Click clack, click clack, click clack. The sound of my trekking poles is about all I can focus on as I slowly, ever so slowly make my way up the Bright Angel Trail at Grand Canyon National Park. We are on the last three miles of our bucket list backpack trip to hike into the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Of course, if you hike into the bottom of the Grand Canyon, that means inevitably that you must hike out. And the hike out is no easy feat.
There’s an old backpacker trick about slyly putting rocks in your partner’s pack to slow them down. As I make my way along the red dirt, I swear someone has put rocks in my pack. Every step I take, the pack feels that much heavier. Every step I take, I can feel my hamstring and calf muscles straining, and the aching on my shoulders is ever present, despite my best efforts to adjust my shoulder harness. Every now and then, I sneak a peek up, and all I can see is the trail endlessly switching back and forth like a serpentine snake slithering up the sandstone walls. At home, I can cover 3 miles in less than an hour easily. How can it possibly take this long?
The National Park Service must have foreseen how many of us visitors would get duped into going deeper and deeper into the canyon and how long, arduous and hot the hike out would be. Along the popular Bright Angel Trail they have built “Rest” shelters every 1.5 miles down to Indian Garden, a back country camp site, ranger station, and popular day hike destination. These shelters have drinking water and large signs reminding people to drink, put your feet up, eat salt — in essence do what you must to survive the hike out. Reminders that every year around 250 hikers have to be rescued from the Grand Canyon.
My painful hike out is the ending to a memorable two days in the Grand Canyon. After almost a year of talking about this trip, my friend, Megan Schwitzer and I finally secured a back country permit to camp at the canyon’s Bright Angel campground near Phantom Ranch. Since we had to secure the permit months in advance, we were taking a huge gamble with the weather. Hoping that early November would insure cooler temperatures, but gambling that we wouldn’t run into early season rain or snow. Our gamble paid off, but just barely. The day after we finished our hike, gray clouds, cold temperatures and rain poured down on the canyon’s rim.
We had two days of perfect weather — with clear skies and sweeping views of the canyon in every direction as we made our way down the South Kaibab Trail. Following more of a ridge, rather than hugging the canyon walls as the Bright Angel Trail does, scenic vistas are plentiful. Hiking into the canyon is so overwhelming in terms of scenery, I feel I can’t capture the feeling either in words or pictures. Gazing upon the multi-hued layers of rock and vast expanses, I feel like a mere speck compared to this giant chasm. Filled with awe and inspiration as we take it all in, we make our way down the 7.5 mile trail descending quickly into the canyon’s depths.
It isn’t long before we are crossing an immense suspension bridge over the muddy Colorado River. After reading an information panel, I find out that during the construction of the bridge, hundreds of men were used to carry the largest pieces of the bridge on their shoulders down to the river. And I think my back is aching from carrying my backpack… As I peer out on the river, it appears so serene and peaceful, meandering its way through the canyon. It’s hard to believe that in fact, this river carved this canyon over millions of years of geologic time.
We make our way to the Bright Angel campground, which really doesn’t seem so much like a remote backcountry camping site, but like a small village bustling with activity. As we set up our tent along Bright Angel creek, chatter and laughter is ringing out among the campers all around us. Everyone seems happy and joyful. I’m surprised by the number of “senior” hikers there are, many sporting graying hair and weathered faces.
After cooking up the Backpackers Pantry special of lasagna for me and beef stroganoff for Megan, we spend time chatting as we wait for the Phantom Ranch Canteen to re-open. Phantom Ranch is a creek side resort at the bottom of the canyon that offers lodging and meals to those who don’t choose to endure schlepping a backpack into and out of the canyon. For around $140/night, you can enjoy deluxe accommodation in a single-sex bunk house, or if you’re lucky, a cute and cozy stone cabin. Another $50 buys you a steak dinner complete with yummy chocolate cake.
I know this, not because I got to savor either one, but because we met some hikers staying at the ranch during our evening run to the Canteen. After serving dinner, the Canteen opens up to us backpackers who wish to purchase beer, snacks and enjoy some socializing with our fellow hikers. Long wooden tables that invite community dining (or socializing) fill the room. Megan and I are drawn to the postcards they sell, which you can drop in a leather pouch to be hauled out by mule and then mailed via U.S. postal service. We cap our evening with a treat of backpacker cheesecake and red wine, and I purchase a couple of snacks for the hike out the following day.
Around 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, we finish our epic backpack trip, our legs quivering like jelly from the extreme exertion of hauling a backpack up 4300 feet in one day. We take our final pictures and gingerly make our way to the car — thankfully ridding ourselves of the packs. We’ve splurged on a room at the Kachina Lodge, perched right on the south rim of the canyon, and I’m ever so grateful to make my way to our overnight digs. Even the short walk up 15 steps to our room feels like agony on my aching calves, and all I can think of is taking a shower and getting something to eat. But the feeling is empowering to know that we have done what very few people will do — we’ve hiked in and out of the Grand Canyon. As my friend Megan said, the memories are indeed everlasting and priceless.