How to Hike from Grand Canyon’s South Rim in the Winter

How to Hike from Grand Canyon’s South Rim in the Winter

This is a narrated account of our epic hike into the Grand Canyon, a little less than a year later. It was, by far, one of the most difficult things we have ever done in our lives, but at the same time, we were completely and utterly saturated in visual splendor. I hope you will enjoy the tale and some of the pictures to go along with it.

It was cold and blustery the day we prepared to hike into the Grand Canyon.

The sun had just barely begun to rise. Crystalline morning light cast across swells of newly fallen snowdrift, each undulation rising and falling in serendipity. The wind leapt up against our staff housing licking snow and frost against the eastern face of the building. Our cheap single-pane window rocked vehemently in its place.

If the Ancestral Pueblo people were calling out warnings to us in the flurry, we did not hear them.

It was the middle of January—the 21st to be exact—and we had only just decided days prior that we would call in sick to pull off our journey. Surely, our housekeeping duties could wait.

Before we knew what we were getting ourselves into, the “now or never” conviction grew heavier with each passing day. When we made the decision to hike down, it was almost entirely on impulse. Although, I can attest to chasing it with a shot of calculation.

Winter in the Grand Canyon hardly claims as many lives as it does during the fiery summer season. After all, the arid summer heat can easily climb above a hundred degrees, and in that scorched landscape, dehydration quickly becomes a silent killer.

But the winter junction is brimming with its perils as well. Although it’s far less dangerous, hiking the Grand Canyon in the winter has still been known to claim an unutterable amount of lives. If the exhaustion from the cold weather doesn’t get you, slipping off the edge on a concealed patch of ice just might. There’s not much room for error on the edge of a 150-foot cliff.

And yet, there’s just something thrilling about walking on the fringe of disaster, along trails of frozen shale and sandstone, into the chasm of one of the greatest geological spectacles ever known to humankind.

I’d be lying if I said we were competent.

Nonetheless, this is how we successfully hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up again in the frigid winter weather.

Blazing orange sunsets

Standing on the Edge of Forever

As we stepped off the shuttle bus, our faces were instantly burnished into bright cherry-reds by the polar gusts coming off the land. Icy tears were pulled from our eyes as we squinted looking around for some kind of blockade from the wind. Our best option was to press on toward a few thin evergreens standing next to the trailhead marker labeled “South Kaibab.”

Sitting our barely-insulated butts on cold boulders, we strapped on our Yak-Trak ice cleats—the same two sets that we found in a hotel room while cleaning just days before.

Amongst everyone on the bus, we were clearly the most undressed in our tasseled ponchos and our streetwear beanies. The rest of the hikers stepped off the shuttle bus in thermal-lined jackets, insulated gloves, wooly hats, and snow goggles. We began to question whether we had made a foolish decision.

Hiking from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon generally leaves you with just two main options for choosing a trailhead. There’s the South Kaibab trail and the Bright Angel trail. Both are equally well-trodden, but heading down South Kaibab offers significantly better panoramic vistas than Bright Angel.

In the summertime, most people also decide to hike down from the South Kaibab trailhead due to the lack of shade and lack of water filling stations. Of course, doing so requires starting early enough in the morning, and having enough water on hand before reaching the bottom of the canyon.

The same is true for hiking the Grand Canyon in the winter, but the environmental factors are much different. You’ve got to show up with enough confidence in staying warm, and enough forethought to pack adequate hydration.

The gusto we were about to muster was like a kick in the pants to go forth, despite the enumerable possibilities of danger. We looked down the South Kaibab trail with wide-eyed amusement in what we were about to do. The entire beginning of the trail was a switchback descending nearly 500-feet in elevation, and covered in a full sheet of ice.

We weren’t the first to get started on the hike, but we definitely weren’t the last.

icy switchbacks down from south kaibab trailhead
Icy switchbacks at the start of South Kaibab

Dipping Below the Horizon

I’d like to think we began our trek with a kind of silent nod of agreement. You know, like the way that Stoics do when they’re prepared to acknowledge something bigger than their puny mortal lives.

But in actuality, the reality of it was probably much different. After a few laughs of bewilderment, some motivational conversation, a pause of silent rationalization, and probably a few more laughs of sheer bewilderment, we put our first steps forward on the frozen and forbidding trail.

