Punishment and Reward. Welcome to the Arizona Trail.
That’s what I had begun jokingly calling a thru-hike attempt on the Arizona Trail. After the PCT, Arizona’s 800 miles sounded like an extended cooldown after the main workout. We were prepared for water to be scarce, but I figured that would be the hardest part and nothing new after SoCal.
We ate breakfast at a local fast food joint while giving our electronics a full charge before setting off. Catching a ride out of town was easier than I expected, but apparently Page sees a lot of hitchhikers given its proximity to Zion and the Grand Canyon. The guy who picked us up was incredibly nice, and drove well beyond his destination to get us to the turnoff of the road to the trailhead. That road was too rough for his small car, and we faced a 10-mile walk to the actual start of the trail.
Just as we prepared to get walking, another car turned down the road. They were going to a different trail but could get us almost the whole way to the AZT. We walked the last mile and a half to the Stateline Campground, where we stopped for lunch before making our first steps on the second National Scenic Trail of the year. I smiled as I entered “MEXICO!” as my destination in the trail register at high noon on Oct. 25.
What did we get into?
It was very hot. The trail starts with a long but thankfully gentle climb. Three other hikers had started SOBO that day, but we didn’t know when or if we would see them. I hadn’t brought much water, since there was a water source just about five miles in at the top of the climb. Looking back, we could see the foot of the Grand Staircase (co-namesake of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument).
I daydreamed about another month of trail life. Even though I hadn’t really stopped hiking, beginning a new trail felt just as much like a fresh adventure. Nothing beyond the raw daily routine was familiar. And so it was that I neared the first water source, with no expectation of what I would find at this wildlife guzzler.
This is what I found:
I honestly just started laughing. Of course it’s green and has fur floating in it, you dummy! It’s water for wildlife! It was immediately clear that this trail was very much it’s own monster, and I was going to have to learn some lessons the hard way just like every other trail I’ve hiked. And that’s why I love thru-hiking. Adapting to and overcoming challenges every single day, no matter how experienced you become.
When my laughing fit tapered off, I collected half a liter of the stuff and resolved to drink it only in case of emergency. I would try to make the rest of my town water to last until the next day. Rationing water would become an essential skill over the next 800 miles.
That first afternoon we meandered across the Kaibab Plateau. There were intermittent clumps of forest adjacent to broad, shrubby meadows. I felt fantastic, moving down the trail toward a distant goal, just days away from seeing the Grand Canyon. Now late October, the sun was setting very early and we pressed on through a beautiful purple twilight. At dark we entered forest again, and shortly after saw a cluster of headlamps.
We found the other three hikers. Squeaksfinished a thru-hike of the AT in September, and Overhill and Clean Sweep had thru-hiked the PCT in 2016. Though we were all experienced long-distance hikers, we still bonded over tired and sore bodies after day one. I only had a few sips of non-wildlife guzzler water left. And here I had been thinking Arizona would be a champagne lap.
The morning was pretty cold. I started hiking in all my layers, including a new pair of gloves I picked up at the Walmart in Page. I got to hike with Squeaks for a while and chat. We shared stories of our AT hikes, and I was amazed to hear how much some things had changed in just four years. At the road crossing, the three of them opted to go into town for snacks and coffee, but we decided to keep on. The Grand Canyon was so close!
Thankfully we found our first water cache on the other side of the road. We didn’t completely fill up, since the next water source wasn’t too far and had clear water according to recent hikers. The trail continued south through a bright pine forest, and eventually the sun started to warm things up. At the tank, we indeed found lots of good water sealed off from wildlife. After a short break, I continued on much more confidently with full bottles.
There was little elevation change on the forested plateau. In the afternoon, we entered a massive burn as we approached the escarpment. There was smoke on the horizon from a prescribed burn somewhere along the North Rim, but thankfully the wind was at our backs so the air stayed clear. Dusk fell as I began the last couple of miles along a double track. I arrived at another wildlife drinker first, but thankfully this one had nice clear water. The dark had brought intense cold, and I ate dinner in my sleeping bag.
The Big Ditch
It was a different kind of cold in the morning. The kind of cold that freezes water bottles solid. I tried to rescue one in the middle of the night, but even with a few hours in my sleeping bag it was slushy when I woke up. I offered it to Kirby so she could make coffee, and she still had to break through the ice at the cap with a tent stake! It would take three hours before we had water to drink.
Only two days in, and Arizona had already proven full of surprises. And today was the day I was going to lay eyes on the Grand Canyon! The trail traversed atop another escarpment, offering views out toward the canyon. I couldn’t make out much with the smoke, but could tell by the landscape that it would be unlike anything I had seen, even in Zion. The morning’s highlight was definitely stopping at the North Rim Lookout, where Edward Abbey himself once kept watch against wildfires.
Entering the park, we followed a rather boring right of way carrying underground utilities. Closer to the North Kaibab Trailhead, we encountered a fire crew out managing the prescribed burn. The surrounding forest was absolutely gorgeous, but all I could think of was getting to the canyon.
