Rim to rim. In Grand Canyon circles this simple phrase conjures up a chasm full of images. From the towering fir and spruce on the North Rim to the tumbling waters of Roaring Springs, from the breezy stoop of the Phantom Ranch cantina to the frothy current of the Colorado River. Like a carrot before a mule, these mental vignettes dangled just out of reach as I lumbered beneath heavy pack toward the North Kaibab trailhead to begin my own transcanyon adventure.
After a switchback or two, memories of past forays down this steep but forgiving trail disappeared in clouds of boot-driven dust-evidence of the alarmingly dry winter the North Rim had just endured. Permeating the crisp, spring air was a banquet of smells rising from the dense trailside foliage. Progress was marked as much by the alternating aromas of ponderosa pine, pinyon, and blooming prickly pear cactus as by the visual landmarks of the Coconino Overlook, Supai Tunnel, and Redwall switchbacks.
A hasty lunch in the fertile basin that cradles Roaring Springs was not lacking for ambience. With feet dangling in the chilly stream it occurred to me that this very water would surely arrive at my kitchen faucet ahead of me-courtesy of a twenty-mile long pipeline to the South Rim. Back on the trail I waved to Bruce Aiken, one of the park service employees responsible for maintaining the aforementioned pipeline, as he toiled in the yard of his modest dwelling. Reminders that this was not your typical neighborhood were in ready supply, including a sage-colored boulder covered with the fossilized tracks of marine creatures dating back some 400 million years. Once I arrived at Cottonwood Campground, night fell with little warning, and the pulsating Bright Angel Creek played accompaniment to the unlikely, lumberjack-decibel snoring of a diminutive Italian woman in the adjacent campsite.
Near the outset of the next morning’s seven-mile grind to Bright Angel Campground, another footbridge yielded access to the oasis known as Ribbon Falls—a “must see” on any transcanyon journey. From the base of the falls a well-worn earthen ramp led me to a position behind the cascading rivulets. A rainbow appeared to my left. Far above to my right hung the sheer western facade of Sumner Butte, looking more stark than usual through the crystalline veil of water. Beneath my perch birds flew directly into unseen holes dotting a fragmented panel of travertine rock, then reappeared moments later as if reborn.
My mind drifted to the Japanese poet Basho’s haiku found in his classic Narrow Road to the Interior. Near the outset of his 1689 pilgrimage to the northern reaches of Japan’s main island, Basho visited a cave behind his own tumbling falls and wrote, “Stopped awhile, inside a waterfall: the summer begins.”
Back on the trail the temperature seemed to double as the route wended through a high-walled maze of tortured Vishnu Schist, the basement rock of Grand Canyon. My trusty walking stick was called into action as I assisted a trio of Swiss hikers across Bright Angel Creek at its junction with Phantom Canyon and joined them for the first few twists up Phantom Creek. Clouds were building overhead, and with them the specter of a rain-fed flash flood. My warnings had little impact on the youthful Europeans until I recounted the story of the Louisiana couple who had been killed in this very drainage by just such a disaster-the driftwood on a nearby cliff underscoring my point.
Upon relocating to the relative safety of Bright Angel Creek, we soaked in a waist high pool for hours until shadows crept across the trail. Tents were pitched at Bright Angel Campground after another mile or two, and the requisite visit to nearby Phantom Ranch was undertaken. After guzzling a glass of lemonade, leaving a note for a friend in the boatman’s mail drop, and hustling a candy bar with a tired card trick, I was shooed out the door of the air-conditioned cantina to make room for dinner guests.
A strip of Colorado River shoreline beneath a patchwork of Puebloan ruins served as my dinner nook. A full moon emerged above the South Rim’s Grandeur Point. Bats swooped. Trout jumped. Only the black suspension bridge over the river, strung from cliff to cliff as if to prevent the canyon from splitting wider, would have startled the native peoples who departed eight centuries earlier. The moon disappeared behind a column of clouds that flickered intermittently with unseen thunderbolts.
Sprawled under the stars in a breezy campsite, the hypnotic swaying of the cottonwoods and nearby brush ushered in a deep sleep. Hours later I sprang to a sitting position after a mouse scurried across my bare chest. The glow of the cresting moon, the throbbing of crickets, and the pulsing creek were even more surreal than my previous dreamscape. Rather than curse my nocturnal visitors, I opted to mimic them and use the cover of night for my ten-mile scurry to the rim on the Bright Angel Trail.
Sans flashlight the going was remarkably swift, if not a bit ominous. I strolled across the silver bridge that spanned the growling blackness of the Colorado River downstream beside her south flank, and turned uphill where Pipe Creek empties into the main channel.
The song of the river ended abruptly after the trail cut back behind a massive fin of rock. With dawn approaching, “taps” from the crickets gave way to “reveille” from the birds. The smell of tamarisk and acacia, wet from the morning dew, permeated the crisp air. A beaver slipped into Pipe Creek near the base of a recently felled tree. The trickle of Columbine Falls and the rush of the Garden Creek plunge pools bracketed my heavy panting up the Devils Corkscrew.
Creeping past Indian Garden Campground at first light, I tried in vain not to add to the stirrings of the early risers. Bearing down on the base of the Redwall, I craned my neck to view the upper tiers of the South Rim. The headlamps of descending hikers could be seen popping in and out of view like fireflies. Another mile further and they were brushing past me, hell-bent to reach the river and return to the rim in a single day. A rest stop just shy of the rim turned my attention northward where pinprick rays of sunlight systematically revealed the jagged angles of awakening stone temples. With a sigh that was one part exhaustion and two parts wonder, I leaned into the final push. To the amusement of my fellow hikers, I topped out in a sprint to avoid the idling mules at the trailhead. Gasping for breath, I turned to face the canyon.
No other Grand Canyon hike offers a more satisfying glance back as does a rim-to-rim. One’s entire route is either exposed or hinted at. Wiping a cold sweat from watery eyes I retraced the journey, from the mist-shrouded North Rim to the tip of two very dusty boots.
Mike Buchheit is the director of Grand Canyon Field Institute, Grand Canyon Association’s field seminar program. To participate in a GCFI-sponsored backpack to Havasu Canyon, or any other GCFI class, consult the GCFI Catalog of Courses or call GCFI at 928.638.2485.