A Virtual Hike in the Grand Canyon

Down the South Kaibab Trail and Up the Bright Angel Trail

Disclaimer

 

Why am I writing this?

Because between once a week and once a month I get someone who's run across these Grand Canyon hiking pages and will ask me about doing the hike. (And obviously there are a lot more who do not write). It's okay to do this and I'm happy to answer questions as I know it will generally result in someone having a better hiking experience.  But know ahead of time this is going to make me nervous and I will never tell anyone it's okay to do this hike!  Though this may be a walk in the park, it's not figuratively a "walk in the park!"  A rational person should be able to just read the basic information: 16.7 mile route, 4750 feet down, 4500 feet up and know nothing else to figure this is inherently risky.  Can you even do 16.7 miles on level ground?  4750 feet is how many stories in a tall building? Give or take: 400!   Also, this is exactly the opposite of climbing a mountain. You go down first. If you get tired when climbing a mountain, gravity will give you a big assist to get you down. In the canyon once you're down you're committed.  

There's the common misconception that the temperature will be cooler as you go down. Quite the contrary, it gets very hot very quickly as you descend into the canyon. It's a large heat bowl. One thing that really concerns me is that if you check weather reports at the Grand Canyon, they only list temperatures at the rim which are always quite mild.  It can be 30 degrees Fahrenheit hotter within the inner gorge area.   

And there's another factor that even some experienced hikers overlook. Within the Grand Canyon it's a desert which means besides the heat, it's also incredibly dry. This translates into a serious dehydration threat. You might have heard or read that for any given temperature, it will feel cooler in the dry desert. It's absolutely true. But the coolness you feel is at a high cost in the canyon: loss of body water (i.e., dehydration.).

Yeah, don't be surprised that I nor anyone else will assure you everything's going to be just fine.  It might not be and I don't wish to send anyone to the hospital or worse. If you decide to do this, it is your decision and no one else's. What I'm hoping to provide is basic information so that should you decide to go through with this you have a good or great hiking experience - i.e., fun. It is all too easy to end up having an ordeal, the exact opposite of fun.  Choosing of your own free will to attempt these hikes means you've accepted the inherent risk that goes along with it.  It is a serious decision and the possible consequences should be weighed. 

Here are some specifics ...

There are actually two basic kind of hikers going down these very long trails. Those who are prepared and those who are not. It is the later group that the Park Service and I are most worried about, but even if you're prepared the canyon offers special challenges that translate into significant risk. Fortunately, the group that writes to me about advice surely fall into the prepared group. You're doing research before you get there and that's a very good thing!  Don't stop with just my website because, frankly, that hasn't been the purpose of my pages.  When I originally started posting pictures of the hikes, I thought my only audience would be hikers that have been there and wish to see the pictures as a remembrance. I was actually quite surprised to discover some visitor's to my site were using it to help plan a future hike.

Looking for more information on planning an upcoming hike?  Here is a good resource: www.grandcanyonhiker.com 

But the park service actually divides hikers in a different way: by overnight and day hikers. An overnight hiker has to be prepared to a certain level because they're staying overnight. The problem with day hiking is people can often go completely unprepared. Attempt a hike to the river and back in one day and you're just asking for an ordeal. If you're doing a day hike, the park service is very serious about the limits they recommend and I concur completely. Down the South Kaibab Trail, go no further than Skeleton Point which is some 3 miles down the trail. Down the Bright Angel Trail, go no further than Indian Garden (4.5 miles down the trail), although someone very hardy might head onto the Plateau Point trail which is fairly flat, but it adds another mile.

If you're still not deterred and still contemplating a hiking the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and back, I have three suggestions:

1) Reconsider!
2) Prepare as if you are going to do the most strenuous endeavor of your life because that's exactly what it will probably be. It has been compared to doing a marathon.
3) Reconsider!

As awful as the statistics are (16 total miles, 4780 feet down, 4450 feet up - and almost another mile if you go on to Phantom Ranch), some people try to make this into a death-defying challenge by attempting it all in single day! Without special preparation this endeavor can be suicidal.  The park service highly discourages it by simply saying "Don't attempt it." I highly discourage it, also. It's an easy way to either get yourself hospitalized or dead.

But just when you thought it couldn't, it gets even worse ...

During the summer months (about the middle of May through early October) you will also have to battle significant heat.  Temperatures during the day quickly rise above the 100 degree level within the canyon and can be well over 110 in the inner gorge.  Dehydration is so great at these temperatures, it can be nearly impossible to drink enough water. Summer hiking during the day with these unfathomable temperatures is suicidal.    

If you're contemplating hiking to the river and back in one day, read the following warnings and stop when you're convinced this is a bad idea:

1) Every year, the park service is involved in about 400 incidents. According to them, the majority of the problems involve day hikers. An overnight hiker, almost by definition, is more prepared than a day hiker, and has the advantage of getting at least one nights rest between the trips.
2) If you find yourself in trouble because of dehydration, exhaustion, or both, help may not be just around the corner.
3) You're at number 3??? You obviously didn't read numbers 1 and 2 thoroughly. Start over: go back to number one!

Now I can hear some people cry, "Hey, Gene, you're absolutely crazy, suicidal, positively no common sense, a menace to yourself and everyone you encounter!  How come it's okay for you to do this as a day hike?" Why have I been able to get away with the myriad of rim to river to rim in one day hikes? One simple word: training.  But it goes well beyond that. Since I live in Phoenix I get to experience the kind of heat encountered in the inner gorge of the canyon which is a significant part of these hikes. Then we have local mountains with hiking trails with both the grade and the look and feel of what you encounter on the SK and BA trails. I have 3 different trails I can train on which offer about 1200 feet of elevation over about 1.25 miles. So 4 trips up and down these trails equals the 4750 feet of the South Kaibab Trail. But even then, it's still not the same, is it? The canyon is one straight shot whereas I have to do this in "laps" to get the same. Then, in the canyon you go down first. The local trails here all go up first so if you get tired, you just let gravity pull you  back down.

But 4 trips is a good measure and I have to not only work myself up to being able to do 4 of these successively, I need to do it without getting spent.  And I have to be able to do this drinking less than 20 ounces of water.  Then and only then am I ready for this extremely demanding hike.  

Finally, here's one last very important thing: I will never attempt this hike from June 1st through September 15th.  During the day the heat in the inner gorge can rise to over 115 degrees.  At that temperature you almost can't drink enough water to keep yourself hydrated.  Naturally you could get around this problem by hiking during the dark, but what fun would that be?    

 

Here's the Good News!

You do not have to make it all the way to the river to have a great hiking experience!!! If you're doing a day hike, the recommended stopping point on the South Kaibab is Cedar Ridge. Look at the photos and see what a great view you'll get if you only go that far! The farthest point they recommend for a day hike on the South Kaibab is Skeleton Point. If you decide on a day hike on the Bright Angel, you probably should stop at the One and a Half Mile Resthouse if you're not in very good shape. Those in better shape might consider going all the way to Indian Garden.

 

Take the Virtual Hike?

Do you now think you're ready to take the Virtual Hike? What kind of shape are you in? There are 200 pictures to click through on 5 separate pages. Do you have enough water and snacks at hand to make it the entire way?


 YES! I'm physically fit enough to click through the rest of the virtual hike. I've got enough fluids and snacks here at the monitor to make it through okay. Continue the tour...
 NO! I'm worse than a couch potato. I look at those people with envy. Someday, I hope to get myself into a least that shape. Take me back to the home page.