Rim to River: A Grand Canyon Adventure

Silver Bridge spans the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, as viewed from the south side of the river. In the distance is Black Bridge. | Noah Austin

The signs at the Grand Canyon's South Rim are very clear: Hiking to the Colorado River and back in one day is not recommended due to long distance, extreme heat, and a nearly 5,000-foot elevation change. The warning is printed in four different languages, but the accompanying illustration — a hiker, on his hands and knees, vomiting profusely — requires no translation. It's not for the faint of heart: 9.5 miles from the Bright Angel Trailhead to Phantom Ranch, and another 9.5 miles back up.

Last week, I figured I'd try it anyway.

I set out on Bright Angel just after 9 a.m. The weather was perfect: cloudy and in the low 40s, with a nice breeze. Throughout the day, there were threats of rain, and I could see rain falling on the North Rim in the distance, but I never got a drop. And while the sun peeked through the clouds a few times during my hike, the cliffs along the trail provided plenty of shade.

On the way down, I enjoyed the view and marveled at how good I felt. This is gonna be a breeze! I thought. But the trail is deceptively steep, particularly on two sets of switchbacks — one just below the rim, the other just past Indian Garden (Mile 4.5). And the views are so spectacular that it's easy to forget how quickly you're descending.

By 12:30 p.m., I'd reached Pipe Creek Beach on the muddy Colorado River. From there, the trail continues east for about a mile and a half to Silver Bridge, then across to Phantom Ranch on the north side of the river. I stopped there, filled up my water bladder and ate. The temperature on the river was probably 75 degrees.

On the return trip, I reached Indian Garden without much trouble. But then I hit a wall: I was out of energy, and I still had 4.5 miles of steep switchbacks to climb before reaching the top. It was a slog, and I took extended breaks at both the 3 Mile Resthouse and the Mile and a Half Resthouse before making my push to the top. I got there just after 6 p.m., right after sunset.

I'm proud to have accomplished a rim-to-river hike in one day, but I also can see why, according to the National Park Service, some 350 people need to be rescued from the Canyon each year. I'm a fairly experienced hiker, and I was carrying 2 liters of water, plenty of food, layers of clothing and electrolyte pills — and I still had doubts about whether I was going to make it. (I didn't vomit, but I came close.)

If you're considering this hike, you need to be aware of your own physical limitations and hiking abilities. Check the forecast before you commit to it — keeping in mind that it's always much warmer at the bottom than at the top. And be sure to heed the other part of the ominous warning on those signs: If you think you have the fitness and expertise to attempt this extremely strenuous hike, please seek advice from a park ranger at the Backcountry Information Center.

— Noah Austin, Associate Editor

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Arizona Native Records Fastest Known Time on Arizona Trail

Michael Versteeg on the Arizona Trail. | Via Instagram (michael.versteeg)

A 31-year-old Arizona native this week shattered the record for traversing the Arizona Trail, which cuts across the state from north to south.

Michael Versteeg, an accomplished participant in ultramarathons and other long-distance running events, completed the 817-mile trail in 15 days, 22 hours and 39 minutes — an average of just more than 50 miles per day. He finished in the early morning Wednesday, October 19, according to his Instagram feed.

The previous fastest known time for the Arizona Trail was 21 days, 14 hours and 16 minutes, set in 2011 by 44-year-old Adam Bradley.

"I can't even begin to describe how thankful I am," Versteeg wrote on Instagram. "The Arizona Trail proved to be the most difficult thing I have ever done, and to come back and receive so much positive feedback and support is all a bit overwhelming for me."

Versteeg used his record-setting run to raise awareness and money for Save the Confluence, a group that opposes development of the area in the Grand Canyon where the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers converge. You can still donate to that effort via Versteeg's GoFundMe page.

The trail was conceived in the 1980s but wasn't completed until 2011. Starting near the Arizona-Utah border, it passes through several Arizona landmarks, including the Grand Canyon, the San Francisco Peaks, the Mogollon Rim and the Santa Catalina Mountains, before ending at Coronado National Memorial on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The route includes several trails that have been featured in Arizona Highways, including the Kaibab Plateau Trail up north, the Oak Trail near Payson and Passage 5 south of Tucson. And a scenic drive from a recent issue ends at Moqui Stage Station, a trailhead for one of the segments.

If you're visiting Grand Canyon National Park, you can learn more about the Arizona Trail at an exhibit that opened in 2014. You can also visit the Arizona Trail Association's website.

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Is Your Favorite Trail One of Arizona's 100 Best?

The Kachina Trail near Flagstaff — now that's a good trail. But is it one of Arizona's 100 best? | John Sirlin

We at Arizona Highways love to hike. There's a whole section of our magazine (and our website) dedicated to hitting the trail.

They love hiking at Arizona State Parks, too, and now, that organization is putting together a list of the 100 best trails in Arizona. And you can help by nominating your favorite hike for what's being called the Arizona Premier Trails System.

"This is not going to be just another best trails list," says Sue Black, the executive director of Arizona State Parks, in a news release. "Arizona Premier Trails will set a new standard by recognizing the most exceptional trails throughout the state."

The group behind the new system is the Arizona State Committee on Trails (ASCOT), and that group is seeking public input on which trails will make the list. Individuals, clubs, organizations and communities can participate. To nominate your favorite trail and learn more about the list, go to www.facebook.com/AZ100BestTrails.

