When you have to carry everything on your back for nearly 30 miles, you get really selective about what you want to schlep and what you should leave behind. Water, food, a one-woman tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, sunscreen, headlamp—these are must-haves. Trekking poles, hat, extra wool socks, toilet paper—these should go in your backpack as well. Don’t bother with an extra change of day clothes because perspiration and dust will saturate them instantly, and it’s not worth the added weight. Deodorant, camping chairs, a hairbrush—these items will only weigh you down and become burdensome.
I woke up early the morning of my big adventure to get all my gear in order. I carefully laid out everything I thought I would need for the trip, and then loaded the supplies into my gargantuan green backpack. Was it supposed to be this heavy? I had physically trained beforehand, building up my cardio through long runs, lifting weights, and doing thousands of crunches, but it never occurred to me that I should practice carrying a hefty backpack while hiking for several miles at a single stretch. I hoped I had prepared enough. Could my knees, one of which has suffered through a past ACL injury and surgery, handle this? I had never, in fact, actually backpacked long-distance before.
My outdoorsy backbone was formed in Montana when I was a child, camping within conifer forests full of evergreen firs and spruces, and I’m no stranger to hiking, but backpacking over multiple days in the hot desert—including a descent of 5,760 feet and a later ascent of 4,500 feet—was a new fish to fry for me. I clipped my toe nails short so I wouldn’t lose any on the trail, tied my favorite bandana to the outside of my backpack, guzzled what felt like my weight in water, then with a sharp inhale, I walked through the lobby of my hotel, head held high, ready for something new.
Millions of tourists visit Grand Canyon National Park each year, but only a small percentage actually dip below the rim. I was about to see the Grand Canyon in a way that most visitors never have. I met up with my two guides and a group of eight women, and we departed Flagstaff in a van that traveled through the Navajo Reservation and Painted Desert. Solo travel has its perks—you don’t have to plan your trip around your friends' or family's interests or schedules, and as an introvert, traveling alone (or, like this time, with a group of strangers) challenges me to break outside my comfort zones or familiar relationships.
Together, we were about to set out on a four-day trek, starting from the North Rim on the North Kaibab Trail, hiking 14 miles descending to the Bright Angel Trail, then another 9.6 miles before reaching and ascending to the South Rim. We'd stay at three campgrounds, and pass by Phantom Ranch (the only lodge below the rim), all while exploring two billion years of history. Simple, right?
Our starting point would be a whopping 8,000 feet above sea level. It’s easy to see why the Grand Canyon is considered to be a holy site by the Native American people as you descend thousands of feet deep into the belly, past geological formations shaped over a millennia by the mighty Colorado River. It’s a topsy-turvy, upside down experience, hiking below a well-defined rim. It’s like spelunking or rappelling into a cave, with the earth and sky situated high above. Plus, what lies below is nothing like what you see when you’re standing at the edge of the perimeter. You might think the Grand Canyon is arid and barren, encompassing only shades of purple and blue, compering zero life or anything that’s emerald, but you’d be wrong.
As we descended the North Kaibab Trail, hiking for seven miles while testing the grit and gumption of our knees for a 4,160-foot descent, we noticed theatrical gorges, vascular plants, lofty cliffs, and layers upon layers of multi-hued stratified geology dating back 1.8 billion years. We reached Cottonwood Campground just before sunset and after pitching my tent and hanging my pack up high to avoid invasive critters and bugs, I made my way to Bright Angel Creek where I plunged my bare feet into the cool water. Potable water was thankfully available (I learned that this isn’t always true, and one should prepare to treat and filter water from the creek), and as I sat there, stretching out my worn-out legs and massaging my feet over round river rocks, a family of deer came into view. I thought about how resilient and hardy these creatures must be to survive in such a formidable environment. Crawling into my tent, after a long day of challenging hiking, I slept like a canyon queen.
As the sun brightened up the rust-colored canyon walls, I packed up my camp and set out on the trail once again. The highlight of the day was our side hike to Ribbon Falls, located on the north side of the Colorado River in a hidden nook. You can smell a change in the air as you approach the 100-foot high falls that create two pools, a painter’s paradise. I changed out of my hiking boots into sandals and hiked behind the waterfall to experience one of the most beautiful locations in the entire canyon.
