Classic picture of Mather Point on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon
During the summer of 1986, former National Park Ranger Steve Oakes (Main Library Associate) had a seasonal job with TW Recreational Services. They were the concession operator for the lodging, dining and associated visitor activities on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP). The North Rim is the less visited of the two main areas for tourists, typically about ten percent of GCNP total annual visitation, and in 1986 that amounted to about 300,000 people.
It is far more remote and requires a four hour journey if one were to drive from the South Rim to the North. If there were a bridge spanning the canyon from the hotels on the South Rim to the lone hotel on the North, that drive would encompass a ten-minute trip traveling at 60 miles an hour. You could arrive by a small plane or helicopter perhaps, if the operator felt comfortable landing on a short, dirt airstrip. In addition, you would need to visit during the summer season, as the road to the North Rim closes down for the winter. A few hardy folks do visit in the winter but that requires a forty-one mile journey from Jacob Lake at the intersection of highways 89A and 67S, with no services. There are no open facilities or amenities as you primarily travel through the Kaibab National Forest. In addition, you make the journey on foot, horse (and hope there is no snow), skis or snowshoes.
I did not have much time to explore, as I worked six days of the week (at that time, employers in the state of Arizona did not have to pay overtime wages until the employee worked more than 48 hours). I did however, have the opportunity to venture down into the canyon on a few occasions, but no further than beautiful Ribbon Falls, which is eight miles below the rim.
Several of my coworkers went as far as the Colorado River, 14 miles on the North Kaibab Trail at an elevation of over 8,000 feet. Some of them spent a night at the Bright Angel campground or in one of the quaint little cabins at Phantom Ranch.
My luxurious staff accommodations in 1986. The roof leaked.
Then there was my roommate. Greg was a returning seasonal employee who fell in love with the Canyon and worked at the North Rim during the summer and Phoenix in the winter. He was a Buckeye, like me, who visited from his home state of Ohio and never returned. He was hardcore too. To begin his summer employment, he hitched a ride to the South Rim, and then hiked across the canyon in a single day. His “Rim-to-Rim “commute” was a distance of about 24 miles and an elevation change of more than 11,000 feet.
If you make it to the river, you may catch a glimpse of a raft tour in progress.
The National Park Service (NPS) strongly advises against such attempts, as many are unprepared for the arduous hike, especially the part where you are hiking up the canyon walls out of the canyon. The Park Service averages about 250 rescues a year of visitors attempting various trails below the rim. Backcountry rangers and volunteers are assigned the task of patrolling the main trails from the North and South Rims down to either bridge at the bottom, where one can walk across the Colorado River (one main trail from the North and two from the South). The rangers are constantly assessing hikers along the way and asking, “How are you doing,” “where are you headed,” and “do you have enough water”? Based on the responses and hikers appearances, the rangers will size up the situation and determine if an intervention (rescue) or help is needed. There are a few small campgrounds along the route, some emergency caches and a couple of ranger cabins to accommodate those that need assistance, but largely, the park strongly suggests that one gets out of the canyon under their own power. As a last resort, (and of course those that need vital medical support) contracted helicopter transport, may be used to evacuate a visitor.
Twenty three years after my seasonal stint at the North Rim, I returned. Since that time, I had worked three summer seasons at Denali National Park in Alaska, took a permanent NPS desk job, transferred to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, then took another transfer to Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio. Cuyahoga is where I met my future wife, a Kansas City native, who by the way, had also worked at Grand Canyon. She had worked at the South Rim at a different time than me, but for both of us, we have a special place in our hearts for the Canyon.
In 2009, we had a brief visit to GCNP. We were doing a loop tour of the southwest before making our way to the Salt Lake City area for my daughter’s high school graduation. On our epic hike down in the Canyon, we arrived early in the morning at the North Rim. Our plan was to see if we could get a reservation at one of the campgrounds along the North Kaibab Trail for the evening and then hike down to the river, spend the night, and then hike back out the next day. It was early when we found the Backcountry Office to inquire about a permit. Two guys were already in line waiting for the office to open at 7am, just a fifteen minute wait. However, I had forgotten that the state of Arizona does not observe daylight savings time, therefore we would have to wait for an hour and fifteen minutes just for the unlikely chance that a busy camping spot might be available. We decided to create Plan B.
We recognized that daylight was being wasted. We had been on the road for a week and had already done significant day hiking and were acclimated to the environment and somewhat the altitude. We felt we were in good enough shape to hike down to the river and back, in a single day. A distance of 28 miles, over 5,000 feet down, followed by a climb of the same elevation.
There are a couple water stops and four campground options, two along the trail, one by the river, and a backcountry option. Much of the way, the trail followed Bright Angel Creek, so if need be, we could filter water to drink. We packed the filter and some snacks, all of which fit in a daypack that I carried. I decided to hike in sandals, but took hiking boots, just in case.
