Two weeks ago I got a text….”We might have a spot in the Grand Canyon trip….are you interested? Let me know ASAP.” The Grand Canyon trip was a backpacking adventure my cousin (in law) Erin had been planning for the last eighteen months. She had heard about the Phantom Ranch, a historic facility built in the 1920s at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and had become enchanted with the idea of hiking in (and out!) to Phantom Ranch and spending a night there. The only problem with this dream is that it is nearly impossible to get a reservation at this elusive hideaway.
Erin is one of the most determined people I know, and securing accommodations at Phantom Ranch became a priority on her to-do list. Reservations open up one year in advance, on the first day of the month you are interested in going. The best months to hike the Grand Canyon are spring and fall months. (In the middle of the summer the temperature regularly tops 105*F and hiking to the bottom is not recommended. In the winter there could be snow or ice on the trail making it even more dangerous than it already is.) The maximum number of people you can make a reservation for is nine. So Erin stacked the odds in her favor. She gathered a group of nine friends and family together and they all started calling for reservations on the first of every month in the Spring and Fall of 2015. Finally, on October 2, 2016, someone got through. They were able to get the last day October 2017 booked for nine people….7 females and 2 males in the gender-specific bunkhouse accommodations. The group quickly organized their travel details and started training.
I heard about this trip over the summer from Erin’s mom, Aunt Louise (affectionately referred to as “Weezie”, “Aunt D-weez”, etc.). Aunt Louise came out to NY to help out with my girls while I hiked the Northville Placid Trail this summer. She told me all about the plan to hike the Grand Canyon and I was so jealous. One of my goals has been to start exploring the West more and what an amazing way to start doing that! I
asked begged to be a backup in case anyone needed to drop out. The trip had been in the back of my mind since then and I had this intuitive feeling that I would be joining them… Fast forward to two weeks ago when the text came in.
It turned out that one of the original group members had a medical issue and couldn’t make the trip. Number one on the backup list also couldn’t make it and I was number two. I had about 6 hours to give Erin an answer. I did some quick preliminary research: could I get a few days off from work (yes), could I get a flight for a reasonable price (it looked promising), what would my husband think (he is generally pretty supportive of these things), and was I physically up for this challenge (only one way to find out). Two hours later I had committed…but honestly, I had no idea what I was really getting myself into.
The following couple of days were a flurry of figuring out logistics. I had to get myself there and back and sort out some details for my kids while I was gone. I was going to miss Halloween and the girls were not thrilled I was leaving again to hike and also missing Halloween. My husband not-so-helpfully suggested that they buy a bunch of candy and just skip trick or treating. I tried to explain that I would return from this as a better mother but they weren’t really buying it.
I feel strongly that it is important that I jump on these opportunities that present themselves in my life but it is definitely more tricky with younger children. There is a reason you don’t see a lot of people my age on the trails – generally, backpackers I run into are college-age or have kids in college. It is hard to leave younger children for these periods of time. I am truly blessed and grateful to have a supportive network to help out when I go off on these trips.
I also had to get a lot of work done at my job because I had some time-sensitive projects that had popped up. I started to incorporate some additional hill workouts into my morning walks but I didn’t have too much time to really think about or prepare for this whole thing before it was actually happening… And before I knew it I was heading out to Vegas without a whole lot of preconceived notions of what was to come.
My plan was to fly to Vegas on Saturday and meet up with Weezie. On Sunday we would drive to the Grand Canyon and stop on the way at the Hoover Dam. We would meet up with the rest of the group on Sunday evening. They were all caravanning in from San Diego and San Luis Obispo. Monday we would hike down the South Kaibab trail and spend the night at Phantom Ranch. Tuesday we would hike out the Bright Angel Trail and spend the night on the rim. Wednesday we would all head out and I would fly home. It was a tight schedule but it is what I had to work with.
I’ll spare you the details of Vegas except to say this: everyone has always told me that I would hate Vegas. They would wrong. I found it abhorrent. I couldn’t wait to be on the road to the Grand Canyon.
