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Shoeless Backpacking at Grand Canyon . . . A Hot Time, For Sure!

June 30, 2015

What a blessing . . . to shoelessly descend the North Kaibab Trail at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon!

barefoot silhouette grand canyon

What made the experience even better was that I had just finished a career-pinnacle moment: leading my first multi-day creative writing workshop! (Thank you Grand Canyon Field Institute for making this possible . . . and I can’t wait till June 17-19, 2016, when I will be facilitating a similar GCFI adventure.)

nature writing at Grand Canyon

!! I don’t usually use so many of these !! but !! it was that kind of week!!

My interior-tent-view of the Eureka brand "!" each morning.

My interior-tent-view of the Eureka brand “!” each morning.

We spent four days wandering the trails of the North Rim, stopping often to admire the wildflowers and creatures who make their home here.

white columbine at the North Rim

butterfly at North Rim

Penstemon North Rim

Fungi North Rim

lizard along the North Kaibab Trail

Lupine fields North Rim

When the workshop was over, I said “farewell” to my fellow writers, loaded up my pack with the bare minimum of gear, and took off down the North Kaibab Trail to spend one last night . . . below the rim . . . at Cottonwood Campground.


With temperatures way over 100 degrees F in the inner canyon, I didn’t need much: just a light foam pad, a silk sleeping bag liner, and a bit of no-cooking-needed food. (Somehow I managed to come up with enough other stuff to get my pack up to 16 pounds. Water? The book I ended up not reading?)

This next photo shows the most essential piece of gear I own for hot-weather hiking: My awesome Golite Chrome Dome umbrella. (Or brolly, as the Brit thru-hiker Keith Foskett calls it.)

Resting at Roaring Springs pump-house residence

When the temps are life-threateningly hot, hikers need to “get over” any ideas about needing to look cool (figuratively, not literally), and just get their brolly on. I know I would not have chosen to hike into the summer-super-heated canyon in the middle of the day (note to hikers thinking about doing this . . . make sure you start at 4 am, not 8 am like I did . . . but I wanted to say “goodbye” to my writing peeps . . . ) without my moveable shadow.

bare feet and Redwall Bridge

Here I am at the bottom of the notorious switchbacks that begin after the Supai Tunnel. As the photo illustrates, the shade stops here at the Redwall Bridge.

What’s a barefooter to do? Put on some hiking sandals (my old faithful Merrell Pipidae Wraps) and keep on trekkin’ . . . and trekkin’ . . . until seven miles down the trail, Cottonwood Campground comes into view, along with its easy access to a dunking spot in Bright Angel Creek. At 1 pm on an excruciatingly toasty afternoon, plopping in the creek fully clothed seemed like the most logical thing to do.

taking a dunk in Bright Angel Creek

This refreshing dip was all I needed to get me energized to hike another mile-plus into the Canyon . . . to Ribbon Falls, where one can hike behind the waterfall at a place sacred to many people, but obviously not to the two shirtless young men who were passed out in the red dust next to suspicious-looking containers of some kind of (whiskey-ish?) liquid. I thought for a nano-second about photographing them (waterfall-desecration-shaming?) but turned my attention to the falling water instead.

behind Ribbon Falls

Unable to linger with knuckleheads so close by, I headed back down the rocky steps to find a more private dipping pool . . . which I thought I did, but I guess I did not realize the extent of the crazy maze of trails through boulders and brush that provide way too many ways through the small canyon (habitat fragmentation, anyone?).

So there I was, doing my own version of “passed out by falling water with few clothes on” . . . when all of a sudden I heard AND felt bodies dropping to the ground inches from my head. Yep. My dead-end spot next to a boulder was, actually, part of someone’s boulder-strewn path down canyon. (I could almost hear Coyote’s laughter as my anticipation of some kind of intensely-meaningful-experience-of-deep-insight at this ancient sacred place turned, instead, to a bit of embarrassment (go back and re-read what’s in bold) in front of rock-hopping strangers.

