

The only Adrenaline Moment(tm) between Phantom Ranch and Cottonwood Campground was when I walked past a bush on a narrow section of trail in The Box. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a coiled snake striking out at my ankle from underneath the shrub - YEEEGADS!!! I nearly jumped out of my boots! Nearly had to change my shorts too.... Luckily it turned out to be something other than a pit viper, but at that moment my Panic Meter was pegged. Sure beat having the Macarena stuck in my head, though....

Finally, Cottonwood Campground! Mile 17 of the day's trek. In the mostly dry, desert terrain of lower Bright Angel Canyon I'd traveled so far, Cottonwood Campground was an oasis for sore eyes. Not that the desert terrain, snakes, and blazing sun weren't appealing in their own way, but it was nice to be able to drop the pack, sit next to the river in the shade of yet another large cottonwood tree, and vegetate.

NOTE: Don't get confused - Bright Angel Canyon runs north of the Colorado River (the North Kaibab Trail follows it), Bright Angel Campground is on the north shore of the River, and Bright Angel Trail runs from the South Rim to the south side of the River, through some other canyon (NOT Bright Angel Canyon). Oh yeah, and Bright Angel Point is on the North Rim, overlooking Bright Angel Canyon below, and (on a clear day) Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim. There, isn't that perfectly clear now? :-)

I'd covered 17 miles so far, and the remaining 7 miles would be the toughest - a mile or two of mostly flat trail, followed by a 4000 ft. vertical gain to the North Kaibab Trailhead. It was 3PM and I was still feeling good. The ranger was very helpful and told me about a shortcut from the North Kaibab Trailhead to the North Rim campground. That would prove to be VERY valuable info. After chatting with another fellow at the campground and refilling my water bottles, I hit the trail for the final stretch. I passed the pumphouse, but saw none of the fabled lemonade pitchers out. Guess I'd shown up too late. Oh well. Up, up, up. The scenery was stunning. I turned a corner and finally saw the source of the low roar I'd been hearing. It was none other than Roaring Springs. Go figure. :-) An impressive sight this year! It had been a very wet year, and the Springs were gushing out of the side of the cliff in full force. Well worth the climb.

Up, up, up some more. My muscles were holding up great, but my hips were taking an awful beating. My hips?!? Sheesh. Must be gettin' old. Started leaning on the ol' hiking stick more and more. As the climbing became more difficult, I focused on getting to the trailhead one sediment layer at a time. "Just make it past the Coconino ... OK, great, now the Toroweap!" Motivation by geology. :-) Finally, as nightfall approached, I came out at the North Kaibab Trailhead. 24 miles and 12 hours later, right on schedule. I had another mile or so to hike to the campground, but today was a done deal. And a great day.

Made it to the campground and checked in, then went to the nearest payphone to call home. Two of the kids had gotten *really* sick since I'd left, and it looked like I was going to have to figure out a way to get back across as soon as possible. Mind you, there are no taxis or shuttle planes across the Canyon. There's one fellow who charges $50 to drive you to the other side (a 5-hour drive), but he only takes cash, and only leaves early in the morning. $20 and a credit card wasn't going to cut it. I knew I wasn't in shape to hike back across the Canyon again tomorrow, so I started making alternate plans. I'd hit the Backcountry Office first thing in the morning and try to "crash" a reservation. Found my campsite, laid out the bivy sack, fluffed the bag and called it a night. Slept as sound as a tree sloth.

Morning came all too soon. The low temp at the North Rim Campground was somewhere around freezing, the high temp the day before at the River was in the high 90's. Another reason why hiking the Canyon is unique. :-) I rolled up my gear, shoved it into my pack and headed off to the Backcountry Office. The plan was to "crash" a reservation, ANY reservation, along the corridor trails to get me a headstart. I knew I could hike as far as Indian Garden today, it was just that last 5 miles up and out the South Rim that I needed to rest another day for. Luck (and a VERY helpful ranger - gonna write a "thank you" letter to her and her supervisor) provided an opening. It would only get me as far as Cottonwood Campground, but that was still a 7 mile headstart for Sunday's hike out. Called home to let everyone know I'd be back early, then hiked a couple of miles south to Bright Angel Point and the Grand Canyon Lodge to mess around for the day. Took some photos, sat on the sun deck and yacked with tourists (apparently anyone with a backpack gets alot of questions, especially it's discovered that you've come from the South Rim). Then had lunch at the Lodge, a wonderful pile of pesto penne pasta - good stuff! The waitress looked at my pack when I ordered, and said she'd load me up with an extra large serving for the trip back. Now *that's* service. :-)

After the great meal, I wandered back to the campground and found a nice spot among the aspen trees to sit and relax. And to do a little HF ham radio... Of course every campground seems to have its share of careless idiots. As I finished loading the ham station back into the pack, I noticed smoke coming from a large metal dumpster and ran over to investigate. Some clueless twit had dumped a large load of fire-ring ashes and embers on all the trash! The fire was starting to burn fast, and the heavy plastic lids were starting to blister and melt. Sprinted over to the ranger's office and let them know. Firefighters arrived shortly and put it out before burning embers got into the trees. Sheesh. Where do these idiots come from?

Early afternoon, time to head for the trail. On the way back down the North Kaibab Trailhead, about two miles from the top, I ran into a family with two very young girls (6- and 3-years-old) having dinner. They were coming back from a stay at Cottonwood Campground! The dad was carrying all the gear, the mom was carrying the youngest in a baby-pack, and the 6-year-old was hoofing along with them. WOW! They were all happy, hydrated, and in good spirits. It was clear they knew what they were doing. Well trained, well prepared. Turns out they've hiked the Appalachian Trail a lot as a family. I was *really* envious.

