Grand Canyon Hike – 2020

So this isn’t a race report since it wasn’t a race but I thought our hiking experience might be helpful to some who have thought about hiking the Grand Canyon with kids. I’ve wanted to do a rim to rim to rim (R2R2R) run for a few years. Maybe someday it will happen but I’m not going to go all the way to Arizona just to run it by myself. Instead, towards the end of summer 2020 when I was getting tired of everything being cancelled, I decided I would plan a trip for the family to hike down to the river and back. I had never looked into the details of it before then and there is a fair amount of information to learn.

My wife and I decided to keep the details of the trip secret from the kids. We generally try to not have them see pictures of where they’re going beforehand. I love laying eyes on something spectacular that I’ve never seen a picture of before, it’s so much more special than just seeing it and thinking “yep that’s what I thought it’d look like”. They had been to Las Vegas once before and had surely seen a picture of the Grand Canyon at some point so we told them nothing about this trip at all. They pretty much forgot when we were even leaving the week before we left.

The plan was to stay in Vegas for a day and see all the free indoor and outdoor stuff there is to see there. Then drive to the Grand Canyon and look around that afternoon at the canyon from the rim. That’s when we’d tell them we were hiking to the bottom and back up the next day. And that’s what we did. The end.

Sometimes I wish I could just write a race report that short but of course I just can’t.

So the first question I had in regards to planning the hike was how hard was it. I joined a couple Facebook groups specific to the Grand Canyon and hiking in it. The most commonly recommended hike to the river and back is kind of a loop. You start on the South Kaibab trail at 7260ft elevation and go down 4860ft over about 6.3 miles to the river and cross on the Black Bridge. Then you go on the River Trail for 1.7 miles crossing back over on the Silver Bridge. This trail is pretty much flat but a couple ups and downs. Then you go up 4460ft over 7.8 miles on the Bright Angel Trail back up to the rim. So all together it’s 16miles and about 5000ft of vertical gain if you include going off trail to put your feet in the water (why else go all the way down to the river really?) and the couple additional small ups you have to do. We ended up doing 17 miles with the out and backs to the bathrooms, hanging around the river and having to backtrack a little due to mules. Most years there are shuttles that bring you around the park but with Covid-19, they shut down several of the shuttles so I had to run from South Kaibab back to our car at the visitor center which added a little over 2 more miles.

The reason for this route is that there is no water on South Kaibab so going up that trail means you have to carry all of your water from the river. Bright Angel has 3 water stops along the way. Also watching the sun come up is much prettier on South Kaibab since the trail is basically on a ridge the whole way down. Bright Angel is in a canyon so there is some shade from the afternoon heat as well.

The other thing you really need to think about in regards to difficulty is the weather. It’s no accident that most people do their R2R2R in October. There still isn’t snow on the rim and it’s not crazy hot in the valley. It still gets to 90 degrees in the valley though so you need to be prepared for that. If you do this in the summer then you will really need to change your approach and think of doing a night hike or multi-day hike to avoid the heat.

So this hike wouldn’t be a challenge for me at all. Compared to the races I do, it’s easy. My wife has hiked that far and elevation in the past so she wasn’t worried about it either. The kids? Hmmm. I knew my 8 year old son could handle it as he’s done 12 hour races and gone much further. My 10 year old daughter might be a problem though. Unlike my son, she doesn’t like to do physical activities, and she can be kinda whiny. I didn’t want to listen to “how much longer” and “my legs hurt” all day! I’ll also add that my kids are well aware of the amazing things our bodies can do. They’ve been to some of my races and aren’t fazed by someone running 100 miles. I think that could be important in your decision to bring your kids or not. Do they think a 5k is a really long way to go? A marathon? If they think 17 miles is an impossible distance then you need to change that mindset before starting in my opinion. The mental aspect of this is just as important as the physical.

