Dan and Hannah Hike the South Kaibab Trail at the Grand Canyon

SK map of GC wide view

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.

SK map of G

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.

SK 1C shuttle bus

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.

SK 1B H taking pictures at rim

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

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

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.

SK 2J H on trail with GC backdrop

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.

SK 3B mules on trail

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?

SK 2C GC from trail

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

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.

SK 2K more of 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.)

SK 4A D at SP sign

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.

SK 5B climbing out

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.”

SK 5A shoes

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.

SK 5E trail out

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


Dan and Hannah Hike the South Rim of the Grand Canyon

Bright Angel Trail – 1     Danny Boy – 0


Bright Angel Trail by Wayne Boardman

That score has been burned into my mind for the last two years.  Not wanting to miss out on our beloved breakfast of biscuits, scrambled eggs, and fresh brewed coffee and reading the USA Today, Hannah and I did not arrive to hike the Bright Angel Trail of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon that day two years ago until 10A.  What were these kids thinking?  Starting a desert hike mid-morning?  Were they smoking something?  No,  but we had taken the bright out of the Bright Angel Trail.

Bright Angel Trail at 3 Mile Rest Stop

Bright Angel Trail at 3 Mile Rest Stop

On that day after two hours of hiking into the canyon we began our ascent from Indian Gardens a little after noon.  Mistakenly I had the idea that if I drank enough water, I’d be fine.  I wasn’t fine.  I wasn’t good.  I wasn’t fair.  I was rotten.  Dizzy and light-headed, I soon learned from a canyon volunteer during our assent that I was suffering from hyponatremia – basically too little salt in my system.  Indeed, I had broken the Second Commandment of the Trail – Eat salty snacks with water, D. B.  With Hannah’s help I wobbled, nay teetered to the top, consumed peanuts and gorp on the rim, and before long was reasonably coherent; clearly the Bright Angel had kicked my butt.  For two years, I  have been looking to settle the score.

The desert landscape of the Bright Angel Trail

The desert landscape of the Bright Angel Trail

Today, driving the 78 miles north from Flagstaff on excellent two lane roads at 540A, we encounter very little traffic and are able to park on the road in front of the Bright Angel Lodge.  Staying at the South Rim takes planning and forethought as the rooms fill up months ahead of time.  Getting reservations for the BAL a year ahead of time is not too early.

View of the Grand Canyon from Bright Angel Lodge

View of the Grand Canyon from Bright Angel Lodge

Ready to hike a good two plus hours earlier than two years ago, we descend the Bright Angel Trail at 7000 feet with water bottles, Salty Cajun Trail Mix, and liberally-applied sunscreen to begin the nine mile round trip to Indian Gardens at 4000 feet.

Bracing our knees with each descending step, we enjoy the clearly marked rocky trail, though in most places only wide enough for one, with its panoramic views without a cloud in the sky.  After having lived in Tempe. Arizona for ten years, we know this is a typical desert day: blue skies and hotter than Charles or any other dickens.  Stepping aside against the canyon wall and carefully avoiding the prickly pear cactus when the mule trains pass, we smile and wonder why everyone climbing out looks so beleaguered.  We have short memories and continue to “good morning” everyone.  Unfortunately our desire to verbally engage goes for naught.  It seems three quarters of all trail hikers today are European, and most of those German, who are not confident enough in their English to engage or just find our upbeat manner a little too annoying.

Mule train from the South Rim to Indian Gardens

Mule train from the South Rim to Indian Gardens Travels Faster Than We Do

Within two hours, we are at Indian Gardens and snacking on peanut butter and crackers as well as gorp under the shade of covered picnic tables with water available at a nearby fountain.   The thermometer in the shade by the mule hitching posts indicates a temperate 78F.  It lies.  Opposite is another thermometer in the sun bragging of its 110F.  It’s 10 AM and there is no shade on the Bright Angel Trail.

Indian Gardens - Dan and Hannah's Turn Around Point

Indian Gardens – Dan and Hannah’s Turn Around Point

Our ascent is hot and shadeless and we are not so chatty.  The Bright Angel Trail is strutting its stuff.  On steeper inclines our breathing gets heavier.  Being the stronger hiker, Hannah sets the pace where my mantra is:  Get to the rim, just get to the rim, Danny Boy.  Nasty smelling mule urine distracts me, but only slightly.   There is water at the three-mile hut and at another hut within a mile and a half of the rim to supplement our trail mix.   Approaching the top I have nothing left to give.  Plodding and surviving accurately capture my condition on those last steps to the rim.

