Grand Canyon

South Rim, Grand Canyon
South Rim, Grand Canyon

Many years ago I did some solo road trips that started in Garden Grove, CA and went through Las Vegas, Valley of Fire, Hoover Dam, Bryce Canyon, Zion, etc. I did similar road trips two consecutive years (circa 1985 and 1986) and spent three nights on the floor of the Grand Canyon. Grand Canyon is a place that you see in photos and movies but you cannot truly experience it until you see it in person. I started these road trips after Thanksgiving and these places were cold, quiet, and devoid of crowds. I had seen the canyon many times in photos and movies but being there was completely different. The canyon is enormous and the colors were so vivid that the canyon did not even look real.

The most used trails on the south rim are Bright Angel Trail and South Kaibab Trail. Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch are on the canyon floor with Indian Gardens Campground about midway between. On Bright Angel Trail it is 4.8 miles to Indian Gardens and another 4.7 miles to Bright Angel Campground (9.5 miles total). The trailhead is at 6,860 elevation, Indian Gardens is at 3,800′ elevation, Bright Angel Campground at about 2,500′, for a total elevation change of about 4,400′. On South Kaibab Trail it is 7 miles from trailhead to Bright Angel Campground. The starting elevation is 7,260′ and the campground is 2,500′ (total elevation change of 4,760′). The South Kaibab trail is 2.5 miles shorter but it is steeper and there are no campgrounds along the way.

Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon
Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon

The first year I took the Bright Angel Trail and the next year I took the steeper South Kaibab Trail. The hike down was pretty treacherous for the first mile or more. The trail had snow that was compressed into very packed snow and ice. I had to watch each step and I did not have crampons on my boots. I carried an external frame backpack that weighed about 35 pounds. The views from the rim of the canyon were extremely impressive but the views while descending into the canyon were even better. As you descend into the canyon the rim rises higher and higher above you and you are enveloped by the bright colors of the canyon walls all around you. I had to stop about every 15 to 20 minutes and just gaze and the canyon. The largeness and the colors were truly spectacular.

The descents are brutal even in the cold weather. Going down in hard on knees and ankles. The trail is nearly a constant 10% grade that descends about 4000′ in about 9.5 miles (or 7 miles depending on which trail you choose). I got the Bright Angel Campground where I was scheduled to stop but decided to push forward to the Phantom Ranch Campground about 4 miles away. Those last miles were just punishing and I was nearing complete exhaustion. I seriously wondered if I could make it to the campground and started looking for places to camp in the event that I could not continue. I finally made past the Colorado River to the campground. The night was clear and cold but much warmer than the rim.

The trek up the trail is very challenging with either trail. When I hiked the South Kaibab there was a sign at the start of ascent that only those who are in good physical shape should attempt this trail. One important thing to consider when hiking Grand Canyon is the altitude. The trails are long and steep but these main trails are not ridiculously steep. For me the big killer was the altitude. A steep trail at a few thousand feet is difficult but that same trail at 5,000+ feet will be MUCH more difficult (at least for me). On the ascent you are getting tired due to the incline but that is compounded by the added elevation with nearly every step.

Mile and a Half Rest House
Mile and a Half Rest House

We went back to the Canyon in May of 2018 after making the 2+ hour drive from Sedona (114 miles). The Canyon was MUCH busier than when I first went there in the 1980s. We had to park in a remote lot and take a shuttle to the Visitors Center and trailhead. We hiked to the Mile and a Half Rest House on Bright Angel Trail. This was my first hike of the season and the elevation change of 1,131′ coupled with the starting altitude of almost 7,000′ made this 3.2 mile hike challenging for me. As I recall the temperature was about 80ish so it was not too hot. There were lots of people on the trail and the views were spectacular. However, I recall the views being a bit better in the winter when the air was clear and cold.

Due to the huge crowds and hot weather I would avoid visiting Grand Canyon in the summer months. The Canyon is truly a sight that you should not miss and the views get better as you descend into the canyon. Be prepared if you hike the trails, even if you are only doing day hikes. Be in decent physical shape, have good footwear, and bring a day pack. Stock your pack with plenty of water, food, and first aid supplies. Be sure to have a camera because there are photo opportunities almost everywhere. Do not underestimate the trail and remember that it is much more difficult going back up.