Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Grand Canyon - A stroll through the park

Gentle readers,

I managed to get across the Grand Canyon on Saturday with a fun group of 8 hikers without any major difficulties. My only mistake was wearing cotton socks. My feet got wet crossing a creek in "Devils Corkscrew" on the hike out and I managed to get several nasty blisters on my toes as a result of walking in wet cotton socks. Other than that, I had a great time.

The Sign to the right is found at the top of the South Rim. I took this as we were exiting the trail. The sign warns everyone passing this way that one must never, never, never, attempt to descend to the river and back to the top in one day although hundreds of people do it every day. You will note however that the sign does not include a picture of a woman. For some reason, I always see obviously over-weight guys do stupid things in the canyon. On the other hand, I never see out of shape women on these trails. Some are more fit than others of course, but they all seem to be well prepared for the grueling task at hand. There most be something in the male psyche that drives us (by us, I mean males) to over estimate our capabilities.

My best time across the canyon is 7:32 (as in 7 hours, 32 minutes). I did this 15 years ago using the shortest south to north route; South Kaibab – to the River, North Kaibab – from the River to the North Rim. Total distance for this route is about 20.5 miles. However, I am all to well aware that my fastest time is long behind me so I resolved at the beginning of this hike that I was going walk across at a much slower pace and simply enjoy the experience. So instead of blazing across the canyon and pushing my heart rate into blood vessel bursting territory, I stuck with a friend of mine along the easiest route across the Canyon; North Kaibab from the Rim to the River (14.2 Miles) and Bright Angle from the River to the South Rim(9.5 Miles). Our total time across was 11:33. 4 others in our group got out 30 minutes earlier and the two others were only 30 behind us.

For those of you who have never had the opportunity to cross the canyon, it is difficult to imagine just how big this place is. Most tourist drive to the south rim, take a few pictures, buy a tee shirt or two and drive off to the next site-seeing opportunity. I feel a bit sorry for these folks since they never get a chance to really experience the canyon. I realize there are many other phenomenal places within North America and across the planet, but there is only one Grand Canyon. I’d encourage anyone who is reasonably fit to try this at least once. If you do this once, it won’t be your last trip.

With my sincerest apologies, the rest of this post is about to disintegrate into a rambling travel log of the hike. Be forewarned, it might get a bit sappy.

This is the North Kaibab trail head. It looks innocent enough. Notice the tall pine trees and the gentle slope of the trail. We left this point at 5:15 AM with the temperature just below 40 degrees. You can’t see the canyon from the trail head, only an inviting walk into the forest. This will change very quickly.

The trail starts dropping quickly after leaving the trail head and gets to the actual edge of the canyon in no time. The first view of the canyon peeks through the trees just before sun rise.

The sun starts to rise over the canyon splashing light on the west wall of the side canyon we are descending. Although the temperature at this point is still in the low 40s, it won’t last as the sun continues to rise higher in the sky. For the moment, we are just enjoying walking down hill in the shade. Our pace at this point was a steady 20/m. You want to take it a bit easy during the 5,800 foot descent since your knees will be taking a pounding and you'll need them on the way out.

The sun continues to rise. I apologize for the over exposure on the top part of this picture. My tiny camera isn’t capable of capturing what this really looks like. When you’re there, you can see the sharp, distinct line between light and shadow. The canyon wall to the left remains cool and inviting. The canyon wall on the right is glowing under the first rays of light. You just keep thinking about what is going to happen to your body when the sun gets high enough over the canyon to start blasting you with heat.

After dropping 4,000 feet or so, we get our first view of the South Rim. At this point, it looks real close. Actually, I think it is only 12 miles away. That sounds real close, we should be able to get there in no time :)

Shortly after passing Cotton Wood campground, the North Kaibab trail enters Bright Angel Canyon. This is a small side canyon containing Bright Angel Creek. All the way down the trail from the top, the trees get smaller and smaller and desert plants are popping up left and right. At this point in the trip, we enter into a full blown desert. The trail continues to slowly descend another 1,600 feet along this canyon from Cottonwood to the Colorado River 7 miles further. This is one of my favorite places in the hike. Our pace increased slightly to 16/m since the sloop is very gentle and there is no need to worry too much about banging up your knees. The temperature is rising quickly and this is the first part of the trail that is fully exposed to the sun; however, Bright Angel Canyon narrows as it descends and we’ll be back in the shade in no time.

We had very little snow in northern Arizona this year, hence very little run off. Bright Angel creek is running very low compared to last May when I was here last. You can see that the canyon is much narrower here and provides able shade.

Bad rider! I run into horses all the time running trails in Arizona. For the most part, riders are very courteous and friendly and work with you get their horses by you without spooking the horse or trampling the runner. This guy was not in the courteous rider category. I have no idea what this pin-head thought he was doing riding a horse through Bright Angel canyon on the first weekend that the North Rim was open. The trail is very narrow (as you can see) and one wrong step would be fatal for the hiker, the horse or the rider. In this picture this butt-head is gesturing wildly for us to get out his way and stand still. If he didn’t want to run into hikers, he should have chosen one of the other million miles of trails available in Arizona. This is the type of guy who gives horse riders a bad name in running community. Not that he cares.

