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Descent into the Canyon

On our first visit to the south rim of the Grand Canyon (last year) we restricted our hiking to the rim.   Rim hikes are generally easy, without any real elevation gain or loss, and they are a great way to see the canyon with the perspective of altitude.

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This time Eleanor wanted to hike into the canyon, at least a small distance. To hike to the bottom of the canyon, especially from the north rim, is a serious undertaking. The bottom of the canyon is at the Colorado River, 14 miles from the north rim.   It’s not a day hike.

For day hikers like us, it is only possible to go a relatively short distance down.   With a full day, we could have gone Roaring Springs, 4.7 miles one way and 3,000 feet below us.   But we decided to check out Bright Angel Point first, a relatively easy hike from the Lodge about 0.5 miles roundtrip to a spectacular viewpoint.   This would be our warm-up, and a chance to measure the canyon’s visibility (which turned out to be about 70 miles).

Bright Angel Point has short and steep ups and downs along its length.   The total elevation gain/loss is not much, and the trail is entirely paved, but it seems hard.   We encountered a lot of people struggling to make the uphill slopes.   Even a short climb can be a challenge if you are out of shape, especially at Lodge elevation of 8,250 feet.   It was a reminder that we were going to be facing a challenge on our next hike.

We chose the popular North Kaibab Trail, which runs from a trailhead on the north rim all the way to the south rim.   It’s possible to do a rim-to-rim hike on this trail, with an overnight stop near the Colorado River or at Phantom Ranch, but you need to plan a year in advance to get the necessary backcountry camping permit or ranch reservation.   The total trail distance is 24 miles to the south rim.   We’re thinking about it for next fall.   I heard that John McCain does it every year with his family.   If he can do it, we can do it.

Our afternoon hike, however, was considerably less ambitious than rim-to-rim:   1.7 miles of steep downward trail, losing a total of 1,450 feet, a break at the Supai Tunnel and a refill of our water, then back up the same distance.   By Grand Canyon standards this is a pretty straightforward trip, but don’t kid yourself about it.   Rangers say to allow twice as much time to get back up as you took to go down, which is a reasonable guideline. Imagine taking the stairs from the top of the Sears Tower all the way to the ground, then going back up to the roof.   Then imagine how you’d be breathing on those stairs if the basement were at 6,800 feet above sea level.

A total of 3.4 miles isn’t much for us normally, but the steep climb was psychologically challenging to Emma, and physically challenging to Eleanor’s asthma.   On the way down, we met a pair of rangers who were concerned about Emma overheating on the climb back up.   Kids often do that, because they are smaller, don’t manage their energy well (sprinting ahead), don’t remember to drink water, and prefer to eat the wrong type of snacks.

I was concerned as well, but we had prepared for this.   Last week in Kanab we bought Emma a 1.5 liter Camelbak hydration reservoir and hooked it up to the purple backpack that her stuffed cat Zoe always rides in.   That made it easy for her to drink steadily through the hike.   At the rest stops we plied her with a mix of snacks designed to keep her energized and keep her electrolytes where they should be.

How your body feels has a lot to do with what you think you can do.   But even with experience on many other hikes, and appropriate food and water, she faced the tough challenge of breaking through the mental barrier of “I can’t do this!”

This is always the low point of any tough hike we do.   “I can’t!” is a kid’s way of expressing a more complex set of thoughts: I’m tired, I’m thirsty, I’m regretting that I got into this, I don’t know what’s going to happen, I’m afraid of failing, I’m afraid of getting hurt, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, etc.   We’ve been here many times before, and I suppose most parents have been.   Whether it’s learning to ride a bike, do a math problem, or tackling a steep hill, it is never easy to get past the “I can’t!” barrier.

I think a lot of people choose to avoid this awful moment, standing somewhere in public, trying to negotiate the murky world of a child’s psyche while other people wander by with their opinions etched on their faces, and the clock ticks against some pressing deadline like sunset.   So they try to avoid situations like this.   We decided early on that the challenge was worth the results, and so far it has been.   I won’t say it has always been fun, but in the end we always get where we are going, and Emma always comes out of it feeling better about herself than she went in.   Experience is a great teacher.

By the second half of the climb Emma was feeling fine and even leading the parade, and my thoughts then went to Eleanor, who certainly never would have done something like this fifteen years ago, and still probably shouldn’t do something like this in the humidity of the east.   She has also conquered some of her fears, and learned to manage her asthma to the point that she can hike uphill 1,450 feet in 1.7 miles and do it in a very respectable time.

Coming out of the canyon on any hike, you can’t help but be awed by the vastness of it.   We are merely ants in this massive place, and our efforts are puny when pitted against the environment of the canyon.   The canyon can swallow us in a few hours.   It is only through cooperative effort and modern technology that so many people manage to survive it.

It isn’t the deepest, the widest, nor the longest canyon in the world, but it is indisputably the grandest.   I think the fact of its grandeur makes us want to be part of it, because by joining the canyon you are forced to see yourself as you are: an individual speck in something much larger. The introspection that comes from hiking the canyon is good for your perspective and for your self-confidence.   I think we have all benefited from that.

Another thing I can tell from our past couple of days’ experience:   three nights is not nearly enough.   If we could get a campground opening for Sunday night I would definitely take it.   Or, if we had some friends in the area who could go with us, I would go back up to Kanab, park the Airstream, and take the 61-mile dirt road down to Toroweap (also known as Tuweep) and tent camp on a different section of the north rim for a couple of nights.   One of the outcomes of our last month traveling through southern Colorado, Utah, and northern Arizona is that we have a long list of places we want to come back and explore further.   The best thing we can do is make notes and look forward to next year’s trip.

2 Responses to “Descent into the Canyon”

  1. Jim in Phoenix Says:

    Toroweap is great. I was there for Thanksgiving in 2004. I especially liked it then, because it was so late in the season we just about had the place ourselves. It’s much lower in elevation than where you are now and the only practical hikes are rim hikes with little elevation change. Just the drive in and out on a long dirt road is kind of fun . . . but definitely better for tent camping. Don’t know if they even allow travel trailers.

    Enjoy your time on the Colorado Plateau, my favorite place on earth.

    Jim

  2. Laurie Says:

    If you are able to stop at Glen Canyon on the way to ABQ it is definitely worth it. They give tours of the dam and a short boat ride is nice. Try to avoid, however, the 8 hour boat ride to the Rainbow Bridge National Monument. After a while all the scenery will look a like especially for a littl person.
    If you need an overight in Farmington with full hookup we stayed at Mom and Pop’s RV park. It is a very well kept parking lot type place but Pop (Denis) is very nice. He has a big train layout (HO gauge I think) in theyard. The trains don’t run anymore but the details are amazing. He also likes to make and paint in great detail toy soldiers and has whole companies of various armies from history. On check in he hands you a sheet of daytrips although some of them are pretty far,
    Even though we only stayed one night last year he sent a christmas card which I thought was a nice touch

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