Stand on the Silver Bridge crossing the Colorado River, tilt your head back and look up. The rim is the goal, but it is 9 miles to the top, and 4480 feet above you. By comparison, the Empire State building is 1250 feet tall…you would have to climb it more than 3.5 times before you reach the top. If you’re wondering, Burj Khalifa in Dubai is only 2716 feet! So just for fun, if you put the Empire State building on top of the Burj Khalifa and climbed to the top of THAT structure you would still be 50 stories short!
In the first mile, the River Trail runs along the Colorado river. It’s not unusual to see 3 or 4 large rafts floating down the river in a group. That trail is fairly flat and sandy in spots. Soon enough, it turns uphill to the River Resthouse. I have only hiked it twice, but water was not available either time. That means you have to begin the hike with a stretch of 4.7 miles without water. It may not seem like a big deal until the sun beats down and you hit your first sustained uphill stretch. Be sure to carry enough water and hydrate.
The first real rest stop after crossing the river is Havasupai Gardens. It is 4.8 miles from the top and is a great place to rest, get some water, get out of the sun for a bit, and mentally prepare for the hardest part of the hike.
The last 4.8 miles looks to be straight up a sheer cliff. Probably because it is. The trail is carved into the rock face of the cliff and becomes a series of switchbacks. The old adage is “How do you eat a whale? One bite at a time” is part of how I mentally handle the challenge of the last miles to the top. Instead of thinking that I have 4.7 miles from Havasupai Gardens, I think that it is only 1.7 miles to the Three Mile Resthouse. “I can do 1.7 miles! That’s easy!” I tell myself. And then, “It’s only 1.5 miles to the Mile and a half resthouse!” And one last mile and a half to the top. But along the way inevitably you will see people sitting by the side of the trail, vacant looks on their faces, completely spent. It’s as hard of a thing as most people will ever do.
The last 1.5 miles, actually is a little easier. The trail itself winds directly under the rim. Cell coverage resumes for the first time since you dropped into the canyon 12-15 hours ago. You can hear people talking and laughing at the top, right above you. Your restaurant may text to say your table is ready. Although utterly and completely exhausted, the euphoria of nearly being done with this grueling, spectacular hike is nearly over.
If you are fortunate enough to have completed the hike while it is light, stand at the top and look back across the canyon. In the distance you can see where you started early that morning. Look carefully, and you can follow the trail down the North Kaibab trail toward the Colorado. Peer over the edge, and you can follow most of the Bright Angel trail up from the river. It eventually disappears under the edge of the rim somewhere around the 3 mile resthouse.
If you finish after dark, or come back out from your hotel room after dark, you can look back out over the trail and can see evidence of the truth of the sign:” …hiking out is mandatory.” Back down the trail you will see flashlights, some more than 4 hours from the top. Not all were stragglers on a R2R hike. Some likely had hiked down from the south rim, and misjudged either the time or their own capabilities. In any event, no one was coming to get them, and whether they continued up for hours, stopped at Havasupai Gardens (the last spot that could be considered having campsites), or simply sat down next to the trail and waited for morning, eventually they would have to hike to the top on their own.
For many, seeing the Grand Canyon is on their bucket list. For a few, completing a hike from one rim to the other is a difficult physical test permitting a view of the canyon only a handful of people attempt. It’s an incredible journey.