Hiking the canyon: A day without wings

For a change we got it right.

It wasn’t by any great stroke of planning genius, of course. It’s just that with our visas rapidly running out, our road trip through America’s southwest had to be finished by the middle of September. We ended up visiting around half a dozen US National Parks and Monuments… and had we left it another couple of weeks, they’d all have been closed.

Every single one of them would have had a barricade at the entrance and a line of disgruntled tourists stretching back almost to the people in DC that are responsible for the whole mess. Whatever the politics of the situation (and god knows I’m not opening that can of worms), the damage that’s being done to the US tourism economy at the moment is really quite remarkable.

Thankfully, however, we snuck in before the bickering politicians finally threw their toys out of the cot. Our first national park of the trip? None other than the Grand Canyon.

After the never-ending drive to and from Monument Valley the day before, the ninety minute trip on the back roads out of Flagstaff passed in a flash. After the inevitable queue to pay the entry fee, we swept through the Grand Canyon village (looking far fancier than when I last visited nearly ten years earlier) and into the carparks.

Hint: head straight for the last one to – briefly – avoid the worst of the crowds.

Grand Canyon Dave

There were approximately eleventymillion people at the Canyon last time I was there, and those numbers didn’t seem to have dropped in the interim. Based on the lines, I suspect many of them had actually been queuing for the toilets ever since. After a quick visit to the nearest viewing platform for an obligatory cheesy photo and game of Dodge The DSLR, we hightailed it for the shuttle bus to the South Kaibab trail.

Apparently anything that requires an effort discourages most of the park visitors, as the crowds disappeared before we even boarded the bus. Standing at the trailhead 15 minutes later, I couldn’t help but notice both the steepness of the track and the intensity of the sun. It was going to be a fun walk, that’s for sure.

Start of South Kaibab trail

It didn’t take long to see my first example of Grand Canyon wildlife, although sadly it was only a squirrel. I do get disproportionately excited by those little animals, mind you – we don’t have them in New Zealand. I don’t care if they carry plague and rabies and all kinds of other party tricks, I still like them. So, I present for your viewing pleasure, my new friend. I call him Mr Squirrelhead.

 

Shortly after The Squirrel Incident it was time for some more wildlife action – although to be fair, those mules were a lot less wild than even Mr Squirrelhead. If you’re organised, you can apparently book these guys about six decades in advance to carry you to and from the canyon floor. Obviously I’m the opposite of organised, so I just stood to the side of the track and watched them poop plod their way slowly past instead.

Mules on the South Kaibab trail

The trail wasn’t getting any less steep by this point, which was totally fine on the way down and promised to be less so on the way back up. The pained expressions and sweat-soaked shirts of those doing the return journey gave us something to look forward to, at least.

Walking down the South Kaibab trail

The first major stopping point of the South Kaibab trail is at “Ooh-Ahh Point”, apparently due to what comes out of the mouth of hikers as they round the corner. Based on my experience, however, I’d suggest a little renaming may be in order. I’d be gunning for “Desperately-Panting Point”, “Shouting-At-Your-Kids Point” or perhaps just “Standing-In-The-Middle-Of-The-Trail-And-Not-Letting-People-Pass Point”.

It was a great view, mind you, although for the record I didn’t say ooh. Or ahh.

View from Ooh-Ahh Point

If the first section was steep, the second part looked damn near vertical. The sensible member of the party decided she’d turn back at this point. Since I love sunburn and screaming calves so much, though, I chose to keep going. Because I’m smart like that.

Heading down to Cedar Ridge

September is still monsoon season in the canyon, and there’d obviously been a bit of rain around. The gouges cut out by mules in the middle of the path were still full of water, requiring either an awkward dance along the edges or stomping through the mud. I tried both approaches, and like any male, can highly recommend the one that covers you in the most dirt.

Muddy path down to Cedar Ridge

Despite the heat, mud and lack of shade, though, this was my favourite part of the walk. There was hardly anyone else around (I think they were all back at the viewpoint shouting at their kids) and it wasn’t unusual to go several minutes without seeing another person. In a setting like this, such solitude was an unexpected and precious thing.

Path down to Cedar Ridge

After the narrow path and towering ridgeline, it was somewhat of a surprise to emerge onto an open section of track and the flat expanse of Cedar Ridge. A few hikers sat in the shade of scrawny trees, recovering from the heat. One particularly energetic teenager jogged past, sweat pouring from his shirtless body. Condors circled overhead, gliding effortlessly in the updraft as I gazed jealously upwards. That would have been the perfect time to sprout a set of wings of my own.

 

Disappointingly though, try as I might, no feathers emerged from my arms as I wandered around contemplating the return trip. There was plenty more of the trail to go – I was only a mile and half into its seven mile distance – but in that heat, with the hard part yet to come, it was time to turn around.

Dead tree, Cedar Ridge

Finally I could put it off no longer. Stowing my camera and clasping my water bottle, I started the slow, hour-long trudge back up the canyon wall. I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t really all that much fun. Still, if the hike was easy then everyone would have been out there doing it, scaring off the wildlife (and probably me as well).

I emerged at the top of the trail looking like those I’d passed on the way down, red-faced and dripping. Another bunch of hikers had just started out, full of energy and almost bounding down the path.  One of them noticed my state and raised an eyebrow. “You look pretty tired,” he drawled. “Do you think we’ll be ok?”

“Of course you will,” I replied.

“Although to be honest, it’d be a lot easier if you had wings.”

6 Responses to “Hiking the canyon: A day without wings

  • great article! I only ever think of the Grand Canyon in terms of the viewing point or flying over it in a helicopter! I had no idea you could even track down it.

    • Yup, you definitely can – you can even go all the way to the bottom and camp overnight if you’re so inclined. 🙂

  • This looks like such a stunning place to hike. Trekking is never easy, but you feel such a great sense of achievement once you have managed to complete the trek. Love Mr Squirrelhead by the way! How could you not?

    • I tried to convince Mr Squirrelhead to come with me, but he wasn’t so keen. Disappointing…

  • I’m surprised you ever wanted to leave it. Stunning photos Dave

    • Thanks Maria! Next time I go there, I’d like to be more organised and do a trek to the bottom, stay the night and then slog my way back up. It’s just so stunning during the day, and imagine the sky would be amazing at night.

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