“You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted. To see it you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths.” John Wesley Powell
There’s a sign-board at the beginning of the Bright Angel Trail, which says: “Grand Canyon hiking differs from almost all other hiking. Here the easy part – downhill – comes first; the tough part – up and out – comes when you are already tired. You are responsible for your own safety. Don’t underestimate the Grand Canyon”.
When we set off, we didn’t have a plan for how far we would descend. But the ease of the walking was tempered by the knowledge that we did in fact have to go back up.
The Bright Angel trail descends 1360m (4500 feet) in 12.6km (7.8 miles) to the Colorado River, where it joins the River Trail for an additional 3km (1.8 miles) to Phantom Ranch. It’s the Grand Canyon’s most heavily used trail and one that I wanted to hike in its entirety. Unfortunately, this wasn’t to be the occasion. Being on an organised tour, I was short of time and only able to get a taste of this hike. In the end, we ventured down to the 3-mile Resthouse and then back up again (for a total of 9.6km/6 miles).
This was one of those hikes where I wanted to keep pinching myself – I couldn’t quite believe that I was hiking in the Grand Canyon. It was also much different to hiking around the rim – we got a closer look at the layers of rock and the colours seemed more intense. There was also a sense of awe; of being so small in a place so grandeur!
At the beginning of the hike the weather was glorious – blue skies, very few clouds, a light breeze and temperatures in the mid-20s (Celsius). After a short walk, we passed under two archways in the rock and then the trail became a series of switchbacks – going down, down, down! The views were amazing and there were plenty of cheeky ground squirrels, darting across the trail.
We walked past the 1.5 mile Resthouse, where there were toilets and, to our surprise, fresh water. We’d been told that we had to carry all our water and I’d purchased an extra (rather tacky) Grand Canyon water bottle, just to be cautious.
As is usual, and mostly because I’m caught up in taking about a million photographs, my companions got ahead of me on the trail. So, by the time I reached the 3 mile Resthouse (our turnaround point), they were ready to head back up. I gobbled down my lunch and set off after them.
I don’t mind hiking on my own, mostly because I like to take my time. This was a strenuous hike, but it wasn’t difficult for me (after about six months of training and plenty of other hikes). I also took frequent breaks, whenever there was a nice spot in the shade. It was in those precious moments that I got to reflect on where I was – the AWESOMELY GRAND Canyon – and appreciate just how lucky I was to be there.
The Grand Canyon stretches 277 miles (446km) from Lees Ferry to Grand Wash Cliffs; is approximately 1 mile (1.6km) deep; and is an average of 10 miles (16km) across. At 2600 square miles (6734km), it’s slightly larger than the state of Delaware – with 1904 square miles (4931km) preserved in the Grand Canyon National Park. Wow!
Meantime, while I was meandering along, enjoying my breaks, I didn’t realise a storm was brewing. I think I was about halfway back up when I felt the first drops of rain. I could also hear thunder, off in the distance. Clouds had gathered, but they weren’t particularly dark or brooding, so I wasn’t too concerned.
But then a ranger came down the trail, warning people that there might be hail coming. I quickened my pace, slightly, as much as I could while hiking uphill. The rain got heavier, the thunder got louder, and then I began to see the lightning.
I pulled out my raincoat and threw it over my pack – to protect my camera more than me! Five minutes later, the heavens opened (and I say heavens, because this felt like a storm of biblical proportions). The lightning got frighteningly close and the claps of thunder practically reverberated throughout the canyon. It was really unnerving.
I’ve never liked being out in a thunderstorm. But here I felt particularly vulnerable; out in nature alone, in one of the world’s greatest natural settings. It was epic! And scary! Did I say that already?
The worst part of the experience was trying to estimate how much further I had to hike. All I could think about was getting to the part of the trail where we’d walked under the archways. There I knew I could take shelter, until the worst of the storm was over. So, I trudged onwards and upwards, along a trail that had transformed into a fast-running creek. Occasionally small rocks fell from above, including a larger one that landed frighteningly close to me.
Of course, by the time I reached the archways, the worst of the storm was over. I continued on and finally made it to the top. Later, I spoke to a park ranger and he said that one lightning bolt struck the bottom of the canyon, which is something that rarely happens because lightning usually strikes higher ground. Much later, I spoke to our guide who then told me that she’d actually been struck by lightning while hiking in the Grand Canyon. I am SO VERY THANKFUL that I didn’t know this until after I was safely inside a restaurant, sipping one of the most delicious hot chocolates I’ve ever tasted (must’ve been something to do with still being alive).
This was an amazing, exhausting, exhilarating, frightening and incredible hike – one that I’m not likely to forget anytime soon. I do hope to one day go back and hike a bit further along the Bright Angel Trail; I just hope there’s no thunderstorm when I do.
For those wanting to hike further afield, the distances from the trailhead are as follows:
- Indian Garden: 4.6 miles (7.4km)
- Plateau Point: 6 miles (9.6km)
- Colorado River: 7.8 miles (12.5km)
- Phantom Ranch: 9.6 miles (15.4km)
- North Rim (North Kaibab Trailhead): 23.4 miles (37.6km)