I’m sorry it’s been so long since my last post. I still need to do a post on my 100 miler last December (my friend made an incredible video documenting it that I’ll share asap). But while it’s fresh on my mind and I have hours in the car, airport and plane, I wanted to share my latest big adventure.
I hiked across the Grand Canyon in one day this past weekend from the North Rim to the South Rim. The word “epic” is use very frequently these days and I feel like it’s lost it’s true meaning these days, but I really can’t think of another word to describe the experience. It was EPIC (with a lot of emphasis). I hiked with my bestie and college roommate Tara to celebrate her 40th birthday. Words can’t do this hike justice so I’ll attach some photos even though those don’t do it justice either. Basically you just have to go. It’s amazing to see the canyon, even from the rims, but it’s another thing to hike down into the bottom and then back up and out. And the wildlife, vegetation, and vistas along the way will absolutely blow your mind. It humbles you. It never gets old. You want take a trillion pictures. Every time you think it can’t get more incredible, it does. You don’t want the experience to ever end. Ok, that last part is only partly true LOL (because the bottom of the canyon is HOT and it IS a big hike). I’m not going to narrate the entire hike because you just need to do it yourself, but really quick, we were surprised how easy going down was. We got to Phantom Ranch which is considered the bottom of the canyon via the North Kaibab trail at 9:22am. It took us 6hr 10 min to cover those 13.7 miles. Then we hiked out via the Bright Angel trail which took us exactly 7 hours to cover those 9.5 miles (these times include all stops/potty breaks/etc). We covered a lot of ground early on and got through the bottom of the canyon which is the hottest place in the canyon very early which contributed to our success. The end was obviously the hardest.
I decided to organize this post based on questions people might have that want to do this hike someday. However, I will say that even if you’re unable to do the full rim to rim hike, it’s still worth going to the Grand Canyon and you can hike as little or as much as you like, even if it’s just a half mile or something small. It is gorgeous from the top, but it’s worth leaving the rim and going down even if just a little bit. Just exercise extreme caution because as all of their signs say, going down is optional but going up is mandatory. I hope that this post doesn’t come across as blasé – this was a serious hike that we didn’t take lightly. As we learned from the ranger, they average about 150 helicopter medical evacuations per year which averages to about 1 per day during peak season (yes, there was one when we were hiking although we did not see it). Out of those ~150, about 15 will be the type of rescue where the chopper can’t land due to the terrain and the hiker will have to be strapped to a stretcher and reeled into the helicopter. Anyhow, today’s post categories will be:
1. General Tips
2. Recommended Gear
3. Fuel & Hydration
4. Things That Surprised Us
5. Lessons Learned
6. Fun Facts
7. Our Itinerary
All of the information I will share below is fully based on our particular experience at this time of year (early June) and on our selected route (North Kaibab – Bright Angel). While both of us have done some basic hiking, we consider ourselves fairly novice hikers. Perhaps now we have been promoted and can call ourselves intermediate hikers haha.
- Plan ahead: Logistics. Lodging is extremely limited so your trip may require some serious lead time. Also, the logistics can be tricky (figuring out shuttles from rim to rim to stage a car etc) so unfortunately it’s not an easy trip to just wing last minute.
- Plan Ahead: Fitness. As an ultra runner who was picturing the climb up out of the canyon to be extremely technical requiring me to scramble up boulders on my hands and knees, this hike was easier than I expected. That said, even as a fairly seasoned distance runner who recently ran 100 miles (in one day), it was still challenging due to the combination of several factors: altitude (which living at about 600 feet in elevation is vastly different for me), elevation (I don’t regularly get to hike or run where there are significant elevation changes), dry heat (it’s humid where I live), direct sun during the most challenging part of the hike (up and out of the canyon). So depending on your level of fitness, you may want to specifically train to complete this challenging hike.
- Make sure you have the proper gear (see that section below).
- You should always be drinking lots of water, but you really should start hydrating the week before and especially several days prior.
- Talk to the park ranger the day before your hike at the Backcountry Office for last minute tips, up to date trail conditions and information, and to find out available water sources on the trail. Shout out to our ranger Nate (we think we remember his last name as Powers) for all of the awesome tips and advice!
