The first time I visited the Grand Canyon it was not enough. We were just passing through, quickly, on a time-limited, cross-country road trip. We had hours there, only a few, and we spent our time staring into the canyon, wondering how such an impressive and incredible thing could be real.
Later, as we drove to Palm Springs, we talked about going back, about the next time. We both knew we’d be back, both agreed we wanted to go below the rim.
The time we spent in Arizona was perhaps the most iconic of our whole adventure. The elk we saw there inspired us to get twin elk faces tattooed on the back of our right arms in commemoration of our trip. A few years ago, in an epic holiday gifting win, she painted a picture of the Grand Canyon for me, embellished with Ron Swanson’s wise words, “Crying – acceptable at funerals and the Grand Canyon.”
I can’t remember if I cried the first time I saw it. I know we were impressed. But I know I cried the second time. I couldn’t help it. I was overcome by the magnitude of the canyon, by the joy of starting a solo hike into the canyon on the morning of my birthday.
DAY HIKING THE SOUTH KAIBAB TRAIL
The National Park Service makes it very, very clear that day hikers should absolutely, positively not attempt to hike to the river and back in one day. Roundtrip, from the top of the South Kaibab Trail to the Colorado River, the trek is about 12.5 miles with around 5,000 feet of elevation change. The park recommends day hikers go no further than Skeleton Point, which is about three miles from the trailhead with 2,000 feet of elevation change.
I am a rule follower. I cuss a lot and I love scotch and sometimes I have a temper and I’m definitely an introvert, but I love rules and I follow them. So, when the National Park Service guide on the South Kaibab Trail told me not to go past Skeleton Point, I didn’t, because that seemed like a rule and the last thing I wanted to do was piss off the National Park Service on my birthday and get stuck inside the Grand Canyon.
So I hiked three miles in, to Skeleton Point, and then scampered my way back out.
I arrived at the park just after the sun came up, around 7 a.m. I parked at a picnic area on Desert View Drive that’s just over a half mile from the trailhead, which was lucky. There’s a bathroom there, but the lot is small and it fills up quickly on busy days. There’s also a shuttle bus that will drop hikers right at the trailhead. There’s no parking at the trailhead, so it’s either find a spot in the little lot nearby and walk the half mile to the trail, or take the shuttle.
Just after I started down the trail, someone in a large group that was very busy taking lots of photos asked me if it was okay for them to walk back up the way they had come down.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s encouraged.”
I’m not sure what they thought the alternative was, but I’m glad they asked and aren’t still stuck in the canyon, trying to sort their way out of the damn thing.
After almost a mile, a bunch of switchbacks, a handful of steps and some mule shit, the first named point you come to along the South Kaibab Trail is Ooh-Ahh Point, so named for the glorious and open view the spot affords hikers.
I stopped here briefly, just long enough to take an extra sip of water, marvel at how great I felt and to again congratulate myself on being inside the canyon.
Cedar Ridge sits a little more than half a mile down the trail from Ooh-Ahh Point and sits at an elevation of 6,120 feet. There are toilets here, and a hitching post and I stopped here just long enough to take a few pictures, use the restroom and take in the view.
For summer day hikers, this is the recommended turn-around point.
Shortly after passing Cedar Ridge, I found myself alone. I couldn’t see or hear anyone else, and while I knew good and well there were others both ahead and behind me, I walked alone for at least ten minutes, just me, the crunch of my feet, a few ravens and the wind.
It was perfect.
Knowing Skeleton Point was my turn-around, I parked my butt on a cliff ledge overlooking the Colorado River and sat, munching on gummy bears and a luna bar, until my body cooled and I started to shiver. I didn’t want to go.
Almost as soon as I’d resigned myself to heading back up and out of the canyon, a line of mules came down the trail, carefully stepping their way down the trail.
I watched them for a while and thought hard about going just a little further, maybe just one more mile. But, again, I’m a rule follower. Regretfully, I turned around and headed back, thinking deeply about the next time, about how one day I’ll hike rim to rim.
I expected the up part to be terrible. The Grand Canyon is deceptive in that the down part is easy and when you reach whatever point you’re hiking to, you feel mostly fine, but then you have to go back up and the up is significantly more difficult than the down. The up usually takes twice as long as the down.
Unless you’re crazy. Which I am. I spent around two hours walking three miles into the canyon, stopping often, taking a bathroom break at Cedar Ridge and sitting and snacking at Skeleton Point. On the way back up, I hustled. It was tough, for sure, but I made it to the top in just over an hour, threw off my pack and cracked my back. It was not easy. The switchbacks at the top of the trail are terrible to look at, but generally, they are much worse than they look and I did take several breaks on the final push up and out of the canyon.
I’m not going to lie. I wish I’d gone further. I wish I’d walked one more mile into the canyon. I should have known, when I encountered the people asking if they could walk back out, that the warnings are for people who do not do the outdoors as much as I do, who do not hike often or participate in endurance sports.
Still, it was incredible.
WHAT TO PACK FOR A DAY TRIP INSIDE THE CANYON
WATER. There is no water on the South Kaibab Trail so you’ll need to take all the water you will drink and then some, just to be safe. Everyone needs to carry water into the canyon, regardless of how far they’re planning to hike.
SNACKS. Hydration is important, yes, but so is fueling your body for a multi-hour physical endeavor. This was not a thing I understood when I first started running, but I get it now. If you’re hiking for more than hour, be sure to snack & refuel along the way.
SUN PROTECTION. I’m trying real hard to be an adult and take better care of my skin, so I wore a hat, sunscreen and sunglasses and was glad I did. Even if it’s cold and cloudy, use sun protection.
LAYERS. The trailhead is an elevation of 7,260 feet and by the time you get to Skeleton Point, you’ve lost 2,000 feet. The temperatures can vary widely from the top of the canyon to its vast interior, plus you’re likely to get warm as you hike and the wind can also make a cold day feel much colder than it is. I started in a light outer shell, a t-shirt and a base layer & worked my way through various configurations depending on where I was in the canyon and how strenuous the climb was.
TREKKING POLES. The trail is steep, and while I didn’t have any, lots and lots of other hikers did, and they’re even recommended by the park service.
COURTESY ON THE TRAIL
UPHILL HIKERS HAVE THE RIGHT OF WAY. Uphill hikers often have a smaller field of vision and there’s also a good chance they’re in the zone doing their uphill hiking thing and you don’t want to mess with that. By the time I got back to the trailhead, I’d been pushed off the trail repeatedly – sometimes along a few unsafe ledges.
SHARE THE TRAIL. During nice weather and peak visiting season, the trail will be busy. If you’re in a big group, remember to walk single file and avoid pushing other hikers off the trail. Doing so can be dangerous, but it can also damage the area around the trail.
MULES HAVE THE RIGHT OF WAY. This guide outlines the right way to let mules pass, but basically, move off the trail, away the edge, follow directions given by the wrangler and stay still until the last mule is at least 50 feet past your position.
DON’T STAB PEOPLE IN THE FEET. I get that trekking poles are useful on the trail, but try and avoid aiming them at the feet of other hikers. I had a few near-misses on my way back up that made me real, real cranky.
The South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Park admission fees will increase to $35 per vehicle on May 31, 2018 – current admission is $30. For those visiting more than few parks in a year, an annual America the Beautiful pass is available for $80. Members of the U.S. military can get an annual pass for free with a valid military ID.
This trip planner, from Grand Canyon National Park, is an excellent resource.