GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. — The last time I saw the top of the North Kaibab Trail, it marked the turnaround point on a marathon hike.
A group of us had left Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim before dawn, strode down to the Colorado River at canyon-bottom, then hiked up to the North Rim. There we made a U-turn and plodded all the way back, down and up, across the chasm. In a single day, I traipsed about 50 miles and made a vertical ascent roughly equal to the climb from base camp to the summit of Mt. Everest.
That was a decade ago. Like many of us, I have since suffered the ravages of environmental degradation. Sunlight through the ozone hole has faded my hair like an old, weathered fence. Global warming has shrunk pants and belts. Now my legs feel leaden.
I am still smitten, though, with canyon crossings. So last year on Memorial Day weekend my wife, Dianne, and our friends Mick and Barb Sears joined me on another rim-to-rim crossing of the Grand Canyon, although a bit modified from my first trek. We would hike down from the North Rim, spend a night lodging at the Phantom Ranch by the Colorado River, then hike the next day up to the South Rim. Half the distance in twice the time, a sweet, midlife revenge.
We departed from the North Rim at the cold cusp of dawn. (The North Rim opens in mid-May.) There was still some snow on the ground, and for warmth some of us wore long johns under hiking shorts. The geezerish look would have put us on any teen's parental embarrassment list. We carried day packs with lunch, fruit, trail mix, a change of clothes and a quart of water (we could refill our canteens every few miles).
The trail from the North Rim begins in the pines, 8,200 feet above sea level. Dropping over the edge, the North Kaibab Trail carves its way about 14 miles down (with a vertical drop of about 5,800 feet) to a long tributary canyon to the Colorado River. Sunlight glazed the walls above with a golden glow. A rivulet tumbled over cliffs, showering the path with unwanted mist. We soon heard the morning's first canyon wren. The song triggered memories of my youthful days in the desert back country.
The Grand Canyon is built like an eroded layer cake, and one of its most dominant strata is Redwall limestone, a band of stained rock that rises almost half as tall as the World Trade Center. As we hiked down, we also saw torrents pour from cliff-side caverns. "It looks as though a water main has been severed," Barb said.
The plateau through which the Grand Canyon was carved tilts to the south. Aquifers have been laid open by deepening erosion. About five miles into our hike, at Roaring Springs, the flow draped the lower palisades in white froth. The sound must have been deafening before the Park Service partially capped the output.
Mule rides from the North Rim go no farther than Roaring Springs. From the South Rim, the mules do not go beyond the Colorado River area. Those who want to go all the way across the canyon must do it on foot. Beside Roaring Springs, we met backpackers who were doing just that. As a young couple huffed upward, their faces displayed the same pained grimace that I bore on my marathon hike.
"Looking good," I lied to them. "You're less than six miles from the top." We continued toward the rushing flow of Bright Angel Creek, which the trail parallels to the Colorado River. We were far beneath the rim and engulfed in the canyon's immensity. Buttes and plateaus pointed toward the heavens. Bands of subtle hues painted distant walls. Although the magnitude was visually overwhelming, we each had a personal scale for comprehending the canyon's vastness. We measured it in muscle soreness. I figured I was already two Ben-Gays below the rim.
The day's half-distance point came at Cottonwood Campground. The poplars that canopy this leafy oasis were a welcome sight. Growing near water, the trees adapt to heat by taking in up to 50 gallons of moisture daily. We wallowed in the shade and drank some water.
A short way farther south, a spur trail accessed Ribbon Falls. In a side-canyon cul-de-sac, we saw a brisk stream tumbling over a two-tier plunge. The flow first plummeted to a limestone apron covered with moss, ferns, columbines and monkey flowers. The bulk then whooshed down in a refreshing shower. "I never thought I would see so much liquid down here," Mick said.
We paused before continuing the march downward. Two miles from the river and the canyon bottom, the route entered "the Box." Walls rose, the canyon narrowed and the stone turned diabolically dark. Finally the corridor opened, and we reached Phantom Ranch, where we would spend the night. Never a cattle operation, this spread was built solely to accommodate tourist herds. It's not easy to get reservations at Phantom Ranch, but we lucked out and had reserved a cabin to share. We checked in, got a key and ambled to our cabin.