In December of 2018, my dad and I decided that we were going to set out on a Grand Canyon backpacking adventure. We were going to do the rim-to-rim. So we applied for a permit: May 9 – 11, starting at the North Kaibab trail, ending at Bright Angel on the South Rim. 2 nights of camping to break up the distance. It was the perfect plan for two Grand Canyon hiking novices.
As always, the best laid plans often don’t play out exactly as expected. And let’s be honest: the plans that we had made were definitely not in the “best laid” category. Here’s how it played out for us.
Preparing for the Grand Canyon
On February 4, 2019, my dad got a call that we got a permit. Though the route and dates that we chose weren’t necessarily ideal as the North Rim road wouldn’t be open until May 15th. Surely that wouldn’t be an issue though, right? Maybe it would open early. Maybe it’s not that far if we just parked in the parking lot and walked there.
After doing some written and conversational research, we learned that the road was not likely to open before May 15th, and we were not interested in tacking on the extra 43.4 miles that it would take to walk to the North Rim entrance, so we changed our plan. Instead of doing the rim-to-rim, we would hike down South Kaibab Trail on May 9th, camp down at Bright Angel campground, and hike back out Bright Angel trail the next day. We would still get to experience hiking down into (and out of) the Grand Canyon. It was a fantastic compromise, in our eyes.
Over the next few months, my dad and I would train. Dad had just finished cancer treatment on January 2nd, so training started out a little slow but he worked up to a phenomenal place. His training included alternating between some Kansas City hills with decent inclines, carrying his backpack full of gear for 10 miles at a time, and dominating the StairMaster for 45 minutes. My training focused around the Phoenix and Salt Lake City area mountains. We were ready. At least we felt like we were.
On May 8, 2019, my dad and I met in Flagstaff, AZ where we would spend the night before heading up to the canyon in the morning. The plan was to catch the 7am Hikers Express shuttle to South Kaibab trailhead. In Flagstaff, it was raining. And it was cold. Really cold. But we were still hopeful that it was just a cold front coming through and the next day would dry up a bit. We proceeded with our carb-loading pasta dinner, repacked our packs so that we would be ready to go in the morning, and set an alarm for 5:15am.
In the morning, we were met with a similar temperature as the night before, but it was dry. No rain to be seen. So we started the 1 hour drive from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon.
About 25 minutes in, the weather started to change. We had driven separately since I drove up from Phoenix, and my dad in from Kansas City, and we planned on separating ways after we hiked out the next day. My mind was calm, but there was a hint of fear creeping in that this rain wouldn’t let up, so I started researching. The first site showed rain. Solid rain for the entire rest of the day into the following evening with no signs of relief. I didn’t want to believe it, so I searched another site. And another. The best forecast I could find still had it raining until 7pm that night with a high of 41º F. Not good.
When we finally arrived at the South Rim and parked, my dad was optimistic. I was not. I’ve made enough backpacking mistakes with the AZ monsoons to know that wet camping is miserable, and that I am not that hard core. And none of those were during freezing temperatures. Reluctantly, we made the call to cancel at 6:45am, just before we would need to board the shuttle. It wasn’t an easy choice, but it was the right one.
Grand Canyon Back Up Plan
We did end up deciding to proceed with a hike down Bright Angel trail to the 3-mile rest point. When we got to the canyon, our decision to
cancel postpone the trip was validated. Visibility was zero. We may as well have been hiking in a gigantic sinkhole in my back yard.
The further in we got, though, the more beautiful it became. As more rain fell, waterfalls began forming where they wouldn’t have normally been. The colors became more vibrant. As we got lower, the fog dissipated a little, exposing at least some glimpses of what would be in store for us when we return. As we got back to the top of the trailhead, gigantic snowflakes began to fall, lightly at first, then in more of a flurry. It was beautiful.
But it was also at that point that we realized that we had made the right decision. After 6 miles of hiking, both of us were absolutely soaked, despite wearing ponchos to block the rain. Our shoes were sloshing, our pants were drenched up to the thigh due to consistent rainfall combined with the ever-increasing puddles. Three layers of clothing were soaked through under our ponchos. Our finger dexterity was so bad due to the cold that tasks such as unlocking the car and opening the car trunk were difficult. We would have been absolutely miserable. And I have no doubt that at least one of us would have had some sort of hypothermia after enduring a day and a half of rain and freezing temperatures.
So while this is not the story I was hoping to tell, it’s the right one. We made the right choice. And now we’re even more determined that we will hike the Grand Canyon – and it will be the rim-to-rim. When the time is right.