Then the thunder began, and as I looked up and realized the extent of the dark clouds building on the rim above the waterfall, I figured it might be intensely meaningful to get to a safer place just in case the summer monsoons had arrived. (They hadn’t. Oh well.)

All the inner canyon was in shade, though, thanks to the gray cloud cover, so I thought I’d leave my sandals off and hike the 1.4 miles back to Cottonwood barefoot. Holy heat wave, Batman! The ground was still too hot to touch, with hand or foot, so I got shod up and slowly (feeling like a wrinkly desert tortoise conserving energy) made my way back to camp.

After a gorgeous starry night, filled with the sounds and sights of creek-whisper, cricket-song, shooting stars, ants on my tummy, and bat wings inches from my face, I woke up when I smelled cigarette smoke (I had some really quiet but fiercely chain-smoking neighbors across the mesquite hedge in the next site) and figured the earlier the better to beat the heat on the way up and up (and out).

Dawn lights the sky early in these parts, soI never needed a headlamp, even though I was on the trail by 4:30 am.

prickly pear on north kaibab trail

barefoot backpacking on the North Kaibab Trail

Ahhh . . . the hike up . . . seven miles of barefoot fun with all kinds of ancient rocks greeting my toes with friendly massages the whole way.

barefoot on the North Kaibab Trail

Once or twice the trailside springs and seeps added a bit of muddy relief.

springs/seeps along the North Kaibab trail

Then . . . one reaches the Supai Tunnel (named after the rock formation that got blasted through to create it).

supai tunnel

It is a transition of magnitude, for all kinds of reasons, not the least being the fact that mules are not allowed below this point.

Which, to turn that thought around, means they ARE allowed above the tunnel, and the multiple mule trains a day grind the ancient sea-floor rocks to the finest, most delicate, superbly delightful, just plain poofy . . . dust.

(Dust which magically turns me feet the color of the canyon.)

red dust of north kaibab trail

Along with dust-manufacturing, the mules also create . . .

mule poo on the North Kaibab trailP

. . .  prodigious piles o’ poo.

The flies are happy about that, and have opened several five-star resorts in the summer-long cesspools of mule piss.

(Use your own olafactory imagination to provide a hint of the scent.)

barefoot print on the North Kaibab

(This photo is for one of my blog followers, who likes photos of barefoot prints, the providing of which I am happy to do.)

Rim-to-rim hikers always pose by the sign, below, for “documentation” of their exploits; while I had only hiked 8.4 miles into the Canyon (as far as Ribbon Falls), I posed by the trailhead sign anyway.

barefoot at the North kaibab trailhead

A flyer was taped to the sign . . . something about an “Excessive Heat Warning.”


Uh, yeah . . . no one in their right mind should venture down into the Canyon when it’s this hot.

barefoot on the North Kaibab Trail

Maybe I was in my left mind?

I can’t wait to do it again . . .

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Gabe permalink
    September 25, 2015 12:58 pm

    Haha! I would PAY you to see your foot in a prodigous, ankle-deep pile of dung like that!

    • September 25, 2015 1:27 pm

      It was indeed a “prodigious” pile! (but, in the end it’s “just poo” . . . I’d be happy to step in it for a bit of “real” green stuff 🙂 )

  2. Brian permalink
    July 22, 2015 10:46 am

    Thanks for the footprint photo Thea! Happy barefooting out there (and be careful)!

  3. July 7, 2015 4:43 pm

    Thanks for the reminder!! Your firecracker penstemon pic came out better than mine. But you do deserve a new camera.

  4. Paula Peeters permalink
    July 6, 2015 2:49 am

    Hey Thea thanks for the great post yet again, and well done regarding your creative writing course. You brought back fond memories of my south rim GC hike way back in 1993. Great that you use a brolly too – I find mine very handy in subtropical Brisbane for the sun as much as the rain. I’d rather feel cool ( and avoid skin cancer) than look cool any day! Cheers, Paula

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