Into the Abyss:
Solo hiking the Grand Canyon top to bottom and back – in one day
What possessed me?
Solo hiking the Grand Canyon (or even with a partner) from top to bottom and back in one day is not to be taken lightly. Every year there are deaths in the Grand Canyon, most from falls and heatstroke, even on shorter treks. Adrenaline junkie is definitely not a phrase I would use to describe myself. I do however frequently solo hike, often upwards of 10 miles at a time.
You can keep your skydiving, bungee jumping, and extreme mountain biking all to your fabulous self. But I DO like to challenge myself, and I’ve resolved to push my own boundaries more at 40 than I did at 20. Or 30. Or 39. You get the idea. Welcome to the new mid-life crisis. So instead of buying a zippy sports car or jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, a brutal 18 (ish) mile hike sounded just right.
Going for it
I digress. I considered skipping the Grand Canyon altogether. It was a detour from the rest of my planned itinerary, and it’s hardly going anywhere. However, it seemed an affront to our National Parks System to forgo the one of the great crown jewels of the American West. Since it was only April, I had the brilliant idea to attempt solo hiking the Grand Canyon in, well, grand fashion. From top to bottom and back in a single day. Why not?
Since I had camped a couple miles in at the Paria Townsite (just a bit east of Kanab), it was easy to hop on Highway 89 before sunrise. From there it’s a little over three hours, not counting stops or detours. I could trawl up and down the 89 every weekend for months on end.
This stunning scenic route wends its way past Lake Powell and through the Colorado river basin. If you’re coming from Kanab you can also take the 89A, which takes you through the north end of Kaibab National Forest and to Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. Whichever route you take, It’s absolutely worth the relatively minor detour to visit Vermillion Cliffs National Monument and Marble Canyon.
I elected to splurge on a motel rather than car camp as I had been for most of this trip. Nights were forecasted to be in the low 20s, and I just wasn’t in the mood to sleep in sub freezing temps. I spent the afternoon exploring the various overlooks, first by car then utilizing the park shuttle system. With plans to be on-trail by 6am (or earlier), I got myself to bed as early as possible.
The Big Day
Unfortunately I got off to a late start, and didn’t even get into the park until almost 7am. I managed to grab one of the last few curbside parking spots close to the Bright Angel Trailhead. Hikers checked gear and cinched straps in preparation for the day’s trek. Normally I travel as light as possible, but my 28L Gregory pack was full up. Two water bottles, high calorie snacks, various camera/video gear, and trekking poles were carefully arranged to distribute weight properly. I had also dressed in layers, knowing that as the day pressed on temps would reach into the low 80s.
It was an absolute stunner of a day. Achingly clear blue sky, a slight breeze, and a general vibe of camaraderie flourished amongst fellow early birds. I passed numerous hikers coming up from their night camping down in the canyon. They must have gotten up well before dawn to make it this close to the top by 7:30 in the morning. Despite starting out in lined leggings, thermal shirt, vest, etc etc I quickly began stripping down. Even going downhill, I worked up a sweat pretty fast. I could have left the puffy vest behind altogether..
Optimism bloomed in my chest as I paced myself down the declining switchbacks. Despite Kaibab being steeper, I had elected to start with the Bright Angel Trail due to my knees being sensitive to steep downhill trekking. My chosen route would take me down to the river, then cut across to return via the South Kaibab Trail. First Breakfast was had at a spectacular overlook just about an hour along the trail. Another break was enforced not long after as we waited for the trail maintenance crews to pass. It felt like a funky time warp as they gently clopped past on their mules. The maintenance is almost constant, and the only way to achieve this is by hand and hoof.
3 Hours In
Descending into the canyon, I was surprised by how much vegetation was tucked into the rocky terrain. This starts to become evident around 3 Mile Resthouse. This is a popular turnaround point for those making shorter work of Bright Angel Trail. Continue another 1.3 miles down to Indian Garden campground (reservations required), where you can rest and refill your water. No matter what time of year, if you think you’ve brought enough water – you likely didn’t. Bring more. Day hikers often turn around at this point too, as it’s another 3+ miles to the river. Heading back up now makes it roughly a 9 mile round trip hike.
