We haven’t even taken our first step or even left the parking lot at the trailhead of the South Kaibab Trail, the 7-mile hike that will take us one mile down to the very depths of the Grand Canyon, when our group of five hikers and two OARS adventure travel company guides are greeted by a sweeping, vivid rainbow. It begins on the South Rim and stretches to its curved end down at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, seemingly to the exact spot that is to be our destination. A pot of gold, of sorts for an experience of a lifetime.
It is an auspicious beginning to this hike that would bestow upon us membership in the “1% Club” – the one-percent of the 5 million visitors who come to the Grand Canyon each year who actually get to the bottom and have that extraordinary view looking up at the full scale, not to mention all the views on the way down that simply take your breath away at every turn.
Most people who come to Grand Canyon National Park– the 99% – see it from the South Rim. The view is profoundly spectacular, one that causes you to contemplate your place in the cosmos. But it is only when you hike it that you can truly appreciate the mind-boggling scale of this place, its uniqueness, the colors and textures of the towering rock faces and fallen boulders, the variety of the plants and their aromas enhanced after a rain. The sheer act of going step by step, one foot in front of the other, forges a sense of connection to the only place on the planet where you can see nearly two billion years of Earth’s geological history exposed before you in neat vertical layers like a timeline, and where you can see, through the different layers, striations, colors and rocks, the earth’s story of episodic eruptions and cataclysmic change.
Actually, the numbers who are able to make it down are limited – and not just physically and mentally but logistically. It is a rare hiker who can make it down and up in a single day, which necessitates over-nighting, and the only place to stay overnight at the bottom of the canyon is the century-old Phantom Ranch, where there are a limited number of bunkbeds in cabins, and only so many spots at the campgrounds at Phantom Ranch and at Indian Garden at the half-way mark on the Bright Angel Trail.
And most people who do hike down are forced to carry heavy packs, which adds to the challenge, putting the experience out of reach for many.
But a relatively new hiking program of OARS, an adventure travel company most famous for its epic rafting programs on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and on other major rivers in the West, puts this experience within grasp of many more of us. OARS (which stands for Outdoor Adventure River Specialists), introduced Grand Canyon Hiker – Rim to River adventure in 2014, offered a half-dozen dates in 2015, and is offering 22 dates for 2016 – an indication of just how popular and well crafted this program is.
I really can appreciate what a revolution this program is in terms of enabling so many more of us to have this extraordinary, life-enhancing experience – one that has the potential to be life-changing as well.
Very simply, we only have to carry with us what we need for the day’s hike – at least three bottles of water (there is no water available on the South Kaibab Trail), lunch, raingear, camera. Meanwhile, what we need for the overnight at the Phantom Ranch is taken down by mule (we are given duffels to pack what they say is 15 lbs worth). I can’t even imagine how hard the hike would be if I had to carry my camping gear as well. And being guided by people who really know the route, and are skilled in outdoors techniques, is another key advantage.
None of the five hikers on our trip are avid hikers, though we are active travelers. You didn’t need to be technical or particularly strong – there is no scrambling over boulders or leaping over crevasses (though we did have to skip across rocks to fjord a few streams on our way back up), or pulling yourself up or through things. The biggest surprise for me: that the trail is actually built, not just a narrow dirt path beaten down by decades of hikers, that it has stone underpinning, stone barricades so there isn’t a sheer drop-off, and there are logs that form steps (and steps and steps). The trails are mostly wide enough to accommodate two-people abreast, though you have to slide over when the mule train comes, or step aside to give right-of-way to the up-hill hikers.
What you do need is perseverance, mental discipline, preparation, a can-do attitude. And not having to haul heavy backpacks is probably the difference between being able to contemplate doing the hike, completing it without suffering miserably.
But OARS doesn’t pretend to suggest that hiking the Grand Canyon is for “anyone” even with the advantage of not having to carry heavy packs. The company makes it very clear that it is a strenuous hike: “Don’t underestimate the difficulty of hiking into and out of the Grand Canyon and please don’t overestimate your physical capabilities”. And their superb preparatory materials (including packing lists which you really need to follow to a “T”), include a training regimen. (I prepared for the hike by ending a daily jog with walking up and down a steep, though short, hill.)
The hike isn’t for prima-donnas. You slog along in mud and mule muck, are likely to have to plow on through rain or extreme heat (especially in July and August when the temperature can go above 100 degrees), and sleep in rustic conditions (though having a bed and a roof over your head, showers, and prepared dinner and breakfast at a table feels like luxury).
The hike is physically and mentally challenging but that makes accomplishing it all the more satisfying.
