The extent of my outdoor activity prior to moving to Arizona consisted of spending weekends on a boat and hiking in the mountains of Tennessee when I was a child. The key phrase of that last statement was “when I was a child”. Somewhere around the age of 13 I decided being physically active was not my thing and I have carried that train of thought into my adulthood, going so far as to jokingly proclaim an allergy to exercise. How then does one go from zero exercise to hiking the Grand Canyon you may ask. Good question. I’m still trying to figure it out. I can tell you that I am in love with Arizona. I love the mountains. I love the desert. I love looking at and taking pictures of the mountains and the desert. My girlfriend also loves these things. She loves them so much that she and her husband actually go out and hike in the desert. Having just returned home from one of these hikes my girlfriend (from now on referred to as the friend) was excited and shared all her photos with me. I then shared all her photos with the husband and mentioned that I would love to do something like that. His response was “let’s do it”. HA, putting it out there is all it took! A few days later the friend told me she and her husband were planning a trip to the Grand Canyon and asked if we would join them. She said they had hiked this trail before and it was fairly easy. It would be a four-day trip, hiking five miles a day. I said yes, and then went home and told the husband what I got us into! It’s at this point again I would like to mention I had done zero hiking since about the age of oh, maybe nine. Knowing this was a concern the friend reiterated that the hike was fairly easy. There was a trail most of the way with switchbacks and nothing to climb (I’m short and have a hard time climbing). SHE LIED! OK, maybe she didn’t lie, maybe she’s just forgetful. We had four months to train, fortunately living in Phoenix we are surrounded by mountains, the closest of which is a two-minute car ride from our home. Having sense enough to know that hiking in Chuck Taylor’s and Van’s was not a good idea we made our first of many, many trips to REI. For our first hike we decided to try something easy-ish so we grabbed a couple of water bottles and headed out to Lookout Mountain. The route we took was maybe 2-miles round trip but oh the satisfaction we received from reaching the top!
By our third hike we had discovered the Camelbak. I honestly do not know how I survived life without the Camelbak, it has to be in the top 10 of greatest inventions ever! Over the next couple months we did 11 of these local hikes varying in distance and steepness, none longer than 5 ½ miles. I was focused on only having to hike 5-miles a day while in the Canyon therefore saw no need to hike longer distances. The friend then invited us to go hiking with them, 9 ½ miles, this was when I began to realize exactly what I had gotten us into.
Whether for our benefit or standard practice on their part, two weeks before the Canyon trip we did a practice overnight backpack trip. This trip was 10 miles, we hiked in 5 miles, set up camp and hiked back out in the morning. It was here that I discovered there is a HUGE difference between hiking around town with a slightly weighted down backpack and hiking with everything you need for survival. I also had to work that day so most of our hike in was in the dark and I was tired before we even began. This combination of tired and dark inevitably resulted in a miss step and a fall on my part, and the loss of a fair amount of blood. Not being in any big hurry when we woke-up the next morning we went exploring before breaking down camp and starting the hike out, this added another mile or so to our hike. Because of our early morning exploration we would be hiking out of the mountain mid-morning and into the afternoon. If you are unfamiliar with the area let me tell you it is already hot in Phoenix at the end of April, with temperatures ranging in the mid to upper 90’s. A benefit I learned of hiking at night is you can’t see what you’re up against! Hiking out that afternoon I was hurt, I was hot, and I wasn’t used to carrying around the extra 30 lbs, so when the friends husband informed us that the actual Canyon hike would be similar terrain but more difficult I almost cried. When we got home the husband and I seriously considered backing out of the trip. Clearly we were not prepared for this undertaking. And people die hiking the Grand Canyon, people far more equipped to do so than us. However, we had already invested a couple thousand dollars into the trip and we both are rather stubborn and neither given to quitting. The trail we are hiking, the Bill Hall and Deer Creek trails, are in the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and is about a 6-hour drive from Phoenix. To break the drive up just a little, we decided to drive up to Flagstaff, an hour and a half (my driving) from Phoenix and stay the night before making the rest of the drive the morning of the hike. When we got to our hotel that night we discovered we had forgotten our camelbacks at home. Seriously, we forgot our main water source at home? Now you can look at this one of two ways. One, we forgot our main water source at home, the trip must be doomed, get out while you can. Two, thank god we decided to stay in Flagstaff because we can buy more camelbacks. We opted for way of thinking number two and waited around for the stores to open and bought two more camelbacks and headed to the trailhead. Of the six of us taking this adventure, we arrived at the trailhead first. Knowing we were much, MUCH slower than everyone else we decided to go ahead and get started.
