There’s one thing every guidebook and ranger tells you about the Grand Canyon: Do not attempt to hike from the rim to the Colorado River and back in one day.
However, when the temperature is a mere 7 (Fahrenheit), and you’ve trained well, and you start at sunrise… well, Amina and I learned that it’s possible. Don’t try this at home kids.
After a night on the almost deserted North Rim (it’s closed in winter), I was’t quite prepared for the chaos that is the South Rim. It seemed like everyone and their selfie stick was there, many of them driving RVs for the first time. We fought for a parking space at the visitors center, hoping to find a ranger who could direct us away from the crowds, but she just gave us the same advice as the guidebooks: choose the Bright Angel Trail or the South Kaibab Trail, and do an out and back. Since we couldn’t get a reservation to stay at the bottom of the canyon in Phantom Ranch, and we didn’t want to haul a tent and sleeping bag across the country, we’d resigned ourselves to a day hike. However, after flighting with crowds for elbow room, we resolved to get an early start.
We left at 7:48 a.m., just before the mule train, which also goes down the Bright Angel Trail. We chose Bright Angel because if its proximity to parking; you have to take a shuttle to the South Kaibab trailhead.
It was cold when we left, just about one degree. Between that and the icy downhill hike, warming up was hard. Finally, after about a mile on the trail, the snow cleared and the temperature warmed… a bit. We saw some mule deer, and a few other hikers. Because Bright Angel is set back, the scenery was pretty, but not amazing.
Can you spot the deer?
Not too long after the mule deer, Amina and I came around a bend and came almost face to face with a bighorn sheep. The trail was less than six feet wide, built into the side of the canyon. It was almost sheer down to our left, and sheer up on our right. The sheep, just a few feet away, looked right at us and did not seem daunted. It’s graceful horned head came up to my chest.
“Turn around,” I told Amina. On the other side of the bend was a slight indentation in the cliff wall. I pointed at it. “Go there, get down.” Amina crouched on the sheltered side of the cliff and I followed. I let out a short yell, hoping that would scare the sheep. Instead, it ran right at us, passing by in an arm’s length. It stopped several feet up the trail and eyed us warily. “Let’s get out of here,” I said. My heart was pounding, and I had visions of getting head-butted off the canyon. I’ve been close to wild animals before, but black bears and deer usually run in the other direction, while alligators lay lazily in the sun, and bison pretend you aren’t there. The bighorn sheep was like nothing I’d seen before.
Our game plan was to hike for two hours and then assess where we were. Two hours in, we’d made it five miles to Indian Garden. If we turned around, we estimated we’d be back on the rim by 2 p.m., wasting three hours of daylight. If we kept going another hour, we’d make it back to the rim right about dusk.
We had plenty of food and water, as well as extra layers and headlamps in case we got delayed. So we decided to go another hour. As the trail flattened out, we decided to start running. An hour later, we were on the banks of the Colorado River.
I never thought I’d touch the water there; everything I’d read and been told said that the eight-mile hike would take far longer. It was a surreal sense of triumph. If we’d made it to the river in three hours, we were pretty sure we could make it over to and up the South Kaibab trail in about six hours.
trail running along the Colorado River
From the River Rest House, it was another mile to the suspension bridge leading to Phantom Ranch. We ran that as well, then stopped to walk when the sand got soft and the incline got steeper.
The South Kaibab trail was beautiful! So much prettier than Bright Angel. It is also supposedly steeper, but I didn’t think there was a drastic difference.
looking back at the trail
We stopped to take pictures and eat pb&js (seriously, the best sandwiches ever). Amina had a gps watch, and we could keep tabs based on landmarks, but I had a hard time believing the progress we made. Rule of thumb is that it takes twice as long to go up the canyon as it did to go down, but we did it closer to 1.5 times the rate.
By 4 p.m. we were back on the South Rim, jelly-legged and smiling.
Grand Canyon trip details:
Length: 16.5 miles (down Bright Angel, up South Kaibab), 5,500 feet elevation
Time: 7.5 hours, with some breaks for photos, snacks, hiding from sheep
Temp: Start 7 degrees, high ~30 degrees
Gear: heavy base layer, fleece, down jacket, hat, gloves
Other stuff: space blanket, water, snacks, headlamp, first aid kit