The bottom of the waterfall has an opening and when you crawl inside, rugged steps spiral up toward a moss-covered second-story hole. I stuck my head out of the squishy formation and let the fresh mineral-rich trickling water cool me down.
After playing at Ribbon Falls, I put my heavy pack back on, laced up my boots, and made my way down the narrow dirt trail, past black Vishnu schist cliffs. This section of the trail is called The Box and it’s known for being extremely hot, retaining the heat well into the evening. Warning signs are posted with images of vomiting hikers, unprepared for the amount of water they’d need to make the trek. I was thankful for my wet clothes and soaked bandana as I made my way toward Bright Angel Campground, my home for the night.
Before setting up camp, I popped into the rock-studded Phantom Ranch, historic lodging right next to Bright Angel Creek, a half-mile from my campground. Only reachable by foot, mule, or river, Phantom Ranch is quite remote and remarkable. I ordered a Bright Angel IPA and wrote post cards for my boys back at home that would eventually be carried out of the canyon in a saddle bag attached to a mule.
The Cottonwood tree-filled area around the Bright Angel Campground, where the river delta merges Bright Angel Creek with the Colorado River, is a pleasant retreat. I set up my tent next to a dramatic canyon wall, filled my belly with dinner, and then took out my water bottle to brush my teeth. I noticed a rather large web next to my tent and when I leaned in closer to investigate, I spotted a shiny black spider with a distinctive red hourglass shape on its abdomen. That night I moved my tent a little closer to my new hiking friends and away from the Black Widow.
The next morning’s adventures would take me across the Colorado River on a gray metal bridge, toward an uphill ascent. I hugged the side of the canyon walls when the trail narrowed and hiked the steep switchbacks up to one breathtaking vista point after another. The swollen clouds created magical and dizzying shadows on the chasm below. A nearby small waterfall would be that day’s shower. We took a side hike through a protected archaeological site, where remnants (pieces of broken pottery and clay bricks) lie from former cave dwellers. We spotted brown lizards, tiny squirrels, and numerous birds along the way. Soon, we reached Indian Gardens, an oasis so beautiful it’s hard to believe that it even exists in the rift.
That evening, we went on a 1.5-mile hike out to Plateau Point, the finest place in the Grand Canyon to “oooh” and “ahhh” over a gold-spun sunset, which overlooked the zig-zag lines carved in the side of the gorge where we had hiked earlier. Twinkling lights from tourists appeared from rim above, which made me feel like I was about a millimeter tall. When it started to get dark, we put on our headlamps and made our way back to Indian Gardens. If you want to test your hearing, go hiking in the dark on an unfamiliar narrow dirt trail. My senses were on high alert as I struggled to make out shapes in the dark, and the crunch of boots on the soil was amplified.
The final 3,000-foot ascent on the last day of my adventure would prove to be the most rewarding of all. My body was trail tested and worn, and I was comfortable with the pace and the physical exertion. Even though the climb was challenging, we took lots of snack and water breaks and spent time taking photographs while absorbing the surreal views.
We were nearing the top when we saw a Desert Bighorn Sheep making his way up the trail. A steep crag was to one side of us and a sharp drop off was to the other, which meant that we needed to hug the wall, with our giant backpacks, so that this beast could pass safely. The ram had curled horns that wrapped along the sides of his head, and with marbles for eyes, he almost appeared taxidermic. When he neared our group, he popped up on the rock-strewn edge and skipped past us with the most grace I’ve ever seen from a wild animal up close.
Mules with riders on top came next, passing us as we made our way toward the rim. The closer we got to the top, the more tourists we encountered. I couldn’t have been more filthy; I hadn’t bathed with soap in days, and my body was working hard, sweating and meandering along the trail ahead. Each time a day hiker crossed my path, it seemed as though they were the pungent ones, with perfumes, fragrant shampoos, and unnatural aromas invading my nostrils.
Reaching the top, taking the last step, felt like an incredible accomplishment. Even though I had seen the Grand Canyon twice before—once with my husband before we were married and once with my three boys when they were too little to hike very far—seeing it from well within its gut was an experience I felt so grateful to have.
Don’t wait to go on an adventure. Don’t be afraid to get some dirt under your nails. And as John Muir once said, “Keep close to Nature's heart...and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
Now when I stand at one rim and gaze at the other across the canyon, I’ll remember my great undertaking, where I gave myself—body and spirit—that gift of spending time in nature.