At 4:20 a.m., the great panorama of the Grand Canyon shrinks considerably. It will be two hours until the sun rises high enough for its rays to dip into the gorge. Until then, I only see what my headlamp lights: the hiker ahead, the canyon wall on my left, and the reverse silhouette of dust streaming past.
Some might ask why visit the canyon at an hour when so little can be seen? The answer is simple: To see even more. Fourteen years earlier I hiked to the bottom and back in two days, but never saw the North Rim. This time, we’ll hike 24 miles in a single day from the popular South Rim down to the Colorado River and then up and out via the remote North Rim. This requires starting early enough so we can finish before sunset and before the October temperatures dropped toward freezing.
Our descent begins in darkness and near silence. Unseen critters scurry into the brush beneath the switchbacking trail. Jupiter, the Big Dipper and the rest of the Milky Way spill across the sky until ending in the opacity of the canyon walls. Once morning arrives, the canyon’s edges come into view: the sheer walls, towering crags, and a hatched tree line of pines atop the rims. Eventually the sun is fully up, revealing the canyon’s brilliant bands of red, brown and white.
By 9 a.m. we reach the Colorado River and cross the bridge to the Phantom Ranch Lodge, where we lunch and rest for an hour. The 10-mile hike down took 4½ hours. This leaves 14 miles for the longer and more arduous hike up to the North Rim that will require every minute until sun fall at 6 p.m.
However, the remaining trek up isn’t all toil, at least not at first. From a hiking perspective, if the canyon were cut sideways, it would roughly resemble a bathtub with steep sides dropping toward a gradually pitched bottom. Within this tub, the canyon's bottom expanse north of the Colorado River features the six most beautiful miles I’ve ever experienced in the canyon. The North Rim is greener than the South Rim, with many yucca and cottonwoods feeding from the Bright Angel Creek. The trail along the North Kaibab Trail up to the North Rim also crisscrosses the creek, and the ample shade and gradual slope allows for an easy enjoyment of the scenery.
And it’s side canyons like these below the North Rim that are key to the park’s overall aesthetic grandeur. Without them, the Grand Canyon would just be a deep, narrow gash. In fact what visitors see from the South Rim isn’t just one canyon, but a main canyon oriented along the Colorado River and many smaller canyons radiating to the north that give the canyon its commanding three-dimensionality.
All about the optics
Any visit to either rim also reveals the cliché to be true that pictures never fully capture the full grandeur of the Grand Canyon. This is partly because the Grand Canyon is so vast at 277 miles long, 18 miles wide, and a mile deep. A camera lens will inevitably flatten out the many distances of rock strata, plateaus, and side canyons that the human eye brings into complete and continual focus as it moves over the canyon. Like beholding a Cezanne or Monet, it takes something as complex as the human eye to isolate one masterful part and not lose focus on how the grand whole.
Then there’s the canyon’s varied light qualities. Most visitors are surprised to learn that while being one of the deepest gorges in the world, the canyon’s South Rim is perched at a mountainous elevation of about 7,000 feet. This is higher than the tallest peak within the Appalachian Mountains, with the North Rim being another 1,000 feet higher still. This elevation lends a crisp, thinner quality to the atmosphere, which is ever changing depending on which low clouds drift by, the gradations of air particulates softening distant vistas, and the angle and intensity of the Arizona sun.
As grand as the sights are, at the 16-mile mark my thoughts turn inward nearly as precipitously as the trail shoots upward. To give a sense of how steep the trail becomes, the 14-mile North Kaibab Trail covers a total elevation change from base to rim of 5,850 feet – or more than a mile – of which 80 percent (about 4,750 feet) occurs over the last eight miles.
Lactic Acid Nightmares
Put another way, I can briskly walk on flat land at about 4 miles an hour. On a steep decline or slightly rising trail, this drops to 3 miles per hour, but on the steepest upper switchbacks along the North Rim, it took me as long as a full hour to traverse a single maddening mile. At that point, the need to pause for breathers came quicker and quicker, but paradoxically, I need to make these breaks shorter and shorter to avoid muscle cramps in the cooling temperatures. (In fact, in less than a week, the North Rim road will be closed for the winter due to threat of snow.)
At this point, the hike becomes all mind games. Most of my hiking companions resort to headphones to distract themselves. In my case, I set an endless series of small goals. “No sip of water until you reached that tree the hiker 15 minutes ahead just passed.” “No stopping until you reach that bend where the view back toward the South Rim should be amazing.”
This carries me all the way to Supai Tunnel, which is a mere 1.8 miles from the top, but they are the most grinding of all with an elevation change of more than a quarter mile. In turn, my goals becomes insanely miniscule. I tell myself, “No pausing until I complete the next three switchbacks.” Once I finished those, I’d say, “Okay, that wasn’t so bad. Let’s save that sip of water until you finish another two switchbacks.”
In this manner, I make step-by-step progress until finally emerging from the canyon at 5:50 p.m. My leg muscles feel like rubberbands stretched to their limits, but a huge sense of accomplishment sets in as I look back at South Rim which is fading fast in the evening dusk.
For dinner, our group of five hikers assemble in the main restaurant of the Grand Canyon Lodge, which is one of those classic park lodges with an all-timber structure, high ceilings and stone fireplaces. Conversation is minimal. I’d like to say it is because we were taking in the rustic beauty of the lodge and the great views from those huge picture windows, but the truth is every muscle in our bodies barked at us to get to bed as soon as possible.
The next morning is different. Although moving slowly, we shuffle to one of the lodge’s great stone terraces and took in our hard-earned North Rim view of the Grand Canyon in full daytime illumination. The view is not a mirror image of the view from the South Rim. All the basic features of the canyon’s great length and width are there, but since the North Rim is set back nearly five miles further from the Colorado River than the South Rim, one loses that sense of precipitous depth experienced on the edge of the South Rim.
But the biggest difference is all the green. From the South Rim, the canyon appears fairly stark and denuded of flora; however, when viewed from the north, one sees a lot more vegetation clinging to the backside of those buttes and plateaus that are invisible to South Rim visitors.
I also see a web of new hiking trails leading off across the plateau of the North Rim. Despite my weary state, they intrigue me. I even catch myself thinking what a shame it is to have come this far and not know what new views of the Grand Canyon can be had from those trails. Although I’m in no condition to explore them at the moment, they produce a realization worthy of the Grand Canyon’s timelessness:
Nothing quite recommends a destination as one that begs a return visit.
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