Who Needs Shoes? I Just Hiked the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim Barefoot!
Hiking Across the Grand Canyon, Barefoot and Smiling All the Way
I’ll begin with a disclaimer—the following notes about my barefoot hike across the Grand Canyon are not meant to sound braggy. (Well, maybe a little. But there’s more to this blog post than just “Hey, aren’t I cool and shoeless as I sashay down North Kaibab Trail.”)
What I did this weekend has probably been done many times before, by people native to the area.
But—as a suburbanite 53-year-old chronically injured running grandma–my hope for the writing that follows is that it will inspire others to look conventional wisdom in the eye—and run the other way, barefoot.
Conventional wisdom = you will sprain your ankle, puncture your tender soles, or step in poo if you hike barefoot—at the Grand Canyon, or anywhere else. It’s dangerous and unnatural, and highly engineered hiking boots or lugged-sole running shoes are the only way to safely negotiate rocky (and poopy) trails.
My experience says: that’s a load of mule sh#t! If an average middle-aged lady like me can make it safely—and more important, happily! —the 14 miles down North Kaibab and 9.8 miles up Bright Angel trails, wearing nothing on my feet, then conventional wisdom needs to join the 21st century and smell the flowering barefoot movement.
There’s lots of places on the internet where you can read all kinds of info about running, hiking, even living: barefoot. For almost three years, I’ve been doing my homework, educating myself—and more importantly—getting outside 2-4 times a week to hike and trail run barefoot in my local, fabulous hills of coastal sage scrub and chaparral.
And adding my own blog-bits of experience to the giant societal brain that is the internet.
Along the way, almost sneakily, since I couldn’t tell you the exact day I had the thought, this crazy dream began to take (barefoot) shape: run and/or hike across The Canyon sans shoes.
Three weeks at the North Rim in the summer of 2011 laid the groundwork. I got to know the trails of the Rim, and ventured into the Canyon a few times. Not as much as I wanted to, though, ’cause my right knee went south on the second day of my stay as I was headed down the North Kaibab Trail to the Supai Tunnel.
Death of a dream? Only for someone who wasn’t raised fighting for every scrap of Jello around a small kitchen table crowded with six siblings.
That would be a long way of saying, “Heck no!”
So I kept on with my day-to-day “escape runs” (or hikes-with-a-camera, depending on how either temperamental knee was feeling), until one day, actually it was two days ago, I woke up in the autumn dark, re-checked my little knapsack of supplies, kissed my husband goodbye, and started down the North Kaibab Trail at 6:30 am. 38 degrees. Cloudy.
Was it “cheating” to have stuck to the top of my feet a packet of Grabber Stick-On Toe Warmers? (Warning on package: do not apply directly to skin.) Within a mile, one fell off. Within two miles, I had descended low enough (the Supai Tunnel) to where it was a warm 58 degrees.
The needly initial stinging in my toes had long ceased (or were they just numb?), and I was eager to tackle infamous Switchbacks below the tunnel.
It was more like, The Switchbacks tackled me. Within two steep turns, my left knee began complaining, something that would continue intermittently, in varying degrees of ouch-tensity, the next 20 miles.
But guess what: my knee has hurt before since its initial ruining-of-a-race back in 2004, and I was tired of letting it dictate my mood. I smiled (or maybe just bared my teeth) and kept on hiking. Down, down, down, 14 miles total from the North Rim to Phantom Ranch that day.
Soaked by rain. I dried off pretty quick in my rain-shell parka and wooly leggings.
Chilled by wind. It was only windy part of the time. If I moved faster, I was warmer.
Inebriated by puddles of canyon-red water. Splashing through them barefoot (the puddles seemed warmer than the air temp) and leaving lovely exit-prints of the miraculous human foot—I was smiling so much that one passing hiker even commented: “That’s the biggest smile I’ve seen all day.”
Speaking of passing hikers: mostly I was being passed, since mincing downhill with a sore knee doesn’t lend itself to speed records. Folks coming up from behind, or heading the other way, often had something to say. (Bill Engvall would have had a “here’s-your-sign” field day.)
“How do you do that barefoot?” (My answer: “With a lot of pleasure.”)
“Can I get your picture, sweetheart? I won’t get your face, just your feet.” (Ooooh-kaaay.)
“That’s by choice, not by necessity?”
“You’re brave.” (I’m beginning to suspect that’s code for “stupid.”)
“Where’s your shoes?”
“Is that rough on your feet?” (“It’s pretty fun, actually,” was my standard reply.)
“Well, good luck.” (Thanks, but I actually did quite a bit of planning and preparation to get to this point. Not a whole lot of luck involved. No, I did not say this.)
“I don’t think I could do that.”
My standard reply, to this and most barefoot-related questions/comments, including the ever-popular, “Why do you do this?” . . . Drum roll . . . “It’s fun.” These two words are shorter than a sermon—that’s what this essay is for—and they really do sum it all up. It’s about enjoying the trail, even if I’m not able to run every mile.
I. Can. Walk.
And feel what’s real: dirt and mud and rocks—my kin! I’m made of dust too . . .
“Interesting choice.” (The man said, with not a trace of a smile. Lighten up, brother! “I’ll take that as a compliment,” I cheerfully responded over my shoulder as we passed.)
“Barefoot?!” (The lady exclaimed with a big grin, pointing at my feet. I replied by pointing back at her feet and saying, “Shoes?!” We both laughed. Everyone’s a winner on the Bright Angel Trail. We’re at the bleepin’ Grand Canyon! How could anyone be cranky?)