We were ready to make good time on the trail. It was early morning, we left before the mule ride tours, and the temperature was cool to begin with, and sunny. There were a few others on the trail, but it would be awhile before we encountered backpackers that had spent the evening at one of the campgrounds in the canyon and were on their way up and out.
One of two bridges that cross the Colorado River in GCNP.
After about five hours, we made it to Phantom Ranch at mile 13.5. We decided to hike the next half mile to the Colorado River, cross the bridge and return to Phantom Ranch for some shade and eat our snacks. On the way through the Bright Angel Campground, there was a large round thermometer mounted on a pole about six feet off the ground. It showed a temperature of 104 degrees.
Phantom Ranch can be accessed by foot, mule or raft.
In the shade at the Ranch, it did not feel that hot. A unique feature of the Grand Canyon environment is that one can experience both the warmth of the desert, as well as the coolness of a temperate zone, all in one day. Here is a description/explanation from the park’s website.
“The Grand Canyon is considered one of the natural wonders of the world largely because of its natural features. The exposed geologic strata – layer upon layer from the basement Vishnu schist to the capping Kaibab limestone – rise over a mile above the river, representing one of the most complete records of geological history that can be seen anywhere in the world. Geologic formations such as gneiss and schist found at the bottom of the Canyon date back 1,800 million years. This geologic incline creates a diversity of biotic communities, and five of the seven life zones are present in the park.
The entire park area is considered to be semi-arid desert, but distinct habitats are located at different elevations along the 8,000 foot elevation gradient. Near the Colorado River, riparian vegetation and sandy beaches prevail. Just above the river corridor, a desert scrub community exists complete with a wide variety of cacti and warm desert scrub species. A pinyon pine and juniper forest grows above the desert scrub up to 6,200 feet, while between 6,200 feet and 8,200 feet ponderosa pine is abundant. On the North Rim at elevations above 8,200 feet, a spruce-fir forest tops out the park.
As in all natural habitats, the type and abundance of organisms is directly related to the presence or absence of water. The Colorado River and its tributaries, as well as springs, seeps, stock tanks and ephemeral pools provide oases to flora and fauna in this semi-arid southwest desert area. ”
We stayed at Phantom Ranch for only thirty minutes. We had a hefty hike to complete.
When one leaves the shade of the Ranch, you quickly enter what many refer to as the “Box.” The cottonwood trees disappear and the cliff walls envelope both sides of the trail. It is not a straight shot, as the trail meanders back and forth along the creek. A total of four stream crossings are made via sturdy and substantial footbridges while traversing through this stretch. Although it is known for oven like conditions with countless switchbacks, the four and a half mile stretch does offer a fair amount of shade due to the steepness of the side canyon walls.
The Agave or Century plant, blooms once at the end of its long life. They dot the inner canyon.
Exposure to the elements becomes apparent soon after you leave the box. The incline of the trail is not significant but shady spots are few and far between. Desert flora and fauna surround you as you march onward. The trail follows the buried waterline that occasionally makes an appearance. The Trans-Canyon telephone line is noticeable in spots as well.
We debated stopping at Ribbon Falls. We both had been there previously and it would have been a nice respite, but the detour would have added another mile and at least 45 minutes to our trip, so we skipped it.
Halfway up to the rim is the Cottonwood Campground. Water, shade and a couple picnic tables were available just a few feet from the trail, so we took advantage of them. Sitting at one of the tables we found the backpackers that were waiting for the Backcountry Office to open that morning. We learned that choosing Plan B was a good option because they informed us that they scooped up the last campsite along the trail. Our decision to take advantage of the daylight and hit the trail early was a good idea.
Another two miles the trail becomes significantly more challenging. The North Kaibab Trail on the North Rim descends/ascends about 4,000 feet in the first/last five miles of the trail. From there, it drops another 1,500 feet or so until you get to the river, but over a distance of nine miles. Therefore, going back up to the rim in the final five miles, one faces many steep switchbacks. Physical stamina is, of course, a must. But mental fortitude is just as important, especially when you hit the redwall limestone.
When hiking the Canyon, one is diving into 1.8 billion of years of geologic history. Many of the layers of rock are sedimentary and possess various colorations attributed in part from the elements deposited in the rock itself. Iron is concentrated in various amounts and responsible for the red coloration. However, not all layers contain reddish hues, for some of the layers are made of hardened, black mud that has turned to shale. Other layers are a mix of multi-colored rocks cemented together, and others where formed, or are reformed rock from intense heat and pressure, what geologist call metamorphic rock. Moreover, due to greatly reduced vegetation because of a lack of precipitation (the inner canyon is classified as a desert environment), geologists and hikers alike have splendid views of the various layers.
Splendid to some but not all, especially if you spend a grueling hot afternoon of hiking to then encounter the red rock layers of the canyon. Hiking within the Mauv, Temple Butte and Redwall Limestone formations, one encounters inclines as high as 21% as you climb through about 1,500 feet of layered hardness. The red rock seems to go on for miles of hiking and hours of ascending. Yes, it is beautiful but by the time you get through it, one is ready for a change of scenery.
