Our hike into the Grand Canyon started early on the morning of 2 June. The best times to do this hike, the way we did it, would be the last two weeks of May and the first two weeks of October. So we were just outside this “prime time” window. The North Rim lodge doesn’t open until the 15th of May so if you want to stay there, you have to go after 15 May. This is an incredibly popular time to schedule a Rim to Rim hike. If you also want to stay at Phantom Ranch in either a cabin or one of the bunk house, then good luck to you. It is very difficult to get through to the reservation line on the 1st of May a year+ earlier. Even for our June trip it took me over 45 minutes of dialing to get through to make my reservations. Although I would have preferred to go on the 17th of May, in order to have the best chance of cooler weather, the reality is that it can be very hot even then. To satisfy my curiosity I looked up the weather reports for the last two weeks of May and the first week of June for Phoenix. It is hard to find a good source of accurate weather for Phantom Ranch, and Phoenix is a very good (but not perfect) match for the weather you’ll experience at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Amazingly it will be 30+ degrees cooler on either the North or South rims. So for May 2014 the weather for the last two weeks would have been… So if I had gotten really lucky and gotten my first choice for reservations at Phantom Ranch, the 17th of May (giving us 2 nights at the lodge), the temperature would have been 104 on the day we hike in. The temperatures for June 2nd were only slightly higher at 110 degrees. Remember these are actually Phoenix recorded temperatures. I think the highest temperature we saw hiking in was 105 degrees, in the shade. The interesting thing is we could have hiked even as late as 21 June without seeing significantly hotter weather. But when you are scheduling a hike like this you want to play the odds, and you have a better chance for cooler weather in May than June. There were some days as low as 90 degrees.
It doesn’t matter whether it is 90 or 115 degrees when you do this hike be sure to be careful, it is not an easy hike, and it is very easy to get in trouble with those temperatures. If you think you can just “charge on” even if you are feeling the effects of the heat you’re mistaken. It won’t cool down for a long time! If the heat starts to take a toll on you or anyone in your group, slow down, take advantage of the shade and cool streams next to much of the trail. Manage your time, especially if you are on a schedule, but if you can wait it is much cooler and there is a lot more shade around 4 pm. You should also get a very early start. Before sunrise once there is enough light to see the trail is perfect.
We didn’t start late, but we did start after sunrise. We took the early shuttle from the North Rim Lodge to the North Kaibab Trail trailhead. After a group picture at the trailhead…
we hit the trail. We were all carrying extra water because a leak in the transcanyon pipeline made it very likely that we would have limited water stops on the hike in. We were told that only the first water stop at the Supai Tunnel and if we wanted to go out of our way, the water stop at Roaring Springs would be reliable.
Although starting early is smart, if you start before sunrise you will miss some of the most beautiful scenery on the entire hike. The start of the trail is a gentle descent, with a sandy/dusty soft trail surrounded by trees and the canyon walls.
It was cool, clear and the lighting was perfect. Great day to start our hike. For me this was a familiar trail, but for everyone else there was a new discovery around every switchback.
Even though we had left the North Rim behind, we still had a few Aspens to walk through.
I stopped at a large flat overlook just off the trail to catch this view to the South Rim and beyond. Except for being just a little lower, and the terrific morning light, it looked about the same as it did from the lodge.
A little further down the trail and we came to one of my favorite photo spots. There are large pillars of sandstone at a couple switchbacks in a row. A good place for a group picture!
This picture shows the obvious transition from one layer to the next. These layers are what make the Grand Canyon the Grand Canyon. Based on where we were, still fairly near the top, I believe the top layer is Coconino Limestone, and the bottom layer is the start of the Hermit formation.
You can find more on the geology of the Grand canyon here.
My last Grand Canyon rim to rim hike was in the fall of 2010. I expected a lot more blooming plants this time. We had seen a lot of blooms during our training hikes in San Diego. Although it was greener this time, I only saw a few blooming plants. This New Mexico Locust (best guess) was the most impressive.
As we descended further, leaving the rest of the world behind, we noticed one reminder of the modern world…
Our progress was only slowed by one thing… we were camera happy. I knew this was one of my favorite parts of the trail, and I had really built it up to the others in the group. Two of us were carrying the cameras, me and my cousin Mike. It didn’t take long for the two of us to fall behind!
The first break was at the water stop just before the Supai Tunnel.
Our water was still nearly full as it was cool and downhill to this point, but we topped them off anyway (anticipating unreliable water access due to the leak in the pipe). Unless you are carrying very small water containers this stop is not very necessary on the way down, but I’m sure it is appreciated by anyone going up the North Kaibab trail.
Even if you don’t need to, check out the stairs to the restrooms… it’s the prettiest toilet entry I’ve ever walked through and Jenny looked lovely standing at the top of the stairs too!
