When an outlandish idea infiltrates the thin “danger” filter of my mind, it’s hard for me to shake it and soon it consumes my every thought. I was in search of a mini vacation, as I hadn’t been in one in way too long. After a short internet search determined that most feasible hikes were inaccessible due to high snowfall that continued through June, I figured I was just going to have to wait until late summer to set out on my next adventure. I am cautious enough to know my limitations with regards to technical skills (of which I have none), so imagine my disappointment when my search yielded no results for a snow free trek. Then by some unknown power – some may call it divine intervention, other pure idiocy – the idea popped into by mind to hike the Grand Canyon, a dream of mine for some time now. Surely the Grand Canyon won’t be covered in feet of snow, right??
The hike I had set my eyes on is infamously known as the Rim to Rim hike. This world renowned trek starts at one end of the canyon, goes down to the bottom, crosses the Colorado River, then heads back up the other side. Depending on the route taken, it is a 21-24 mile venture recommended only for experienced hikers and it is advised to be done either in the month of May or late fall, as temperatures in the canyon can reach highs of 120 F degrees easily during the popular summer months. It is also highly recommended that hikers split up the miles over a few days to prevent hiking in the heat of the day and the sheer exhaustion that is sure to ensue after a hike of this nature. Most deaths in the park do not occur due to falls of high ledges (though Instagram worthy selfies are causing a spike in this number), but instead are due to dehydration, hyponatremia, or heat stroke from unpreparedness on the part of an overly ambitious hiker. The National Park Service has it posted in the park (see pic below) and on its website to NOT attempt this hike in one day. Upwards of 20 people per day are rescued within the canyon due to ignorance and lack of respect of the environment in which the canyon calls home. Going down is easy, going up is mandatory and requires 2x the effort. Add in heat and sun exposure, and you have a recipe for disaster for an inexperienced human looking for a good photo-op to end up in grave danger.
Due to planning in the past a Rim to Rim hike over 4 days 3 nights, I knew that the logistics and planning the trek can be just as difficult as the hike itself – and luck is a huge player. Below the canyon rim, there are 3 campgrounds and one ranch hikers can stay in. Perfect! The only hang up is that for camping you need a permit and to stay in the ranch you need to plan a year in advance for a reservation or luck out with a last minute cancellation. Permits are assigned in a lottery based system that I have never had any luck with. There is a high demand and low supply for these precious permits. There was no way I was going to score a one last minute, so if I wanted to hike Rim to Rim it had to be in one day. A daunting task and lofty goal, but one I thought I could attain. As I said earlier, it is not advised to hike past the end of May due to rising summer temperatures. Being late May when the idea popped into my head, I missed the window of opportunity. But early June is close enough, right?!
I knew immediately I wanted to start the hike on the North Rim, as it is 1000 feet higher in elevation and 14 miles of descent. The problem is where to stay. The North Rim is not nearly as popular as its Southern cousin and has a lot less amenities. There is a campground and a lodge that also fills up a year in advance. On a whim I called the lodge and asked if there were any cancellations in the first 2 weeks of June. After a short pause, the concierge affirmed that there was a room available for June 7th. I booked it immediately and just like that the plans were set in motion for me to do a Rim to Rim hike in one day on Saturday, June 8th – two weeks away.
I booked a campsite at Mather Campground on the Southern Rim (again, really lucky I snagged a spot last minute) and scheduled a shuttle from the South Rim to the North Rim, a 5.5 hour journey. The shuttle service is a godsend, as the hike is a thru hike, it would be really inconvenient to get done the hike and have to figure out a way to get to the other side of the canyon where you likely had to park. The last thing I booked was a flight. I had to pep talk myself to pull the trigger – as booking a flight would force me to commit to this ambitious trip. I was ready for the challenge apparently, because I hit “Book Flight” confidently and next thing I knew, I was getting ready to fly into Phoenix for the adventure of a lifetime.
