Thursday, 2 July 2020

Grand Canyon: rim to river (and back) in one day

This post was originally written in 2012

I don’t really have a bucket list, but walking to the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is something I have been thinking about since I first came here in August, 2009. That year I decided to helicopter tour in the morning, which didn’t leave enough time to do the trip to the river in the afternoon. I didn’t regret the decision to do the helicopter trip; I just knew it meant I would have to come back, so here I am.

Summer in the Grand Canyon gets very hot, last time I was here it was over 40 degrees celsius when I started walking. There are a few rules posted at various points around the canyon; stay hydrated, eat often, avoid walking between 10 am and 4 pm, rest often in the shade and do not attempt to walk to the river and back in one day. I was only planning to break a couple of those.

My aunt and a friend have both done the round trip to the river in one day, so I knew I would be able to make it. If there was anything I considered dangerous, it wasn’t the distance or staying hydrated, it was the loose rocks I could potentially slip on and fall over the edge.

The distance from the rim to the river on the Bright Angel Trail is 9.5 miles or 15 km, making it a 30 km round trip. On my previous trip I walked to the Indian Garden, which is half way to the river. That took 1.5 hours down and 2 hours back to the top. I was estimating it would take 3.5 hours to get down, and 5 hours to get back up. I told Christina if I wasn’t back by 6 pm she could start worrying. I packed 4 bottles of water, my lunch and a few snacks that I brought the day before, and started walking just before 6 am. The sun was up, but most of the path was still in shade and it was quite cool. I was at the first rest point by 6.20 am.

It's not exactly a secret that I am not great with animals (not counting my dogs). There are squirrels everywhere in the Grand Canyon, and even though I don’t really like them, you get used to them running around. I can’t say the same for the first animal I saw on the trail; a ram that was eating a plant on the edge of the path. I managed to sneak around it without any problems while some people were taking photos.

A little further on, I wasn’t so lucky when I got stung by a flying bug, and it only got worse from there. I arrived at the 3 mile rest point at 6.50 am. The number of people walking up from the river who had camped overnight was starting to increase and the number walking down was getting a lot smaller. I wasn’t far from the Indian Garden when I almost stepped on a snake that was sunbaking on the trail. I had a bad experience with a snake when I walking with my family in Tasmania as a teenager, so I like them even less than squirrels, rams and flying stinging bugs. I had obviously startled it because it started moving across the path, blocking off where I needed to walk.

A few minutes earlier I had passed someone on the path (whose name I later found out is Mark), so I decided to wait until he got there and could solve the snake problem. I wasn't planning to go anywhere until it was well out of the way. He told me it was a rattlesnake, and after it moved off the path we (okay just me) passed it quickly before it could do more damage than the bug. Mark wasn't scared of the snake, and took a few photos. He is rafting for 6 days down the river, but said he will email them to me when he gets back. I’ll post them when I get them.

After that I had someone to walk with, and we arrived at the Indian Garden at 7.15 am. It was a bit earlier than I was expecting, and was still quite cool in the canyon. It's not recommend that you walking past the Indian Garden in summer, and there were a few warning signs about the heat and possible dangers of continuing further. A thermometer in the garden said the temperature at that point was 78 F.

The landscape for the few kilometres after the garden were quite lush and beautiful. We passed a small stream running through the canyon; it was surrounded by trees and rocks jutting out from the walls.

The protection from the trees soon disappears, and the trail resumes cutting through the rocky walls of the canyon. It wasn't long before we were looking over the Devil’s Corkscrew; a section of switchbacks taking you further down into the canyon. It was in shade at the point, but I realised it wouldn’t be by the time I was coming back up. Even though it was still quite early, I could feel the heat setting in. We had a fantastic view of were about to walk, and it put the depth of the canyon into perspective. We were past half way, but I couldn’t see the rim anymore and I couldn't see the river. It was hard to fathom the enormity of the of the whole canyon when I remembered that we were only in one small portion of it.

When we reached the bottom of the Devil's Corkscrew, the trail flattened out. I knew we had to be close; the sound of running water was getting louder. We rounded a corner and the river came into the view, I don’t know if I was happy to have made it or was blown away by how beautiful it was. Probably a bit of both! It was 8.35 am, so my estimation of 3.5 hours was over by about an hour.

We walked onto a small beach by the river and we met PJ, who had walked down from the rim the same morning. I was surprised how cold the water was, but would appreciate it later during the hot walk back up. The current seemed quite strong, I don’t know it if was possible to swim, but I was happy to just get my feet wet.

It felt a bit early for lunch at 9 am, but I hadn’t eaten breakfast so I ate my sandwich anyway. Mark was staying at the river for his rafting trip, but PJ was walking back up. Wanting to avoid as much of the heat as possible, we headed back around 9.10 am. The section between the river and the Indian Garden was supposed to be the hardest part, having to go up the Devil’s Corkscrew which was then in the sun. We made quite good time, and even with a stop to cool off in a small stream, we were at the Indian Garden by 10.30 am. The highest the temperature had gotten was 38 C in the sun, 31 C in the shade.

The Indian Garden is a beautiful part of the canyon. Historically it was used a resting point for tribes that inhabited the area, because of the tall trees protecting it from the heat and the cool breeze that passes through. The garden also has a small pool called Victor’s Oasis, which is surrounded by rocks you can sit on a put your feet in. It was a refreshing spot to sit and relax before the rest of the climb out (and also has taps for those who are running low on water!).

We stayed for almost an hour, and despite feeling pretty good at the time it got a lot harder from there. The last time I walked out from the Indian Garden I felt good the whole way, but the extra 7 km of walking up from the river was starting to take its toll. I was also a lot fitter in 2009; it was only 2 weeks after my best City to Surf. This year I haven’t done any running since May, and even that was nothing impressive.

We pushed through the 3 mile rest point, but stopped at the final one before the rim to refill our water. The top of the canyon still looked fairly far away to me (though PJ said it seemed close!). We estimated about another half an hour of walking, but we were going so slow it seemed a lot longer. I could feel blisters on the bottom of my toes, though we were so close that the excitement of almost having made it overshadowed any pain. We arrived back at the top at 1.45 pm; which was about 4 hours of walking time on the way up. Exhaustion kicked in later that afternoon after the most important thing, a celebratory drink, had been taken care of.

The experience was amazing, and even though it was tough I'm glad to have done it. The river was beautiful and the canyon itself is stunning. I’m not sure any words or photos can do it justice, I think it is something that can only be explained by seeing it yourself.
Would I go back? Absolutely. Would I walk to the river and back in a day again? Once was definitely enough! If I go back, I would camp at the river overnight, or walk to a waterfall or springs in a different part of the canyon.

Now for my disclaimer: the official advice from the Grand Canyon National Park is not to attempt a trip to the river in one day. The warnings should be taken seriously. The Bright Angel trail is a 30 km round trip to the river, including 15 km of walking uphill, most with little or no shade. The people I know who have done the round trip in a day are experienced runners, bushwalkers or riders. If you are unsure, it is better to camp overnight at the river. This blog is a description of my experience, not a recommendation to attempt the trip.

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