Whether or not it registered with me, I had been anticipating this day for a long time. Today, I would reach the Grand Canyon. Easily one of the most identifiable and impressive features on the continent, it is a linchpin of the National Park Service. For me, the Grand Canyon is more than just a park. It played an integral role in nuturing my appreciation for wild and natural spaces. In 2004, our family road trip involved a hike to Dripping Springs and an epic rainstorm in Mather Campground on the South Rim. In 2005, my dad and I joined a family for transformative trip down the Colorado River. Those experiences have defined my relationship with the Grand Canyon, but they also mark the foundation of my path towards wilderness education. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to return to the canyon.
From Payson, I headed due north towards Sedona, a funky, albeit touristy, town tucked in between jutting spires of red rock. Normally, I would have spent a day wandering the hills above Sedona. Today, however, was not the day for such exploration. I had arrived at the beginning of Easter weekend. Crowds thronged at every crosswalk, incessant traffic overwhelmed every intersection, and trailhead parking lots burgeoned with parked cars. Today was not the day to explore Sedona.
Inserting myself into the slow procession of cars continuing northwards, I marveled at the surrounding canyons, keeping a wary eye on the taillights of the cars ahead. Eventually, the traffic cleared as I entered Flagstaff. I spent an hour checking out the local gear shops and picking up groceries before I hit the road again. Next stop, Grand Canyon!
In the end, I arrived just late enough in the day that I decided not to head into the park until the next morning. Instead, I pulled off into the Kaibab National Forest, parking under a grove of ponderosa pines for the night. As the shadows lengthened into dusk, I packed up a pack and readied my gear for tomorrow’s hike. Water, a map, a few of energy bars, and extra layers materialized out of their hiding places until I felt prepared for the next day.
Whether it was the intensity of the moonlight or my excitement, my first night outside the Grand Canyon was relatively restless. In the morning, I punched snooze a few too many times before I finally trucked into the park. My delayed arrival meant that the park was already struggling to handle the influx of Spring Break and Easter visitors by the time I showed up. With cars circling the parking lots amidst ever growing bus lines, I headed into the visitor’s center for my stamp and a bit of advice. I realized, however, that all of that would have to wait. I had everything I needed for the day, so I drove to the Bright Angel lodge, parked, and headed for the Hermit’s Rest trailhead. There too, I found a long line for the bus. Annoyed, I started walking the rim trail, knocking off about two or three miles before I hopped on the bus to the end.
The night before I had decided that I would walk an extension of the trail that my family had hiked back in 2004: The Hermit’s Rest Trail. Although the South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails are the most popular and best maintained routes into the canyon, Hermit’s Rest trail offers hikers a more secluded, but unmaintained descent into the inner canyon. Despite my best efforts, my extended snoozing, the hassle of parking, and excessive lines for the park bus system meant that I didn’t get to the trailhead until 11:15 AM, far later than I would normally start a hike. That said, I was only planning on an eight-mile section of the trail, which would be totally manageable in the remaining daylight. Off I went.
Hiking into the Grand Canyon is like embarking on a stroll through geologic time. The infamous switchbacks of any trail into the canyon are cut into varying layers of limestone, sandstone, and shale. The rock underfoot shifts rapidly as you drop into the depths of the inner canyon. My trail stretched across the steep walls of the canyon, slowly descending through a complex system of switchbacks and angled traverses. Trekking poles in hand, I strode down the hill, letting my momentum carry me swiftly downward. The strain of each step I took had to be calculated against the effort that same step would take on the way out. Without a cloud in the sky, I covered any exposed skin and marched onward, knowing that I wouldn’t find much, if any, shade today. Feeling confident in my ability to power through just about any hike, I knew that exposure and lack of water would be my greatest enemies in the canyon.
Within a few hours, I had reached the intersection with the Tonto Trail. My original plan had been to continue down the Hermit Trail further into the canyon. When I hit the Tonto, however, I began to reevaluate. The Tonto Trail is a wilderness trail that runs along a plateau through the inner canyon. In its entirety, it traverses almost one hundred miles of the inner canyon. I didn’t have the supplies or the time to go the full length, but I figured I had enough time, water, and calories to make it to the Indian Garden Campground and the Bright Angel Trailhead. I glanced at my watch, stuffed a ProBar in my mouth, gulped down some water, and then headed off down the Tonto Trail.
The Tonto Trail replaces the soul crushing switchbacks of the Hermit Trail with a looping trail that winds around the massive buttes of the inner canyon, almost like long horizontal switchbacks as opposed to tight vertical ones. Knowing that I had many miles ahead of me, I extended my stride and quickened my pace. As I hiked, I worked through the landmarks that lay ahead of me and scheduled my intake accordingly. My three main concerns were water, food, and time. The Tonto isn’t a widely traveled trail and is notorious for its limited water supply. I had three liters of water and an opportunity to refill at Indian Garden before I began my ascent up the Bright Angel Trail. To regulate my intake, I set a twenty-minute timer on my watch, allowing myself a sip of water every time in beeped. Every hour, I would drink an additional three gulps of water.
