A Wuss's Guide to Crossing the Grand Canyon
How to get your Money's Worth from your National Park Pass
[Note: This is a description of our back-to-back single crossings of the Grand Canyon on September 17 and 18, 2004 and the longer trip that surrounded it. There are many reports of, and guides about, crossing the Grand Canyon. This one blazes no new territory. Many have done what we did, and far more. But this is our report anyway. Take it for what it's worth!
This is a story of two groups of friends that crossed the Grand Canyon. One group did a "double crossing," going over and back in one day. The other group took two days, stopping on the opposite rim to rest over night. All enjoyed the fantastic experience.
While Gary Knipling was the ringmaster of this circus, it was not he who got it all started. Russ Evans and Bill Sublett were originally going to go, and their typical anal organization put it all together. When they dropped out, I was among those who profited, even though I might not have felt so lucky as I dragged my over-heated butt up the Bright Angel Trail in 100+ degree weather.
Gary was planning a traditional double crossing -- a "rim-to-rim-to-rim" -- on Friday, September 17, starting and ending on the South Rim. I was not eager to do a double crossing, and I wanted to include my son, Tom, in the adventure. So Gary and I devised a plan with a complexity that rivaled the D-Day invasion. I would fly to Jackson, Wyoming, pick up Tom, and then drive to the North Rim. We would leave the North Rim on the same day that Gary and his group left the South. When we met on the trail, we would give Gary the key to our car so his group could partake of aid at the North Rim trailhead. Tom and I would stay at the South Rim with Gary's group that night and go back to the North Rim the next day.
As the plan progressed, there were several changes to the participant list. Most importantly, Tom's mother, Lucia, joined us. This gave us three in the "double-single" crossing group and made our effort a lot more fun. Lucia is tough and in good shape so she was a great addition to our effort. It was no surprise that she led this reporter out of the canyon on the first day. Meanwhile, Gary's group, after going through several changes, ended up being composed of Ken Hubbard, John Dodds, Ryan Henry, Ed Cacciapaglia, and Gary's son Keith.
Another Trip Through the Red States
The Davidson group left Jackson, Wyoming two days before the run for the long drive to the North Rim. We drove though rural Wyoming and Idaho (ok, all of Wyoming is rural) including Afton where every other building had a sign congratulating "Olympic champion Rulon Gardner." We stopped for a herd of cows driven by cowboys who couldn't seem to keep them off the road. The long trip took us from a state that borders Canada (Idaho) to one that borders Mexico (Arizona). As we tried to avoid Salt Lake City, we passed through the Wasatch Mountains, which had hosted the one hundred miler just the weekend before. The great distances were somewhat mitigated by the 75 mph speed limits in these "red states."
Finally, after a long drive, we stopped in Panguitch, Utah. Panguitch is a small town composed of buildings made of brick. As with most towns we saw in Utah, the Mormon temple was in its center. (The temple seemed always to be at the corner of Center Street and Main Street or at the corner of "East 100 North." While I know that there is logic to that latter street naming convention, it has always escaped me. "600 M Street, NW" works better for me. Too bad L'Enfant was not a Mormon.
An E Ticket Ride
Panguitch is to Bryce Canyon National Park as Front Royal is to the Shenandoah National Park. The next day, we visited Bryce. Bryce is really cool. It is almost as good as the old Mine Train ride at Disneyland -- the one before Thunder Mountain. In that ride, the mine train passed though a desert with tall columns that had rocks perilously spinning on top and threatening to fall on you. Bryce, not as good as the real thing in Anaheim, had the columns -- they are called "hoodoos" -- but none of the rocks spun. But we made do anyway. We took a five mile hike to see the beauty, stretch our legs, and help with the altitude acclimation. (Everything is high in the Rocky Mountain west. The lowest we ever got was the 2400 foot elevation of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Otherwise, we were well over 5000 feet most of the time. The lowest point in Wyoming is 3099 feet and we didn't get there.) We felt strong and passed our fellow hikers on the uphill sections of the trail with an arrogance that was only thinly disguised. Our arrogance would be dealt with later.
This is a good time to explain the geology that we saw all around us on this trip. I am now an expert on geology since I read a couple of the park service signs and Tom Davidson explained some stuff to me. (Tom studied geology at Mary Washington College (now the "University of Mary Washington" -- ya, it's stupid), and more importantly, read several McPhee books.) So here is the story in a nutshell.
