If you look at the official park website for the Grand Canyon, you will find some especially useful information. One particular piece of information is two strongly worded paragraphs explaining why you should not hike the entirety of the Grand Canyon in one day. This post is a detailed explanation of what happens if you are dumb enough to ignore those two paragraphs, my personal experience, and why it is one of the best things I have ever done.
This past week I hopped in my car with three friends and drove 25 hours straight to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Grand Canyon National Park was doing partial re-openings. The park was open from 4am to 8pm, which basically means you have to cram everything you want to see into those hours. “What’s the easiest way to see as much of the Grand Canyon as you can in 16 hours?” you might ask. Hiking all the way down to the river and back of course. This is not for the faint of heart though. As I said earlier, the National Parks Service does not want you to do this, nor should you.
Here are just a few reasons why it is a horrible idea.
- The total round-trip mileage is over 17 miles. Your feet will have blisters the size of Everest by the time you finish.
- The near-vertical mile of total elevation gain. 5,280 feet of what feels like the Stairmaster from hell awaits you.
- It is pushing temps of 110 degrees at the bottom. The sun feels like it’s trying to incinerate you, bring SPF 1,000.
- Going down is optional, going up is mandatory. It is like a reverse mountain.
Taking all these things into consideration, my three friends and I stood around in a circle at our pitch-black campsite and started to rationalize doing the hike. After a naively short 10-minute conversation, we decided to go full send on the idea. The four of us crawled into our tents and set our phone alarms bright and early for 4:45 am.
No sound in the entire world is worse than hearing the iPhone default alarm sound go off after 5 hours of sleep. My friend John is sleeping next to me and slowly grumbles awake, too. He is the least on board with this plan, so he is not a happy camper. Both of us take the leap of faith as we leave the warmth of our sleeping bags and are immediately greeted by crisp 28-degree air. My two other friends, Blake and Amelia, emerge from their tents soon after. I start to Jetboil water for oatmeal and the others start to tear down camp. While we eat breakfast, the darkness of night begins to fade into the light as the sun gets closer to rising. After breakfast, we pile into my car and start making our way to the trailhead.
THE HIKE: PART ONE
The sun peaks over the horizon and floods the canyon with golden light as we reach the trailhead. We park and begin packing our daypacks. What one puts in their pack for a hike like this is extremely important and can make the difference between a rewarding hike and a helicopter ride to the hospital. Food and water are the main things to focus on while packing a daypack for a hefty hike. I lead up my hydration bladder with 2 liters of water and fill another liter in a water bottle. I also pack the best trail snacks I have found to date- squeezable apple sauce and mixed nuts. The thing that takes my hydration and nutrition to the next level on a big hike like this is Red Leaf Pre-Workout Energizer. I will put some in a blender bottle while I am prepping for my hike and drink it before I leave. If it is a longer hike, I’ll put a scoop or two in a Ziploc baggie and take it with me for an energy boost halfway through the hike or when I feel myself start to lag and take a break. We all finish packing and we slowly make our way from the parking lot to the start of the trail, mentally preparing ourselves for the feat ahead. We take a selfie at the start of the trail to commemorate how happy we look before we start and then we set off.
The downhill portion is not a leisurely hike for us. We are running down. Well, it is more of a controlled fall. “Running” the downhill like this saves the knees and quads from getting fatigued at the beginning of the hike. We try our best to conserve our muscles and joints now so that they are as fresh as possible for the grueling uphill return. We quickly pass a 1.5-mile rest house, then 3 miles, and like that we are at a place 2,500 feet down into the canyon called Indian Garden. We take a short break to catch our breath and then begin jogging down beautiful side canyons towards the river. After eight and a half miles at a blazing 13-minute pace, we’re at the river.
It feels hotter than the surface of the sun at the bottom; even the rock looks like it has been scorched. There is one thing that is not, though, and that is the Colorado River. It is crystal clear and 48 degrees. We quickly drop our backpacks, take off our shirts, and leap into the water. I kid you not when I say it was one of the best feelings ever. After a quick dip and some celebratory photos, I start snacking on the delicious food I have in my daypack. Nothing tastes better than trail snacks. I am also trying to hydrate as much as I can. At the bottom of the canyon, the sun is so hot that it evaporates your sweat instantly. Even when you don’t think you need to, you have to hydrate as much as possible. I also mix some Red Leaf into my water bottle for a little mid-hike energy boost. Unlike a lot of energizers, this one is great because it will give you the energy boost you need without any sort of crash. This is great in my situation because I have eight and a half miles and a vertical mile of hiking in front of me.
THE HIKE: PART TWO
“No breaks,” is what I tell myself as we begin the trek out of the canyon. But that is a hard rule to stick to when the heat index is over 110 and I am hiking through a part of the trail that’s been lovingly named, “The Devils Corkscrew.” Luckily, I have the energy to stick to my rule and make it the 4 miles to Indian Garden where I fill up my water. My friend Blake stayed on pace with me; however my other two friends, John and Amelia, were not in the same boat and were taking tons of breaks. (Which, in my opinion, makes a hike like this much worse.) It did not help either of them that they had not chosen to use any sort of energy powder or recovery gel when we took a break at the bottom.
They arrive at Indian Garden 30 minutes after Blake and I do. John is dehydrated and we make him chug 3 liters of water and eat some food to help him get back into shape. I would be lying if I did not say the last four and a half miles were miserable. Blake and I were able to make it all the way to the 3-mile shelter house without taking a break. Then we took two in-between it and 1.5-mile. I lost track of how many times we stopped in the last mile and a half. The worst part of having to climb up in the latter half of an out-and-back hike is that the altitude takes more and more of a toll on you as you get closer to the finish line.
Finally, after 8 hours and 15 minutes, we reach the rim of the canyon and the end of our hike. All our bodies are sore beyond belief and we spend a good hour just sitting at the top of the trail laying down on the warm concrete, relaxing.
A crazy day hike is not complete if you do not end the day with a huge meal. So, we head south into Flagstaff in search of the finest burgers money can buy. Amelia finds an open joint doing takeout, so we order a ridiculous amount of food for the four of us. 15 minutes later we pick it up and eat it right there on the side of the road. Sitting on the asphalt, all laughing and reminiscing about the crazy feat we had just accomplished, we watched the sun go down over the Grand Canyon on a Memorial Day I will never forget.
Blog by Red Leaf ambassador, Alex Paul