It all started with a birthday. Several years ago a canister of CO2 fell on my foot. It hurt. A lot. It was my birthday. When I filled out the incident report, one of the questions was — How can you prevent this injury from occurring again? — I thought to myself, Don’t work on my birthday! Ha! So began a tradition of not working on my birthday. Which eventually led to thinking, What adventures can I have for my birthday? Some years have been exciting, some low key, but all have been fun.
Back in January, I decided my birthday should incorporate my new favorite outdoor activity, hiking. As some of you know, I am hiking 1000 Miles for Mercy Ships. I chose the Grand Canyon to do the South Kaibab Trail to the river and back up the Bright Angel Trail. AKA Rim2River2Rim. 16.5 miles. I prepared by doing a bunch of long distance challenging hikes in Phoenix and Tucson.
I booked the campground early, replaced all the gear I got rid of over the years, plugged the Grand Canyon into my weather app, and began the countdown. I was super happy when AZMan and another friend agreed to join the fun!
All last week I watched the weather. The forecast changed every single day until finally it seemed as if the whole weekend would be rainy and cold. But I wasn’t going to let the weather stop me! Rainy and cold you say? That just means we’ll be super cool on our hike! Ha!
The birthday weekend began when we set out Friday morning around 9am. We were happy to arrive to dry conditions. We cheerfully set up our campsite and spent the rest of the day meandering around the village, going back and forth to the general store every time we thought of another thing we didn’t pack. It was a brisk 40°. Mostly cloudy with a brief shower. We picked up a couple of tarps to make a dry place to sit. Trees are plentiful. We were happily surprised to learn that hanging things like tarps and hammocks is fine in the Grand Canyon. Not all parks allow this. AZMan purchased several bundles of fire wood and quickly built a roaring fire for cooking and warmth. To celebrate, we roasted marshmallows! Spirits were high as we all got into our tents early that night in preparation for the big hike.
Saturday morning dawned mostly cloudy, foggy, and cold with the temperature in the mid 30s. After coffee and breakfast, we prepared the campsite for rain, putting most of our things in the car, grabbed our hiking gear, and set out for the visitor center to catch the shuttle to the South Kaibab trailhead. Our bus driver told us a story about a park visitor who yelled at him because he couldn’t see into the canyon, as if the bus driver was responsible for the weather! Ha! People!when we arrived at the trailhead, it was raining. We thanked the driver as we jumped off the bus. We used the bathroom one last time, put on our rain gear, and began the descent to the Colorado River.
No sooner had we set out when we met 2 ladies who were hiking down to Phantom Ranch to stay overnight. One of the ladies had a terrible fear of heights. She was paralyzed by the view and contemplating turning back. I was so happy when she managed to push through her fear and continue. So much courage to face this fear, especially considering our elevation of 6000+ feet! We would pass these gals several times on our way down the canyon. I also had a chuckle about the angry tourist on the bus when after just a quarter of a mile below the rim, we passed under the clouds, like an airplane, and the whole canyon opened up before our very eyes! Happy birthday to me!
When you do the research on hiking the Grand Canyon, they strongly discourage hiking to the river and back. It’s a hard trip. A very hard trip. But if you dare to do it, they recommend going down the South Kaibab trail because it’s steeper and quicker. There is no shade available on a sunny day. No place to refill your water either. There are at least three outhouses. And wide open views of the canyon. As much as I would have liked the sun to be shining, I’m so thankful it was rainy and cold. Those clouds kept us cool and we didn’t run out of water! There were so many breathtaking viewpoints on the way down. Somehow we missed Ooh Aah Point, but we didn’t miss Cedar Ridge, Skeleton Point, or the Tipoff.
We all got really excited when we had our first glimpse of the river. The terrain changed from red mud to more of a sandy surface which made hiking a bit easier as it wasn’t so slippery. On the way down, we passed 2 mule trains, one with passengers, the other with cargo. The mules at the park are very well cared for. They have several rest stops and corrals and are treated to Oreo cookies along the way. We requested to share in the Oreos but the handlers just chuckled. No cookies for us!
Once we spotted the river, we only had about another hour to hike to reach the famous black bridge to cross. When we got there, we had to pass through a small tunnel built through the rock. It was fun to discover an old cable car system that remains as a testament to times before the bridge was built. Before the cable car and bridge, people would ferry across the rapid Colorado River. It was extremely dangerous given the speed the river flows. The cable car was only able to shuttle one mule at a time. So the suspension bridge replaced the cable car. The bridge was built in the 1920s and the parts had to be carried down on the backs of men! The job was too big and difficult for the mules! When we crossed the bridge, we reached the canyon terminus of the Bright Angel Trail. We were amazed to discover a bathroom with electricity, heat, hand dryer, and modern plumbing! This was also about the halfway point in our hike. From the rim to the Bright Angel Trail, we had been hiking about 4 hours. The average time to reach this point is between 4-6 hours. We were making very good time. The rain stopped and the sun even came out for a little while.
Once we made the bottom of the canyon, we hit the Bright Angel Trail for the return trip. It’s a longer trail, but not as steep. It’s absolutely gorgeous! So green and lush. With lots of flowing streams that we got to cross over several times. From the river to the rim at this point we had about 9 miles of hiking. We stopped for lunch after crossing back over the silver bridge to the other side. But before lunch, we were passed by another mule train. We were curious to see which way the mules would go because the silver bridge is completely see through. Turns out, there’s a river trail that leads to the black bridge which has a wood center. After lunch we began the long hike back to the rim. It was just after 12pm. Just before we reached the Indian Garden Campground, the sky turned black. Soon we saw lightning and heard the first clap of thunder. It was amazing! The thunderclap rolled and echoed for miles and miles. We managed to run for shelter as the sky opened up. The several hours of sunshine turned into a steady rain for the rest of the hike. From Indian Garden Campground we had 4.5 miles to go. These were the longest, steepest miles. We hiked slower and slower as our energy slipped away. This was the longest hike AZMan had ever done, his left knee causing him a deal of pain. My friend came to the weekend with a cold and her energy was quickly draining away. We passed a sign that said ‘Going down is optional. Coming up is mandatory.’ We met several other hikers on the trip up who were doing the same route as us. I felt encouraged as we passed them because it meant I was in pretty good condition. At this point, I offered electrolyte capsules to everyone I met, hoping it would be the little boost they needed to get up safely. When we made it to the mile and a half rest stop, I rejoiced because we had less than an hour to go. The last person I met of interest was a woman who had done Rim2Rim2rim!! 48 miles!!! She started at 4:30am and when she passed us she was just beginning to get tired!!! We were just below the rim! Crazy amazing!
From Indian Garden until the rim, I put my phone away. Too much rain. We began at 7:20am. 16.54miles and 10hours 52minutes 49seconds later, we emerged from the depths! Wet, cold, and frozen, we fell onto the bus with a huge sigh of relief. We skipped the campground and splurged on a room with heat and hot showers. My friend fell into bed exhausted while AZMan and I went to find a meal. What an amazing day! What an amazing birthday adventure! I can’t wait to get down there again! This should be on everyone’s bucket list!
My take aways ::
- Need a daypack rain cover
- Moisture wicking long underwear tucked into socks under hiking shorts would have been better for mud
- Don’t do this hike in the summer!
AZMan’s take aways ::
- Waterproof shoes
- Rain gear
- More moisture wicking clothes
Friend’s take aways ::
- No Gatorade in the water bladder!