You know that joke about how there will be beach front property in Arizona after the "Big One" dumps California into the Pacific Ocean? Well, it turns out that Arizona was beach front property many years ago. (Actually, when the Big One happens, the movement will be horizontal, not vertical so that, rather than Los Angeles falling into the sea, certain suburbs of the City of the Angels will become suburbs of San Francisco and others will be pueblos in Mexico.)
So this ocean kept leaving sedimentary deposits that formed horizontal layers. Then, the ocean moved to California because, well, the California girls are the best, and the layers were left behind. Meanwhile, the Colorado River, knowing that it was required to fuel southern California's growth, moved across the Arizona layers. Since they were sedimentary layers and the river was full of debris from Colorado, the river cut through the layers like a hot knife through butter, and voila, a national park came into existance.
But the layers were not only in Arizona. They were also in Utah. (Thus, the name, "Colorado Plateau.") This allowed Utah to have national parks too. So this is why we had Bryce Canyon to practice on.
All of this geology is pretty important. Gary issued each of us a book about John Wesley Powell (Down the Great Unknown by Edward Dolnick) who explored the Grand Canyon in the nineteenth century. Dolnick made the point that Powell's trip came just 10 years after Darwin's Origin of the Species. The Grand Canyon supported the subversive notion that the earth has been around a lot longer that the time accounted for in the Bible.
Powell said of the Canyon:
"Everywhere there are side gulches and canons, so that these gulches are set about ten thousand dark, gloomy alcoves. One might imagine that this was intended for the library of the gods; and it was. The shelves are not for books, but form the stony leaves of one great book. He who would read the language of the universe may dig out letters here and there, and with them spell the words, and read, in a slow and imperfect way, but still so as to understand a little, the story of creation." Powell, John Wesley: Exploration of the Colorado River of the West [opens PDF file in new window], pages 193-94.
Our discussions of geology led to further revelations. Tom explained, for example, how the Yellowstone Caldera is going to "blow" again. I am not sure of all of the ramifications of that, but it does not sound good. Apparently, Yellowstone has been the center of a huge volcanic eruption on three prior occasions. All signs are that there will be a fourth. [More Information. -- offsite link opens in new window.]
Not that this isn't bad enough. Then there is that thing about how the sun is going to burn out, but before it does, it will get real big and engulf the earth. [More Information -- offsite link opens in new window.] This is not good. It does put things into perspective a bit, however. It doesn't seem to matter as much whether we are stuck with four more years of George Bush because in a few million years no one will be here to care.
The Night Before
There is a beautiful lodge on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, but you need to have obtained reservations in the first President Bush administration to stay there. We had not done that. Consequently, we stayed in the "town" of Jacob's Lake, Arizona. Jacob's Lake primarily consists of a motel with very nice rooms that would be worth about $50 if it weren't for the fact that there is no other motel around so the rooms go for $100. Also, Arizona, for some reason that no one ever explained does not do daylight savings time. The result is that the Grand Canyon is on Los Angeles time in the summer. We never bothered to change our watches. Not sure if anyone did.
We had our final meal, packed our packs, and tried to sleep. I didn't do a very good job of sleeping. I had done some long runs, but did not know what to expect on this one.
The First Day--North Rim to South Rim
Our drive to the North Rim was uneventful. We started on the North Kaibab Trail at about 7 AM real time (6 AM weird Arizona time). The trail went down. Way down. I won't describe every rock, switchback, water bar, or mule poop, but it was very nice. It was not, however, the Grand Canyon. The North Kaibab Trail connects the North Rim and the Colorado River by going through Bright Angel Canyon. To be sure, this canyon connects to the main canyon, but it is not the main canyon. It is far more intimate.
Why is this important? The North Kaibab Trail is the only trail that the Gary group did in the daylight. When we started, the Gary group had already run two or three hours on the South Kaibab Trail. By the time the sun came up, they were near the bottom. They could not see the incredible views from that trail. Toward the end of the day, they ascended back to the South Rim on the Bright Angel Trail in the dark. They missed those views too. The result is that the Gary group did almost twice as many miles as we on that first day, but saw far less of the Grand Canyon.
