The Grand Canyon: Event vs Holiday
We absolutely LOVE being in the Grand Canyon National Park. Even in the fall of 2018, when the weather was wetter and colder than during our prior visits, we loved being there. Our annual, 2 two-weeks stays there are the high point of our US traveling season. We may be close to maxing-out the motivational adventures available to us in the Park, but our time there still makes us smile.
“Pole-shoulders” our latest intervention for back pain on long days.
In 2012, one of those visits landed Bill in the Flagstaff ER with a $14,000 work-up for a presumed heart attack. Fortunately, the gold jewelry laden cardiologist decided it wasn’t a heart attack. Months later, his athletic physician back home took one look at him from the doorway and declared that Bill had had acute mountain sickness. We hadn’t been over 7,000’ but we knew from experience that Bill was unusually altitude intolerant. Hitting 8,250’ is the more common trigger for the condition. More meticulous fluid and electrolyte management in subsequent years prevented future problems for Bill when there.
By 2015, we’d improved our endurance enough to risk the big hikes required to spend a night at Phantom Ranch on the Colorado River. I had a rare, severe cold; Bill had a toothache that lead to a root canal several years later; and it was snowing; but we pressed on and made the trek to enjoy our hard-won, rustic lodging reservations. Three separate treks to Phantom Ranch for 2, 3, and finally 4-night stays satisfied our longing to do day hikes from the Ranch along, and immediately above, the river on the north side.
Next came pursuing the previously unfathomable goal: hiking from the North Rim to the South Rim in one day. Then it was hiking Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim last year with a 2 night lay-over. This year saw us ramping it up further to making the round trip between the rims with a 1 night lay-over and then doing it all again in just over a week. These are truly epic events for us that require both physical and mental preparation combined with great attention to logistical details. For local outdoorspeople, it’s just another hike.
Each of these Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim events consumes over three and a half days for us. Two full days are spent doing a total of about 24 hours of hiking. The entire day before evaporates from the time needed to prepare our meals and gear and transporting them to the drop-off location for the 4-hour ride in the TransCanyon shuttle to the North Rim. We also prepare the trailer for being unattended overnight in freezing weather and make a dinner to reheat upon our late return on the second day.
The North Rim’s canyon walls are much more dramatically eroded than those of the South Rim's faces.
Both this year and last, we drove from the Park to Flagstaff two days after we made our last rim to rim crossing because we had consumed our allowed 2 weeks in the RV park.
When we returned to the Park from Flagstaff a week later, our entire Grand Canyon experience changed: it was a holiday destination rather than a sports venue. The North Rim was closed until May, so for us, there was no possibly of an overnight trek to the north. We could still do big hikes, like the 20 miler from the S Rim that goes down the dramatic and exposed S Kaibab trail to Phantom Ranch on the river and then up the longer Bright Angel trail. That’s about 8 hours of hiking time with an hour for breaks and an additional hour getting to and from our trailer and the trailheads, but it isn’t the same magnitude of event as crossing the canyon. We kept up our fitness hiking during our ‘holiday’, but we also turned our minds to other things.
The big intellectual challenge at the Grand Canyon this year during our second two-week stay was to plug the hole in my memory. I’m fascinated by geology, but it is largely an “in one ear and out the other” study for me, though Bill retains more of the information.
After several rest-day strolls from our trailer to the nearby S Rim paved walkway for long picnic lunches staring into the canyon, I bought an oversized postcard which identified the major geologic layers. Our previous long looks paid off and after using this equivalent of mini-Cliff Notes, we were recognizing layers from memory. I picked the names of 2 prominent layers that I could both pronounce and identify for my first learning module. The next day, I added two more layers and then we were well on our way to ‘dividing and conquering’ what previously had been a mind-boggling task.
Protected from the showers in a plastic bag, our cheat sheet accompanied us on every hike down into the inner canyon. Usually wanting to maintain tempo because of the the length of those hikes, we debated which layer we were seeing on the fly and then conferred with our paper guide during breaks. Our past difficulty in identifying layers became clearer: some layers eroded quite differently on the north and south sides of the river and on the Bright Angel and S Kaibab trails. But it wasn’t long until we could have at least a good guess as to which of the major 10 layers we were walking in. We were surprised to learn that the characteristic red, green and yellow layers all derived their tints from iron.
The highlight of our studies was yet another indoor field trip to the Park’s wonderful little geology museum to supplement our many walks. As hoped, the displays were more potent learning tools than ever before. My prior, biggest “ah-ha” moment was understanding that what is relatively unique about the Grand Canyon and greater area is that it is an uplift phenomenon and not the wildly more common uplift-and-tilt. It basically remained level while it was shoved straight upwards. When the Colorado River began cutting through the layers 5 million years ago, the emerging canyon had a neat, layer-cake look. Our beloved Italian Dolomites are a classic uplift-and-tilt area, creating a stunning hodgepodge of angles and faces whereas our dramatic Pacific NW mountains are defined by volcanic cones.
