AZT day 31, South Rim (Grand Canyon) to Cottonwood Campground, 16 miles

I barely sleep tossing and turning trying to figure out what to do. Should I wait out the weather or move forward? In New Zealand I learned sometimes it’s best to keep moving. Yes, there will be some snow, but it won’t last and only after it comes will the temps drop. Maybe it’s better to get ahead of the weather. 

And that means hiking to the further campsite today. Kyle and Michelle leave with their camper as I emerge. I heard the group day hiking in and out of the canyon leave early just as it got light. So only Tami is left choosing not to join them, and drawing the short straw to drive me to Grand Canyon village this morning and skip yet another long, monotonous ponderosa pine forest section. 

I really like her. A skier, woodworker, RVer, she’s no nonsense and we’re exactly the same age. It’s a decent drive to the permit office and I am so glad I skipped all this. 

The AZT is certainly making me rethink thru-hiking. So much boring sameness to get to the highlights, especially in Northern Arizona. The weather is pushing me forward but so is the spectacle of the Grand Canyon, which takes my breath away as we pass viewing points.

I am number seven in line for a permit and get behind people seemingly wanting to analyze every trail before deciding where to go. It’s slightly maddening because my request is simple and I really need the full day to get there. It would have been healthier to start at dawn, but no permits are issued by phone. 

I finally get mine, only to be admonished that I won’t be used to road walking on the North Rim, and so will likely camp within the park boundaries, another $8 please. I don’t argue, knowing the North Rim climb of over 4,000 feet is a killer, but my hope is to move as far as I can once I reach the rim. 

Tami really saves me. The village is large and there is a bus, but it helps immeasurably to be taken directly to the store. I was so hungry these last days, I buy far too much. Then, at the outfitters, I’m unable to find anything resembling a sleeping bag liner to make mine warmer. Tami suggests I buy two emergency blankets and I throw them in. Could be a life saver when lows hit the teens.

She drops me at a road and I walk into the Kaibab trailhead. The wind is wild and the place is packed with day hikers and a few backpackers. People ask if I’ll sleep down there and I explain I will also continue to the North Rim then Utah. 

The Grand Canyon is a nearly impossible to explain phenomenon. Layer up layer of color revealed in birthday cake erosion, all done by a river over eons. I’m absolutely bowled over by its sheer size, but also the distance to the bottom. Have I made a mistake in setting this goal? 

My permit is for an actual site, not an overflow or pack mule area usually reserved for AZT hikers. My plan is described as an ‘aggressive itinerary,’ and comes with a solo warning: “Hiking solo means you have nobody to help should you run into trouble.” 

I know that and it makes me scared. But all I can do is set my legs for a steep descent and enter this phenomenal space. 

The trail is dusty and it flies in my facd from the big wind gusts. I hold onto my hat, saying “hi” to all I pass, some people moving well, others struggling up the steep climb. It’s a wide trail built with low rock walls and sometimes in rock tiles. Mostly, wooden pieces are placed at intervals to prevent erosion. 

It makes for hard walking and I eventually loosen my knees and jump from one lumpy bit to the next. First the color is a deep umber with ponderosa hanging on ledges, then we enter a more washed out gray area, with a sage green on flat mesas.  

What makes the Kaibab so special is that the trail ventures out onto peninsulas so the entire time you feel like you’re floating above the canyons. Fanciful shapes come into view as we hit a flat bit, one aptly named “Oo Ah view.” 

At Cedar Ridge it seems all the day hikers pull out sandwiches and find shade. I push on having not brought enough water for this total sun exposure. It’s not terribly hot, but it’s relentless. Even down can wear you out as my calves begin to tighten. 

At ‘Skeleton” the trail completely changes into a tight and very steep set of switchbacks. I can see deep into the canyon as they descend, changing color from red to gray. 

Down and down I go passing hedgehog cactus with bright purple blossoms. I feel the river getting closer as I arrive at “The Tipoff” where a beautiful shelter has been set with shade and water collection barrels. I filter a liter and drink it right down, then take more with me. 

It’s now that I arrive at the steepest section, switchbacks laying nearly on top of each other all the way to the muddy green Colorado. It seems impossible that my body will go all the way down to the suspension bridge I sed below. 

I continue leaping ever so gently from one raised lump to the next, letting my body run/fall down the trail. Many ask if I’m camping below and I explain it’s still many miles up from the bottom. I pass old people, families, a couple of guys who try to stop my seeing their friend pee off the side. 

“I’ll avert my eyes!” 

And finally I reach a tunnel and the bridge. Across it I find a faucet so have lunch and drink two liters in shade. My legs are so happy to go up again as I plod past rubber boats, then the campground and Phantom Ranch where air conditioned cabins are powered by massive solar panels. 

I follow Clear Creek into a tight canyon of twists and turns. The walls are thousands of feet high and tight around me. This trail was built by the CCC in the 1930s and is wide and well buttressed with rock walls. 

I pass tourists on a day hike to Ribbon Falls and dozens of runners in the middle of a Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim event. Most move well, but they must be wrecked only carrying a water vest. 

I am wrecked, simply exhausted from the excitement of the descent and its challenge on my body in the bright sun. I shuffle up into this extraordinary canyon of rock ramparts and peaks, the creek rushing loudly. 

Beautiful bridges abound and my fear that I can’t get to camp fades. But I feel a bit loopy. I did not sleep well, but this could be heat exhaustion, so I find a rock seat in the shade and take a pause. 

A backpacker rounds the bend in a similar top as mine. Sisu is an Arizona Trail Hiker. I am so happy she’s here because it gives me courage that heading on is the right choice. She says she bought s bunch of hand warmers for the cold and thinks maybe my emergency blankets are the smarter move. 

Sisu is a strong hiker but tells me she too “Brown Blazed” walking the forest roads rather than trail in many instances. I admit I skipped from Grand View to the canyon, for weather but also because I’d had enough. 

She eventually heads on, walking fast as the canyon widens, opening up and getting steeper. Bright green cottonwoods grow on sandbars in the center of the creek.  

I’m very tired and ready for camp as the trail goes up then down into willows. The runners keep coming down and one couple heads up to the falls. At the junction, I meet up with Sisu and Volt, a young male hiker leaning back and enjoying the view down our tight canyon. 

They want to cross the river and see the falls, but I am wiped out, so climb up and snap a picture from the trail. Mountain paintbrush in fluorescent orange lines the path and the prickly pear are on the cusp of blooming. 

Finally, I see a flat spot ahead with cottonwoods. There’s a ranger house, toilets and sites with picnic tables. The water is shut off, but the creek is close. The two catch up to me changing their mind about the falls. I tell them I have a real permit and invite them to join me in a shaded spot. They’re both so grateful and I tell them how grateful I am that they’re here and I won’t go alone up to the North Rim and its cold weather. 

We gather water, set tents and eat at the table. Such lovely, easy to talk to hikers; so real and down to earth. A surprise at the end of a glorious day. One that’s left me in awe, but also exhausted. 4300 feet of climbing await with no water for five miles. 

But now there are friends doing the same walk and it gives me the strength I’ll need. 

Published by alison young

Alison Young is the Blissful Hiker, a voice artist and sometime saunterer. 📣🐥👣🎒

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