With every shuffle of our feet, we grabbed onto the inside of the towering canyon wall with frozen white knuckles. I’ll never forget the clouds that crested over the canyon walls as we descended lower and lower down the trail: chubby white cotton balls against a blue topaz sky. Snow-capped pines wagged against the steeping sky on the canyon’s ridge above.

As we curled downward from switchback to switchback, altogether doing our best to maintain a reasonable balance, the wind slowly began to let up. Progressively, we knew that we were freeing ourselves from the bitter and biting frost.

It may be little known that for every thousand feet you descend into the canyon, the temperature actually increases about five degrees. In part, the colder temperatures are due to the fact that the canyon’s rims situate at a lofty elevation of about 7000-feet above sea level. But in addition to this, the canyon’s walls withhold a good deal of heat the further down you descend. This means that the very bottom of the canyon can increase in temperatures 20 to 25 degrees greater than the top of the canyon’s rims.

With this in mind, we confidently strode forward knowing that each footfall was bringing us closer to a more authentic Arizona warmth. Most of the ice had finally subsided on the trail once we reached the bottom of the treacherous switchbacks. By now the uppermost ridge of the canyon was hundreds of feet above us.

We were in it for the long haul.

starting to walk down the grand canyons icy switchbacks
Taking time to enjoy the scenery

Entering another World

I ran my hand along the jagged façade of the sandstone wall next to me.

We were steadily descending, carefully walking a dusty trail between crags of 200 million year old sediment on one side and an overlook with a 200 foot drop on the other side. Evergreen rangeland plants, such as sagebrush and arrowweed adorned the ledges of the trail, almost acting as markers as we neared entry to our first full vista of the canyon.

At last, the sandstone wall on our right finally rounded off, continuing outward in an easterly direction. Ahead of us, our first notable trail-marker protruded from the rubble. The plateau here is known as “Ooh Aah” point for only one good reason: It’s your first complete view of the canyon along the South Kaibab Trail.

Due to the exposed ledge jutting out at Ooh Ahh Point, we were immediately exposed back into a gale of frigid wind. Some of the others that left with us from the shuttle bus crouched beside a boulder, trying to take refuge from the wind while still enjoying the striking scenic views.

We paused for a minute to capture some pictures. Our teeth chattered together as the cold gusts cut across our enthusiastic grins, and our fingertips numbed while we tried to stay steady enough to capture a decent picture.

Since the beginning of our journey, the skies had completely grown overcast in a grey demure. We kept praying for the sun to come out and burn away some of the unrelenting frigidity, but as far as our eyes could see, the heavens were obscured for several miles.

Yet even without the warmth of the sun casting down on our shuddering bodies, the sight was indescribably immaculate. And though the cold wore our patience thin, a quiet resolve of beauty infiltrated our pupils.

A faint ivory glow seemed to radiate from the distant ridges of the canyon walls. The clouds stretched over and blanketed the quiet peaks and outlying gentle valleys.

It’s almost too much to comprehend in a moment like that, looking out over the sundry of majestic shapes, each ridge seeming to be sculpted with a careful emphasis of attention. It’s as if some divine hand came and chiseled each section of the canyon from a magnificent marbled clay. Yet, altogether the variety of land formations somehow make up a complete whole, entirely impossible to remodel without incorporating every other detail within this immeasurable vista.

And all the while, as you gaze upon the array of definition in the canyon, you recognize the limitations in the sphere of your own knowing. The geologist sees something different than the painter, who sees something different than the tourist, who sees something different than the local indigenous people.

No one has been able to pierce the impenetrable veil of fully understanding the canyon in its totality. There are, undoubtedly, even greater secrets locked within the canyon walls that the entire history of humankind has never been able to bring into cognition.

These are mysteries locked away by the coursing of millions of years—it’s the behemoth of antiquity, the deity in the dirt, and the chronology of its layers reveals stories of long-forgotten sagas that only gods are accustomed to remembering.

grand canyon panoramic view
The majesty of hundreds of millions of years

Into the Belly of the Beast

As the trail continued on switching back in on itself, we continued our hike downward from Ooh Aah Point. With the canyon wall now on our left, we were in the shadows of an already distant sun. The wind did happen to die down some, but the shade seemed to make everything atmospherically colder.

We hurriedly pressed on, stopping only momentarily to catch our breath and hydrate.

As the trail stretched forth, it meandered downward, twisting along shelves of crushed rock. Desert succulents adhering to the granulated surface seemed to stretch out their waxed and bristled stems in order to stick the next unsuspecting passerby.

