Rim to River to Rim

October 10th, 2020

We’re out of bed at 4:30 a.m., dressing in layers and stuffing the last few necessities in our backpacks. Do I really need my headlamp? I’ll take it just to be safe but hopefully we won’t be hiking in the dark.

We drive to the south rim of the Grand Canyon and park in front of Bright Angel Lodge — a plan we scoped out the night before. Anxious butterflies flutter in my stomach as we get on our bikes and the adventure begins. We ride three miles, eventually meeting the edge of the canyon where we trace the rim on the bike path and get our first look at what we’re in for as the sun lifts higher in the east. We could have taken a shuttle here but with the pandemic still going strong in the US, we’ve opted for leg power instead.

We lock the bikes to a tree, make our last backpack adjustments and take our first steps down the South Kaibab Trail. The route clings to the side of the canyon, dropping steeply for the first 45 minutes to Ooh Aah Point. Trail etiquette is good — everyone in masks, with high awareness of social distance and willingness to step aside for others passing by.

From Ooh Aah Point, it’s about two more hours to the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon. The trail twists in steep steps, skirting the cliff in a couple places, putting us mere inches from disaster but seeing the deep red layers of the canyon’s sediment wall from this perspective compels us forward until we finally see our first glimpse of the contrasting blue-green river below us.

Reaching the river is a major milestone, fueled by excitement and the release of remaining anxiety about getting to the bottom and completing the first half of the hike. Doing this trip in a day is an exercise in water, food and time management. Manage it wrong and you’ll end up making your hike far more difficult than it already is.

We reach the bottom, cross the bridge and spot a nice sandy beach where we refuel, wash away the sweat and soak our feet in the cold water. As spectacular as it is to sit and take it all in — the intense beauty, the vast depth, the incomprehensible age of the canyon — the second, uphill half of the day still looms in front of us. Anxiety returns. After a relaxing 30 minutes, we’re back on our feet, hiking along the river to the Bright Angel Trail.

We reach Indian Garden where the trail turns away from the river and back into the canyon. It’s about 1:30 p.m. and the sun burns relentlessly as we begin a slow slog up the trail. Looking at the canyon wall in front of us, it seems impossible that we’ll ever make it out of the canyon today. The mental game begins, volleying between feeling defeated and feeling optimistic as we move ahead switchback by switchback.

We have five miles up to go and I’m already feeling exhausted. We stop, redistribute weight from my pack to J’s pack, drink more water and eat more food. The sun is almost beyond the canyon depth, adding shade to the trail. In the coolness, I begin to feel my strength return. Just in time! We begin a steep section of switchbacks leading to a verdant stretch of trail alongside a stream. From here, it only gets steeper and rockier.

Finally in full shade, we begin the last push up. We’re accompanied by about 20 other hikers whose timing coincides with our own. We leapfrog one another as we walk, stop and start again. Two men behind us estimate they’ll finish at 7:30 p.m. — a forecast which sounds far too late since it’s only 5:00 p.m. (but ends up being accurate). Someone else says, “Doesn’t it feel like we left yesterday?” Yes, yes it does. Like we’ve packed two days into one. Aside from stopping at the river, we’ve been in motion all day long.

The long slow climb continues. Getting into a rhythm is essential. Rather than pushing and stopping, I go even slower and try not to stop at all. The setting sun lights up the canyon’s north side in a glow, inspiring me to keep going. For the 210,000+ Americans who tragically are no longer here and can’t experience this, I keep going. Looking at how high above me the canyon rim is still, I just keep going, one step at a time, focusing on the simple fortune of being here.

Finally, at 6:21 p.m., we arrive at the 1.5 mile stop below the south rim. It’s nearly dark so we don our headlamps, eat our last snacks and resume our pace. Looking up, I see the lights of hikers ahead of us, still switchbacking up the side of the canyon, but eventually I get far enough up to trace the string of lights and find the last long switchback from right to left. Now in darkness, I know where the last climb is and I hear the hoots and hollers of people being cheered on as they reach the rim.

I plod on in the dark, seeing only the small cone of light from my headlamp and the trail within it in front of me. I have no idea what the terrain around me looks like but I do know at this point I’m on a cliff face so I hug the canyon wall, being careful not to step near the open edge of the trail.

J is ahead of me, being pulled by the reward of the end. But on the last steps of the last climb, I catch up with him as he stops to put on a warm shirt. We take our last steps to the top together. At 7:28 p.m., we summit at Bright Angel Lodge and celebrate the day, the achievement, the dream. It was a spectacular, brutal, epic, endless hike of a lifetime. I will never do it again.

And I’ve never been happier to see the car. After picking up the bikes, we drive to our camp, hobble into bed and can’t wait to do nothing tomorrow as we savor all the sweat, beauty and grandeur of today.

13 hours
20 miles
1 bike ride to the South Kaibab Trail
4,780 ft descent from rim to river
1 dip in the Colorado River
2 bridge crossings to Bright Angel Trail
4,380 ft vertical climb from river to rim
6:37 a.m. start
7:28 p.m. finish in the dark, by headlamp
1 big birthday
1 grand, spectacular Grand Canyon
1 epic hike of a lifetime

More from the road tomorrow,
Kelly

Post of the Day: Adding a bit of light to the darkness as we get through the pandemic together. This series features travel photos from my archives, shared with you while staying close to home.

35 comments

  • Kelly! Congrats, girlie! What an accomplishment! A great way to start an epic Southwestern road trip! And happy birthday! ๐ŸŽ‰๐ŸŒต๐Ÿ‘

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  • and a number of good photos that are a good substitute for birthday candles.