For food, I had three energy bars, totaling about eight hundred calories. I limited my caloric intake to one bar at the Tonto Trail turnoff, another halfway through the Tonto Trail, and the final bar when I arrived at Indian Garden, which would mean about two and a half hours between bars. For all intents and purposes, I didn’t have quite enough food or water for the hike that lay ahead of me, especially considering the wilderness setting. I would be drawing on the water and calories I had consumed the day before and that morning to get me through the day. Well aware of the risk I was taking, I also knew that if I ran out of energy or water, it would happen near Indian Garden (a fully booked campground with potable water) or on the Bright Angel Trail (the most popular route in and out of the canyon). Help would not be far away in the sections that I was potentially most worried about.
Although time influenced my decision to hike the Tonto, it was not a deciding factor. I knew that I could reach the Bright Angel Trail before the sun set. As I said, the Bright Angel Trail is one of the most popular trails in the park, meaning that it is basically a highway from mules and humans alike. I was utterly confident that I could navigate it after dark with my headlamp. Even though timing wasn’t necessarily a major factor, I obviously wanted to finish before it got too dark or too cold. Instead of speeding up to an unsustainable pace, I severely cut back on breaks. For the rest of the day, I stopped only to take pictures and pee. Otherwise, I kept moving.
Having worked out all of the details of my hike, I settled in for the ride. As far as I could tell I was utterly alone in this section canyon. I passed a handful of hikers heading in the opposite direction, but they quickly disappeared from memory. The canyon around me was quiet. I could feel light breeze and the warm sunlight pushing me onwards. Embracing the solitude, I followed the Tonto into tight canyons were the foreground of tightly sculpted rock and lush greenery consumed my field of vision. Climbing again to the plateau, my vision shifted to the backdrop of banded stone cliffs and low desert shrubs. I continued this way for hours, following the contours of the Tonto, completely in the zone. Having addressed upcoming concerns, my mind had settled into a state of flow where I was fully present and relishing the world around me. As the shadows of the canyon lengthened all around me, time felt utterly immaterial.
Hours later, I recognized a foreign object on the crest of the next hill. Tumbling back to reality, I realized it was a power line. Indian Garden couldn’t be far away. I gulped down a few extra swallows of water and continued down the trail. Before I knew it, I saw a wide, chalky path cut into the landscape that led into a wooded glen. I could hear the happy gurgle of running water. I had made it. Hiking briskly into camp, I located the waterspout, filled up my CamelBak, and devoured my last ProBar. Before the fatigue could set in, I was off once more, continuing up the Bright Angel Trail.
With dusk bearing down upon me, I quickly covered the sloping section of the trail that led to the switchbacks. From that point forward, I planted each trekking pole with vigor, powering my way up the ever-increasing slope. Working my way up the tight switchbacks of the Bright Angel Fault, daylight quickly evaporated. Despite the growing darkness, I could still easily follow the wide, clear trail. I began passing small groups of disheveled hikers slowly working their way up the precipitous trail. It was clear that most had overestimated the climb out of the canyon.
Soon, stars began to shine down from the clear sky. Looking up, I saw Orion rising out of the rim of the canyon. The trail, however, had its own constellations. Turning my eyes away from the sky, I saw a flickering Cassiopeia of headlamps working its way up a section of switchbacks far below. Another grouping briefly shifted into the likeness of the Big Dipper, before splintering apart once more. For a brief moment, I considered attempting a long-exposure shot of the twinkling headlamps below, but my rumbling stomach urged me forward, rebelling against my attempts to assuage its hunger with gulps of water. Determined, I turned my eyes skyward once more and pressed on towards the shimmering vestige of the celestial hunter.
Within a half-mile of the top, my pace drastically slowed. My feet grew more and more clumsy and my trekking poles felt less and less effective. I knew I was running out of steam. I pulled out an extra layer and threw on my gloves, hoping to keep my core as warm as possible for the final push. Then, all of the sudden, I saw a light swing across the rocks just above me. The image looked oddly familiar. It was the headlights of a turning car! Elated, I stumbled onwards until I passed through the final tunnel leading to the Bright Angel Lodge. Before turning towards the parking lot, I peered down into black abyss of the canyon where dozens of lights twinkled back.
When I finally made it to my car, I bundled up in my down jacket and plopped down on the tailgate, exhausted. I poured a can of Amy’s soup into my bowl, devouring half a loaf of bread sopping it up. Dessert consisted of a spoonful or four of peanut butter with sea salt sprinkled on top. It was 8:00 PM. In the past nine hours, I had hiked twenty-eight miles. Tracking of the contours of the canyon along the Tonto had been an intensely personal and powerful venture. I had been alone for hours, utterly immersed in the beauty and serenity of the inner canyon. What a fantastic day. That said, it was definitely time for bed.
Short Drive to a Big Crack