Alternate title: rimming the Grand Canyon
Sometimes you finish a trail and you’re tired and your stomach hurts so you lay on the grass for five days reading back issues of The New Yorker and at night you drag the foam mattress from your boyfriend’s subaru and drop it in the dirt in the desert, blankets and all, and sleep beneath the full moon. You eat raw broccoli and conventional blueberries and roast chicken and drink apple cider vinegar and talk about life with interesting friends who also haven’t figured it all out but at least you’re together outside in the desert, where the moon is, and the wind. You cuddle your boyfriend and eat hummus and romaine lettuce and chocolate and on the fourth night you have dreams about hiking; you’re on the PCT or some similar trail where one can stretch one’s legs, and in the morning you’re no longer tired.
“Do you want to hike the rim to rim to rim?” I say to Dan. We’ve just picked up my new debit card from my Sedona PO box where it has finally arrived and I feel drunk on the freedom of once again being an emancipated adult. “Sure,” says Dan.
The “rim to rim to rim” is a hike wherein one goes from the south rim of the grand canyon all the way to the north rim and then back to the south rim in a single day. The route is between 42 and 48 miles, depending on how you do it, with 12,000 feet of elevation gain and 12,000 feet of elevation loss. The R2R2R is popular with ultrarunners, who run most of it, and with long-distance hikers, who walk most of it. I haven’t run in over two months and don’t want to injure myself, so I’ll be walking the entire thing. If we’re successful it’ll be the most miles I’ve ever hiked in a day (my previous biggest day was 44.5 miles on the last day of the PCT in 2014), and also the most elevation gain I’ve done in one day. Logically, nothing on the Hayduke has prepared me for this, as we had no big days and mostly hiked slow and used our arms a lot and my legs were rarely even tired, so I probably shouldn’t attempt it. But I’ve wanted to hike the r2r2r for over a year, and it’s on our way back to Moab, and I’ve been laying around for five days and it just sounds really, really fun. I think.
It is fun. We car-camp amongst the ponderosas on a forest service road just south of the park. My alarm set to 3:15 a.m. We’re up and at the grand canyon visitor center by the time the first shuttle bus pulls up at 4:30 a.m.. We’ve got light packs full of bars and a two-liter water capacity (there are springwater spigots every seven miles along the corridor trails!). I’ve also packed a puffy and a headlamp. By 4:45 a.m. we’re switchbacking down the south kaibab trail as the first light begins to wash out the stars above.
It feels so good to hike. To just fucking hike. To walk as fast as I can on good tread with beautiful views and accurate mileage. We’re going down, down, down, pounding our quads and knees, 6,000 feet down to the Colorado river. A couple of hours after setting out we cross the emerald Colorado on a narrow footbridge and then we’re at Phantom Ranch, filling up our water bottles in the bright morning. A couple is there, sitting on one of the picnic tables. The woman has a blonde ponytail and a super cool magenta and purple hydration pack with a front pocket. The man has red-rimmed eyes and a tiny MLD pack.
“Are you Carrot?” says the woman. “I follow you on instagram!” Her name is Phoenix, and she hiked the PCT in 2015. She works as a nurse in Arizona. Her friend’s name is Bad Science, and they’re hiking the r2r2r as well, but they started yesterday- at 7 p.m. They’ve been hiking all night, in the dark, and all they have left is the seven miles up the south kaibab trail, back to the south rim. So cool!
“It’s easier in the dark, in a way,” says Phoenix. She laughs deliriously.
“We’re in the hallucinatory phase,” says the Bad Science. He rakes his hands through his long hair.
I can’t wait to be where they are- back at Phantom Ranch, exhausted, just one final 6,000 foot ascent left. We’ve got so much ahead of us, though, before then- about 28 miles. (Our hike is 45 miles total- 42 plus the 3 mile walk back to Dan’s car, as the shuttles won’t be running when we finish.)
I chug some matcha at Phantom Ranch, in my gatorade bottle. Matcha is this powdered green tea stuff that I bought at the whole foods in Sedona. This morning it makes me feel really good. Or maybe I just feel really good because I’m in the Grand Canyon on good corridor trails, hiking myself to death. Who can say.
We walk along bright angel creek in the cool canyonshade, almost imperceptibly uphill. There are lots of weekend backpackers of various demographics, some with giant packs and others with smaller packs, all of them communing with the rock and the water and the oncoming heat. Except the weather is perfect for us today. A little windy, a little cloudy. It’ll be maybe 70 degrees down here in the bottom of the canyon, max. We lucked out!
Everything is great. I drink more matcha. I love hiking! Walking forward without impediments makes me miss the PCT. I wonder what it would be like to do that trail again. Would everything seem smaller, and less shiny? Am I too old and cynical to make smalltalk with that many strangers? Who can say.
Late morning we begin the long, long fucking climb up to the North Rim on the north kaibab trail. When we did this climb on the Hayduke, it was cold and rainy, and then it started to snow when we got close to the top. Our packs were heavy. Now my pack is light and I have five days worth of glycogen in my calf muscles. I am invincible!
The last chunk of the 6,000 foot climb ascends more than 2,000 feet in two miles, I think. (Don’t quote me on that.) It is essentially a series of steep switchbacks that go on for infinity, and you will not reach the top of the switchbacks until you let go of all your desires and accept the fact that you have always been climbing and you will always be climbing, amen. My knees are already a little sore from our initial descent, and now they start to complain loudly. Shut up, knees! I’m on the edge of glory here!