After taking the mandatory group pictures in the tunnel…
We continued down the trail. This was one part of the trail where my memory failed me from my previous hike. When I pictured the trail just past the Supai Tunnel, I pictured it as very red and curved. But that part of the trail was actually 15-20 minutes below the exit from the tunnel. The rocks and trail were red, and beautiful…
and we soon could see the first bridge on the trail below us.
After passing a cool overhang,
lots of switchbacks,
and some steep descents,
we finally came to the curved red rock path. It’s obvious why that part of the trail was so strong in my memory. It is definitely one of my favorite parts of the North Kaibab Trail descent.
After another 20 minutes of descent we paused for this picture above the first bridge on the trail.
I waited just above the bridge to take a picture of Jenny and Sean crossing the bridge, which is the picture at the top of the post. As I crossed the bridge I took this picture of the canyon below the bridge. I can imagine the water roaring over these rocks in the spring as the snow melts. I’d love to get that picture!
We paused for a break in the shade just after the bridge. The trail was switching sides of the canyon and we would be in the sun much more of the time after this break. We started to feel the heat more and began regretting all the pauses for pictures! We headed back up hill for a short distance and then followed the trail as it hugged the side of the canyon.
One curved section of the trail is obviously being formed by water pouring down the side of the canyon.
The rock formation has multiple drops forming ledges that you can climb up or down onto. I climbed up a level, and my cousin Mike climbed down a level to pose for this picture.
Then we came to one of the two parts of the trail where my “somewhat dormant” fear of heights kicked in last time… and again this time. I knew this part of the trail was coming and had intentionally dropped back to get this picture.
I shouted ahead for Jenny and Sean to stop so I could get the picture. Sean shouted back that they should be taking a picture of me… that I should see what they were seeing. After a few exchanges of “you should see what I see” with my youngest son, I walked over to hang out with them. As Mike came around the corner, I agreed with Sean that the view he had been seeing was pretty cool too!
Although it was getting hotter, the views were still slowing us down. Another favorite part of the trail for me was next. It is a switchback that goes out away from the canyon wall toward a rock monolith…
then back toward the canyon wall. This forms a nice platform for taking pictures of people as they go under a rock outcrop and walk along the trail following the curve of the canyon wall.
A little further down the trail I noticed a familiar and memorable view. It was at this point on Day 1 of our October 2010 Rim to Rim hike that I thought I saw a woman carrying an old fashion parasol. Then she seemed to disappear. Although I was still sick (laryngitis) and it was hotter, there were no phantom visions this time.
The lower you go the warmer it gets! The warmer it got the happier we were to spend a little time in the shade!
Although we were getting closer to the bottom, the canyon walls and rock formations had not changed much yet. We passed another rock formation formed by water just around the corner after our shady resting place.
About a minute later as I snapped this picture of my son Sean about to round a corner I noticed a large patch of green trees just ahead. We were just about to see Roaring Springs!
As we got closer we could see the trail down to Roaring Springs just to the right of the green grove of trees.
This “optional” trail is about a half mile long. Usually by the time you get to this point “optional” trails have lost any appeal they may have had during planning. However, things were different this time. The last status update we got on water stops before we left the North Rim was that water access was not likely to be available beyond the spigot at Roaring Springs. So our 14 mile hike on Day 1 would be extended to 15 miles, and we would get a chance to see Roaring Springs a little closer.
On the way down the “optional trail” I snapped this picture of Roaring Springs (zoomed in quite a bit).
Unfortunately this would be the best picture I got even though we got closer. It’s amazing to me that Roaring Spring flows year around out of the side of the canyon wall. In fact it is the main source of fresh water for the resorts on both rims and There is a fresh water pipe along all 23 plus miles of trail and a series of pump houses used to pump the water up to the resorts. Click this link (An Investigation of Energy Use, Potable Water and Wastewater Treatment at Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona) for a good explanation of how the process works.
The extra time we spent walking to and checking out Roaring Springs meant that it would be later/hotter for the rest of the hike but I’m glad we took some time to investigate the area while we were there. Jenny and Sean had some snacks and hung out in the shade while my cousin Mike and I worked our way through some dense (and creepy crawler infested) plants along and across an informal trail that meandered toward the falls below Roaring Springs. We were persistent enough to at least get to a small side falls before we turned around. The transcanyon pipeline cut through the area, but it was still a cool place.
We snapped a few pictures – this is the best one of Mike…
and Mike took this one of me.
After we scrambled back along the overgrown path to the watering stop, we filled all of our containers and continued on the trail toward Phantom Ranch. I’m going to continue describing Day 1 of our hike in my next post. My favorite part of the entire hike was behind us, but by no means is the rest of the hike disappointing. It’s just that the North Kaibab trail between the North Rim and Roaring Springs is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to!
Next post in this series: Grand Canyon Rim to Rim Hike (Day 4 – Part 2: Roaring Springs to Phantom Ranch)
List of all my posts for the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim: Grand Canyon Rim to Rim Hike Posts (Oct 2010 and June 2014)