Truthfully, I was little bit concerned at this point. Despite using my trekking poles, the constant downhill was already taking its toll. I felt an ache in my lower calves and the faintest twinges in my knees. Already the scenery had been absolutely breathtaking, so I could hardly be disappointed by the day. A 9 mile hike isn’t anything to sneeze at either. But I came to do the whole shebang, and I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. I’m made of tougher stuff than that! This would become a very important mantra later.
Take Me to the River
From Indian Garden it took me a couple more hours (I move slowly due to all my picture taking) to reach the river. At this point it was almost 12:45, about 5 1/2 hours after I’d set out from the rim. My lower calves ached and I was starting to feel the weight of my pack. But I had reached the Colorado River and it was gorgeous. The sun was warm and the water bracingly chilly. I stuck my feet in, then my knees. This was frequently interrupted by squirrels trying to break into my pack for snacks. They’re bold little buggers and only scurry off when you’re right on top of them.
Arriving there were several people there, but for a good 20 minutes I had the river all to myself. I even considered skinny dipping but that water is COLLLLD friends! I’d have loved to stay longer, but as it was almost 2:00 already, there was no time to be wasted. With less than 6 hours before full dark, I waffled. I could go back up the way I came, which was already familiar and had shade. Despite my experience, I’d still managed to underestimate solo hiking the Grand Canyon at this level. I knew I’d made some critical mistakes: starting after 7 instead of before 6, not bringing a larger water bottle/more snacks, forgetting sunscreen…. Worst of all, while I’d remembered my battery pack I had managed to forget the cord for my phone. With less than 40% left on my phone I had some serious choices to make.
Point of No Return
I did have my satellite GPS tracker with me, so that was comforting. It tracks my position in real time so friends & family can check my progress. In addition to the SOS option (for serious emergencies) is the ability to check in with an “I’m ok” missive. If I turned my phone on only periodically, I would be okay. Tragically, I would not have a precise record of distance covered. But, I wanted to achieve what I had originally set out to do: hike down Bright Angel and up South Kaibab in a single day. I would be solo hiking the damn Grand Canyon top to bottom and back today, come hell or high water.
Decision made and clock ticking, I saddled back up and started along the River Trail. This climbs a bit to look down over the river, and the views continue to delight. This trail is a little under 2 miles. When you reach the S Kaibab trail you can go up to the rim or hang a left where you’ll now be on N Kaibab Trail. This leads to the Bright Angel campground and Phantom Ranch, which is where most hikers spend the night and either return to their starting rim or continue to the opposite rim. Keep in mind the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is closed much of the year. Usually it’s open from mid-late May to maybe early October.
It felt hotter than the predicted low 80s, and shade was almost nonexistent on the comparatively naked Kaibab route. From the junction it’s 5.7 miles back to the top. I was barely covering 1 mile per hour. I was probably a little dehydrated at this point, and definitely should have brought a bit more in the way of snacks. I’d estimate I had maybe 800 calories worth, and should have brought twice that. Too late now, there was literally no turning back and the only way out was up.
What Did I Get Myself Into?
The Kaibab trail is no joke. It’s all naked rock and dirt, with a relentless uphill climb. When they tell you not to attempt this in summer, please listen. It has actually killed people. I swear I had to stop every 30-60 seconds and catch my breath. To say I was feeling discouraged would be a tremendous understatement. About an hour into this, I had my first mini breakdown. What the hell was I thinking, attempting to solo hike the Grand Canyon top to bottom and back in a single damn day?! Remember what I said about “I’m made of tougher stuff than that”? Well, I practically chanted this in my head. I worried I’d be hiking back in the dark. Not to mention if I got back too late I’d have to walk back another 4 miles to my car. Pro tip – park your car at the finish and take the shuttle to the start.
I let myself throw a tiny pity party for all of 90 seconds before I mentally slapped my back and just focused on putting one foot in front of the other. Back at the junction of North vs South Kaibab, I could have turned left to get more water. It would have added another mile to my route and that just felt like too much. So I had pressed on, perhaps not confident but definitely hopeful that the liter or so I had left would suffice. Now I wasn’t feeling great about that decision.
