A Canyon Tale - There and Back Again

(This is my final "Canyon" entry. You can see the other two here and here. If you ever have a chance to go, GO! But don't just stand on the rim and say how pretty it is. It is! But so much more awaits you below. It will take your breath away, in more ways than one, but I promise it is so totally worth it.)

Our first 2 nights were spent on the rim of the Canyon. The average elevation of the south rim is around 6,800 feet so in early April that meant mid-20's at night. I froze that first night, so night two I put on literally every article of clothing I had packed. I considered it a great success when I awoke around 2 AM, sweating. Thankfully as we worked our way deeper into the canyon throughout our trip, the days and nights grew warmer. There were even a few days we happily jumped into icy streams, or filled our hats with cold water to dump over our heads as we hiked along the river.

Our second morning was the start of our first excursion into the Canyon (day one we had hiked the rim), to spend the night at Horseshoe Mesa. This was where the rubber met the road, and all the months of training served us well. We made it to our designated campsite and set up our tents for the night, but still had plenty of daylight to go exploring. It was nice to be able to drop our packs and enjoy the scenery around us. There were juniper trees everywhere! I broke the berries open with my fingernails to drink in the smell, something like a really tart orange. My husband called them skunk oranges, as they left a funky smell/residue on my hands. It's part of the reason I love sips of gin so much now, as the juniper smell and taste takes me back to that happy place.

My father-in-law had been telling us about a  nearby cave. He hadn't hiked to it in nearly 15 years, but he was pretty sure he could still find it. Armed with latitude and longitude coordinates, we walked, and we walked, and we walked. He gave the occasional update of, “We’re about a quarter mile away," and then, "Only half mile to go!” We continued to wind and weave our way, making the cave grow progressively closer, and then somehow further away! There were a few times we came upon carved out rock and I thought we had reached it at last, only to see it was nothing more than a small alcove or cutaway in the side of the canyon wall. He kept teasing, “Follow Sméagol. Sméagol, show you." That didn't make me feel any better! But I quickly realized that following Sméagol was indeed the best and only option, as it kept my mind from noticing how narrow the path had grown, and how steep the drop off was. Finally, we arrived at a high reaching ceiling, and at the base of the wall, a narrow low opening to duck through. At that point I had started rationing our water supply, wondering if we'd ever make it back to camp! But Sméagol was a trusty guide, and the winding path was well worth it. We turned on our headlamps and headed inside, able to stand up as soon as we passed through the entrance. I'd never been inside of a cave, and I couldn't believe how dark, dark really is! We spent probably an hour venturing deeper and deeper inside, tying a string at the entrance to make sure we could find our way back. We came to what appeared to be a dead end. My husband rounded the corner on his hands and knees as the ceiling lowered. He beat the ground ahead of him with his fist as he went, until it answered with a hallow thud. Not knowing how thin the floor was, I forbade him to go further. "This is why God invented wives," he teased, as he very much wanted to keep going, but appreciated I wanted him to stay alive.

We followed the string back out and tried exploring other holes and avenues, but most were too high or too narrow. Knowing night was falling outside, we returned to camp and completed the third night of our journey. We hiked back out of the canyon the next morning, only to hike right back in again, but this time from a different trail head that lead to Indian Garden. We were tired when we arrived, but this campsite was by far my favorite. It has an almost ethereal beauty. I suspected at any moment to see fairies peek out from the thick grasses by the stream. The crickets were signing, and the breezes blew softly through the trees dotted with delicate purple flowers. It was the sweetest respite.

Pages and days could not convey all the hilarious, terrifying, amazing, breath taking, wonderful times we shared on that trip, so I'll try to wrap this up. We journeyed on from Indian Gardens, to Bright Angel, then onto Cotton Wood, before we doubled back again. On the way we met "Canyon runners," people who run from rim to rim, and back again in less than 24 hours. (There is no place to pick them up on the north rim, so they have to double back, or spend the night in the canyon, which they can't do because they can't run with gear). We talked with one fellow as he was fueling up with a Cliff bar near Phantom Ranch. I greeted him with, "You're alive!," as we had seen him earlier in the day sprinting past. He was now on his way back to the south rim, and lightly described it as, "A 35 mile run with a 7 mile hike thrown in." We stared at him blankly, inwardly head shaking, and thinking, "I'm sorry, but you are completely crazy!" My friend and I were asked by another woman if we knew what we were signing up for when we agreed to marry the kind of men who would "drag" us into the barren wasteland of the canyon. Yes, we knew, and yes, despite, or perhaps because of that fact, we wanted to marry them.

Toward the end of our trip the weather took a turn for the worse. We had planned to camp our last night at Monument Creek and then hike out Hermit's Rest, but sheets of rain was the only forecast for days, so we decided to end our trip and hike out a day early. It was raining in the bottom of the canyon, but as we climbed, it grew colder and colder, to the point that about half way up we were hiking out in a snow storm. Thick flakes, trail turned to mud, real live snow storm.

When we finally made it to the top, it had turned into a full on blizzard. My father-in-law had reached the rim first and was to pick us up and drive us to the showers. But there was a communication break down which lead to us standing, waiting, not sure where he was. The cold was fine so long as we had been hiking out, but the minute we stopped hiking we were freezing. No one wearing packs is allowed in the lodges on the rim, and we had nowhere to put them, so we stood waiting in the cold. We finally found each other, but at that point I was cold to the bone and to top it all off, my uterus was making a run for it.  And did I mention I had just hiked out of a canyon in a snow storm?!! The incredible trip-ness was quickly forgotten and I was pretty sure I was going to have a nervous break down right there. The showers split off to men's to the left and women's to the right. Just inside the front door I looked at my husband and said "I'm not ok!" He tucked $2 worth of quarters into the palm of my hand and closed my fingers around them. Looking into my eyes and said, "There's a hot shower just on the other side of that wall. Take these quarters, turn on the water, and warm up. You'll be ok. I promise." I nodded silently, fighting back tears. But he was right; I never knew hot water could feel so good. (Except perhaps that other time, when I was a camp counselor in Alaska, but that's another story for another time).

I overheard my husband on the phone with my mom last night, helping my parent's plan their soon trip to Glacier National Park. He teased that our trip was child's play compared to what he hopes we conquer in the years ahead. Part of me thinks he's crazy, and I don't want to know what grown up play is if it wasn't that! But most of me can't wait to plan our next adventure. 


  1. Rachel, what an experience! I, too, hope there are many more in your near future.

    Where are you going this summer? I hear the Appalachians are nice... ;)


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