Let the research begin! Like I said, I have poured over the details involved with planning a Rim to Rim hike before. I knew I wanted to descend via North Kaibab trail and ascend up to the South Rim via the Bright Angel Trail. The South Rim is also home to The South Kaibab trail. It is more spectacular and shorter than the Bright Angel Trail (7.1 miles vs 9.5 miles), however, it comes with its disadvantages. It is a much steeper and more difficult ascent and it does not have water access or any ounce of shade, not a risk I was willing to take for a shorter journey. I spent hours reading blogs by others who Rim to Rimmed in one day, watching youtube videos, and creeping on Instagram those who were doing it in current time. I read their words, jotted down tips, and compared my fitness level/experience with theirs. I was on par with all of them and with proper preparedness, I was confident that I would be able to complete this hike.
Though the forefront of my mind was confident with my abilities, the little voices in the back of my head that have power when I sleep were not convinced. I spent many sleepless nights rolling around or ripped from sleep with a rapidly beating heart worrying about everything that could go wrong. Heat stroke. Cardiac arrest. Hyponatremia. Slip and fall 1000’s of feet to my death. Broken bones. Helicopter rescue costs. All of these at the same time! I felt like I was in over my head and about to undertake an impossible task. I tried my hardest to shut these voices up right until the night of the big day.
Soon I found myself on a flight to Phoenix June 5th. From there I spent the night and morning in the gorgeous Sedona. In the morning I watched the sunrise from Airport Mesa and hiked Cathedral Rock. I only made it half way up because there was a lot of rock scrambling involved, the last thing I wanted was to snap my ankle in half. So I turned around and was on my way to the Grand Canyon.
I checked into Mather Campground, set up the old tent, and explored the South Rim. I peeked out over the vastness to the Northern Rim and felt a pit in my stomach. Only 10 miles away (as the crow flies), it looked like an eternity. Was I really about to hike from there to here!? How is that even possible!? Well, I would soon be finding out.
After a very crowded and rowdy sunet – seriously people stop blasting your EDM music on blue tooth speaker in National Parks, your holding everyone present hostage to your horrible music tastes – I had a great night at Mather Campground. The night sky I saw during a 2am bathroom visit were awe inspiring. I could see thousands of stars, including the shooting variety, and the Milky Way. But alas, the sun woke me up at 4:30am – a good indicator of when I could expect the sun to shine in the canyon the very next day! I broke camp, ate breakfast, and mosied around until the 8am shuttle to the other side. While moseying around, I ran into an older gentleman who told me he hiked across the canyon 50 years ago over a few days. I told him I was attempting the same hike in one day. Quite taken aback, he looked me up and down and said “Well I guess you look fit enough, good luck” and walked away. Well, that was reassuring.
And the reassuring didn’t end there! At the shuttle meeting place, I talked to a Canadian father/daughter duo who just literally came off the trail after a 4 day hike. The 8 year old girl was cheery and said the hike was easy. The dad, not so much. Once again my one day trek was met with blank stares of disbelief. Fabulous. The shuttle itself over to the North Rim was full – mainly of hikers who just finished a multiday hike. One other young female and myself were the only ones about to begin ours. For once, my single day solo hike wasn’t the craziest idea in the room! Stacy was planning on getting dropped off at the trailhead and beginning the hike down to Phantom Ranch (14 miles) that afternoon, in the heat of the day. Everyone in that shuttle looked at her like she was crazy. During their hike the bottom of the canyon reached 110 degrees and there were 15 rescues. They picked apart her gear and all but subtly told her she wasn’t prepared. Made mostly in jest (she was a good sport) they offered her tips and one guy, Thomas, even lent her his hiking poles. I was the only one who told her she was perfectly fine, in a way I was also reassuring myself. Soon we arrived and Stacy was off to what I’m sure was a great hike for her!
As I grabbed my bag I heard something metallic hit the floor. I instantly knew what it was. My rose pin that represents my Grandmother’s watchful eye from Heaven fell off my pack! I went in full panic mode – that pin has been with me for the last year and a half through all my adventures and this was the trip I needed it the most. I frantically looked all over the street holding up traffic (I didn’t care – this was bigger than their need to check into the lodge) until I found it with a sign of relief. The back fastener was missing, but I bought a cheap pair of earrings at the gift shop to replace it. All was well in the world – the pin was placed in a safer location and wasn’t going anywhere.
