It always amazes me how many beautiful places there are in the world and how fortunate we can consider ourselves if we manage to glimpse just a few.
I’ve lived in the Canadian Rockies, where every morning I’ve looked up to see rocks and mountains changing colour with the sun. I’ve lived on the ocean, where the horizon never seems that far away but the world looks infinitely huge at the same time.
And for a week in June, I saw the Grand Canyon, a void so vast and unknown that I had no choice but to climb to the bottom and back up again.
On June 7th, I flew from Toronto to Las Vegas with my dad to start an adventure we’d been planning for quite some time. Though we would stop in Vegas for a few days, the highlight of our trip was a physical one: hiking 20 miles through the canyon to Phantom Ranch in Arizona’s dry summer heat of 49˚ C (120˚ F).
MAKING OUR WAY DOWN
Having met our tour guide the night before, we all gathered at the backcountry office at 3:20 the morning of June 9th 2017. Because we were hiking in a group, we had access to a “mule train”. A “mule train” is basically 10 mules tethered together by rope, usually led by a young to middle-aged man in full cowboy attire. Because Phantom Ranch is such a ways down the canyon, these mules are the sole way of getting supplies to the bottom. They maintain a very routine schedule that only allows them to work about 4 days before receiving a minimum 48-hour break.
As we were staying in the Ranch for 2 nights, we were allowed 10 lbs in our stuff sacks for the mules to carry down for us. This way, the only things we needed in our daypacks were a long sleeved shirt, a hat, sunscreen, snacks and 3L of water each.
There are many trails you can take through the canyon but we chose to hike the South Kaibab trail down and the Bright Angel trail up. This order was recommended to us because though the South Kaibab trail is shorter, it is significantly steeper and has no water access along the way.
Having left so early in the morning, our first few steps down the canyon were glorious. The sun rose, leaving the most beautiful hew of orange and pink on the canyon walls.
Most people expect the hike up the canyon to be more difficult, but I actually found the opposite. The South Kaibab trail is very steep and has pieces of wood that have been dug into the trail to act as makeshift stairs. However, some of these “steps” are so high up, the constant jolt on your knees and calves are relentless to the joints. One of the ladies in our group described it as “leaping into divots” and I couldn’t agree more.
Despite popular belief, the temperature actually rises as you descend the canyon, making it imperative to leave early to beat the hot afternoon sun. It took us about 6 ½ hours to make it down to the bottom of the canyon, where we were met with the beautiful strong gushing waters of the freezing Colorado River.
Laying eyes on the river is a momentous occasion for hikers, as we have it to thank for the canyon’s existence. Every year, the Colorado deepens the canyon the thickness of one sheet of printing paper and has been doing so for millions of years, creating what we know now as one of the natural wonders of the world.
AT THE BASE
Phantom Ranch is a very simple, yet beautiful destination point at the bottom of the canyon. Very rustic, the entire ranch is comprised of four, ten bunk bed cabins (with a private bathroom and shower per cabin), private lodges and a dining room/cafeteria type space.
These accommodations limit the ranch to a maximum capacity of 80 people per night. More so, there are 33 campground sites running along the Bright Angel Creek also available for rent.
Every evening, dinner is served to those who have booked reservations in advance. At 17:00, a scrumptious meal of steak, potatoes and vegetables is served, with the option of coffee, tea and chocolate cake for dessert. At 18:30, a second set of hikers is fed a meat stew with corn bread. Both of these recipes are served every single night to the multitude of hikers who descend the canyon and are rumoured to have been passed down from chef to chef for years.
Because we were spending two nights in the canyon, our “day of rest” gave us the opportunity to explore the nature and wildlife at the base. We saw many animals common to the area: deer, bats, scorpions and candors but managed to evade the also popular rattlesnakes and ring-tailed cats that are often seen living in the canyon habitat.
One of the most beautiful areas of all our hikes was in my opinion, a little secluded creek from which the Phantom Ranch received its name. Phantom Creek’s waters run about 40 minutes away from the camp, along the red jagged rocks of the canyon. Hidden by an alcove in the rocks, a small but beautiful waterfall lays undisturbed, home to one of the most beautiful spots at the base. We were fortunate to spend some peaceful time there before hiking back to the ranch.
The cabins themselves are quite nice and everyone was very respectful. In June, the hours between 14:00 and 16:00 are so hot, most people rest and sleep during that time. The ranch also offers a “courtesy knock” at 5:00 for those who want to get an early start back up the canyon.
HIKING BACK UP
Our starting time the morning of June 11th was a bright and early one, at 3:30. After having a simple breakfast offered by our guide, we started our journey back up the canyon in darkness with the help of our headlamps. Bright Angel trail is ideal for an uphill hike because there are many streams along the way in which we could soak our t-shirts, bandanas and hats to cool down our core temperature. The trail was also much more scenic than the South Kaibab trail. For 8 ½ hours, we wandered through various terrains: miles of beige dry sand to turn a corner and be surprised by lush trees, slick rocks and trickling creeks. It really was a beautiful sight to see.
The closer we got to the top, the more day hikers we saw. It was a surreal experience. Some people were dressed very casually: shorts and a t-shirt, with flip-flops. One young couple didn’t even have a bottle of water. I think most were able to tell that we had been hiking for hours. We were dirty and sweaty, with hiking poles and sturdy boots caked in dust.
With about two hours left, we started salivating for the cold, delicious ice cream we knew would be waiting for us at the top. We joked around, saying whoever got there first had to get in line and order all the ice cream so the cones would be ready for everyone else when we got there.
And let me tell you, that ice cream was glorious. Once we reached the top, we took the time to celebrate and take pictures from the rim. We ate our ice cream just as the sun reached its dazzling maximum temperature for the day, somewhere around 35˚ C (95˚ F). As a group, we walked back to the backcountry office, where we returned our sacks and poles and said goodbye to our tour guide Elizabeth and the other 4 members of our little team.
As we left the canyon on our way to Las Vegas, I was a little stunned at how quickly it all finished. We had barely reached the top an hour ago and were already on to our next destination. I had nothing to worry about though; I would remember this experience vividly for the next few weeks through constant reminders of sore joints and never ending canyon dust on all my belongings.
I’m realizing now that it is moments like this that define the type of person you are. Hiking the canyon is as much a mental game as a physical one and I’m happy to be surrounded by people who help me be the type of person who is always smiling, always hopeful. The type of person who steps outside of their comfort zone, takes risks and travels. The type of person who is always looking for the next adventure. That’s who I want to be and I am overjoyed that I get to be that person with the people I love.