Just as the sky was beginning to darken, I wandered into Cottonwood Campground and picked my site. Rolled out the bivy sack and bag, boiled water for dinner, and munched away as a family of deer grazed nearby. Very peaceful, serene night. I would have to get a dark and early start to get home ASAP, but I had plenty of food in me and plenty of rest. As the stars crept out, I sat back on the picnic table (decadence! :-) ) and watched. The lights of Grand Canyon Lodge blazed brightly on the North Rim. It seemed so close you wanted to order room service. As the crow flies, the Lodge was only 3 miles away but it was 10 foot-miles and 4000+ ft for us trail-bound critters. That would have to be one heck of a tip for the bellhop....

5:30AM, Time to get hoofin'. I figured I'd hike the 7 miles to Phantom Ranch and then have breakfast. It was a gentle downhill slope, so I knew I could cover that in two hours, have a leisurely breakfast, and at a more casual pace start tackling the final 10 miles to Bright Angel Trailhead before 8AM. Off I went in the steely dawn of the Canyon, hearing the rustles and grunts from the other campers as I left Cottonwood.

7:30AM, Phantom Ranch. Right on schedule, feeling great. Met up with two fellows who were on their first backpacking trip, surprisingly well equipped with light loads, yet all the basics for safety and comfort. I was impressed. We would meet each other off and on the rest of the day. Nice fellows, like everyone else in the Canyon. Seems that being dwarfed by one's surroundings dampens ego and pride, bringing out the best in all folks. We were eating as much as we could - the more we ate, the less we had to carry on our backs on the way up. ;-) A tanager (colorful yellow and orange bird) flitted about to wish us well.

At 8AM all three of us hit the trail and crossed the River, heading up Bright Angel Trail. The day was heating up fast at the bottom of the Canyon, and my umbrella was pressed into service once again. I found that having the constant shade really helped me out on the steeper, exposed, hot sections of trail. Between good food balance, staying hydrated and the shade, I was able to keep a respectable yet very comfortable pace. It wasn't that I was going fast, instead I just wasn't slowing down on the steeper climbs.

Leaving the River and entering the southern side canyon again, I took some breaks to take in the seeps. At least I guess they'd be called seeps. They're spots in the Canyon walls where water trickles out. Roaring Springs on a miniscule level. The cool part is that plants grow on the wet rock, and the whole effect is that of a lush green shock of plantlife cascading down the bare rock. Further up I met and passed a few older couples (in their 70's) who were also heading to Indian Garden. Sure hope I'm doing the same when I've got that many years under my belt!

10:30AM, I wander into Indian Garden Campground. I'd taken some longer stops at the scenic spots along the way, but I was still on track for climbing out of the Canyon by early afternoon. Time for an early lunch and rest for the final 4.5 miles and 3000 ft. to the top. It was getting really hot now, even at 4000 ft. elevation there at Indian Garden. It must have been roastingly hot down at the River. Glad I'd started early. (The high at the River that day was in the low 100's.) Eventually my two "breakfast friends" from Phantom Ranch caught up and we yacked some more. Most of the folks around the campsite were resting up for the Big Hike back out, and the chatter was friendly and lively. At 11AM I said my goodbyes and tossed the pack on for one last stretch of scenery and sweat.

The steep stretch of Bright Angel Trail between Indian Garden and trailhead is downright opulent from a a backpacker's perspective. Water and shelter stops every 1.5 miles, and one full service bathroom along the way. More decadence! :-) Umbrella open and ready, I headed up. Progress was a bit slower at first, due to constantly having to step off the trail and wait for the mule trains that were coming down. Cute at first, but a bit annoying after the 6th "train". Finally they must've run out of mules, and it was clear pleasant hiking the rest of the way.

I noticed that I kept passing and being passed by a runner. He'd run past me at my pokey pace, then I'd pass him up at one of his rest stops, then he'd run past again. And together we were both passing everyone else. Finally after a few friendly comments here and there, we realized we must share some kind of common "glutton for punishment" bond. He slowed down, I sped up, and we hiked the next few miles together. Turns out he was from Alaska, and was fast-hiking down South Kaibab Trail and up Bright Angel Trail. Not for the faint of heart. About 17 hard miles and a total of 8000 vertical ft. of Canyon trails. But unlike many who try a Rim-to-River-and-Back day hike, he proved he knew what he was doing. Good conditioning, good supplies, knew his limits. We talked about all kinds of things (mostly backpacking/hiking), paying less attention to the Canyon and cruising along at a quick pace. In hindsight we probably should've slowed down and smelled the proverbial roses, but there was something fun about that pace we were keeping, both of us at the end of our journies. Must be the same phenomenom that makes dogs sprint across a large field for no reason. :-)

1:30PM, We emerge at Bright Angel Trailhead. My new Alaskan friend and I find our way to the little store that sells REALLY good ice cream cones. Well, *any* ice cream is really good ice cream at that point. :-) Double scoop for me, please! We swapped cameras and took pictures of each other at the South Rim overlook in the Village, relaxed and took in the views. At long last it was time to go. Called home to say I was on schedule and would be there for dinner. Kids were doing a little better, fortunately. Said my goodbyes to various new-found friends who'd also finished hiking out of the Canyon, tossed the pack in the car, and headed down the road. I reached to turn on the radio, but stopped. Somehow I knew, KNEW, that the moment I did I'd hear the Macarena coming over the speakers. I rolled down the windows and started humming some Louis Armstrong tunes....

(c) 1998

Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon, viewed from the sun deck of Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim. (c)1998

Back to Joe's Ultralight Backpacking