I’m pretty good a researching places, but with all travel there is always something that catches you off guard and that is part of the excitement of it. With our Grand Canyon trip I did a decent amount of reading but also had the impression that I have been to enough of this part of the country and enough National Parks that I knew what I was doing. I was wrong!
Here is my list of lessons learned and things you should know if you are planning a Grand Canyon National Park trip, with a bit of our adventure mixed in.
Number of People
I expected the rims to be crowded and for there to be a decent number of people at the first lookout, but I was shocked by how many people were hiking rim to rim or rim to river. In most national parks I have been to the parking lot viewpoints are a zoo, but once you get a mile or two in you find yourself virtually alone. The Rim to Rim Bright Angel and Kaibab Trails were certainly an exception. While it wasn’t crowded we usually saw another group at least every 15 minutes.
On our final morning heading back up the North Rim from Phantom Ranch we were making guesses about how long it would be until we saw someone. We were about 7 miles from the next campground and starting right around first light. We were guessing an hour when we saw the first hiker round the bend. He was a solo hiker and had started from that campground in the middle of the night.
Level of People
We knew that some people hike or run Rim to Rim in a day and many people make the journey in a several day backpacking trip carrying a heavy load of gear, so while Rim to Rim to Rim in 3 days was impressive, we would not be the ultra athletes in the canyon by a longshot. What we didn’t expect was the number of people doing a single day Rim to Rim as well as running Rim to Rim to Rim in one day! I didn’t know Rim to Rim to Rim in a day was even possible, being that it is well over 45 miles and 10k+ elevation up and down! These people were truly impressive!
There were two individuals that really stood out. One was a group in their 60s and 70s doing Rim to Rim in a single day. I sure hope I can have that kind of stamina at that age! The other was a guy we probably passed on the trail but we didn’t meet. We heard that he was doing Rim to Rim to Rim for the 8th time now in a row and was aiming for at least 10 passes! Not sure that sounds in any way enjoyable, but wow!
Please note that hiking Rim to Rim can be extremely dangerous and people die of heat stroke and exhaustion every year. While it may be doable, Rim to Rim or even Rim to River in a day is never recommended and I think it is a much more enjoyable to take your time and really take it all in. If we had the time we would have loved one more day to explore the bottom of the canyon.
Quality of Phantom Ranch Amenities
We stayed two nights in one of Phantom Ranch’s 4 bed cabins. Being so remote I had pretty tempered expectations and was just happy to have something with access to running water and a bed that I didn’t have to carry on my back. It was close to 100F when we arrived the first day and when I opened the door and felt ac blowing I was totally shocked and delighted! I knew they had electricity, but I had never imagined ac in a place like this. They also had nice hot showers with good water pressure! They even had shampoo, conditioner, and soap dispensers instead of one all purpose liquid.
Overall the cabins were basic but functional with some nice touches. We had a cute little table lamp with a beautiful painted shade, 2 bunk beds, a couple chairs, an animal safe food bin, a cold water sink, a mirror, a toilet, and a dedicated picnic bench out front. The only complaint was that the bunk beds have foot boards, so if you are over 6 ft tall they are a bit constricting.
I also was a bit surprised by the Phantom Ranch Canteen. They serve beer, lemonade, snacks, and pre-ordered meals, but they actually had a good variety of goods to offer including first aide, a small souvenir collection, and even had their own branded beer cans. They even accept credit cards.
We brought our own food but ran into a bit of trouble when it turned out we got a defective can of fuel. It would light up, but then the flame would go down to nothing and go out. We poked, prodded, and shook it to no avail. All the meals were pre-ordered only so that wasn’t an option, but they had a tea hot water spout and graciously let us get enough hot water to make our meals both day. Maybe they were being nice or maybe they where scared of what kind of fire ball would erupt if we kept banging on that fuel, but either way we were very grateful. Of all the places to have a gear malfunction we really lucked out!
Condition of the Trail
This has to be the best kept “back country” trail in the country! I could not believe the quality of the bridges, steps, and general trail even 10 miles in. In most areas two people can walk side by side with no worries. While having a map is always a good idea, you really can’t get lost on this trail.
Even the grade of the trail was well planned out. It is a lot of up and down, but there is no scrambling or big steps to haul yourself up, just a crazy network of switchbacks and wood or stone steps. I wonder how many trees it took to get all of those steps laid and how they got them all here! How many years and hours did it take? I don’t mind more primitive, but our park fees at this park are definitely well worth it!
One thing that did surprise me was that for how well done everything was there were no mile markers and even the signs pointing to things like the waterfall often did not say how far.
Grand Canyon Surroundings
Most of the western canyons we have been to are set in deserts where you may get a surprise when you get to the edge, but they fit into their surroundings. By contrast, the North Rim was so heavily tree covered that even when you were standing right on the rim you often could not see it. There was no lack of sweeping vistas at the viewpoints, but pulling into the main lot we could have just as easily been in any forrest, as on the edge of a mile deep canyon. I wonder how this area was to explore and if it claimed any unsuspecting victims casually tumbling over the edge.
Availability of Information
Our trip was during the covid pandemic so I am sure that added some extra complexity, but we were surprised how hard it was to get information and how often the information wasn’t right. The website two days before we arrived said that due to covid all restaurants were closed, but the main shuttles had been reopened. When we got there the restaurants were mostly all open, but the shuttle to the visitor center was still not running. When I asked the rangers on the North Rim about services on the South Rim and in the canyon on the Bright Angel Trail, like what water fill stations were on, they told us to call the office on the South Rim. I got the same kind of response on the South Rim when I asked about the north side. The rangers were lovely, they just didn’t know what they didn’t know. It almost seamed like the North and South were two different parks.
