This is part of a writing I did some time ago about a solo trip I took to Arizona in 2018. Read part 2 here.
My third day in Arizona is all about the Grand Canyon. I've been here before but it was a few years ago and the weather was not cooperative. I wake up fairly early and pack my hiking bag with my gear, fill my water bottles from the provided disposable bottles in the fridge of my Airbnb and I load up into the car.
It's about another hour and a half drive to the Grand Canyon from where I'm staying and I want to maximize my time there. I head out while it's still early, and as I approach the park entrance, I join the lines of cars waiting to get through the gates. Finally, I pull up, pay my admission, and I'm on my way. I find parking, load up my backpack, and start following the signs to the rim.
When I was here before, the canyon was obscured by fog and I never got a good view. Not so today. As I get my first glimpse, I'm absolutely floored by the beauty and the scale of it. I take pictures throughout the day but most do not even close to capturing what I really saw.
I spend several hours making my way slowly along the rim with the crowds of other tourists. I chat with a few, and fight my way out to the overlooks with the rest. One such overlook is closed and I can see a large section of the railing is missing. I wonder if anyone fell in. I certainly see a lot of foolish people who seem to be asking to fall in: wandering out on unstable looking outcrops and jumping up and down to get the perfect Instagram shot. I cringe waiting for one to lose their balance and topple over.
I continue on along the rim and encounter a young girl being pushed in a stroller by her parents. She is wailing and bawling just as loud as she can. I can't understand how anyone can be so upset in such a beautiful place. At one point, I am asked by a young Asian man, who looks to be around my age, to take his photo in front of the canyon. I oblige, and in return, he does the same for me. The weather is fantastic and I can see all the way to the other side of the canyon.
After several hours ambling along the rim, I'm ready to go in. I recall reading somewhere that only about 3% of visitors ever go below the rim, or something like that. I pity them. They haven't seen anything. I consult my map I got from the rangers upon entering the park, and find that if I catch a ride on the Orange Route bus, it will eventually take me to the trailhead of the South Kaibab Trail. I find the nearest stop and just manage to catch the bus. I settle myself and my backpack in, as I have a ways to go. At the next stop, everyone gets off except for me. The drivers switch shifts, and the bus pushes on to the next several stops.
Eventually I arrive at my destination and am one of few to get off there. I shoulder my pack, take a swig of water, and approach the trailhead sign. I always make a point of reading signs at the trailhead. They offer valuable advice and tips about the journey ahead, as well as the rules of the particular trail. After reviewing the map a bit, and noting a specific rule about giving priority to up-going hikers on the trail, I set off below the rim.
My first steps below the rim are much like the hundreds I took while walking along it. But the trail slopes steeply down, and I continue ahead, pacing myself, as I have a long hike ahead of me.
The sign at the trailhead informed me that the first scenic lookout on the South Kaibab Trail is called Ooh Aah Point. Upon first hearing about it, I wasn’t sure if it was some sort of native name for the place, or if it was just what it sounded like. Turns out, it’s just what it sounds like. At about .9 miles down the trail from the rim, you reach the Point, and the trail widens. You stop and look around you and say “Oooooh”. Then you turn around and look the other way and you say “Aaaaah”. Still being fairly fresh, despite my lengthy walk along the rim, I reach Ooh Aah Point in relatively good time. It is crowded with tourists looking all around and taking photographs of themselves and the canyon.
I figure this is as good a place as any to stop and so I pull out my water for a deep swig and enjoy a granola bar while taking in the fresh air and beautiful scenery. I notice a couple of fellows that I’ve passed and been passed by alternatively on the way down while I’m here. I take my turn squeezing between a couple of boulders for a particularly risky view into the canyon. After spending a few minutes more minutes resting, I push on.
The next stopping point isn’t until a place called Cedar Ridge, quite a bit further down, so I pace myself. The weather is still fantastic, cool with just a light breeze, and I stop occasionally to snap a photo. In a particularly narrow spot of trail, I stop well ahead and tuck myself into a pocket of rock in a wide part of the trail to let an experienced looking hiker on his way up pass, and he acknowledges my considerate action on the way by. I’ve noticed all the way down that hardly anyone actually follows the rule about letting up-going hikers go first.
When I hike, I’m always torn about what I think of the people I encounter who aren’t avid hikers. On the one hand, I love that others are getting out and seeing these beautiful natural places, but on the other hand, they frustrate me because so many of them don’t follow the courtesy rules of the trail, others leave trash all over the natural landscape, and still others don’t prepare well enough and get stranded or hurt and end up needing rescue.
Once the hiker has passed, I take my turn moving through the narrow spot on the trail. One thing I haven’t encountered yet that I encounter at this point is the burros, or donkeys. Some people prefer to ride through the canyon, and with the harsh terrain, I can hardly blame them. So, you can take a guided burro ride down the trail and back up. Hikers are supposed to give the burros the right of way, and stand right up against the rock wall, away from the edge and let the burros pass and try not to make sudden movements. Nobody wants a swift kick to spoil their hike.
I encounter a group of burros at this point, and the leader is blocking the trail, with his horse standing sideways as he chats with a rider. All the hikers stop politely, but as the conversation drags on for several minutes, a couple of guys get impatient. They squeeze behind the burrows, between them and the rock wall. I’m amazed they don’t get kicked.
Eventually, the trail clears and everyone pushes on. Sometime mid afternoon I hit Cedar Ridge. It’s a huge, table-flat stretch of rock with spectacular views, and even has a relatively welcoming looking outhouse, although I don’t try it to find out. Many folks are standing around here taking breaks, and I join them.
