Last year I started to get in my head that one of the best adventures / hiking experiences I could have while living in the Southwest was hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim. I started to read blogs, articles, and the NPS website to see if I could answer the question: Could I actually hike this and make it out of the canyon? No one wants to be the moron who is rescued out of the canyon, right?
I started to form a plan that involved hiking in September or October with a group of friends…and then COVID hit. My plans went immediately out the window as my staff members where I worked started to quit or find another job. I went into safety manager mode at work, and threw aside my own personal plans. Not that I didn’t keep hiking or getting outdoors…it was just harder and more involved. I’m sure everyone reading this who went through the 2020 Pandemic knows exactly what I’m talking about…and glad we’re on the other side!
Heidie and I had been planning this trip since January 2021. I started on a few exercise regiments right away. By this time, I had perfected my indoor gym. When COVID hit, I was in the middle of training for hiking later in 2020, but since I didn’t go that year I was able to expand the gym significantly instead. The original group had shrunk, but after hiking with Heidie on the Wiregrass Trail, we realized that we were pretty compatible as hiking buddies. I have to say that we honestly were the best hiking buddies the entire trip. We never left each other, we never argued…when one of us started to get frustrated or lose confidence, the other would bring them back up. If Clinton couldn’t go with me, I would always choose Heidie!
With 2021 came a new job (yay!), new work-home balance (double yay!), and a renewed interest in hiking rim to rim. Heidie and I decided that we would make a goal to hike by the end of the year. When the lottery system didn’t work to obtain a camping permit at the bottom (don’t even get us started – we were very upset with the entire system), we decided to take an entire week off in October to attempt a walk-up permit. We highly recommend this approach. Though it left a lot of things truly undecided, such as the thought we could get a room at the Bright Angel lodge on the other side, or even know if we had a campsite to get in line for a walk up permit…we managed to make it happen. After only two camping nights at the north rim we headed off in the early morning hours October 5. (We also had been able to successfully order dinner the first night, breakfast the next morning with a bag lunch to go from Phantom Ranch. This allowed us to pack lighter!)
We actually started off pretty ominously…we had a wake up call for 3 a.m. on our phone, but a heavy lightning storm had make it’s way through the night before and a thick layer of fog and rain held us back from leaving until 5:30. I was a little nervous that we would have to rethink our entire strategy and seek another set of days to head into the canyon, but as we drove to the trailhead parking lot we could see the clouds breaking slightly and the rain had become a light mist. The parking lot was surprisingly almost full, but we managed to find a spot where we could leave the car for pick up a few days later. (We had already coordinated with our husbands – Clinton was meeting us at the south rim, and George would be driving back with a friend to pick up the truck.)
We headed out to a beautiful, misty morning that sparked light rain here and there. We passed a few groups as we headed down, and surprisingly ran into a lot of people who were hiking rim to rim in a day. While the thought had passed our minds, we knew we couldn’t force this trip on just a day. I thoroughly enjoyed the time we took walking along the north canyon walls and knowing I had a night camping at the bottom. As we walked, I was able to look around and just ‘be’ in the canyon. I have always loved the north rim – it is serene, lovely, and completely different than the south rim. As we walked, I thought and felt like I was walking more in SE Alaska or Washington state…it was a nice, peaceful feeling knowing that I was starting an epic adventure into an unknown territory. (At least to me!)
We were drenched first with sweat then with rain before making it through the Supai Tunnel and to Roaring Springs. The clouds had settled back in and it was starting to get more and more humid and hazy. The affect it made on the canyon was astounding and very hard to put into words…but it was something I knew many others probably had not seen on their own hiking adventure into the canyon. I could hardly believe how gorgeous the canyon was at each switchback. Our backpacks were starting to wear on our shoulders as we stopped to rest at Pumphouse Ranger Station, but we kept along – me taking a picture here or there before we made it to Cottonwood Campgrounds at 10 a.m. for a long, relaxing lunch. The sun broke out over the canyon walls and we were finally able to dry out a bit. Already, our feet were killing us! We were rethinking everything – did we pack too much? Are we still on time? But for each ‘negative’ thought, we mentioned how beautiful it was around us and how excited we were to be on this adventure.