Our cheat-sheet for learning the names of the Canyon’s strata.
With our brains more attuned to the layers, Bill’s trophy tidbit from last year was even more potent: the N Rim plateau tilts slightly towards the river and the S Rim plateau tilts slightly away from it, so if the rainfall were the same on both sides of the canyon, more water would flow into the canyon from the N Rim than the South. That detail, combined with the fact that the N Rim is about 1,000’ higher than the South, is profound. Being higher, the N Rim gets significantly more rainfall. As a result of these two factors, there is dramatically more water eroding the N Rim canyon faces than the S Rim’s, resulting in the north side having many more towers, peaks, and terraces carved into the rock whereas the S Rim canyon walls are generally more vertical.
The Through Hikers
Hearing the torrential downpour of rain and hail hitting our trailer roof at 6 am; noting 2 days prior that an announcement for an unpredicted flash flood had been made after 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) of rain had already fallen in an hour; and having snow on the ground a week ago, the morning after we’d finished our last round trip hike between the South and North Rims; each of these events had me recalling the faces of the Arizona Trail hikers and bikers we’d met.
The most recent of the trekkers had been a very shy, 30-ish woman who was hiking the 800 mile trail alone. We’d seen her twice: descending on the N Rim trail late one afternoon and then the next day at the Colorado River around noon. She reluctantly accepted our invitation to share our Phantom Ranch picnic table while we exchanged comments about our respective styles of Altra trail runners and the nifty Dirty Girl Gaiters that neatly attach to the shoes’ Velcro "Gaiter Traps". She had the signature ultra-light pack of a wise, long distance hiker that seemed only slightly larger than our day packs. Hers was one of those loads that tickle our brains: a little too much for a day hiker or a Phantom Ranch overnight guest but not really big enough for a backpacker and in fact, about a 3rd to 1/4th of the size of most backpacker’s kit.
An Arizona Trail trailhead near Flagstaff.
I asked where she’d be camping that night, which triggered a bit of a rambling discussion about needing to get off of National Park property to free camp—a ramble like she was intending to hide herself well while camping illegally. She shuttered when I mentioned that the weather was forecast to turn colder. Her body language suggested that this unseasonably cold and wet spell had already been a challenge for her and that any worse would be a problem. She commented that unseen fellow hikers had pleas on Facebook in which they were asking for rides from strangers to extract them from the route.
With each round of snow, rain, cold, and biting winds since meeting her, I'd see her face in my mind and wonder how she was doing: we in our well-heated trailer at night; she in her minimalist tent; we in our many layers of clothes; she who probably relied more on rapid movement than heavy clothes to stay warm. She estimated that it would take her another 6 weeks to complete the route.
We, in contrast, were foul-weather friends on the Arizona Trail. The snow that fell on the peaks we hike from Flagstaff between our two 2-week stays in the Grand Canyon had forced our attention to lower elevation routes, like the Arizona Trail. Both Flagstaff and the S Rim are around 7,000’ (2,100 m) whereas the peak out our trailer door at Flagstaff is over 9,000’ (2,700 m) and the trailhead on nearby Humphrey Peak starts over 9,000’ and goes to almost 12,600’ (3,400 m).
Vintage & modern garbage on the Arizona Trail.
Our first visit to the Grand Canyon in early October, the event phase, was too wet, too windy, to compel us to ride our bikes. And facing our precious touring bikes that were damaged in transit from Italy in August had been another barrier to riding. We’d paid handsomely to have the bikes packed and shipped and the agent neglected to pack them, at all. They literally tossed the bikes into oversized cardboard boxes and did nothing to protect them.
There were annoying cosmetic issues, like dirty chain grease streaked on my new, red handlebar tape and more important weakening dents and dings to the extra-beefy steel frames. With a heavy heart, Bill determined that his frame was too weakened by the transit damage to ever carry touring loads again. But he pressed through the sadness, the anger, and made both bikes roadworthy for day rides. For me, it was another personal blow, another loss to grieve. My cardiac output in the summer had been totally sapped by an anti-hypertensive medication and we’d had to make a snap purchase of electric bikes so I could cyclotour at all, which had necessitated sending our custom bikes home in a hurry.
But ‘cold with sun’ at the end of October made riding more inviting on this our on-holiday visit than on the previous rain days earlier in the month and we took 2 great rides on our compromised bikes. A bonus in our quest to walk more of the Arizona Trail after being at Flagstaff for a week was discovering that the Arizona Trail from the Grand Canyon Visitors Center to the nearest village, Tusayan, was now paved the entire way.
Tusayan replica of John Wesley Powell’s boat used in 1869 to ply the Colorado River rapids in the Grand Canyon.
