Grand Canyon Grand Traverse

Location: Southwest United States, Arizona, Grand Canyon National Park – Rim to Rim

Date: September 5-9, 2011

Who: 2 guides, 13 guests

To thoroughly enjoy a rim to rim hike, you should start walking now. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, join a weekend hiking club or visit the highest point in your state (yes, Floridians, 345-foot tall Britton Hill counts as a climb. Unfortunately, based on height alone, you could stack about 15 Florida’s on top of each other like pancakes and still not fill up the chasm of the canyon). By doing so, your grand traverse of Grand Canyon will simply be no more than a walk in the park. A piece of cake. Chocolate cake, that is…

Grand Canyon National Park attracts over 5-million visitors a year. Most know about the ice cream available at the South Rim Village. But there’s a sacred treat, a simple decadence to be had a mile below the rim. This desert dessert is set apart for the elite few who pass through Phantom Ranch just beyond the banks of the Colorado River. Getting there? Get your boots on.  

GETTING THERE: The North Rim Lodge sits about 8,200 feet above sea level right on the edge of the canyon at the end of a remote road that’s open only six months a year. The drive is long no matter where your starting location is so expect to arrive just in time for sunset, a classic Grand Canyon debut. Kick back in a rocking chair on the open deck of the lodge as the remains of the day brush gold against the wide band of Coconino Sandstone on the opposite wall of the South Rim 18-miles away as the crow flies. The rest of the canyon yawns out of sight to the Colorado River a mile below us. It’s one of those times you wish you could fly as the crow does: a mere 18-miles straight over the abyss would be covered in a few wobbly minutes of flight. It’ll take our gangly two legs three days to cross.

DAY ONE: Thirteen guests adjust trekking poles, backpack straps, shoelaces, and altimeters as the early morning mist lifts from the spruce trees of North Kaibab Trailhead. Today’s dusty, dynamic decline cuts through eight different layers of sedimentary rocks and five of the seven life zones of North America. Each step down is about 100,000 years deeper into geologic history (trail’s end finds us engulfed in ramparts of heavy metamorphic rock called Vishnu Schist dated to be half the age of the planet!). Gauges for the drastic changes along the trail include a rise in temperature, plant life hugging the eroding slopes of the canyon walls and the guest with the most accurate GPS device. Twenty minutes of walking, for instance, takes us from aspen trees to vanilla-scented ponderosa pines, and three hours walk from those misty spruce trees at the rim finds us grazing by prickly pear cactus along Bright Angel Creek.

The first thing you should decide before choosing the rim to rim traverse is “Do I like rocks?” Easy question. Of course you like rocks. Rocks are the essence of solid ground. Mountains are rock. You build your house on rock. Salt is a rock; you like salt. The Rolling Stones immortalized rock (‘n roll) for cryin’ outloud. Grand Canyon is the archetypal library of rocks, an exposed chronicle of compressed sand dunes, shallow seas and other mysterious stories set in stone history. The farther down the trail, the higher the walls rise, making it feel like you’re being swallowed by rock. It’s pretty; it’s amazing; it’s humbling; and it’s completely overwhelming.

It’s lunchtime. Nearly eight miles into our hike, we veer about a half-mile off trail for Ribbon Falls, a must-do even with the additional steps required to get here. The thin veil of water pouring from a hundred feet above cools our feet, and one by one, smiles return to weary faces. Refreshed by the surprising effects of water in a desert oasis, we hit the trail again, six miles and five footbridges to go to Phantom Ranch, our home for the next two nights.

