Have you ever had one of those experiences that you genuinely can’t believe is happening? As I set off on the Kaibab Trail from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon on that crisp and snow covered morning, I still felt like I was in a dream. There was just one guy in front of me on the trail, we were the first people to walk one of the busiest trails in the National Park Service for nearly 2 weeks – unbelievable.
Before I get started, if you haven’t read ‘The time the U.S Government tried to ruin our holiday,’ do that first. It will explain why we were so excited!
After spending the night before running around stocking up on supplies and getting our kit together, we’d hit the sack in Flagstaff and set the alarm for 3:30am. We were going to try and make it up to the North Rim for the 8am opening time we’d been promised by the park rangers. We’ve driven this road before but driving it in the pitch black with only the odd set of lights coming the other way was a spooky experience. It wasn’t until we hit the familiar Navajo Bridge over the Colorado River, just as the sunrise was hitting the red rock, that I allowed a tiny bit of myself to believe we’d actually get to do this hike.
The drive from the main road to the North Rim takes about an hour due south and as it was the end of the season and the park had been closed for so long, we must have only seen around 3 cars. Imagine the hotel from The Shining (minus psycho Jack Nicholson) and that’s pretty much what greeted us at the spectacular North Rim Lodge. Rangers and hotel staff running around trying to get things open and cleaned, they had only been told at 7am that morning that they would be open for business that day after being closed for 2 weeks because of the Government shutdown. We couldn’t pay for park entry as the systems weren’t up and running so I got straight on the phone to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon to check we still had somewhere to sleep that night.
We didn’t actually get to the trailhead until 9am which is fairly late to be setting off and my heart was still pounding, convinced there would be something to stop us doing this. It’s difficult to explain and a lot of people will probably laugh at me, but this was the one last thing we wanted to achieve before we went home. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me that I was actually here.
Paul had forgotten something and went back to the car so I had about 30 minutes of walking on my own. It was absolutely silent, the sun was just hitting the rainbow rock of the upper layer of the canyon and there was a fine layer of snow on the ground. It wasn’t until I stopped to wait for Paul that I actually realised I was doing this hike and no one was going to stop me. Having experienced the North Kaibab the year before we knew how busy it normally was, it was the most bizarre experience to see only a handful of people on that entire first day. We were having to pick fallen logs and branches from the trail and there were only animal tracks to follow down into the canyon. This was shaping up to be one of the best hiking experiences of our lives.
Spending all those hours slogging up Peruvian mountains at 15,000ft and sounding like an asthmatic donkey had really paid off. We trotted along comfortably, gawking at the stunning scenery. I still maintain that you can’t really appreciate the Grand Canyon until you venture into it, even if it’s just a short distance. I’ve never understood why people come and stand on the edge without even walking 10 minutes down the trail to check out the views. It is a truly breathtaking place that evolves from alpine forests in the North to the red rock and cacti of the South. Once we’d passed Roaring Springs it was all new territory and we couldn’t keep the beaming smiles off our faces.
We hit Phantom Ranch late afternoon and the staff were pretty surprised to see us. They’d been down there by themselves during the shutdown and we were the first guests to pay them a visit for 2 weeks. The Manager of the ranch did a double take as he saw us walking into camp! Now Phantom Ranch is pretty famous to those who know the National Park system. It’s situated at the base of the Grand Canyon, just before you hit the Colorado River if you’re coming from the North. The ranch was built in the 20s and everything is all log and stone cabins and horse corrals, we stayed in bunkhouses but there are also private cabins and a campground. The massive highlight of an overnight experience is that you can have a family style camp dinner with all the other guests. Massive salads, hearty stew and sweet puddings are consumed while you regale each other with trail stories – perfect! Good food tastes that much better when you’ve really had to work for it.
Now one thing I will say about the Grand Canyon – unless you are super fit and set off very early in the morning, do not attempt to walk rim to rim in one day. We kept meeting a group of tourists from Japan on the trail on the first day, expecting them to be staying at Phantom Ranch. Nope, they arrived at the ranch just in time for it getting dark and still had to spend 6 hours walking up the South Rim – just plain stupid.
I can now see why the park rangers have to do so many rescues per year. We must have had 5 or 6 different people ask us on day 2 if they could just pop down to the bottom and back up that day. When we told them we’d been walking for 4 hours or so their smiles just dropped. It still baffles me that people set off trying to do something like that without reading a single piece of information. All you need to do is plan properly and you will have a fantastic hiking experience!
Day 2 began before sunrise so we could get a head start on the heat. We crossed the Colorado and started to make our way steadily up the Bright Angel Trail while watching the sun gradually hit the red rock – transforming it from beautiful to absolutely stunning and glowing red. I had prepared myself for the going to be very tough but we just took it steady the whole way and I found it reasonably easy. The variety of landscape on this side of the canyon is impressive and you really get up close and personal with the rock walls of the canyon. It isn’t just all up, up, up and the Bright Angel Trail is definitely not as hard an ascent as the North Kaibab. You have a few short, sharp sections combined with more gradual inclines and there are plenty of places to stop for a water break.
It’s a much busier trail as lots of people walk down from the South Rim, stay at the bottom overnight and then walk back up one of the 2 trail options in the morning. This is to prevent the obvious problem of your car being a 5 hour drive away if you walk from one side to the other. In October it was still very pleasant and the heat was manageable but I don’t think I’d like to do the same hike in the summer. I’ve heard that the South Kaibab is a shorter but much tougher option for an ascent on the South Rim and offers variety if people don’t have time for the journey to the North.
We reached the top by Noon and I had the biggest smile on my face as we took that last step on the dusty trail. I’d done something that a year ago I’d thought was impossible for me, and we’d done it in the most bizarre circumstances that will ensure our Grand Canyon rim to rim story is never boring! It was the perfect way to end our round the world trip with a bang. We spent a night recuperating in the historic Bright Angel Lodge and then half a day exploring the South Rim with the help of the park shuttle. What topped it off was seeing a Californian condor nesting just below one of the view points – an amazing sight.
A 5 hour shuttle bus later and having picked up our car, we had a long drive into Nevada. We would spend 2 nights in Las Vegas and then that would be it – 17 months of travel, done!
What do you think to our Grand Canyon experience? Have any epic hiking trips of your own to share?