I think I’ve avoided writing about my experience at the Grand Canyon up to now because I’m confident words don’t exist to describe the majesty of the place. Its immensity and age defy the limits of what I can wrap my head around.
To descend into the canyon is to catch a glimpse of nearly 2200 million years of geologic history, as our planet’s crust shifts, rises, falls, and shapes the landscape we walk on. And it’s all there to see. Right in our backyard, relatively speaking.
Hiking down the South Rim into the bottom of the canyon, and up the North Rim, I wanted to be able to understand and read every layer and piece of the puzzle. Unfortunately, my untrained eye and rudimentary understanding left me to simply grapple with the vastness of the place I was walking into.
My most memorable hike began at the North Kaibab Trailhead in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, with my good friend Morgan, the evening of Friday, July 14. It was the second leg of our journey from the South Rim to the North. At about 8:00PM, twilight, we began our hike along the North Kaibab Trail, leaving the comforts of Phantom Ranch, the lodge on the bottom of the canyon, behind us. We had completed the hike down the South Rim early that same morning, and had decided to hike out overnight to avoid the scorching temperatures common to the canyon in July.
The trail starts along the Inner Gorge, a narrow section lined by 1.7 billion year old rock carved dramatically on either side of us. The shadows grew longer until they covered the gorge in the soft beginnings of night. After a couple of miles, we left the gorge, and Bright Angel Canyon opened up before us. As did the sky, revealing a clear night, full of stars and featuring a bright, almost full-moon. We had plenty of light for the most part, but kept Morgan’s small lamp turned on and attached to her backpack. The little circle of light was useful for guiding our footsteps along particularly darkened stretches of trail. I love moonlight - laying out in it, walking in it, observing how it illuminates the landscape - but I’m still jumpy and nervous in the dark, and the lamp provided welcome comfort.
Night is a special time in the canyon - there are so few people to be seen. We had encountered a couple of runners on our way to Cottonwood Campground and later saw another hiker working his way down into the canyon, but most of the time it’s simply you, the trail before you, and the quiet night around you. When someone does approach, you spot their headlamps bobbing along in the distance long before you meet them, and have plenty of time to speculate about what’s brought this fellow hiker into the canyon in the dead of night, when virtually all other park visitors are sleeping.
A few lights twinkled far off behind us on the South Rim, indicating development. We set a fast pace, as we were just moving through the bottom of the canyon and hadn’t begun any steep climbs yet. We were able to reach Cottonwood Campground in record time, just a couple of hours after we started from the trailhead. From Cottonwood Campground we could see a deep orange glow on a remote section of the North Rim. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. A fire was burning in parts of the national forest, though thankfully it had stayed away from the developed part of the park so far. While reaching Cottonwood Campground meant we were seven miles into our 14 mile hike, we had barely climbed 2,000 feet, most of it so gradual we had hardly noticed. We still had 4,000 feet of elevation gain to go, and soon enough the trail would turn up into Roaring Springs Canyon and become a series of seemingly endless, winding, climbing switchbacks.
Those last seven miles to the North Rim were, up to that point at least, the most grueling I had ever hiked.
The switchbacks through the deep night up Roaring Spring Canyon were punishing, both mentally and physically. Yet through it all, I counted us lucky. We were hiking through cool temps on well-maintained trails stocked with luxuries like potable water and emergency phones. We were hiking through terrain that is rugged and unforgiving, with a climate of extremes to boot. Yet we were, barring a stupid decision or freak accident, fairly safe on our adventure.
It’s easy to take this relative ease for granted. Yes, switchbacks kick my butt and I groan inwardly when I see them rise before me. But how much harder would it be to bushwhack our way out? I carried a lightweight backup filter on our trip, but didn’t even have to pull it out of my pack. In fact, for the corridor trails we were traveling on (these include the South Kaibab, Bright Angel, and North Kaibab trails) we didn’t even need a topographic map (although we did have a map. Always have a map). Above along the Rim, scenic overlooks, shuttle buses, and park lodges ensure that at any time, any person, of any age or level of ability, can experience the Grand Canyon for themselves.
I’m of the mind that when it comes to development in our National Parks, less is almost always more.
I firmly believe that development can be a slippery slope to overuse and exploitation. I also recognize, however, that not everyone is able to walk miles a day to experience a place, carrying only what they need most to survive on their back. This is simply not a reality for some people. So we build roads and stairs and ramps and lodges, to open the park up to everyone. But development of any kind comes at a cost. Even my beloved trails are sometimes built through delicate ecosystems, increasing human traffic and influence.
National Geographic explorers Pete McBride and Kevin Fedarko have spent much of the past year or so attempting to complete a thru-hike of the length of the Grand Canyon, section by section. The 650 mile trek has no complete network of trails from beginning to end, and is notoriously difficult, not to mention dangerous. Before 2015 more people had stood on the moon (12) than had completed a continuous thru-hike of the Grand Canyon (eight). Maybe a couple dozen have completed the hike by taking on a section at a time.
McBride and Fedarko, who have been nominated as 2016 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year, sought to document several controversial development projects that could threaten the sanctity, balance, and overall health of the canyon. This includes a massive tramway at the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado rivers, a place sacred to indigenous groups. Other projects threaten water safety due to mining, or air quality and sound pollution through increased air traffic. McBride’s and Fedarko’s journey provides not only a breathtaking perspective of the canyon, it shows us how fragile of a place it still is. The Grand Canyon spans over 1,000 square miles, and from rim to river, a hiker will pass through five different ecosystems that can be found in places as diverse as Mexico and Canada.
My hike through the Grand Canyon reinforced the notion that I am a small piece of a big universe, but that our actions as a collective still have consequences, for better or worse.
It deepened my love for wild places and stoked a fierce will to protect them. It taught me that I am capable of so much more than I ever thought possible. I can’t wait to return to the Grand Canyon for more. I’ll never get enough of the place, but until that time my rim-to-rim hike reminds me everyday to take as much as I can from where I am now, seeking the adventure and wild in my own backyard.
I’ll be sharing more trip details and stats on my rim to rim hike, including gear, itinerary, and what I would (and wouldn’t) do differently next time. Stay tuned for Grand Canyon, Part II if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to tackle your own rim to rim adventure.