Years and years and years ago, my parents took me to the rim of the Grand Canyon. I remember looking down into the vastness and wanting to hike down, but at the time (I think I was eight, which makes it less than a quarter century ago, but not by much), our trip was limited to taking a couple of pictures. I’d vowed to return to actually hike the canyon, but as it turns out, it’s not really on any of the standard routes that I drive around the west. And also, I’m a bit of bike rider, which makes hiking down 4,500 vertical feet a recipe for disaster.
Getting to hike the canyon was one of the draws of the trip for me. I knew it would be hard, but I also knew that it’d be spectacular. All through southern and central AZ, I had other obstacles to focus on and the immensity of the canyon crossing didn’t phase me. Then all of sudden, we were there in Tusayan, packing up our bikes for the short jaunt to the South Rim to start our journey down.
What could possibly go wrong?
I remembered the view well from my last visit and we spent a few minutes staring down into the abyss. Scott informed me that what looked like the bottom from our perch wasn’t even close. I pretended that I already knew that. Gulp.
We headed straight to the backcountry office to get a permit for camping. We were hoping for Cottonwood, which was a little farther along the trail and would have given us a better chance at making Jacob’s Lake the next day, but as it turned out that both the campgrounds at Cottonwood and Phantom Ranch were full. Phantom Ranch had a spot the next night, “Why can’t you just wait a day?” the nice lady at the office asked us.
Scott pulled out his powers of persuasion (and knowledge) and with the help of another employee, convinced her that AZT thru-hikers can get permits outside of their normal parameters. Reluctantly, she gave us our permit and reminded us several times that our Day 2 would be 14 miles with 6,000 feet of elevation gain. “Are you sure you can do that?” she asked, looking directly at me.
“Well, if I go down there, I’m going to have to find a way to get myself out.”
She looked skeptical about the whole operation and had us sign a sheet saying that she’d advised us against our itinerary and that it was “excessive.”
Our next stop was the post office to pick up our mail drop. New packs, new shoes, more oats (as if we hadn’t hauled a weeks worth from Flagstaff). We sent back everything that we could, small packs, a spare tube, shock pump, iPad, and the oats. I convinced Scott that it would be nice to have the stove for a meal down at the bottom and if we didn’t make it to Jacob’s Lake the next day. It was a minimal junk-show.
Lunch was next and a visit to the outdoor store. We finally caved and bought two Grand Canyon National Park Official ponchos because the forecast was calling for rain and snow. We’d almost made it the whole way without carrying rain gear. We were skeptical of our purchases right until it started snowing outside while we were paying.
Then back to the Xanterra office to put an order in for a hot breakfast at Phantom Ranch and two sack lunches for the next day. Overpriced, obviously, but the thought of pancakes and bacon for the hike out made it worth it.
Scott put our bikes on our packs while I ate carrot cake. He’d tried to explain the technique to me when we were first testing the pack for me, but I told him that I had no interest in learning because this was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and he was a pro. The snow started to fall harder and we sought shelter behind a row of bathrooms, warming up in them before setting off to the rim.
Really, what could possibly go wrong?
We ran into hoards of people scurrying up to the rim in the storm as we slowly made our way down. I did my best to take small steps, to walk deliberately, and to use my one hiking pole as much as I could. I’d accepted the fact that I was going to destroy my legs with this endeavor, but figured whatever damage I could minimize, I would. Everyone wanted to know what we were doing. We gave various lengths of answers. A lot of people just shook their heads in amazement. I don’t blame them.
The snow stopped as we dropped in elevation. The trail is nothing short of spectacular. It blew my mind (I know, terrible descriptors for a writer, but I’ve got nothing to describe it) and within a few miles, we had it all to ourselves, dropping into the depths of the world.
That down there, that’s not the bottom. We took breaks occasionally, and then less frequently as we realized we’d be racing daylight to get down to Phantom Ranch. 9 miles in 4.5 hours is a stretch for people like us.
Stunning. (I need a thesaurus)
We made it down to the river and made our way along the sandy trail to the bridge, getting to the outskirts of Phantom Ranch just as headlights became necessary. After some bumbling around, we found our special area, and dropped our bikes, only to feel drops of rain start to come down steadily. Luckily, the canteen had just opened and we found shelter among other hikers who were there for wine, beer, and other merriments. The gal running the canteen knew about the race and was happy to give us hot water for our meals as we sat there, feeling worked over, and worried about the prospect of camping in the rain. Ponchos yes, shelter, no.
But, luck was on our side and the rain let up 15 minutes before the canteen closed for the night. We set up our camp under clearing skies and had a warm night at the bottom of the canyon.
We woke up at 4:45 to make the family-style breakfast at the canteen that we’d ordered. Apparently everyone at our table was watching their waistlines and we had our fill of pancakes, eggs, bacon, and peaches. Worth every penny, we left stuffed with two sack lunches.
My song for the hike had become “I’m a little pack mule, short and stout” (sung to the tune of I’m a little teapot). The lyrics would eventually change to “I’m a little pack mule, not afraid of heights” as we made our way up the trail.
