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Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim: in the heat, in the dark, without shoes?

June 23, 2016
clif spring writing

“Writing on the Edge” participants  writing “origin stories” at Cliff Springs.

After a lovely three days of writing June 16-19 in the forests of the North Rim (my annual “Writing on the Edge” workshop with the Grand Canyon Association Field Institute), I spent a day alone in the North Rim Campground savoring the quiet and entering field notes into my laptop until the battery finally ran out.

Then . . . it was time for another rim-to-rim adventure: 21 miles that took me down the South Kaibab trail, across the Black Bridge over the Colorado River, through historic Phantom Ranch, and up the North Kaibab trail, back to my car in the campground parking lot (which would add another half-mile or so to the journey, but after 21 miles, what’s a few more steps through the ponderosa pine and lupine).

The “twist” this time? Excessive heat below the rim (up to 116 degrees at the bottom–Phantom Ranch–during the day) meant it would not be safe to take this stroll during daylight hours. (“Not safe” meaning “extremely stupid” in this case.)

excessive heat warning sigh

All of the Southwest knew this weather was coming, thanks to our over-zealous media, so I did some research and came up with a plan: I would take a shuttle bus from the North Rim to the South Rim at 7am ($90; arrives at the SR at 11:30 am), and then wait out the heat of the day until the seven-miles-down-with-no-water South Kaibab trail would be mostly in shadow–still hot, but do-able. I would then hike through the night (in the light of the full moon! Woo hoo!) and finish before dawn the next day.

Yes, that was the plan.

My Wilderness First Responder (WFR) training had taught me the importance of eating and drinking during this kind of hot-weather exertion; that, as well as setting a reasonable pace, would be key to my success.

The stakes were high . . . I would be alone on the trail (because, HELLO, no one in their right mind hikes rim-to-rim during a heat alert) with no way to get help if I slipped and fell a few thousand feet and/or mismanaged my hydration and/or GOT ATTACKED BY A GIANT SCORPION (Phantom Ranch is moderately famous for these). Oh yes . . . it would also behoove me to keep my hyperdrive imagination under control throughout the dark journey, no matter how many glowing eyes peered back at me when I whipped my head around to see WHAT WAS THAT NOISE behind me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, about 10 miles ahead, so back to the beginning. (Spoiler alert: I obviously made it, since I’m clicking away on my keyboard to bring you this surprising news. But . . . did I do it with grace and dignity? And how many people’s lives did I save along the way? Guess we’ll have to keep going to find out.)

arizona republic heat warning

Did I mention the media were having a field day with the whole “heat alert” thing? You’d think everyone would have heard about how dangerous it would be to hike Grand Canyon under these extreme conditions.

Apparently, most folks got the “dangerous heat” memo, as you can see by my lack of company at the South Kaibab trailhead. There’s even a lovely bit of cloud cover! Let’s go barefootin’!


south kaibab trailhead

After about twenty minutes on the scorching limestone trail, dashing from one shrub-shade-patch to another, I had a conversation with myself, and “I-want-to-live” Me convinced “But-we-only-hike-barefoot” Me to Put. Some. Sandals. On.

hiker in sandals

A rare shot of me in my hiking sandals; usually they are just lolling around in my backpack enjoying the ride.

banded snake south kaibab trail

But eventually I got far enough down the trail that the sun was no longer baking the ground; look who else I found enjoying the shady soft red dust?

I did some looking online today, and I’m still not exactly sure what species this little darlin’ is . . . maybe a longnose or shovelnose snake? Anyone? Bueller?

The lower I descended, the slantier the light got . . . and the clouds!

sunset shadows south kaibab

tonto sunset

The South Kaibab trail definitely leads from one eye-boggling view to another, but at a cost: steps.

south kaibab steps

Lots and lots and lots of steps to take you down 4,780 feet in just seven miles.

more south kaibab steps

Can you find the switchbacks dropping off the ridge in the right side center shadow? There’s lots of this crazy switchback madness on the South Kaibab. Seven miles, in fact.

