Just Did Exactly What The Rangers At The Grand Canyon Tell You Not To Do
On my recent trip to the Grand Canyon, one of the things I had planned on doing was an overnight hike down to the bottom of the canyon to the banks of the mighty Colorado River. However, when I went to the office to get a permit to do the hike and camp in the camp site, I was told that all the permits had been given out already for the duration of my stay. I hadn’t realized only a couple people were permitted to go each day. Talk about a bummer!
There were signs all over the Grand Canyon visitor areas warning not to hike down to the river and back in one day, warning that people had to be rescued every year by the park rangers for attempting this feat. Hence the need for a permit to camp there overnight. Disappointed, I resolved to just hike down to the farthest point permitted for day hikers, a plateau overlooking the Colorado River.
That next morning I awoke to discover it was still pitch black out and was just 4am. Naturally I couldn’t fall back asleep. As I tossed and turned trying to find that elusive trickster known as sleep a mischievous thought drifted in through the flap of my tent and into my mind. What if I just got up and started my hike now? I bet I could make it to the bottom and back in a day easily starting at this hour. But it’s not the time constraint that causes people to need rescue I knew. It’s the exhaustion, and running out of either food or water. I had checked yesterday, and knew that there was a working spring for fresh water at every way point, each a couple miles apart along the trail. So all I really would need to worry about was food. Resolving to hike down to the final Plateau point, and assess from there if I thought I could make it, I stuffed an excessive amount of food into my pack along with my various water bottles and set off with my flashlight.
Hiking down the cliffs of the Grand Canyon with only my flash light and the stars above was an eerie experience. The trail was devoid of others at this hour, and I couldn’t help but wonder what it must look like, looking up at the cliff from below with this one point of light bobbing down the trail. As the sun began to rise in the distance and the first rays of dawn lit the sky I remarked on the beautiful shade of purple the cliffs gave off in the pre-dawn light. A sight I’m sure few people have beheld. Unfortunately, by this point in my stay I had burned through two camera batteries and my phone battery, so I don’t have pictures of this hike to share with you.
Around 8am I reached the largest of the way points I had encountered and an amazing change in scenery. I was at the “Indian Garden”. Here, I also met my first fellow hikers. Only, they were headed up while I was headed down. They were definitely surprised to see someone so far along the trail at that hour. The change in scenery was unbelievable. While everything had been a dry desert hike up until this point, here there were bright vibrant green plants, birds chirping in the distance and towering trees above you with a babbling brook and underground springs feeding all the green wildlife.
Continuing on my way, I headed off in the direction of the Plateau Point where I would rest and decide if I would continue or turn and head back up the trail. Walking along the trail to Plateau Point was another unique experience as there is no shade in this section of the trail. You are completely out in the open in the middle of the canyon. I can only imagine how hot it would become in the peak of summer here. I arrived at the Plateau point to find a beautiful view looking down farther into the canyon overlooking the rapids of the Colorado River.
Popping a squat on one of the rock ledges along the edge of cliff where I could lean back against the rock behind me and look out over the trail and the river below I settled in for a lunch of jerky, cheese, cliff bars and to go packets of Jason’s almond butter. Then taking out my journal and pen it was time for some writing and reflection.
As a couple other early risers trickled in to my spot I decided it was time to push on. Peering into my pack I made sure I still had plenty of food left for the trek. Yup, more than enough left! I back tracked to the Indian Garden point and then off I went towards the river and the Bright Angel camp site. It was remarkable walking along the now lush green trail with trees overhead and the brook gurgling past as I continued on. After about an hour walking along this trail, I encountered my first Park Ranger walking the opposite direction. “Well, there goes that plan” I thought, sure that they would ask to see my permit (which I didn’t have) allowing me to continue in my chosen direction. But after exchanging hello’s they continued on their way. “Phew!” I thought, guess the massive pack on my back was enough to assure them that I knew what I was doing.
A couple hours later and I was at the edge of the great Colorado River! And its cool waters tempted me to brave the rapids just to cool off. But here, I smartly aired on the side of caution and did not go for a potentially dangerous dip. Having achieved what I wanted to, I saw no reason to push on the extra mile to the camp site across the river so after another food and water break at the edge of the river I headed back .
The view of the towering red cliffs looming above, which had been shrouded in darkness as I hiked down was a great motivator as I hiked back up the canyon. The trip up was significantly more stressful and taxing than the hike down. Sweating buckets I made sure to take frequent breaks to refuel and chat with the other hikers along the trail. There was a great sense of comradery among the hikers, commenting on this view or that view and often sharing snacks.
Thoroughly exhausted, I finally made it back to the top of the Bright Angel trail to see the sunset at 7pm. 14 miles and 15 hours later. I treated myself to my first real meal in days, a succulent steak dinner at the Bright Angel Lodge. It was a fantastic hike and experience, but one I would not recommend to anyone who is not an experienced hiker and in great shape. Hiking up from even one of the first waypoints can be fairly strenuous, never mind making the full hike down and back. As always, be sure to bring plenty of food and water on any hike. Better to air on the side of caution and be prepared for the worst than to end up in trouble.