Forty seven years old, and I had never been to the Grand Canyon. I’m not sure why exactly. Maybe because it’s a couple day’s drive from Carson City. Or maybe it’s just so big, I didn’t know where to even begin. While looking at the map and planning our Spring Break vacation, we came up with the idea to head south and visit some of the National Parks and Monuments we had never seen before. Right in the middle of the loop was Grand Canyon National Park. We were all excited that we’d finally get to see it! And so the research began on how to see it.
As is usual for us, we would be sampling places along our route rather than immersing ourselves in a single location. There is a lot of good information on the internet on what to see in Grand Canyon National Park if you don’t have a lot of time, and the South Kaibab Trail was one of the recommended hikes.
The trail begins on the South Rim near Yaki Point at over 7,200 feet elevation, and descends to the Colorado River at 2,420 ft. Elevation change from rim to river is 4860 ft (1480 m), along a 6.3 mile (10.1 km) trail! Unlike the Bright Angel Trail which also begins at the south rim, the South Kaibab Trail follows a ridge allowing for 360-degree views of the canyon. A 3 mile round trip, the NPS recommends Cedar Point along the trail as a good turn-a-round for first time or casual canyon hikes. Although a short distance, the trail drops over 1,000 feet in a mile and a half! This seemed like a reasonable starting point.
We arrived in the area in the evening, and ended up staying in a hotel in Williams, AZ, about an hour south of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. There is dispersed camping available closer to the canyon, but with overnight temperatures dipping down into the 20s, we were happy to sleep in a warm bed. At 6,766′elevation, Williams is in higher country than I imagined. It’s also forested and certainly not the desert I had expected. Williams thrives on Grand Canyon tourists, so there are all sorts of places to stay and eat. It’s busy for such a small town, and has a friendly vibe.
We got up at 6:00 AM the next morning and had a hearty breakfast at a local diner. From there we drove to Tusayan, 53 miles north. Everything that you see in Tusayan is services for tourists, so it’s more of a place than a town. Being right at the entrance to the park, it’s also pricey to stay here. After a couple laps through the round-a-bouts in Tusayan, we started to figure out where we were supposed to go.
We parked at the National Geographic Visitors Center on the north end of Tusayan (not to be confused with the Visitor Center in the park mentioned below). You can buy your National Park pass here, which is also required to ride the free park shuttles. There is also a shuttle stop out front. This is a good place to board, because it’s the first stop on the way out of the park where most people get off and you’re more likely to get a seat.
Almost immediately after departing, we were in the long line to get past the park entrance gate. We were seated next to a guy that said he had spent 3 hours driving around looking for parking in the park before giving up and coming back out and taking the shuttle in. As we got closer to the rim, every nook and cranny where you could squeeze in a car was taken. We were dropped off at the Visitor Center, where we boarded another shuttle seconds later that would take us to the trailhead. The shuttle lines are color coded, so it’s easy to figure out which shuttle goes where. I was so glad we decided not to drive into the park! We hopped off the second shuttle and were ready to start hiking.
One National Park Service video we watched said that something like only 5% of Grand Canyon National Park visitors ever descend below the rim. Having seen the mobs at the park entrance, I suspected we’d still be sharing the trail with a lot of people. I was still shocked at just how many people were starting their hike on the Kaibab Trail that morning, though.
Before even seeing the canyon in person, I knew the photos I’d seen wouldn’t do it justice. When we arrived at the rim, I was definitely impressed by how wide the canyon was. What really took my breath away, though, was how deep it was! Standing on the rim was like looking out an airplane window. It just got deeper and deeper with each cliff and terrace, finally reaching what looked like a giant tear in the earth containing the Colorado River. We couldn’t see the river from our vantage point, leaving it up to imagination just how much further down the bottom was. It was beautiful and a little scary at the same time.
Before even heading down, people were off trail, running through the trees and along the rim trying to get photos and selfies. Seeing so many people next to the edge made me nervous. My family was surprised that I picked this hike with my fear of heights. My desire to hike this trail was greater than the fear, though, so down we went. The trail is fairly wide, but I always hugged the inside and kept my eyes on the trail. If a group of hikers was going to force me to the cliff side, I waited until they passed. It’s a little silly, but it worked.
The trail is steep and we descended fast. The further we hiked, the more extraordinary the view became. It’s a 360 degree view you won’t get from the rim above. It’s easy to see how people end up hiking too far down. It’s easy hiking and your mind is distracted. We passed a couple signs that reminded hikers what they were getting themselves into. One sign said, “Going down is optional. Going up is mandatory!”. Another sign had a graphic illustration of a man in the throes of severe heat stroke, with warnings in a few different languages. By now we were already seeing some people coming back up, and you could tell by the body language that some people had bitten off more than they could chew.
As we neared Cedar Ridge, a mule train approached us. It’s one thing to manage myself on this trail with so much exposure, but I couldn’t imagine riding high up on a pack animal with a perfect view of the drop offs! One kid on the back of a mule looked absolutely terrified, but he remained quiet and hung on tight. As steep as it was going to be climbing back out, I was more than content to be able to walk it.
It was a relief to make it to Cedar Ridge. There’s quite a bit of flat real estate there to walk around on and take a break from the steep trail. We relaxed, had lunch, and enjoyed the scenery. There are also composting toilets here. (Hold your breath.)
After a nice break, we began our trek back up the trail. With the canyon bottom behind me, I had an easier time relaxing. I think the workout of the steep climb was also distracting. Floods of people were still coming down, so I pulled over often. We also had to walk through trail construction. They must’ve had a hard time getting any work done, having to stop every few seconds to let people pass!
We took our time going back up, and it wasn’t too bad in the cooler weather. I can imagine it would be really tough in the heat of summer! Halfway up, we heard a commotion up the trail. Looking up, a teenager wearing a Mexican style poncho and cowboy boots was running down the trail. I was certain he was going to kill himself and take out other people with him. Thirty seconds behind him was another kid running with a gallon jug of water in one hand. I have no idea what those two were up to, and I wondered if they would be part of the day’s “statistics”.
We finally made it to the switchbacks, the last climb back up to the rim. It really is a marvel that people were able to build such a nice trail over this treacherous terrain. I felt great relief to make it to flat ground again, but was also proud for pushing myself to actually hike the cliff-side trail. What a thrill!
Instead of hopping back on the shuttle, we decided to do a relaxing hike along the rim trail back to the Visitors Center. It was an easy stroll in comparison to the Kaibab Trail, but still offered plenty of views. We even got to look back down on the South Kaibab Trail to see where we had gone. We also encountered several elk along the way, which was a pleasant surprise. They were definitely used to all the visitors.
We investigated the Visitors Center a bit, but there were lines of people everywhere to do anything. Not really needing anything in particular we went back outside. It was getting near dinner time. We had the option of taking another shuttle to catch some more viewpoints, or begin the journey back to Williams. Having already had a great day, we opted to get back for an early dinner before the crowds hit. The shuttle back to Tusayan was still packed, and I had to stand. There was still a line of traffic to get into the park as we passed.
We had originally planned to spend two days at the Grand Canyon, but we were ready for a little solitude and planned to move on to Utah. There are a lot of logistics involved in getting to the rim, and we couldn’t imagine going through it all again the next day. With such a great day spent in the park, we were pretty content with what we had done and seen. I definitely want to go back again sometime, since we saw so very little of this huge and awesome place. When we do, though, it may be to a lesser used area or a slower time of year.