Weez and I had a great time on Sunday leisurely making our way to the Canyon. We hit the shockingly empty Hoover Dam and totally lucked out with great breakfast and lunch stops along the way. When I spend time with Aunt Weez we are typically laughing for about 99% of the time we are together. Sunday started off with lots of laughter but as the hours passed Weezie was increasingly verbal about some very big concerns she had about this hike.
Here’s the deal: this hike is no.f**king.joke. You are walking down the ledge of a mile deep Canyon for 7-10 miles. Every step of the way you are faced with immense, overwhelming beauty and real serious life-threatening danger. To experience the scenery you actually have to position yourself in a safe position first. This hike is not for those with a fear of heights or those with bad knees. Weezie had both. And she was starting to freak out. I didn’t really know what to say to ease her concerns – I had no idea what to expect on this trail.
We arrived at the hotel and checked into our rustic lodging at the Bright Angel Lodge located right on the South Rim. We were three to a room and we were expecting the rest of our group to meet us shortly. Finally, the moment had arrived when I would see the Grand Canyon for the first time. Weez wanted me to close my eyes so she could walk me over to the edge but I am pretty impatient and wasn’t able to wait that long.
We walked over to the edge and it is immense and amazing, and the first thing I wondered out loud was “How in the world are we going to get to the bottom of that!?” I expected Louise to commiserate with my comment but I heard nothing in response….because Weez wouldn’t come to the side to look over. Her fear of heights and the thought of hiking was preventing her from even looking over the edge. Shit! This was a big red flag for tomorrow!
The rest of the group met up with us right before the most amazing sunset ever. Wow.
We grabbed dinner at the restaurant in the Bright Angel Lodge and then proceeded back to our rooms to get all packed up for tomorrow morning. We had to have our backpacks ready to go and the rest of our stuff we were going to check at the hotel or keep in our cars since we would spend the following night at the bottom of the Canyon.
The gear explosion commenced. Everyone was busy filling hydration packs and comparing backpacks and how much we were each carrying. In classic Aunt Louise fashion, her backpack was full of HALLOWEEN accessories and decorations for all nine of us. This is what I (and everyone) love most about Aunt Weezie – she brings a party with her everywhere she goes. She is so much fun. However, in this case, I was more than a little concerned that her backpack contained more spiders, witches hats, face tattoos, Halloween themed jewelry and furry ear headbands than backpacking gear.
After packing up there was nothing left to do but go to sleep. We were planning on meeting in the morning for breakfast and taking an express bus to the trailhead at 8am. We were taking the South Kaibab Trail down (7 miles) and the Bright Angel Trail up the following day (10 miles).
The next morning I was up at 5am and Erin and I took a walk to catch the sunset on over the South Rim. It was freezing. The sunrise was less than spectacular. I did meet and talk to a couple also trying to catch the sunrise from the east coast who had done a ton of backpacking. As I usually do, I gave them unsolicited advice and told them to hike the Northville Placid Trail if they ever get a chance. We talked for a bit longer and then headed back to breakfast.
While we were waiting for breakfast to arrive we went around the table and talked about our emotions. Many people were nervous. Some had specific concerns. I wasn’t nervous – I was just ready to get hiking! My patience for waiting to start was waning. I was also sad that my kids were so far away. I can’t wait for the time to come when they can join me on something like this.
We finished up breakfast, boarded the bus, and quickly found ourselves at the South Kaibab Trailhead. We snapped a few pictures and then… started walking.
The second your feet hit this trail it is intense in every way. The scenery is overwhelming. The trail is steep and you are walking on a tiny path next to the edge of a mile deep canyon that continuously switches-back. I believe that at the beginning of this hike we all had to go inside ourselves to deal with the intensity of the experience we were having.
Our group of nine quickly sorted out to smaller groups based on hiking speed. The youngest members of our group, Alex and Stacie (both 21), took the lead. I was in the middle of the pack and Aunt Weezie was in the back with two of Erin’s friends, Gretel and Kresta. The back of the pack was moving very slowly and we were worrying about Aunt Louise.