We did just that several days later and tacked on a few more miles by exploring the Grand Canyon Airport on the far side of Tusayan. We were pleased: we now had 2 local routes of 20 miles and a little over 1,000’ of gain each, both largely out of traffic. Certainly not huge rides, but even after acclimating for several weeks, we noticed the altitude challenge on the bikes much more than when on foot. Our other ride was along the S Rim with many views into the canyon whereas the new ride was more wind sheltered in a sparse, high desert forest.
Like on our early October visit in the Grand Canyon, we were surprised to again see mountain bikers doing the Arizona Trail through the Park—its route follows the same route as Rim-2-Rim hikers but they do it with their bikes on their backs. This time, it was 3 bikers instead of 2, on the S Kaibab trail.
They were younger than the 2 guys we’d seen a couple of weeks before and with 60-70 pound loads instead of 90 pounds. They were doing it without trekking poles, poles which would have spared their backs by keeping them more upright like the first 2, and at least one was wearing cycling shoes, which was another bad idea. Their bikes weren’t dismantled as much as those of the older guys, which appeared to make their loads more asymmetrical and them more tippy. And these young bucks weren’t as heavily muscled as the previous pair, which looked to be another disadvantage. This was the first year we’d seen any mountain bikers portaging through the Grand Canyon, and it was all the more surprising to see 2 groups with very different strategies. Our Arizona Trail gal had said that biking it was the new thing to do.
We’re accustomed to the masses from the international tour buses being rather piggy about sharing the sidewalk space on the S Rim promenade—that group think mentality--but this year a little American kid hauled off and slugged me in the ribs. I nearly shouted “That wasn’t very nice” to the 8-10-year-old boy.
Holding his mother’s hand, she apologized and said, “I’m sure he didn’t mean it.” Still in shock, I said nothing more. I’d sized them up as they approached as I typically do in my ever-vigilant subconscious mind, scanning all oncoming, and absolutely nothing set-off even the slightest beep from my alarm bells. There weren’t crowds squeezing us together and contacting me almost midline, it was hard to buy momma’s excuse that it was an accident. I joked to Bill a couple of minutes later that I was taking the outside position on the sidewalk so he could take the next punch; but of course, there was no second punch. “Budding socio-path” was Bill’s assessment.
Near the Arizona Trail: Walnut Creek National Monument preserving 1100’s limestone alcove cliff dwellings.
We are always amazed and delighted by the high percentage of international visitors on the S Rim that are taking in the stunning views. They add to our people-watching fun when we join the crowds while finding a new picnic perch for the day. Guessing languages spoken and scrutinizing for novel fashion details are always entertaining games.
Asian tourists by far outnumbered European visitors this year and the hot fashion detail in their younger set were oversized, round, sunglass lenses, often with a metallic sheen, with a bold though narrow frame. They did their job well—they were very, very, attention-getting. The other head-turner for us was all of the Russian speakers. They were largely younger and in the age range in which you assume that they weren’t financing their travels themselves. It seemed odd to me to see them in the US with the ongoing economic woes in their country, particularly when there is so much to see in nearby Europe. They didn’t seem to be the jet-set, with the affect of many of the oversized men looking like they were on the low-end of the thug continuum. In stark contrast, the Asian travelers looked decided affluent and included a much wider age spread.
An intriguing comment on a piece of Grand Canyon merchandise stated that “Hikers crossing the canyon [between the rims] will pass through every ecosystem found between Canada and Mexico.” It was a satisfying summary but must be limited to its specific longitude because there were no signs of rain forests from the trail and there are a number of rain forests on the US West Coast and at least one on the East Coast.
Tarantulas crossing the trail in broad daylight was something we’d never seen before and during this interval we saw 2, on different days. We’d only ever seen 1 tarantula before, in a more hidden rocky area in Death Valley. Bill’s online research revealed that it was mating season but still didn’t answer the question why they were so prominent this year.
A modest helipad at 3 Mile House on the south side of the canyon.
Even given our many accumulated months spent in the Grand Canyon, our late October 2018 visit was our first time to see someone airlifted out of the Canyon (from 3 Mile House) though we never found any follow-up information about the rescue. It did prompt us to learn where the unmarked helipad was located, which was merely a patch of sand and grit, and we made a point to locate one other on the south side of the canyon. Curiously, there are 3 or 4 paved and prominent helipad structures built adjacent to the pit toilet buildings on the north side of the river.
Adios Grand Canyon
After a total of 4 weeks at the Grand Canyon National Park and 2 weeks in nearby Flagstaff, we left the 7,000’ (2,100 m) desert plateau of northern Arizona for the slopes of San Jacinto Mountain near Idyllwild, California. We would be there for the maximum 2 weeks stay allowed by the campground management. We’d have easy access to great hiking trails, maintain our altitude acclimation, and enjoy warmer temperatures afforded by being a bit farther south. By December 1, we’d be settling-in at Palm Springs for our 3-month hiking season at 400’ elevation.