Grand Canyon National Park is in a class of its own in size, beauty and geological display. Covering over 1 million acres of wilderness in the northern reaches of Arizona, the Grand Canyon attracts almost 5 millions visitors from across the globe every year to experience the incredible sunsets, trails and wildlife. Interestingly, over ninety percent of visitors limit their visits to the South Rim, with its many hotels, restaurants and easy access to trails leading into the mile-deep expanse below. It’s understandable given the ease of access from Flagstaff, Phoenix and beyond. But, there is so much more to the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River flowing through it.
In March, a good grad school friend called me up with something unexpected: an opportunity for a lodge-to-lodge traverse of the Grand Canyon, from the South Rim to North Rim in a day. I had waited 30 years to visit the park and longed for a way to truly experience its gritty side, not just the views from above. Granted, I wouldn’t exactly be roughing it by carrying a daypack and enjoying the comforts of a bed each night. Leaving behind the comforts of Oregon, I made my way to Arizona.
The challenge was before me. Hike over 21 miles from the South Kaibab Trailhead to the North Kaibab Trailhead in a single shot. 5,000 feet down. 6,000 vertical feet back up. It has been done by thousands of others before, but traversing the canyon in August was a unique challenge because of the heat. I knew the numbers by heart going into the canyon. It wasn’t until my last dusty step at the North Rim that I bega to appreciate such a land of extremes.
Fifteen hours earlier, I took my first steps…at 2:30AM. Stepping out of the cab after a two mile ride to what seemed like the edge of the world, I was greeted by darkness and filled with excitement. Our crew assembled at the South Kaibab Trailhead and peered into the inky black expanse before us. After ten minutes checking packs and tightening laces, we were off. I was stoked, but I couldn’t shake an underlying uneasiness. It could have been the unfamiliar landscape or the part of me longing for more than three hours of sleep…or the unrelenting heat waiting for us just 7 hours. Regardless, an incredible tour of geology and extremes was within reach. But I would have to work for it.
We were greeted by meteors. Barreling down the South Kaibab towards the the Colorado, we were lucky enough to catch the tail end of the Perseid Meteor Shower…a celestial event each August that treats people all over the world with a show of fire in the sky. It had technically ended two days earlier, but clearly kept some in store just for us.
Taking our time to pause and soak in the silence, we shuffled three hours downhill to the Colorado River and the Kaibab Suspension Bridge across it. Once down to the Colorado’s mighty muddy brown water, the night sky finally gave way to the rising sun over the eastern reaches of the canyon. Just across the river was Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch. We skipped across, grabbed a much needed cup of coffee and continued onto the North Kaibab Trail into the heart of the inner canyon.
Most visitors never see the North Kaibab as it begins to gently climbs toward to the North Rim. The first seven miles of the inner canyon is known as ‘The Box’ because of it’s knack for trapping a ridiculous amount of heat during the summer months. This is thanks to a layer of billion year-old black rock called Vishnu Schist and the unusually narrow, yet beautiful stretch of canyon. During the hottest parts of the day, the temperatures here can soar above 120°F. Having hit the trail so early that morning, we had timing on our side and made it to through to Ribbon Falls just ahead of the peaking Sun.
Ribbon Falls sits about 5.5 miles and 1,200 feet above the Colorado River. It’s a place that would be all too easy (and tragic) to miss while hiking with your head down or without proper recon ahead of time. You can see it beckoning a quarter mile or so from the trail and we answered.
Against the deep red backdrop of the canyon’s steep walls, the bright green moss and rushing water come together to create an oasis for hikers and backpackers. The pristine water pours down through a narrow slot in the canyon, cascading over 100 feet onto a massive isolated rock covered in a carpet of green. I couldn’t believe my eyes. How can something this spectacular actually exist in such an extreme place, so far from the comforts of the South Rim? I didn’t care.
Starting to feel the heat of the day, the five of us practically ran the half mile from the main trail to the falls. Without hesitation, I jumped into the icy, clear splash pool at the foot of the falls. The chill took my breath away, but still, I didn’t care and spent the better part of the next hour submerged inthe pool underneath Ribbon’s torrential downpour. By 11AM we had all been awake for ten hours and were grateful for such a revitalizing break from the dust and heat. I was also happy to have more than 2 minutes to break out my new camera and snap a few photos of the ancient landscape surrounding me. Still, seven miles and 4,000 feet of vertical lay between us and dinner reservations at the Grand Canyon Lodge. We reluctantly laced up our boots and hit the trail.
Over the next four hours I fell into a familiar rhythm. Hike, overheat, drink, eat, soak my hat and shirt in Bright Angel Creek, and forge ahead. Repeat. The North Kaibab really starts to climb after Cottonwood Campground (home of the world’s cleanest and least-used pit toilets*), meaning our bodies had to adapt to both the searing heat and the steady, yet relentless climb up the red wall. Any shade I was expecting on the trail had all but disappeared. I found myself longing for the passing wisps of cloud to stall just below the beating Sun. You know, like pity shade. It was wishful thinking. Our uphill pace slowed dramatically to a mile an hour.
Despite the physical stresses brought on by the trail, I couldn’t help but feel fortunate to be exploring such a unique place. Grand Canyon National Park is the 15th oldest national park in the U.S. and considered one of the world’s Seven Natural Wonders of the World, alongside the likes of the Great Barrier Reef, Mount Everest and Victoria Falls. The canyon itself is 277 miles long and up to 18 miles wide in places. The park has elk, deer, bear, and California Condors. Heat isn’t the only type of extreme in Grand Canyon National Park. Over time, the park experiences unstoppable monsoons, intense wildfires, brilliant sunsets and the millions of visitors who flock to witness it all.
By the time we reached the cutoff trail for Roaring Springs, the layered steps of the gorge already seemed endless. The deep reds of Redwall Limestone gave way to a lighter colored Cococino Sandstone as we made our way up the home stretch from the last water station at Supai Tunnel to the North Kaibab Trailhead. My stomach was wrecked. My legs and feet ached. Naps were taken directly on the trail. More importantly, our spirits soared. We had conquered a brutal stretch of trail taking us through a land of striking beauty and sinister intensity.
We made our way to the lodge and enjoyed dinner overlooking a once in a lifetime sunset over the red expanse. I’ll be back.
Photos: Nick Hurwit
Follow On Instagram
Nearest Airport: Flagstaff Pulliam Airport
Shuttle to South Rim: Arizona Shuttle, $56 round trip
South Rim Accomodation: Maswik Lodge, $95-205/night
North Rim Accomodation: Grand Canyon Lodge, $138/night
Camping Somewhere in the Middle: Bright Angel Campground