When I arrived at Grand Canyon National Park the sky was denim and the sun had nearly bowed to the night. The canyon was breathing slowly, ready to call it for the evening, but I made it in time to see the fogged and shaded crevices of the beast, gaping at me with an exasperated tone as if to say, “are we done here?”
No, canyon. We’re not.
Its deep, dark demeanor reminded me of a massive open mouth gurgling inaudibly, and I remember being giddily enthusiastic to become better acquainted with it. Seeing it from its lip was not enough for me. I needed to see the sand turn from blonde to rust. I wanted to walk along the river that created it all.
After all, to see the Grand Canyon from the rim is to be a spectator. But to view it from within is to be one.
“Number six,” the park ranger announced from the middle of three windows.
“Excuse me,” I broke forward toward the counter. “I’m four. I just went outside to-“
“Sorry folks,” she said to number six. “Number four. What can I do for you?”
“Do you have any backcountry permits left?”
I’d gone back and forth and sideways deciding whether I really wanted a backcountry permit. Is it too strenuous? Should I have a companion? Am I prepared enough? I went through every cop out question we’re all so good at asking ourselves.
But when I visited the Backcountry Information Center once at their opening time of 8 a.m., then twice at the same time the following day, and now a third time on the third consecutive day, I was sure: I wanted to conquer the Grand fucking Canyon.
“Why yes,” she said.
First, my mouth dropped then quickly curved up at the sides. I couldn’t help but feel like it was destiny. The odds of scoring a backcountry permit in spring break season are extremely low because people typically plan their trips months in advance. The odds are especially low when also considering April is historically the most popular month to venture into the depths of the canyon. It was a miracle I even managed to snag a campsite on the rim.
“But only for Bright Angel,” she continued, as if that would deter me.
I didn’t blink. Bright Angel was what I wanted: the campground lies on the floor of the canyon, guarded by jagged red rock walls. A creek purrs steadily alongside it, and the Colorado River is practically a stone’s throw away.
“Sign me up.”
She printed a backcountry pass which included all the pertinent information: my name and permanent address (as if I really have one), sunrise and sunset times, date of hike-in and hike-out, a confirmation of my $15 payment, and finally my signature.
When she handed over the document, I felt a rush through my muscles. I couldn’t believe I was really doing it, journeying into one of the Seven Wonders of the World – all alone – with very little time to rest or prepare.
Every season the Grand Canyon backcountry office reserves a number (usually about five or less per day) of last-minute permits which they distribute on a day-prior basis, which means you don’t know whether you’re going into the canyon at all until a day before you’re going all the way into the canyon.
It’s a rush.
I walked out of that office with the golden ticket. But the true charm was in the three mule deer I spotted only minutes after receiving my permit, grazing just feet from me. They extended their fur-scarved necks toward the tallest leaves within reach, churning their jaws lazily.
If this is what I find on top, imagine what I’ll see at the bottom.
Then I returned to my rim site at Mather Campground where my neighbors offered pancakes and orange juice. I, of course, obliged. They wished me well on my journey into one of the vastest canyons known to Earth, and to this day I remember them as part of the undeniable magic that happened that morning.
Mine was just one of some 10,000 permits issued this season, but still I felt special. One of 30,000+ people to sleep in the canyon this year, and somehow my experience was the experience.
“You going all the way down?”
The bus was packed and eyes were on me: the solo female with 20-some pounds on her back, sleeping pad strapped to one side and tent poles wedged on the other.
Statistics say the majority, roughly 75 percent, of Grand Canyon backcountry trip leaders are middle-aged men, and only 10 percent of trip leaders venture out alone. I was the minority of the minority, and people noticed.
The only people who actually engaged me were a middle-aged couple, both carrying daypacks and wearing smiles.
He asked how much water I had, and she said my favorite line: “by yourself?”
Many questions ensued, mostly ones I’ve encountered before. Like what do my parents have to say about what I’m doing? Am I a student? How do I afford it?
“Do you backpack often?”
“First time,” I said, laughing at the spontaneity of it all.
They both exhaled and looked at me excitedly. She squeezed my shoulder and said, “nobody can tell you anything after this.”
We exited the bus at the South Kaibab trailhead, and I walked with them for the first few dusty yards before heading onward down the raveling switchbacks. We exchanged waves and smiles before I turned my back to them, winding my way down a trail so steep my toes hit the tips of my shoes.
And with that, I was backcountry-bound.
Before long, the seven-mile South Kaibab trail was vacant. “Vacant” isn’t a word often equated with the Grand Canyon. From the rim, there is no escape from camera-clad tourists (five million per year to be exact). But once you venture deep enough – at least three miles – there are just the voices of the wind.
I teetered along the edge canyon cliffs, just the trail and me, panoramic views wrapping around my senses. The wind whipped grains of red desert dirt in my face, and my feet ached from clenching the ground during drastic downgrades. If I stepped too heavily, the dust erupted around my feet, caking my legs in coarse grains.
It was physically exhausting but so visually rewarding. South Kaibab offers a perspective of the canyon that the more popular Bright Angel Trail does not: you’re more exposed to the elements, out in the open crossing major canyon plains, and you can see layer after colorful layer of rock for miles in each direction.
Though I made decent time (seven miles in exactly four hours), the descent felt long and relentless. It wasn’t a challenge per se, but it wasn’t exactly a cakewalk either. Towards the end, I kept wondering when – dear lord, when? – the switchbacks would end. Just when I thought I reached the final snake coil, another lurked below the one I’d just tackled. And it went on and on and on and on and on like that for nearly every step I took, every curve I turned.