- Day 1: Bill Hall Trail to the Esplanade; 5.2 miles and 2610 ft elevation drop; Backpack weight 43 lbs (I weigh 110 lbs)
For the first ½ mile, the trail follows the rim of the Canyon before descending into it. The descent into the Canyon is where we first got lost. We followed the GPS to the edge of the Canyon but couldn’t believe we were in the correct location because there was no trail, so we circled around a bit scratching our heads. It was during this time that we ran into one of our fellow adventurers who had fortunately taken this trial before as well, so we followed him to the descent point, exactly where the GPS told us it was. The both of us stood there on the edge of the Grand Canyon in awe and stared as he climbed over the edge, CLIMBED OVER THE EDGE OF THE GRAND CANYON! Where was the trail? Never in the months that preceded this hike did anyone mention having to climb over the edge. Is it too late to back out? We once again seriously discussed not going any further but decided to give this one day a try. If we got to the first campsite and I didn’t think I could make it the rest of the way we would just climb back out. Honestly, we had come this far, we had to at least try. The first mile and a half into the Canyon covered about 2000 feet of the elevation drop for the day. This section of the hike we called the White Wall and the trail was very loose rock, as if walking on gravel, at a very steep angle, with 43 lbs on my back. It wasn’t long before the rest of our group caught up to and passed us on the trail.
At one point I lost my footing but because of all the extra weight I was carrying instead of falling I took off running and was only able to stop by grabbing ahold of a tree, at the very edge of the path before the trail changed direction. I was so scared I laughed hysterically for about half an hour to keep from crying. Toward the end of the White Wall we caught up to our group. Initially we thought they were just taking a break and were waiting for us. We were wrong. We were very, very wrong. They waited for us because we had reached the point of the trail where we had to take our packs off, lower them to the ground and climb down a 15 foot wall. WHAT? Never mentioned prior to the hike! The White Wall was followed by hiking a mile or so through a valley. Once we made it through the valley we were able to get a clear view of what we had just hiked down. The rest of today’s hike was relatively flat sandstone. There was no trail so you had to navigate via cairns, man-made rock formations that mark the trail and GPS. Have I mentioned we were not fully confident of our GPS using ability yet? We finally made it to camp around the time I was deciding I couldn’t go any further. I couldn’t believe it had only been 5 miles, how was it possible that could have only been 5 miles? We decided it would be best to set-up camp immediately in case neither of us could move once we finally relaxed. I feel it is important to mention that by “making it to camp” what I really mean is we made it to the very wide open area of the Esplanade that we were going to set up tents and sleep. There were no amenities, no water, no bathrooms, no electricity, just us and nature. We were rewarded however, with two things that first night. The first of which was our dinner. I had left over Buffalo Wild Wings from the night before and he had a steak that he had frozen and was now perfect temperature to eat. The second was a beautiful sunset.
Now that we made it to camp, we had to make a decision, do we continue with the hike or do we head back out the next morning? Every single part of my body was screaming to go back but my mind was telling me we’d made it this far and we’d regret it if we didn’t finish. After all tomorrow is only 5 miles and it’s not like it could get any worse!
