“Don’t look down,” I tell my wife, Lisa, as we descend the Grand Canyon’s North Kaibab Trail.
“OK,” she says, watching her footing. The trail is several feet wide but drops off at a 45-degree angle. She avoids looking to the side and focuses her attention ahead, using her hiking poles to slow her descent.
We’re attempting a four-day traverse of the Grand Canyon from north to south, one of the ultimate backpacking adventures on the planet. The 24-mile one-way trek explores some of the most spectacular scenery in North America, an ever-changing array of water- and wind-sculpted stone, the history of the North American continent laid open to contemplate.
Rather than a bucket list, my wife has a “f*** it” list. This includes skydiving, hang gliding, spelunking, vegan diets, CrossFit, Rolfing, bungee and BASE jumping. Notably absent from the list was hiking the Grand Canyon. So when she retired this year, we decided to hike the canyon from North Rim to South Rim.
To navigate the complicated permit process, we hired Wildland Trekking. The company secured a permit for late October — an ideal time as temperatures moderate in the fall.
As a climber and hiker, I’m used to such adventures, which often involve some dirt and discomfort. My wife, petite and fair-skinned, favors comfortable bedding and flush toilets. She worried about her fitness, sleeping in a tent and using pit “toilets.”
Our son, Daniel, jumped at the chance to join us. At 24, he’s a strapping lad, with a red beard and a winning grin. He quickly befriends the other clients: Jacob Oster, a hip, high-energy 29-year-old from Salt Lake City, and his father Jim, a genial banker from Seattle.
After an hour of descending, we stop for lunch under a ponderosa pine tree.
“Welcome to the Grand Canyon!” says our guide, Karla Kennedy, a tall, imperturbable veteran of some 12 rim-to-rim hikes this year alone. She explains the complicated geologic history of the canyon, with the uplift of the Colorado Plateau paving the way for the Colorado River to carve into the rock.
I marvel at the whorls and layers of rock in the canyon: Kaibab. Toroweap. Supai. Redwall. Bright Angel. Zoroaster. Each rock layer and formation provides a glimpse of the old and incredibly complex history of the Earth, with human civilization just a thin veneer overlying the rest.
After lunch, we keep descending. My knees complain from carrying my 40-pound pack, but the scenery distracts me. Every twist and turn reveals a new perspective on rock eroded by millennia of water and wind. Across the way, the graceful cascades of Roaring Springs offer a consoling sound.
It’s late afternoon when we arrive in Cottonwood Campground, an oasis of green in a brown and arid landscape. We drop our packs, change into camp shoes and head to Bright Angel Creek to soak our feet. I find a rock in a thicket of willows and plunge my feet into the water.
When we return to the campsite, Karla is already prepping dinner. As someone used to organizing adventures, I appreciate her expertise. She whips up a delicious, rib-sticking jambalaya rice dish. It’s salty and satisfying.
“You guys did a great job!” Karla says as we dig into the dinner.
We mumble our thanks. It’s been a long day and the sun is setting. In the fall, sundown comes around 6 p.m. in the canyon. We spot Saturn, Jupiter, Venus and the hazy white glow of the Milky Way. The crickets sing. The creek roars. The scent of juniper fills the air. The magic of the canyon enchants us.
Ghostly rim-to-rim runners pass in the night. Their headlamps wink and bob in the darkness. Bucket listers. I’m glad we can enjoy the experience being here, not simply passing through.
“Good morning!” Karla greets us at 5:30 the next morning. The sky is dark, but I hear the purr of the stove. We pass around instant coffee and breakfast cereal. Like most Seattleites, I’m obsessed with coffee and bring creamer to complement my coffee.
We break camp quickly, wanting to move before the temperature rises. Karla leads the way toward Phantom Ranch. The trail follows the twists and turns of Bright Angel Creek. As we approach the Colorado River, the brown sandstone walls soar above us in the area known as The Box. Every bend provides a new panorama of water-sculpted walls.
Finally, we spot the buildings and cottonwood trees of Phantom Ranch, which shimmers like a mirage in the distance. Built in National Park Service rustic style, the intimate stone-and-wood buildings fit seamlessly into the surroundings. We pass the restaurant and a ring of cabins under the cottonwoods. I dump my pack and head to the restaurant to buy a $5 lemonade.
The sweet lemonade is a perfect antidote to the sunny, 80-plus-degree weather. The tart, cold lemonade makes it a pleasure to rest in the shade.
