Grand Canyon National Park slices the Colorado Desert like a deep, open wound, the Colorado River flowing freely like a severed artery. Teetering on the South Rim, I imagined the canyon’s visitors as something akin to being medically corrupt-a throng of grunge surgeons hovering above the imposing gash. And I was about to explore just a smidge of its awesome innards-23.5 miles of epic, scenic beauty.
While strolling the upper reaches of the South Rim’s Bright Angel Trail at 6,860 feet, I was thrilled to find myself nearly alone on the classic route overlooking one of the greatest natural wonders of the world. Desert bighorn sheep traversed the sheer canyon walls like no other canyon dweller, displaying a nimble balance I envied. That’s why it surprised me to be nose-to-nose with a thickly curled ram on the trail. The gregarious herbivore-obviously habituated toward the masses-became preoccupied with inhaling dry desert grasses, while I marveled at its surefootedness in the loose, rocky terrain. I couldn’t help feeling privileged on the fringe of the abyss, sharing the trail with the most majestic critter in the canyon.
A Grand Descent
Before the sun peeked over the North Rim, my friend Foster and I began our descent at first light along the well-traveled Bright Angel Trail. Eighty percent of visitors to the Grand Canyon peer over the rim, turn around, and head back to the bus and probably Las Vegas. That was gratifyingly apparent on our descent; I don’t think we crossed paths with more than 20 hikers and backpackers on our way to the renowned Phantom Ranch, on the north side of the Colorado River at 2,450 feet.
As we descended, we enjoyed our own rock-hound tour along the broad canyon walls. First limestone, then gritty sandstone and crumbly shale with well-defined fissures separating the geological wonders all along the Colorado River. These are the rocks that created the canyon’s cliffs, ledges, and slopes feeding the Colorado River, towering above like a mighty fortress.
We had timed our descent to avoid the stifling midday sun, easily hiding in colossal shadows. The increasing roar of the river echoed up the canyon, hastening our stride toward the cascading torrent. River rafters negotiated waves of rapids, the perfect mode of travel in this sweltering heat. Signs at the rim warn of 120-degree temperatures on the canyon floor, but still the warnings go unheeded, and rescues are a common occurrence for unprepared hikers.
After crossing the suspension bridge over the Colorado, we connected with the North Kaibab Trail that leads to the North Rim. Not far from the bridge, we entered a narrow canyon that led a short way up to Phantom Ranch, a welcome respite to any hiker hoping to bag a rim-to-rim trek. Sure, a cool, flowing creek skirts the craggy draw, but when you consider an ice-cold lemonade to a steak dinner awaiting those in the know, Phantom Ranch is the oasis at the bottom of the “great void.” It’s been that way since 1922. Shrouded in cottonwood trees at the confluence of Bright Angel and Phantom creeks, the ranch has proven to be one of the most popular pit-stops in the national park.
The Rising Dust
Bunking in one of the ranch’s rustic cabins, combined with dinner and breakfast, jump-started our steep, dusty trudge up to the North Rim the next day. Foster and I left in the dark, but it had barely cooled overnight. The narrow canyon held the heat like a simmering kiln. Whiptail and spiny lizards were already warming themselves along the trail, as sweat poured from my brow like snowmelt on the rim in the spring.
At the next campground, I cooled off in the chilly creek, even though it was just 8 a.m. We’d passed only a solo backpacker earlier in the morning and a few sleepy arroyo toads languishing on the edge of the trail. It was nice having the canyon to ourselves. Our pace was brisk along the canyon floor, but slowed to a monotonous crawl once the ascent began. The sun was on us now. No slick, ancient walls of rock blocking out the penetrating rays. No more cottonwood trees swaying in canyon breezes, and more importantly, no more refreshing creeks to bring my body temperature down.
The North Rim is nearly 6,000 feet above the canyon floor at 8,200 feet. The North Kaibab Trail is a dust-choked, rock-strewn route with jaw-dropping views of the canyon. Foster and I found a shaded alcove overlooking the abyss and wolfed down our sack lunches from Phantom Ranch. The sun was at its hottest, no hiding from its searing rays along the trail. Tread slowly and try to conserve energy, or hustle up the trail as quickly as I could? I chose the fast track, but the trail was so dusty that each step I took sent a plume of dust wafting up the canyon and into my lungs.
If I thought that was bad, the plume transformed into a virtual dust storm when I ran smack-dab into a pack-mule train descending the North Kaibab. The guide possessed a wry grin on his face, almost as if he knew the 12 clients riding behind him were suffering from the heat, a bumpy ride, and the cloud of dust they’d never escape from until they jumped from their saddles. Most of the riders used what they could to shield their faces. Wait until they hug those narrow strips of trail with nowhere to go except straight down, I thought to myself.
Three-quarters of the way up, I waited for Foster at an unexpected watering hole. I relaxed in the shade and played cat-and-mouse with an inquisitive Stellar’s jay. I soaked my head in the cool, clear drink; ate an apple; and watched some unprepared day hikers descending into the furnace.
The last 1.5 miles were really dusty, but shaded. When I reached Cococino Point, I dropped my pack and took in the breathtaking views near the apex of the North Kaibab Trail. Day hikers were appearing with nothing more than eight ounces of water and a Grand Canyon baseball cap, a dead giveaway that I was almost atop the North Rim.
At the rim, the trailhead was crowded with tour buses, rental cars, and hikers. Two Kaibab mule deer nibbling on grasses along the side of the road dispersed when several tourists crowded them. They loped deeper into the forest, vanishing like ghosts into the depths of the canyon, easy to do in the “great void.”
To make reservations for accommodations on the rim of the Grand Canyon or at Phantom Ranch, call Xanterra Parks and Resorts at (888) 29PARKS or (303) 29PARKS; email firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit xanterra.com. If you hike from rim to rim and need a ride back to your car, call Trans Canyon at (928) 638-2820.