Alas, about two miles from the rim you go through the Supai Tunnel and encounter a rest area with shade and water. The surroundings feel different and refreshing and indeed the environment is more temperate. This area of the canyon receives more precipitation than the inner canyon and as a result, the vegetation is more abundant and diverse. The slope of the trail is gentler and trees are taller. However, as you look up towards your eventual destination, you see another layer of sheer rock cliff known as Coconino Sandstone.
This glaring white layer is up to 600 feet thick and although there are significant switchbacks through this formation, one is comforted by the fact that the distance to the trailhead gets closer with every switchback in the trail. A sigh of relief is presented when one reaches the Coconino Overlook. At that point, you have moved through the daunting, limestone cliff layer and are only seven tenths of a mile from the rim!
The Coconino Sandstone layer (seen as the white band in the foreground and across the canyon) rings the canyon walls.
The remainder of the trail seems rather pedestrian at this point (comparatively!), as you are greeted with the sweet smell of the ponderosa pine forest that surrounds you. The trail broadens out and signs of civilization become noticeable.
When we completed this 28 mile journey in 2009, the sun was on the horizon. It was noticeably cooler and refreshing on the rim and we finished our trip in about 12 hours. Fortunately, plan B worked for us and we did not have to hike in the dark. We drove a mile to the campground general store where we were able to purchase a much needed, and refreshing shower.
The next day we were on our way to Salt Lake City. We continued with visiting a couple of national park units along the way. We had purchased an annual pass for $80 and we were determined to get our money’s worth. As we were walking (painfully) through the visitor center at Pipe Springs National Monument in northern Arizona, a staff person suggested we had been to the Grand Canyon. We replied, yes we had. He stated he could tell by our “Grand Canyon Shuffle.” Yes, it hurt to walk and our hobbled movement would continue for a couple days after.
Twenty three miles from the North Rim visitor center at Cape Royal, is the Angels Window.
As the pain subsided we started talking about what we would do next time and discussed the possibility of a Rim-to-Rim journey. We concluded that we could train before the trip and that the hike would not be as long, at least mileage wise. Departing from the North Rim there is one maintained trail, the North Kaibab Trial. That trail goes down and crosses the river near Phantom Ranch and the distance is 14 miles and one descends about 5,800 feet before arriving at the Colorado River. Taking the Bright Angel Trail from the river up to the South Rim is about nine miles and the elevation at the trailhead is 6,850 ft. By hiking from North Rim to the South Rim, one would ascend about 1,500 feet less and hike about 4 miles shorter than the North Rim to river to North Rim return hike we had just finished.
We figured we could easily accomplish that task in a day and then incorporate a few rest days up on the South Rim. The stage was set and a mini expedition was planned for our return.
Ten years later we got that opportunity. Training for the attempt was started in the spring. We continued our routine of commuting to work by bike, me a 21 mile roundtrip, my wife about eight. My wife won an entry in the Hospital Hill Run and together we trained and ran the half marathon distance on June 1. In addition, I had decided 2009 was the year I would run the full distance, 26.2 miles, of the Kansas City Marathon in October. So I continued with training runs from the Hospital Hill event for our Grand Canyon trip in September. Leading up to our venture, I was running nine miles a day, several days a week.
We reserved a room at the Bright Angel Lodge for three nights. We felt that would be sufficient enough time to rest up and then repeat our Rim-to-Rim adventure. We had a contingency plan. If we did not feel comfortable, or if we got injured or just did not want to do another Rim-to-Rim crossing, we would use the hiker shuttle to get us back to our parked car at the North Rim trailhead.
On the morning of our 2019 crossing, the skies were clear and the temperature in the 60’s. Temperature in the inner canyon was forecasted to be over 100 degrees with a possibility of afternoon monsoonal showers typical of the southwest. We both carried a daypack with a minimal amount of clothing and provisions. We each had a pack style water hydration system that allowed us to drink on the fly. We hit the trail soon after daybreak. Down the trail we conversed a little with some backpackers who were hiking out of the canyon, but otherwise kept a steady pace.
We topped off our water whenever we could from the designated spots. The nearly 55 year old waterline had sprung a few leaks that spring causing some temporary closures of the three water stops along the North Kaibab Trail. We did our research and knew that was a possibility, so we packed some iodine tablets that, if needed, could be added to stream water to purify it before consumption. Not long after we passed the Manzanita rest stop at mile 5.7, my wife nearly stepped on a pinkish rattlesnake that was crossing the trail. We stopped as it slithered a couple feet from the trail. It did not appear to be too concerned with our presence as it looked up at us. Another hiker approached from the opposite direction and we asked her if she wanted to see a rattlesnake. She responded favorably so we pointed it out to her. We kept our distance from the reptile and after a minute or so, we continued our hike.
