October 16, 2018 at 5:37 am
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