Grand Canyon National Park. The big kahuna of national parks in the Southwest. Millions of people travel from across the globe to cast their eyes upon this 5000’ deep chasm of layered rock. I hadn’t been to the canyon for 15 years, and even then I only took the time to glimpse into its depths from the South Rim for an afternoon. This time I arrived here for a different reason. Much like the Colorado Trail had beckoned to me from the far reaches of Alaska, I have been curious to ride some sections of a similar trail system that cuts vertically across Arizona. Creatively, it’s called the Arizona Trail (AZT). As is true for the Colorado Trail, there is a yearly endurance mountain bike race on the 800 mile trail which includes the North and South Kaibab trails across the Grand Canyon. The trick is that in ALL national parks in the U.S. all mechanized forms of travel, including bicycles, are not allowed on any dirt hiking trails. The hardcore racers and purist AZT riders actually take their bikes apart and carry them across the Grand. Well, that’s just beyond what I’d call ‘fun’, so I elected to have my bike shuttled around on a van while I hiked the ditch.
The road to the North Rim of the canyon from the last town of Fredonia required a 4500’ elevation gain, and a SIGNIFICANT temperature drop. As I continued South from the last townsite of Jacob Lake, the air got crisper. Campfires transitioned from luxury status to my only way to be outside the sleeping bag without shivering for those couple of days.
At last, my first snow in Arizona! Remnants of the last snow a few days before. Up at 9000’ in early Novermber, it’s not a big surprise. The further I got into the park, the more snow coverage there was.
As was true for so many places in the Southwest, the North Rim campground had already been closed for the season. Luckily they still welcomed those arriving by foot and pedal. I set up my tent and ventured to the small general store which was rumored to be open for a few more days. Given tight park regulations about firewood gathering, I bit the bullet and purchased a bundle of firewood for the first time yet. Strapped it onto the backpack and rode back to begin the warming process for a cold night at 9000’. Only 2 other people shared the enormous campground with me. Two ladies from Florida who had just hiked across from the South Rim and were preparing to hike back across after a rest day. They were very sweet. One was a professional tennis instructor, the other, one of her students from many years back. So lovely to hear a bit of their history.
First view of the canyon from my campground at sunrise.
I woke up and rode to the North Kaibab trailhead. There I met Mike from Trans Canyon Tours, who hoisted the Ogre up onto his roof and strapped it in (a bit haphazardly for my taste but I chose to trust his promise that it would be secure) for the 250 mile ride around the canyon to wait for me at the South Rim. This would be the 4th time since leaving Seattle that the bike has been transported not by my own power. First was the ferry to Alaska. Then the tractor trailer hitchhike up the Dalton Highway. Then the ride from Burning Man back to Colorado. But this would be the first time I’d be traveling separate from my bike. A strange feeling. Perhaps a bit of separation anxiety. Most definitely, actually.
After Mike drove away, I stuffed the very fundamental camping gear I needed into my little backpack and headed down the trail.
First agave plant sighting on the route. What a strange and beautiful plant it is with this enormous stem that supposedly takes years of growth before sprouting.
All the trails in Grand Canyon that I hiked were beautifully manicured, with bridges to help cross certain gaps and creeks.
Between the bridges and the trails etched into cliff walls like this one, I have to give a load shout out to all those who worked for years to build these trails. Amazing.
Many different species of cacti presented themselves along the trail. I actually found a book on cactus identification at a lodge a few days later to learn more. So many interesting manifestations of spikey plants! It got me thinking: It seems that everything in the desert is prickly, pokey, or in some way sharp. I assume they all evolved that way in order to avoid being eaten by animals seeking hydration in such a dry climate, but would love some input on this…
Cottonwood Campground. Night one.
Ribbon Falls. The lushest area I saw in the whole canyon. A little oasis within the desert.
Many bridge crossings carried me along the trail as it paralleled Bright Angel Creek.
Behold, the Cliffs of Insanity!!
At the base of the canyon right by the Colorado River, I came upon a large group of cabins and buildings called Phantom Ranch. Many visitors of the canyon hike or ride mules down from the South Rim to stay here. Cabins are open to be booked exactly a year out and sell out within seconds. There is also a cantina on site, offering a small selection of snacks, and of course beer. I gladly partook.
Mule riders arriving into Phantom Ranch. Many people will pay to have their stuff carried down separately by mules and ride in small groups led by guiding companies from the South Rim Village, stay a night here at Phantom Ranch, then ride the mules out the following day. As this group rode in, I noticed a strong feeling of judgement sweep over me. Despite finding myself in many popular tourist destinations these last few months, I always feel the need to remain separate from “them”. By “them”, I mean the tourists that crowd around the most popular sights in beautiful places, generally staying on paved walkways and taking a thousand pictures of the most famous lookout spot, surrounded by so many others doing the exact same thing. “I’m not like them”, I say to myself, “I’m a REAL adventurer, getting out into the elements like those people never would.” I hear that voice and am embarrassed by myself. These people are getting to see the beauty of the world, in whatever way they can or are able. Who am I to judge that? As the next set of mule riders trotted by a few minutes later, I gazed upon them with a much greater sense of peace and connection, knowing that we are all out here to touch the magic of nature, however we get here. I do however really wish they’d find a way to pick up all the mule poop though. There’s A LOT of it!
After getting settled into Bright Angel campground, I went for a walk down to the Colorado River along the River Trail. Beautiful.
The ‘black bridge’ leading across to South Kaibab Trail
On the my final day in the canyon I crossed the black bridge to see a group of mules bringing supplies down to Phantom Ranch. Yep, that’s how they get all their supplies, since there are no roads nor wheeled vehicles allowed down there.
The climb up out of the canyon was long and steady. Traffic is so significant on this trail that bathrooms were installed at various stopping points to lower the impact along the trail.
Clothing??? Okay, who drops CLOTHING into a port a potty?? Again, I had an image of “them”. The filthy rich tourists who buy a set of Patagucci outdoor clothes for a couple of days in the canyon then throw them away afterward. Or perhaps they throw away their clothes on the way out, in this port a potty? All stories in my head. But the sign was real!
The final climb up to the South Rim.
At the South Kaibab trailhead, I caught a bus back to the lodge where my bike was being stowed. Very strange to be on public transportation for the first time in 6 months.
That night I rode out to a viewpoint to watch the sun set over the Canyon. I had to climb down past all the railings to find a quiet perch away from the crowds, and worth the extra effort.
The South Rim Village is a very, very touristy place. Coming up from the canyon floor, I did not yet know where I would be sleeping up there, but knew it would be challenging due to the crowds and controlled camping. I recalled the ranger who helped me procure my backcountry permit to hike across the canyon, who suggested I contact him for lodging possibilities upon reaching the South Rim as he lived there and was a cyclist himself. Turns out he was out of town when I arrived, but offered me his house in the park staff housing neighborhood, without ever having met! I am continuously floored by the kindness and trust people will show a complete stranger, to open their homes and lives on a moment’s notice. Amidst a culture where the media so often portrays the dark side of human behavior, I feel it’s so important to remember how much good is out there. I stayed for 2 nights deeply appreciative to have a warm place to sleep at 7200’.
All in all, hiking across the Grand Canyon was fantastic. Experiencing the changes in geology, biology, and temperature as I dropped from 8500’ at the North Rim trailhead to 2500’ at the Colorado River, then back up to 7200’ at the South Rim was a treat. Although I was a bit overwhelmed by the crowds, I was able to appreciate exactly why this place is so popular. There’s nothing like it.