A thick clutch of hikers is gathered at a rocky promontory, each one safely pinned to the earth by a colorful, overstuffed backpack. As I elbow my way through the crowd, a wooden sign announces my arrival at the Ooh Aah Point. Squeezing between the vista’s final two gatekeepers, I immediately realize the “Ooh Aah Point” is not simply a catchy moniker.
Endless stripes of sage, cinnamon and flax spread out before me, neat layers painted on a labyrinthine series of buttes, mesas, spires and temples. These bright rock formations clamber thousands of feet skyward while marching to the end of the horizon and beyond, a vast, almost incomprehensible spectacle. Even more mind-boggling is the realization that this immensity represents just a tiny speck — a mere sliver — of the Grand Canyon.
I lose myself in a whirl of photography before coming to my senses. I haven’t even hiked a mile yet. If I’m going to make it down the South Kaibab Trail to the canyon floor, then partway up the North Kaibab Trail to my Cottonwood Camp destination — a distance of more than 14 miles — I can’t take so many photos. Especially of one spot, even if it is the Ooh Aah Point. Shoving my phone into the zippered pocket in the front of my hiking pants, I resume my careful clomp down the dusty path.
The Grand Canyon is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, along with iconic spots such as Mount Everest and the Great Barrier Reef. A massive gorge carved by the powerful Colorado River, the canyon stretches more than 275 miles across northern Arizona and through Grand Canyon National Park, its multihued walls soaring a mile skyward. At its slimmest, the canyon narrows to a 0.3-mile slit. At its widest, it sports a gaping hole 18.6 miles wide.
But the Grand Canyon, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is not simply revered for its immensity. The intricately carved gorge is considered a masterful example of erosion, showcasing more than 2 billion years of geological history. No wonder some 6 million people flock to it annually.
The vast majority of visitors opt to view the canyon’s compelling landscape from the top. Specifically, from its South Rim. A series of trails unroll along the canyon lip, punctuated by designated lookout points such as Mohave, Powell and Mather. You can hike along the rim to scout out your own favorite vantage point, or hop on one of the park’s free shuttles, which stop at several scenic views.
People like me, who prefer to explore places on a more intimate level, often opt to hike right into the canyon. There are myriad options for such a ramble, ranging from an out-and-back hike — you choose the distance — to a foray all the way down to the Colorado River on the canyon floor. Hiking to the canyon floor is generally a 7- or 9.5-mile proposition (one way), depending on whether you head down via the South Kaibab or Bright Angel trail, the two main options. The more intrepid can push even farther, continuing past the river and on up to the canyon’s sleepy North Rim, a distance of 20-plus miles. This is my plan.
How to hike the canyon
Steve Sullivan, permits program manager at the park, says anyone considering a hike into the canyon must plan carefully. “The Grand Canyon can be deceiving,” he says, namely because all hikes begin downhill. “It’s once you decide to turn around that all of your work begins,” Sullivan says. “It’s very easy to walk too far, even on a day hike.”
Indeed. More than 250 people are rescued from the canyon each year, according to the National Park Service. And deaths are not uncommon. “It sounds extreme, but people die here all the time,” says Jen Hogan, backcountry visitor technician. Many of the tragedies are due to ignorance or underestimating the wilderness area. “A big part of our job is education,” she says. “But at the end of the day, you’re responsible for yourself. We give people the tools, and they need to make good choices. It doesn’t always happen.”
Sullivan and Hogan say if you’re going to be hiking, carrying plenty of water and salty snacks is essential. Your pack should be as light as possible. And, if you’re visiting during the summer, you should hike only in the early morning or evening.
“Probably the biggest mistake people make is hiking when it’s too hot,” Sullivan says, noting that the canyon floor can be blistering on a summer day. Plus, there’s no shade. And don’t count on the Colorado River to cool you off. Ironically, it’s too frigid, with a year-round temperature that averages in the mid-40s.
Two hours in, and I’m surprised the trip down isn’t as easy as I had assumed. Sure, I’ve got gravity on my side. And the path is well maintained, often sporting actual steps. But the act of stepping down hundreds and hundreds of times in a row is hard on the quads. And sometimes the gravelly footing is slippery. Thankfully, the scenery more than makes up for it.
The biscuit-colored path transitions to a striking paprika, then flattens. A mule train clops past, each beast toting a straw hat-topped passenger. Two runners glide by in a whisper, their sneakers barely touching the ground. I twist, turn, then plunge downward again. The rugged red pyramids silently observing my descent are briefly softened by a series of dun-colored hills speckled with sage shrubbery. Another turn and the Colorado River pops into view. Renowned for its wicked rapids, it appears a harmless, olive smudge from my lofty perch.
As the sun nears its apex, the trail still spiraling downward ahead of me in graceful loops, the South Kaibab suspension bridge appears, a steel band of man-made perfection. Soon I’m clumping along its 440-foot span, which deposits me near Bright Angel Camp, the canyon’s most popular campsite.
I nibble on a piece of string cheese, then down a chocolate bar that the mid-April heat is intent on dissolving. Segueing onto the North Kaibab, I wind through the grounds of Phantom Ranch, a cluster of stone-and-wood cabins cobbled together a century ago. The ranch’s canteen is famed for its ice-cold lemonade, a tempting notion when you’re toting unpalatably warm water. But a cup of Phantom Ranch lemonade costs $4. Between the price and the time, I decide it’s not worth it. Cottonwood Camp is still 7 miles distant.
Bracing for the elevation gain that lies ahead, I’m pleasantly surprised to discover that the North Kaibab’s inaugural miles are flat. Just as the pathway begins to pitch toward the sky, Cottonwood materializes. Tomorrow will be the real test.
Although I’m back on the trail when the sky is still a gauzy gray, at least three other hikers are ahead of me. We all want to knock off these last 7 miles before it gets too hot. Heat shouldn’t be too much of a problem, though, since the North Rim sits at 8,240 feet — 1,000 feet higher than its southern counterpart. And right now, I’m told, it’s covered in 3 feet of snow.
The trail unspools along Bright Angel Creek, inching upward, then forks left into Roaring Springs Canyon. I cross Redwall Bridge, am baptized by the spring meltwaters dripping from above, then pass through Supai Tunnel. I move slowly, but steadily.
The path steepens again and the air cools. Evergreens sprout up trailside, boughs heavy and fragrant. I crunch across patches of half-melted snow that are pockmarked with the footsteps of my predecessors. A sign announces the Coconino Rim. And then I pop out on top of the North Rim, which is buried under enormous mounds of snow, just as advertised.
Two men sit on an exposed patch of asphalt, backpacks at their feet, and motion me over. We congratulate each other on achieving what’s known as a “rim-to-rim” hike. The guys plan on heading back into the canyon, camping at Cottonwood tonight and hiking out to the South Rim tomorrow. If successful, they’ll complete the even more impressive “rim-to-rim-to-rim” odyssey. I’m continuing north, along the Arizona National Scenic Trail. The trail runs vertically through the state, piggybacking on the South and North Kaibab trails to usher hikers through the Grand Canyon.
In some ways, I wish I could join the guys. Hiking through the Grand Canyon was more spectacular than I’d imagined. I’d like to see how the scenery along the Bright Angel Trail compares with that of the South Kaibab. Touch the waters of the Colorado — could it really be as cold as Lake Superior? But most of all, I’d like to sample a glass of Phantom Ranch lemonade to see if it’s really worth $4.
Melanie Radzicki McManus, from Sun Prairie, Wis., writes about adventure and travels.