TRAVEL

With the US’s nat­u­ral won­ders fac­ing an un­cer­tain fu­ture, now is the time to visit the great­est of them all. Matt May­nard tack­les the 23-mile Rim-to-Rim trail in a sin­gle, mus­cle-grind­ing day, but of­fers tips for walk­ing the route at a gen­tler pace

Friday - - Contents -

To be able to do the 23 mile-long Rim-to-Rim trek in the spec­tac­u­lar Grand Canyon in a day, you need calf mus­cles made of stone. Don’t fret, there are gen­tler treks too.

It was cathe­dral quiet. Vis­i­tors don’t nor­mally make it this far into the na­tional park. My driver, Mar­cia, and I were alone at Bright An­gel Point look­out, at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. My ob­jec­tive was to reach South Rim – on foot – be­fore the day was out, but from where I stood it was just a hazy hor­i­zon­tal line far out across the trench.

The moun­tain­ous butte named Brahma Tem­ple was closer. Sculpted over al­most two bil­lion years, the rock pre­sides over the tapestry of de­cay­ing ridges and stretch­ing val­leys be­low.

Be­fore jour­ney­ing to­wards the cen­tre of the Earth, Mar­cia in­sisted I came here to fully ap­pre­ci­ate what I was get­ting my­self into. ‘OK, point taken,’ I said, re­turn­ing – hum­bled - to the trail­head.

I’d come to the Grand Canyon to at­tempt the clas­sic 23-mile Rim-to-Rim cross­ing. Want­ing to avoid the eight-month wait­ing list for camp­sites in the canyon and feel­ing fit from a sea­son of moun­tain-run­ning races, I set out with a tent-free ruck­sack in cool Novem­ber tem­per­a­tures to hike the en­tire jour­ney in a sin­gle day.

Pass­ing along the canyon’s best­main­tained trails, the Rim-to-Rim hike of­fers much more than the typ­i­cal view of North Amer­ica’s great­est nat­u­ral won­der. By hik­ing the ver­ti­cal mile to the canyon’s floor, you ex­pe­ri­ence the same va­ri­ety of plant and an­i­mal life as you would trav­el­ling on foot from the Cana­dian to Mex­i­can bor­der.

The Rim-to-Rim is a jour­ney through di­verse habi­tats, as well as through time it­self.

The hike is usu­ally done in a southerly di­rec­tion, be­gin­ning at the North Rim and fin­ish­ing at Grand Canyon Vil­lage, with its ex­ten­sive visi­tor ser­vices and ac­com­mo­da­tion op­tions. North Rim is also 400 me­tres higher than South Rim, and so start­ing there saves some climb­ing on the way back out.

Yet this route is not for the faint-hearted, nor the un­pre­pared. Most ex­pe­ri­enced back­pack­ers will find a two- or three-day cross­ing chal­lenge enough, and will take ad­van­tage of camp­ing or lodg­ing op­tions along the way.

Grind­ing switch­backs, pre­cip­i­tous drops and steep trails are to be ex­pected. High sum­mer turns the canyon floor into a fur­nace, with tem­per­a­tures reach­ing 49C, and win­ter shuts off ve­hi­cle ac­cess to the North Rim en­tirely. The op­ti­mum win­dows for hik­ing are from late May to June, and from Septem­ber un­til the end of Novem­ber.

Nev­er­the­less, now is the time to go.

Grand Canyon na­tional park faces an un­cer­tain fu­ture. When Barack Obama de­cided not to de­clare the Greater Grand Canyon a na­tional mon­u­ment at the end of his pres­i­dency, he left it at the mercy of Don­ald Trump. Plans for new ura­nium min­ing, a mas­sive ex­pan­sion of the nearby town of Tusayan and a project to build a ca­ble car (con­nect­ing tourists to a re­tail ex­pe­ri­ence at the heart of the canyon) are now all back on the ta­ble, hav­ing pre­vi­ously been shelved.

To the trail­head: train and car from Wil­liams, Ari­zona, to North Rim

Just over 200 miles east of the bright lights of Las Ve­gas, I bumped the hire car off Route 66 and rolled into the old cow­boy town of Wil­liams, Ari­zona. My plan was to leave the ve­hi­cle in the Grand Canyon Rail­way car park. From there, I would travel by train to South Rim, and then take a shut­tle taxi ser­vice to the re­mote North Rim trail­head early the next morn­ing. This way, when I fin­ished the hike back at South Rim, I could catch the train back to Wil­liams and my car.