We reach the North Rim of the grand canyon, where it’s colder, in May, than any other known place in the appreciable desert (don’t quote me on that) and sit amongst the pines in our puffy jackets, assembling sandwiches and eating bbq potato chips. 21 miles! We’ve made it halfway! Two other groups, which are carrying small hydration packs and which we’d assumed were hiking the R2R2R, make noises of astonishment when we tell them that we’re about to turn around and hike all the way back. Apparently they were doing just one canyon crossing and are now done, free to change into leggings and heat soup on their jetboils. Where are all the other rimmers? I guess today it’s just us.
Halfway! So stoked.
The descent back down the steep North Kaibab trail kind of hurts, as my left knee is now in a lot of pain. I do not care though. I can take a whole week off after this. I just want to crush!
very crush. so hike.
Things get less inflamed once we reach the long flattish stretch before Phantom Ranch, so long as I sit down now and then to rest the knee. We reach Phantom Ranch in the early evening, and I assemble my last gf turkey sandwich at a picnic table while the folks who are actually staying at the ranch mill around us in their clean, good-smelling cotton relaxation wear, murming calmly in the canyongloaming. Deer stalk the perimeter unmolested, munching on delicate tufts of grass. Fat, mangy squirrels twitch in the shadows, yearning for the unparalleled, addictive rush of a single barbecue potato chip. I envy the people staying at this ranch- their good beds with the soft sheets, or whathaveyou. We’ve hiked 35 miles by now, and I’m feeling it. Mostly in my knee.
Dark falls as we leave the ranch. We’ll be getting back to the South Rim super late, but no matter. We’re going to make it!
Everything up to this point has felt pretty easy, exhilarating even- but now I’m switchbacking 6,000 feet up the South Kaibab trail and I am so. fucking. tired. Plus it’s pitch black and a cold wind picks up and slams us with irregular gusts, blowing my hat off my head and making me recoil from the dark abyss beyond the edge of the trail. Presently the moon rises heavy and orange, and casts the massive canyon walls in a cold silvery light. It grows colder still, and I put on my puffy. I keep having to stop and rest the knee. Ahead I can see the little spot of Dan’s headlamp, bobbing. My headlamp bobs in response. Up and up and up we go, into the infinite blackness. Switching back and switching back. I remember the peanut MnMs I found on the trail in the afternoon. There were five of them, so brightly colored against the dirt, and I wiped the dust off of two and ate them. The MnMs were warm from the sun, and they tasted incredible. I focus on this thought. One more switchback disappears beneath my exhausted legs. I turn the corner to find more blackness. I’m dizzy with weariness. Woosh! Woosh! Goes the wind, in the dark. I clutch my hat. I turn on a podcast, and hold the phone up to my ear so that I can hear it. The podcast is about meditation as it relates to healing and physical health. Another switchback disappears. Ahead the small spot of Dan’s headlamp has stopped- he’s waiting for me. What a treasure. How did I find such a treasure of a human being to date. Except, people are wonderful. It’s letting oneself be loved that is the hardest part. I guess I’m finally maturing into the person I always wanted to be. They say that the ultimate lesson we can ever hope to learn, as humans, is how to love and be loved.
Another switchback disappears. More blackness. Time to rest the knee. I eat the last few handfuls of potato chips and the last square of dark chocolate. All that’s left is eleventy billion more switchbacks in the cold endless night.
I am euphoric when we reach the trailhead at the top. Limping, but euphoric. We fucking did it!
The hour is late, and the road to the visitor center is deserted. The temperature is close to freezing, and I pull the hood of my puffy up and retract my hands into my jacket sleeves. We walk on the pavement, without headlamps. The moon is enough. It is the easiest three miles of the entire day.
Nothing is more wonderful, or has ever been more wonderful in the history of all things, than the heated seats in Dan’s car. And the fact that there is a bed in back. Twenty minutes later we’re back at last night’s campsite on the forest service road. An ibuprofen, a bit of a snack, and a few minutes later I’m asleep.
Helpful info on the R2R2R:
-You do not need a permit to hike the r2r2r, unless you are part of a group. You only need your Grand Canyon entrance pass.
-The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is open 24/7, 365 days a year. After hours there is a kiosk at the entrance station to buy your entrance pass.
-The dispersed camping on forest service roads just south of the park is most excellent, and a good alternative to the park campgrounds, which are often full.
-Spring and fall are the best times to do this hike. The temperature at the bottom of the canyon is generally 20 to 30 degrees higher than on the rims, so one must be prepared for both hot and cool temperatures.
-The South Kaibab trail is shorter than the Bright Angel trail, but is steeper and has more lumps and rocks in it, so it’s harder on the body. Taking the South Kaibab trail both down and up makes a 42 mile day, taking the South Kaibab one way and the Bright Angel another makes a 45 mile day, taking the Bright Angel trail both ways makes a 48 mile day (I think).
-The earliest shuttle to the trailheads from the parking areas, in May, is 4:30 a.m. Alternately, one can park pretty close to the South Kaibab trailhead on the curbside parking spots near the rim viewpoints (we only realized this after). The last shuttle on the south rim is “one hour after sunset”. If one starts from the North Rim, one can park right at the North Kaibab trailhead. (The North Rim opens for the season May 15.)
-There are regular water spigots and restrooms along the r2r2r- every 7 miles, sometimes more frequently.
Things I’d do differently next time:
-Train beforehand. It’d be nice to be able to run as much of the trail as possible. Completing the r2r2r in 12 or 14 hours would mean finishing while the shuttles are still running, and being able to get food after. It would also make the challenge even more interesting and exciting, I think.
-I’d start at 3 a.m., instead of 4:45. An even better chance of finishing in time for food!
-I’d carry a hydration pack instead of a daypack.
Fun Level on this hike: Maximum Fun.