The clouds loomed large above our heads.

A solitary juniper tree with limbs of gnarled wood sat in uneasy repose along the edge of the trail.

Although the South Kaibab trail wasn’t constructed until 1925, the word “Kaibab” comes from the Paiute language, meaning “mountain turned upside down.” It literally feels that everything is taking place in an opposite direction. The air becomes warmer, the vegetation grows denser, and the beginning part of the journey is assisted by gravity, rather than fighting against it.

Up ahead, O’Neill Butte was slowly coming into view. The landmark was named after the charismatic young entrepreneur, “Buckey” O’Neill. Buckey’s butte is a distinguished sandstone tower presiding over Cedar Ridge, the next noteworthy trail-marker.

As we rambled around the last few curves of the trail, stepping over stairs made of logs, dirt, and stone, we encroached upon the first sizable platform of land since we left the trailhead earlier that morning. Cedar Ridge opens up into a wide plateau of burgundy-red sandstone. It also happens to reveal another perfect view of the sheer immensity of the Grand Canyon.

For most day hikers, Cedar Ridge is the recommended stopping point before turning around to head back to the surface. Hiking to this trail-marker is a definite step in scratching the surface for what South Kaibab has to offer. Although the Colorado River isn’t visible from Cedar Ridge, reflecting on the enormity of the canyon is enough to make the journey truly fulfilling up until this point.

For those in need of a service stop, there’s also a basic composting toilet in this location. Although, our intentions were slightly different. Because the coarse wind was still cutting across Cedar Ridge, we ended up huddling next to the lower part of the outhouse building—where all the waste goes—in a feeble attempt to stay warm. We also used the opportunity to consume some of our snacks.

raven at cedar ridge grand canyonI must say, there’s really nothing quite like looking out across the majestic crags and crevices of the Grand Canyon while you congregate next to a building of cold excrement trying to eat granola bars and Planter’s peanuts.

A story for the grandkids, without a doubt.

At the far edge of Cedar Ridge, an enormous black raven was perched on top of a long-dead limb from a cedar tree. It braced itself against the wind in unwavering discipline, probably searching for its next meal, but probably laughing at the soft-nature of humans too.

walking into cedar ridge grand canyon
Walking onto the plateau of Cedar Ridge

The Point of No Return

The next trail marker, 1.5-miles ahead of Cedar Ridge, is Skeleton Point. For those planning to hike in and out of the canyon in the same day, Skeleton Point is the absolute furthest distance that should be attempted. Even then, hikers should be sure of their strength, and enough provisions should be brought to account for the extra length. It is always much more difficult hiking uphill than hiking downhill.

From Cedar Ridge the trail curls around the eastern face of the O’Neill Butte. With a few sets of stairs declining past the monument, the trail turns toward the east and meanders along another rock wall.

After conquering a few more switchbacks, we found ourselves again walking along a vast plateau. As our confidence grew the further we pushed on into the canyon, our sense of appreciation was expanding substantially as well. That’s just when our luck seemed reach a crescendo.

You never quite realize your infatuation with the sun until it bursts forth in golden resplendence on a cold winter’s day. Toasty beams of sunlight gushed down upon us overflowing from behind the southern clouds.

We outstretched our arms spreading them as far as they could go and childlike giggles welled up from within our stomachs. It was the most glorious moment we had yet come to know—surrounded by thousands of miles of canyon walls and kissed by the comforting sunlight.

Our soft but solemn shadows again crept quietly alongside our bodies.

We may have been daring ourselves to hike further than we ever had before, but the persuading zeal of spirited sunlight reassured us to keep moving along.

Stopping only momentarily at the signpost for Skeleton Point, we decided to usher ourselves onward. The sun may have been shining in full, but the wind continued on relentlessly.

We were due for some much needed shelter.

sunlight for the first time in grand canyon
Tromping along in the sunlight

Resting Like Tired Dogs

As we rounded the corner at Skeleton Point, letting out deep exhales of laborious exhaustion, another steep switchback appeared before us.

There’s a particular kind of emotion that spawns at the advent of fatigue and excitement. It’s surely a strange cocktail to be sipping on, and certainly not everyone’s libation of choice, but it’s one that makes your heart race in a wholesome lust for living.