I checked into the lodge and signed up for the 4am shuttle with 2 other women who were rim to rimming in one day. I had originally planned on starting at 3:30am, however, the shuttles to the trailhead (3 miles away) ran on the hour starting at 3am. After some contemplation, I decided to move the departure time to 3am, mostly because I would be so worried all night I definitely wasn’t going to get any sleep! No use delaying the inevitable! I explored the North Rim a little and ran into 2 brother in laws who were also getting the 3am shuttle to the trailhead that next morning. The thing is they had just hiked from the South Rim the previous day. I couldn’t believe it. They apparently do this every year so they’re used to the suffering. They offered to let me hike with them so I don’t get lonely, but I told them I’d only slow them down. I got dinner at the lodge and soon went to bed for a restless night of sleep!
Apparently I did get some sleep, as I was jolted awake at 2:15am by my blasting alarm. I ate a few bites of a sandwich, downed some chocolate milk and electrolyte drink, and did one last pack sweep to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything. Big Booty Judy is sitting this hike out, as she is too big. I got a new pack a week before the hike and he was making his big debut! Introducing Earl Grey! Hope he’s up for the task! I walked over to the lodge lobby and was greeted with a full shuttle of early rim to rim hikers, including the 2 guys I met the night before. In fact, they were the only men on that shuttle. There were 2 groups of 3 women and then me. At the trailhead I got a picture with the North Kaibab sign and was officially off at 3:09am.
Wow. It’s dark. Even with this headlamp, I can barely see in front of me, let alone what’s over the ledge. What was that noise? Oh my god there are mountain lions around here. Am I being stalked by a mountain lion!? Well at least I’m not going to wrong way, there are Jason and what’s his face’s headlamps in front of me and those women’s behind me. Okay you got this. Legs – do your thing. I don’t want to hear one complaint from you, you hear me!? We’re going to do this and we are going to ENJOY it. Cause I can’t turn this body around, so you’re gonna suffer and you’re gonna like it.
These were the thoughts going through my head the first 2 miles of the hike. That’s how long it took me to get used to hiking in the dark and getting over the fact that I was actually in the process of achieving a goal that I had been eying up for years. I was in descending into the Grand Canyon. In the dark. One misstep and BAM I’m 1500′ down off a cliff and another statistic and lesson as to not hike Rim to Rim in a day. But, as I’m sure you’ve surmised, that did not happen. However, there were some close calls. I recall being sufficiently freaked out that I couldn’t see the bottom of the canyon when shining my light down there, that I hugged the inner canyon wall. Due to rain runoff and limited ability for proper drainage on the trail, there is a bit of ditch along the inner trail, only an inch or so. Well, looking behind me to see how far the folks behind me were, I accidentally got my right foot stuck in the ditch. My already weak ankle rolled, causing a huge crack and causing me to fall – a bit way too close to the edge. I scrambled up and got as close to the wall as I could. My ankle hurt for a minute and caused me to panic for split second, but I knew I was fine. I let my heart beat slow before starting again. I learned my lesson on distracted hiking.
But alas, the clumsiness didn’t end there. During one particular infamous part of the trail (infamous to me as I recognized pictures of it) under a small waterfall, I encountered some slick rock. I was very carefully transversing the rock praying I didn’t slip when just that happened. One foot went, then the other started sliding and I could feel myself helplessly start to slip off the ledge – which wasn’t too big of a deal, as there was a rock shelf right under the waterfall. However, if momentum kept me propelling, surely I was a goner. Luckily I was able to get my balance and hustled to a dry spot. Again, time was needed to lessen my heart beat.
At this time, thankfully, the sun was making its first appearance at 4:37am and there was sufficient light for the headlamp to be turned off. Not shortly after this did I reach Manzanita rest area, a little over 5 miles into the hike. As I approached the rest area, Jason and What’s His Face were just leaving, impressed that I had caught up. I spent about 3 minutes there and ate something small before departing. There were people there camping who were just waking up. They weren’t supposed to be camping there, as Manzanita is not a designated campground. The people there probably sensed my irritability of them breaking the law, so I went on my way.