I sought advice from the Facebook groups and a running friend who had just done the same route with her kids. Most were doubtful the kids could do it. I wondered if we’d have to settle for an easier hike. The problem is that the easier hikes where you don’t go all the way down aren’t really shorter in distance and I didn’t really want to just go down a thousand feet and then turn around. I also saw pictures of young kids hiking the canyon from the 80’s and started to get the feeling that current parents may be just too worried.

In the end my choice was kind of made for me by my daughter’s behavior all summer. Not that she was naughty, but that she was WAAAYYY too inactive for all of June and July at daycare. Plus with almost all activities cancelled, she had become a coach potato and that’s just not healthy for a growing kid. So I told her she had to start getting into shape by running/walking the same 1.7 mile loop everyday. Secretly, I was doing it to prepare her for what was in store 7 weeks later. After a week my son wanted to run it too, I think more as a competition with his sister. I also made them do some physical therapy exercises to help strengthen their cores. They had to stand on 1 leg with their eyes closed for a minute and then hold their legs up from the floor in increasing amounts of time each day. Those are poor descriptions but basically the things I had to do when I started running to improve my form.

So how did the training go? Ugh. About as good as you would expect from a 10 year old couch potato. Don’t get me wrong, no one likes running when they first start. It sucks plain and simple. Lucky for her, I’ve been through this and trained other people how to run as well. Right in the beginning I told her that it would really suck the first week, then it would still suck but you’d be able to run further at a time and not be sore, then after a month you’d finally feel like you weren’t gasping for air all the time, then you’d get faster. Over the 7 weeks we went from taking 24 minutes to do the loop to 20 minutes. More importantly there was no more complaining by the end of the seven weeks. Okay, I did have to impose a strict monetary penalty for complaining after week 5. It may seem cruel, but after $2 in collected fees, my daughter no longer made her complaints audible.

I made it as fun as I could. I’d make up silly songs along the way and tell them stories. The song “3 Martis Wide” has been in our rotation anytime we’re walking together ever since. I’d change it up a little as far as when we could walk and when we had to run. Some days we just did hill repeats instead of running. They even got a few days off when I ran around the county.

They kept asking where we were going. I didn’t tell them. After a couple weeks, I told them that people had died doing what we were going to do in order to drive home that this wasn’t going to be a cake walk. I didn’t tell them that they died in the summer and were doing dumb things at the time. I told them to expect it to take 12 hours (even though I was hoping for 9). They eventually figured out that we were hiking somewhere since we were running and going up hills. They kept thinking we were climbing a mountain and I kept telling them they were wrong. It’s an inverted mountain really, and that’s what Kaibab means. They even figured out we were going to Arizona but still didn’t know it was the Grand Canyon. Even with all the complaining, it was a very enjoyable and memorable time for me.

There were a couple pretty awesome things I saw in my daughter during this 7 weeks. For one, I knew she was listening because I overheard her telling a friend about the progression of training to run I had told her in the beginning. She was teaching and encouraging her friend because she now had the experiential knowledge of what it was like. Another was that there was occasionally a spark in her eye when her brother raced ahead of her. She had a fighting spirit in there somewhere. In reality, she could be an awesome ultrarunner if she chooses to. Other than her currently weak hips, her natural running form is perfect and she just cruises along at the same consistent pace.

So, I put that all of that in here for any parents wondering what my kids backgrounds were prior to the hike. What did my wife do to train? Well, not much. She does do Krav Maga and Jujitsu but those aren’t anything like hiking. I kept telling her she should probably do some running to get her lungs in shape. Yes that’s what I call that first month of running where you can’t seem to get enough air. I don’t know what else to call it so I call it getting your lungs in shape.

So the time for the trip finally arrives. The kids weren’t missing much school because of MEA week. The kids figured out we were going to Las Vegas once we got to the airport. They were excited because they really like the Bellagio Fountain.

We flew Spirit Airlines.

That will never happen again.

Ever.

Anyways, all the shows were still closed in Vegas so all there was to do was walk around and look at things. The next day we drove to the Grand Canyon. The Hoover Dam was closed so the kids didn’t get to see that.