The rustic camp of Phantom Ranch is nestled on the banks of the Colorado River at its’ confluence with icy Bright Angel Creek. These narrow acres were used first by Native Americans nearly 4,000 years ago for farming. About a century ago, white men showed up to trap beavers, mine for copper, and name things. David Rust undertook the happy task of tour guide for those wishing to descend into the depths of the canyon. Thanks to Rust’s perseverance in establishing a cable car system stretching over the mighty river, tourists could now traverse the river more safely than via the former canvas canoes. Rust’s Camp soon became Roosevelt’s  Camp until architectural genius Mary Colter came along, made some brilliant exterior design changes and added the mystique and allure to the canyon haven by dubbing it Phantom Ranch. It wasn’t long before hiking from rim to river and back again in Grand Canyon became a coveted checkbox on any adventure travelers’ list.

Tired feet make their way to dormitories to ease out of sweaty socks and boots into something more comfortable. Some crash on their chosen bunk for a deserved nap, some take hot showers, and some shuffle to one of the engaging Ranger Talks featured at the Ranch twice a day. Like it can hear the rumble of growling stomach’s echoing through camp, the dinner bell rings hungry hikers to a family-style meal at the Canteen. A wave of summer camp nostalgia settles in over the conversations as musings of trail sightings and traveling tales assail the wooden beams of the cozy dining hall. No wireless. No cell phone reception. And the only traffic is the mule train bringing food and supplies to and from the rim a mile above us and world’s away.

After a hearty ladle of Hiker’s Stew, cue chocolate cake, dark as the night falling over the canyon floor outside the lit windows. Our eyelids threaten closure each passing minute and one by one, we succomb to sleepy time and dreams of a chocolate-cake canyon and unending labyrinth of rock wall after rock wall after rock wall…

DAY TWO: Let it be known, I’m an expert in perfect days. Sample itinerary: pancakes and coffee for breakfast; a fabulous morning hike climbing to an outstanding view of the Colorado River; an afternoon spent basking below the cottonwood trees by Bright Angel Creek and Boat Beach, admiring the tan, well-sculpted, rippling shoulder muscles of river guides taking guests down the Colorado; two more Ranger Talks, including Canyon Jeopardy (our well-informed guests pretty much cleaned out the prize bag. Most winners selected a sticker that says “Going down is optional. Going up is mandatory”). We share another relaxed meal (tonight’s menu: steak, cornbread, and veggie chili for the non-carnivores…epicurean…) before bedtime and butterflies about the inevitable day before us.

A note on chocolate cake: hiking in Grand Canyon is not the time to go on a diet. Fatty, salty food is more than acceptable. You need as much fuel as your body requires to get out of here so don’t be afraid to slip that bite of goodness off your fork into your mouth, confident that the sugars will be broken down and used strategically throughout the hike out tomorrow. And you know you want more of those sweet dreams you had last night…

DAY THREE: Early the next morning, organized backpacks and filled-up water bottles sit outside the Canteen in the dark. We chow lightly, say goodbye to fellow hikers we’ve met the last couple of days, and hit the trail. The sky pales to glorious sunshine as the turbid Colorado flows at a rapid 18,000 cubic feet per second below the Silver Bridge we walk over to get from the northside of the canyon to the south.

Bright Angel Trail is 9-miles from river to rim but there are about 5,000 feet to go up to get out of this lionized hole in the ground. A shared group mentality of Carpe Diem and an overall sensation of appreciation that we are hiking in Grand Canyon follows us up the trail keeping time with our beating hearts and slightly elevated breathing. What a blessing to have this opportunity, even if our only option is crossing this grandest of canyons on two gangly legs! Not a step is wasted or moment lost as guests capture photographs of the ever-changing light on the canyon walls. Even bagels and summer sausage are savored at Indian Gardens, our half-way point, before we begin the character-building trek up through Jacob’s Ladder and other welcoming sections of Bright Angel Trail, like Heartbreak Hill.

But the only heartbreak comes when the dirt meets the pavement at the top of the trail.

“That was harder than giving birth,” says Michelle, a 47-year old hiker from Georgia.

Sure, we’re relieved to sit and bask in the accomplishment of the journey, indulging in cold beer and nachos. If only there was chocolate cake.

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