Despite the added cost, we were all excited about the chance to spend a night below the rim. We turned off the trail for the North Rim Village to secure permits, and walked over a mile down to the Visitor Center only to learn that the backcountry permit office was much closer to the trail and we had walked right past it!
Luckily they had a campsite available that night at Cottonwood Creek. It was already mid afternoon by the time we secured the permit, so we quickly headed back to the trail. From the North Kaibab Trailhead, we had about 7 miles and 5000ft of descent to Cottonwood. I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking. Written language is simply not elegant enough to capture the absolute magic that is the Big Ditch.
I alternated between laughing and shaking my head in wonder the whole way down. I’ve seen some of the most amazing natural wonders this world has to offer, but the Grand Canyon may be the most impressive evidence of the forces of Nature of them all. Descending into its depths, the world is a quiet place. The weight of natural history was almost palpable as I ran my hands along the walls, the rock getting older and more mysterious the deeper I went.
Below the Rim, the sun sets early but twilight magically lingers for hours. The red glow of evening light on the walls was only enhanced by the smoke settling into the canyon from the burn above. I entered a trance state that I’d only ever experienced twice before: Standing alone on a snowy ridge in the Glacier Peak Wilderness of the North Cascades, and watching the sunrise at Kangaroo Spring above Seiad Valley.
I commented to another hiker on the way down, “I honestly can’t believe this is a thing that exists on our planet. But I’m so glad it does!” That was all I could manage as a description for how I felt. Like we won some cosmic lottery by cheating, because luck alone couldn’t secure this kind of prize.
We arrived at Cottonwood with just a few minutes of natural light to spare and chose a site along the creek and mostly secluded from other campers. Starting to relax, I realized how serious a hike the Grand Canyon really is. My legs felt wobbly and I was a bit lightheaded before bed, despite my concentrated efforts to stay hydrated. And the whole day had been downhill!
The stars kept me up. There is something different about star gazing from thousands of feet down a chasm carved out by a lonely but determined river. Thinking of how old and far away those stars are while lying on rock formed over a billion years ago. Those rocks are likely closer in age to some of the stars I saw that night than they are to my age. You try sleeping when that’s the kind of shit running through your brain, I dare ya!
Unsurprisingly, we were one of the first parties out of camp. The plan was to descend the last 2000ft to the river and relax there before climbing to the South Rim and replenishing our supplies in the village. I hiked through several distinct mini-biomes on the way down, passing lush willows above a narrow stretch of canyon then emerged into an arid landscape of scrub brush and prickly pear.
It wasn’t until we approached Phantom Ranch that I actually got a sense of the size of the ENTIRE canyon. We were finally at the bottom along the Colorado River, just over 2000ft above sea level, a whopping 7000ft below the North Rim. Now in the center of the canyon, I could sort of see both rims in one panoramic glance.
I wondered what the Colorado looked like as it cut through the first layer of rock, ages and ages ago. Even understanding the geological processes that created this Mother Of All Canyons, I wasn’t quite sure I believed it was possible. Our lives are so short, I think we just don’t possess the ability to comprehend the scope of millions of years.
I was deeply, deeply happy.
I washed my socks in the mighty river and waded out up to my knees, experiencing the currents responsible for this incredible place. My reverie couldn’t last forever, and I had to fight the onset of separation anxiety as I packed up to start the climb to the South Rim. Opting for the “less scenic” South Kaibab Trail over the Bright Angel, the climb away from the river was brutal.
It didn’t help that we were following a trail of fresh mule piss. I understand and appreciate their role in preserving this spectacular National Park and providing access for a wide range of people, but DAMN they leave a mess in their wake.
Rather than cooling off as we gained elevation, the day only got hotter. The trail climbed over several distinct layers towards the rim, each one a roasting expanse of sun-scorched rock. I was glad to start climbing again, as the canyon walls provided the only shade to be found on that trail.
Within the last few miles to the rim, the trail grew much more crowded. Seeing so many people coming down even part of the way to experience the magic of this place was heartening. I’ve been through too many National Parks where very few people bother to venture beyond the parking lots. Here, it felt like the awesome power of the landscape was strong enough to pull nearly everyone into its natural splendor.
Reaching the South Rim was an incredible feeling. Physically, I was exhausted. My time in the canyon had been unbelievably humbling. I was sad to be leaving it behind, but comforted by the knowledge that my experience would stay with me for life. It had been less than 24 hours since we’d left the North Rim, but I felt as if a whole lifetime could have gone by down there.
As the conversation shifted towards our resupply plan, I had to remind myself that the Grand Canyon had been just one short part of a larger spectacular adventure. There were still 700 miles to walk and experience new treasures. They might not all be as indescribably amazing as the Grand Canyon had been, but that’s hardly a fair metric to measure anything by.
I mean, c’mon, just LOOK at it!
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