Three Rules for a Fulfilling Trip
by Ken McNamara
See me in the picture? I’m the one on the left. My life is about to take an unexpected turn – and I don’t even have a clue. A few minutes after this picture was taken I stepped below the rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time.
I suppose that every life has its defining events – for me it was that first hike into the Canyon in October of 1993. Everything from then has been defined as “after the Canyon” and everything before that moment, well, you get the point.
Since then I’ve been back as many times as I could manage. I’ve produced and directed a video about hiking the Grand Canyon – but that first hike remains in my memory a magic event.
Thinking about it in retrospect I’ve developed three rules about hiking the Grand Canyon. Not rules about safety or planning but ones about attitude and focus.
I seem to remember a lot about that first hike but it’s more likely that the videotape I shot of the trail has reinforced my memories. You don’t really remember the Canyon after your first hike. It’s more just a jumble of impressions. There’s so much to see and feel, and it comes at you so fast that you are completely overwhelmed.
Our group was lucky to have a leader who had been to the Canyon several times before. Due to his experience and foresight we hiked during moderate weather and had bunkhouse reservations at Phantom Ranch. So, our packs were light – just lunch, a change of clothes, rain gear, and lots of water.
We planned on hiking from the North Rim to Phantom Ranch, a distance of 14 miles on the trail and over a mile in elevation change. In hindsight I know this was really at the edge of my stamina despite the trail being all downhill. These days I would plan an overnight stay at Cottonwood Campground, about half way to Phantom Ranch.
(Diagram right: Orientation is north at bottom, south at top. Our hike goes down Roaring Springs Canyon via the North Kaibab Trail, then into Bright Angel Canyon whose creek flows into the Colorado River just below Phantom Ranch, our destination.)
We should have been on the trail by dawn. But that morning we had messed around on the rim, taking our time at breakfast and packing, so we didn’t get to the trailhead until 9 AM. It seemed like we had plenty of time – eight hours to cover the 14 miles of the North Kaibab Trail – to make the 5 PM dinner at Phantom Ranch. (There is only one seating for dinner!) In the end we cut it very close.
This brings me to my first rule about hiking the Grand Canyon:
Rule #1: Start early. Spend ALL day in the Canyon. There is never enough time in the Canyon. The end of the trail always comes too soon.
In our culture we rush from place to place. Journeys are rarely an event in and of themselves. They’re usually only a commute between places. This is fine when the commute is just a commute. It is not true here.
I’ve been fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of the artist who lives at the bottom of the Canyon. His driveway is on the North Rim, and he can tell you almost to the minute how long it takes to walk from his car to his backdoor.
For him the trail has become just a commute. The time he spends on the trail comes out of the time he’d like to spend painting the Canyon. So, on the trail he pounds out the miles. For the rest of us, his pace would shut out almost every experience the Canyon offers.
Hiking the Canyon is like exploring a castle: both have many rooms. The Canyon may appear to be just one place but in reality it is a multitude of places. It can change completely when you walk through a tunnel, turn a corner, or go around a bend.
On my first hike into the Canyon I walked through those many rooms and barely noticed them. I can think of at least ten places along the North Kaibab trail where I should have just stopped and experienced the Canyon but I didn’t.
This brings me to my second rule about hiking the Grand Canyon:
Rule #2: Stop often. Experience the Canyon. It’s more than a trail through a pile of rocks. If you hike continuously, you’ll miss it. You have stop and be still to see it.
I’d almost recommend wearing a watch with an alarm; something to remind you to stop occasionally and consider your surroundings. It is so easy to just go right on hiking, slogging along in a commuter’s frame of mind. Walking right by the reason you came here in the first place. And as you wear down physically it’s easy to begin ignoring the incredible experience and just drive for the day’s destination. (Right: Ribbon Falls, North Kaibab Trail.)
Which brings me to my third and final rule about hiking the Grand Canyon:
Rule #3: There are NO destinations in the Canyon – only cabins or campsites. The Canyon IS your destination.
Inevitably when I hike out of the Canyon and reach the Rim, I look back, and wonder why I was in such a hurry. I always vow to myself that on my next hike I’ll get to the trailhead at dawn to enter the Canyon and I’ll walk out just as the sun is setting. My destination is neither the hotel room on the rim nor the campground at the bottom. My destination is the journey in between.
Maybe next time I’ll see the Canyon better than ever before.
For more information concerning Ken McNamara’s video, please visit his website, GrandCanyonHiker.com, or you may order his DVD Hiking the Grand Canyon – The Corridor Trails, via Amazon. Please feel free to contact Ken with any questions.
(Note: The story and images on this page are Copyright © 2000 ConMara Publishing, Inc. Permission is required to use or reprint this material in any way.)