- Screen shot the trail maps ahead of time for quick reference on your phone during your hike and/or take a paper map as well.
- Cover your skin as much as possible; the less skin exposed, the better.
- Regularly apply sunscreen to the small parts that are exposed (hands, face, and neck).
- Probably one of our most important pieces of advice: YOU NEED TO STAY AHEAD OF THE HEAT. This means to start implementing your heat strategies earlier than you think you need them (i.e. BEFORE you are hot). The best way to do this is to never pass up an opportunity to wet (soak) your clothes. This is something I learned the hard way from running two 100k’s and a 50 miler all in 85-95 degree temps. I’ve been much more successful and had much more preferable outcomes when following this strategy and implementing it here worked like a charm. As it turned out, there were multiple places both at water stations and at natural streams where we were able to wet (and soak) our clothes. I even laid down in the steams several times and completely drenched my entire body – shoes, pants, shirt, and all! The wet clothes kept me cool and comfortable and I didn’t really even break a “big” sweat until the ascent in the main heat of the day. The dry heat slowly but easily dried our clothes just in time for us to repeat the process at the next water source.
- Also extremely important, NEVER pass up an opportunity to top off your water supply even if you think you have more than enough. This Canyon is no joke. I know it’s more weight to haul but trust me, you never know if your life will depend on it and carrying a few more ounces/pounds of water is worth the effort. I repeat, NEVER pass up an opportunity to top off your water supply even if you think you have more than enough.
Head Lamp – You will likely start off in the dark (more on that below) so you’ll want a headlamp. We both have different models of Black Diamond headlamps. Mine is this one (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01LE9Z8PW/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_i_lbP.CbHF6YE85) although admittedly it is a bit over the top for the average person. I got it because it lasts a *really* long time so I can make it through and overnight ultramarathon.
Ziplock Bag – You will want a bag for packing out trash whether it’s food wrappers or dirty wipes from going #2
Wipes – Unless you like using leaves, you’ll want wipes for going #2 if you can’t make it to a composting toilet.
Day Pack – You’ll want a nice day pack backpack. Tara had an Osprey with a 16L capacity and mine was also an Osprey but with 20L. We were both really happy with our packs and both also felt like we could have fit more if we wanted to (although you don’t want it too heavy of course because it’s a long hike).
Hydration Bladder – In your pack you’ll need a hydration bladder no smaller than 3L. Tara also had a regular 24oz water bottle for her electrolytes.
Bandana/Cooling Towel/Buff – Tara carried a bandana that she soaked in water along the way and put around her neck. I used a cooling towel for the same thing (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07G8X2D78/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_i_mgP.Cb4DKR11K).
Trekking Poles – Both of us has a pair of Black Diamond trekking poles (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00GZPYYZQ/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_i_0hP.CbWGPT93K).
Good Shoes – By good, I mean ones that you can hike a long time in that won’t give you blisters. As usual, I wore my Mizuno Wave Inspire road shoes that I wear for everything so don’t let anyone tell you “have” to go get hiking boots or shoes if you don’t want to. Tara has on trail running shoes.
Good Socks – Again, pick something you can wear comfortably a long time. My personal favorite socks that I wear for everything (hiking and running) are Feetures.
Attire – We both wore long hiking pants (hers were Prana and mine were Kuhl). And we also both wore a lightweight moisture wicking long sleeved button down shirt (hers was Athleta and mine was by Columbia) and we also both wore white cotton T shirts. Tara wore her T under her long sleeve shirt which she kept open, and I wore my T shirt on top because it was Scott’s and was giant on me (men’s size XL). I actually only brought it to sleep in the night before the hike because I had planned to leave it behind so I didn’t have to carry it. [Note: because our car was parked and waiting for us at the South Rim, everything we brought with us to the North Rim had to either be left behind or carried with us on the trail (i.e. extra weight) so we both pretty much traveled in our hiking clothes and didn’t have anything extra.] Once I realized how chilly it was as the start at the North Rim (high 50’s maybe low 60’s??), I decided to just wear Scott’s T shirt on top as an added layer to stay warm since it was all I had and it was PERFECT. As the day warmed up, I was able to take it off and start dunking it in water soaking it and then put it back on to cool down. Even though it was very hot and dry, because it was cotton, it held the water pretty well. It worked out perfectly and I would do the same thing again next time. Even tho Tara did the inverse of me, it basically worked the same for her although she just took off her long sleeve to dunk which soaked her cotton T under it (which held the water and kept her cool). As I mentioned above, we repeated this process every time we found a water source whether it was natural or man-made.
