Hiking the Grand Canyon – A Humbling Experience

I had been to the Grand Canyon before. It was a family vacation and that meant little time exploring this vast crevice. As my wife and our kids looked across the reds, yellows, tans, and browns of the Grand Canyon, I told myself I wanted to come back and do more than look. I wanted to hike.

Ten years later, that chance came when I connected with a high school friend named Cathy. She is a special person with a quiet personality and a love for the canyon like none other. Those who know her recognize her not only as a school teacher but also as a canyon teacher. Friends blurt out questions about the canyon – how deep is it, how far across is it, how much food do I need for a particular hike, and she always answers with a smile, sometimes answering the same question for the second or third time to the same person. She became my “go to” person. Could I make it? Was it realistic? Would you take me along on your next hike? She was always positive and upbeat and after nine months of planning, my dream on the rim ten years before was no longer a dream.

After politely being turned down by my wife, the hike was offered to our daughter Cherry, and she offered it to her friend Katie. Both are marathoners and have spent countless hours running and staying in shape. Cathy also put out the call to any possible hikers to which four accepted. One was Danny, now 74, who knows the Grand Canyon like most know their backyard. Kathy, in her 50’s, who is a close friend to Cathy, also walks a lot and had been on hikes before. Then there was the married couple, Jim and Cindy, both in their mid fifties, who also had gone on previous hikes with Cathy. Cathy said Cindy had muscular degeneration which had caused her eyesight to deteriorate but not enough to make hiking impossible.

I had all the information I needed to give me confidence that I not only could keep up with this crew, but I may also avoid dragging along last. I found no time for training due to farm work, and as the final day for the hike arrived, while I did break in my hiking shoes around the farm, I had not even put on the backpack other than on the day I bought it.

During the ride to the rim on the shuttle bus, the backpack distracted me. It was bungle some. It was awkward. It was heavy. What could I have left home that would have made it lighter? What about less food, water, the tent, T-shirts? My answer was no to all of them and I would simply have to brace myself for it and do my best to keep up with my hike mates for the next four days.

After the traditional picture, we started down the trail into the Canyon. The weight of the pack seemed to disappear, overcome by the absolute breathtaking cliffs and valleys we witnessed. The views seemed to pull on my eyes making me wonder if it was all real. Perspective and distance were a challenge as one could now see depths of thousands of feet when a normal cliff may only be fifty or one hundred back home. Our trail loomed out in the distance, zigzagging back and forth across the canyon wall until it would meander out of sight.

The further we descended from the rim, the quieter it became, and the reality sank in that we were some of the select few descending into the Canyon compared to the thousands and thousands who look across it from behind the safety of a railing on a paved trail on the rim. Their photos of it are all basically the same, changed only by the faces in the foreground or the angle of the sun. On the contrary, each step down gave us a new view and a new angle where one could take a new picture that would leave the viewer in awe.

As each descending hour went by, we saw the pack mules climbing dutifully toward us. One group of mules with their packs carried trash from Phantom Ranch and mail postmarked from the same. The other string of mules carried tourists who had paid a hefty sum to ride to the bottom of the Canyon and out again. We stepped to the side of the trail and waited for them to pass and I felt a strange sympathy for the people. Sure, they didn’t feel the weight of the backpack as we did on our shoulders or the sweat now dampening our shirts, but they were missing out on every step and sight and the quiet that we were taking in.

It took several hours of descending before I became aware of the intermittent yet constant low voice of Jim. “Cactus on the left, large step down, stay close to the wall on your right,” – all subtle directions to his wife Cindy following closely behind him. As she watched his steps with what vision that she had, she put it together with the verbal guidance. Using her hiking sticks as a spider would use his antennae, she was hiking. The more I took notice of this, the more I marveled. I had been so focused on my own unpreparedness, I had not been aware of this little team within a team making their way on a forty mile hike.

Later I would learn she had been legally blind since her twenties. She had only peripheral vision. When I asked her what she could see when she looked at me, she said that I didn’t have a head and that she would not know me if she saw me on the street but would recognize my voice or silhouette. She had become involved in hiking after she had climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with a group of other hikers who had lost their eyesight. I knew Kilimanjaro was a mountain, somewhere, and once again I was amazed. I was amazed not only with her but also with Jim. He knew exactly how much to help her without smothering her with instruction.

By the afternoon of the first day, the Canyon seemed to slowly swallow us. The walls that we had begun the day looking into, now looked like giant skyscrapers around us. But we were far from the bottom. We would not see the river that day, and as the sun set, we slowly arrived at the first campsite.

We could all feel the effects of the first day of the hike, including the veteran, Danny. This was nothing new for Danny who had done his first hike when he was 48. Now retired from an engineering career, he was nearing 2,000 miles hiking in the Grand Canyon. He had hiked nearly every trail and many of them several times. His stories and experience were valuable for us, and I needed every suggestion he gave. He had planned every meal for himself every day and carried only enough water to match the distance of that day’s hike. While the rest of us brought along water purification of some sort, Danny would drink directly from the creeks and streams available. He decided to forgo a tent on this hike and slept under the stars. Danny was indeed a team player and was always concerned for the welfare and needs of others.

When the first hints of daylight started to silhouette the canyon walls around us, we were nearly ready to leave. This would be a huge day of hiking and we needed to take advantage of every minute of the short October days. The trail was once again hilly with views of the canyon walls and once in awhile we got a glimpse of the Colorado River, still a 1,000 feet or more deeper than the trail. It looked like a small creek but we knew that was only because of our distance from it.

The morning before we were all fresh and clean, but today was different. We could all physically feel the effects of the first day. There were no showers, but no one complained. The mood was positive and anxious.

