Pt. 3 - Glidin' into the Grand Canyon
"Dance beneath the stars as you drink in the night. Let the thunder overtake you as lightening fills the sky. Feel the force of nature penetrate your skin, spin with the world as the magic sinks in." - Christy Ann Martine
As I'm writing the last piece of the blog, and we're closing down on the remnants of the journey, I can't help but be amazed at how much we got done (and saw!) in such a short amount of time. Whenever you're planning a vacation, it's very easy to say, "3 days is enough" or "I don't think we'll have enough time to see everything." A lot of times, I think that that holds true, but having spent so much time adventuring this past week, I can honestly say that you can make the time for the things that you want to do. If you want to get in an extra hike, wake up a little earlier. Want to see a place you've never been? Make a plan and go! It's all so completely and utterly doable, but sometimes it just gets passed by the wayside. There's so much to do in life and not enough time to do it. Live the adventures, people! Don't sit back and let it pass!
Okay - enough with that. Let's get on with the story!
After a day of relative warm in Sedona, it was amazing to come into the Grand Canyon and immediately be blasted by the coolest weather that we had had on the trip. I had packed a ton of layers for all occasions - the Patagonia puffy jacket for the cold, the fleece for the mid day, and my favorite Oiselle shorts for the hikes. I was surprised that most of the heaviest stuff had been left unused in the bag, but it was immediately put to use in the Grand Canyon.
Even though we had risen in altitude as we had come across Arizona, I didn't realize how high we were until we were standing on the edge of the Canyon, with the cool breeze blowing across our face. It had gotten cold!
The first night (and subsequently, only night) that we camped we stayed in Mather Campground on the South Rim (the North Rim had not opened yet). Another thing that I had failed to think about in the planning of this trip was that Arizona is FILLED with pine trees. If you asked me to describe what I had thought Arizona was, in one word, before this trip, I would not have chosen pine trees. But, there they were! The campground was filled with them. Why is this relevant to the story you might ask? I am very much allergic to pine trees.
Yes, folks! That means no fresh Christmas trees for me! It also means that spending the night in the tent, on a bed of gravel and pine needles, led to one VERY teary-eyed, stuffy-nosed, red-faced Grand Canyon hiker! In fact, the first night was relatively unpleasant as well on my stomach, as the increase in altitude and change in temperature was getting to me.
I have to give credit where credit is due. Marmot makes an AMAZING sleeping bag. With my liner in my bag, I was so snug, even when the temperature dropped to below freezing. This was my first time ever experiencing something like this and I really was pretty terrified that I was going to be absolutely miserable the entire night.
After talking with the most amazing older man the night before on the Rim (he was there, and I quote, "to wear this old body out before he was done with it." Such an awesome perspective!), we had scratched our plan to go all the way down to the bottom of the Canyon to the Colorado River, and instead, cross over on the Tonto Trail. We also scratched our original plan of descending Bright Angel, and instead started from the South Kaibab Trail. For all those intending to hike down into the Canyon, I would definitely recommend this route.
South Kaibab offers some amazing views of the Canyon. I might be biased because my legs and eyes were still fresh at the beginning of the journey, but the sun seemed to hit from a better direction, the rock was a little softer, and it just seemed... prettier. The trail on the Kaibab, however, is much more difficult than coming back up Bright Angel.
The switchbacks are carved into the sides of the canyons, much like any descent, but this was the first time that I had encountered the big wooden logs that were used to slow the descent. As someone with tiny legs, this meant a bunch of small little steps before jumping down to the next ledge. I had worn my Garmin for the trip so that I could track our time and distance, and it's safe to say that I descended only slightly faster than the reverse coming up Bright Angel.
We found a Canyon guide on the way down who walked with us through the first lookout point, named :
I really found this hilarious. Did they create a suggestion sheet? Did they let people vote on names? How was this given a signpost when Boaty McBoatface was shot down! Inconceivable!
Apparently, a girl had fallen off this point, too, in recent history, so the guide was making sure that everyone was taking pictures from a safe distance. I was more than happy to stay back from the edge.
As we traversed down further into the canyon on our way to Tip Off, the Canyon kept getting hotter. I had been prepared for this with a variety of layers, but I was completely blown away by how different the temperature had become as we descended in altitude. Pretty soon, I was stripping down into my tank top. Upon our arrival at Tip Off, thermal pants were immediately shed (Oh man, good riddance!).
After a quick snack, we switched onto the Tonto Trail, a 4.5 mile winding single track dirt path that traversed the Tonto Plateau in the Canyon and afforded even more views. It was definitely one of the prettier sections of the trail and I was more than happy to leave the switchbacks and the log steps behind in search of something a little more scenic.
The end of the Tonto Trail brought us into Indian Gardens, the 4 mile way point from the top of the Canyon from Bright Angel Trail. It was such a weird experience to have been walking for 8+ miles in the desert canyon and suddenly walk into a lush green oasis. This was the perfect spot to stop for lunch underneath the shade of the trees. The thermometer that was attached to the tree nearby said it was 82 degrees. Ugh, felt like it.
There's something to be said for the Grand Canyon experience. After the trip, on the very last day, as we were walking the Las Vegas Strip, we saw numerous tour booths advertising the "Grand Canyon Experience." Let me tell you what it feels like.
First, I'm going to slip a little virtual reality module onto your head, because you really do need to experience these views at least once in your life. Then, I'm going to put you on a Stairmaster, turn on a fan, and beat your quads senseless with a baseball bat. Then, I'll let you get off and have some ice cream and beer. Now, that will be $50, please. Large bills are ok.
The Bright Angel Trail really is the only way to go back up (assuming you're staying on the South Rim). It is one of the better maintained trails in the Park, even if the ascent is hellish. We spent the next two hours working our way out of the Canyon, doing our best to avoid the occasional look up to see the slowly moving specks of hikers on switchbacks above us. As you climbed higher, the air got thinner again, and I found that I was breathing much more heavily than I would normally have.
There's something humbling about the Grand Canyon. It's easy to believe that as endurance athletes, we are heavily conditioned for the long feats like this. But, as I climbed back to the top, I realized that this wasn't all that true. I was struggling just like the rest of the hikers. It was not easy.
As we reached the top, the winds were in full force and people were talking about the incoming bad weather. As I had said before in Zion, we had been blessed with some of the most incredible weather during the trip. But, as we walked into Bright Angel Lodge - an ice cream cone in one hand and a beer in the other - we overhead discussion of freezing rain.
Thinking about another night in the frozen pine tundra that I had endured the night before (okay, it wasn't that bad!), seemed unbearable. So, in yet another true turn of spontaneity, we decided to make the drive back to Vegas that night. We hatched a plan - literally over ice cream and beer (See! Grand Canyon experience!) - to pack up our campground and head the four hours to Vegas before flying out at 5pm the next day.
It truly was a brilliant idea and one of my favorites of the trip! My favorite memory of looking back at this trip was how it felt so good to be spontaneous and change direction at a whim when we felt like it! We were never tied down to one place and we could set up wherever we wanted!
We finally hit Vegas that night at around 9:30pm, before checking into the Golden Nugget. Even though I don't love Vegas, I do love Fremont Street. There's something about Old Vegas that's alluring. The people watching is even better over there! But, in some ways, the glitz and glamor and throngs of people felt so good after a week of relative isolation. As the lights on the slot machines flickered and the sounds of cards being shuffled buzzed behind me, I couldn't help but look up and be so happy of the adventure that we had just went on. It felt oddly perfect in that moment.
I can't wait for the next adventure!
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