Soon we hoist our packs and head to the backpackers campground. Our packs are heavy, but they allow us to camp below the rim and enjoy the atmosphere of the inner gorge. I relish the wind sighing in the cottonwoods, the breeze rattling their bright-yellow leaves. We’re now halfway through our trip. So far, my feet, knees and back are sore, but they’ve held up. Lisa has survived her pack, pit toilets and sleeping bags.
I walk back to Phantom Ranch for a refill of lemonade, $1 this time. I sit on a red sandstone boulder and imbibe the spirit of the place. Hikers lounge in the shade, filling water bottles and hydration flasks, resting and relaxing before the big push back up to the South Rim.
In the afternoon, we head to the Colorado River to cool off. The current moves swiftly in the middle of the river but creates an eddy off to the side where we plunge into the water. It’s cold enough to take my breath away but incredibly invigorating.
After dinner, we gather around a small candle lantern; campfires are not allowed in the canyon. Karla tells stories of backpacking misadventures. Without television or cell reception, storytelling becomes our entertainment, just like in the Old West.
“At Phantom Ranch one evening, a hiking guide came in and said, ‘I left my guests behind and they need help!’” she begins.
She relates how the guests got overheated on the hike. A seasonal ranger walked back up the North Kaibab Trail toward The Box, where he found the older couple. The wife had vomited and passed out. The husband staggered around from heat exhaustion. The ranger wanted to assess the woman’s condition, but two skunks sat on her chest, licking up the woman’s vomit. The ranger tried to distract the skunks by tossing his half-eaten burrito off to the side of the trail, but the skunks didn’t budge. So he poked them with a trekking pole and got sprayed with an awful, sick-making cloud reeking of rotten eggs and burning tires.
With the skunks gone, the ranger examined the woman. She was breathing and had a heartbeat. The ranger used water from the creek to cool her down, likely saving her life. He then hiked off to call in a helicopter. When he returned, she sat up, threw up on him and passed out again. Later, the ranger was able to carry the woman to a helicopter, which short hauled her up to the top. Both she and her husband survived.
After all these heroics, he had to hike out, others likely yielding to him on his way uphill.
“Wow!” I think. “Our trip is a breeze compared to that.”
Karla wakes us at 5:30 again. We have a big day ahead of us and need a jolt of coffee and a large bowl of cereal for the journey ahead. We cross the Silver Bridge over the Colorado. The entire canyon is waking up; it looks like an immense natural cathedral. The view is so inspiring I feel like singing Gregorian chant, but I decide not to subject the others to that.
The track switchbacks upward, following Pipe Creek. Lisa looks tired but keeps moving, not griping about her pack or the effort. We enter the Devil’s Corkscrew, an unrelenting series of switchbacks. At the top, Karla takes a break.
“Screw you, Devil’s Corkscrew!” She drops her pack. We pound water, eat snacks and get ready for the last stretch: to Indian Gardens.
The landscape is dry and sere, but a ribbon of green shrubs and trees flourishes along the creek. Daniel and Jacob scramble up a nearby spire, burning off their youthful energy.
We arrive at Indian Gardens in the early afternoon. My feet, knees and back ache from carrying the pack. It’s a luxury to drop it and wander around this verdant oasis.
For dinner, we hike out to Plateau Point, a promontory with a 360-degree view of the canyon. The alpenglow on the surrounding peaks like Vishnu Temple is surreal. Karla prepares a tasty chili dinner. We sit on rocks and contemplate the immensity of the surroundings. I try to fix it in my mind, a reference point for later.
Despite sore bodies, we rise early the next day. We trudge upward, the views expanding as we ascend. Lisa keeps up a steady pace, but I can tell by her face she’s getting tired. Still, the South Rim is in sight. We’re almost there.
As we near the top, tourists cheer us on. “Wow! That pack looks heavy,” one woman tells me.
“Thanks,” I say. “It is!”
People pass us on their way down wearing tennis shoes and carrying only a water bottle.
“Good luck!” I think, still moving. “Watch out for the skunks.”
Finally, we reach the South Rim and high-five each other.
“We did it!” I say, giving Lisa and Daniel a hug.
Tourists mill about, oohing and aahing over the view. I wander into a gift shop to examine the T-shirts, hats, mugs and memorabilia. There’s nothing for me there. I found what I wanted on the trail, hiking from rim to rim with my wife and son, feeling the canyon’s contours in my legs, knees and back, relishing the lemonade at Phantom Ranch, the chill of the Colorado River and the marvelous water and wind-sculpted stones of the inner gorge.
I go back outside to locate the North Rim, the start of our journey. I take in the length and breadth of the canyon and now understand why it’s rated as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World — a concrete expression of the American sublime.