We made it to Phantom Ranch in about the same time as our “09” journey, five hours. During our brief rest, we snacked and drank plenty of water. After about 30 minutes, we headed towards the river. From the river, it would pretty much be uphill after that. Actually, the first two miles of this nine-mile segment, were not bad. The trail followed the river to the southwest and did not gain considerable elevation. Another thing in our favor was the fact that before we left Phantom Ranch, clouds started to fill the sky. On top of that, since the canyon walls were to the south, we had considerable shade along the trail. As one can imagine, heat and sun can really dwindle one’s energy on a long hike.
After the two miles along the river, the trail took a turn up a side canyon where it would follow a series of fault lines for the rest of the length of our hike. We came across a shelter structure, which to my amazement, housed a telephone that connected to the park dispatch office.
Indian Garden Campground is nestled among the trees
Cloudy skies continued to bless us as we made our way to our next source of potable water, Indian Garden. Approximately five miles from the river, a campground and Ranger Station are in the Indian Garden area along with a hiker’s shelter, pit toilets and water. An oasis in the desert is one way to describe the verdant green vegetation that encompasses the area. On most days, one can see a hint of civilization of the South Rim which can be either an emotional lift, or despondent drain (are we there yet?) Even though you are about halfway up, there is considerably more foot traffic on this popular inner canyon trail. It is the most developed of trails below the rim with small shelters, pit toilets and water at somewhat short distances (just 1.7 miles from Indian Garden there is a rest stop – the Three Mile shelter, followed by another 1.5 miles is the Mile and a Half Shelter, which correspondingly puts you just 1.5 miles from the rim!).
We were making great time and no significant problems hindered our progress. However, about three and a half miles from the rim along some switchbacks, was a thirty something woman (I’ll refer to her as Margret) above us that was in obvious distress based on her utterances (groans, moans and sobbing). We quietly discussed what we should do as we caught up to her on the trail. It was about 3:30 in the afternoon and there had been some rain as we encountered a puddle or two along the trail. The clouds had lingered and a comfortable temperature held steady. We discovered she had left Phantom Ranch around 6 am (about 6 miles distant) at about the same time we left from the North Rim (20 miles away). She stated the Park Service was sending someone to assist her. As we were trying to assess the situation and whether we should stay or keep going, a trail volunteer showed up. He went through a litany of questions with her and presented her with a couple options. As per Park Service protocol, both options were for the visitor to get out on her own. Option one, that the volunteer strongly encouraged, was for the hiker to go back down the trail and spend the night at Indian Garden. Bedding, shelter and some food would be available and a ranger station if the circumstances dictated NPS intervention. In the morning, the expectation would be that she return to the trail and hike out. The second option was to continue hiking up the trail to the Three Mile rest shelter and spend the night. A sleeping bag, water, and limited food would be available, but the bed consisted of a wooden bench in an open shelter house. Again, she would be expected to hike out the next day.
Margaret was exhausted, hurting and emotionally drained. She was not the typical visitor that overextends their capabilities but she was obviously not equipped mentally or physically to complete the task.
Three days prior, she had made it down to Phantom Ranch but was unable to hike out the next day. With Park Service assistance, she rested two days then set out the morning we encountered her. In her mind, there was no way she would reverse her progress and go back down to Indian Garden. The NPS volunteer insisted it was the better of the two options presented.
My wife and I listened to see how we might be of help. The volunteer took the hiker’s pack and assessed the weight to be around 20 pounds. I asked if I could try it on to see if I could handle the extra weight. Although I was not thrilled at the idea, I volunteered to carry it the last 3.5 miles to the rim. Together, we decided to see what progress the overwhelmed hiker could make hiking the half mile to the Three Mile Shelter, without the pack. We proceeded as the volunteer followed Margret.
She appeared to hike much better without the burden of her daypack. Because we were on switchbacks ahead of her, we were able to see her progress and provide shouts of encouragement like “you can do it” and “you’re looking strong” as we continued our upward journey. We arrived at the shelter a short time later, rested, snacked, drank water and topped off our hydration systems. We waited about ten minutes more before the volunteer and Margret joined us.
We consulted with the NPS volunteer in private and I reaffirmed that I felt comfortable enough with the extra pack and could hike the remaining three miles to the rim. He informed us that based on his experience; he believed it would be another six hours before she could finish the hike out of the canyon. At that time, it was a little after 4 pm and therefore any attempt by them would require them to hike at length in the dark, on a trail with steep drop-offs as they traversed through the Coconino Limestone layer. He stated he was going to suggest she stay at the rest stop, then, try the next day. He thanked us for our help and we headed up the trail.
My wife and I knew that there was another option for her. As a graduate student, I had studied wilderness search and rescue policies. One topic in the literature was of the financial drain to local jurisdictions for costly rescues and, if negligent outdoor adventurers should pay. The Park Service has helicopter services available as part of an annual contract for extraction services (and therefore paid for), and the Service was sending bills to persons remiss in not heeding the numerous signs and warnings of ill-advised hiking attempts.
