This post is a bit of an epic, you may want to get a cup of tea and a biscuit if you’re planning on reading it to the end.
Only the brave, the fit and the stupid hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. In fact, in order to get to the start of the hike you need to pass numerous warnings not to hike into the Canyon and definitely not to try and make it to the river and back in a day. They supplement these warnings with as many references to death as possible, just to really freak you out. We rationalized that we weren’t trying to make it in a day, nor did we actually intend to make it as far as the river, and with some trepidation set off down the trail.
We hiked the Grandview trail, which leaves from the South rim of the Canyon. Situated about 12 miles along from the village it is a blissfully quiet trail. We set off at around 7 am with little idea what to expect. Having gone to see the sunset the night before this was not our first view of the canyon but it was wonderful to descend from the rim into the quiet, away from the hoards of people crowding at the top. Apparently only around 10% of visitors to the Canyon venture below the rim. This is such a shame for all those people who miss out on the peace and tranquility found below, but great for those who do as it remains a truly unspoiled wonderland.
The Grandview trail is steep, dropping 1200ft in the first three-quarters of a mile and boy did our legs know about it. You think the descent will be much easier than the climb back up but in fact the opposite was true. The speed with which you descend turns your legs to jelly as the steep path with frequent switch backs is very loose underfoot. It took us around 20 minutes to get into our stride, in which time we made little progress. However, gradually my legs started to feel more secure and my back and hips became used to the feel and the weight of my pack. It was at this point that we were able to begin to enjoy the view and take in the magnitude of our surroundings.
The Canyon itself is hard to describe – stretching 18 miles across and 277 from one end to another, even the name ‘grand’ hardly seems to do it justice. The Grandview trail with it’s frequent switchbacks and trail leading out to the Horseshoe Mesa provides the hiker with frequent extraordinary vistas as they descend the mile into the canyon’s base. From the view points, also useful for catching your breath and resting weary, shaking legs, the Canyon appears to stretch forever. Mile after mile of craggy peaks building up to meet the huge hazy southwestern sky.
The combination of the weight of my pack and the loose surface of the trail did ultimately do me a favour, although I’ll admit it certainly wasn’t immediately obvious. I spent huge swathes of the walk literally staring at my feet and the next couple of steps I was going to take.
Anyone who has ever seen a picture of the Canyon will note its stripy nature, pleasing and noticeable to the distant observer, you are even more aware of the differences as you step from one layer of history to another. The trail begins very rocky underfoot with a number of steps and footholds built into the path. As the trail begins to level out, becoming more of a steep sloping path the surface underfoot changes and the path becomes softer and yellow in colour. It was as we approached the Mesa though that the most dramatic change occurred as the ground levelled out into a deep rich orange colour synonymous with the Canyon. The ground here is speckled with rocks in every possible shade of red and orange and also turquoise, presumably a remnant of the copper mines that scattered this area of the Canyon around 100 years ago. The red earth also appeared to be the perfect growing area for cacti, and our Northern, northern hemisphere selves were very excited to see those dwelling in the wild, existing with around the same amount of care and attention as those currently residing in our apartment.
Around noon we reached Horseshoe Mesa. Standing at the foot of the Grandview Trail the Mesa is a common destination for both overnight and day hikers, it is possible to hike down to here and back again in a day, although I’m glad we didn’t. The Mesa is situated near last Chance Mine which was established in 1890 and consequently acted as a base for many of the miners who frequented the area while the mine was in use. Evidence of their habitation is still clearly visible, the remains of a number of crude buildings exist on the Mesa and rusting tin cans are still littering the area. Indeed in some places the large piles of historic tin remnants are difficult to miss. The Mesa juts out towards the middle of the Canyon and affords those who venture out onto it incredible views up and down the valley.
We had initially hoped to camp on the Mesa, however we hadn’t been quick enough off the mark with applying for our back country passes and so this was not to be. Backcountry passes for the canyon, especially for designated campsites, are like gold dust, and unless you get your application in exactly 4 months before you plan to visit you’re going to need to have a back up plan. Our backup was camping wild in Cottonwood Creek, situated at the foot of the Canyon, just a mile and a half down from the Mesa.
The final leg of our descent from Horseshoe Mesa to the creek was far steeper than we had expected from our cursory glance at our map at the Mesa, which was only really to check that the rumour of a spring was true. It was without question the hardest part of our hike. Mike had run out of water, a fact he wisely kept from me and the trail middle section was steep and rocky and involved some unexpected scrambling in places. To top it all off, the midday sun was now directly overhead. I have a theory that every trip has its high and its low point and this was definitely our low. Fortunately for the sake of Mike’s hydration, my legs and probably our relationship after one more hour of downhill we arrived at the foot of the valley where we due to camp for the night. We abandoned our bags and set off with a map and compass in hand to find the promised spring. We probably didn’t need the compass in the end as the row of trees displaying bright green leaves acted as a beacon, against the otherwise arid landscape littered only with the occasional tree and lots of cacti. The water was great, we were there early in the season, it was Good Friday in April, and I imagine had we been around 6 weeks later it may have dried up, but then and there it was the answer to our prayers.
We initially pitched our tent in the open of the valley attracted by the stunning view. However, we have a very light tent and almost immediately upon securing the last peg in to the very dry ground we were hit by a gust of wind and our tent disappeared off into the distance. Upon its retrieval we re-pitched it in the shelter of a nearby tree and weighed each peg down with a rock. Having hiked a long way, we weren’t keen on having to chase up the valley again in a hurry.
The rest of the afternoon was a joy, our early start was rewarded with several hours of lying alternately in the sun and the shade of a tree, reading, writing, napping and just marvelling at our surroundings. It is so rare for such urbanites as ourselves to so thoroughly escape reality to this extent. We saw only 3 more people that day and the only sound was the breeze making the door of our tent flap.
The following morning, we set off at 6, determined to get out of the Canyon before the midday heat took hold. I had initially been concerned that the hike out would be much tougher than the one in, but I was delighted to discover the opposite was in fact true. We made it out of the Canyon in just over 4 hours, considerably quicker than the 6 it had taken us to get down. The gummy worms probably had a lot to do with this though, and the less frequent picture stops. Emerging at the top, dusty and sunburnt we were again greeted by the hoards of tourists who had come to admire the vista. It was fun to chat with them and tell them of our night in the depths of the Canyon, although I felt a little sad for them that they wouldn’t get to experience the joy of the tranquility found in its depths. Selfishly though I was glad that we had been brave, fit and stupid enough to get this magical experience all to ourselves.