I spot the two fellows I noticed at Ooh Aah Point again, and who I’ve once again been passing and being passed by in turns. I decide to go talk to them since I’m sharing the trail with them and keep encountering them. One is a burly man with a thick, gray beard, carrying a large camouflage backpack and wearing a cap. He introduces himself as Paul, and his friend as Brent. Brent is a thinner man, with a bald head and glasses. Both are very friendly, and in our chatting, I find out they are from Texas. Old friends that decided to get together and come hike in the canyon, since, like me, they’d been here before, but never gone below the rim.
After a few minutes chatting, the three of us agree to hike together when we push on so that we have someone to talk to and make sure we get back out. The next stopping point is much further down the trail, and called Skeleton Point. My new friends and I set off for it, and as we hike I learn more about them. Paul is retired military, which explains the camouflage backpack. Brent claims that Paul could be dropped into the middle of nowhere with that pack and survive for weeks. I don’t doubt it, he seems experienced. Brent is either a psychologist or psychiatrist, I can’t remember which, and is trained in some form of martial arts, and according to Paul, could kill any of us with his bare hands without hardly even trying.
I decide these two seem like fantastic traveling companions as we continue our slow way down into the earth. We ask a few people here and there as we go how much further it is to Skeleton Point, and they assure us it isn’t far, but it seems like forever before we get there. My companions and I spend a long time resting, looking around us at the stunning scenery, and resting again. I spot a few others down here, but the further I get into the canyon, the less people I see. The crowds fell off almost entirely after Ooh Aah Point, and I’m grateful. This place is beautiful, and I selfishly want it all to myself. Brent finds a spot where you can see the Colorado River from quite clearly, and we all take a look. A woman nearby is taking photos of her posing boyfriend. They take shot after shot, and I find myself annoyed that they are wasting time with that when they are in a place like this. But to each their own.
After a long break, and a change of socks for Paul and some advice for me to always carry extra socks, we start the long slog back to the rim. It’s getting late in the day and we’ll need to keep moving to get back by dark. As the sun starts to drop, the canyon gets only more beautiful, despite me thinking every time that it can’t possibly get any more beautiful. Eventually, we make it back to Cedar Ridge.
We stop for a break and I ask Paul to take my photo. He agrees, and takes my phone, but just as he’s about to take my picture, he notices Brent horsing around off to one side, hanging upside down from a long bar I assume is there as a hitching post for the burros. He snaps a picture of Brent, laughing, and then gets my picture, me laughing as well.
We push on, it isn’t getting any earlier. I feel myself getting more and more exhausted as we make our way up. By the time we had hit Skeleton Point, I was thinking to myself that I would do anything to be going up instead of down, because my muscles used for my controlled descent were shot. But now I’m tired of going up too. I chug water faster now, and am thankful that I brought two large bottles instead of one, despite the weight. At least your pack gets lighter the more water you drink!
Brent has a seemingly unending supply of energy, especially for not being a super young guy, and I feel silly having so much trouble at my age. Paul however, is right with me, and Brent says he’s going to go on ahead and get their pickup to meet us at the top. I’m grateful for Paul sticking with me to make sure I make it out, and I for him.
As the sun continues to drop, some clouds are rolling in and we start to feel a few sprinkles on our skin. I don’t mind, I’m a bit warm anyway. I can see in the distant parts of the canyon the sort of slanting parallel lines from the sky to the ground that indicate rain. Paul and I push on, and continue to tire. He comments about a sign he saw on the way down that warned hikers against trying to make it all the way to the bottom of the canyon in one day. It had an illustration of a hiker bent over, vomiting, and Paul says that he jokingly told Brent at the time that it would be him by the end. It’s looking like he’ll be right and I’m wondering if I will be joining him.
As we continue up, the rain continues to come and go as the sun continues to steadily drop, and I stop frequently for photos that are as much an excuse for a break from hiking as for the photos. Regardless of the reasons, they are some of my best photos from the trip, with the fading light in the canyon and the cloudy skies. As we get closer to the top, Paul and I start separating for a few minutes here and there. He’ll stop for a break and I’ll continue on, then I’ll stop for a break and he’ll catch back up and pass me. We’re never too far apart though. Finally, after what seems like a lifetime, Paul and I are back at the rim.
We stop for a brief breather and then start looking around for where Brent might be with their pickup. Paul has offered to give me a ride back to my car with them, since the rain has now picked up and is falling steadily, although not too heavily. It’s almost completely dark now, and Paul and I both dig headlamps out of our backpacks and put them on so that we can see where we are going. Paul tries to call Brent on his cell, but the service here is awful and he can’t get through. He thinks he knows the route they took to get to the rim from the pickup though and we stumble off into the dark, him calling and texting Brent occasionally to try to get through.
Finally, as the rain is getting even heavier, we see Brent pull up in the pickup, and we thankfully approach. I climb into the back seat with my backpack, and Paul starts to get into the front, but is stopped by a severe cramp and has to sit down on the ground for a moment. He recovers quickly though, and soon we’re on our way to the parking lot to find my rental car, but in the dark I’m turned around and can’t remember exactly where I left it. We drive around in the dark through the mostly empty parking lots, with me pressing the lock button on my remote to try to spot the tail lights flashing on the Nissan, and finally we spot it.
It’s time to say goodbye to my new friends, I give Paul my email address, but sadly I never hear from him and I wish that I’d gotten proper contact info for them, or even their last names. I have Paul in the background of a couple of my photos and Brent in the one Paul took of him, but I also wish I’d taken a picture of the two of them to remember them better. If by some chance one of you is reading this, please get in touch! It’s time to drive back now though, and I stiffly settle myself into my rental car and begin the drive back to Flagstaff for my second night at Anna’s Airbnb. I arrive safely, and after messaging a few people back home that I made it safely, I crash.
Read part 4 here.