The first significant spot to stop on the trail is Ooh-Aah Point. I thought it was a silly name but totally found myself saying “Ooooh” when we got there. We stopped for pictures and tried to gauge how far behind us Aunt Louise and the other two were. We saw a group of three not that far back that we thought was them and were surprised at how far they had come. We hollered and waved and moved on to the Cedar Ridge, at 1.5 miles, where we had planned to stop and rest and catch up with everyone.
Cedar Ridge is a flat plateau with a composting toilet (read: outhouse) and we found Alex and Stacie there waiting for us. We started stretching and pulling out some snacks and heard someone yelling to Erin for some help. “Erin! Your mom!” Alex (Erin’s son, Aunt Louise’s grandson) raced back up the trail to see what was happening. The atmosphere was tense as we were all worried about Aunt Louise.
After some time Alex, Kresta and Gretel came hiking down. They said that Weez was having panic attacks and her knees were not holding up too well. She had to turn around but she insisted that everyone hike on. She would be fine going up the mountain. Alex had offered to hike her back up but she flat out refused. She would hike out, take the bus back, and find a hotel room at the rim for the night. There was a lot of mixed emotion at this announcement but we were all very proud that Louise had gotten herself on the trail and made it as far as she did. We hoped we would be able to make some sort of communication later in the day to let us know she had made it out safely but we couldn’t count on much. There was no cell service at this point but we had heard rumors of a payphone at the bottom. (Sidenote: I was carrying my SpotGEN for an emergency but that is only a one-way communication device).
And with that, we hiked on. The next stopping point is a location known as Skeleton Point and just beyond that, you can see the first glimpse of the Colorado River.
One of the most incredible aspects to this hike was that from the top you cannot see the bottom, and from the bottom, you would have no idea that you are inside the Grand Canyon.
This concept really stuck with me the entire time we hiked. I found it to be a huge metaphor for life and the metaphor only continued to reveal itself the more I hiked on.
I’m not sure where Skeleton Point gets its name from but I can tell you that the hardest part was yet to come. We now hiked down a most impressive set of steep switchbacks that were stepped. It was hell on our knees. My knees are pretty strong and they were aching. A few other people in our group were practically limping. The stepped switchbacks were the absolute hardest part of the entire trail because there was no way to stop the pain. At least going up you could rest and have some recovery time. Here you just had to keep walking down, lifting your leg, bending your knee, and feeling the full impact when with each step. It was brutal!
Finally, we entered the Inner Gorge. This is where the trail becomes a magical fairyland. It is straight out of Lord of the Rings. The rocks change, there is more shade, and the Colorado River is getting closer and closer. This was my favorite section of both trails we did (although many parts on the Bright Angel Trail came in a close second).
At one point on this trail, as we are corkscrewing down to the Colorado River, we came upon a man who had taken his shoes off and was relaxing into the side of the trail. He was soaking up the magic of the trail and he told us we should really enjoy this section. We might never be there again. I felt so much respect for his ability to stop and savor the moment and it’s a special gift to be to handed a reminder like this smack in the middle of a strenuous, exciting, overwhelming experience. Thank You.
As we got closer to the river we could see a suspension bridge crossing it, and the river was rushing. You really get a sense for the dangerous current from a few hundred feet up in the air. We all converged before the bridge crossing and hit the bottom of the canyon together. So far we had been hiking for about 6 hours!
We crossed the bridge and suddenly we were at the bottom of the Grand Canyon!!?!! There was a lot more infrastructure than I had expected – ranger stations and random little huts. I’m not sure what they all were. We passed the campsites at the bottom on the way to the Phantom Ranch. They looked like nice sites but I couldn’t help but notice there were no trees to hang hammocks from…just a side note for my fellow hammock campers.
Here is a fact: After a long, hot hike, there is literally nothing better than a cold beer. The bottom of the canyon is supplied by mules who haul supplies – including beer – up and down the canyon 365 days a year. We had passed a few teams of supply mules and passenger mules along the way. I’ve never been so grateful for a cold beer (or a mule) before in my life. And I was tickled by the beer selection: Budweiser, Tecate, and Bright Angel IPA. Plus it was Halloween which also meant free candy!
