April 13 – 16, 2021
The Grand Canyon has history of exploration and profit seeking, from hotels along the rim that no longer exist, to tolls charged for using trails, and camps constructed for tourists along the Colorado River. Early explorers such as García López de Cárdenas of Spain never got to the river as the local Hopi tribe fooled them into thinking the river was not accessible. Joseph Christmas Ives was the first US representative who unsuccessfully tried floating a steam vessel up river into what was then called the “Great Unknown” not making it very far. The following quote from his report gives some insight into what he thought of the place.
“The region is, of course, altogether valueless. It can be approached only from the south, and after entering it there is nothing to do but leave. Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality. It seems intended by nature that the Colorado river, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed.”Joseph Christmas Ives
Then along came the one armed wonder and all around adventure stud, Joseph Wesley Powell, who began his mission in 1869 to explore and map the canyon, or, as he referred to it, “our granite prison”. He would be the most famous explorer, actually succeeding to make it through twice. It is hard to imagine his efforts back when things like ice to keep food fresh and the advancement of technology in adventure gear just wasn’t there. And did I mention, he did all this with one arm?
Since then, profiteers in the name of mining quickly gave way to tourism. The introduction of a railroad to the rim quickly followed once rail lines reached Flagstaff. Soon after the railroad came the automobile and as of now, it is a full blown, bonafide tourist attraction, and one worth seeing.
Our visit wasn’t an act of survival as was Powell’s, it lasted a bit longer than the above 12-second clip from National Lampoon’s Vacation, and if you know the movie, we certainly enjoyed our time at the Grand Canyon way more than Aunt Edna. In fact, we were tourists and can attest that the canyon is grand, massively deep, vast, and yes, colorful. It is a spectacular visual feast and something everyone should put on their bucket list. There are many ways for people to enjoy the Grand Canyon from hiking or biking the flat rim trail on the top to mule rides, hiking, overnight backpacking, and rafting trips into the canyon. And of course with a park this famous, hotels are an option and it’s an easy drive from Flagstaff.
My Grand Canyon dream from the time I started trail running was to run it. I learned from friends that there was a thing called the Rim2Rim2Rim which is a one day, 47 mile adventure from the south rim to the north rim and back to the south rim. I regret not attempting this when I was conditioned to do it but that is life. Lysette’s only visit to the Grand Canyon was a drive-by returning from a spring break trip with friends in Phoenix, but when they got here, the canyon was filled with clouds. Toohey had never heard of it and since dogs don’t have the part of their brains to understand language, really only wanted a place to eat, sleep, and poop. The TWT team experience was, contrary to regrets, cloud cover, and lack of knowledge, a good one, with lighter than expected crowds, great weather despite a some wind, and the opportunity to run down part way into the canyon and back, bike along the rim road out to Hermit’s Rest, and watch an amazing sunset over the canyon from the rim. We greatly enjoyed our two days there and hope you enjoy the rest of this travel journal.
Our drive out of Flagstaff was along highway 180, the same road we ventured down the previous day for the FR 420 ride. We rolled along and up, climbing to over 8000 feet to a plateau of sorts. The highway then descended on the other side into a more desert topography. We hucked a right onto Highway 64 at the town of Valle which leads to the park entrance. Folks had told us of hour long delays at the entrance but we rolled right up, flashed our annual pass, and were inside in under a minute. We made our way to Mather Campground, the Oak Loop, and campsite 214.
There are two campgrounds in the park, Mather, where we slept, and Trailer Village located next door, with full hook ups. Our site came equipped with a picnic table, fire ring, and with access to community toilets plumbed with running water. In different years they have showers but apparently these were closed during our visit. The sign at the entrance showed “Campground Full” during our stay but there were always a few unoccupied sites which is shameful as they are booked and not canceled. Our site was a drive-through site on the right side of the road which would put our front door on the road side versus the camp side, not ideal for us. But after realizing our neighbors, who were traveling in a small Scamp, adjusted to this less than ideal situation by pulling in the other direction, so we decided to do the same. The big issue of doing this was driving out while facing the wrong direction on a one way narrow drive. This will require confidence that no traffic is coming when we leave or things could get uncomfortable.