The experience gives you opportunity to broaden your own parameters – Paula, for example, started off fearful of heights and was anxious about the trail putting her too close to the edge but by the end, she was posing for photos with abandon; a couple of us could not imagine leaping over rocks to fjord a rushing stream, but we did it and now have the confidence to overcome such challenges in the future. Simply triumphing over this challenge – and in the process perhaps overcoming a fear or limitation (- changes you forever by infusing a new sense of self-confidence.
‘Rim to River’ Puts Canyon in Reach
OARS’ ‘Rim to River’ program is extremely well designed in order to make the experience accessible to more people.
Our trip begins the night before we set out from Flagstaff for the Grand Canyon, with an orientation meeting where we meet the others in our party and our guides.
We are a group of five hikers with two guides (OARS has one guide for every three guests, compared to the standard of one guide for seven guests). And what guides! Jonathan is also an EMT and during winter, a ski patroller at the Arizona Snow Bowl. Both he and Ryan are so knowledgeable in pointing out the geology, the particulars of the rocks and formations as well as the vegetation.
“We make the trip slightly longer to experience everything above and below, and so you wake up at the Rim,” Jason Dosch, who designed the Rim to River hike, tells me at the orientation meeting in Flagstaff the night before we set out. “The hike is as stress-free as possible. Luxury, cabin to cabin, small packs, well catered, good food, extremely experienced guides.”
He actually uses the term “luxury” which is something that is hard to imagine when you are slogging through mud and muck, but by the end of the trip, I appreciate what he means.
We set out the next morning at 8:30 am from the Doubletree Hotel in Flagstaff, about 79 miles from the Grand Canyon. But we do not go straight to the Grand Canyon. Our Grand Canyon hike starts with shorter hikes, visiting important national monuments that tell the story of the Native Americans who lived here – the fabulously dramatic cliff dwellings of Walnut Canyon, the Wupatki Pueblo and Sunset Crater Volcano which erupted 800 years ago, and the Citadel.
These visits not only help us physically acclimate to the altitude and warm up our hiking legs but also serve to orient us to the gloriously rich heritage of this dramatic landscape (we joke to ourselves that the guides are also assessing who to cull from the pack). We can better understand how people lived here and appreciate the man/nature interaction in its profound glory.
After spending much of the day exploring these fascinating sites (which I had never heard of before and wouldn’t have thought to visit), we drive on to the Grand Canyon.
After a brief stop off at the Cameron Trading Post, the original tourist mecca built by Ralph Cameron who laid claim to parts of the Grand Canyon (Jonathan calls it the “Walmart” of Indian crafts), we’re oohing and aahing as we drive up through the East entrance of the National Park and get fleeting glimpses of the Grand Canyon. “Just wait,” Kim, who has visited the Grand Canyon before, counsels me. “Just wait,” every time I whip around to shoot another photo out the window, itching to stop.
Jon finally pulls into Lipin Point, one of several overlooks, but the view he favors. That first sight of the spectacular scene that sprawls out in front is indescribable. It literally takes your breath away. – photos really can’t fully capture it.
We arrive at the village on the South Rim where there are a selection of accommodations (they book up a year in advance). We get our room keys at the Maswik Lodge, one of the lodges operated at the Grand Canyon by Xanterra, and Jon gives us a “duffel” to put in basically what we will need for the overnight at Phantom Ranch – no more than 15 lbs worth – which will be taken down by mule and be waiting for us when we arrive after hiking down. That frees up an enormous amount that we have to carry, making the hike that much easier.
It is late afternoon – the sun is dipping down and people gather all along the South Rim for the view.
We have the evening to ourselves – to explore the village (there is cafeteria style dining at Maswik Lodge and several restaurants in the village). A few of us by chance meet up and go over to the outdoor terrace at the historic El Tovar hotel. The stars pop out as the sky blackens – we can even make out the Milky Way and spot the International Space Station as it makes it slow sweep across the sky.
We get up at 5 am, have our luggage packed to lock into the trailer and go to breakfast at the lodge (one of the best omelets I’ve ever had), which opens that early to accommodate the hikers.
Sunrise is at 6:30 am – the light just come out after a bit of rain. On our way out of the village, we see “Elvis” the elk.
We’re on our way to the South Kaibab Trail. Not knowing what to expect, our adventure begins.
(Next: Hiking Down the South Kaibab Trail)
OARS’ 2016 departure dates and prices for the 4 Day Grand Canyon Rim to River Hiker: April 8, 18, 22, 28; May 5, 24; June 8, 13, 28; July 20, 27; August 4; September 2, 5, 7, 12, 15, 22; October 4, 10, 15, 29. The trip meets up and departs from the DoubleTree by Hilton, Flagstaff, Arizona. Prices range from $1499 to $1649, based on double occupancy, single supplement $200. See: www.oars.com/grandcanyon/hiking/grand-canyon-hiking.html
Contact OARS, Angels Camp, CA, 800-346-6277, 209-736-4677, oars.com, email@example.com.
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