“Now that’s an extreme hike.” (At this point, my ego swelled just a tad. Me. Extreme? I’m a middle-aged teacher with a stack of essays to grade waiting at home. But today: I am SuperBarefooter. Yikes.)
“How’s your feet? That looks like it hurts.” (This is a common reaction that I have dealt with in a previous post.)
And my favorite:
“Are you really in bare feet?” (Bill Engvall, where are you when I need a witty comeback?)
So I had a wet-footed good time on the 14-mile downhill (5,800 feet elevation loss) from the North Rim to Phantom Ranch, where it was a rainbow-perfect 60 degrees at 2 pm. A delicious dinner (I chose vegetarian stew) comes all you can eat, with crispy salad, corn bread, chocolate cake . . . mmm. Add a comfortable spot in the women’s bunkhouse, and I was ready for an early start the next morning.
(Accuracy note: the only time between rims that I put my sandals on was for dinner in the Phantom Ranch Canteen—where a sign said, “Shoes and shirts required.” Why should I make a scene in that beautiful spot, where all supplies are hauled in by mule, and all trash leaves the same way. Phantom Ranch, you have earned the right to expect guests to follow a few rules—however ridiculous. How my trail-sanded-rain-puddle-washed bare feet would have contributed to any kind of gustatorial hygienic atrocity, I just don’t understand.)
Saturday morning: a sickle moon in the cloudless sky seemed to point to a good day ahead.
The storm system had blown past—but not before freezing the bejeebers out of my husband, who had huddled through the snowy night in our VW station wagon at the North Rim before leaving early Saturday for the 220-mile drive to pick me up at the South Rim.
We had agreed to meet at noon at the Bright Angel Lodge fireplace, not knowing how long it would take me to hike out, or whether I would be on the South Kaibab or Bright Angel trail. The S. Kaibab is two miles shorter in length, but much steeper and without any available water.
After discussion with other Phantom Ranch guests, I decided on Bright Angel, with its several water/restroom stops—and heart-achingly amazing river-and-creekside hiking up until Indian Gardens, about the half-way point.
So much soft damp sandy trail for the first mile, too. It was barefoot-hiking heaven. The green river (Colorado was its pre-dammed color) frosted with rapids, the sunrise cliffs of contrasting red-gold-and-shadow, dreamy streamside vegetation smells. Sigh. Why am I not there right now . . .
Well, I was, yesterday, making my way the almost-ten-miles of Bright Angel trail up to the South Rim and all its extravagant tourist-i-ness.
As I climbed the 4,400 feet that would get me from the Colorado River to the Rim, I alternated taking my fleece top on and off. With the trail mostly in shadow, and the damp ground cool to my toes, if I wasn’t striding pretty fast I would get a bit chilled.
So—I aimed to make some good time. At least after Indian Garden, the half-way point. It took me all of four hours to get there—lots of loafing along, chatting with all the nice hikers, taking photos, enjoying the creek crossings by lingering a while with my feet in the water. Ahhh.
But shoot—now it was 10 am, and I was supposed to be five miles away (and 3,000 feet higher) in two hours. Could I do it? Would Steve even know how to find the trailhead? (He can be a bit directionally challenged). Heck, would he even be able to find the South Rim? While he does 99 percent of the driving on our adventures, I do 100% of the navigation. I’d given him both written directions and a map—but he can be dyslexic at times . . .
At this point, my left knee was killing me, with jolts of pain flashing through it when I maneuvered it “wrong” up the many-many-many wood-or-rock steps on the trail. My hiking poles had become crutches, my new best friends.
And then—somehow—thanks be to God—I discovered that if I turned my left foot out about 30 degrees, I could step a little less painfully.
And then—somehow—thanks be to God—as I concentrated on motoring up the steep switchbacks at altitudes now approaching 6,000 . . . 7,000 feet—I forgot about my left knee. I fell in along John, whose pace had matched mine for the last mile, and we chatted about our teaching jobs and whether he should hike to to River tomorrow and whatnot and then we were there: the Bright Angel Trailhead at the South Rim.
My inner Walter Mitty (that’s how old I am) had been imagining all kinds of cheering crowds and ticker-tape parades as I reached the top.
My even-better reality: Steve had found the trailhead a half-hour earlier—had even asked some hikers if they’d seen a lady hiking barefoot.
You can probably guess what they told him.
Today, as I type this, I’m a bit sore. OK, I’m nearly cripple. But only when I change from not-moving to moving. Since I’d hiked to the bottom of the Canyon nine years ago (down Bright Angel, up South Kaibab), I recognize the feeling of calves-and-quadriceps in anguish.
The soles of my feet feel pinkly fine—no punctures, no ripped skin, no residual mule poo. Just a few dark splotches of tree sap from the walk to the Bright Angel Lodge parking lot, and one faint bruise on the left arch. (When did that happen?)
My muscles will recover; I hope to get back out on our local trails on Tuesday, teaching schedule permitting. The running will come back. It always does. The shin pain that’s bothered me for the last month seems to be subsiding. My left knee? No symptoms today. Not a hint of yesterday’s twinges.
I’m 53, and feeling pretty good. I just hiked across the Grand Canyon, barefoot. More than halfway in the rain.
Hey—that’s another bit of conventional wisdom blown to bits: I got my feet wet (for seven happy hours on Friday) and didn’t catch my death of cold.
I did catch Rim-to-Rim fever, though. Can’t wait to try running it next time. Barefoot, of course.
Here’s a few photos I shot along the way with my little pocket camera.