Sunrise from the trail. Ouchy shoulders, legs that were sub-stoked, and miles and miles to go couldn’t take away from the beauty of watching the sun illuminate the canyon walls. We could see that snow line from the storm on the north rim was low and we wondered what our ascent would bring.
Our climb was punctuated with exclamations of “Alexis would love this geology!”
What can I say: It was hard. Getting packs on and off was an ordeal. Shoulders hurt. Scott reminded me frequently that he was carrying the stove, a tube, and tools – all weight that I wasn’t. I reminded him that he also had 5-inches of suspension to play with on all the trail leading up to the canyon and it wasn’t my fault that his bike weighed more.
But we climbed. We had one minor junk-show when it started snowing on us and we attempted to extract the ponchos from our bags, get them on, and then get our packs on. By the time we were set up, it had stopped snowing. Classic.
A day of melting had gotten rid of most of the snow, but as we approached the north rim, we struggled to keep our shoes dry.
We reached the rim with a few minutes of sun left. We dropped our packs, absorbing the last rays of sun, surveying the fact that the ground, which had been dry for most of the drought-filled winter was now covered in several inches of snow. The temperature started dropping as the sun fell. We had the option of camping or trying to ride the 40 miles of pavement to Jacob’s Lake in the dark. We knew both options would be miserable and cold.
Deciding not to decide, we made our way to the backcountry office to get water at the year-round spigot.
“There’s a bathroom over here that has a space heater in it,” Scott exclaimed as I was filling up bottles. “We should at least warm up.”
We decided that the bikes were cold too, so we brought them in. Then, one thing led to another, and it was morning and we were getting ready to face the cold temperatures outside.
While eating our dinners made of hot water from the sink, I took my socks off to assess the damage. It was a pretty impressive blister, but nothing that a safety pin, a little bit of antibiotic cream, and a bandaid couldn’t fix.
Knowing that we were woefully unprepared to face the temperatures with our gloves and socks, Scott had the brilliant idea of making mittens and vapor barrier socks out of our ponchos. My was shredded already from our botched attempt at hiking with them on and we decided they really were single-use items.
The mittens were brilliant. We would have been totally hosed without them. Even with the protection of the ponchos, we were still cold and high clouds lingered in the sky, foiling any attempt at using sun rays for warmth. Dead set on Jacob’s Lake, we pedaled in the cold, saying little. Scott grew icicles on his beard, my hair frosted up. We guessed at the temperature (it was 19 F).
Eventually, it got warm enough to not feel frantic, to start to feel human again. We looked at the trail, paralleling the road, being glad that we weren’t pedaling over the bumps with cold hands and sore legs (did I mention I couldn’t really get on or off my bike, and unclipping was quite a deal, let alone walking). To pass the time (because 40 miles of pavement can get boring for two mountain bikers), we spent the last 10 miles thinking up our favorite memory from that grade in school. Mile 10, 10th grade. Mile 9, 9th grade, etc. We both had some pretty funny stories and before we knew it, we were shedding our ponchos at the Road Closed gate in order to look civilized for the final quarter mile into Jacob’s Lake.
We had a hot breakfast. We ate cookies. We talked to another bike tourist. We called Scott’s parents to tell them of our ETA. I insisted that we eat lunch two hours after we finished breakfast. And then we rode, back onto the trail.
We hit a bit of snow, but the last 26 miles really are fairly easy cruising. Some climbs, some rocks to navigate, but mellow enough to really soak in the moment. We stopped at the last AZ Trail sign, 11 miles from the border.
We’d come this far. We’d be done within 90 minutes. It made me sad.
After 749 miles, the final descent was smooth, long, had wide corners, and had a stunningly beautiful backdrop of the Vermillion Cliffs. It seemed surreal that after all the abuse the trail can (and did) dish out, for it to end on such a beautifully constructed section.
Scott’s parents were waiting for us as we arrived. It was awesome to be greeted at the end! We were only an hour late (after my desperate need for lunch before leaving Jacob’s Lake). We piled into their car, headed for Saint George for dinner at Costa Vida. I nearly fell over trying to get out of the car to get to the restaurant, the legs were officially revolting.
We (and by we, I mean me) spent the next two days laying on the couch, hobbling to the bathroom, hobbling to the kitchen, and admiring the views of the mountains surrounding St. G. While I would have loved to ride (and Scott did!), it was time to relax and let the legs heal. They’d done good.
The trip really was a dream. Last December after Scott took me out bikepacking in the Gila, I’d told him that no trip would ever be able to compare and that he’d ruined me for life. This trip…this one was something special, much like the Gila was a year and half ago. Out for 14 days, enjoying the views while still riding long days, staying fresh enough to enjoy the riding while still having the contentment at the end of a long day that we’d done good, food in new places, and stories that are too numerous to ever all get told.
Did spiritual enlightenment happen? Nah. But I can say with 100% certainty – In this stage in my life, I would much rather tour on my bike than race it and that I’m the luckiest gal alive to have such an amazing partner to go on these adventures with. It’s a big, wide world out there and I can’t wait to see more of it.