The Red and Orange shuttle routes are the only ones that were going. They were half capacity and you had to wear a mask and not eat, etc. The park itself was pretty full of people. I’m sure it’s way busier in a normal year but it certainly wasn’t sparse either. We went all the way to Hermit’s Rest and pretty much got off at all the stops along the way. The weather was great. There were no clouds at all and there wasn’t any smoke from the fires in California (that was a worry).

This is when we told the kids that we’d be hiking to the river and back up tomorrow. They didn’t think it looked that bad. I of course knew better but I wasn’t going to tell them that. I had trained them as well as I could. I told them that it would be a long day but that I knew they could do it. We weren’t going to make the kids carry anything on the hike which would make it much easier on them. We also did a day of training before we left with hiking poles to see if they liked them. They thought they helped so we rented some for them in Vegas as we only had 1 set that we could fit in our suitcase.

We decided against staying for the sunset and went out of the park to get some food and a good night’s sleep. We’d be getting up early and starting our hike in the dark.

I’ll just add here that we all wore trail running shoes. Once I started running in them for races, I realized that hiking boots were inferior for many reasons. They are way heavier and have less traction since they don’t conform around the things you step on. The outsole is too stiff. They hold in too much heat and water as well. They may last longer but that’s it. If you’re starting from scratch in the footwear department, I’d recommend trail shoes over hiking boots.

Otherwise we wore wool socks, gaiters to keep the dirt out of our shoes, hiking pants that convert to shorts, and tech shirts. We brought light jackets, insulated hats and baseball hats, gloves, first aid kit, medications, stuff for blisters, and emergency blankets in case we ended up needing to spend the night for some reason. Don’t be an idiot, plan for things to go wrong. I brought extra socks and underwear for us all. I always bring toilet paper as well. I brought some anti-chaffing lube in case anyone had issues with that. It sounds like a lot, but all that stuff doesn’t weigh much at all.

The night before I packed our backpacks with as much as I could so that there wouldn’t be much to do the next morning. I brought snacks, hard candy (it won’t melt), sandwiches, and sugar caffeine pop for the kids to have at the river so they’d have more energy on the way up. You don’t need as much food as you think you do. The only reason I brought more than I knew we’d eat was because I wanted some left in case we spent the night.

The plan was to get on the Orange shuttle at 5AM from the Visitor Center to the South Kaibab trailhead. If we couldn’t take the shuttle, it would require an extra 2 miles to walk to the trailhead. That meant we had to get up much earlier to get ready, eat, drive there, and get in line for the shuttle. They were listed as only coming every 30 minutes so we didn’t want to miss it. I’m glad we had scoped out the parking lot the day before as there are basically no lights in the park. It’s an official dark sky park which is nice for seeing stars but really hard to tell where you are. We knew just where to go to be parked right next to the shuttle pick up spot.

Just before we got there a group of 5 women got in line all bundled up in blankets. I did some counting of those ahead of us and realized we likely wouldn’t be allowed on due to the Covid limits. 10 minutes later the bus arrived and a couple of the women stayed behind so we could go. We were so thankful. The driver said another bus would be along in 5-10 minutes as they were going more often than what was listed. That made me feel better. After a short 8 minute drive we were at the trailhead. We used the bathroom once more and started down the trail with our headlamps lighting the way at 5:17AM on October 17th.

Ready to go!

While it was around 50 degrees at the top, there was absolutely zero wind. I just couldn’t get over how still the air was. How could nothing be moving up or down the slopes of a giant canyon? The stars were amazing. It got warmer quickly as we hiked downhill at a pretty good pace. I removed my coat and buff within about 10 minutes, as did the others. The trail had a very fine powder that just hung in the air from the people hiking in front of us. It was fun to see the headlamps in a line down below and up above us.

I just love the visual. It’s basically just warning of heat stroke and that you’re an idiot for hiking to the river and back in one day.