I avoided taking the lead simply because I was often stopping to absorb everything and also because I didn’t know the trail. Sometimes after taking a break we would switch leaders. When the other Kathy led, she was unstoppable and persistent. She was a hiking machine. She carried a front pouch with two water bottles at her reach. She disliked the walking sticks and seemed perfectly balanced with the pack on her back. She would hold onto her shoulder straps to keep her hands from swelling at her sides. When we took a break, I asked her if she walked at home. Of course she did – eighteen miles a week. She had wanted to go on Cathy’s last hike but couldn’t because she had donated a kidney to her stepdaughter. She nonchalantly told her story of the process and that she didn’t need two of them anyway. She was a ball of fire, and I could tell she would do anything for anyone in need.

By late afternoon we had reached our second camp and we knew we were more secluded. We had seen only a handful of other hikers all day, and the trail was much smaller with no mules. The path into the campsite was nearly vertical, and I could picture myself somersaulting into it. It was a canyon within the Canyon with a running stream that led to the river. We dropped our packs and picked our spots for our tents. After fumbling through my first night camping, I was catching on. I was able to put the tent up, purify water, and become somewhat organized for the next day. We all emptied our packs and stored our food in separate “varmint proof” bags. This all had to be hung from the small trees in the camp. It wasn’t long though, and the tree climbing mice were checking out Cherry and Katie’s packs. The mice were no match for the two girls and after moving their packs by flashlight to new trees, they managed to fool the mice for the night.

We were all stirring before sunrise and after a quick cup of coffee and a bite to eat, we grabbed a water bottle, and set out down the stream to see the Colorado River. It was as if we were in a movie set with high walls on either side as we continued our way down the channel. There was no trail, only the vertical rock on each side to direct us to the river. While we climbed over rocks and zigzagged back and forth across the little stream, we could hear the roar become stronger, and when the walls around us fell away to the high granite walls above the Colorado, the air became cooler. What looked from above to be a small, lazy river was a cold and mighty powerful force racing by us. Though we couldn’t hear each other, we all had smiles as we shared the atmosphere. What a great feeling it was with no packs as we sat on rocks and took it all in. We had reached the bottom.

Our visit to the river was brief since we had another sizable day of hiking to get to our next camp. Cathy had promised that I would love that day’s hike. She did not disappoint. Climbing the rocky slope out of the other side of our camp, the views backward became more spectacular. The trail was tough at first and then flattened out and became easier. Mile after mile went by until we spotted our next campsite – a mere slit in the valley still miles away. As we approached it, the slit became wider until walking up on it, it became another canyon in the Canyon much like the one the night before. Once again we had clear creek water running next to our camp and we couldn’t resist the chance to at least cool our feet.

We knew this break was short and we were off once again without our packs to explore this creek down to where it entered the Colorado. As we started down the mile and a half trek, we witnessed the unbelievable power of water. The walls towered hundreds of feet above us and at the base were polished by the force of water rushing past. Massive rocks the size of a house lie in the middle of the channel after falling from the sheer cliff above forcing the small creek to go around. Some places a huge boulder might lie in the creek channel damming up smaller rocks and stones. This in turn would create a waterfall adding to the drama. We made our way towards the river crossing the little creek time after time trying to pick the easiest route.

As we neared the Colorado, once again we heard the roar. This time it was louder. The closer we came up to it, we could see why. The rapids were more violent and the boulders bigger. Some were as large as Volkswagens brought down the small creek by spring floods or rains. From above, the banks of the Colorado looked like soft dirt piled up on each side, but from our close vantage point it was plain to see they were granite. They were not smooth polished granite but jagged black and green granite which matched the strength and power of the river below it. I took it all in knowing I might never be back again.

When we returned to our camp I couldn’t help but notice how Cherry and Katie had adjusted. Sure they were the youngest and not known to be the complaining type, but weren’t they supposed to be dissatisfied with something? How about no phone service or no set meal times or the fact that we were now going on the fourth day with no showers? Isn’t that what young people normally do? Maybe it was the “grand” surroundings that were with us twenty-four hours a day or maybe it was just the fact that the others were always positive and always encouraging. At times you could hear the two of them laughing as if they were enjoying their best times ever. As a dad there are always the “someday I would like to” moments with their kids. I realized I was living a “someday I would like to” dream with a daughter.

When we crawled out of our sleeping bags the next morning, we were all used to our routine. Boil water for coffee, pull on your same dirty pants, start stuffing the sleeping bag, tent, pad, food, clothes and water back into the backpack. It wasn’t long before we were packed up and back on the trail. Today would be different as nearly every step would be an incline. Looking to the southeast I could see our goal nearly a mile vertical. It would be at least an eight mile hike by the time we reached the top.

The trail at first was a slow incline but it eventually became steeper and harder. At times small rock slides had completely covered it, and we climbed over them picking up the path on the other side. Some areas had switchbacks and some parts of the trail just forced you to stop and stare at the steep walls of the canyon and at the sheer beauty we were leaving behind. When we reached the last three miles, the trail widened and with each step I knew the hike would soon be over. After a few more switchbacks and a slow incline, it was. The trail meandered through the pines onto a gravel parking lot and we were back. We were tired, hot and in need of showers, but there were smiles all the way around.

As the sun was setting and the rest of the hikers enjoyed their traditional “after the hike” beer, I walked back over to the rim of this giant canyon for one more look. I realized I had witnessed something very special, and the Grand Canyon was only a part of it.


Hiking the Grand Canyon

Authors Bio:

Brian Kolb

I was born and raised on a farm/ranch in Western South Dakota. I currently farm and ranch with my wife. We have 3 grown daughters and 6 grandchildren. Cherry, who joined me on the hike, is an attorney. I enjoy any outdoor activities but feel that anytime you have a backpack on and the quiet is deafening, it is a special time.