But every last switchback, which ultimately brought me 4,780 feet lower than I’d started, was worth it once I reached the first vista revealing the Colorado River, a blue-green water body that slithers through the inner canyon, the same water body allegedly responsible for carving the 277 mile-long world-renowned canyon.
It peaked out from behind a canyon wall when I was about five miles in. Even at two miles above it, its white, raging wrinkles were noticeable.
Down by the river
“You made it,” said a man standing at the end of the twisting entanglement of dirt path.
All I could muster in response was a breathy smile.
It appeared I was the very last to reach the campground. Everyone was settled in and cooking their evening meals. But I was appreciative of my late start (I set out at 1 p.m.) since I spent the majority of the hike alone with nature. Just the way I like it.
I trekked along the humming Bright Angel Creek in search of a campsite, snagged the last available, slung my pack over a tall animal-resistant pole, and pitched my tent in a matter of minutes.
Once camp was made, I brought my dinner, which solely consisted of an apple and a can of jalapeno tuna due to a severely low but manageable food supply, to the river. I sat on a rock in the sand and watched the current flow toward the sunset. Just as I shoveled the last bits of tuna into my mouth, a deer tiptoed past me, just feet from my rock. She didn’t seem to know I was there, and I quietly observed as she padded along the river’s shore.
Being level with the Colorado River is a feeling one can’t easily replicate. Wildflowers abound – reds, pinks, oranges, white. And it’s so very green: flowering bushes with narrow leaves, tall stalks of wheat grass, prickly pear cacti, trees with skinny branches and dainty leaves, and in some spots – littered amidst the soft brown ground – there’s grass. The rocks are red and turquoise and sometimes even pink.
I was in the pit of the Grand Canyon, a jagged and harsh yet surprisingly hospitable gash in the earth. And I got there all on my own.
About all I had the energy to do was eat and watch the river, so I sat on my red rock for a long time, watching the moon rise over Black Bridge. I remained there until the canyon walls were bleached purple where the sun abandoned them.
And with the sun I slept.
When I camped on the rim, I woke to frost, but the inner canyon boasted much more comfortable temperatures. Its warmth felt like a snug blanket, and I slept in shorts and a t-shirt with my sleeping bag unzipped.
That night I slept with the Colorado River was one of the most undisturbed and deserved slumbers of my life.
I woke to tremendous pain in my shoulders, an aching mid-back and sore feet. Not exactly the way you want your body to feel before a grueling 9.5-mile ascent. Though unenthusiastic about the upward climb on the Bright Angel Trail, I was thankful it would work different muscles and exhaust different parts of my feet.
What I saved in elevation change, I gained in miles. Bright Angel gains 400 feet less than South Kaibab, but it’s two and a half miles longer.
During the first of over nine miles, the incline was nothing more than torture, agony, hell…to name a few. But it’s near impossible for those thoughts to linger long when you’re tracing a clear and thriving creek your whole way up. First I came upon two deer foraging in the water and further up a butterfly posed for me, perched on a small rock in the center of the trail, its wings inhaling and exhaling quietly.
Bright Angel differs drastically from the South Kaibab Trail. It explores a side canyon, wrapping around rich flowering flora: tall trees with exaggerated branches with purple flowers dripping down, white-purple daisy-like stalks sprouting from the ground, tall grass, normal grass, shade – all sandwiched by the red, gaping canyon walls.
I dominated the first half of my ascent in exactly two and a half hours, a fraction of the time I thought it would consume.
I took a break at Indian Garden, the lush and shaded halfway point, to rest and refuel. The squirrels, fearless scavengers, shuffled underneath and around the bench where I sat, dining on a flattened banana nut muffin from my pack. There are signs posted that say the little mammals bite, but every so often I caught one rubbing its face in the dirt the way a dog does, and I couldn’t help but think they’re cute.
The last few miles were rough. I laid on a fallen wood panel at the three-mile rest house for 45 minutes, watching the clouds make their shapes: a frog meditating, a mermaid, a bride, the Kool-Aid guy mid-jump.
But even with the long break, the hike just kept getting harder: more switchbacks, less shade, more people to dodge and maneuver around.
Then, as I was stepping slowly and mechanically, probably grimacing and definitely dripping sweat, I saw them: the couple I met on the bus to the South Kaibab Trailhead. They were looking at me in shock.
What are the odds?
I laughed and so did they.
“It’s good to see you got out okay,” she said, patting my back.
“You made really good time,” he said after I told him my times.
I told them they gave me the motivation I needed to continue on. And they did. For about a mile.
The final mile was the most challenging only because I was hot, hungry and exhausted. I knew I was so very close, but the end felt so unattainable.
“You’re doing great,” said a young woman resting on a shaded rock. Conscious of my discomfort, her party cheered me on. At that point, my hair was a crust under my bandana. My chest was saturated in sweat, and I was trying to ignore the smell I probably radiated.
Sure enough, soon after meeting my cheerleaders, I was finished. I completed my Grand Canyon backcountry expedition, all 16.5 miles, in 26 hours with a single apple being my only food to spare.
They say people emerge from Grand Canyon backcountry with one of two perspectives: “I couldn’t wait for it to be over” or “I will never do that again.” Admittedly, both of these crossed my mind many a time during the laborious ascent.
But now, after forgetting the rawness of my shoulders and the shortness of my breath, if someone asked me if I’d do it again, I’m almost certain I would say yes.