Sunrise would be around 6:30 but it gets light much sooner. We got to Ooh Aah point pretty quickly. It was still dark so we decided to continue on to Cedar Ridge (1.5miles) to watch the sunrise. We got there 40 minutes after we started hiking. We stayed to watch things getting lighter and lighter and it was amazing. It’s just so much different to look at the canyon while being in the canyon. From the rim it almost just seems like a painting or something. Once you’re down 1000ft into it, you can really appreciate the scale of everything. If you really don’t want to do a hard hike, at least go down 1000ft into it.

Panorama of Cedar Ridge.

We stayed here for 10 minutes taking it in. We adjusted clothing into shorts and had a snack. There is also a bathroom here. The next section to Skeleton Point was just awesome watching the sun come over the rim and filling the valley. By this point my son was leading the way, running as it wasn’t very technical. I stayed back with my daughter to keep tabs on her and take pictures.

At 3 miles in we reached Skeleton Point. It had taken 90 minutes but of course we were stopping a lot. It was now time to assess how things were going as we had gone down 2000ft. Everyone was doing good. The next section is a bunch of switchbacks down to the Tonto Plateau and then on to the Tip Off (4.4 miles) where the trail crosses the Tonto trail. This is where it gets harder. The trail has a lot more smooth rocks than powder and it’s steeper. Constantly going down is almost like doing a wall sit. Your quads never get a break. Running down would’ve been much easier than hiking but I had a hiking pack and I wasn’t going to just leave my family in the dust.

My daughter had her first fall here. Honestly I was surprised it took so long. Although she has been improving greatly the last couple years, she falls a lot during downhills. When she was young, she would occasionally just fall over while standing. She got scuffed a little but since we were on a steep part, I told her we’d have to get to a flatter part to deal with it. I got her poles out and she started using them. We were really close to the Tip Off so we went to the shelter there and got her knee cleaned off and put on a bandaid.

She was slightly favoring that leg and I told her it was really important to try to use her leg normally or else she would mess up some muscles in her other leg from walking different. Her leg was shaking a little from the constant downhill tiring her out. We took a 15 minute break to let our muscles relax and eat and drink. This was the last chance to turn back. There is about 1500ft more to go down to the river. Everyone was on board with continuing. There is a bathroom here as well.

We could see the river now as we kept on going down. The beginning is kind of nice. The trail followed the curve of the cliff and the path was dirt again. We saw a group of about 8 women coming up from the river. It was pretty clear to me they were doing a R2R2R starting from the North just based on the time of day and the speed they were going. I made sure to tell my daughter what they were doing and to see how much fun they were having doing it together.

That line is the Black Bridge.

The trail then goes into a bunch of switchbacks again all the way down to the river. It was exciting to see the river getting closer and closer. I think my son wanted to just run the rest of the way down. I kinda wished we could’ve stayed together more but I stayed in the back with my daughter who was taking her time.

She fell again when we were only a short distance from the river. This time it was the other leg and some blood. There wasn’t any point in doing anything with it until we got to the river. Now she limped on that leg. I got her to laugh a little when I said at least her other leg didn’t hurt anymore. I told her how excited her uncle would be to know that she got bloody doing something like this. It always worked on me when he told me it was cool to get bloody and that I was a tough guy. Usually he was partially to blame for whatever injury it was, so I suppose he was partially looking out for himself somewhat as well. Either way it worked on my daughter as well.

It does look pretty badass.

This section from the Tip Off to the river is also when I realized how much my daughter had grown the last 2 months. While going downhill her legs started doing that shaking thing again. It was from fatigue but she didn’t know that and I wasn’t going to tell her. She started telling her legs to “knock it off”. She went from whining about running 2 months ago to taking control of her body. Not only was she not complaining, but she was realizing that she could will her body to do what she wanted. I don’t know if my training had anything to do with that but either way I was happy to see it. That will be something she can draw from for the rest of her life.

