Hiking in Grand Canyon: Ascent from Rock Bottom
Updated: Nov 5, 2022
Today’s story finds us in Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park. One hike that I have had on my bucket list for a long period of time was the Bright Angel Trail within this park. This is a trail that starts at the canyon’s rim before descending several miles down into the canyon towards the Colorado River. The trail offers incredible views and is a great way to experience this incredible park. Whether it’s the canyon walls rising upwards behind you as you descend, the desert vistas that are prevalent throughout the entire trail, or silver line of the river far below you; there is not a single part of this trail that wasn’t a treat for the eyes. Completing this trail also marked a large personal accomplishment for me.
A little less than a year prior to this trip, I had taken a trip to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. For several years prior to this trip, I had not taken good care of my health. I had stopped working out or watching what I ate. Because of this, I had become extremely overweight. Although I knew this was true on some level, my trip to Colorado brought this fact to light very vividly. I had intentionally limited myself to easier 5-mile hikes on this trip but even those caused me to run out breath and required frequent breaks to complete. Escaping into nature, going on hikes, and taking photographs had always been a motivating force in my life and I felt I was losing the ability to live the type of lifestyle I had envisioned for myself due to my poor health choices. Following this trip to Colorado, I had committed myself to getting healthy. I knew that Arizona and the Grand Canyon would be my next trip and I also knew I would be very disappointed in myself if I was not able to complete the Bright Angel Trail. This trip served as motivation over the coming months for getting into shape. I spent the next 8 months working out 6-7 days a week and cutting out all unhealthy food. After struggling on 5-mile trails in moderate climate in Colorado, I knew I would have little hope of completing a 12-mile trail in the extreme weather of Arizona. After 8 months of my regime, I had shed 55 pounds and was in the best shape of my life and ready to take on Arizona. I am also very proud to say that this shift has become a permanent lifestyle change I have continued to this day, and it has made a very positive difference in my life.
When it was finally time for me to travel to Arizona, I was ready for the challenge. I flew into the airport in Phoenix. Knowing that the Grand Canyon posed many challenges already, I didn’t want to add altitude sickness onto the list of obstacles, so I choose to spend a few days in Sedona, Arizona first to get used to the elevation change. This is a great town that is worth visiting for anyone in the area and is well worth its own story down the line. Sedona is a town based around holistic healing and mediation that is built in the middle of Red Rocks State Park. This town also happened to be where I enjoyed the best meals during my stay in Arizona.
After a few days of short hikes and meditation, I was ready to take on the Grand Canyon. I drove two hours west from Sedona towards Williams, Arizona where I would be staying for the next few days. Williams is known as the gateway to the Grand Canyon and is a tourist town located on historic route 66. It is still located an hour away from the entrance into the Grand Canyon which does create a longer than ideal daily commute to and from the park. Another option that is closer to the park itself is the town of Tusyana which is located right outside of the park’s southern entrance. Although this town has fewer amenities, it is located right outside of the park’s entrance.
I set off towards the Bright Angel Trail early morning and parked at the trailhead as the sun was coming up. I wanted to make sure I had a full day to complete this hike without needing to rush any aspect of it. Although it is possible to take this trail from the canyon’s southern rim, all the way to the northern rim; this was far too ambitious a target for me to accomplish within one day with no prior arrangement’s setup at the northern rim’s trailhead. Instead, my goal was reaching Skeleton Point, a final overlook directly above the Colorado River. The entire roundtrip hike totaled 12 miles, a considerable length for one day. To add to the hike’s challenge, I was taking on this hike in the middle of August. The temperature at the valley’s rim was a blistering 100 degrees, with temperatures reaching 110 degrees within the valley itself.
I began my descent into the canyon and was greeted with incredible scenery and herds of Big Horn Sheep running up and down the steep canyon walls. This trail is among the most popular in the park and there is no shortage of people on the initial portion of the trail. The further along the trail you travel, the less people you encounter. There are several rest stops on this trail that have bathrooms and water fill up stations, luxuries that are not included on too many other trails within the park. Given the high temperatures and no humidity, I knew that hydration would be crucial on this trail. I brought several liters of water with me, drank liberally, and filled back up at every available opportunity. The entire trail is well marked and is dotted with desert plants and flowers throughout most of the trail. The deeper into the trail you go, the higher the walls descend above you. One sign that appears frequently on this trail that stood out to me is: “Down is Optional, Up is Mandatory”. Translation: if you take this trail unprepared and get in trouble for any reason, then you better find a way to get yourself out of that trouble. A very clearly defined warning for all would be travelers, this is not a trail to tackle unprepared. Eventually, I reached the base of the first plateau, and I took off towards this plateaus edge, the main canyon walls fading in the distance behind me. The landscape becomes much more wide open. What stands out the most at this level of the trail is simply how large this plateau is. Viewed from the top of the canyon’s edge, it is hard to grasp its full scale but there is no denying it once you are standing in the middle and seeing the terrain stretch beyond visibility in all directions. This part of the trail is a relatively easy hike since it is miles of flat ground. Roughly a mile before the Skeleton point, the Bright Angel Trail takes you through a section known as Indian Gardens. This is a lush, vegetated oasis of vibrant color that stands out in stark contrast to the bright red color of the surrounding rocks and offers the only shade to be found on this entire trail.
Once I made it past Indian Gardens, it was back on flat desert terrain and my target was within site. Another mile of hiking took me to Skeleton Point. I enjoyed a lunch of trail mix and power bars with my feet dangling off the edge of this plateau, looking down at the Colorado River 100s of feet below me. Although the beginning of the trail was filled with hikers, very few make it this far. I enjoyed this lookout in utter seclusion. The only sound was the rushing waters of the Colorado far below me. After a peaceful hour taking in the views, I got back on the trail and headed back in the direction I came. A second chance to enjoy this amazing trail and fully understanding why it’s often ranked as one of the world’s top hiking trails. By late afternoon, I was back at the trailhead, my mission accomplished.
I was happy with what I was able to accomplish. The year prior, every trail in Colorado had tired me out. But this time, I had tackled a trail 3x the length and under much harsher temperatures. Despite that, I was far less tired than I had been at the end of any day in Colorado. I had set out to change my lifestyle and become more fit and I had exceeded my expectations. Being able to complete this trail was my reward for months of hard work and it was worth every drop of sweat. This reward was fuel for me continuing my new lifestyle of consistent trips to the gym and healthy eating. After all, if I could tackle this trail, then there are many more trails on my bucket list that I can now take on. But those are stories for another day…
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