Silhouette fun: If you look carefully, you can see my tiny shadow in the center of the photo (below on the left), about 1/4 of the way up the page.

Yes, the sun was was making its way down to the canyon rim. Glorious!

below the rim sunset

But there was trouble in paradise: earlier in the hike I had met four young men from Mississippi, each carrying a small daypack and holding a gallon water jug full of brightly colored liquid. When I asked them where they were going, they cheerfully replied, “We’re going to go down to the Colorado River for a swim.”

There were so many things wrong with that decision that I was (for once?!) speechless. Also, I told myself, “I’m not their mother.”

But I did have one burning question (Pun intended. Puns always intended.)

“Do you have headlamps for the hike out?”

“Oh, we can use our cell phones for that.”

As Jim Carrey would say, “All-righty-then.” But I did not say anything, and they went hop-skip-jumping down the trail. AND switchback cutting (as documented  below by the tiny camera of a cranky barefoot WFR).

dont cut switchbacks

Grand Canyon expert Marjorie “Slim” Woodruff has written a bit about “Canyon Karma”–it’s the title of her essay in On Foot: Grand Canyon Backpacking Stories. Her proposition: “Treat the canyon right, and the canyon will do right by you.” She illustrates her point with examples of how her lifetime of picking up other folks’ trash in the canyon has brought her “beautiful weather. I usually get my favorite camp site. I find fossils no one else knows about, and I see flowers and animals that other people miss.”

But could there be a chilling corollary?  Folks who don’t respect Grand Canyon and its power to not only thrill, but kill, them, could be setting themselves up for a canyon revenge episode that makes the Count of Monte Cristo look like an amateur.

So here were these four college-aged young men from far away to the east, completely unaware of the how to respect this Grand place: research the trail–know its level of difficult and how long most people take to hike it; use the months preceding to train for your hike at home under similar conditions (elevation loss/gain, distance, temperature/weather); practice proper hydration AND nutrition on the trail–in other words, eat a lot salty snacks to balance out all the water intake . . . or risk life-threatening hyponatremia. Bring a headlamp with plenty of battery life in case you get stuck out after dark. Don’t litter sunflower seed shells or peach pits as you hike (really, guys?!), and for goodness sake don’t scramble down steep rocky slopes to save a little time between switchbacks.

So I guess I wasn’t all that surprised to find this four people–nice guys, exuberant fellows who reminded me of my youngest son when he was a crazy college kid–stopped along the side of the (STEEP! HOT! NEVER-ENDING!) trail about a mile or so from the bottom.

Three were standing; one was sitting slumped over.

Looks bad, my inner WFR said.

Not only my 40 years of mothering instincts, but my recent Wilderness First Responder training kicked in.

“How’s everyone doing?” I asked.

And that set in motion a sequence of events that began with me dumping my extra water (oh yeah . . . another Rule of Hiking Grand Canyon . . . bring more water than you think you’ll need. “Water to drink; water to wear; water to share”) on the head, neck, and shirt of an unfortunate we’ll call “Toby.” Toby’s skin was flushed and hot. Toby felt nauseated. Toby could not stand steadily. Toby had not had much to eat for breakfast or lunch today, but he had drank several liters of water and the mysterious bright liquid in his gallon jug. Toby had not urinated for several hours.


Toby was exhibiting classic signs of heat-related illness; Toby’s condition was life-threatening.


I pulled out my extra bottle of water and had Toby take off his hat (news flash: the sun has set and your hat holds heat in) and dumped water on his head, neck, and shirt. I gave him a couple of magic energy chews for good measure (“With electrolytes, B vitamins and complex carbs”) and, very important here, spent some time calmly reassuring him that if we could get him down the trail another mile, he could cool off in Bright Angel Creek and the nice rangers at Phantom Ranch would make sure he was OK.

All this–from diagnosis to calm attitude to treatment–I learned from my Wilderness Medicine Institute WFR training. Thanks, Ryland Gardner, you’re the best instructor ever!