We arrived at the Phantom Ranch around 2:30. The canteen was open until 4, and then they closed to prepare for family-style dinner served at 5 (steak) and 6:30 (vegetarian stew). We had preordered our steak dinners and after chugging some beers, writing some postcards (also carried up by mules) and making a few miscellaneous purchases we hobbled our way to the “dorm” rooms.
There are four cabins with ten bunk beds each that are gender-specific dorms. The accommodations were what you might expect for the bottom of a canyon. Rustic, but clean. We had a shower, a toilet, a crazy ass roommate, and a bed to sleep in. What more could you ask for? Some of our group showered, some rested, and everyone pulled themselves up at 4 to go to the Ranger talk. We’d heard the Ranger talks were awesome but this one was just okay. 5:00 rolled around and we were starving. The steak dinner was awesome. There was a ton of food and it tasted so much better because of the effort it took to get it.
After dinner, I was pretty much done. I was so tired and I was also on a top bunk so I couldn’t easily get down from it. We hung out in our beds chatting it up and doing a lot of laughing. There were six of us from our group in this bunkhouse, and three other women as well. The batshit crazy one had been to Phantom Ranch several times before. Her strategy for getting a reservation is to call continuously, all day, every day. One of our other bunkmates was seriously unprepared for this hike and was a mess. I felt really bad for her. We all shared some first aid stuff with her for her blisters and soreness but no one could really reassure her about the hike out the next day. She just couldn’t imagine how it was going to happen. (I did spot her the following evening coming out of the trailhead at the top. She did make it!)
Eventually, we all settled down and went to sleep. Or tried to sleep. It’s amazing what a body can accomplish on little to no sleep. Many people just don’t sleep well in situations like this. I had my earplugs which are my secret sleeping weapon.
The next morning we were woken up by a knock on the door at 5am. First call for early breakfast. We had breakfast at 7 and were back on the trail by 8:15. Before eating breakfast I had the opportunity to spend some quality time with Erin. We sat by the river and shared what we were grateful for, did some stretching and also debriefed from the day before. It’s pretty awesome to have someone you can really talk to during an experience like this. Love you Erin!
We were hiking out the Bright Angel Trail which was three miles longer but less steep than the South Kaibab Trail. There was also water along the trail in some parts and potable water at a campsite on the trail.
The trail started off pretty flat, following the Colorado River. It was warm, but not hot. Theoretically, the weather wouldn’t change that much as we hiked out because the higher you go, the more the temperature drops. Eventually, the trail leaves the river and starts climbing out of the inner canyon. I found this section to be the most difficult (although others would totally disagree with me). There was a lot of sun, I was feeling a little funny after breakfast, and it was taking a while to get into a groove.
At the very top of the corkscrew out of the canyon, we hit water. As soon as I saw that little bit of a river, I jumped in. Nothing, and a I mean nothing, feels better than submerging yourself in fresh river water during the middle of a hot backpacking trip.
Soaking wet, and feeling so much better, we continued on. The Bright Angel Trail flattens out for a few miles, and finally, you can see the outer canyon. During these miles you have ample time to contemplate how the heck you are going to climb your way out of the rest of the Canyon. This is where my backpacking experience kicked in. So much of this is a mental game. No matter how tired you are, how much you are hurting, how messed up your feet are, you CAN keep going. The only thing that can stop you in your thoughts. You dig deep, get into the right mental space, and put one foot in front of the other.
And that’s what I did. Slowly, steadily, I put one foot in front of the other. Our group was pretty well spread out at this point and the trail was getting increasingly crowded with day hikers as we ascended. I fixed my sights on the walls of the canyon. Each stratification of color that I hiked along was a goal and an accomplishment. And, finally, after about 8 hours on the trail, I was on the rim again, surrounded by cheering friends and family. What a feeling!