The questions began as early as the trailhead. We first coasted down the hill to the Bright Angel trailhead where we started disassembling our bikes to load them on our packs. The mule trains were getting ready to go and those watching wanted to know what we were up to. We’d repeat the story a couple dozen times as we descended off the South Rim.
The trail was fairly crowded by Arizona Trail standards. We stuck out like sore thumbs, so nearly everyone at least turned their head or gave us a puzzled look. Some made wisecracks, others just gave encouragement & showed interest. The words “hardcore” and “extreme” were thrown around. I’d say about half thought we were packing them because the trail is to hard — not because it is not allowed. I kept saying that if allowed, we’d already be at the Colorado River. But instead we walked, and really it was not that bad.
The descent was taking its toll with the weight of gear+bike on our backs. But at least we were moving fast down into the depths of the canyon. I’m a student of trail design and especially unique trail construction, so the Bright Angel trail was a real treat. Amazing, in fact.
When we reached Indian Gardens, a campground at 3800 feet, we took our packs off to take a rest. I was wearing my helmet, both as an easy way to carry it and to keep the sun out of my eyes, and as I walked around the campground a ranger spotted me. I walked right past him, looked him in the eye and said “hello, there.” He walked by, saw our wheels (but not our bikes), and immediately called dispatch. “Dispatch, dispatch, we’ve got two guys that just rode down the trail.” Lee signaled for him to walk over and take a look. He saw his error (it is legal to possess, but not use a bike in the park), called in the false alarm, and then left without another word.
I loved crossing the bridge on the colorado. The river rolls quietly by and both the foot and mule bridges are a sight to see. At Phantom Ranch we met a more friendly ranger. In fact, she asked us to assemble our bikes and ride around so she could set up a photo to send to her boss. We happily put our bikes together just for the chance to ride on a small piece of the North Kaibab trail & for the chance at some silliness.
We were fortunate enough to arrange a cabin at Phantom Ranch. With the cabin came dinner and breakfast–courtesy of the mules whose excrement we had been dodging all the way down the trail. Phantom is quite a unique place and I thoroughly enjoyed the stay, but am still not sure quite what to think about it. The canyon is magnificent at the bottom. I took an evening and early morning walk down the river, watching the sun light up the cliffs on either side.
The meals and ranger talk at the ranch made me feel like I was in summer camp, which was odd. But my sore calves were happy for the good rest in the bunk beds of the cabin. We were most worried about the downhill — not the bigger (by 1000 feet) climb on the north rim. Our worries were correct. I could hardly walk when I got up at 5am. My legs loosened up after the river walk, but the soreness never really went away.
We hit the trail after breakfast, up the raging Bright Angel Creek towards the north rim. The first 7 miles to Cottonwood Canyon were beautiful but a bit tedious since the trail is so flat. Before cottonwood camp we crossed the “flooding” creek that the rangers had warned us about. It was no big deal — knee-ish deep, and moving pretty good. At cottonwood we met a group of volunteers who were camping and fixing up the grounds. They were from the grand canyon backpackers association and were ever so kind. Gene brought out popcicles (!!!) and homemade double chocolate brownies. The last thing I thought I’d be eating with lunch was a cold popicicle.
We had a permit to camp there and would have loved to keep chatting, but it was only noon and the north rim called us. Lee was reluctant and seemed tired/sore enough that he’d make the call to stay, but instead I followed him up out of the campground to make the big push.
I was happy to be doing it and once the grade increased we both got into a good climbing rhythm. At last, muscles that are strong were called into use, instead of our weak stabilizing and downhill ones. Our mp3 players blasted out the good tunes as we ascended and marveled at the scenery.
It seemed almost too easy. My quads had limitless strength though my shoulders and hips were crying for the pack to come off–for good. Our packs worked well, but they are not at all designed for the amount of weight we had on them. A little more shoulder and hip padding could have saved me some bruising. But it was just meaningless pain, so I kept my legs pumping and mind focused.
Bright Angel had some cool trail constructino, but the North Kaibab really knocked me out. The name of the game is dynamite, baby. The other name is switchbacks. I loved it. It was also very cool to have the trail to ourselves as the north rim is still closed. What a treat. There were a few rock slides to navigate, which was a little difficult with my rear rack sticking up so high and to my side, but with a little care it was alright.
As I got within 1000 feet of the rim I picked up momentum and burned it to reach the top. My legs were on autopilot–fast autopilot. And before I knew it I was standing on pavement again, anxious to set my bike back up and ride.
Lee was pretty hot on my heels, also riding the momentum of 1) tunes and 2) the high of accomplishing the feat of crossing the canyon with a bike. We celebrated for a moment, then our thoughts turned to the cold and finding a place to sleep.
First we headed over to the EDR, where some friendly folks gave us leftover food from dinner. Mmm, warm soup never tasted so good. Then some guys told us we could sleep in the lodge lobby, but the security guys found us and told us that wasn’t in the cards. They were nice enough to arrange (with the park service and Xanterra) for us to crash back at the EDR, so we’ll be nice and warm tonight. We would have been OK camping, or so I thought, but Lee was on the case to find us a warm place to sleep, and I’m not complaining!
We’re at the last leg of our trip. It’s about 90 miles to the Utah Border. There is quite a bit of snow up here, so it’s unlikely we’ll get to ride the official AZT for quite a few miles, but we’ll jump on it as soon as it looks good. After Jacob Lake we should be able to ride the rest to the border.
I don’t really know how to explain the experience of hiking the Grand Canyon. I don’t know where to start. It was an amazing part of an even more amazing journey. It was difficult — my shoulders are aching and my legs are sore, but compared to some of the other days we’ve had on the trail, this was definitely not the hardest.