Unseasonably warm weather has come to Arizona this first week of March; a blessing for our hiking plans. Instead of another hike in the desert, which is no sacrifice at all, we are able to travel north to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Loaned crampons (a metal plate with spikes fixed to a boot for walking on ice) to deal with any ice on the north facing rim trails on this late winter day, we learn at the ranger station that though we’d need for them for the first mile of the Bright Angel Trail, there is no need for them for the South Kaibab Trail. That confirms our decision to take Donna and George’s lead to hike the South Kaibab Trail.
Parking at the Visitor Center, we have access to the amazing shuttle bus system at the Grand Canyon. Every 13 minutes a bus takes hikers and rim walkers to the South Kaibab Trailhead. Since no private cars are allowed at that trailhead, we have a sweet ten minute ride for our hiking adventure du jour.
Before we head down the trail switchbacks, Hannah surveys the rim crowd to see if anyone might need a picture to capture the moment. Offering to take a Grand Canyon South Rim photo for a group of four, she immediately gets a “yes” and garners smiles all around. The foursome has no idea that they have “hired” a pro. She takes multiple shots as she considers lighting, the background, and gets close enough so the quartet are not as small as bugs in the photo. And for all that, she doesn’t charge a thing.
Sanded ice on the trail
The South Kaibab Trail descends in switchbacks along the canyon wall, a stunning architectural achievement to be sure. Though there is a little ice for the first four switchbacks, the trail has been sanded and it is easy for us to step around.
Switchbacks of the South Kaibab Trail
Despite the numbers near the top, soon there are far fewer descending into the canyon. The hikers are either heading to the Cedar Ridge plateau 1.8 miles into the canyon or heading, as we are, to Skeleton Point three miles away. Others will spend the night in cabins at the Colorado River itself.
Hiking into the canyon can give you a false sense of your own hiking proficiency. With every step being downward, there is an Easy Peezy feel as you get mesmerized by the landscape of dominating reds and oranges. Immediately we are dazzled by the depth and breadth of the canyon. At 270 miles, the Grand Canyon National Park is as long as Switzerland.
My childhood friend Paul from Radburn emails later that he finds the Grand Canyon the most beautiful place in the world. It is stunning. The descending trail is sandstone sandy with logs placed across the trail to minimize the erosion.
Always looking for pictures of animals for our grandsons, Owen, almost four, and Max nearly 2, today we have mules. Six mules with riders are returning up the canyon. The rule of the trail is that mules have the right of way and hikers are to step to the inside, follow the directions of the wrangler, and remain quiet and stand perfectly still.
As we watch the mules pass, a 50 year old dowager yells at Hannah in a scolding tone, Where is your water?
Really? What’s up with that? Is she actually going to give Hannah some of her water if Hannah has none? Is this some shaming going on? It turns out that Hannah’s long sleeve tee shirt wrapped around her waist is hiding her fanny pack with two bottles of water. Perhaps riding a mule makes this biddy feel a little high and mighty?
Cedar Ridge, nearly two miles down the trail has toilets, but as with any place on the trail there is no water. Having dropped 1200’ in elevation, we have another 1000’ to Skeleton Point, which we can see one mile in the distance.
Stronger than you might think
The sandstone is soothing to our feet and the trail is so obvious that we are in no danger of getting lost as we did yesterday on the Arizona Trail outside of Flagstaff. With very little vegetation, we have the north facing walls of the canyon for the occasional shade. As we descend we have view after view of the distant North Rim canyon walls. The trail sign, Your safety is your responsibility, is important to take to heart, though it never feels perilous on the trail.
Beneath Cedar Ridge the switchbacks are longer and soon become lengthy stretches of near level trail. Clearly the South Kaibab Trail is the gentler, kinder sister to the Cruella Deville that is the Bright Angel Trail. The Bright Angel is the other main South Rim access to the canyon further to the west. The switchbacks of the South Kaibab Trail aren’t as steep and there are long stretches of mellow level trail. (Click on the “Arizona” category to the left of the blog to see how eight years ago the Bright Angel kicked my butt and left me begging for mercy.)
Arriving at Skeleton Point in less than ninety minutes, we have the Colorado River beneath us and views of the canyon north and south from this high desert plateau. Choosing to return to Cedar Ridge before we lunch, we begin the steady climb out.
Leaving Skeleton Point at 5000’ elevation, my breathing becomes more labored as we steadily advance to the rim. With my head down, I am not as chatty as I was on our descent. In my ever present Ithaca College shirt, we pass two grads who are pleased to tell us of their recent graduation.
But the steady climb up to lunch at Cedar Ridge has me staring at the sandy trail, trying to keep a hiking rhythm. With far greater effort required to ascend the trail, it is important that hikers climbing out maintain their rhythm up and out.
Hence the guideline – hikers climbing out have the right of way. Many descending hikers know the protocol of stepping aside, but many others do not. My observations this morning indicates that there is a generational divide on following this rule of the trail. The chatting away younger ones in their 20s and 30s just barrel down the trail oblivious to others hiking out while the older hikers step aside (perhaps appreciative of the break). I eventually conclude that the humorous approach is the way to deal with the young’uns by saying “Old folks coming through.”
Desocking and debooting at Cedar Ridge, we settle under a tree with my lunch of peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwiches as Hannah dines on trail yogurt, cheese and crackers. I feel it a badge of honor to have our shoes Grand Canyon red. The mellow climb to Cedar Ridge has left us plenty of energy for the final 1200’ feet of elevation to the rim over the next two miles.
No way around it, it’s a grind on this sunny, shadeless trail. Having seen the fantastic views during our hour and a half climb into the canyon, we are now on mission to just get out. When climbing out of the canyon the old cliché holds. No whining and just keep putting one foot ahead of the other.
And all of a sudden, we are at the rim energized by our three hour workout in one of the prettiest spots in the world.
Click on this link of the South Kaibab Trail for more information.
And just like that the South Kaibab Trail ties for first with Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park as one of our two favorite hikes of all time.
PS 1 Waiting for the bus shuttle back to the Visitor Center we fill our water bottles with ice cold Grand Canyon water, which is as good as I ever tasted.
PS 2 Bonus video as we approach Skeleton Point on the South Kaibab Trail