Mrs. ERN, little Ms. ERN and I recently headed out to visit the great American West. We visited Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, (upper) Antelope Canyon, and Grand Canyon National Park, both North and South Rim. We got a good deal on the airfare by booking way in advance, we did the Priceline name-your-own-price deals for the various hotels along the way and paid almost all hotel charges with the credit card reward points.
The trip was also a great opportunity to check off one item on my personal bucket list: Hike through the Grand Canyon from the North to South Rim. In one single day. Since I didn’t bring anybody else along for the hike (Mrs. ERN and little Ms. ERN took the rental car to the South Rim) I thought I will bring all of you ERN blog readers along for a digital ride. Not that any camera can really do the Grand Canyon justice, but I’ll try my best.
On earlier visits to the South Rim, I had seen the warning signs (in four languages!): “Each year hikers suffer serious illness or death from exhaustion.”
Doing some research on what it would actually take to hike down and up I found a wealth information on the web about Grand Canyon hiking trails. It turns out that instead of the roughly 16-mile hike from the South Rim to the river and back one can do an even more “death-defying” hike starting at the North Rim and hiking trough the Canyon to the South Rim. It’s considered one of America’s classic extreme day hikes, see some interesting links here, here, here, and here. Since the North Rim trailhead is so much further away from the river we are now looking at a 23.9-mile hike. Where do I sign up? Actually, nowhere: doing this as a day hike without any camping inside the Canyon requires no permit or reservation.
Let’s look at the hike in more detail:
I picked the “easiest” configuration of this hike. I started at the North Rim (around 8,240 feet altitude) and after crossing the Colorado River (2,450 feet), I opted for the Bright Angel Trail to climb back up to the South Rim (6,800 feet). About 24 miles (39km) total. Going North to South has the advantage of finishing on a slightly lower altitude, so I had to climb uphill for “only” 4,400 vertical feet instead of 5,800. Well, my GPS showed 6,500 feet descent and 5,000 feet ascent, presumably due to some up and down between Cottonwood and Phantom Ranch. So, even in the easiest configuration, this is a serious hike.
Also, the southern portion of the hike via the Bright Angel Trail has the advantage of water sources along the way and some shade in the afternoon, while the alternative route, the South Kaibab Trail, has neither water nor shade.
- At the North Rim, it’s best to stay at the lodge right inside the National Park. It’s only about two miles from the trailhead. We made our reservation 6 months in advance and even then the lodge was already close to fully booked. This takes planning way in advance!
- Doing the hike one-way, I was lucky to have the help of my wife who dropped me at the trailhead in the morning and picked me up again at the South Rim. The drive is quite an undertaking itself (~220 miles!). If you don’t have a designated driver there is a shuttle service connecting North and South Rim.
- Water was available throughout the hike. But it’s best to check at the North Rim ranger station, though, to make sure there aren’t any interruptions in the water supply.
- You can get food at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Canyon but you have to order it in advance. I opted to bring my own food for the day, though.
- I was expecting no cell phone reception inside the Canyon. But it turned out that I had a weak signal south of the Cottonwood campground for a while. Enough to leave a voice message on my wife’s phone to let her know I’m doing well. And again for the final three miles of the Bright Angel Trail. Nice! I was able to coordinate with my wife to set up a time to pick me up at the Bright Angel trailhead.
- Light daypack
- Food: High calorie and salty snacks are best. I brought walnuts and power bars as snacks and tuna, salmon and spam (the meat, not the emails) in easy to open pouches as my lunch.
- Gatorade powder to add some electrolytes to the water at the refill stations
- Hiking poles are particularly useful on the long descent into the Canyon.
- Map: Not exactly necessary because the signage on the trail was excellent.
- Water: I brought a 3-liter hydration bladder and a 600ml bottle just in case. A water filter wasn’t necessary.
- Hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen
- Windbreaker/rain jacket
- Headlamp (and extra batteries)
The hike in detail, with pictures
The North Kaibab trailhead next to the small parking lot seems unassuming. You wouldn’t even know you are at the Grand Canyon; the trail just descends into the dark woods at the North Rim without much of a view. Even at 6am, there were plenty of people starting the hike. I made sure I stayed out of the way of the trail runners and followed the beam of my headlight. Given the countless other hikers with headlights, the trail was lit up a Christmas Tree and I might have just left headlamp at home.
Thanks to the overcast sky overnight the temperature was not as low as I feared; the car thermometer read 39 Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius), significantly warmer than the forecast. But still cold enough to wear multiple layers for the first 20-30 minutes.
If you ever stood at the Rim of the Grand Canyon you must have wondered “how the hell can there be a hiking trail descending into the Canyon over these sheer vertical cliffs?” After you pass the Supai Tunnel and look below you get the answer. The North Kaibab Trail is an engineering marvel, chiseled into the steep sandstone cliffs. Something like the Golden Gate Bridge or Hoover Dam of hiking trails!