Finally, the Colorado River. After 14 miles of hiking, we reach the bridge crossing the Colorado River. This is a narrow suspension bridge leading from Bright Angel Campground to the Bright Angel trail. At this point, we are in the “inner gorge” of the Grand Canyon, approximately 1,000 feet below the Tonto Plateau. The trail continues to the right after crossing the bridge. The temperature is now very hot. The near freezing temperatures experienced in the cool pines earlier this morning are but a distant memory.

The texture of the trail changes fast on the South Side of the river. Right after we cross the bridge, we run into a lone Joshua tree by a very sandy trail. 2 miles further, as we start the climb out of the inner canyon, we are fording a small stream.

Right after we crossed the stream, we entered a brutal 1,000 foot climb through an area called “devils cork screw”. The picture of several riders in this mule train was the only decent picture I manage to take during this time. The temperature was up over 100 and we were fully exposed to the sun. Our pace dropped to something close to 30/m or slower. At least we got to take a break as the mule train past us. The mule trains are one way tourists have of getting to the river without breaking a sweat. Although I’m not a big fan of mules (at least not a big fan of the stench of mule piss), these animals are well trained and the wranglers are courteous.

I “borrowed” the picture of the Devil’s Corkscrew from Suzanne. Her pictures are awesome. If you have a few hours, you might want to click on her name and check out the rest of her pictures. The woman is a prolific photographer and well traveled.

After what seemed like hours, we reached the top of Devil’s cork screw and headed up through a slot to Indian Gardens. It was at this point that I saw the first cactus blossom of the trip. There were no doubt others, but the heat was scrambling my brain.

Indian Gardens is the first water stop on the way out of the canyon along the Bright Angel trail. This spot is 4.6 miles from the end and 3,000 feet below South Rim. It is usually a cool oasis with abundant shade trees. I was a bit surprised to see that the temperature was hovering near 100 in the shade! I can only imagine how hot it was at the bottom of the canyon 1,400 feet below. We sat here for 45 minutes to cool down a bit and refill our water bottles.

Both these pictures were taken looking back at the North Rim as we continued our ascent to the South Rim. You can see Bright Angel Canyon in the middle of the photograph as it winds its way deeper into the north wall of the Canyon. By this point, we had been walking for well over 9 hours and my toes were starting to feel the effects of the wet cotton socks.

I took a bunch of other photos along the rest of the climb, but they all look like this one. The Bright Angel trail isn’t my favorite trail in the Grand Canyon. It heads up a large U-shaped indention in the south wall that blocks the views to the west and east. The only decent view is directly north. The sliver of green in the middle of the picture is Indian Gardens. The trail you can see in the left part of the pictures takes you to a dead end at Plateau Point. Bright Angle trail descends from Indian Gardens into the void you see to the right of Plateau Point.

The South Kaibab trail is much more scenic; however it is a bit steeper than Bright Angel and there is almost no shade all the way to the top. In addition, there is no water along the 6 mile trip from the river. The group decided it would be best to stay on Bright Angel considering the heat.

Your author at the top of the south rim after an 11:33:00 stroll across Grand Canyon National Park.


Back to primary subject of this blog - Running

My blistered feet put a bit of crimp in my plans for a long run on Saturday. I could walk without a problem, but the additional pressure placed on my toes during a run was very painful. I decided to take Saturday off and heal the toes before moving on.

My total training for the week ended at:

Sun: 3.36 Miles - Easy - 8:55/m pace
Mon: 4.56 Miles - Easy - 9:01/m pace
Tue: 3.35 Miles - Easy - 9:02/m pace
Wed: 3.38 Miles - Easy - 8:53/m pace
Thu: 4.97 Miles - Easy - 8:51/m pace
Fri: 23.7 Miles – Easy – 27:50/m pace
Sat: Rest
Total for the week: 44.3 miles

Keep running


Jim said...

excellent write up on your Canyon crossing. It makes me want to come out and give it a try. Very descriptive and the pictures remind of us how beautiful this old earth is, if we just leave it alone. Too bad about the blisters. As much as you know about running and hiking, I cannot believe that you wore cotton socks!!!

thanks for the link to the article on swimming. I am still alive!


Phil said...


You're right. I knew better than to wear cotton socks. But sometimes we imagine that we are invincible. I guess I'm not. Fortunately, the blisters didn't slow me down too much. I took Saturday and Sunday off and got in a 3.5 mile run on Monday and 5.0 miles this morning.

We are already making plans for an other canyon hike in late September. Wé'll try a south to north route next time which is a bit more difficult. I'll be sure to find the right socks by then :)

Good luck with your triathlon training.


Andy said...

One comment stood out for me
"If you do this once, it won’t be your last trip."

I made this same trip in 2004 - perfect conditions and probably the best time I could for this route. I'm eager to do it again.

Next week (assuming the trails are open after closing because of the fires) we plan to do Mt Humphreys and see what the highest point in the state looks like.