What I Learned From an Unscheduled Trip to the Bottom of the Grand Canyon

Have you ever been to the Grand Canyon? Do pictures, or even video, do justice to it? To me, they can't capture the sense of awe you feel standing on the rim in person. Go ahead and click the picture below to expand it to full size. It's incredible, but not like the real thing.

I first visited the Grand Canyon when I was 13 years old. For years I had hiked the mountains of the western U.S. and Canada with my grandparents, but had never done any serious canyon hiking. We planned to spend a week at Grand Canyon National Park, with the goal of working our way up to an overnight trip to the bottom of the canyon and back.

The distance from rim to river is about 7.8 miles. That's not too daunting; it's the 4300 ft altitude change that can kill you, literally: [You can click any picture to enlarge]

So our plan for the first day was to spend the morning getting our "trail legs" by hiking down to the 1.5 mile mark and coming back. From mountain hiking I knew that going up took about three times as long as going down the same path.

My grandfather, mother, brother and I set out early in the morning, and in no time we were at the 1.5 mile mark. The scenery was breathtaking, and since we were making better time than expected, we decided we could go a little further.

The trail was great, and the views became more fascinating as we proceeded into the canyon.

Remember that little patch of green in the center of the first picture? It's called Indian Garden, and we made it there without breaking a sweat. We stopped with the intent of turning around BUT...

...of that 4300 ft vertical drop, we'd already completed almost 3000. Why not go just a little farther to see what the inner canyon looks like?

Below the plateau, most of the rock is black schist, a volcanic rock. And what happens when black rock is exposed to intense sunlight over a period of time? That's right; it turns the sunlight into radiated heat. It got progressively hotter as we went down. Of course, once we got into the lower canyon, the lure of getting to the river became a siren song. It was hot, and the thought of putting our feet in cool water before turning around was too much to resist!

And there it is! Yee ha!

But wait. What's wrong with this picture?

I remember running to the beach, tossing off my shoes and socks and jumping into the water - only to be involuntarily flung backward onto the sand by the shock of how freezing cold the water was!! The water flowing through the canyon has spent months, maybe years chilling at the very bottom of Lake Powell, and felt as cold as Lake Superior on that hot June day. But we made it!

Now for the fun part; turning around and returning to the top. Here's a stretch of the trail through the lower canyon. They don't call the the Devil's Corkscrew for nothing! [Reminder: all of these pictures can be clicked to view and zoom. This one in particular will put you in the mood of the trip.]

Here is a more panoramic view. Where we're going is way up in the right hand corner. Can you see why they post those warning signs? *gulp*

As we worked our way up the Devil's Corkscrew, I began to notice a fine white powder on my arms. Can you guess what it was?

Salt. The dry heat wicked all the moisture I was sweating off of me instantly, leaving only a salty residue. Good thing we brought salt pills with us! But we were going through the water pretty quickly. (I ended up drinking the better part of a gallon of water without ever having to visit the facilities)

Indian Gardens from the other direction! Shade never looked so sweet, and we could refill our canteens.

Only another 2908' straight up to go! At this point we'd already hiked over 11 miles, but still had four and change left. Our pace had slacked considerably, but my grandfather admonished us that he didn't have the money for a helicopter rescue, so we trudged on. That which doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right?

A couple of hours into the next stretch something wonderful happens. Your consciousness focuses down to a small space a couple paces in front of you. You're not aware of your body, or the canyon. Just the trail rolling along, changing color as you slowly ascend through the rock strata. I imagine this is how zombies feel.

Even a dry heat will bake you to a crisp! I don't feel so good.

Finally, the rim is within attainable reach! Where's that fourth wind when I really need it?

Oh yes, right here! (It's great to be a kid)

We reach the top twelve hours after we started, and now that the adrenaline is gone I'm a limp bag of very sore bones. 15.8 miles and over 400 stories of elevation change (actually, 400 down and then another 400 back up)!

The end of quite a day, but a view like this can make you forget the pain of the preceding hours.

So what exactly did I learn from that day?

Henry Kissinger once said: "The absence of alternatives clears the mind marvelously." It's surprising what we can do when we absolutely have to. We spend most of our lives in a gear much lower than our true peak capability. Often our heroic potential is only used in times of duress; but it's always there for those bold enough to use it.

This post was written as part of the "What I Learned from Vacation" group writing project.

Note: The pictures in this post came from HikeArizona.com, an invaluable source of information for people hiking in this great state. Thanks to all the fabulous members who contribute trip photos to the site!

posted by Mike at 7:37 AM


Blogger Robert Hruzek said...

Good grief, Mike! I'm exhausted just reading about this!

I don't know about you, but I'm always put off, at least a bit, by signs that indicated "you could die". In MY case, it would translate into, "you WILL die." :-D

4:51 AM  
Blogger Mike said...


Back in the early 70's, before it became fashionable for idiots to lawyer up after doing something foreseeably stupid, there were no need for such signs.

Actually, my grandfather isn't the kind of person to take physical risks, and he'd been hiking in the canyon since the 30's, so I figured if he was okay with proceeding we were never in much jeopardy. My legs, however, figured otherwise those last three miles!


8:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a great story - and amazing photos, thank you. I've never been and don't know when I'll make it - but I'll get there one day for sure.

I loved the part when your grandfather said he'd no money for a helicopter rescue - and the way you came back to that idea at the end. Great last paragraph too, without overdoing the message. Good stuff!


2:23 AM  
Blogger Mike said...


Thank you very much for your comment!

It was fun selecting the pictures for the post; it brought back some great memories.

I'd love to see similar pictures of Skye. Your description of it was wonderful. Someday I'll have to get there!


7:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great story and gorgeous pictures.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

Thanks, Lillie! The pictures do make the story come alive.

9:50 AM  
Blogger Rambling Prose said...

This is a lovely article and great photos! I visited the Grand Canyon last November and I simply loved it!

I plan on going back, as I didn't stay long enough for lack of time.

I took a picture of an interesting tree and wrote a piece to accompany it. It's posted on my blog under 'My Prose' in the sidebar, titled "Bare and Proud of It."

Stop by and have a read If you'd like. You have a nice blog!


6:06 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

Hi Ambre,

Thanks for stopping by, and a special thanks for pointing out your post. I loved it!


7:30 AM  
Blogger Patricia Singleton said...

Mike, thanks for sharing your wonderful pictures and memories. My husband, daughter, 2 grandchildren and I went to the Grand Canyon a few years ago when the kids were young enough to have to be carried when they got tired so we weren't able to do much hiking. What we did do gave us wonderful views and great exercise to carry us through the rest of our trip back home to Arkansas.

1:13 PM  
Blogger Mike said...


Thank you for your kind words. As you can see from my picture, I've schlepped little ones around quite a bit myself!

I keep you in my prayers,


10:33 PM  

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