Our hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon was more than a year in the making and turned into much more of an adventure than we had planned.
We wanted to stay at Phantom Ranch on Bright Angel Creek at the bottom of the canyon. But so does everyone else. We started calling the first day reservations were open, a year in advance. We were on the road and my wife worked the cellphone — dialing the number, getting a busy signal, hanging up and redialing. On the 300th try, she got through. A small miracle. We booked reservations for eight.
The hikers were a group of old friends who met in grad school in Iowa and have continued to be friends despite geography, kids, jobs and political leanings. “Old” is an apt adjective — we were in our mid-to-late 50s. Inevitably stuff happens. One of us dropped out because of a heart condition. Another because of problems with acrophobia. Their spots were taken by young people, the adult daughter and son of one of the couples. A week before we were to leave, my wife was knocked off her bike by an idiot teenager and suffered a fractured pelvis. She was still in pain, still in a hospital bed, but she insisted I go ahead with the trip.
I flew to Las Vegas, stayed over with some other old friends, and arrived at the canyon late in the afternoon. That night, our group gathered for a celebratory dinner in El Tovar’s dining room, consumed wine, talked and laughed and then tucked in to our rooms.
We met up in the morning, caught the shuttle bus to the Kaibab trailhead, took some pictures and stepped off into the canyon.
The first part of the trail is steep and narrow and your knees start to ache early on. A train of mules came up from below, led by a Marlboro-man wrangler right out of central casting. We hugged the walls as they passed.
Beauty and terror
The canyon is huge. The spaces are staggering, filled with giant, colorful, sculpted rock formations and yet profoundly empty.
“Awesome” is a much overused word, but to the Romantics it meant a mixture of beauty and terror. It’s the best word to describe the Grand Canyon. The beauty lies in the way light and shadow play on the multicolored striations of rock. The terror comes when you look down. The chasms are thousands of feet of sheer drop-off and they lead to more chasms below them. It’s like you’re going to the bottom of the Earth.
Halfway down, we met a ranger. She looked up at the blue sky and warned us to watch out for rain. In the desert? Yes. The Grand Canyon is 270 miles long and rain anywhere can result in flooding somewhere else. Also, Hurricane Javier was expected to arrive — who knew they had hurricanes in the Pacific, or that they could affect the Grand Canyon? “If you hear a noise like thunder, those are rocks being rolled along by the flooding water. Grab your gear and head for high ground.”
As we continued descending the wind kicked up, blowing dust in our faces and coating our skin. My arms were glowing neon. We did get some rain but it let up by the time we crossed the Black Bridge over the Colorado.
When we arrived at Phantom Ranch it was peaceful and quiet, an oasis at the bottom of the world’s biggest hole in the ground. We cooled our feet, wading in lightly gurgling Bright Angel Creek, ate our steak dinners and climbed into our bunk beds.
At 5 a.m., I heard a noise like thunder. It was raining heavily and Bright Angel, that pleasant little stream, was now a torrent with big boulders tumbling around in it. We gathered our gear and made it through the downpour to the main lodge. We ate breakfast and worried. Could we make it back up? Could we stay over? How fast was the water rising?
Fallen boulders on the trail
We had planned to hike out on Bright Angel trail, longer than Kaibab, but less steep. We headed out into the driving rain and started up the trail. A few hundred yards along we met hikers coming back — Bright Angel was washed out. We would have to go back the way we came in. We staggered back across the Black Bridge, noting how fierce the Colorado now looked and how much closer it was to the bottom of the bridge. We waded through a tunnel which had been dry the day before and was now knee-deep in rising water. Then we started back up the Kaibab. The lower section runs up a 1,300-foot cliff, with steep switchbacks. It was less a trail now, more like a stream bed, with little waterfalls that had to be forded.
Then we heard calls from hikers above us. At first I couldn’t make out what they were saying. Then it was clear: “Rocks!” The rain had loosened the canyon walls and rocks were falling. We passed a 4-foot boulder in the middle of the trail that hadn’t been there when we came down. That was when I started rehearsing my prayers. We struggled on, one eye on the next step before us, the other looking up.
The going was slow, but the rain began to ease and by the time we got to Skeleton Point, about halfway, the skies had begun to clear and a fresh, cool wind was blowing. The trail was still muddy and slippery, but it was manageable and rocks weren’t falling on us.
The huge vistas were as spectacular as before, and the whole place seemed to be washed clean. The flowers and shrubbery were brilliant and fresh. I looked across the canyon and saw a waterfall at the top of a distant butte. It ran several hundred feet down a vertical cliff, catching the sunlight. Then it seemed to stop at the top. Then it slowly stopped farther down until it wasn’t there anymore.
We made it to the top in just over six hours. As we waited for the shuttle bus, we talked with a man and his teenage daughter who had hiked a few hundred yards in and back. She couldn’t believe that this ragged, dirty bunch of old folks had gone all the way to the bottom. “Wow,” she said, “you guys are awesome. I want to be you when I grow up.”
We got back to our rooms, showered, napped and met again for dinner at El Tovar. The conversation was quieter than it had been a couple of days earlier, the wine replaced by ice water, and we turned in shortly after watching another spectacular sunset.
We would go our separate ways and meet again through the years and talk about the Great Grand Canyon Adventure. These kinds of conversations often involve exaggeration and embellishment as years go by, but this was one time when exaggeration wasn’t necessary. The way it actually happened was enough for us.
Doug Wilhide lives in Minneapolis. He returned to the Grand Canyon with his wife this summer and encountered only a brief rain shower.