My son got shaky legs as well but didn’t mention it until later in the day when I heard him talking to her about it. So should you be worried if that happens? I suppose it depends how far down you are. If we had spent a bunch more time resting on the way down it likely would’ve never happened. You won’t have the same issue going up as it’s much slower so each leg has a chance to relax after every step. Plus you’ll stop more on the way up. Slightly different muscles as well. It’s just happens because of the constant muscle contraction on the way down for hours. I could tell my legs were getting tired of doing that. Even in mountain races it’s rare to have a steady downhill for more than 2000 vertical ft. 5000ft is a lot of downhill for one stretch!

I hadn’t told them about the tunnel at the bottom so that was a cool surprise for them. It is indeed pretty cool to go through a tunnel and then be on a bridge over the river.

Don’t know this guy but wanted a picture of the bridge and tunnel.

We got on the bridge at 8:30AM. 3 hours and 15 minutes after we left the top. We hung out on the bridge for a bit to take pictures and enjoy the view up and down the river. The sunlight was just about to get to the river.

We then went the short distance down to the river where rafts dock sometimes. There weren’t any there at the time. The river is a green color this time of year since the flow is low. It certainly looks nicer than brown would and it’s clear when the flow is low as well. I knew the water would be cold but wow, it almost felt like ice water. I cleaned off my daughters leg and kept putting the cold water on it to make it more numb.

We spent 20 minutes at the river. The kids probably would’ve spent all day there if the water wasn’t so cold. My wife was a party pooper and didn’t go in the water. The sun had now made it’s way to us and man did it start to warm up. I had brought a small towel so we could dry off our feet and keep sand off. We spent another 10 minutes eating and refilling water. The kids enjoyed their pop and my backpack was lighter.

Nice sandy beach. The sand was really cold too.
View of the Black Bridge from the beach.

We didn’t go to Phantom Ranch since we didn’t need food, the building wasn’t open due to Covid and it was extra distance we didn’t need to go. We finally left the area around 9:10AM. It was in the mid 80’s for temperature and I wanted to get out of the lower valley before it got much hotter.

The Silver Bridge is more bouncy and slightly narrower. When we were almost all the way across it, a group of people started towards us. If people will be off the bridge in 15 seconds, you should wait for them. Instead they came on and of course just walked down the middle. The fencing on the sides of the bridge is all bent and sharp pieces point in towards the bottom. My foot ended up catching it while trying to get around this group and tore open the top of my shoe. Luckily it was just my shoe and didn’t get my foot.

View of the Silver Bridge. The image is reversed.

The River Trail is fairly flat but does go up and down a bit. It’s a nice view of the river and area the whole time. It felt pretty hot though. I planned on going to the river one more time at the start of the Bright Angel trail to cool off before the long climb out. There is a bathroom there called the River Resthouse as well.

This view was so awesome in person. My wife and son way ahead as always.

I got my head and shirt wet and did the same to my son and daughter at the river. There were some rafts there that were going to pick people up to go down the river. We left the river at 10:10AM. The Bright Angel trail was shaded at the beginning and you follow a creek bed uphill. That was nice because you could get yourself wet from it fairly often if you wanted to. It would be over 3 miles to Indian Gardens.

Eventually we had to leave Pipe creek and go up a pretty steep cliff side with lots of switchbacks. The sun was fully on us now and everyone else was getting hot. We slowly made our way up the cliff and found a pool of muddy water. I took my shirt off to soak it in the water. I stunk anyway so putting some stinky water on my shirt wasn’t going to hurt. Everyone else followed suit. It was in the shade here so we cooled off and had some snacks and water. Soon after we started off again, we met the mule train and had to go back to the wider area we just left so they could pass us.

Once we got up the cliff, we started going up the Garden Creek valley. Eventually we got to the Tonto trail intersection so I knew Indian Gardens Campground would be close. We got there around Noon. It was hot. We used the bathrooms and hosed ourselves down to cool off. We refilled our water as well. I could see one of the pump stations here. The water is piped up to the South Rim through a pipe that follows this trail. It actually comes from a spring on the North side of the river and crosses on the Silver Bridge. We stayed here for 10 minutes before continuing on.