It was only another 1.4 miles to Cottonwood Campground. Ideally, this would be my first overnight stay had I gotten permits. I arrived at 5:37am when the campers there were just getting up. I spent 10 minutes there resting my legs and mind. I didn’t need to refill water, as it was only 60 degrees and I hadn’t drank much yet. I put on my T-shirt and I was on my way. 7 miles down, 7 to Phantom Ranch. 9.5 to the top. I felt great, I was ready to conquer the trail.
During the first mile to Phantom Ranch, I caught sight of the 2 guys. But not before falling again and this time drawing blood! Curse my weak ankles! My chase instinct kicked in and soon I caught up to them. They showed me Ribbon Falls from a distance, something I would’ve otherwise missed as it was behind us. We couldn’t access the falls, as the bridge leading to it was taken out in the winter. It looked pretty mangled. With such a tight time table, Ribbon Falls wasn’t on the agenda, as it was 1 mile out of the way.
Soon we reached the notorious Box/Oven. It is called this because you are boxed in between very high canyon walls. When the sun shines on these walls, it causes a heating effect that can reach over 120 degrees during the head of the day, hence the appropriate nickname of “the oven” It was only 6 something in the morning and the sun was far from the depths of the canyon. Being that I was so worried about this section, I was elated that I could actually enjoy it in 70 degree temperatures. And did I enjoy it. I loved every second down there. Following a stream through a slot canyon, I marveled at the canyon walls and the beauty I found. I let the guys get ahead of me as I took pictures and the time to enjoy it. It felt like being in Zion, only the magnitude of it being the inner depths of the Grand Canyon made it feel all the more awesome. At this time I felt my energy level start to deplete, so I grabbed a Guu and felt instantly better! Highly recommend these things, made a major change and they actually taste good.
Making my way through the Box, I passed a few folks who were staying at Cottonwood Campground. They jokingly called me “Trailblazer” and “Speedy”. Soon I caught up with the guys and before we knew it, we were at Phantom Ranch! And it was only 7:47am! I was shocked. During the planning process I was convinced I wasn’t going to reach the ranch until 10:30am. I overestimated how difficult the descent into the canyon was going to be. Turns out, I’m faster than I thought.
I accidentally blew right past the general store at Phantom Ranch and decided it wasn’t worth it to go back. So I kept trucking another 0.25 miles to Bright Angel Campground where I took an hour break and soaked my feet in the stream. I saw the guys go past me as I was soaking and figured that would be the last I would see of them. I was astonished that I had already hiked 14 miles and had less than 10 to go. I was halfway done and still felt pretty good! My hips were starting to ache a little, but I figured going uphill and using different muscle sets would change that. The temperature at the campground read 79 degrees. Knowing that it was only going to get hotter from here on out and the sun would be beating down on me the rest of the way, I put on a tank top and loaded up on sunscreen.
And so, I began my ascent at 8:47am. Only 0.5 miles away was the might Colorado River. I took some time to take in the magnitude of the infamous river that carved out the very canyon I was exploring and paid my respects. I crossed the magnificent bridge and was now on the Bright Angel Trail! The whole first section of the trail had views of the bridge and I loved it. Except for the sand I encountered for about a mile. I hate hiking in the sand. But soon it came to an end. At this point I was fully aware of the sun’s presence. It was intense, but not stiffling hot yet.
I played leapfrog with a bunch of other hikers the entire way to Indian Garden Campground. Some of them looked like they were not enjoying themselves so much. Interestingly enough, the ones who looked the least happy were also the ones without trekking poles. I’m telling you folks – invest in a pair of these bad boys. They are life and energy savers. I made my way up another landmark – Devil’s Corkscrew. I had watched a youtube video in which the guy made it sound like this was the most HORRENDOUS part of the hike. Was it steep? Yes. Was it hot and in the sun the whole time? Also, yes. But doable? Totally. I actually loved it. I climbed it and laughed to myself about how silly I was to have dreaded facing it.