- Day 2: Esplanade to Deer Creek; 4.5 miles and 3614 ft elevation drop
There was an immediate advantage starting off the second day, our packs were about 8 lbs lighter. The only water available to us throughout our trip was once we arrived at Deer Creek. Because of this we had to pack down an extra gallon of water to cache (hide) at the Esplanade to have available for our last day of hiking out of the canyon. We were also starting off much earlier in the day avoiding some of the heat. Just like the first day the bulk of the descent, 3000 feet, was accomplished in the first mile and a half as we made our way down the Red Wall. Just prior to climbing over the edge, yes again, into the Red Wall we stopped to take a look around. What we found still boggles my mind. We came across this rock:
Of all the people who have hiked that trail before us and of all the rocks to look at while we were there, we stumbled upon the one rock that someone else named Jenn had spelled their name on! The Red Wall was different from the White Wall in that it was much steeper and the terrain was different. Instead of a gravel like trail, the trail of the Red Wall was large rocks, some you could go around, others that you had to climb over.
The National Park Service describes this part of the trail as “long and rough and the southern exposure makes the entire area infamously hot”. I can attest that for the first time the NPS was 100% correct in their description of a trail. Starting out early did little to save us from the heat. After making it down the Red wall we thought the worst was over and then we met Surprise Valley.
As in surprise you aren’t there yet or surprise you still have to cross the boulder wall. Boulder wall? No one mentioned a boulder wall.
The rocks in the Boulder Wall having been put where they are by nature were not the steadiest rocks to climb on/jump from, how I managed to not deposit more blood in the desert during this ¾ mile I will never know. And yes, I did leave my fair share of blood in many sections of this trail, cactus are an unfriendly plant. Having finally reached the bottom of the Boulder Wall and knowing that death must surely be around the corner we began to hear our names being called and in the distance could hear the faint sounds of water. We were almost at the Deer Creek Spring, where the rest of our group was relaxing. Deer Creek Spring is the first of the only two water areas we would encounter. The stream is completely hidden by trees, we would have never found it had our group not waited for us.
Immediately after crossing the stream the area opens up into the Throne Room, presumably called this due to the several rock chairs set up.
We rested for a few minutes in the Throne Room then walked, gloriously in our flip-flops, the couple hundred feet to the falls.
We relaxed by the falls for about half an hour before making the final mile hike to our second campsite. Our second campsite remained extremely primitive, however, we were next to a small stream and there was a small amount of shade. If you wanted to walk a couple hundred yards there was also a “bathroom”, I chose to continue being one with the great outdoors.
From camp it is another mile hike, made so much easier without the weight of our backpacks, to the Patio.
The Patio then turns into the Narrows which is the closest point of contact anywhere in the Grand Canyon.
Beyond the Narrows is the Colorado River, neither of us ventured that far but the rest of our group did. There are two ways to get to this area, hike as we did or come in on a boat from the Colorado River as everyone else at the Patio did. This was the only time during our trip we saw more than two or three people. The husband took advantage of the location and explored.
I took advantage of the cold water and soaked my feet.
At some point after settling back in at camp I made a discovery that almost made me pass out. Two of the toes on my right foot looked like they were going to explode. They weren’t blistered and they didn’t necessarily hurt but they were in really bad shape. The extreme steepness of going down the Canyon had resulted in me gripping my shoes with my toes and all the pressure built up in these two toes. Not knowing what else to do I taped them together and hoped for the best. We spent the rest of the evening relaxing and even got to watch a hawk steal food from a neighboring campsite! Being with experienced backpackers had its advantage, like being told to hang all of our food and anything with a smell to keep the animals from getting into it.
We woke-up the next morning to discover that despite our best efforts the animals, most likely mice still managed to get into some of our bags. Considering we still had two days left on the trail we were lucky in that we only had to throw out a couple of peanut butter sandwiches. After eating breakfast and breaking down camp the husband and I set out for the trail immediately knowing it was going to be hot and going back up the Canyon was going to be an even bigger challenge. The rest of our party opted to go back to the river.
