For an avid hiker, living in Arizona is truly living the dream. Residing in this part of the world means a trip to the Grand Canyon can be a quick weekender. The denizen of Phoenix can, after a heart taxing “down to the river and back” hike, stop in Flagstaff for a bite to eat and make their way home for a reasonable bed time. Any time of year. So you love the idea – how to make it happen?
Make sure you’re physically trained
You may know of people who regularly hike, or run, in the Grand Canyon, and it may seem that since “everyone does it” this hike may be something everyone can do. Don’t be fooled. The hike from the south rim to the river and back on any one of the two major trails in one day is a major exercise, and the truth is that most people cannot do it. Make sure you’re ready.
This hike will be, at minimum, 13 miles long if you go down and up the South Kaibab Trail, 16 miles long if you take the Bright Angel Trail. If you find the idea of walking that far on a flat surface daunting, enjoy the Rim Trail instead.
If you’re still not deterred consider that the elevation gain from river to rim on Bright Angel is 4,460 feet; on South Kaibab it’s 4860 feet. That’s a heck of a climb by almost everyone’s standards.
Add to this that although you may not feel very tired as you’re walking down to the river because it’s not much of a cardiovascular workout, you are using your legs in a way that is not like walking on a flat surface. Your thighs are working to suspend you as you walk down steps that were designed for mules, not humans, and when you get to the bottom, your legs will be tired. So when you begin your nearly 5,000 foot ascent out of the Canyon, you’re not fresh.
So – at your halfway point, legs fatigued, you begin the major, unrelenting, ascent for the second half of your hike.
If this kind of workout is for you, the Grand Canyon’s spectacular setting will make this level of energy expense exhilarating. Just make sure you do it right – read on.
Be “boy scout” level prepared
It’s no laughing matter, the message bears repeating, and cannot be over emphasized: a lack of preparation can result in a disastrous trip.
I wrote an article earlier on how to prepare for a Day Trip in the Grand Canyon, and I’ll quickly go over a few of the most important points here.
If you need to be reminded to bring water on a hike like this, you should probably give it a miss. You’ll need water no matter what time of year you make the trip, but will probably require more if the weather is warm. Also, be aware of whether and where there is water available in the Canyon, and plan accordingly. There is no water on the South Kaibab Trail, and twice I’ve hiked up the Bright Angel Trail when the (only!) water pipe was in repair so there was no water anywhere.
Energy and Electrolytes
There are several ways to handle these things and it seems that most athletes I’ve met have a routine that works for them. Just be aware that when you’re moving all day long, and the latter half is the harder push, you can hit a wall and should be prepared for that. I personally am a fan of Gu Energy Gels, but there is a variety of possible solutions.
Another possible concern is muscle cramping – and really I’ve seen this happen to 18 year olds and 50 year olds alike. Again, there is a wide range of possible solutions – I like Hammer anti-fatigue products, but I have no doubt that there are many others that will do the trick.
Read the weather reports, but be prepared for the weatherman being way off base. If precipitation is going to lower your body temperature to an unacceptable level because the temperatures are already on the cooler side, make sure you bring rain gear. The photo for this blog post was taken in March. Do you see the snow? On that trip we were told by lodge staff that there was no ice on the trail. Guess what – we had over a mile of ice. It was snowing when we started out, then after a bit of sun broke through we were rained on, then as we neared the bottom the heavens began dropping sleet. We were prepared, and probably had one of the most awesome Grand Canyon experiences we’ve had so far.
Map and/or GPS
It does pay to know where you’re going. If you hike these trails on a warm day in late April, you’ll probably meet quite a few people and can ask around if you’re not sure of whether to take a particular turn. If you happen to go in more dicey weather, or hike it when everyone else is watching the Super Bowl, you could end up in the glorious position of having the Grand Canyon entirely to yourself.
Just do it. Stock a first aid kit, and bring it along. Hopefully it’s just adding to your weight training, but on the one occasion that there’s a cut, or a break, or a bite, or serious cramping (ibuprophen can help) that first aid kit will be vitally necessary.
Ready? Go Kick Some Backside
All warnings taken in and set aside for the moment, the Grand Canyon day trip presents one of the most extravagantly exhilarating exercise opportunities out there. There’s really no way to fully relate the experience of immersion in the jaw-dropping, dominating Canyon landscape while moving into a runner’s high on your way up. Well prepared, your experience can be that good. I can’t wait to get back.