It’s the determination of the athlete pushing to be the best beyond all known limits; the sap of young lovers engaged in late-night marathons; the endurance of the Clydesdale trotting with the presumption of being fulfilled in its purpose.

Perhaps that’s why we do these things: we’ve got everything to lose, but the time is only getting shorter.

Human thrill-seekers are no different than their animal relatives in this regard. Conscious of the fleeting time ahead of us, we’ve all got carnal desires to fulfill. A good shot of adrenaline is like momentously waking up to the shared presence of immediate felt experience.

But just like every other biological organism alive and inhabiting the Earth, we were going to need a temporary break from the toil of our endeavors. Fortunately, such an occasion happened to take shape for us. Tucked up in the ridge of a million tons of earth was a small cavern just big enough for two weary hikers to duck into. It was high time for a more fulfilling meal to be had.

We made our way up to the hole in the wall and, in an act of resolving our instinctual fight or flight response, we ensured that no predatory cats or poisonous snakes were inhabiting the small cavity. It was just what we needed to find shelter from the wind and eat in peaceful repose.

Sitting wide-eyed in amusement and looking around at the cavern walls, we reached into our backpacks for the closest sources of hydration and nourishment. We didn’t have much to eat in all honesty: a couple packages of crackers, a few energy bars, pistachios, a handful of peanuts, some dehydrated backpacking food, and two summer sausages, which we cut into slices with a small utility knife. We only had two large water bottles for the hike down, and one was nearly empty by this point.

And yet, the restful lunch put our bodies back into productively burning energy. Aside from the summer sausage, which gave us a huge boost of protein, we also dropped a few energy tablets into our water bottles. These two items were absolutely indispensable to have.

Once we reached the agreement that we were well-rested enough to continue on, we crawled out from our little dormitory in the rock wall and continued in stride back along the trail. The Colorado River was a little less than 3-miles away now, and our hermitage for the night, Phantom Ranch, was shortly beyond that.

While we worked our way further down the switchback, we were delighted to see two ground squirrels chasing each other around the rocks. A bighorn sheep was also carefully placing his steps along a ridgeline off in the distance.

A little further ahead, we were greeted by a procession of pack mules guided by two riders on horseback, ultimately heralding our nearness to the bottom of the canyon.

small cave in grand canyon
Our view during lunchtime

Entering the Inner Gorge

The last stop before entering the Inner Gorge of the Grand Canyon is where the Tonto Trail meets South Kaibab. It’s a wide plateau with a bathhouse, a hitching post to secure mules, and a covering of fine limestone powder.

Just beyond this Tip Off point, the mighty Colorado can be seen below.

We gleefully kicked up clouds of the green limestone dust, cloaking our boots in the traveled sediment of experience.

The Inner Gorge opened like the jaws of the leviathan, a crack between the worlds, and we were about to hike merrily into its orifice. A thousand feet below, the brown silt of the Colorado coursed like chocolate milk cutting through the canyon walls. We were altogether drawn to its cooling influence—the culmination of our journey, the sight that Grand Canyon visitors rarely get to see up close.

In the last few miles down to the Colorado, South Kaibab winds and wiggles down into the Inner Gorge. The landscape erupts into redwall buttes and abrupt cliffs, and the rich iron-red mix of shale and sandstone vibrantly colors the trail as it winds through the geologic formations. In this layer of the canyon, nothing is more akin to its description than the landscapes of Mars.

The burden of boredom rarely makes itself known while hiking the Grand Canyon. There’s just always something so damn beautiful to fixate on. It’s also a hike that’s enhanced tenfold by knowing some of the history and geology of the landscapes you’re walking in.

By now, the temperature was in the mid-50s. We had stripped all of our unnecessary layers and marched promptly forward with unrivaled eagerness to reach the bottom. Out of the few people to pass us on the trail at this point, a couple of joggers hastily sped down the trail along the winding cliff faces.

We were baffled by the amount of energy they had. The couple made their way far beyond us until they rounded a pass and disappeared out of sight.

The only time we stopped was to allow a bighorn sheep a comfortable amount of space as it grazed on canyon grass and sedges along the trail. It looked up at us, seemingly unbothered by our presence, and went right back to eating. We weren’t sure whether it would charge at us or simply saunter off if we approached, so we made our steps casual and calm as we closed in on the trail. It was the kind of moment that could bring a tear to your eye for seeing something so pure in its natural environment.

