Kane of La Grange Park and Dr. Francis
"Rocky" Kane of Bettendorf, Iowa, make
their way up Bright Angel Trail.
6 million people visit Grand Canyon National Park in a
year, but fewer than 100,000 of them spend a night in the
wife and adventuring buddy of more than 30 years had never
seen the Grand Canyon, so we figured, why not really visit
the place. The only person willing or crazy enough to come
along on our wilderness jaunts is my wife’s brother, a
physician from Iowa. He joined us with his good humor and
roomy van that eased the marathon commute from the Chicago
suburbs to Arizona.
venture below the canyon’s rim, visitors must walk, raft
or ride a mule. We chose the first. Starting at the South
Kaibab Trailhead, a few miles east of the touristy Grand
Canyon Village via shuttle bus, the trail drops close to
5,000 feet during almost seven miles of descent into
panoramic vistas. The deeper you hike, the greater the
visual rewards. But even a casual walker can scamper down
just short of a mile to Ooh Aah Point for a stunning view.
the national park’s massive, silent beauty, humanity
seems insignificant compared with time and nature. On the
other hand, every step you take is a testament to human
drive, innovation and hard work. The trail was literally
cut into the cliffs nearly 100 years ago, largely with
manual tools. The heavy cables holding up bridges far
below were once carried down on the shoulders of Native
a spiritual place," said Bruce Rawlings, a veteran
Grand Canyon hiker from Calumet City. The adjunct finance
professor at Illinois Institute of Technology has been
coming here — often with rookie friends in tow — for
nearly two decades. We bumped into him while waiting for
the free Hiker’s Express shuttle bus to the trailhead.
the canyon’s visual and spiritual wonders, hikers will
find plenty of time to curse the trail, the sun, their
legs, feet, boots and the person who convinced them this
was a good idea.
and healthy backpackers with no fear of knee damage might
be able to crank down to the Colorado River in four to
five hours — faster yet if a mule carries their gear.
But even in late October, the trek to the bottom was hot
and dry, taking our party seven hours. When you finally
catch a glimpse of the river, it’s still many steps
the canyon floor, most first-time hikers’ goal is to get
to the confluence of the Colorado River and rumbling
Bright Angel Creek. There lies an oasis that includes the
bustling Bright Angel Campground and the
rustic-but-comfortable Phantom Ranch, with its small
cabins, communal bunkhouses and a common dining room. The
remote, natural setting turns this otherwise simple lodge
into an indulgent luxury. (Reservations are available via
an online lottery system up to 13 months in advance; get
details at www.grandcanyonlodges.com, or call
offers meals, prepaid, by reservation, but it’s also a
popular spot for people to drop by to buy lemonade, beer,
snacks and souvenirs. River rafters on weeks-long float
trips often stop at Boat Beach and hike the quarter mile
to the ranch for cold beer and mule-delivered mail before
tackling more rapids.
get a backcountry camping permit, apply through the park’s
backcountry office four months in advance. We snail-mailed
our fees ($82 for three people, three nights) and a few
preferred dates at the end of May for an October trip. We
received confirmation — for our third choice of dates
— in mid-June.
few essentials I’d recommend that backpackers bring with
them: freeze-dried food, bug spray, sleeping bag and pad,
flashlight and first-aid kit. In spring and fall, some
seasoned canyon hikers count on the temperate weather and
skip the tent. We weren’t that brave. The most vital
thing you’ll need to carry with you is water. On a hot
day, you might guzzle a gallon.
DOWN THE GRAND CANYON
the area is so scenic, it’s also in high demand.
Campsites are stacked like spawning salmon. Be prepared
for an experience more like car camping with chatty
predawn neighbors and plenty of light pollution from today’s
high-lumen headlamps. Despite such drawbacks, the
once-in-a-lifetime trip to the depths of the canyon is
well worth it. Eventually, though, you have to head back
chose the 9.5-mile Bright Angel Trail for our ascent. One
of the nation’s most heavily traveled backcountry
trails, it’s better maintained and generally gentler
than its neighboring South Kaibab Trail.
crossing the Silver Bridge over the Colorado, we followed
the river to Pipe Creek Beach before turning south (and
up) toward Indian Garden Campground, our home for the
night. Just as on the South Kaibab, the trail has
composting toilets along the way — an almost unheard of
hikers can climb back to the rim in one day, but bucolic
Indian Garden is a welcome way station and a bit less
hectic than the canyon bottom. It’s worth dropping by
the ranger station to enjoy the view from an easy chair on
the front porch. If you’re lucky, Ranger Betsy may have
some snacks or fresh fruit to share.
gradual ascent out of Indian Garden eased us into the next
day, but steep climbs loomed ahead on the way to the rim
3,040 feet above. By the time we reached Three-Mile
Resthouse, we’d started to share the trail with day
hikers who’d hit the trail early with lofty goals.
up, the trail got distinctly steeper. Even so, we started
to pass hordes of casual hikers in less-than-sensible
shoes carrying coffee cups and smelling of exotic soaps
and shampoos. We were a bit of an anomaly, attracting
wide-eyed questions about our hike, unsolicited
congratulations and even a sense of awe of the "you
must be crazy" variety.
the top, we were belched into the throng of everyday
visitors. We’d returned to the land of souvenir shops,
ice cream stands, traffic, tour buses and trains.
you’ve ever done true wilderness camping, you may miss
that solitude on a trip to the canyon. But you’ll have
seen one of the world’s most stunning natural features
— right down to its guts.
people come to conquer the canyon with rim-to-rim runs or
multiday backpacking challenges. But when we passed
Rawlings, the frequent canyon hiker, as he rested on a
rock along the trail, he summed up the key to a visit:
"I’m just taking in the view."