Growing up in New York and then living in South Florida, I am not someone you would call “a hiker” – for me, climbing over sand dunes on a Saturday is considered altitude training. So when a friend of mine suggested that some of us travel to the Grand Canyon to hike it from one end to the other, in one day, I have no explanation for my immediate agreement to do it. FOMO, perhaps? I mean, I have always been passionate about fitness but this was next level stuff. Looking back I realized that if I had hesitated then I would have been susceptible to insecurity, or self doubt, or fear and I have committed myself to not allowing those emotions to get any traction at all! Our passions must be respected without distraction. That’s the great thing about our passions, they are always with us even in difficult times just waiting to be reignited. So we circled Saturday, September 11, 2021, on the calendar and our planning began.
For those of you as unfamiliar as I initially was, nearly six million people visit the Grand Canyon every year. However, less than 1% of those visitors take on the “Rim to Rim” hike – a nearly 30 mile trek down into the Canyon, across the Colorado River, through a punishing 7 mile stretch known as “The Box” and onward to the opposite side.
The first decision to make is which Rim to descend – North or South? We choske to descend the South Rim for a few reasons. First, the paths are more “hiker friendly” and less steep. It is also at a lower elevation than the North Rim. We would begin our hike at 4:00 a.m. using headlamps so we wanted to take advantage of the smoother route in the darkness. This of course meant that our climb out of the Canyon to the North Rim would be difficult, but more on that later.
Fast forward to 4 a.m. on Saturday, September 11, 2021, and we were ready. After some words of encouragement and a moment of silence in remembrance of the lives lost on 9/11, we turned on our headlamps, firmly gripped our hiking poles and off we went.
The 8 mile Bright Angel Trail is a series of switchback paths which zig zag back and forth descending 4380 feet to the bottom of the Canyon and hug tightly along an imposing but truly mesmerizing cliff face. Looking across the darkness we could see dancing white lights from the headlamps of the other hikers on the trail. They looked like fireflies and it was truly a magical start to a life changing day.
By 5:45 a.m., the sun began to rise giving us our first views of the majestic Canyon. The sun brought the Canyon to life, illuminating parts of the rock face while keeping other areas hidden in shadow,
As you arrive at the bottom of the Bright Angel Trail, you are greeted by the soothing waters of the Bright Angel River and the trail continues another two miles to Phantom Ranch – a historic canteen nestled at the bottom of the Canyon which includes cabins for campers but the cabins are awarded only through a lottery system and there is a 15 month wait even if you are lucky enough to be selected.
Before you arrive at Phantom Ranch, you cross the Colorado River on the Bright Angel (Silver) Bridge and it is majestic!
We arrived at Phantom Ranch around 10 a.m., and quickly sat down to eat and enjoy some of the best lemonade you will ever taste! It was great to talk to other hikers and campers about their experiences. The hikers with whom we spoke came from all walks of life – groups of friends, seasoned hiking veterans and even families with young children! I must admit that I was most impressed with the families for instilling in their children a sense of adventure and a love of the outdoors that they will carry with them throughout their lives.
Full disclosure – I maaaaaaaay have a fetish for men with great calves. Let me tell you, I don’t know why I waited so long to start hiking because there are great calves EVERYWHERE! Of course, decorum prevented me from taking any “calves selfies” but trust me, the memories will last a lifetime.
After we refueled, reapplied sunscreen and took care of bathroom business at Phantom Ranch, we began our hike on the North Kaibab Trail which would take us to the North Rim. As you leave Phantom Ranch, you enter what is called “The Box” – a four mile stretch of trail which is very narrow and gets very hot if you do not get through it in the morning. This was another reason we chose to start on the South Rim. Once the sun crosses over the Canyon, the temperatures in the Box can soar above 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, I haven’t been in a box since my high school girlfriend so I was ready to get out of there in a hurry! Lucky for us it was still nice and shady so we did not suffer from extreme heat.
On our way along the North Kaibab Trail, we took a detour to Ribbon Falls. The falls are about 100 feet high, and the mineral rich water has created a distinct ecosystem of lush vegetation and gorgeous flowering plants. It is about a 1 ½ mile round-trip hike off the Trial and you have to cross a few streams and climb some rocks to get to it but it is worth it!
Once we returned to the North Kaibab Trail, we were blessed with a brief rainstorm that cooled us off. The steepness of the trail got considerably more difficult, so we knew that we had to stay mentally tough because the hardest part of the hike was about to begin.
We arrived at Cottonwood Canyon which is about the halfway point on the NOrth Kaibab Trail and took advantage of the campgrounds for a water fill up and bathroom break. The sign at Cottonwood Campground told us that the North Rim was 7 miles away. The steepest section of the North Kaibab Trail is between Cottonwood and the North Rim Trailhead. While the Bright Angel switchback trails were mostly smooth rock, the switchbacks up to the North Rim were just nasty. In addition to their steepness, many of the switchbacks included sets of steps in excess of 12″ in height. To make matters worse, the terrain on these switchbacks varied from very loose soft sand, to slick rocks over which you had to climb, as well as large logs you had to navigate across. And several of the paths were more mule poop than dirt, which was super fun to navigate as well.
I am not going to lie, the 6,000 foot ascent tested all of us mentally in ways we did not expect. The North Rim itself was not far above us, but because the trails zig zagged back and forth you would hike for an hour and feel like you had made no progress at all. Suffice it to say that we took a slow and steady approach as our collective fatigue set in. The five of us were united as one, ensuring that we each stayed hydrated, rested when necessary and there were pep talks a plenty!
As we began to see hikers coming down, fresh faced with a spring in their step, we knew we were close. At 5:45 p.m., 13 1/2 hours later, we made it to the North Rim Trailhead. These exhausted but proud faces tell the tale.
But wait – there’s more! We were staying at lodges back at the South Rim so I trust that you are asking yourself, how the hell did they get back? The only way is by reserved shuttle, and it is a 211 mile drive that takes about four hours. So yes, after hiking for nearly 14 hours we climbed into an air conditioned van that drove us back to our lodge (with a pit stop for food of course). We got back to our cars at the Bright Angel Trailhead at about 10 p.m.
It has been said that you are defined by the people with whom you surround yourself and I believe this to my soul. I could not have imagined this journey without Sean, Erika, Danny and Micaela. We have an experience that is exclusively ours.
I talked earlier about insecurity, doubt and fear. These are ever present, very real emotions. There are times when I have been paralyzed into inaction because of them, we all have. What I can tell you now is this – we are presented with fear and uncertainty not to relent to them, but to punch them in the face and thrive. You don’t have to hike the Grand Canyon in a day but I promise you there are things in your life you can accomplish just by believing, by ignoring self doubt and by spending time with like-minded souls.
26.7 miles (Bright Angel Trailhead to North Kaibab Trailhead including our side trip to Ribbon Falls)
10,500 feet total elevation: 4,500 feet descent on Bright Angel Trail and 6,000 feet ascent up North Kaibab Trail.