Long story short: Toby’s friends took his daypack and hat, and we walked very slowly, with plenty of stops for more water-dumping, until we finally wobbled our way down the rest of the South Kaibab trail, over the Black Bridge, along Bright Angel Creek to the Phantom Ranch Ranger Station, where an American flag flies proudly (or sometimes just droops in the airless June night) in the light of a single spotlight. The rest of the place is pitch black at 8:30pm, even on the longest day of the year. (Arizona does not “do” Daylight Saving’s Time, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic for another day.)

After leaving Toby and Co. in the capable hands of the rangers (who had been fast asleep at 8:30, having had a rough day that started at 3 am and continued through 116-degree heat; yes, it was still 103 when we got there, but they were so kind and professional . . . I do love these folks), I made my way to the famous Phantom Ranch Canteen–open from 8-10 pm nightly for drinks, snacks, and hikerly camaraderie. There I wet my whistle on delightfully chilled (and free!) water whilst scarfing all the scheduled snacks I had missed for the last 1.5 hour of slow-ambling-with-messed-up-Toby.

Finally, around 9:30pm, I hoisted my slightly weary body and moderately heat-damaged bare feet from the Canteen, filled all my water bottles (having learned during camaraderie time that there was a recent break in the trans-canyon water pipeline and there might not be any drinking water available the next 14 miles), and set off in the dark.

Of course I had a water filter with me for just such an occasion–I do my research, remember?

And of course I had a really expensive and fabulous headlamp (Black Diamond brand, like my fabulous and expensive hiking poles . . . but I shop for most of my clothes at thrift stores, so I like to think it balances out) to light the way. This was my first time using it (oops . . . a bit of a fail there . . . supposed to test gear locally before depending on it during an expedition) and its fulgent beams made the trail ahead seem bright as daylight, if daylight had a decidedly blue-ish tinge and only lit a circle in front of you. Sure. Bright as  daylight.

So there I was, traipsing barefoot in the dark, looking forward to the next seven miles after which I would stop at Cottonwood Campground (new plan alert! no need to be a hero . . . baby needs a nap) and dunk myself (it’s so freaking HOT down here) and try to rest for an hour or so until attacking the final seven miles to the North Rim.

datura at night north kaibab

With lots of time to ponder life’s mysteries during those dark and lonely (and HOT. so very hot. 100 degrees all the way into the wee hours) seven miles, I found myself asking fairly early on, “Why am I barefoot?”

My feet must have got a bit sizzled during that first twenty minutes of hot-trail-insanity at the start of my hike; now I realized I had nothing to prove by remaining shoeless . . . I’d already worn sandals for an hour until the trail wound into the shaded side of the South Kaibab ridge earlier this afternoon, so there was no way this was going to be another “barefoot rim-to-rim.” (I’d done three of these already, anyway, so what was there left to prove?)

I was all alone in the dark nether regions of Grand Canyon; my feet were feeling sun-fried and super-sensitive to every tiny ancient rock chip on the trail, and THERE WERE SCORPIONS, like, everywhere.

scorpion closeup

Or at least seven. Yes, and three in the first hour, scooting from one side of the trail to the other, tails sometimes raised and poised and ready to puncture my tender tootsies.

grand canyon scorpion

Off came the daypack. On went the sandals. Forward I went into the dark, jumping and shrieking every so often when I’d swing my head to look to my right and the Black Diamond Icon high-beam would create a fast-moving shadow of the shrubs clinging to the sheer canyon wall rising at my elbow, creating an illusion of a dark beast moving along with me, just ahead of me, yikes. Shriek. Jump.

Just a shadow.

The other fun game I could play with my headlamp was “let’s see who’s watching me.” To participate in this, one must turn one’s head in any of the several cardinal directions. And then one looks to see what kind of glowing eyes glare back from 20, 50 yards away. (It’s a really fabulous and far-reaching sort of headlamp, as I mentioned, even if it does tend a bit toward the blue end of the light spectrum.)

