Grand Canyon: South Rim to river and back again…
Frank E. Baker
On March 26 a friend and I hiked from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim to the river and back up to the rim in about 10-1/2 hours.
The Park Service’s warnings not to attempt a descent to the Colorado River and back up on the same day are dire and ubiquitous. They make it sound like one is entering Mt. Everest’s death zone without oxygen. In some ways I can understand their position. People have tried to make the hike during the summer months when the canyon bottom becomes an oven set at 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Many rescues have been required, and some people have died.
That’s why my two trips to the canyon have been in February and March, which at the South Rim’s 7,000-foot elevation is more like late winter/early spring. It’s not as green as it would be in April or May, but I think some snow actually enhances the area’s beauty.
We set out on the South Kaibab Trail on the South Rim at about 7 a.m., with clear skies and the temperature about 30 degrees. Compared to Alaska’s trails, the South Kaibab is like a super-highway with switchbacks, as is its sister, the Bright Angel Trail.
Both trails were used by the Havasupai Indians centuries ago, and later were used and improved upon by miners. Today they are used by mule teams that carry tourists up and down the canyon. The mules also carry freight and other materials to and from the Phantom Ranch, located on Bright Angel Creek at the canyon bottom.
The Phantom Ranch has overnight accommodations and meals, but it is a highly sought-after destination. Reservations should be made at least a year in advance. If all the cabins are full, sometimes a dormitory bed can be reserved — and prices aren’t that bad.
The temperature gradually rose to about 75 degrees by about 10:30 a.m. as we descended into the canyon’s inner gorge to the Colorado River and crossed the Kaibab Suspension Bridge to the river’s north side. In all, it was roughly a 6,000-foot descent over about six miles. That portion of the trip took about 3-1/2 hours.
About 30 rafts were beached on the north side of the river, a water stop for Colorado River rafting expeditions. We filled our water bottles, found some shade and enjoyed a brief lunch.
It’s all up from here: We crossed back to the south side of the river via the Silver Suspension Bridge and made our way along the river bank toward the Bright Angel Trail, which is much greener than the South Kaibab. As we began the 6,000-foot climb we followed a small stream that created a green oasis for several miles, with large cottonwood trees.With their bright crimson blooms, miniature lilac bushes added a sweetness to the air.
Hiking conditions were good. There was a slight breeze and a few times I dipped my cap into the creek’s cold water to cool my head.
On the uphill trudge we met quite a few people from other countries, including Germany, Israel, France, the U.K., Canada and Belgium. No one seemed to be moving very fast, with the exception of a Park Service employee who mentioned he was “on a training run” as he briskly jogged past us.
At about five miles into the climb we came to Indian Gardens, which is the site of natural springs that create a true oasis, with large trees and undergrowth. After a brief rest and a snack, we refilled our water bottles and headed up hill for the last two miles. After two more hours of hiking, we crested at the South Rim about 5:30 p.m., completing the 16-mile loop in about 10-1/2 hours.
If you can’t get reservations at the Phantom Ranch, or you want to avoid toting a heavy pack with a tent and other camping equipment, I suggest doing the rim to river to rim circuit in a day. (I have heard of some stalwart folks doing the North Rim to South Rim and back to North Rim in a single day, but that 42-mile jaunt — with 14,000 feet of vertical gain — is in a super-human category that is off the charts).
However, I believe anyone who is in reasonably good physical condition can complete the South Rim to river to South Rim loop in a day. But it should be done when it’s cool — January to March. Sometimes during these months boot traction devices might be needed, as snow and ice can build up on the trail. But during my February and March visits, the trails were clear.
We brought head lamps in case we needed to complete the hike in the dark, which on the wide, switchback trails, would be no problem. I’ve learned to never be in a hurry. It wouldn’t have bothered me if the hike took 14 or 15 hours instead of 10. We even timed our hike to have a full moon.
Finally, as the Park Service advises, take along plenty of water. I went through about three-quarts on my recent rim to river to rim hike — and as I say, temperatures hardly exceeded 75 degrees.
I am planning another trip to the Grand Canyon in early February of next year so I can explore the 14-mile-long North Kaibab Trail that follows Bright Angel Creek and leads up to the North Rim, slightly higher at 8,000 feet. I am told I would probably run into snow at that elevation. Some have asked me why I would leave winter in Alaska to seek winter in Arizona’s high desert.
My simple answer: “I only hike at times of the year when temperatures are cool.” My other answer: “I don’t need to see a lot of green to appreciate the Grand Canyon’s awesome beauty.”