The kids didn’t really get bored or anything on the hike. I was somewhat worried about that. It was clear from our training that if I got them talking about something during the run, they lost track of time and were always surprised when we were done. I had prepared a bunch of questions that I wrote down as conversation starters if things got quiet. I think I only used 2 of them and it was more because I wanted to know the answers. Of course I’ve lost the sheet so I can’t tell you what they were. You’ll just have to come up with your own. There is so much to look at in the canyon that it’s hard to get bored. The kids looked down most of the time so they wouldn’t fall but I made them look around often.

So the climb up Bright Angel isn’t all that steep for the most part. It’s not as steep as South Kaibab. It’s pretty easy to power hike it fast if you’d want to. You can even run it all if not during the heat of the day. The problem is that it gets steeper as you go. My son and my wife didn’t even use their poles since they just got in the way more than they helped them. The last couple miles is steeper and of course you’re more tired then. The next stop was 3 mile Resthouse in 1.7 miles.

We got there at 1:10PM and stopped here for 10 minutes as well. The bathrooms are off the trail and uphill so that wasn’t all that fun to get to. We got wet again and refilled water for the last time. It was still hot but you could see that the trail was in the shade up ahead.

The kids were fine other than being hot. There legs were just fine. They said their feet hurt a little but that’s to be expected after hiking that far. My wife was having issues though. Remember how she didn’t do any training? That was biting her in the butt now. We had to start taking breaks pretty regularly. People were passing us quite a bit now. There were a few other people that we leapfrogged with all the way to the top. There was a dad with 2 teens that was having problems too.

Looking back down at Indian Gardens

As far as kids go, we saw probably 20 teens and I think 2 other kids our kids’ age. One baby but he was being carried obviously. None of them were having issues.

We finally got in the shade and that helped as far as temperature goes. There was even a little breeze for the first time all day. We weren’t sweating near as much anymore and didn’t even need to fill up with water once we got to 1.5 mile Resthouse. We got there at around 2:30PM. We didn’t really stop here since we didn’t need anything and had been taking breaks all along anyway.

The kids were enjoying themselves. Only 1.5 miles to go!
Gives some scale.

Now it was just another 1.6 miles to the top. It’s just never ending switchbacks it seems. You could see people on the rim looking down at you. They looked so close and yet so far away. Basically between each of these stops is 1000ft vertical gain. My son started to lean against my wife to help push her up the trail. It helped quit a bit and he got a lot of compliments for being such a good son.

My wife was pretty disgusted with what was happening to her. It wasn’t hot anymore and the elevation isn’t where she normally has altitude issues. She was almost crying once but she knew there wasn’t an option other than to keep going up nice and slow. We had plenty of time. In fact we were still making pretty good time other than this last section. There are a couple short tunnels in this section. Just before the top there is one. We stopped there even though the top was 300 feet away. After a while, the kids just took off racing to the top. I think they pretty much tied but I’m sure that will be up for debate for years.

The last rest break.

Finally we reached the top! It was 3:40PM. It took us 5 and a half hours to get up Bright Angel. It could easily have been 30 minutes less. Overall it took us under 10 and a half hours. I was expecting 9 and a half but was glad it wasn’t over 12 hours at least. We took some pictures and then walked to the bathrooms nearby and got washed off some. That dirt goes everywhere!

Done!

I left my backpack with the family and ran back to the car. They were going to walk down to a road that was easier to get to. My son carried my pack and said he was very thankful he didn’t have to have one the whole day. Of course it was much lighter now than it had been all day. I should’ve made him wear it at the beginning.

We again chose to not watch the sunset as it would be hours until then. We went back to the hotel and it was funny watching the kids walk like I do after a 100 mile race. Within hours though they were pretty normal. I asked them if it was worth it. Both said it was. I asked if they would do it again. My son is pretty much up for anything if I’m with him. My daughter said she would want to do it again with her daughter if she has one. We ate well and the kids were asleep about 30 seconds after saying goodnight.

The next morning we drove back to Vegas to enjoy the swimming pool. That night we walked around some more, played games, and watched the fountains again. The kids didn’t even complain about having tired legs.

The end. For real this time.

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