The Grand Canyon Train runs 65 miles from Wil­liams to the Grand Canyon Vil­lage at South Rim, de­part­ing daily at 9.30am and tak­ing a leisurely two hours and 15 min­utes. A pis­tol shot sounded 15 min­utes be­fore it de­parted and the Cataract Creek Gang daily cow­boy show be­gan be­side the plat­form.

Au­di­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion is en­cour­aged as

The path be­gan to snake around gi­ant BUT­TRESSES of dark crys­talline rock (Vishnu schist): this is the bot­tom layer of the Grand Canyon, formed al­most TWO bil­lion years ago un­der in­tense heat

the train rob­bers hus­tle funds from game pas­sen­gers.

High plains punc­tu­ated with pon­derosa pines filled the panoramic win­dows dur­ing the jour­ney. Roam­ing mu­si­cians strummed Bob Dy­lan and Woody Guthrie tracks and staff en­cour­aged pas­sen­gers to sip bev­er­ages.

It was a sober­ing view, how­ever, across the canyon af­ter we pulled into the de­pot and looked out from the fore­court of the his­toric El To­var Ho­tel (dou­bles from $263 (Dh966) room-only). The un­com­pro­mis­ing enor­mous­ness of the Rim-to-Rim hik­ing route was on full show: the ver­tig­i­nous dis­tant canyon of the North Rim led in­ter­minably down to the Col­orado river be­fore reemerg­ing as a dis­cernible trail, weav­ing like a scorched snake in the desert through the rocky slopes back up to South Rim.

I spent the re­main­der of the day vis­it­ing view­ing points around Grand Canyon Vil­lage, all eas­ily reached on the free reg­u­lar buses. An hour be­fore sun­set, I headed over to the ex­cel­lent Yava­pai Ge­o­log­i­cal Mu­seum. Its three-di­men­sional topo­graph­i­cal maps gave me a fur­ther sense of awe about the chal­lenge ahead. The next day I would catch a four-hour shut­tle taxi from South Rim to the trail­head. The alarm was set for 4am.

The 211-mile jour­ney around the far east­ern arm of the canyon tra­verses the rocky plains of the Navajo In­dian Reser­va­tion be­fore climb­ing into the golden ea­gle habi­tat of the North Rim plateau.

Trail­head to Cot­ton­wood Camp­ground: 6.5 miles, 4,160 ft de­scent

I set out on the well-main­tained but sharply switch­back­ing North Kaibab Trail. The pirou­et­ting de­scent dived through a rush of slen­der beech and gam­bel oak and, as the tem­per­a­ture in the shel­tered folds of the canyon started to rise, deep blan­kets of sed­i­men­tary rock took me a mil­lion years fur­ther back in the canyon’s ge­o­log­i­cal his­tory. Af­ter three-to-four hours of quadri­cep-grind­ing de­scent, I reached Cot­ton­wood Camp­ground. Cool, re­fresh­ing wa­ter runs in Bright An­gel Creek.

I was ra­tioning my three litres to last me to Phan­tom Ranch, but had brought pu­rifi­ca­tion tablets to treat the river wa­ter, just in case. From mid-May to mid-Oc­to­ber drink­ing wa­ter is avail­able from a tap on the camp­site.

For those who choose to stay overnight, Cot­ton­wood’s 11 pitches of­fer a rus­tic, back­coun­try camp­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, with so­lar-pow­ered com­post­ing toi­lets and pic­nic ta­bles. Food stor­age boxes are avail­able, to pro­tect against ma­raud­ing deer, squir­rels or ring­tail cats. Ap­pli­ca­tions for camp­ing at any of the three camp­sites within the canyon must be made at least four months in ad­vance but, dur­ing my hike, I met peo­ple who had taken ad­van­tage of last-minute can­cel­la­tions by en­quir­ing at the Back­coun­try Of­fice on South Rim.