Helicopter evacuation can be dicey with swirling inner canyon winds.
Before we made it to the rim, we heard a swooping sound of an oncoming chopper flying below the rim and both knew what it probably meant (The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Park Service have established flight zones and corridors and prohibit planes and other aircraft from flying below 2,000 feet in the park). We had a good viewpoint of what appeared to be a helicopter pad next to the Three Mile Shelter. Sure enough, the helicopter landed and within a few minutes, it lifted away. Even though the visitor was not in a crisis medically, the Park Service had already provided assistance over three days. Perhaps it was time to move on to the next visitor in need. With over five million visitors a year visiting the South Rim, the likelihood was high.
We encountered some late afternoon tourists hiking below the rim as we continued upward. The trail was wider and less steep as we approached the top. However, there were enough narrow sections with perilous cliffs that caused us to yield in spots to other visitors. We hit the top a little after six o’clock, about 12 hours from our departure. We gave each other a high five.
The long and winding “road” or Bright Angel Trail down into the canyon from the South Rim
The South Rim is very developed with hotels, shops, NPS visitor centers and offices, a railroad depot and much more. The South Rim is open year round and with all the facilities, staff are needed. About 2,000 persons live in Grand Canyon Village. A school is present for children of the employees and the Village has a host of other services, all within the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park.
As soon as we reached the rim, my wife said “go into that shop and ask where the Bright Angel Lodge is located.” I eagerly took her suggestion and the nice staff informed us it was less than a two-minute walk further up the path. We rejoiced!
Check-in was easy and we discovered our room was just a few feet from the shared restroom and shower room (unheard of these days, our room was in the Bucky O’Neil building and at the time of construction nearly a century ago, shared restrooms were common). Plus, no one was using the shower. It did not take us long to rid ourselves of the layers of sunscreen, sweat, dirt and grime our bodies had accumulated over the last 24 miles.
Once we were presentable, we went for a short stroll. We found a snack shop that served ice cream and treated ourselves. We looked across the canyon to see where we had come from and what we had accomplished. We returned to our room, ate some of the food we had carried across, popped a couple of Aleve pain relievers, and turned in as the sun was setting.
We were up bright and early the next day, and we both felt great despite what we had put our bodies through the day before. The only significant casualty we both suffered were stubbed toes (one toe for me and three for my wife). Stubbed toes doesn’t seem to be a great malady, but if you have ever hiked backcountry trails, stubbing ones toes is inevitable and will be done repeatedly if exhausted (more on that topic later). What did surprise us was we were not doing the Grand Canyon Shuffle. Last time we hiked the canyon, we suffered for several days. This time we were not afflicted, perhaps because of our training and preparation. We roamed around looking for a place to eat breakfast. Greeting us behind the El Tovar hotel were a couple of elk, lounging on a grassy spot. We proceeded, checked menus at the Bright Angel Lodge and the El Tovar hotel. We settled on the El Tovar.
The El Tovar was built in 1905 by the Santa Fe railroad. It was a destination hotel, with rich guests often spending weeks at a time. It was elegant at that time and this historic treasure has the same ambiance today. El Tovar’s rustic elegance has historically made it the best hotel, with the finest dining, for miles around.
Condors and vultures will often strike this pose to catch the warmth of the morning sun.
Aside from recuperating for the next three days in preparation for our return journey, my main goal on the South Rim was to spot a California Condor, North Americas largest bird. The condor is considered a raptor but in fact only eats carrion (road kill and other dead animals). It is kin to turkey and black vultures, but with a longer wingspan, up to 9.8 feet. And it is critically endangered. Currently there are about 500 California Condors alive in the world, with about half of those living in the wild and the other half at approved breeding facilities. Their numbers had dropped to 22 in 1982 when the decision was made to capture the remaining wild birds and start a recovery/breeding program. In 1992, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), along with its public and private partners, began reintroducing captive-bred condors to the wild. In 2001 following re-introduction, the first wild nesting occurred in Grand Canyon National Park. Today, Grand Canyon has the highest number of condors in the wild, with about 80 flying free!
We both enjoyed seeing the sights and playing the part of tourist during our stay. The weather was great and we made use of the free shuttle bus system to help us hit the attractions. We also took advantage of the paved trail along the rim and we estimated we walked around seven miles our first full day on the South Rim. We discovered there were many turkey vultures soaring about, but the Condors with their distinctive white wing patterns eluded us.
There are a plethora of dining opportunities and we resisted the urge to eat at the buffet option for every meal (we limited it to just one visit). Fellow tourists were amazed however when we ordered a large pizza and nearly ate the whole thing (they split a large among four adults). Obviously, they had not recently hiked from rim-to-rim. As we explained the reason for our ravenous appetite, they were more understanding.