Cottonwood Campground was a quaint little campground with neatly laid out campsites, and with easy access to water and bathrooms. There were a lot of people there (camping, about 5, and we passed about 10 hikers as we filled up with water) but most of them were friendly and talkative. It was nice talking with others either about to finish their trip from one end to the other, camping the night to start tomorrow, or passing through like us to another camp site. It almost felt like a little community…which was strange because there was nothing more than what you can carry in and out! We spent an hour in the area before heading out into the open canyon towards the Colorado River.
When we left Cottonwood, we had already hiked 7 miles and had 9 more to go to get to Bright Angel and Phantom Ranch. We restocked our water and began our trip out through the canyon. The next 3-4 miles were relatively flat, with a few up and down hills scattered among the open canyon. Instead of walking along the canyon walls like we had the entire time we were heading down from the North Rim, we were further away from the canyon walls with a variety of desert plants like prickly pear and mesquite trees. We could hear the spring to our right as we walked along the well, worn path – we even passed (and then later were passed) by some of our fellow walk-up permit seekers. We ended up seeing some of the same groups of people the entire trip!
My feet were killing me and my legs wobbled if I stood still for too long, but my breathing was excellent (I was worried since I have asthma but I didn’t end up using my inhaler once!) and my shoulders were actually doing well. We made sure to eat each hour as we walked, and reminded each other to drink water frequently. It was gorgeous at each turn. Though it had been obvious that autumn was on the north rim, it was still summer as we headed closer and closer to the Colorado River. Heidie and I had spent the day before we left for our hike combing through our backpack so we had exactly what we needed – and though we maybe thought we could have packed a bit lighter, I still don’t think we packed anything we didn’t need or use at least once. We both had gone over emergency procedures and read through the weather report. As we looked out towards an area knows as ” the box”, we saw some dark clouds. We both talked about our next steps as we switched into the rain jackets we had packed a few miles beforehand since the sun was bright and hot.
Mentally, I had been preparing for this trip for almost a year. I went downhill when we got our first rejection from the permit lottery system, but once we started to really embrace our “plan B” I was back on track. We were very surprised as we headed down how difficult the walk was – heading downhill with a large pack is not always the easiest thing. We made sure to pack a small first aid kit with mole skin, lotion, band-aids, and yes, ibuprofen! It ended up really saving our feet when we made it up the next day. Another thing we were very happy we made sure we packed this first day was our hat and suntan lotion. We did not burn at all during our trip, and we definitely ended up changing back and forth through layers frequently.
At the afternoon fully slipped into our grasp, we continued on our adventure. Our goal was Phantom Ranch and the 6 p.m. dinner we had ordered at the bottom. We had a good amount of time to get there, settle into our campsite, and eat our dinner…and then we saw the lighting from the storm ahead. I have to say…I HATE LIGHTNING. Growing up in Florida, we had assemblies each year in school where we discussed the dangers of lightning. I swear, they instilled this in me! When I saw the lightning and heard the clap of thunder, Heidie and I looked at each other for only a split second before I shouted “run!” and pointed at an area we could hide. We had entered the box – the part of the canyon where the walls close in and you have only a narrow path between a slick canyon wall and a stream. As the rain suddenly opened up on us, we found a small “cave” to hid in while the storm passed. The torrential downpour quickly created a flash flood and we thanked each other for making sure to run as we watched the part of the trail we had just walked through become a waterfall. As lightning rained down on us, we threw our packs away from us and huddled down into the cave. We were soaking wet and slightly scared, but we were in the safest place we could have been at the time. Heidie and I seemed to make the right decisions when we needed to make them – and for that I am happy! It could have been a much different experience…
I’ll stop here for now, and I hope you keep your eyes here for the next part of our adventure hiking rim to rim!!