Always make sure you have a backup plan and that is especially important when it comes to water. We were fortunate and every fill station was on, but there could be an unexpected failure in the water system at any time so be prepared. We ended up solving our shuttle problem by walking a few extra miles between the South Kaibab Trail and the Bright Angel Trail, but we always could have just gone back down the Kaibab trail.
While mules may not get the same love that horses do, these animals are incredibly tough and dependable. I saw some of the scars on these creatures after their burdens were removed and if these mules get a “retirement” they truly earned it a couple times over.
That said, I can’t stand being around them on the trail because of the smell and the danger. They have pretty good spacial awareness, but unfortunately that does not extend to whatever you strap to them, as I found out in Nepal. Therefore, whenever they pass you want to pay close attention to whatever the riders tell you and get as far out of the way as possible.
The landmines they leave behind are a nuisance, especially when you are absentmindedly gawking at your surroundings instead of watching your feet, but not that big a deal. We wondered how much of the nice sandy trail bed was actually pulverized mule droppings. What really got to us was the dust and the urine when they passed. I highly recommend a buff to cover your face if you are sensitive to that kind of stuff. It doesn’t seem like it should be that bad, but in 100F heat it seems to elevate it to a totally different level.
I read that they don’t use the South Kaibab Trail and that there are strategies to avoid them on the other trails. Maybe people don’t usually encounter them on the South Kaibab Trail because they only make supply runs and travel in the dark, but they definitely do use the trail. We encountered them around 6AM just a little above the bridge. We also saw several mule trains with people early afternoon toward the top of the North Rim. The strategies to avoid them may or may not work depending upon the day so if you think it is worth it and you can adjust your schedule accordingly, good luck.
Vibrancy of Life in the Canyon
Looking down at the canyon it is hard to imagine how much could survive in it, much less that there are dozens of ecosystems within it. The Colorado River cuts through the middle, but there are also lots of smaller rivers, streams, and waterfalls. Most of the trail actually follows along the water. Sure there are dry desert areas, but there are also meadows, and even marshes that totally caught us by surprise. The transitions are stark. You can turn toward the water and see damsel flies flitting around the reads and just feet away there can be cacti clinging to the parched rocks.
In one oasis near Indian Garden we heard something echoing through the canyon that sounded like a dinosaur. We tried to locate the source in vain. Could have been a lizard, bug, bird, or maybe something else entirely, but it seamed so fitting for where we were, down in million year old rock.
We arrived at the North Rim to freezing temperatures and a lobby full of people shivering and at least one person using their emergency blanket. The next day it reached 100F at the bottom of the canyon. I had heard plenty about the heat, but I wasn’t expecting anything quite that extreme within a 24 hour period. Bring your layers! Just like going up a mountain, the higher you get the cooler.
The way the rocks in the canyon catch and store the heat is something I was totally unprepared for. Even at 5AM we could feel the heat rising up out of the ground as if we were walking on a heated floor. You would turn a corner and find sudden warm and cold patches. It felt a little disconcerting to walk through the different invisible pockets of air.
I think the heat got to all of us at some point on the hike. Soaking our buffs and hats in water every chance we got definitely helped a lot and having a little extra water to dump over your head if you need it is a good idea. I feel like walking along the stream with the sound of the water is deceiving and kind of lets the heat creep up on you. It is not like being out in the desert where you are constantly checking yourself.
I hike weekly in waterproof trail runners with SmartWool socks and rarely have a problem with blisters, but I’m not usually hiking in 100F with “heated floors.” The heat from the sun soaks right into the rocks and radiates back out like blacktop on a summer day. My feet got so hot that they were constantly damp and the blisters I got weren’t the worst I have ever had, but they were definitely the most prolific. There were a few shallow water crossings, but I still would recommend light breathable shoes that allow your feel to stay cool and make sure you have some blister treatments in your first aid kit.
North vs South
The north and south sides of a canyon are usually just two different perspectives on the same thing, but when they are mils apart they can become two different worlds!
The North Rim had a relaxed rustic vibe. It was busy, but no one was in too much of a hurry and there was a pleasant comradery between the tourists. It felt like most people were either there to relax and take in the views, to take landscape photography, or do some serious hiking. The lines were long and service was slow but friendly. A dozen or so of us gathered on Bright Angel Point to watch the sunset and the sunrise while another dozen relaxed on the lodge balcony watching the sun while sipping their hot drinks or cocktails. Everyone seemed to be speaking in hushed voices as if we could all feel the magic and were scared to shatter it. The views of the canyon from the lodge were pretty, but it wasn’t until dusk that they really came alive.
The South Rim was a swarm of exuberant tourists. It felt like everyone was moving but no one was going anywhere. The main walkway had spectacular views to one side and restaurants, bars, and trinket booths along the other. There were information lines and bathroom lines, but the ice cream line was the longest. The air was full of the sound of excitement and disbelief in every language as well as children’s babbles and squeals. As we made our way through the crowd trying to get to the trail head with our bulky packs and gear we heard someone say “watch out for the stick people.” We laughed and became part of the spectacle.
Another oddity, on the North Rim AT&T seemed to be the only cell service, while on the South Rim only Verizon and T Mobile seemed to work. On the North Rim we saw buffalo in a field, on the South Rim we saw elk in a parking lot.
Regardless of where you go parking is always a scarce commodity.
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