We visited the main visitor center and as with many visits, my wife (and sometimes me) will participate in the park’s Junior Ranger program. To become a Junior Ranger, typically a booklet is provided to participants (regardless of age!) with various activities listed that need to be completed before one can receive a Junior Ranger badge, patch or other item signifying accomplishment (rewards vary by park). It is a fun way to learn and often directs visitors to easy, and sometimes unique resources of the park. When the ranger at the desk inquired about our visit and learned we had hiked across the canyon, she was somewhat stern in giving us the standard NPS warning to not hike rim-to-rim or even to the river and back. We tried to inform her that not only did we hike from rim-to-rim in 12 hours, that we also assisted a fellow visitor that later had to be evacuated from the canyon by helicopter. Our explanation did not seem to faze her as she handed us safety material on the perils of hiking in the canyon. We just shrugged our shoulders. Others that learned of our accomplishment were impressed and some, envious. However, I should repeat, it is not an easy task and not recommended for all but a few experienced, trained and prepared backpackers/hikers.
The second full day was of walking the rim trail with eyeballs glued to the sky trying to locate a sought after condor. We had walked about five miles along the rim in an area that park rangers indicated we might have a higher probability of success. We reluctantly boarded a shuttle after an unsuccessful hike and decided to return to our hotel and possibly take a nap. I was a little dejected and had resigned myself to coming up empty in the condor department. On the way to our room, we popped into the Kolb Studio and looked at the merchandise. The historic building has a two tier outside veranda with nice views of the canyon. Regardless of the countless times I have seen the canyon, it still draws me in. And I’m glad I did, because within a minute of being on the back patio, I spotted my first California Condor! It was circling below about a hundred yards away. I contained my excitement until I verified my sighting. When I was certain, in an elevated voice, I let everyone around me know that within our view was one of the rarest of birds. Not everyone was as excited as I was, and others had no idea what I was talking about. Nevertheless, several people broke out their phones to try and get a picture as it flew away. Luckily, it found a perch several hundred yards away. A fellow visitor had a small pair of binoculars and graciously shared them with others. I noted that the identity tag used to track cataloged condors could be seen, but could not discern the number. The tag, along with the white wing feathers, is definitive proof that the vulture was neither a black, or turkey vulture, but indeed a California Condor. After about fifteen minutes, it took to the sky and circled upwards higher and higher until I lost track. I breathed a huge sigh of gratitude and it made the rest of my visit more enjoyable. Still, I continued to scan the skies. Later that afternoon, we went to a ranger talk on condors. Thirty minutes prior to the program start time, a condor came within view of the assembled guests and soared about for 20 minutes. Unfortunately, we missed seeing it by about five minutes.
The Milky Way has been described as a river of stars
One night around 2 am, we both were awake for some odd reason. We decided to go outside and check out the night sky. In 1986 while I was working at the North Rim, I discovered the park’s interpretive division had an eight inch, Celestron reflecting telescope for program use. I was an amateur astronomer and previously conducted night sky presentations in the COSI planetarium to school groups on field trips. At the canyon, I found a seasonal ranger with similar astronomical interest and together, we presented weekly interpretive programs.
On the North Rim, there are no televisions in the rooms, (nor streaming cell phone service in 1986!). Watching the sunset is a popular activity as well as the nightly interpretive program in the auditorium of the lodge.
A couple of library books to consider if you want more information about the night sky include: “Astronomy for Dummies” and “Night sky with the naked eye : how to find planets, constellations, satellites and other night sky wonders without a telescope” by Bob King.
For our evening ranger program, I focused the scope on the visible planets or the moon. As luck would have it, at the beginning of summer, Jupiter was high enough in the sky to be readily visible. Being at 8,200 feet, with very little light or air pollution, and typically non-cloudy nights, viewing was/is excellent.
With the telescope, and a great observation environment, one could easily see up to four of Jupiter’s moons. The banding pattern of the planet was discernable and even the infamous Great Red Spot if it were not on the opposite side of the quickly rotating planet (Jupiter makes a full rotation in about 10 hours).
What is equally impressive and more so, to many people, are the rings of Saturn. In the summer of 1986, Saturn arose to an observable position the second half of the summer. I had dozens of people gasp when they saw its beauty and several of them accused me of putting a decal on the telescope’s optics.
Okay, back to 2019. When we awoke at 2 am, we stepped outside and were mesmerized by the cosmos. I have seen such sights before, but not often. Looking above the North Rim, I tried to pick out the Big Dipper and North Star. They did not jump out us as usual. In fact, it was difficult to locate constellations or individual stars, as too many celestial wonders filled the sky. Under the best night sky conditions, a person with normal eyesight can see up to 6,000 individual stars and nebulae. That night seemed to be one of those nights.
