HALF MOON BAY, Calif., November 7, 2011—The huge bull elk looked almost like a wooden statue from afar, but as I walked closer on my way to my last breakfast on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, I realized it was moving. People wandered about in the growing light, but nobody seemed concerned about the giant animal with sharp antlers. All eyes were on the canyon sunrise.
The Grand Canyon gets nearly 5 million visitors each year, most of which enjoy time peering over the south rim while they drive through the area, or stay briefly in the handful of hotels in Grand Canyon Village. Less than 1 percent of those visitors venture below the rim to see the details of the canyon more closely.
The first day, my group of seven hikers and one guide spent time around the edge, looking down at the thin line of the Bright Angel Trail. Its countless switchbacks curved through the red and white canyon walls as it descended toward Indian Garden, and then seemingly dropped off the edge of a rock platform into nothingness. That was the trail we were to take on our return trip. The South Kaibab Trail was our path to the bottom.
After an early morning breakfast near the grazing bull elk, we shouldered our daypacks and hit the trail. At 6.4 miles, the South Kaibab is the shortest trail to the Colorado River, and runs along cliff and ridgetop as it descends 4,740 feet. The expansive views from well-named spots, such as Ooh Aah Point, may tempt hikers to take their eyes off the trail ahead of them without stopping first. That’s where I made my mistake.
Shortly after leaving Cedar Ridge, I stepped down the trail with my eyes on the view. Before I knew it, I was in the middle of a slow-motion fall that resulted in a sprained ankle. It wasn’t so bad that I needed to turn around, so I continued with the group, limping along to the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch.
Many hikers who travel the same path only sleep one night at the bottom of the canyon before turning around and hiking back out. Our group spent two nights at Phantom Ranch, enjoying an extra day of walking along the river and hiking along Bright Angel Creek. The additional time may seem like a luxury, but how often do you get to sleep at the bottom of the Grand Canyon?
Regardless of how long you choose to stay, the early-morning start for the hike back out comes too soon. As we started along the Bright Angel Trail in the morning darkness, I could see the beginning of the sunrise on the highest parts of the canyon. Soon enough, I turned off my headlamp and the ancient rock layers lit up in a wash of pinks, reds, whites and greens.
From the river, we followed Pipe Creek and Garden Creek up to Indian Garden, where the trail led us to the upper Tonto Platform and the beginning of the switchbacks I’d viewed days earlier. As I limped along on my sprained ankle, I wished for the hot shower that awaited me at the El Tovar Hotel—but each step was a goodbye to the canyon that I’d only started to know over the few days I spent below the rim.
It’s a temptation to keep some places I visit a secret, so that when I return they’ll be as I left them. I can’t keep the Grand Canyon a secret, and as much as I enjoy an empty trail, I encourage anyone who can get below the rim to do so—on foot, on mule, or on a raft down the Colorado River. Sitting at the top and looking down is breathtaking, but it’s only the beginning.
REI Adventures offers two options for Grand Canyon Phantom Ranch Hiking: the South Rim Loop (like my trip) and the Rim-to-Rim trek. There are also more Grand Canyon adventures offered—from backpacking to Havasu Falls hiking.
Jill K. Robinson is an award-winning journalist and adventure seeker. Follow her adventures on dangerjillrobinson.com and Twitter @dangerjr. Jill and her husband are avid kayakers and own Half Moon Bay Kayak Company.
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