Beneath the Rim: Hiking into the Heart of the Grand Canyon

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Author and friend of All Roads North, Laura Kaye, goes hiking in the Grand Canyon and joins the 1% of visitors who journey beneath the rim.

Until recently, I had no idea you could hike down into the Grand Canyon. I had heard stories of people coming on tour buses, taking pictures of the view and then getting back on the bus.  According to a poster in my hotel, 99% of those hiking in the Grand Canyon do not venture below the rim. This kind of interaction did not appeal to me so I had never really wanted to go, until I discovered that you could walk down into it: suddenly my interest was piqued.

There are a number of approaches to the Grand Canyon but the main ones are the North and South Rim. Both have hiking trails that meet in the middle at the bottom of the Canyon. The North Rim is more peaceful, but since it was hundreds of miles farther from Flagstaff, Arizona, which was my stopping off point as I drove from East to West, I had to settle for the busier South Rim, which luckily turned out not to be so crowded after all. (On a side note: Flagstaff is a lovely town, full of breweries and students with an outdoorsy feel and it is only an hour and a half from the South Rim, which makes it a good base if you don’t want to stay in the park.)    

Bright Angel Trail drops 2,968 feet to Plateau Point and makes for a challenging 12 mile round trip from the rim (ph. L Kaye)

Bright Angel Trail drops 2,968 feet to Plateau Point and makes for a challenging 12 mile round trip from the rim (ph. L Kaye)

There are two trails from the South Rim down into the canyon. I chose the Bright Angel Trail since it had two water and toilet stopping points and a shady campsite half way down called Indian Gardens, whereas the South Kaibab trail was described as having no water and no shade – I thought, why make life harder for myself? I left my car at the Backcountry Office car park and made my way past the various lodges in the Grand Canyon Village to the trailhead at the edge of the canyon. Up ahead, through the trees, I realised something was strange, there was an emptiness where there should be more trees. Then I saw the canyon. It is true that no pictures or photos can prepare you for it – for a start, no photo could fit the whole panoramic stretch of it in. What surprised me was the colour: red yes, but mostly hazy pink and purple. It is incredibly beautiful but there is something raw and fear inducing about it – the river has cut the earth so deeply that you can’t actually see the water, just a dark zigzagging wound. It is a view that everyone should see, even if you do just get on and off a bus. After a few minutes taking it in, I made my way to the start of the walk.

In an ideal world I would have booked a bunk at the Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon (or a campsite) but since I only discovered it existed that day and then found out that the spaces get snapped up a year in advance this was not an option. Also not an option is to walk all the way to the Colorado River and back in one day according to the numerous warning signs around the village. So I decide to go as far as the Indian Gardens and come back – a ten mile round trip.  

Hiking beneath the rim of the Grand Canyon gives you a totally different perspective and you really feel inside the canyon (ph. L Kaye)

Hiking beneath the rom of the Grand Canyon gives you a totally different perspective and you really feel inside the canyon (ph. L Kaye)

The walk down is fine: everyone is friendly and greets one another. There are people of all ages, all shapes and sizes – even small children. I walk down with a girl from Oklahoma and we discuss politics. Like me, she was in Flagstaff the night before but had drunk so much of the excellent beer that she decides to stop at the second rest house. I continue to Indian Gardens alone. There are less people now and the landscape changes and it is surprisingly lush – tall trees, flowers and the burbling sound of the stream are very welcome after two hours in the sun.  I’m not particularly tired and have half a mind to continue to the river, though I know it is probably dangerous. I discuss this with a man in his seventies who tells me he has walked from the North Rim. It is his 26th time walking rim to rim – a 21 mile walk. The first time, he tells me, you either never want to hike again, or you’re hooked. He suggests that I walk out to Plateau Point – another 1.5 miles – rather than 5 down to the river which would add 10 miles onto my total and is definitely too much.  

The canyon drops in two phases – a steep cliff, then a flat plateau and then the narrow, deep crack in the earth: the wound. As I walk across a flat plateau of scrubby desert towards the edge, I look around and I suddenly realise I am really inside the canyon. I feel as though I am in a giant amphitheatre with cliffs rising up above me on all sides. The sun is very hot and I am scared that this was a mistake – there is nobody else around. But when I get to Plateau Point, to my relief, there are a few people there. And it is worth it to see the river below which is emerald green – so vivid against the red rocks. The scenery is so alien to me, I feel like I am on Mars.

The emerald waters of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon (ph. L Kaye)

The emerald waters of the Colorado River nearly 4,500 feet beneath the rim of the Grand Canyon (ph. L Kaye)

The climb back up isn’t as bad as I thought. I meet a woman who is a member of the Navajo tribe who comes from the area but has never been hiking in the Grand Canyon before. She tells me about growing up on the reservation with no water or electricity and we discuss portrayals of Native Americans in films like ‘Last of the Mohicans’ and ‘Dances with Wolves’. ‘We laugh at them,’ she tells me, though she can’t quite articulate why. The sky has mercifully clouded over and we are distracted from the pain by the view of the canyon, which changes with every switchback turn. I can’t think what this would be like on a cloudless day in August – I probably would have only made it 20 metres. Suddenly we are at the top and we take one more long look at the view before we say our goodbyes. I would say to anyone of any hiking ability to give it a go – you can always turn back. It really is worth it. Next time, I’m going to do the rim to rim.          

Laura Kaye is a television producer and author based in London. Her debut novel, English Animals, will be published in March 2017.

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