There are three Hiker’s Express shuttles that go directly from the Backcountry Information Office to the South Kaibab Trail at 7:00am, 8:00am, and 9:00am. I figure I will shoot for the middle shuttle, and that will still allow me one other chance if I miss it. Halfway through my morning routine, I vacillate between slowing down for the 9am or speeding up for the 8am. I am having a tough time cramming all my belongings for a two night stay into little more than a day pack, so I think maybe delaying another hour later won’t hurt. But then I remember the magnitude of the hike and shortness of the daylight, and put it in high gear, flying out the door, my hiking boots still unlaced. I make it just as the 8:00am shuttle pulls in. The ride down the Desert View drive is beautiful with the morning sun glinting on the blanket of snow lining the roads. Sounds are muffled, both outside from the snow drifts, and inside from the dozen hikers bundled tightly in puffy jackets, hats, gloves, face warmers, neck gaiters, etc. It’s 20 degrees when we unload at the South Kaibab trailhead.
Hikers are hunched over their boots at the start of the trail, attaching their microspikes and crampons. I look around to survey the group, noticing that every single hiker is equipped. I reflect back while visiting Joel and Kathy in Lake Havasu, Joel and Jona make a run to Las Vegas to drop Jane at the airport. They plan to stop at REI on the way back. Joel asks, “Do you need me to pick anything up for you?” “Well, since you asked….yes! Please pick me up a pair of YakTraxs.” At the time, pushing 70 degrees in Lake Havasu, this seemed like a ridiculous request. But as I strap the wire-coiled mesh onto the bottom of my hiking boots, I am grateful for whatever inspired the notion. They literally saved my butt!
Most hikers choose to descend into the canyon via the South Kaibab Trail because at only 7.1 miles to Phantom Ranch, it’s a shorter route to the bottom. However, a drop of 4,860 ft in elevation also means a much steeper route than the longer Bright Angel Trail. It will be a steady day of switchbacks, stairs, and deep knee bends.
I’m on the trail by 8:20am, and already I can feel the sun warming my cheeks, the only exposed skin on my body. Vapor billows out with every exhale. There is no wind, and not a cloud in the sky. I barely feel the effects of the below-freezing temperature, and it’s not long before I shed my fleece headband and gloves.
For many, the downhill is the most difficult part of the hike, simply because of the pounding and jarring on the knees. But the opposite is true for me. I am good at downhill or long distance hiking. But once the trail starts to climb, my lungs just can’t keep up with my legs. With each downhill step I take, it’s tough not to feel concern about the adage, “Going down is optional….Coming back up is mandatory.” Before I started the decent, I made a vow that I would turn around if I thought I couldn’t make it back up. But it’s easy to see how hikers and climbers can blur those lines of ability once adrenalin takes over. Going down, I feel good and don’t ever want to stop.
Another bonus of the South Kaibab Trail is that it descends along a ridgeline as opposed to a side canyon, offering unobstructed views that unfold at each turn. According to the NPS brochure, it offers “panoramic views unparalleled on any other Grand Canyon trail.” It does feel like I am walking down nature’s grand staircase into the vast, bottomless abyss. Descending “The Stairway to…”
Landmarks along the way help me gauge my progress, the first being “Ooh Ahh Point,” the most dramatic panoramic view looking down into the canyon. Cedar Ridge is next at about 1.5 miles, a popular stop for the mule trains, and the last sign of any snow or ice along the trail. I stop here to remove my YakTraxs, already caked in mud. Skeleton Point marks the three mile point and the recommended maximum distance for the turn-around point as a day hike. From this point, the trail becomes a grueling set of steps down switchbacks that seemingly have no end, but eventually it levels out to the Tonto plateau, as indicated by the rest area, “Tip Off.”
I reach an unmarked bend in the trail that a fellow hiker tells me is “Panorama Point.” I finally get a glimpse of that green sliver of a river, the Colorado. For the first time, I feel like I am getting close. Though a later view reveals a thread-like structure across the river, which is the suspension bridge. I still have a looooong way to go.
Still, reaching the river…the bottom of the canyon, and raison d’être for this massive geological cathedral that surrounds me, is emotionally overwhelming. I can hear it as soon as I see it, dodging shallow rocks while swirling around deep eddies. Once I finally reach the “black bridge,” accessed by a tunnel blasted in the rock, I am verklempt. An informational sign at the base tells about the bridge, built in 1928 to replace a cable car with a one-mule cage. “Much of the work was accomplished at night under floodlights in attempt to escape the summer heat. The eight main cables, each 550 ft, could not be loaded on mules. They were carried down on the shoulders of men.”
Once I reach Bright Angel Campground beneath the golden Cottonwood trees, I know I’m almost there, but I still have a ways to go to reach Phantom Ranch. It’s now 3:20pm. The time estimates for the South Kaibab descent are “4 to 6 hours.” It has taken me seven. But I have stopped to chat with hikers, mule drivers, taken over 200 photos, eaten two meals, and just stood and basked in the magnificence that surrounds me. Why would anyone want to hurry through this hallowed canyon?
But! The Cantina closes at 4:00pm to prepare for dinner. I hasten along so as not to miss “last call” for Happy Hour…