This leads me to my major advice. If you want to see the Grand Canyon, arrange your trip to go up and down the South Rim during daylight. This is easy to do if you go one way in one day as we did. If you do two ways in one day as Gary did, you need to either start on the North Rim or be very fast so you can start later in the morning on the South Rim. I recommend the first option (starting your double crossing on the North Rim) though that raises logistical problems.
There is a more radical approach. You can kiss off the idea of crossing the canyon all together and just go down to Phantom Ranch and up from the South Rim. You would not go up the North Kaibab Trail to the North Rim. You would get all the great views and plenty of exercise while encountering fewer logistical problems. Plus, you would get back sooner for Miller Time. But you couldn't say you crossed the canyon.
The plan was to pass our car key to the Gary group as we passed them on the trail. Sure enough, we heard the Gary group before we met them. We had just about finished our first seven miles when the group came into sight. They looked great, were all together, and were moving fast. We later found out why. All they had done to that point was run down a hill and then run a very gentle uphill from Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood Campground. After they left us, they would get their wake up call as they ascended the North Rim. They had over 4,000 feet of climb from that point. They later reported that it was tough for them.
The Davidson Contribution
Gary's planning and assistance were key to our enjoyment and success in the Grand Canyon. Our only contribution to the effort was the North Rim Aid Station. Gary gave us a shopping list that included Yoohoos and required a stop at Subway. God told Noah to get two of everything. Gary told us to buy six of everything. When the Gary group got to the top of the trail, its members devoured the aid we had left for them. When we got back to the car the next day, our hopes that they might have left a little bit of stuff for us were dashed as all we could find was one (1) Payday bar, three (3) Ensures, and the remnants of a two liter Coke bottle that they had not even ordered. They spoke highly of our aid station. It is good that we made this contribution else they might have had some animosity towards us since we were showered and fed by the time they got back to the South Rim at the end of their long day.
Whatever you say of the dangers of running in the Grand Canyon, you can't say that you will ever be alone. We saw people on the trail frequently, and there were many aspects of civilization in the canyon -- water faucets, telephones, and the Phantom Ranch.
The Phantom Ranch marks the bottom of the run. After you stop there, you go back up. The ranch, at which you can spend the night (again with reservations made when there had been only one President Bush), had food, electricity, flush toilets, air conditioning, and beer. It was surreal to stop there. Everything you saw at the ranch had arrived by either by mule or helicopter.
If you were to ask someone what was most impressive thing about his trip through the Grand Canyon, don't be surprised if he says the mule poop. The trails are strewn with mule poop, and for good measure and even worse, mule pee.
I have this image in my mind of a different world where mules had never been in the Grand Canyon. A mule entrepreneur calls the National Park Service and says:
Entrepreneur: "I want to take out-of-shape, lazy people down into the Grand Canyon on the backs of domesticated animals that will poop all over the trail where humans have to walk, eat the foliage and, oh by the way, when they pass humans on the trail, the humans better stand quietly by the side of the trail and not make any noise. Is that ok with you?"
NPS Official: [laughter]
But, of course, the mules have been there for a long time and are grand fathered in. You can get all upset about that or, be a little open-minded. First, there would be no Phantom Ranch, and the bagel and coffee we enjoyed on our second time through, if there were no mules. Additionally, there had obviously been significant trail maintenance done because of the mules. These were the only trails I have been on that were maintained by someone with a profit motive. Finally, we never had any significant problems in passing the mules. We only had to stand aside four times and all of those times, the mules were coming towards us. I soon realized that my fear of having to pass mules going the same direction was over blown. We started out ahead of the mule trains in the morning, and we were not going to pass them going up hill. They look slow, but they don't stop and eat granola bars and contemplate whether to puke as we did.
This is not to say that the poop and urine were not annoying. Toward the end of the trek, I had an overpowering desire to pee right in the trail and dare a ranger give me a ticket.
The "Short" Climb Out
After our rest at Phantom Ranch, we crossed the Colorado River (there is a bridge). We did not take the highly-recommended swim in the river -- the water looked more like brown paint than inviting -- plus signs all over the place said that swimming in the river was both illegal and dangerous (a common park service couplet). We understand that there may have been someone in the Gary group who did go swimming but we would not want to snitch him off. I am sure that the mules are allowed to swim in the river since the rules that apply to humans seem not to apply to them.