Eventually, the beast was bothered by us enough to let us pass. We watched it scale a 10-foot vertical wall and trot off into the distance.

Pressing on, our last trail marker came into view: the Kaibab Suspension Bridge—a 440-foot bridge spanning the entire width of the Colorado River. We were nearly at the banks of the river when we decided to take another momentary rest. The joggers that passed us earlier were also resting near the suspension bridge.

Apparently, they were planning to jog all the way back to the start of the trailhead in the same day. They told us they were training for a marathon. We chuckled in bafflement.

overlooking the colorado river grand canyon
Who says there is no water on Mars?

Here There Be Ghosts

The tunnel that leads up to the suspension bridge is somehow reminiscent of what people often say dying feels like. The tunnel is unlit, dark, and spooky, at least in the sense of not knowing your surroundings. Up ahead, a doorway of light glows as a beacon to the weary traveler, suggesting the persona to come further forward.

Despite what they say, our only choice was to go toward the light.

As our vision exploded back into color, we found ourselves lofted 30-feet above the Colorado River, at the center of the Grand Canyon, in a world previously unbeknownst to us in its magnitude.

south kaibab suspension bridge grand canyon
Crossing over the Kaibab Suspension Bridge

Crossing the bridge, we set foot for the first time on the northern side of the Grand Canyon. There are a few ruins of ancestral pueblo homes on the north shore where the indigenous used to farm and catch fish. Each ruin has been dated to be nearly a thousand years old.

Further up ahead, the trail winds through the Bright Angel Campground, a tiny oasis in the desolate landscapes of the Grand Canyon. A small creek runs through the campground, providing the necessary hydration for all kinds of vegetation to thrive. We waved to a number of other hikers who were bedding down for the night in their campsites.

We knew it wasn’t long before we would be doing the same.

Phantom Ranch is just beyond the campground. Rumor has it that Phantom Ranch got its name from the nearby Phantom Creek flowing into Bright Angel Creek a mile up the trail. Although, the exact origin of the term “phantom” here is somewhat unclear, it’s been suggested that the way the creek swerves through the canyon walls causes it to seem as if it disappears and then reappears.

Although, the last thing on our minds was a ghost as we walked onto the grounds of the historic lodging site. Sheer relief flooded our bodies; sound slumbers were about to greet us. We had successfully completed one of the most epic hikes of our lifetimes, and even though we still had the second leg of the journey following the next day, we both knew our lives had been deeply enriched.

Amusingly enough, the hostel-style cabins of Phantom Rach are partitioned between men and women. No co-ed bunks are allowed unless you decide to pay more for a private cabin.

But due to this phenomenon, we also weren’t allowed to be in each other’s cabins whatsoever. And because the sun was just setting over the ridgeline now, the outside air was growing much colder. It was still much too early for sleep and we weren’t necessarily ready to part ways for the night either.

To make the situation more inconvenient, the main dining hall closes for two hours after sunset to let registered patrons enjoy a warm meal before the night is over. We were effectively screwed.

After deliberating what to do next, our somewhat-cornered and mostly-overzealous mindset led us into attempting an additional 11.9-mile hike to Ribbon Falls. The relatively flat trail didn’t seem too strenuous in its outset, but we had also just hiked 7.5 miles from the South Kaibab trailhead. Needless to say, we didn’t make it to the waterfall.

Upon returning to camp tired, sore, and cold, we were happy to see that the dining area was finally open again for business. We each had a beer, played a few card games, and then we called it a night.

phantom ranch at the grand canyon
Phantom Ranch. Snow caps the distant ridgeline.

The Return Journey Homeward

Most of the next day happened in a blur.

We woke up bright and early to allow ourselves adequate time to hike back up the Bright Angel Trail. My hip flexors were sore, Heather’s right knee was beginning to give her problems, and the morning grogginess hung around like an impenetrable fog without our morning fix of caffeine. We didn’t even have warm water to add to our breakfast, so we snacked on a few granola bars as we sat shivering at a picnic table in the heart of the Grand Canyon.

The hangover from the first length of our hike had finally set in, and comfort was going to be a very long way off. But somehow, our vigor and determination allowed us to muster the strength to get up and start moving. That, and probably the fact too that we had no other choice.

Moseying forward from Phantom Ranch, we had a 10-mile uphill hike ahead of us.