    The hike seems stunning but frightening, like if it is necessary to reach this physical distress to enjoy the place.

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  • That really was an out of the world epic. I could feel every step on the way down to the river, the dipping feet tired from walking long into the water, and then the extremely challenging climb back to the top. The finale is right out of those Nat Geo episodes, boots crunching along in the dark with just a splash of light to show the path in front with the deep canyon opening besides in the dark, and tiny lights ahead to guide you. And the euphoria of reaching the top finally! A tribute to your traveling spirit Kelly. You mention that you would not take this trip again ๐Ÿ™‚, so wish you many more happy returns of the day in other such amazing circumstances๐ŸŽ‚๐Ÿฐ๐Ÿ’๐ŸŽ‰
    The pictures are wonderful! It must feel so fulfilling to take and finish well this very challenging trek, and thanks so much for letting us experience it too ๐Ÿ’–

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    • Thank you so much!! You are so thoughtful. Looking back now, just two weeks after this trek, I’m thrilled that I did it! And maybe I would do it again — with a bit more time to enjoy it. We had hoped to camp overnight for a few days but didn’t win the camping permit “lottery” so that’s why we had to do it in a day. In any case, a worthy way to remember a birthday!! Thanks again. โ™ฅ

      Liked by 1 person

  • Wow wow wow! So brilliant. That must have been aaaaamazing, and such a sense of accomplishment. So beautifully written Kelly, and stunning photos. Hugs to you both and happy birthday – same as Don’s!!!!!
    Alison

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    • Thanks Alison! Super happy I chose this feat as a birthday challenge. Was so memorable. I posted a day late so I think maybe Don and I are a day apart on birthdays — regardless, hope his celebration was fun! Thanks again.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Absolutely awe-inspiring, Kelly! I’m proud of you ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚ What a day! Incomparable! Belated happy birthday ๐Ÿ™‚

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  • This is so inspiring, Kelly, especially since this year I’ve been living a pretty much sedentary lifestyle due to the pandemic. I can relate to your sentiment about not willing to do it again despite the reward we get once we finish the arduous hike — it reminds me of my experience at Mount Rinjani in Lombok back in 2013. However, the strange thing is, usually months later that feeling of longing to be out there doing this again suddenly resurface, or at least that was what I felt. But for the foreseeable future, I believe you’ll be cherishing this as a memorable accomplishment for your birthday gift. Happy belated birthday!

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    • Bama, you are so right! Even just two weeks out from the hike now, I’m already thinking how incredible it was and that maybe I would do it again with a litte more time. We weren’t able to get a camping permit (a lottery system) which would have allowed us to take more time so our only option was to hike down and up in a day. In any case, it was an exceptional day and experience. One I won’t ever forget. And I just went to your site and read your Rinjani post, by the way! Wow, what a challenge! Your descriptions are so relatable — walking on the trail, fighting the mental battle, preparing for the up. Belief is such a huge part of any successful mountain climb. Thank you so much for the birthday wishes!!

      Liked by 1 person

  • Kelly, I am so thrilled for you! You know I did a killer hike for my big birthday last summer also, and (of course, my outdoor sister!) I used a similar strategy as you did when things got tough: just keep moving, no matter how slowly. Like many others and like my husband, I charged ahead boldly at the beginning and then stopped for breaks, but I found as you did that a slow and steady climb, a rhythm of steps more than anything, was what got me up the mountain. I can picture you guys panting up there and feel your exhilaration upon finishing! Once again, happiest birthday – you celebrated it well!

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    • I remember your post last summer! THAT was a really amazing accomplishment! Thank you for the birthday wishes, sister. ๐Ÿ™‚ Love that we agree that a big year should be celebrated with a big mountain! There’s nothing like it, and no better way to remember it. Shorten the steps, find the rhythm and keep on going to the end! Thanks again for following along. xo

      Liked by 1 person

  • What a great way to spend your birthday! Feliz Cumpleaรฑos!

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  • That was quite the walk you two took. ๐Ÿ™‚ But, worth it!! Thanks for sharing the story, and the incredible photos. And, Happy Birthday!!

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  • Brilliant! Way to go! Great accomplishment! I am jealous even though I know I am not capable of this kind of an effort.

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  • Wow, what an amazing accomplishment! Congrats! What a unique way to see the canyon.

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  • Beautiful! And, I guess, a lot more rewarding than doing a scenic flight or anything like that.

    Ooh Ah Point’s got a great name!

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  • Wow!!! Just wow. You are both an amazing and inspiring couple Kelly. I know I will never be able to do what you have achieved but thanks for doing it for all of us and sharing it so beautifully. Congratulations and standing O from over here. Take care and enjoy the rest of your travels, and Happy Birthday once again ๐Ÿ’•

    Liked by 1 person

    • From my heart to yours, thank you for such a kind comment. I will share this with Jay. Itโ€™s such a joy to share this day and trip with you through words and photos. Thanks for coming along!! And for my first standing ovation, too! ๐Ÿ™‚ Youโ€™re the best.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Wow what an accomplishment! Those photos made me feel sick just looking at them and the heights and sheer drops, jeepers.

    Liked by 1 person

  • I’ve left 2 lengthy replies to your Post Kelly but WordPress has not uploaded them. Really magical blog Kelly & Happy birthday.

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    • Thank you so much Brian! Really appreciate your thoughts. The recent changes within WordPress are really frustrating. Hope they get the glitches worked out. Sorry the replies wonโ€™t post but great to hear from you!

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  • I can hardly breathe looking down from these heights via your pictures; I can only imagine how I’d feel if I were really there. Excellent photos! And how you have time to post I’ll never understand!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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