I've always wanted to hike down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and up again, so when we started planning our road trip, this hike was at the top of my list. Though I'd always wanted to do the hike, I had never read the details about the difficulty of it, so it was a bit of a shock when I found out the trek was 26km with a 1500m elevation change, with an estimated completion time of 12 hours. And given that I was only planning this about 4 months in advance, the option to spread the trip out over 2 days by booking a campsite at the bottom of the canyon was no longer available. So I took a deep breath and decided I would do this hike in one day, taking the steeper but shorter South Kaibab trail down to the bottom of the canyon, then taking the slightly longer but less-steep Bright Angel trail back up. During the month of May, I could expect temperatures to reach 40 degrees Celsius at the bottom of the canyon, and face additional challenges due to the south rim's starting altitude of 7000ft. Chris decided this was a longer trek than he was interested in doing, so I would also be hiking alone.
I started training for the hike a few months before our trip, by focusing on cardio, weights (especially legs!), yoga, and hiking about 3-6 days a week. As I live in Vancouver, I had my pick of mountains to practice climbing on - though many of them were snow covered at that time of year! I even created a spreadsheet to calculate the steepness of the trails I was training on in comparison to the Grand Canyon's.
I planned to do the hike on Friday, May 11. Three days prior to the Grand Canyon hike, Chris and I hiked the 12km Devil's Garden trail in Arches National Park at an altitude of 5000ft. I didn't seem to be suffering from any altitude sickness, though I did feel like my muscles weren't performing at quite the same capacity as I'm used to, so I started to feel more confident in the upcoming 7000ft elevation hike.
For the two days before the hike, I consumed about 750 more calories per day and drank about twice as much water I normally would. I figured it would be best to have a few extra calories and a fully hydrated body when heading on the hike.
The day before the hike, we stopped by the visitor's center to confirm which water stations were open/working along the hike, the shuttle times, and the weather conditions.
I also packed the following into a proper hiking pack to take with me on the hike:
What I wore:
On the day of the hike, Chris and I woke up at 4:10am, got dressed, reviewed our checklists, and left our campsite by 4:40am. The temperature was about 10 degrees Celsius, with a predicted high of 30 degrees at the rim and 40 degrees at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon. Some wind as well.
Chris dropped me off at the hiker's shuttle pick-up point at the Visitor's Center as there is no car access to the South Kaibab trailhead. I ate my breakfast while waiting for the shuttle: a vegan cookie and a hard-boiled egg (Interesting breakfast choice I know, but I couldn't stomach the egg and the cookie was really all I could handle).
The shuttle bus driver was amazing and provided advice and guidance while driving us to the trailhead. He had done the hike himself the year before and it took him 10 hours. I had read that it would take me about 4 hours to get down and double that on the way up, for a total time of 12 hours, so 10 hours sounded good to me!
By 5:20am, the driver had dropped me off and I was ready to get started.
I was a bit nervous as there were only a few other hikers at the trailhead and most of them seemed to be there to take pictures of the sunrise. Only one other person there was doing the full hike.
I loved the South Kaibab trail: it was steep, fast, and offered fantastic views of the canyon. I felt so good on the trail, I ended up jogging a bunch of it. I loved the feeling of the morning air and the views of the escarpment around me. At one point I got a bit hungry and promised myself I could have my cookie at the bottom of the canyon. This resulted in me singing to myself "I did it for the cookies, the cookies, the cookies", as I jogged down the trail.
I had also made myself a little distance marker list so I knew how long it was between each point. (I learned this when we did Tongariro in New Zealand - it's so much nicer to be aiming for something 2km in front of you than something 12km in the distance).
I was at the bottom of the trail less than 2.5 hours after I started. I was not expecting that! I had planned for 4 hours down, per the blogs I'd read. As I felt really good I just wanted to keep going, but I thought it would be best to take a break to eat my delicious cookie and drink a bit of water.
After a quick 10 min break, I started the trek up the canyon, looking for my next marker called River Bend, about 2.5 km up the trail. I was predicting it would take me about 45 min to get there, based on the guidance that it would take me about twice as long to climb a specific distance than it would to descend it. I kept hiking and hiking but didn't see the River Bend marker, which was causing me some concern that either I was on the wrong trail, or that I seriously underestimated the timeline for the climb.