The slog continued. I passed a few people, some of whom were headed down to spend the night at the ranch or campground. A couple were headed up to the rim as well, including a youngish fellow who appeared to be struggling even more than I was. Ego aside, it was reassuring to know others were on the trail as well.
The going also seemed to get slightly easier around The Tipoff, which intersects with the Tonto trail. Somewhere between there and Skeleton Point (another 1.5 miles up) there was a shelter where I had another snack and rested for a few minutes. I also encountered another fellow with the same goal of solo hiking the Grand Canyon in the same dramatic fashion as I. It brought no comfort that he looked markedly more miserable than I.
Just Keep Swimming
Back on the trail, there were more breaks from the relentless uphill, with the trail intermittently flattening out. Being able to keep moving but catch my breath did wonders for my mental state. A stout breeze had kicked up, and with the sun dropping swiftly, heat became less of a factor in hindering my progress. Progress was calculated in half mile blocks.. I turned on my phone about every 45 minutes to check my position, particularly at trail junctions. The trails are very clear, so it’s pretty much impossible to go off trail by accident.
The trail from Skelton Point to Ooh Ah Point (with Cedar Ridge about halfway along) begins again with intense switchbacks and is extremely exposed. The wind went from a blessing to curse somewhere around this point. There were sections where I actually wore my mask to protect my face and had to hold my hat on. Instead of relentless uphill switchbacks in the sun, it was relentless sandblasting near-gales. Cue my second breakdown. I literally heard myself whimper “I just want to go home” and felt illogically angry with said wind. Back to the mantra, back to one foot in front of the other.
If an all day hike isn’t your thing, definitely at least hike down Kaibab to Ooh Ah Point (or even Skeleton Point) – the views really are incredible. If you go all the way to Skeleton, it would be only 5.5 miles roundtrip. Of course, Ooh Ah is popular for sunrise and sunset. It’s close enough to the trailhead you could hike to/from in the dark as long as you have a good flashlight and pay attention.
Light at the End of the Trail
I reached Ooh Ah Point right at the tail end of sunset. Victory was at hand – it was less than a mile to the trailhead. Making it to the top before full dark didn’t just feel possible, but a certainty. Two hardcore hikers motored passed me, assuring me that I could always hitchhike back to my car if I missed the shuttle. Mind you, I’ve never hitchhiked in my life. Do you know how much Forensic Files I watch?!
How a measly 1/2 mile can feel like 10 is still a little beyond me. The hardcore hikers had long since disappeared from view. Despite knowing I’d reach the top before dark, I was now worried about getting back to my car. Walking back 4 miles seemed quite impossible and the idea of sticking my thumb out equally absurd. Steeling myself for the final climb (I swear it felt completely vertical), I came across a few guys taking in the last of the sunset glow. We chatted for a minute, and I asked them if they knew anything about the shuttle either. According to their memory, I should make it if I hurried. Superb.
Are We There Yet?
A couple hundred yards from the top, with dark rapidly encroaching, I encountered one more person. He was looking for his friends, and asked if I’d seen a guy in a green shirt. The guy could have been wearing a hulk costume and I likely wouldn’t have noticed in my current state. I did remember a backpack and told him so. We got to chatting a little, and I asked if he knew anything about the shuttles. While they were still running, from this point I would still have to walk about a mile as the Kaibab shuttle didn’t run straight to my starting point. I blanched, kicking myself for dropping the ball on this crucial point.
Exhausted, I relied on observation and instinct. So far in life, this has kept me from featuring on the latest FF episode. It seemed unlikely that a murderer would be taking sustenance to his friends, concerned at their hiking inexperience.. Fingers crossed, I asked if there was they could possibly give me a lift back to my car. He said as long as I didn’t mind waiting for the rest of the crew to make it up, no problem. Fantastic. I had a few sips of water left and less than zero energy. While he headed down with refreshments, I finally sat down and put my cozy leggings back on as the evening chill returned. I still had 17% on my phone and a faint signal, so it was good to know I could at least dial 911 if need be.