Hat or visor/shield – Tara wore a wide brimmed hat but because I always have my hair in a messy bun, I wear a visor. Wearing a visor still exposes my neck and ears though so I an awesome drape that fits either a visor or basketball cap that I LOVE. It also snaps under the chin in case it’s windy. It’s easily removable to dunk as well to keep you cool. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07D5JJ6PP/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_i_BkP.Cb5QFAW6H
Anti chafe – Tara did not use any anti-chafe and was fine but I was too chicken and used my usual favorite anti-chafe product (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B001CJX1UY/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_i_rlP.Cb5PB3S0K) and didn’t have any problems either. I just always use it for super long activities just in case.
Sunscreen – It should go without saying but you’ll want sunscreen. I only had to do my face, neck and hands. I don’t think my face or neck ever even saw the sun so I didn’t keep up with them, only my hands. After 11 hours outside, neither of us had any signs of sunburn or even a tan!
Collapsible cup – This was definitely not necessary but nice to have and I used some to scoop water to pour on myself at times. I’d probably carry it again just because it’s small and only weighs 2oz.
Other – Gear not used but brought (and would bring again): pocket knife, rescue whistle and extra wipes (have you read my post about my first 50 miler? 😉 (https://livinwiththelehnhoffs.com/2017/02/13/my-first-50-mile-ultramarathon/)
Fuel & Hydration
As many of you know, I follow a raw vegan fruitarian diet but my hiking companion Tara is an omnivore (she eats everything). I want share what we both ate and drank so you have an idea what got us through the hike. We both were very satisfied with our food and hydration choices and wouldn’t do anything different the next time.
Tara – Tara ate a big sandwich early in the morning (half at 5am and the other half not too much later than that). She then fueled the rest of the hike with nuts, nut butters and dried fruit. She also had a water bottle with electrolyte powder mixed with water (she used Propel) which she refilled a few times.
Megan – The short version is that I consumed about 1,000 calories of dates and one pound of celery. Here’s the long version in case you’re interested: I originally was planning on my usual of grapes and celery (was gonna skip the mandarins out of simplicity and logistics) but at the last minute decided to switch to something new! I’ve run a couple ultras on dates only and while it worked for me, it wasn’t my favorite. I felt like they kind of bloated me. My coach Doug mentioned soaking them in water in a baggie to rehydrate them a bit might help and that gave me an idea. I blended 1,000 calories of dates with water until it was pourable and added a nice little spice blend of cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, clove and ginger and put it into three 7oz reusable baby food pouches that I bought on amazon (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07H8DN35J/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_i_pmP.Cb5660M76). Cold, this tasted like gingerbread cookie dough and warm this tasted like the gooey cinnamon sauce part of a cinnamon roll. Each one weighed about 8oz so altogether at 1.5 lb, it was still less than half the weight of what about 1,000 calories of grapes weighs. It worked great and tasted amazing on the trail. And so easy! I may even find a way to incorporate this into my ultra running and it will definitely save on plastic! It was kinda like a raw vegan gel or gu without the chemicals and weird ingredients I can’t pronounce. Also, in general, I try not to eat any salt as it suppresses our production of aldosterone which is a hormone that regulates our body’s sodium levels. As I understand it, after several months of not eating salt, our aldosterone production returns to normal and our body does not release salt in the same way that it does when we consume salt – instead our bodies will retain our sodium levels naturally much better. This is how I have been able to run multiple 100k’s and a 50 miler in high temps (86-95 degrees) and also a 100 miler and not consume any salt or salt tabs, processed foods, sports drinks, etc. Now I can add hiking across the Grand Canyon in the summer to the list! Instead of consuming salt, I get my sodium naturally through my food (namely celery when I compete or do something like this). So just like in my ultras, I munched on celery throughout the the entire hike (although I had to carry all of it with me – 1 lb). It was very tasty and refreshing and always hit the spot. Again, from what I understand, you cannot just randomly skip or stop eating salt and expect your body to instantly be able to maintain its sodium level. You