The team ate a small snack lunch after a relatively quick set up then set off to parking lot C to walk the Rim Trail. The Rim Trail is dog friendly so Toohey got to come along leaving our assets exposed but locked, and best, him happy to sniff and mark this trail. The trail from parking lot C went along a half mile asphalt connector trail through a heavily wooded area before intersecting with the Rim Trail and our first breathtaking views of the Grand Canyon.
We walked the Rim Trail to the east about 3/4 of a mile to the next parking lot. We took our time enjoying all the scenery along the way. Once we turned back and returned to the connector trail, Lysette continued west along the rim while Toohey and I headed back to the truck with a plan to muster the team at a parking lot farther west along the rim. We rallied up at the VanderKamp parking lot then went to find the Bright Angel Trailhead. This is one of the two popular trails that lead to the canyon floor and the Colorado River with South Kaibab being the other. South Kaibab is also part of the Arizona Trail as it drops into the canyon heading north.
Our plan for Day 1 was to wake up before dawn to get an early start on our descent into the canyon. After accomplishing a few priority pre-run prep items, we loaded the truck and headed for the parking lot and trailhead. We walked Toohey to get him ready for his job, allowing him to create a security boundary around the assets, and then with him comfortably in the truck charged with security, we took off down the Bright Angel Trail. Our goal was an hour out and two hours back. This design was based on the experts telling us to double your down time for the exit.
The wind was blowing and temperatures cool, lower 40’s, as we dropped in. The strong winds ceased after a few descending turns into the trail and the temperatures started to rise. We passed a few hikers heading in but mostly the trail was ours. The sunrise looking out and down the canyon on our descent was spectacular, providing ever changing colors against the dramatic landscape, towering canyon walls and deep green foliage against the red and brown rock and dirt. The trail was packed dirt with stones providing edges to the trail, and indigenous wood and stone water bars forming steps preventing ability to get a rhythm to my pace. There were a few edgy drop offs in spots but the trail was wide enough to make it not much of a safety issue despite my fear of falling. Honestly, mostly what I thought of beyond the sheer beauty of the trail was the character Alice during the Brady Bunch episode where the family took the mule ride down into the canyon.
We continued down passing the 1.5 mile resthouse, then the 3 mile resthouse. The final push to our turnaround point flattened out just a bit to where running felt good again. About this point, we made the lush canyon area called Indian Gardens at just over an hour. We went a bit farther to the 5 mile mark then turned around, took a minute to use the pit toilets, grab some water, and headed back up. This part of the canyon was full of greenery, flowering purple trees, and folks camping. Not the typical arid desert that you’d expect here but quite lush and colorful.
It was another 5 miles to the Colorado River from where we turned back which wasn’t in the training plan nor would the dog be able to sustain his focus on security for that long. Our return trip up and out of the canyon came with illusions of running. Those illusions quickly turned into the reality of a tough power hike up based on the grade and frequent step ups. There were more people coming down the trail as we ascended. We even passed a few mule trains headed into the canyon which again had me thinking of the Brady Bunch episode to the point where I asked one group if they were sharing this thought with me which got a chuckle. The sun was intense even though temperatures weren’t hot. The climb out was tough and became an all out grind, paying respect to all those we passed who were hiking with large heavy back packs and the runners we know who have run the entire 47 mile trek in a day.
There was a sweet smell in the air and the constant buzz of hummingbirds flying around but we never saw them. There were a few healthy squirrels and likely the tamest deer ever, living along this trail with zero threat from the humans with whom it was sharing space. In fact, at one point early on our uphill when I was actually running with my concentration on the trail, I glanced to my right and not 3 feet away was a mule deer just standing there looking at me. I was likely more startled than it was. I stopped and watched as Lysette passed by, neither giving the other much attention.