Two and a half hours into the hike, I had already descended about 4,500 feet vertical when I reached the Cottonwoods campground. It’s a nice place for a second breakfast with fresh water and picnic tables. I realized I carried way too much water. Out of the full 3-liter hydration bladder, I hadn’t even finished a liter. I’ll be smarter next time.
South of the campground, the landscape changed again. The terrain is flatter, a welcome relief for my knees and thighs. The trail now follows a creek fed by the Roaring Springs waterfall first through a wide valley offering spectacular views back up to the North Rim.
Hiking on the East side of the creek for most of the time and protected by the steep canyon walls, I didn’t see much of the sun during the early morning hours and it stayed comfortably cool. But I can see how this part of the hike would become a heat death trap on mid-summer afternoons when the sun heats up the dark red canyon walls and turns this into an oven. This southern portion of the canyon, right before Phantom Ranch is called “The Box” and it’s the hottest part of the hike.
Eventually, the steep narrow canyon opens up. There are trees and buildings and I hear people talking. Welcome to the “capital city” of the Grand Canyon: Phantom Ranch. It’s no exaggeration; there are cabins, campsites, a ranger station, even a small cafeteria. And it was busy there! I figured that the 6-7am shift of hikers that came down from the South Rim had arrived before me. Together with the North Rim runners and hikers, I had encountered that morning the place was bustling. All the picnic tables in the “town square” by the sandwich shop were taken but I found a comfortable spot on the grass and in the shade. Two pouches of tuna and one with spam, and a PowerBar gave me the energy to get going again. 14 miles down, 10 more to go!
South of Phantom Ranch there are two suspension bridges crossing the river, one leading to the South Kaibab Trail and one to the Bright Angel Trail. The South Kaibab Trail is a little bit shorter but offers no shade and no water sources along the way. It’s a no-brainer to take the Bright Angel Trail. After crossing the mighty Colorado River on the Silver Bridge, the trail heads West for about 2 miles, parallel to the river offering spectacular views of the river and the steep canyon walls.
Right before the trail heads South again I could even hike down to a small beach. Well, “beach” is an overstatement. There may be sand and water but you can’t swim here because the currents are deadly (see ya in Lake Mead!) and the water didn’t look too appetizing with so much reddish-brown sediment. But it’s a nice photo opportunity and I made sure I dipped my toes into the river here before heading back to the trail.
The serious part of the day would now begin: the ascent to the South Rim about 4,400 vertical feet (1,300 meters) spread over about eight miles to the South Rim. Heading south, away from the river and toward Indian Gardens, I encountered a group of mules carrying a bunch of weekend warriors down to the river. They may look cute (the mules, not the tourists), but they smell (again, presumably the mules not the tourists but who knows?). Moreover, hikers have to wait for them to pass, so I consider myself lucky I saw just that one group.
Just as I finished my water supply from Phantom Ranch, I arrived at Indian Gardens, a patch of lush bright green in the otherwise parched and barren landscape. I had planned to take a longer break to get a good rest for the final push uphill but the clouds now looked dark and menacing again. Better top off the water supply and get going again.
After 1.8 miles I reached the 3-mile Rest House. Amazingly, I got a cell phone signal and was able to call my wife who had just checked into the hotel at the South Rim. “Babe, it’s me. Please put a Diet Coke in the fridge … yeah, I’m all right … love you too … see you at the South Rim at 4.” Light rain is starting and I can see lightning striking at the North Rim. Better get going again!
After I passed the 1.5-mile point I packed my camera for good for fear of even heavier rain. Amazingly, I still saw plenty of day hikers descending into the canyon right as the thunderstorm started to get going. Maybe the National Park Service should put up a sign (in four languages!) to warn the weekend warriors to get the hell out of there in a Thunderstorm!
Finished! After 10 hours, roughly 6 liters of water and countless tuna/salmon/spam snack pouches and power bars I finally reached the South Rim. The final 20 minutes, I hiked in pretty heavy rain and reaching the South Rim was a bit anti-climactic. No pictures, no hugs, no smiles, no high-fives with the other hikers I met along the way. Due to the rain and thunder, my wife and daughter didn’t even meet me at the trailhead but waited in the car in the parking lot. As happy as I was, I felt a bit cheated. I’m sure I will do this hike again! 2018 when I’m retired!
The next morning we headed back to the South Rim to enjoy the postcard-perfect weather and to take some additional pictures.
I was curious: what kind of financial wisdom would come to me on a long day like this. Absolutely none. Zero. Nada. I didn’t even think about finance or personal finance for a single second. If you look for wisdom from a hike about life and personal finance please consult the Choose Better Life Blog. Finance is my day job and on this hike, I tried to suck in as much of natural beauty as possible. Stay tuned for more finance material next week!