19 miles in (officially the furthest I’ve ever hiked in one day), I reached Indian Garden Campground at 10:45am. Again, I was surprised by the time I was making. I only had 4.5 miles left, I could totally be done this hike in 12 hours. As soon as that thought crossed my mind, I instantly made it my goal. Because when it comes to common sense vs. bragging rights, bragging rights always wins, right?! I felt I could do it because my legs still felt great and my mind was still very positive.
I spent an hour at the campground. I met Zach, a Colorado River rafting tour instructor who was hiking sweep for a group of 28 people who were hiking up from the river. He had the horrible job of carrying the packs of folks who were too tired to carry them themselves. Unfortunately for Zach, 3 people were really struggling so he had to manage their packs and his own. I did not envy him.
And so, I left for the final ascent at 11:45am, confident and elated. I looked back and could see the trail that leads to Plateau Point, a trail that is very prominent at the South Rim. I thought forever that this trail was Bright Angel Trail, but Zach informed me that I was wrong. Next time I’m at the Grand Canyon, I would love to head out to this point, as it is fabled to be the most beautiful vantage point of the whole park.
After leaving Indian Gardens is when the day hikers started to become an issue. By day hikers I mean unprepared folks in flip flops and 16 oz of water trekking way too deep in the canyon without any respect for those coming up. Can you tell I’m not a huge fan? I made it the 1.5 miles up to 3 mile Rest House at 12:35pm. Oh what a glorious site that Resthouse was. I was starting to bonk again (but was revived with Guu to the rescue again!) and getting cranky with all the people polluting the trail. And the sun. The sun was hot and intense and now I was battling other people for shaded spots.
I spent 10 minutes at 3 Mile Resthouse, downed some Pedialyte, and got rolling to 1 1/2 Rest House. Only 3 miles left! And boy was I ready for these 3 miles to be over. At one point during this ascent, I looked over at the North Rim and was overcome with emotion. Not sure if it was because I came to the realization of how far I came so easily when I thought surely I’d be dead at this point or the sheer amount of physical and mental exhaustion I was experiencing, but let me tell you, it felt cathartic. I was proud of myself. But pride is a sin so I wrapped up this special little moment and ventured on.
At 1:35pm I reached 1 1/2 Mile Rest House. Again I took 10 minutes and pushed on for the final stretch! The sun was pretty overwhelming, but I knew I only had a little more to go. At some point along this stretch my left knee decided it had had enough and put on a bit of a show. I couldn’t put weight through it and soon was completely reliant on my trekking poles. See- life savers!! Even hobbling with my one bad knee, I was still passing day hikers, though I think it was probably because I had a bit more adrenaline in my system than they did at this point.
I came across a tunnel, which I knew marked the end of the trail. In my head I thought, “Wow, I came across this pretty quickly. Only 200m left!”. I was elated so I took a picture with it. And then puzzled. And then angry. After a good 400m, I realized that this was a false tunnel. There must be 2 on this trail.
I was minorly dissuaded, as my knee was screaming in agony and I still had God knows how much longer left. But hobbled on I did and BAM I saw the real tunnel! Again I was overrun with emotion, but pushed it to the back of my mind as I always do and limped up the 200m left to the finish line.
2:37pm. I had made it. Under 12 hours. Not accounting for break time, the actual hike itself took 8.5 hours.
This is my favorite venture to date. Mostly because I had been dreaming of accomplishing it for so long, but unable to pursue to do the powers that be and forces outside my control. I never imagined hiking it in one day, but thank God that I had a fleeting thought that maybe, just maybe, I could do it. Being in the depths of the canyon and seeing the forces that carved such a marvel was humbling. I am thankful to God for listening to my prayers, my health for the ability to do this hike, my mind for pushing my body, and my body for getting me the 24 miles across the canyon. I will be thinking fondly on this experience for my entire lifetime, and look forward to getting to explore the canyon even more in the future. After all, I left a piece of my heart out there, I have to go back to make sure it’s being treated right, right!?
Rim to River to Rim, anyone?!