Cot­ton­wood Camp­ground to Phan­tom Ranch: 7 miles, 1,601 ft de­scent

The canyon floor is usu­ally 11C warmer than its rim and I took a mo­ment to re­hy­drate and ex­am­ine the desert shrubs that in­habit this broad in­ner-canyon cor­ri­dor. The de­cid­u­ous trees of the North Rim are re­placed by prickly pear cac­tus and aro­matic sage­brush, pro­vid­ing home to lizards, and hawk moths af­ter dark. Three more hours of gen­tly de­scend­ing trail now sep­a­rated me from the Col­orado river.

Over the next few miles, the canyon walls slowly steep­ened and the val­ley nar­rowed. The path be­gan to snake around gi­ant but­tresses of dark crys­talline rock (Vishnu schist): this is the bot­tom layer of the Grand Canyon, formed al­most two bil­lion years ago un­der in­tense heat and pres­sure.

At the heart of the canyon cor­ri­dor, and nes­tled close to the river, is Phan­tom Ranch (dorms $51pp, two-per­son cab­ins $149, break­fast $22, din­ner from $27), a rus­tic lodge built of stone and wood, de­signed in 1922 by ar­chi­tect Mary Colter. The cot­ton­wood trees she planted are now ma­ture and the out­ly­ing dorm and cabin ac­com­mo­da­tion have a peace­ful, no-phone-re­cep­tion es­capist feel. Book­ings need to be made at least 12 months in ad­vance, but a two-day, one-night Rim to Rim itin­er­ary with a stay at Phan­tom Ranch has the ad­van­tage of not hav­ing to carry camp­ing equip­ment. Early evening is beau­ti­ful down in these se­cret folds.

As the sun dis­ap­peared dra­mat­i­cally be­hind an Ari­zo­nan hori­zon, the light lin­gered down in the canyon, fad­ing al­most im­per­cep­ti­bly.

An op­tional evening meal is pro­vided at Phan­tom Ranch and the

first break­fast seat­ing is at 5am. Al­ter­na­tively, there are 33 shaded tent pitches nearby at the sep­a­rate Bright An­gel Camp­ground (per­mits ap­ply.)

Phan­tom Ranch to South Rim: 9.5 miles, 4,379 ft as­cent

I reached the sus­pen­sion bridge over the Col­orado river at night­fall, shortly af­ter leav­ing Phan­tom Ranch. The pre­vi­ous day at the ge­ol­ogy mu­seum, I learned how this cleav­ing body of wa­ter be­gan carv­ing through the sed­i­men­tary rocks some five mil­lion years ago. As I be­gan the sway­ing cross­ing, the dark rush and spray of river be­low was far more ex­hil­a­rat­ing than any mod­ern theme-park ride.

Safely on the south side, I had a choice to make. The nine-and-a-half mile Bright An­gel Trail veered down­stream for a mile, be­fore climb­ing at an av­er­age grade of 10 per cent to­wards visi­tor ser­vices, park­ing and trans­fers at Grand Canyon Vil­lage.

The South Kaibab Trail cuts an even steeper trail to an iso­lated exit near Yaki Point, five miles east of Grand Canyon Vil­lage, which is served by the free South Rim bus, but has no pri­vate ve­hi­cle ac­cess.

I picked up the Bright An­gel Trail, hop­ing it would prove eas­ier on my weary knees. Many hours of silent trail miles fol­lowed. Moun­tain li­ons were out there, but the moon was high and full. I pushed un­nec­es­sary fears and

The South Kaibab Trail cuts an even STEEPER trail to an iso­lated exit near Yaki Point, FIVE miles east of Grand Canyon Vil­lage, which is served by the free South Rim bus, but has no PRI­VATE ve­hi­cle ac­cess.

tired­ness away, stop­ping reg­u­larly for food. Campers at the 15-pitch In­dian Gar­den Camp­ground were long since asleep as I stole silently past.

Over the last few miles, I stopped reg­u­larly to stare up at the lay­ered shad­ows of rocks tow­er­ing above. Look­ing down, I could see the twin­kling an­ten­nae of other head­torches, labour­ing ant-like up the switch­backs. It was well af­ter mid­night when I fi­nally made it back to the Earth’s sur­face at South Rim.

56

Drop­ping the car off Route 66 the sec­ond leg of the jour­ney was by train to South Rim

As the Col­orado river snakes through the ma­jes­tic Grand Canyon, one is left spell­bound by the view on dis­play

The watch tower at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim

Above left: The North Rim from where the trail be­gan, and the cul­mi­na­tion of the trail at South Rim

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