We could see a few building lights from the North Rim ten miles away. Looking down in the canyon, we noticed lights emitted from hikers headlamps as they bounced along the Bright Angel Trail. We could appreciate hikers trying to escape the heat of the canyon, but we both felt traveling in the dead of night was a bit extreme. Snakes and scorpions are more active, there are steep drop-offs in many areas of the rocky, meandering trail, and one misses the great scenery and geology of the canyon. However, the reason for their midnight adventure could be that they had started a rim-to-rim hike the previous morning and it was taking them much, much longer than they anticipated. Regardless, the coolness of our surroundings got to us and we soon returned to the comfort of our cozy bed.
Before our trip, we told ourselves that we would just hang out and relax on the South Rim however, since we both felt surprisingly good, we explored. According to my Garmin watch, we walked over seven miles the day after our initial crossing. On the second day, over nine. The only malady we both suffered were the stubbed toes. Stubbing a toe once is not so bad, but over a long distance, you discover that it can happen throughout the trip, especially on an uneven rocky trail. It can be painful and debilitating (eventually, we both lost our toenails that were impacted).
After a hearty meal we turned in early to our nearly century old quarters. We opened our window to enjoy the high desert air. We planned on waking just before dawn. Although we had set the alarm clock, it wasn’t needed. Challenges of a rustic, historic hotel, is the lack of soundproofing. At 3:30 a.m., neighboring hotel guests decided to rise for the day. It sounded as if it were a room of teenage boys and they made no attempt whatsoever of being quiet. It took them a good 45 minutes to gather their things and apparently take them out to the car as the heavy, noisy, fire rated hotel doors banged and slammed. Not long after their departure, our alarm was due to signal the start of our day, so we stayed awake and started to prepare for our second crossing a little earlier than we had planned. Around 5:30 a.m. we departed.
We made great time on our way down into the canyon. Around 9 a.m. we hit the bridge crossing the Colorado River. It was too early to see any rafting groups and we were not going to stay around just to catch a glimpse. We traveled through the Bright Angel campground and found the huge outdoor thermometer. It was pushing its way to the century mark. We paused at Phantom Ranch for snacks and water, being careful to top off our water packs. I drowned my shirt and hat in the cold water from the outside faucet and got chilled when I put them back on.
The wonder of seeing the over one billion old Vishnu Basement Rocks on either side offered little reward or incentive as we marched onward. Occasionally a foot would not clear a rock or tree root and an audible signal or multiple worded utterance (which I will not print for a family friendly post) would escape our lips. The temperature climbed as we progressed through the easiest part of our ascent. Beyond the box, we were exposed to direct sunlight with little offering of shade. From the river to the North Rim, the distance is 14 miles. The last five miles would be the steepest, but by the time we would hit that section, we would be afforded little afternoon shade. In the meantime, we followed Bright Angel creek. We made several stops and I soaked my hat and wicking shirt on several occasions. My wife’s toes were pretty banged up and I suggested she take her shoes off and soak them in the coolness of the creek. She refused because she felt that if she took off her shoes she might not be able to get them back on. At one point, we took an extended break in a rare shady area before we got to the Cottonwood Campground, the halfway point between the river and the rim.
We were happy when we reached Cottonwood. By that time however, we were not sure if we would get to the rim in the same amount of time as three days earlier. We did our usual, rested, ate and watered up. We pressed on. In two miles we would reach the Manzanita rest stop, where shade, pit toilets and picnic tables were available. Along the way, we encountered a pair of backcountry rangers stopped along the trail. They greeted us and asked the routine questions, how are you doing, where are you headed, do you have what you need to accomplish your task, do you need assistance? They were in the process of reporting a hole in the park’s water pipe, which was at the surface along the trail. We could hear and see a little bit of water through a hole and luckily it was not gushing up like a geyser. Before our trip, we learned that the half century old pipe had suffered some leaks and that on occasion, some of the water stops along the trail did not have water. Fortunately, the rangers told us since this was a newly reported leak, obtaining water should not be a problem. We were relieved since we were counting on the next two water rest stops the last six miles of the trail.
Crossing the canyon rim-to-rim is a daunting task. Hundreds of persons do it, or attempt it each year, but typically as a multiday hike interspersed with stays in the campgrounds or Phantom Ranch. For others, it is a test of endurance. On our trip, we encountered a dozen or so persons running the trail! At the Manzanita rest stop, we had the pleasure of meeting a double crosser. He was a buff forty-ish man that looked like a cross fit instructor. He shared with us he was from Detroit and had been training for eight months. One difficulty he had in his training was the lack of altitude. It was his first time out west and there are no mountains in Michigan. He and a few other friends just came straight to the south canyon rim and did not spend any appreciable time acclimating to the dry air or altitude. He was doing better than the others of his group as the others elected to take the hikers shuttle after only completing one half of their goal (their goal was to run 42 miles, the distance from rim to rim and back again, in under 24 hours). He was monitoring his progress, calorie intake, fluids etc. and appeared he would finish within the appointed time. Just as important, he had a good attitude. Especially when he described consuming a lasagna dinner at the North Rim campground store (our stomachs started to grumble). Soon afterwards, he was off and so were we. Our toughest stretch yet (physically and mentally) lay before us.