will have to go several MONTHS of consuming ZERO salt before it can do this. If you were to try this before immediately prior to this hike (or any big physical activity, especially one in heat), you would very likely become hyponatremic which is a life threatening condition so plan this part of your fueling very cautiously. To me personally, eating salt tabs is scary. Even back when I consumed table salt, eating the salt pills during races completely freaked me out because salt dehydrates us. Why would I want to dehydrate myself ever, let alone during a huge physical activity in high temperatures? It just has always made no sense to me. And too much salt can kill us (that’s why we can’t drink sea water). So taking salt tabs etc to me is like playing Russian Roulette. How do you know how much salt to take so that you don’t OD on it? Do we ever really know exactly how much we are sweating out during a race or hike so we know how much to replace it with? Maybe I’m just a chicken but now that I have learned this alternative (not consuming salt), I’d rather just play it safe and eat celery which can’t hurt me, gives me sodium, and also happens to hydrate me. Tons of people do consume salt and salt specific products during races/big hikes/etc though and make it work just fine and Tara modeled this perfectly on our hike. You just have to be very careful no matter which method you choose as both too much salt and too little salt are both extremely dangerous.
Things that surprised us…
- (both of us) the variability of the terrain helped keep our legs fresher than we thought they would be!
- (both of us) how much the trekking poles helped us on both the descent (more for balance) and on the ascent. We felt they helped to conserve our energy. We definitely would not hike the Grand Canyon without them. We even found ourselves judging the people we called the “badass idiots” without them.
- (both of us) the perfect temperature at the North Rim when we started at 3am. We expected it to be very cold. Long sleeves with a T-shirt was perfect
- (both of us) with the exception of a few teenagers with their parents, there were no hikers under college age on the trail (except for closer to the top of Bright Angel on the South Rim, and even then I think we only saw 4 kids).
- (both of us) you can really see the elevation change not only in rock layers but also in vegetation which was really cool.
- (both of us) While the hike from the North Rim to the South Rim was only 23.9 miles, the shuttle ride between the two is a 4.5 hour drive!!!
- (Megan) – I know it sounds really stupid, but I was surprised by the heights at the Grand Canyon because there really are a LOT of dangerous spots without railings where one trip and fall sideways would mean immediate death (hence why I assume we didn’t see any children). Also, as a note, for this simple fact and the small bridges you must cross, if you have a paralyzing fear of heights, you will not want to attempt this hike.
- (Megan) – because it’s 1) Arizona and 2) the Grand Canyon, I thought it would be hot as hell at the rims and hotter than hell inside the canyon. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the weather at both rims, but especially the north, was extremely pleasant (perfect in fact). I’m sure as summer progresses, the rim weather does warm up especially on the south, but the notable heat is at the base of the canyon, not up top.
- Layering is nice for staying warm in the morning when it’s lower temps, but then also for keeping cool (see my notes on gear for what we wore).
- Again, our trekking poles were amazing (see above as well).
- Everyone told us you’ll never regret starting even earlier than you think you’ll need to. And this is absolutely 100% true. I cannot stress this enough. We feel 3am is the money time to go and would leave at 3am again the next time, not earlier and not later.
- Neither of us recommend doing this hike alone just for safety in case something goes wrong.
- Hiking the North Rim to the South Rim is the preferred direction for first timers. After doing this, we completely agree and are happy with our choice to follow this advice. Also, while we can’t speak for the South Kaibab trail because we didn’t take it, knowing that water is extremely limited on it and while shorter than the alternative trail, the elevation gain on South Kaibab is greater, we were also happy with our decision to take the Bright Angel trail back up to the South Rim. It is also more convenient because it ends right in the heart of the South Rim village (versus the South Kaibab trail which ends in a location that only shuttles can access).
- We woke up 2:18am and started at 3:12am to beat the heat!
- We don’t know exactly how much water we drank, but we estimate that we both drank at least 9L of water during the hike (so almost 2.5 gallons each).