We passed back through the campground and made our way to the Bright Angel Suspension Bridge. After crossing the bridge, we hiked westward along the Colorado for some time as the trail began its slow incline cutting up into the face of the rock wall.

bright angel suspension bridge grand canyon
Crossing the Bright Angel Suspension Bridge

Heather’s knee was growing worse the further we pressed up the trail. The overuse of our leg muscles the day before must have tweaked something pretty badly in her knee. She started to limp with her right leg extended straight out as she stepped. I was starting to grow legitimately worried that we weren’t going to make it out.

I suppose sometimes in the roughest of scenarios we find some kind of hidden reserve of strength. It’s the story of mothers lifting cars off of their children, or torture victims who find some way out from behind enemy lines. Heather is, quite fortunately, one of those strong women who will not give up so easily.

A blown-out knee for the price of hiking the Grand Canyon? Worth it.

Together, we worked our way upward and outward. As a sign of encouragement, the morning sun crested above the opposite ridgeline and cascaded its soft warm glow along the northern cliffs of the Colorado.

Eventually, the trail veers into a gorge in the canyon wall, leading south away from the river. Unlike South Kaibab, the Bright Angel Trail follows a fault rather than a ridge line. Instead of panoramic views like we were used to on South Kaibab, the canyon walls tower over Bright Angel, offering a much more shaded hike. This can be crucial in the summer months. There are also multiple water refill stations along Bright Angel.

For most of the lower Bright Angel trail, a moderately sized stream—known as Garden Creek—runs through the gorge along the trail. We even had to hike through the stream a number of times as the trail passed over it.

As we winded upward through the layers of shale and sandstone in the rock walls, we were pleased with how different Bright Angel was from our previous day’s hike. Due to the constant stream of water coursing through the gorge, large trees careened over us, some of them even had leaves on their branches still.

Birdsongs filled the air, echoing in sonorous reprieve off the canyon walls. Our footsteps aligned and kept rhythm. 

garden creek grand canyon
Rock hopping through Garden Creek

In the Garden of the Ancestors

It’s a little more difficult for me to remember the precise details of our hike out of the Grand Canyon. Not only were we delirious with exhaustion, but the battery in my video camera died upon making it to the Colorado the day before.

During our hike up Bright Angel, we found another small cave along the side of the river. I peeked my head in for a moment while Heather rested her knee. The canyon walls altogether loomed large above us, towering in their millions of years of glory. We encountered multiple switchbacks allowing us to gain elevation in the gorge. A rippling waterfall carved through the gorge further up along the footpath.

As time passed, we eventually encountered our second major checkpoint: Indian Garden. Valued for its historical importance as another early pueblo farming site, Indian Garden provides shelter for hikers. With hundreds of cottonwood trees, wooden huts and benches, and a refill station offering a fresh source of water, Indian Garden is a scant paradise atop the Tonto Plateau.

By now, it was coming up on noon. We found a small wooden gazebo to sit under to prepare our lunch. Backpacker’s blueberries and oats, another summer sausage, some crackers, and two granola bars—we would be finishing off the reserves of our food. We also threw some more energy tablets in our water after refilling the bottles.

As we ate, a few rock squirrels watched intently, hoping we would either drop something or look away long enough to steal a quick bite. It’s a little known fact that the rock squirrels are actually the most dangerous animals in the Grand Canyon. Tourists who don’t know any better end up feeding the squirrels and training them to become more comfortable with humans. Being bitten by a squirrel is surprisingly not uncommon if you’re tempting it with food.

After our lunch, and holding off the horde of squirrels for the duration of it, we sat down on top of a large sandstone boulder in an attempt to warm our bodies up. The air had grown cold enough to make our noses sniffle with each inhale.

I couldn’t help but look up at the ridgeline and laugh in stupor. With the level of exhaustion my body was experiencing, it seemed impossible to imagine how we were going to hike all the way back to the top.

I’m still fairly surprised that we managed to do so at all.

look up at the ridge line of the Bright Angel Trail Grand Canyon
"We have to hike all the way up there?"

Slaying the Head of the Dragon

The hike from Indian Garden to the Bright Angel trailhead is the final ominous sneer of an already strenuous trail to the ill-prepared hiker. The trail winds at a slight incline for about a mile until it reaches the canyon wall, where a 4-mile switchback towers over the relative flatness of the Tonto Plateau.

As a hiker, preparing to climb the switchback up to the rim seems almost inconceivably distant.