Fortunately I lost this game more times than I won, but there was that one turn when I looked down about forty feet below and across to where Bright Angel Creek gurgled and burbled (more on this in a second) past a thicket of dark dark dark underbrush, and two enormous and wide-set eyes–attached to no body I could see–stared back.

Well played, chum.

I don’t want to be part of that game any more.

So I quit swinging my light around just for fun, and reserved that motion for investigating all the eerie sounds that accompanied the otherwise-cheerful creek sounds.

The voices! Sometimes it sounded like a cocktail party was going on just out of sight (well, at this point everything was just out of sight). I’d hear almost-words, not-quite-laughter, you know, your typical “she’s been alone on the trail too long” sort of perceptions that probably happen all the time when it’s midnight in the dark dark dark belly-bowels of Grand Canyon.

This was the (low, or high) point when belting out lovely hymns in my not-so-lovely voice worked to remind me of God’s care and guidance (“Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me”); I also hoped that all the lurking creatures within earshot would be so offended by my “pitchiness” (as Simon Cowell would say) that they would begone. Skiddoo. Vamoose. Am-scray.

Finally, a sign.

ribbon falls sign

This little chunk of wood reassured me that I was almost to my next stop where there would be . . . wait for it . . . people. Sleeping people, sure, but at least human presences I could sense and maybe even see instead of all this pressure of just-out-of-eyesight animal and who-knows-what beings.

That last mile to Cottonwood, somewhere around midnight, was definitely a challenge. Here the otherwise gently ascending trail decides to abruptly conquer a moderate hill, the first steep up-slope of the trans-canyon crossing. Then the trail has the nerve to descend, immediately erasing any vertical gains.

Here, once again, Bright Angel Creek swerves close to the trail, but way down, straight down, now I’m not sure if I’m mixing up my exposures (“exposure” being the fancy way to say, “Oh, $h!t . . . there’s a cliff plunging away inches from me clumsies”) between one section of trail or another. But it seemed like the trail shrunk to just wide enough for my sandaled feet before it dropped into the void.

Then it was 1 a.m.-ish, and still very hot, and time to remove a few select articles of clothing in the cricket-singing night and stand in the creek for a while . . . that was an “ahhh” moment rivaled only by the very lovely post-hike shower at the campground laundromat (6 minutes for 6 quarters . . . the best $1.50 ever spent).

After my not-quite-skinny dip–during which I removed my sandals again, and what relief, what assuagement, what succor in time of need–I proceeded barefoot once again up the slope to the set of benches near the ranger house. Barefoot again, and not a thought of NIGHT SCORPIONS until I felt such a poke in the tender arch of my right foot.

Did I scream? Did I wet my already wet self? Or did I take a breath and calmly investigate the cause of the pain via headlamp, relieved to discover it was only a dry, multi-prickled scrub oak leave which was easily dislodged with a finger flick.

After this good-night adrenaline surge non-ritual, I ceremoniously arranged my bright green bandana on a rickety bench as a mattress, plumped my daypack up as a pillow, and laid my trail-weary self down on my back where I was finally able to see stars, and moon, and moonlit clouds, and soon I was waking myself up snoring, because there was only one way I fit on the bench–flat on my back–and that is a ticket to Snore City for this side sleeper.

It was the best, worst, two-hour nap in my life . . . such a rigid and unforgiving slat surface, such soothing stream-and-cicada song, such high and dark and uneven canyon parapets–“visible” only in their blackness, only by the fact that where cliff rose high, no stars shone.

Then I smelled a skunk, and it was 3 a.m., and I probably should get going, but it’s heart-achingly lovely down here, and who knows when I will have a chance to traipse this far down in Grand Canyon again, so maybe I should stay with my love till dawn, and watch the cliffs glow back into color, but I have a nine-hour drive ahead after I get out of here, so let’s fill the pockets back with Knife and Camera and Chapstick and Handkerchief and First Snack of the Day and get my lonely hiker show on the road.