- Our Garmin Felix 5S watches didn’t work at all! By the half-way point they were already off by about 6 miles. This was extremely disappointing. Apparently this is common as the canyon walls are so high that they block the satellite signals.
- We didn’t see hardly any trash at all – only three small pieces, all of which I picked up and carried out with me. We saw a 4th piece – a poopy wipe, but that’s where I drew the line, haha. Hopefully it will decompose soon tho! 😉
- Yes they do have some water sources for drinking along the way (remember what I said about ALWAYS topping off your water supply? 😉 as well as some composting toilets. All of the toilets were immaculately clean with the exception of the last two on the Bright Angel trail (towards the rim) which are probably the two most highest trafficked toilets on any of the Grand Canyon trails.
- As you may have read about before in some of my race recaps, I brushed a thin layer of super glue on my feet and toes on my hot spots before we hiked and I didn’t get any blisters. Tara didn’t know where her hot spots were and didn’t use any glue and got blisters. She says now she knows where to glue next time! 😉
- Neither of us fell! Amazing! Again, I think the poles helped here too!
- You get to cross lots of cool bridges!
- It’s kind of obvious but cell service is extremely limited (even on the rims), so we hiked on airplane mode to conserve our phone batteries so they wouldn’t die and we could keep taking pictures.
- Neither of us trained specifically for this hike. However, I am currently training for a 100 mile trail race later this year. I’m actually in my off-season right now and only running 20 miles a week but have been focusing on my strength the last 10 weeks or so via deadlifts. Tara is an avid desert mountain biker and also is working towards a 450 hour Pilates certification and is doing ungodly amounts of Pilates.
- At both rims, there are seasonal workers (hotel, cabins, restaurants, tour companies and gift shops). We just kept marveling how cool those jobs would have been as college kids or even in retirement. The lady at the visitor center shared that she and her husband just travel the country and work at different parks in different seasons and just love it!
- It was 98 degrees at Phantom Ranch at 9:30am when we arrived (the bottom of canyon). I’m sure The Box got hotter as the day wore on. See why you want to start at 3am? 😉
- We saw one mule train carrying people down the canyon.
- We also saw some rafts in the Colorado River!
Our itinerary: We were on a very tight schedule so everything had to go exactly according to plan (and it did).
- I flew into PHX at 7:20am on Friday.
- We drove straight from the airport to the South Rim (~3.5 hrs from PHX).
- It was $35/vehicle to enter the park which is good for 7 days so it covered our whole trip.
- We parked in lot D which is for overnight hikers (which we weren’t but we were going to the North Rim for the night and able to leave our car there). This is the parking lot for the Backcountry Office and where you can speak with a ranger about your hike.
- We then walked to Bright Angel Lodge where we met our shuttle to the North Rim. Check-in was at 1pm for a 1:30pm departure.
- We arrived at the North Rim at about 6pm and we checked into the North Rim Lodge where we stayed Friday night.
- It is 1.7 miles from the lodge to the North Kaibab trailhead, but the lodge offers a free shuttle service on the hour starting at 3am. While 1.7 miles isn’t that far to walk, it’s more about saving time and getting more miles in during the dark (lower heat) and having less time in the high temps. Plus less time on your feet. We left at 3am.
- We started our hike at 3:12am.
- We were in the dark for maybe 2 hours (sunrise was early). We made every water stop we saw. We ate, drank, refilled, soaked our clothes/swam fully clothed in the creek (Megan) as needed but didn’t ever just sit around – we were on a mission to get in as many miles as possible before the heat hit.
- We finished our hike at 4:22pm (13hrs 10min).
- We got the car and checked into our lodging at Kachina Lodge where we spent Saturday night. Kachina is one of several options there at the South Rim. There are also lodging options outside the canyon gates but it was nice to be so close. I ate 5 salads for dinner. Our server thought I was nuts. 😉
- We shopped on Sunday at the South Rim (souvenirs etc) and drove back to PHX midday Sunday so I could catch my 6:35pm flight.
Crazy busy and awesome weekend. Shoutout to Tara – from crewing my first 100 miler to hiking Rim to Rim at the Grand Canyon, this girl is the best and I love her to pieces! Happy birthday T!!!!