We neared the canyon wall with a sense of growing intensity; our feet wept for relief, and our calves shuddered in feeble attempts to brace for the demanding uphill crawl we were about to encounter. The closer we came, the more the pressing ridgeline extended high above us. Its looming intensity overshadowed our insignificantly small bodies.

At the foot of the switchback, which was relatively more trafficked than the earlier parts of our hike, we found a few small boulders to plop down on. This final switchback was the impending beast we knew we would encounter, the hellion in the gorge.

A multitude of hikers passed us in this time—some of them clearly more fit than others. One man came sprinting down the trail wearing only jeans and a t-shirt; he didn’t have a water bottle with him, or anything else for that matter. We never did find out what his deal was.

When the cold started to creep back into our pallid flesh, we knew it was time to get going. The frigid air surrounding us divulged each of our exhales into a billow of steamy vapor as we huffed and puffed up the first hill.

Then we doubled back in and climbed the second hill. Then the third. And the fourth—and so on, until we were making what may nearly be referred to as a semblance of progress.

We took many breaks along this unforgiving stretch of the Bright Angel Trail. The demanding incline was almost too much to bear. In fact, it’s likely that this final switchback took us nearly twice as long to hike as the preceding 6-mile length trekked earlier in the day.

icy switchbacks up bright angel trail grand canyon

A short break here, another climb up a rung of the switchback, another break, a struggle to find the energy to go a little further—rest. The hike went on like this for what felt like an eternity.

At the 3-mile rest house, we strapped the ice cleats back onto our boots. The trail had become wrought with snow and ice again, and slipping on the frozen sandstone path would have been potentially irreversible. The hand of fate would have had to be particularly sadistic to flick us off from the icy trail now.

The snow crunched loudly beneath our feet. Our tasseled ponchos once again fluttered with the might of the frosty canyon winds. I ducked my head into my scarf and continued to push on.

We hiked another mile, and then another half mile, and one more, until finally we could see the trailhead marker just up above us. The evergreen trees that once dotted the ridgeline were now royal emerald firs beckoning us to come back to the fringe. They wore silent cloaks of ivory snow draped across their branches.

The ancestors in the wind that had previously tried to dissuade us from hiking were now howling in celebratory gusts. We crested the ridge with a sense of consolatory appeasement. The emerald firs wagged with excitement.

The Bright Angel Trail was ours to conquer.

We stepped back onto paved ground for the first time in a day and a half and nearly puked with exhaustion.

glorious sunset at grand canyon winter
A glorious and rewarding winter sunset

The Flight of the Ventursome

That night we feasted like aristocracy, and afterward we slept harder than we ever had before.

Feeling accomplished the next day, and particularly fed up with housekeeping, we promptly gathered our belongings, turned in our employee uniforms, and filed the necessary resignation paperwork to quit our housekeeping jobs.

We had hiked the Grand Canyon from top to bottom, and then all the way back up again in less than two days. You just can’t go back to scrubbing bathroom floors after that.

The life of the nomad thrives in the circumambulation of new adventures. It’s like walking a fine line between living in the present moment and chasing the satisfaction of new desires. The second you become complacent, well, now you’re dead!

I never thought that hiking the Grand Canyon would be part of my life story—let alone hiking the canyon’s icy footpaths in the middle of winter—but I’m overjoyed that we had the opportunity.

Would I do it again? Absolutely!

Later that evening, we scheduled a shuttle ride to Flagstaff. This was the last time we’d see the Grand Canyon. Upon arriving in Flagstaff, we waited at a coffee shop until the departure time drew nearer for our Greyhound bus to Phoenix.

Much more to our liking, the temperature in Phoenix was pushing a balmy 85-degrees.

Sealed deep within the locket of my memories, two characters hike through scarlet red crags, along mighty mahogany rivers, and bellowed by an invisible tempest. Both of them are positively exhausted, but unyielding in their motivation.

They are young. They are quixotic. They are epicurean thrill-seekers.

The golden locket glints and the story hems shut.

This is how we successfully hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up again in the middle of the frigid winter.

Before

before selfie of hiking the grand canyon

After

after selfie of hiking the grand canyon

Thank you for reading our story!

If you’d like, you can also watch the video of our first impressions upon arriving at the Grand Canyon. It includes the first length of our hike as well.

So, how about it? Would you hike the Grand Canyon in the winter?

Let us know in the comments!

Shane

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