After a mile walk through beach sand, we turned uphill and started the 7.8 mile ascent. Real quickly, our lark turned nasty. It was hot, but the air was not really that bad. The problem was the sun. It was oppressive. Then there was the climb. When you are a trail builder and have to make a trail that gains almost a mile in elevation, you don't mess with gradual ascents. These trails were steep. Plus, there were constant water bars to step over. The result is that we lost it. We had the one-two whammy of dehydration and low blood sugar (bonking). We had a lot of food with us, but we had not been eating enough.
The good news about the Bright Angel Trail is that there are three water stops. We went from water stop to water stop to claw our way to the top. We addressed our problems by pushing water and eating, but the damage had been done. It was a long slog and we were not going to get a second wind.
To add insult to injury, we were starting to see tourists who had hiked down from the top. They had regular shoes (one guy literally had shower shoes) and many were out of shape and old. As we neared the top, these folks were going back up. Many were passing us! It was very demoralizing.
All hills have to come to an end, and this one did too. We reached the top and immediately lost each other. The order of finish was Tom, Lucia, and, last and least, Anstr. Anstr found Tom, but not Lucia. We didn't do well in civilization.
We finally assembled in Gary's motel room. At least it had been Gary's the night before, tonight it was ours. There was beer, Knob Creek, food, and other niceties. We showered, ate, and regrouped for the next day. It was like fueling during a pit stop in an auto race.
Meanwhile, we were waiting for the Gary group. I had calculated their arrival based on the time we had seen them. That was like predicting an NFL team's performance based upon its pre-season record. Ed's wife, Helen, aka "Saint Helen," was waiting for them at the top of the trail. We joined her for awhile, but, devoted friends that we were, we decided to go eat rather than wait. Meanwhile Helen kept her vigil. She had a necklace for each runner just as Gary had had beads to give each finisher at the women's half marathon. (Well, Gary did it a little differently!)
Ryan Henry had finished in the early evening. The others stayed together and finished around 9 PM, weird Arizona time. They were tired but jubilant. Gary was on a typical "Gary high." He offered everyone a drink, gave us all sorts of stuff to help us out the next day, and took his shower last. It was a typical Gary performance -- except that there were only two women present so his normal style was a bit cramped.
Day Two -- The Trip Back
Saint Helen had offered to drive us to the trailhead the next day. (The trailhead for the South Kaibab Trail that we were descending is about three miles east of the trailhead for the Bright Angel Trail that we had ascended.) But when we awoke, Ed and John Dodds joined her. They wanted to see what the view from the trailhead was like. After a blurry picture, we were off.
The South Kaibab trail was undoubtedly the worst footing and the best views of any we were on. There were many water bars and rocks, but the views were gorgeous. The trip down was also not lonely. There were many people on the trail. [Other views: Tree on a point | Lucia looks at the view | Tom and Lucia with a view | Squirrel seen on trail]
Yet another amazing thing about the Grand Canyon was the number of foreigners, especially Germans. We take the Grand Canyon for granted. The Germans have nothing like this. They don't do "big." (They do have the Alps, but they have to share them with the Italians, the French, the Austrians, the Swiss, and a couple of other countries that I would know if I were Ken Jennings on Jeopardy.) One couple we met had flown to San Francisco, driven down the coast to Los Angeles, camped at the Great Salt Lake, and was now backpacking to Phantom Ranch. When I told them that it was 100 degrees down there, they asked what that was in Celsius. I didn't know. (Let's see. Five eight's times something plus -- or is it minus? -- 32.) Tom, who lives at a tourist destination, pointed out that September is the time that the "newly wed and nearly dead" travel. Add to that the Germans, Aussies, and Japanese.
Phantom Ranch Deux
We crossed the Colorado River again and entered Phantom Ranch. Learning from our mistake, we took our time at Phantom Ranch the second time through. We each had a bagel with two packets of cream cheese, and Tom and I had coffee. (It was nearly 100 outside, but we still craved the coffee.) The trail between Phantom Ranch and Cottonwood Campground is seven miles and not steep. It is very runnable. We, however, learning from the day before, walked much of it. We walked fast and did the seven miles under three hours, but we only ran for short periods. We also ate and pushed more salt tablets. (We had run out of salt tablets the day before, but John Dodds had kindly resupplied us that night.)
