The Arizona Shuttle leaves Flagstaff Amtrak station at 7.45, takes an hour and a half or so and picks up again at 3.15. There is a later, 6.30, shuttle, but not when I booked. Still, that left me with over 5.5 hours to do some hiking and maybe have a run.
In what I now think of as Arizona style, I got talking to someone within seconds of arriving at the station. Not Samson, my young train and hostel buddy, though he was there, but Susan. She’s well enough travelled to pick me as a Brit, rather than Australian, and was full of the joys of the canyon. Possibly even over excited, but the prospect of a week’s self-sufficient hiking with partner and four others, where she and partner Paul were the experienced ones, will do that to you. Two of their group sat at the front but after some musical chairs, I was sat next to the rest of them; behind Paul and Susan, next to Rachel and Joe. They were canyon first timers-like me, but never mind 5 hours, they were carrying food and water and will see civilisation in a week. The journey passed in a blink as we talked and shared experiences and I was left with a head full of hike possibilities. I’d already abandoned the vague plan I’d had in NZ, that I’d run the rim trail-I thought that went round some part of the canyon in a loop, but it just heads along (some of) the Southern edge, and it’s the path those not really committed to the canyon take. I could take the shuttle west and try the Hermit trail, east and try the steep ‘best way in, worst way out’ South Kaibab trail or stay near where we were dropped and take the most popular route, the Bright Angel. Fear of heights put me off the two steep-pathed outliers, and I went for the Angel, figuring 2-4 hours round trip to the 1.5mile rest house (or guesthouse, as my head kept making it) might fill much of my time.
This is a well blazed trail. It was built by mining pioneers in 1891 and was (tenuously) privately owned by Ralph Cameron for 25 years. He managed to gain control from 1903, thanks to him gaining some ‘strategically placed’ mining concessions, and he charged $1 for access, about $20 in today’s money. The park entry fee is now $6, though there’s a $25 vehicle fee, too. It sounds as though Cameron had to fight to keep his claim, and it was only in 1928 that it became government owned. I like to imagine a relative out there somewhere, polishing his guns, berating the gubbernmint for stealin his famly canyon.
A quick walk from the drop off point and the canyon got me at first sight. Pow, right in the kisser. Staggering, the sense of scale just from the first viewpoint is something else. More than enough to give me the willies. There are plenty of signs warning you. First off, do not try to get to the river and back in a day. Many hikers have tried and failed (though you might say, implicit in that is that some have succeeded). I would definitely not have the time, but the signs were effective, and placed right at the start for maximum power: fancying myself fitter than average, trying to get in and out is just the sort of thing I might try, an early warning for people like me is a good idea. It’s backed up by the next, which is that hiking the canyon is unusual, in that you go all the way down to start, then have to come back up when already tired. Well, yes. That is, assuming you’re in the 1%25 (apparently) who go beyond the rim. Plenty of people on those shuttle buses.
I set off. The start of the Bright Angel trail is the worst bit for the vertigo-belaboured. I paused to take in the view, and was overwhelmed by the size of the vista. I looked instead at the path, and could see the drop off to one side, with the trail winding below. I looked ahead, and there were people coming towards me. The path is over a metre wide in places but still, to start with the right hand side is the outside, and they stick to the right here, so I was moving slowly, conscious of the fall.
A sign at the top warns this is an icy trail, crampons recommended. This is not a portable sign, put out when conditions warrant. Today was a beautiful day; I struggle to imagine a better one is possible. It was sunny, though much of the trail I was on is in shade, the air temperature was cold but wearing anything from shorts and t-shirt to trousers and layers worked. If this was Korea, the array of neon patchwork outfits would have been something, but there were a few neon ensembles to shine a beacon from lower parts of the trail. Lower parts, beyond the 1.5 mile rest house, were exposed to the sun and warm on the way up, but they’d be brutal in summer. Indeed, a later warning sign suggests not walking up between 10 and 4. Difficult, though I think the instruction more Americans would struggle with is that to ‘eat twice what you would normally’. Well strewth, brother, that’s a lodda food.