Made of Tougher Stuff After All
As evidenced by the fact you’re reading this, I was thankfully not murdered. They were indeed good samaritans just helping out a fellow human. They had flown into Vegas the day before, and wanted to check in to their AirBnB but were kind enough to go out of their way and run me back to my car. So 14 hours after setting out, I was finally on my way back to my motel. Where I didn’t even have the energy to do more than eat some microwave ramen and wipe off eons-old dust with a wet towel before collapsing into bed.
Important to Know for Solo Hiking the Grand Canyon
- There is no water on Kaibab. If you don’t want to carry it all, stick to Bright Angel. It’s beautiful and you can refill water going down and up. You could fill a filtration system from the river, just be aware the sediment can cause clogging issues. I wouldn’t attempt Kaibab with AT MINIMUM 2-3 liters for just that section. Even if it’s not super hot, the arid climate can lead to speedier dehydration.
- There are pit toilets around the midway points on each trail. Pack out what you bring in, and in the desert that’s not just TP. Yes, you gotta carry out your poo if you aren’t able to use a pit toilet. There are numerous options of waste bags, so don’t worry about an unpleasant explosion in your pack. I know it’s kinda grody but it’s all part of Leave No Trace. Trailspace has a great post covering all the options and need-to-know for going to the bathroom in the wilderness
- Do NOT attempt this hike in summer months. People die almost every year because they underestimate the elements and overestimate their abilities. Stick to shorter hikes you can complete before 10-11am or can be done in the few hours before sunset. It’s not worth the risk.
Long Distance Hiking Tips
- Bring calorie dense snacks. Skip sugary stuff for items like nuts, fruit, jerky, and the like. I usually make a trail sandwich that will be my “big meal” of the hike and eat that in the first few hours. You can also get packets of energy gel, many of which will also help replenish electrolytes lost when sweating all day.
- Especially if hiking alone, I can’t stress enough the importance of carrying an emergency beacon. They aren’t cheap but if you’re seriously injured or lost, it can literally be the difference between life and death. Download your trail maps so you don’t need a signal – I use GAIA GPS for mine. Carry a printed trail map as a backup.
- A basic first aid kit is also a good idea for minor injuries you might sustain. Lightweight layers, a hat, a bandana or balaclava (remember that gnarly wind I mentioned?), and high quality socks (consider bringing a spare pair) will all make your hike far more comfortable. I also carried an emergency blanket (the foil type) and small mirror because sometimes technology fails. A compact LED flashlight is also good to have – don’t depend on the one on your phone.
- If you aren’t bringing a beacon, it’s doubly important to make sure you’ve notified someone of your route and expected return.
- I know it’s fun and seems like NBD but please don’t stack rocks. There are numerous practical and environmental reasons for this (also it’s kind cliched by now isn’t it?), but it definitely falls under the Leave No Trace Principal.
What I’d Do Differently
- Start earlier – if I’d started at my desired time I could have enjoyed more time at the river AND not taken the risk of hitchhiking
- Start at S. Kaibab (unless you have knees like mine) BUT park at the Bright Angel Trailhead. This way if you’re delayed you don’t have to worry about missing the last shuttle
- Make sure you can carry 3 liters of water at a time. I started the Kaibab ascent with less than 2 and should have had 3. If I hadn’t refilled at Indian Garden I would have really been in trouble. If the water stations are closed, I’d up it to 5 liters unless you have filtration that you can use at the river to refill.
- Bring more snacks. I made the mistake of bringing what I’d usually bring on an 8-10 mile hike. Energy gel would have helped on those Kaibab switchbacks too
- Make a list of critical items. This would have prevented me from forgetting the battery pack and stress of low phone battery
- Take less. Every ounce carried takes energy. I could have left behind a lens, a gimbal, and definitely didn’t need a fleece AND jacket AND vest. A basic windbreaker and the fleece would have been plenty. Even the fleece leggings were more than I needed except at the very beginning and end.