History will show that the TWT survived the 10 mile day. The few days that followed showed we did no more than we should have based on the sore muscles. Toohey certainly appreciated the 3-hour time limit and to give credit to the experts who said to double your descent time to get out, our descent was one hour and 15 minutes to include bathroom breaks at the bottom and total time on the trail was 3 hours and one minute, beating the normal, but still respecting their advice.
We got back to camp, cleaned all the dirt and sweat off our bodies, then ate a huge breakfast for it was only mid morning. We relaxed around camp for a few hours with the winds having really kicked up, rocking the trailer with each gust. Finally, we decided to drive over and check out the eastern side of the park, walk Toohey along the Rim Trail as it flowed to the South Kaibab Trailhead. This short hike added a few miles to our day on tired legs. Afterwards we made the short drive to the Duck on a Rock view point. We made it back to camp for Toohey’s num-nums, dinner, and nice night sleep.
Day 2 activity was a bike ride, a great way to loosen up the legs after the previous days ruke (run/hike). The day was sunny and the winds had died down a bit. We woke to morning temperature hovering around freezing so we gave the sun some time to warm the air before setting off. We used some of this time to talk with neighbors who were from Alaska. The conversation starter was, of course, that they couldn’t resist saying hello to Toohey. Our neighbors included mom, dad and two teenage children traveling in a Scamp trailer which they keep at their parent’s house in Arizona to use when they come to the lower 48 to vacation in the winter, which seems ideal.
Once the temperatures warmed, we dressed in cycling garb, unloaded the bikes, dusted off some of the red dirt, and headed out while Toohey remained behind to protect the assets. The route was out the rim road, west to Hermit’s Rest, an old stone structure at the end of the road used as a vacation spot for early 20th century travelers in the area. Past the old lodge and down a gravel road is a trailhead not on any park map. This trail is unimproved but takes you into the canyon. There were cars parked here and since the road is only used for shuttle buses, it is assumed these folks have permits. Anyway, since we can barely walk from our run yesterday with the act of stepping down being the most painful, we opted to remount our bikes and head back.
All along this road are pull outs with all sorts of views well worth the trip. Many others hiked it, some used the shuttle buses from stop to stop, while others like us, biked the 9 miles out. By the time we got to Hermit’s Rest we had stopped at all view points and with time ticking away, we decided to push it straight back to the pooch protecting the assets. On the inbound ride, we were only passed by one bus which was interesting as there were many still moving folks around the various stops. And when we talk about folks here, the crowds were extremely light as compared to say, Glacier, or what we expected at a major national park. It was actually pleasant as has been our entire visit to the Grand Canyon.
We spent the afternoon hanging with Toohey who mostly wanted to lie in the sun. New campers started pulling in which is always entertaining, sizing them up, checking out their rigs, and creating a storyline for them whether it was real or not, mostly unconfirmed by any facts. We had an early dinner then decided to drive over to the rim and park at the Geology Museum to see the sunset. Somehow the news of us doing this spread as there were many others there. The winds kicked up as we approached the rim and remained as we stood in anticipation. People were all sitting along the rim covered in coats, some with snacks and drinks, prepared for the event. All were facing the ridge across the way where the sun slowly lowered and eventually left for the day. As did the crowds, most shivering.
Our short visit to the Grand Canyon was actually just enough. We left many trails unexplored but based on time, the fatigue in our legs from our one jaunt down Bright Angel, it would take a few more recovery days to make any other trails a pleasant experience. The Grand Canyon was definitely worth seeing and begs for a return trip.
Update: Lysette and I received our second COVID vaccine “arm punches” while in Fruita this week. We had the common side effect of a day of low grade fever, light headaches, and lethargy. We did enjoy a few runs and a bike ride on either side of the 12 hours of ickiness. But mostly our shoulders where the shot occurred just hurt. We leave Fruita tomorrow with plans to head back down the center of south Utah through Bryce National Park as we just didn’t get enough of this area on our way here. Likely a continued move west from there through Utah and into Nevada and California. But no promises. Until then…