The list will be unveiled in 2017, Arizona State Parks says, and will include hiking, biking and equestrian trails, along with river and riparian routes.

We hope you'll participate, but also, let us know in the comments: What's your favorite trail in Arizona?

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Gear Review: Patagonia Nine Trails 15L Pack

With a 15-liter volume and a design that’s well suited to long hours on the trail, Patagonia’s Nine Trails pack is an ideal hiking or running companion. And I should know — over 10 days, I did my best to beat it up.

I'm an avid hiker, and Phoenix’s Piestewa Peak is one of my go-to trails, even in the dead of summer, so that was my first stop when I received the pack in the mail. I inserted my 3-liter hydration bladder and made a few slight adjustments to fit the pack to my frame. Immediately, I noticed how much I enjoyed not having a belt around my waist — this pack secures at the chest. Quite comfortably.

After an hour of hiking, I found that the pack hadn’t rubbed or pulled or otherwise tweaked my back or shoulders. And — this is the best part — it hadn’t soaked through with sweat in temperatures that had topped 109 degrees. I had the feeling that this pack might quickly replace my old standby.

In the days that followed, I took the Nine Trails pack on a few more jaunts up Piestewa Peak, as well as on some longer hikes: a 6-miler, an 8-miler, a 10-miler and a 9-miler. Of those, the most notable was a hike up Humphreys Peak, which, at 12,633 feet, is the highest point in Arizona.

During the daylong adventure, I found that the pack endured well, putting up with frequent stops to grab snacks, as well as the occasional exhausted jettison from my shoulders. In fact, each time I put the pack back on, it was cool, light and comfortable. That’s probably due, in large part, to its material — high-tenacity nylon ripstop with a durable water-repellent finish. That sounds fancy, but it really just means that the pack can handle light rain, sweat and a dusting of snow like a champ.

And, really, it seems to be able to handle a lot. The folding top-loading compartment holds extra layers, hydration systems and other gear well, while the side pocket is good for keys. It’s a little small for an iPhone 6, but the top pocket picks up the slack there. In all, Patagonia’s Nine Trails pack is an example of a daypack done right.

— Kelly Vaughn


Item Number: 49510
Weight: 10.8 ounces
Hydration Compatible? Yes
Sizes: Small/Medium or Large/Extra Large
Colors: Underwater Blue or Feather Grey
Price: $79

For more information about the Nine Trails pack, visit www.patagonia.com.

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An Open Letter About Hitting the Trail

Dear hikers:

The time is now. The skies are blue. The desert is green. The mountains are ripe for climbing. Urban trails across the state are teeming with people — locals and visitors alike — eager to bag a peak. Go forth and hike, friends. But before you do, brush up on a few tips to keep your climb from going downhill:

1. Pack water. More than you'll think you'll need. Starbucks doesn’t count, so if you’re trying to climb Piestewa Peak with your latte in hand, reconsider. Chances are good that you’ll feel the slog of dehydration before you’re halfway up.

2. Shoes matter. Vans, Toms and flip-flops may be fashionable, but they’re not built for the trail. Your soles and ankles will thank you if you spring for a good pair of trail runners or hiking boots.

3. Speaking of runners, if you’re a freight train coming down the mountain, please remember that uphill climbers have the right of way. Speed doesn’t translate to an inalienable right to run into and through the lesser mortals with whom you have to share the trail.

4. If you move at a slower pace, don’t fret. Enjoy the hike and the views. But try to stay to the right side of the trail. That way, faster climbers can maneuver past you. If you feel the breath of another hiker on your neck when the trail is narrow, just move to the side as soon as it’s safe. If you’re a neck breather, chill out, OK? Trailgating is not cool. Count to five and look for a place to safely pass. Then use the manners your mama taught you and say “hello” and “thank you.”

5. Save your selfie for the top. The middle of the trail is no place to take 16 test shots before settling on the perfect one. Nor is it a place to run the one through the Instagram filters (Slumber is the best!) and post it to Facebook. Fixing your hair, taking a phone call, applying lip gloss, searching your pack, eating a Slim Jim? Those activities should be reserved for the sides of the trail, too.

6. Music is great, but not everyone wants to hear what you’re listening to — especially if it’s Gino Vannelli, The Notorious B.I.G. or that jazz metal band you’ve been obsessed with lately. Keep your tunes in your ear buds and off your speakers. And for those of you who carry boomboxes in your backpacks ... well, that's just rude.

7. When most people sweat, it stinks. And it’s OK. There’s no need to pretend like your natural fragrance is Axe body spray — because no one believes you. Save the colognes and perfumes for after your hike. Climbing is hard enough. Gagging on Brut just makes it harder.

8. Even on urban trails, the principles of Leave No Trace still apply. Those three words should be self-explanatory. If you're not familiar, visit www.LNT.org. Also, just because things like orange peels and banana peels are biodegradable, it can take six weeks or more for them to disappear into the soil — probably longer on trails like Camelback and Piestewa Peak. The point is, trash is trash. Please pack it out.

Now hit the trail. And be safe and kind.

Photo: Phoenix's Piestewa Peak, as seen from Camelback Mountain. | Kelly Vaughn Kramer

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