Last week I traveled to the Grand Canyon to conquer the Bright Angel Trail, but the Bright Angel had other ideas. My plan was to run the trail to Plateau Point, a twelve-mile out and back (actually, up and down.) The National Park Service estimates it is a nine-hour hike. I figured I could cut that time in half by running. As the saying goes, “Man plans, and God laughs.”
I had run more trail runs than I can remember and completed the Penn Relays Distance Classic 20K a few weeks before I went to the canyon. I had trained and was confident. There was no conceivable reason to think the twelve-mile trek was unachievable. Enter reality.
The elevation of my native Philadelphia is 39 feet. The elevations where I do many trial runs in Berks County, Pennsylvania are roughly 800 feet above sea level along mountain trails and through forest. The average elevation of the South Rim is 7,000 feet above sea level. Plateau Point is 3,110 feet below the rim.
The description of the trail in the Bright Angel Trail Guide is so interesting—the history, ecology, geology, animals, flora, distances and terrain—that I overlooked a tiny note on the back cover:
“Hiking the Grand Canyon can be dangerous—even for experienced hikers in top physical condition. Temperatures can be extreme, water is scarce, and the terrain is often steep and unstable. The canyon environment is remote, harsh, and unforgiving. Please use the utmost caution in planning and while spending time in the canyon. You are responsible for your own safety and well-being.”
I was okay with ninety percent of the note, but had a difference of opinion with , “terrain is often steep and unstable.”
I would have descended that trail without a second thought back in the days I worked atop ships’ masts or walked the fourteenth floor window ledge of an office building on Broad Street in Philadelphia, but when I hit the first switchback and looked out from the four-foot wide trail into the abyss I decided on Plan B: The Rim Trail.
The Rim Trail is a 15.6-mile trek on the perimeter of the South Rim from Grand Canyon Village to Hermits Rest. The Rim Trail has some equally hairy portions on the edge of thousand-foot cliffs, but most of the trail is safe and some areas are wide and secure. The last 1.1 mile is a paved bike trail.
The views from 7,000 feet are a breathtaking. There is seemingly no end to the spectacular scenery. I had a camera in my backpack and had to stop every hundred feet or so to capture another stunning shot, and then I’d just stare with my mouth wide open at ridges of monuments jutting up from the depths that look like tiny ruffles of bronze icing on a birthday cake for as far as the eye can see.
The Bright Angel and Rim Trail are home to a different breed of runner. Trails that carve through mountains and hug cliffs that drop hundreds of feet are home to hardcore trail runners. These runners crave to be on these trails, long to sweat on these trails and yearn to hear their breath pant in and out of their lungs on these trails.
When I got home I told friends that the “Grand” in Grand Canyon is an understatement; that words cannot accurately describe the miracle located in northern Arizona. The Grand Canyon is a feeling, an emotion, a sensation. I know I’ll be back, maybe for my sixtieth birthday. And when I do return, I’ll be prepared for the Bright Angel Trail.