Part of the reason I was concerned I was on the wrong trail (even though there really is only one trail) is because I had to walk through several rushing streams on what was said to be a well-groomed trail. The streams came up higher than my Goretex trail runners causing my feet to get wet, which caused me additional concern about blistered feet. But because it was getting hot out, it actually ended up cooling me off and then my shoes dried within about 10 minutes anyways.
About 2 hours after I left the bottom of the canyon, I still hadn't seen the River Bend marker. Maybe the National Park Service was right about saying not to do the hike all in one day. Just as I was getting to a low point on the hike, I turned a corner and saw a sign that read "Welcome to Indian Garden". Wow!! I had completely missed the River Bend trail marker and had actually climbed 7km to my next checkpoint! So happy to see that! Spirits immediately lifted!!
I took another 10 min break at Indian Garden, eating my electrolyte jellies, while fending off the very aggressive squirrels who kept trying to get into my pack.
The heat in the Grand Canyon is real and I'm glad I started so early in the morning. Though I didn't know it until later, Chris had been at Indian Garden just an hour before I arrived. He took a pic of the same thermometer as I did. Though only an hour apart, Chris' thermometer showed 80 deg F at 8:45am and mine showed 88 deg F at 9:45am.
After the break, I continued up the trail to the next stop, which was 3 mile house (i.e. 3 miles from the top of the canyon). At this point, it was getting hot and I was starting the feel the altitude. Altitude is interesting - normally when I do a tough workout, either my muscles or lungs (or both!) will start burning, forcing me to slow down. But on this hike, I never had that feeling. Instead I just couldn't get my body to go faster. As I was climbing, I felt like I should have been able to climb faster, but I couldn't get my legs to cooperate. It seemed like I was going at a snail's pace, but I was passing people, and the marathoners I'd met at the previous rest-stop hadn't caught up to me, so I figured my pace must be reasonable.
By the time I got to 3-mile house, I was exhausted. I stopped in at the rest-point and found a shaded spot to sit. I pushed my body up against the cool rocks to try and bring my body temperature down. I also drank my entire bottle of Gatorade. After about 20 minutes, I was finally ready to go again.
I headed up the hill to 1.5 mile house. I was now taking 10-second breaks underneath patches of shade as I went up the trail. I also passed a group of rangers who were talking about what they were posting on Instagram, which made me think that maybe I had cell service. I looked at my phone and I did! I used the opportunity to send Chris a quick message letting him know where I was. I was tracking quite ahead of my planned times and I wanted him to know I'd likely be back early. When Chris messaged me back, my mood picked up and gave me the motivation I needed to finish strong. (Side note: Though there is only minimal cell coverage in the park, if you want any chance of coverage, Verizon is the only carrier to use)
I took another 10 min break at 1.5 mile house, then headed up for the last portion of the route. I told myself that 1.5 miles is only 6 times around the track, then visualized myself running strong around the track to keep my pace up.
The trail was also getting busy with tourists who were only going down the first portion of the trail. My capacity for thinking about anything beyond climbing the canyon was limited, so when someone asked me how far it was between 1.5 mile house and 3 mile house I could barely come up with a polite reply. I also passed a group of teenagers at a time when I was feeling like I needed some encouragement and one of them looked at me, smiled, and said, "You can do this. You're almost there."
Finally, I looked up, and there is was. The top of the canyon!! Just 2 switchbacks away!! I pushed hard and made it to the top in 7.5 hours. I was so excited!! I'd done it!!
Now all I wanted to do was sit down. But there was nowhere to sit and I couldn't figure out where to catch the shuttle bus. After walking around for what seemed like forever but was probably only a few min, I saw the bus and started to run for it. (Though I was tired, being able to sit on the bus was worth running for.) Then I heard Chris' voice yell my name. He'd gotten the message I'd sent between 3 mile and 1.5 mile house and had come to meet! But I thought he wanted me to walk away from the bus and towards him, something I didn't have the energy for, and so I sat down on the sidewalk and started to cry. But then he caught up with me and told me he had the car and was trying to get me to go towards it. I was so happy!! The trek was done, Chris was with me, and life was good. 26 km, 1500m elevation change at a starting altitude of 7000ft, with a temperature high topping 90 degrees F.
26km Rim to Rim hike
Breakfast: Hard boiled egg and a cookie
Dinner: Burger and fries