The Last Uphill Haul
From Cottonwood Campground it's just under seven miles and about 4,000 feet elevation gain to the top. We were not fast, but we were proud of ourselves. Lucia led the train. She wanted it to end so she just kept pushing. We stopped a couple of times, but not for long. The miles slowly, but surely fell away.
One big advantage we had was the weather. There were clouds this day, and it was breezy. This, and the fact that the afternoon sun gave us a lot of shade, made this ascent much cooler than the day before. Near the top, it even started to rain as we heard thunder and saw lightening. The rain was not hard but, fearing that we would be caught in a downpour, it pushed us on to the end.
Finally, we reached the parking lot and the end of our double-single crossing. We had not engaged in the athletic accomplishment of the Gary crew, but we were proud of what we did and, even more important, grateful for the beauty of the Grand Canyon that we had seen.
The Trip Back
The North Rim trailhead is not at the lodge or overlook for the North Rim. You can't see anything from it. So we drove the two miles out to the lodge and from there saw a beautiful rainbow. Now back in civilization, we strutted around in our salt-caked clothing and red-dirt stained shoes.
From the North Rim, it was about a two hour drive to Kanab, Utah and our motel for the night. As we approached Kanab, we stopped at a liquor store on the Arizona/Utah state line. I was not sure what the Utah liquor laws are, but Mormons make them so I was not going to take any chances.
National Park Number 3
The next day we went to Zion National Park. While the layers at the Grand Canyon are sedimentary, Zion's rocks are sand stone that had been carved by wind. It was beautiful, but now we were just "regular tourists." We took the shuttle bus into the canyon like everyone else. (You can't drive your car into the heart of Zion, unless you are a mule.) We did walk about a mile on an asphalt trail.
Fortunately, we avoided the killer deer that are at large. They are probably on wanted posters in park police stations around the country.
We left Zion and drove to Beaver, Utah. The weather was starting to get cold. The next day, there would be snow on the tops of the mountains.
The next day was a long drive back to Wyoming. We went straight through Salt Lake City this time and headed into Idaho on I-15. It was a pleasant, but long drive. There was snow on the Wasatch Mountains. The hundred mile runners should be lucky that the race had not been that week!
There was a full scale blizzard as we drove over Teton Pass into Jackson Hole. We had gone from 100+ degrees to snow in only a few days and miles. Such is the mountain west.
National Parks 4 and 5
We had one more day in Jackson. We had thought of bagging a peak in the Tetons, but it was cold and we had few cold weather clothes. So we drove to Yellowstone through Grand Teton National Park. We saw the other grand canyon, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the Norris Geyser basin. We hiked down Uncle Tom's Trail at the base of the falls. We skipped Old Faithful -- you can see that on the Internet [offsite link in new window].
We did see a wolf. Well, it was either a coyote or a wolf. I am going with wolf, though the ranger we consulted was betting coyote.
We left the park late. It's a long drive back to Jackson and the speed limit is not very high. It was just sunset as we passed back through the Tetons.
Move Over Ansel Adams
As we drove, we gazed in marvel at the Tetons. They are so different from the Grand Canyon. There were sunset-red clouds hugging the top of the Grand. (Be sure to talk about "the Grand" -- meaning the highest Teton -- so you might be confused for a local. It probably won't work, but it's worth a try.) I took some pictures with my wimpy Canon digital camera. Amazingly, I caught at least a bit of the beauty of these peaks. Actually, it is hard not to get a good picture of the Tetons. They are just so majestic. [Click for my best shot at high resolution or view it below at a smaller resolution.]
Really Going Home
As we drive to the Jackson Hole airport, it is snowing. While it is not sticking, the flakes are big and fluffy. It is a fitting end to a wonderful trip.
There is all sorts of advice out there on crossings of the Grand Canyon. But the most consistent advice is that you need to do it. Everyone should do it once. It is a wonderful and unique experience.
The experience of the Davidson group has made me a strong supporter of the "wussy" one way, one day approach. It does not impress anyone, and it has its logistical challenges, but it is the better way to see the Grand Canyon. And that is what it is all about. Seeing the Grand Canyon!
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