Conditions, then, were ideal. I still took some of those hairpin bends very slowly-geriatrically slow, in fact, because once I’ve come to a stop and started to think about slipping, I find it hard to get moving again. After a mile or so I got into it. 20 minutes in, I was level with the lowest of the sand coloured stone, wondering at having come so far down so quickly. Another 25 minutes in and and I was the 1.5 mile guesthouse-a hut and some eco restrooms. Clearly this was not going to be a four hour jaunt, but I was conscious of the time needed to get back up and decided that the 3 mile guesthouse would be a good turning point-there or 11.30, whichever came first.
By now I was somewhat used to the gaping chasm away to my left or right and well into my stride, passing other hikers and enjoying the stream of “hello”s coming past, though that did diminish with lesser traffic as I got lower. The path this far down is shallower and often wider thang that further up, which I enjoyed. Every time I paused I was moved to take a photo, though I think I ended up with several of the same view, but from 50m lower. I hit the guesthouse-again, a stone hut and eco toilets, 1/5, no staff in sight, recommend Travelodge for overnight stays-at 11.15, paused for lunch and was on my way back up by the 11.30 target, allowing me plenty of time. A squirrel joined me for lunch, but signs warning passers by not to feed them have had enough effect that they aren’t totally tame. Another warning sign just before the rest house had pointed out that ‘down is optional, up is mandatory’, which I liked.
The funny thing about being fairly fit but completely useless with heights is that I’m surprisingly hopeless at going downwards but fairly gallop up. So it proved, I was back at the 1.5 mile stop in 25 minutes, paused for photos, to gawp at some deer who wandered across the path and straight up the side of the canyon, making it look phenomenally easy, and to let people through and was still back at the top by 12.30.
I debated riding the red route shuttle out west to Hermit’s rest, which is an 80 minute round trip. That would take up a big chunk of time, maybe I could even stop at a couple of places and see the canyon properly from different viewpoints. But I’d always had an ambitious plan in mind, and now it might just work. Ride the shuttle out to the hermit (there is no hermit), change, stuff clothes in bag, run back.
10 minute miles were all I needed, even at this altitude – 7000 ft – that should be fine. Cue reality show style updates, attempting to insert some peril. “John needed to run 10 minute miles, but now he’s faced with a hill, and an overwhelming desire to stop and take one more photo of the Colorado river, running brownly down below. Can he possibly make it?”
I’d have you shouting at the screen, I would. “Move! You fool, you are running out of time – can you not here the soundtrack of imminent trouble?”. What a different atmosphere on the bus. Many people use it to get to the start of a walk, many others are taking children too big to carry and too small to walk, but some are just there to chat, and the bus driver started her spiel a couple of times before one couple stopped the history of their lives-“I’m originally from the Seattle area”-before she could get going. Even then she had to talk over the restarted history. Lovely that people want to talk, but maybe spend all your time looking at the scenery not the inside of a bus? It did occur to me that maybe I’d heard so many people in mid flow talking about their origins because they’ve moved so far, and so I shouldn’t scoff – if Europeans (and particularly Brits) moved so far so routinely for work, we’d be better for it.
Mission run back to the start, then. Easy, obviously. The trail dips and rises, starts and ends in paved sections but with a lovely twisty gravelly section in the middle. By now I could run past the more exposed bits without my glances to the side making my guts tumble and feet shiver, and I had plenty of photo stops. Image-wise those stops were probably not the best, they’d have looked a bit like I was ticking the box of those viewpoints without really contemplating them but never mind, a decent run. Yomping down the last, blissfully downhill, half mile there were plaques on the ground every ten metres, each marking 10 years change in geology, which was an unusual sense of progression-4320 million years ago. 4310 million years ago… I rounded the run off to 8 miles by waving at Samson, bathing lizard-like with our driver, in the sun by the shuttle, and running past, and was done by 3.00.
I had a huge feeling of achievement from my two-exercise day, yet also know that I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s possible. For day hikes, there are those other two start points. There’s the visitors’ centre, geology exhibits, two other bus routes with viewpoints (shuttle buses are free once you’re in and run every 10-15 minutes in the peak of the day), more of the rim trail, and that’s before you get into hiking into and staying in the canyon. Something for everyone, smiling faces all round (if fewer when going uphill), great views, wildlife to spot and a sense of enormity. America at its best.