- Day 3: Deer Creek to the Esplanade; 4.5 miles and 3614 ft elevation gain
Our return out of the Canyon was the exact route we took in which at least gave us the advantage of knowing what to expect. Unfortunately with this knowledge also came a fair amount of dread because we knew what to expect. We stopped again at Deer Creek Spring to refill our water supply. Then back up the dreaded Boulder Wall and on to Surprise Valley. The one advantage to going uphill was the weight of the backpack helped to ground me so I was more steady on my feet. The disadvantage to going up hill is that I can’t breathe on incline. We had to make a lot of stops for me to catch my breath. Just prior to starting back up the Red Wall we found this rock and actually took our backpacks off for a while. We even had the opportunity to watch another group making their way down.
Midway up the Red Wall we found a small area of shade and decide that would be a good place to stop and eat lunch.
We made it to the edge of the Esplanade sometime around 2pm. Knowing there was still a lot of hours of sun left and zero shade at the campsite we decided to look for some shade and wait for the rest of our group. What we found was the perfect place for a couple of hours of relaxation.
The rock provided shade when we wanted it and it was big enough to stretch out.
We finally ventured the last ¼ mile back to camp when the rest of our group caught up with us around dinner time. Again we spent the evening talking and relaxing.
- Day 4: Esplanade back to the car; 5.2 miles and 2610 ft elevation gain
Just like the day before, we woke-up early, ate, broke-down camp and started on the trail before the rest of our group. In addition to hiking the last 5 miles out of the Canyon, we had a six-hour drive back to Phoenix. Not too long after we started out that morning I had to stop and make some adjustments, I was getting a blister. I layered on mole skin and duct tape to the back of both heels and we were off again.
We were about ¾ of the way through the valley when the sun started to crest over the white wall. What we hadn’t thought about when we set off alone that morning was how we were going to get back up the 15 foot wall without the help of the others. It was not easy and required a lot of profanities!
With that behind us the only thing standing between us and our air-conditioned car was the White Wall.
By this time I was beyond physically and mentally exhausted. The rest of our group had already come and gone so it was just us. Unlike other areas of the canyon there was no cell service to call for help, no donkeys to take us back to the top, and no helicopter rides out. There were two things that got me out of that Canyon. I didn’t want the husband to have to call my mom and the kid and tell them I died. The White Wall was all switchbacks. What does switchbacks have to do with anything you ask? A lot actually. I got through that last mile one switchback at a time. I would focus on one point, stumble my way to it and stop to rest. I would then focus on the next point, stumble my way to it and stop to rest. Closer to the top I literally had to focus on a spot two feet in front of me.
Fortunately the husband is faster than I am so he made it out of the Canyon before I did and was able to give me lots of encouragement the final couple hundred yards. When I finally climbed out I almost cried, both from exhaustion and accomplishment.
It wasn’t over yet though, we still had ½ mile of trail before we reached the car. There was ultimately a prize for making it to the car last. As I’ve mentioned the rest of our group are experienced backpackers. Being experienced they knew to freeze Gatorade and leave it in a cooler full of ice prior to descending into the Canyon so that it would still be relatively cold when you returned to the car. They were nice enough to leave a note and a couple of Gatorades.
No drink before or since has ever tasted so good!
Since taking this trip I’ve had time to reflect on several things. The most trivial is this, we spent four days in a remote section of the Grand Canyon and the only wildlife we saw were lizards, how is that even possible?
Beyond that I can say with absolute certainty that no, we were not prepared for this trip. I can also say with absolute certainty that despite wanting to hike the Grand Canyon again (the husband is in fact there again as I write this) I will NEVER hike this particular trail again. But I am so happy that we did it. This was without a doubt the most challenging thing, physically and mentally that I have ever done and the most challenging thing we have done as a couple and despite some minor injuries, six lost toe nails among them, we survived!
After arriving home the husband took our trail map and made some modifications to it that I’d like to share. Here then is the husband’s interpretation of our trip: Potential Death, Treacherous, OMFG, Potential Death (again), Crazyass Shit and Cool Stuff!
More photos from this trip are at Perfectly Damaged Photography
Photo Credit: Coldshot Photography