Only two weeks ago I made this early hike out from Cottonwood to the North Rim; that day I began at 4:50 a.m. and thought “How early. You go, girl.”

On the morning of June 22, the tenth birthday of my brilliant twin granddaughters, which I will miss yet again as I am “in-canyon” and not available to attend the splendid San Diego County Fair with them, on this Wednesday morning I am on the trail (not much in the way of camp to strike, you know) by 3:24 a.m.

It’s dark, so this older, wiser me avails herself of sandals and headlamp and strikes a pretty good pace on the last two miles of non-steep trail until the Manzanita Resthouse.

The sky lightens, canyon walls brighten, bounce shades of pink around and over me, till I shine also, and I saved someone’s life yesterday, and it would all be so damned perfect except I’m. Leaving. Grand Canyon. (Will I ever get tired. Of. This. Effect. One hopes so, does one not?)

To cheer me on my way, the canyon practically shoves all manner of flowering and fruiting shrubs in my face:


June on the North Kaibab trail . . . splendiferously floratastic!

But nothin’ sez “NK trail” like a prodigious pile o’ mule poo . . . and then . . . that last switchback where the defunct trail sign-in table stands. Almost to the top . . .

Looking tanned and rested at the end (Me & Mr. Nixon) . . . time for one final hymn chorus: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”

north kaibab trailhead

And happy trails to you, Grand Canyon, until we meet again!

PS There was no moon to speak of, for those hoping like I did to cross the canyon bathed in moonbeams . . . the canyon is down there, narrow, while the moon is up, elsewhere, and then the flocks of clouds gathered . . . but I did get a good moon-glimpse from my bench at Cottonwood. It was enough.


12 Comments leave one →
  1. June 26, 2016 7:32 pm

    What a great account of your R2R. Reading it was like reprising my own R2R hike without you know, the sweat and soreness. Thanks a million! Oh, a tip someone shared with me once, was that holding or fastening your lamp at chest level (vs. head), improves depth perception and lessens some of those dancing shadows as you hike. 🙂

    • June 26, 2016 7:44 pm

      Thanks, Giri. I actually did hike a few miles (where it’s fairly level in “the box”) holding my poles in one hand and my headlamp in the other . . . and it did improve the “dancing shadow” situation 🙂
      Happy (shadowless) trails! Thea

  2. June 24, 2016 9:59 am

    Quite an adventure… hiking in the darkness creeped me out.. especially the wooden sign shaped like a cross that you came across as a “happy omen.” It looked more like a cross you’d find in a wild west cemetery than a sign of living people.. “Here lies Ribbon Falls… don’t fall off the bridge in the dark trying to get there.”

  3. Gina permalink
    June 24, 2016 9:56 am

    I was riveted. I couldn’t stop reading. There has to be a book coming. Demon eyes? Ghosts? You are brave and persevering, Thea. Thanks. For. The. “Trip.”

    • June 24, 2016 10:29 am

      Thanks, Gina.
      You. Always. Make. Me. Laugh 🙂
      (In other news: still recovering from two upper body “glitches” before I can go back to our parkour class . . . have you been back?)

      • Gina permalink
        June 24, 2016 11:47 am

        Not yet returned. Been overly “busy.” No rush, though. They’ll still be jumping and scaling when we return. Just found some parks in the area where I can practice crawls. Warming up to that idea. Otherwise, I’ve been enjoying barefoot walks at Aliso Woods. Is it ever rattlesnake season!!

  4. June 24, 2016 5:42 am

    Thank you for sharing this wild journey with us Thea!

    • June 24, 2016 8:16 am

      Thanks, Terry. I missed you and your fine observation gifts at the “Writing on the Edge” workshop this year . . . different-but-awesome participants, same lovely North Rim (and so many lupine again!) It was fun to see your FB post about doing some barefoot hiking in your new home-away-from home. Happy Summer Trails!


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