We had four miles of red cliffs ahead of us until the last water break at the Supai Tunnel. We were in the shade and it was getting a little cooler. Being later in the day, we encountered fewer people. We trudged along the steepness and our toes were not getting any better. I seemed to recall from a previous trip being able to see the tunnel from a significant distance. Nevertheless, as I scoured the canyon walls, there was no evidence of the tunnel.
Darkness was approaching as we finally hit the short but significant tunnel passage. It was a welcome respite and boosted our spirits considerably. We were less than two miles from the rim and the steepest section behind us. Soon, we were met by a pair of college age hikers that were doing what we had done a decade ago. They were in the process of hiking out after they had hiked down to the river earlier in the day. Before reaching the tunnel, we had monitored their progress from a distance and surmised they would overtake us. Their pace was quicker, but they had hiked nine less miles than we had and were decades younger. We decided to rest until they left, since they would pass us anyways. We were all eager to get back on top.
As we ascended, so did the darkness. We were prepared for the waning daylight as we both had headlamps with us. The remaining 1.7 miles of trail has a more gradual gradient with fewer drop offs on either side. The trail is wider and the trees become more abundant and taller. The higher in elevation we went, the cooler the temperature. A half-moon was rising on the cloudless night, which helped with illuminating our path.
Moonlight was not enough, and light was needed to safely stay on the trail. My wife was in the lead when she discovered an unintended consequence to using artificial light. With her headlamp on, the beam attracted flying insects. And with the bugs, came the bats. Not a lot of flying mammals but the few that appeared came very close to our heads. I thought it was pretty cool. My tired wife, not so much. I had significant experience with close encounters with bats when I worked as a ranger at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. At Carlsbad during the summer months, rangers would give a nightly “Bat Flight” talk at the entrance to the main cave. Anywhere from 200,000 to half a million Mexican Free Tailed bats would perform a swirling, synchronized exit from the cavern at dusk, often taking thirty minutes or longer to exit the cavern. Often flying within inches of people’s heads, I heard murmurs of excitement (much like the visitors looking through the telescope) with a few shrieks of terror thrown in as well.
The encounter with the bats was not so fitful for me. But the next wildlife encounter got me excited. Alongside the path appeared a beautifully colored snake about two feet long. It startled my wife but it was not threatening, instead it made steady progress in getting out of our way. Bands of red, yellow and black were spaced along the length of its body. Typically, those markings on a snake in the US are that of either a venomous snake (coral snake, several species), or several species of non-venomous snakes (king snakes, scarlet, milk, or shovelnose snakes). The toxin of the coral snake is unlike that of many of the other potentially fatal snakebites as it is a neurotoxin which can cause a human to stop breathing within minutes, versus the normally longer acting effects of hemotoxins which destroy red blood cells, disrupt blood clotting, and/or cause organ failure. We both tried to remember the mnemonics which people use to identify the deadly coral snake “Red touches black, it’s a friend of Jack. Red touches yellow, you’re a dead fellow.” Luckily for us, before we could recall the saying (which is not 100% reliable), the slithering reptile disappeared in the brush.
Anxiety was starting to creep in as our hike continued. My wife was nearly brought to tears as the situation with her toes was compounded each time she struck a rock or root. We surpassed the 12 hour mark we set for the first crossing by an additional two and counting. It was growing cooler and we had not seen another person since the young couple at the Supai Tunnel. I suggested we could stop for the night and hunker down off the trail. With the extra clothing we had with us, I felt we could safely spend the night but we would probably be a little uncomfortable. She was not keen on the idea and stated she was not going to quit. I dropped the matter. Soon we passed the Coconino limestone layer overlook and we briefly paused and admired the look down the side canyon, lit up from the lunar glow. Cool air from the top began to envelope us as we trudged along. The trail entrance on the North Rim is quite a bit further from any development unlike the South Rim, so there were no visual indications of people or even building lights to buoy our spirits, letting us know our journey was near the end. It was approaching nine o’clock when we heard a lone vehicle going past the trailhead. Another minute or two and we reached the end. We hugged each other and made our way to the car. We changed into more comfortable footwear, and we each donned a fleece jacket to ward off the refreshing, but brisk temperature. We drove to the campground general store to purchase a shower token and wash off the elements that clung to our bodies. We were too late, the store had closed at eight. It did not really matter, as we were too exhausted, but elated to be at the top. We got some cool, refreshing water at the visitor center and some snacks from our car, and settled in for some restful sleep.
Your KCK Public Library contains many travel guides and other books about the Grand Canyon and other National Parks. In our catalog, select a subject search and type in Grand Canyon (or for a broader search use National Parks). Books of interest will include Frommer’s Arizona & the Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon’s North Rim and Beyond: A Guide to the North Rim and the Arizona Strip by Stewart Aitchison, and The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon by Kevin Fedarko. The sky’s the limit on the number of items your library owns!