The trail near Indian Gardens

The trail near Indian Gardens

Yet, let’s update the score.

Bright Angel Trail – 2 (Very good and still champion)     Danny Boy – 1 (Bloodied (metaphorically) and bowed but still standing)

As always when hiking, be ye olde or be ye younge, know thyself, thy limits, and the conditions.  Be prepared.

The switchbacks of the Bright Angel Trail

The treeless switchbacks of the Bright Angel Trail

Dan and Hannah Hike the North Rim of the Grand Canyon

Snowing in late May!  Late May?  Really?  Yes, snow falls in late May in northern Arizona.  Two years ago in late May while hiking at the North Rim in long pants and sweatshirts, Hannah and I were under the threat of snow throughout the afternoon.   After hiking, we drove at 25 mph north to Kanab, UT in a blinding snowstorm that New Englanders would be proud to call their own.  But today 60 degrees welcomes us to the North Rim on this Memorial Day.  Before we hike we use our cell phones to call our daughter Robyn (veteran of the War in Afghanistan) and my parents (World War II) to thank them for their service to our country.

The North Rim is out of the way, in a big way.  From central Arizona, we drive five hours north on lonely roads on Route 89 through the Navajo Reservation, over the Colorado River south of Page, AZ, and through the Kaibab Plateau.

National Geographic meadows and Smithsonian forests open up as we now drive south to enter the park.  Slightly dismayed at the fifteen-minute midday wait at the North Rim gate, we wonder what must the traffic be like in mid-summer?  Finally, we proudly flash our Seniors Pass, available to all those 62 and older.  For ten greenbacks we now get into all National Parks without paying another dime.  It’s the deal of a lifetime.

In the early afternoon at the North Rim, we have left behind the heat of the desert and take to the five-mile roundtrip, clearly marked Uncle Jim Trail on the rim of the Canyon.   Through a forest of dappled sunlight the trail meanders gently to a Canyon overlook.  Only a few hikers pass by this loop trail that is easy on the feet, and the mild temperatures have us drinking less water than we did in the desert.   Passing crews working on the trail, we learn that they have a short season to repair trails as they must wait til the snow melts in May to begin trail maintenance.


Due to heavy winter snows the North Rim, at an elevation of 9000 feet, doesn’t open till mid-May.

Surprisingly, many areas of the forest are burned.  The ranger says the use of controlled burns minimizes major forest fires, which maintains the high plateau ecosystem.


To meet our goal of hiking for at least three hours, we take to the level, easy to negotiate hikes of the Bridle Trail and Transept Trail near the Bright Angel Lodge.

With many views of the canyon, the hikes are leisurely, well marked, and satisfying.  Which brings us to the Fifth Commandment of the Trail – Ask others to take your picture with your phone or camera.  The actual picture is secondary.  It’s the entrée to a conversation with another hiker, to find the connection that we yearn to find.

Since we waited till just a week before our trip to make lodging reservations at the North Rim, we have no park accommodations and must head north to find motels.  There are few motels 45 miles due north in Jacob’s Lake, AZ or 75 miles away in Fredonia, AZ.  Some 80 miles away, Kanab, UT gives us many choices for motels.  Opting for the quite inexpensive, we choose The Red Rock Country Inn at $49/night with a queen bed, a refrigerator, and microwave.

Kanab has wide streets and a lazy feel, something out of American Graffiti (A George Lucas coming of age film set in Modesto, CA in 1962 – A couple of high school grads spend one final night cruising the strip with their buddies before they go off to college.)  We sit by the pool, toast the evening, and watch the cars roll by as the sun sets.  To our right is a patrol car parked by the side of the road to slow down incoming out-of-towners.  Once we examine it more closely, we realize there is a dummy in the front seat.  We smile in admiration.

As always when hiking the North Rim, know thyself, thy limits, and the conditions.  Be prepared.

North Rim Lodge at Bright Angel Point by MScott