Today I hiked down into the Grand Canyon and back. This doesn’t sound all that extraordinary until you understand just how deep the canyon is (about a mile down), how far away the North Rim is (10 miles!), and how steep the trail down truly is, even with all the switchbacks. Not to mention I deal with fibromyalgia. So I am basking in the accomplishment and marveling that my knees aren’t groaning with complaints. (That may come tomorrow!)
I rolled out of bed well before dawn, threw on clothes, grabbed my pack, and headed out the door to hop a shuttle bus to the South Kaibab Trailhead. A blush of pinks and oranges began to tame the sky, casting pastels onto the rocks and carving relief sculptures in the emerging shadowy cliffs. The hike down was exhilarating in a rush of cold morning air, the wind playing through the trees, and a new, jaw-dropping vista around every corner.
I made it to Skeleton Point in two hours, the half-way point (3 miles) for any hike to the Colorado River buried in the bottom of the canyon like a beguiling secret only revealed to those who use their muscles and pay their sweat. I sat on a rocky outcrop just below the point, where the river first reveals itself, far, far away, and just contemplated the Grand Canyon.
An hour of such contemplation, with long stretches of solitude between the early hiking parties, and you begin to focus on the details. I saw a bursting of color from hardy wildflowers and blooming cactus in the scrubby desert micro-climate of the canyon. Layers of ecosystems folded into a complex larger system, the animals and vegetation changing as you hike down. Actually, it appears to me that the Grand Canyon is a huge canyon in which numerous other canyons, all carved by the tempestuous Colorado River, are nestled, each magnificent in their own scale. That’s just how big the Grand Canyon is.
It’s difficult to really grasp this unless you hike down into the canyon, even for a little way for a taste. The milling, shuffling crowds of casual tourists, day-trippers, and bus groups that suffocate the top of the South Rim will never understand this complexity. All they see is a pretty panorama – huge and vast, yes – but still just a panorama, and usually during the high sun hours when all the rich colors and shapes are washed out into monotone grays.
The hike back up is why many people never attempt the climb. I fully expected my fibro knees to scream as I huffed up the steep canyon wall for four hours. My knees sighed a bit, but my strategy of stopping often to gaze out, hydrate, and take photos seems to have assuaged their complaints.
A word to the wise: if you have a chronic condition like fibromyalgia, are still able physically to go on day hikes, and want to hike down the canyon, pace yourself, know your limits, and stop to rest often. Decide a time or body signal that tells you to turn around and head back before you get too far out and are utterly too exhausted to make the climb back up. It always takes at least double the time to hike back up. Don’t expect to hike to the bottom and back in one day – that’s difficult even for the most hardcore hikers. And carry a ton of water (I used 2 liters for a cool morning hike) and salty snacks to restore your body’s salt balance. If you cannot handle the climb and need to stay on top of the rim, then hop a red or orange shuttle bus and get out of the crowded village to the more stunning scenic viewpoints. There’s a fairly level, paved Rim Trail that runs along the top of canyon and the shuttle buses connect along the way for a quick ride back to the village if you get worn out.
Tomorrow it’s off to Flagstaff. One more sunset. One more sunrise.