By Michael Lanza
Minutes after we start hiking down the Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab Trail, we descend steeply through a series of short, tight switchbacks where the trail appears to cling tenuously to the face of a cliff. The earth drops away abruptly beyond the trail’s edge—we’re gazing down nearly a vertical mile into the basement of The Big Ditch. Patches of early-morning sunlight waltz with cloud shadows across the infinite complexity of the tortured landscape sprawling before us, the high-contrast light magnifying the perception of endlessness. Not much farther, we pause at a clifftop overlook of possibly the most famous canyon on Earth.
The view is breathtaking. But less than a mile into our hike, it also lays bare the audacity, or maybe the folly, of our plans: to walk from South Rim to North Rim across this awesome chasm—21 miles and almost 11,000 cumulative vertical feet—today. From here, tonight’s destination looks very, very far away.
I’ve come to the Grand Canyon in mid-October—one of the two brief windows annually that offer, if not ideal conditions, the best possible range of temperatures for this adventure—with my wife, Penny Beach, and our friends David and Kathleen Ports, to attempt what has become perhaps the most coveted grail for avid and very fit hikers and trail runners. A rim-to-rim hike traverses one of the most inspiring, rugged, vast, vertiginous, arid, and certainly unforgiving landscapes in America. And that’s just a short list of the applicable adjectives.
We’ve arrived as prepared as possible for an endeavor the park’s management warns people against attempting. We all feel pretty good about our chances.
I’ve hiked rim to rim to rim—across and back—in a day previously. (Read my story about that hike, “April Fools: Dayhiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim.”) David and I have shared single days of hiking over 20 and 30 miles and even 40 miles on trails all over the country. Although he’s only been to the Grand Canyon once previously—backpacking the adventurous and beautiful Royal Arch Loop with me—he and I feel confident we’ll make it. For Penny and Kathleen, this will be the biggest day either has hiked. But they’re both fit and experienced hikers and backpackers and they’ve been training hard for today.
Still, there’s no getting around the fact that this is a huge day. Things can go wrong—and do go wrong for a small percentage of rim-to-rim hikers every year. Enough uncertainty exists to leave a question mark in our minds about whether all of us will make it across today—and even greater uncertainty over how late we’ll reach the other side.
This much is certain, though: At some point during the long slog up the North Kaibab Trail to the North Rim, this stunning and inspiring hike will turn into a physical struggle to finish it.
Why Dayhike Rim to Rim?
Crossing the Grand Canyon ranks unquestionably among the most beautiful hikes (and backpacking trips) in America. The canyon’s severe verticality and desert climate create a landscape where seemingly boundless vistas accompany you almost every step of the way. Even in the canyon’s bottom, or Inner Gorge, where you’re too low to get the panoramas of an infinite labyrinth of canyons stretching for miles (or, more precisely, you have descended into the labyrinth), you still walk between cliffs that shoot straight up for hundreds of feet. In the canyon’s bowels, rim-to-rim hikers and backpackers follow the North Kaibab Trail’s winding course through the more intimate environment of lower Bright Angel Canyon, following a lively creek at the foot of close, dark rock walls on both sides.
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It’s also one of the hardest dayhikes in the country—hikers and runners who underestimate its difficulty usually pay for that hubris. A rim-to-rim, or r2r, is grueling. The shortest route, combining the South and North Kaibab trails (which we’re doing), entails 21 trail miles and a cumulative 10,541 feet of elevation gain and loss. The heat can wilt even the fittest people. Cold temps and wind are not unknown in early morning and evening, and although unusual, rain or snow can soak your ambitious plans. In fact, hard rain fell the day before the four of us hiked it south to north, and snow fell the morning after David and I made the return hike on day two.
So why not just backpack it?
Few wilderness camping experiences rival the majesty of sleeping below the rim of the Grand Canyon (something I’ve done many times). On the other hand, the three designated camping areas along the North Kaibab and Bright Angel trails—the Bright Angel, Cottonwood, and Indian Garden backcountry campgrounds—are busy places that, in my opinion, do not quite replicate the sense of solitude and feeling really small that camping in other parts of the Grand Canyon inspire.
Then there’s the slim likelihood of getting a permit for one of the most popular backpacking trips in America: Some three-fourths of people applying for a backpacking permit on the corridor trails (South and North Kaibab and Bright Angel) are rejected every year simply because demand far outstrips availability during the peak seasons of spring and fall. Plus, any hike that’s hard carrying a daypack grows exponentially harder, step for step, carrying a backpack.
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More than anything, though, hiking r2r in a day has an aesthetic that’s very different from backpacking it. When hiking or running across, you may be on the move from dawn or earlier until late afternoon or evening: You see the many faces the Grand Canyon displays through the course of each day, in a landscape whose scale and depth collaborate with the changing light as the sun crosses the sky to steadily alter its appearance. Hiking through the canyon is a constantly evolving visual experience, and early morning and late day into evening are its finest hours.
When backpacking, in order to see the Grand Canyon’s full range of personalities, you must consciously break the usual mold of hitting the trail around mid-morning, hiking until late afternoon, and then lazing around camp through the evening before turning in and rising after dawn. (I try to hit the trail early and hike late when backpacking, primarily to see more of a place in a greater range of light.) That’s not always easy to do—even when the Grand Canyon’s midday heat forces you into that schedule of hiking early and late and resting in shade during the day’s hottest hours.
Finally, the athletic and endurance achievement of a one-day rim-to-rim hike inspires a powerful sense of accomplishment. It’s a big deal. It’s a worthy goal for someone looking to challenge him- or herself—and goals give our lives meaning. That’s probably the biggest reason so many people attempt it—and while there’s no way to really know how many do, I’ve read reports that it’s thousands of people annually.
Completing a hike like this—one that’s both physically and mentally demanding—infuses you with confidence in your ability to take on objectives in other areas of life that may initially appear insurmountable. It can set a young person, or someone who has not yet found their passion for the outdoors, on a new, more gratifying, and healthier course in life.
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There you have it: Crazy as it may seem, hiking rim to rim across the Grand Canyon is good for you—but only if you’re truly ready for it.
And the hard truth is that, as this activity gains popularity (fueled partly by the number of people introduced to the idea through the rose-colored, hash-tagged lens of social media), growing numbers of r2r aspirants don’t really have the right stuff for it—and find themselves at best suffering miserably, and at worst getting into serious trouble and placing others, from their companions to rescuers, at risk.
Feeling Awesome… Then Feeling Done
I’ve seen a phenomenon on ultra-hikes so many times that I’ve learned to anticipate it in myself and in companions. I’ve seen it both on huge dayhikes and when ultralight backpacking big-mileage days. (It was especially pronounced—at times humorously, at times brutally—when a few friends and I thru-hiked the John Muir Trail in seven days, averaging a literally blistering 31 miles a day.)
It happens when you’ve trained and prepared so well that you cover the day’s first significant leg faster and feeling stronger than you expected. And you tell yourself and each other: We’re crushing this thing! We got this in the bag!
I will share with you this truth and urge you to hold it close to your heart: That belief is a complete delusion pulled from thin air because your brain is stoned on adrenaline and the euphoria of the moment. It is a dangerous self-deception. Before the day is over, you will almost certainly know intimately the pain and exhaustion hiding on the flip side of that coin of euphoria.
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