Hiking the Grand Canyon, Part Five: Should We Use a Map?

A year and a half ago, my brother called me and said, “Let’s hike down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon!” The time had finally arrived. What follows is the second day, part two.

After our cantina time, it was off on our morning/afternoon adventure along the North Kaibab Trail. We filled our water bottles, used the bathroom, and headed out with the morning sun at our back. It was still early enough that the deeper parts of the canyon were in full shadow. The cottonwoods and plant stalks along the water playfully engaged with the light breeze, casting their own morning shadows, while the sound of the creek cascading over rock offered its own element to the environment.

Looking back towards Phantom Ranch

To be sure it was a beautiful morning, the day not yet hot. The North Kaibab Trail runs alongside the Bright Angel Creek. If followed to its terminus, you would arrive at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, but that would be much too far for anything Aaron and I were planning on. In fact, planning was the problem.

We didn’t really plan much for this second day. My brother did do some asking around about places to hike nearby, if not for just a few hours. Truth was, we didn’t want to burn too much energy, and our legs were a bit sore, particularly my calves. We were told names such as “The Box” and “Ribbon Falls” were worthy day hikes. Also, just off the North Kaibab Trail was a smaller trail that would provide a nice overlook of Phantom Ranch. It was with these names in our heads that we struck out on our day. It’s not like there were many places to go, to be honest.You stick to the trails, and the North Kaibab was the one heading in the direction we wouldn’t be going the following day.

The North Kaibab Trail

I don’t want to give the impression that we were being flippant about our planning. There are really two ways to go about hiking: Plan out meticulously what you’re going to do or let the joy of serendipity plan the day for you. There are pros and cons to both, but for the most part, we chose serendipity. If you ever make such a choice, just make sure you at least have a map with you. Serendipity can lead you to inspiring and unexpected discoveries. It can also lead you to being entirely lost.

Bright Angel Creek

About 45 minutes in, we came upon the trail that led to the overlook. Without really knowing where we were going, we chose to follow the spur which quickly led to rising switchbacks. We weren’t terribly enthusiastic about the climbing, since we would be spending most of tomorrow doing the same.

It’s so easy in a place like the Grand Canyon to focus on the grand vistas and massive landscapes and forget to notice the little things, so as my brother outpaced me on the climb, I stopped to notice the little things; the way the cresting sun illuminated the fringe of a cactus, the smaller, purple colored prickly pear panels, the vibrant lichen finding its place, co-existing with the rock.

Morning Sun


Sun-fringed prickly pear
Purple cacti

After we reached what we assumed was halfway up the trail to the overlook, we stopped for a considerable amount of time and took in the beauty of nature before us. It was really, for me, the most perfect moment of the hike. Before us was layer after layer of morning lit promontories covered in western scrub and cacti. There was a breeze so cool yet in perfect harmony with the morning sun so that the warmth was comforting but the breeze welcome, just so much that it might move your hair. I could have sat there for an hour or two, so strikingly beautiful was the landscape, so ideal the moment, one of perfect peace.


The spell was eventually broken and we began hiking back down, gambling that missing the overlook to Phantom Ranch was worth the energy we were saving, and back to the North Kaibab Trail, which was much more level.

We made good time along the North Kaibab. The Bright Angel Creek was a constant and welcome companion, always to our left or right with canyon wall opposite and us in between. We didn’t really know where we were going, except following the trail. Not that there was anywhere to go other than the trail. The creek snaked along, curving its way through the canyon, carved out over millions of years.

My brother crossing Bright Angel Creek on the North Kaibab Trail

Eventually we reached a point around 4:30 when we decided to turn around and head back to the ranch based on our fatigue level. We spent the remainder of the afternoon in the shade of Phantom Ranch and just rested, mostly sitting on the bench just outside our cabin, looking over maps and talking about the next day. We planned to head out immediately after breakfast, not knowing how long the shorter, but much more challenging trail, would take us to climb.

Bright Angel Creek

The stew dinner was exactly what we needed, and afterwards during cantina time, Aaron had another helping of lemonade and I, another hot chocolate. We met some really interesting people during cantina from all over the continent. The most fascinating was a guy who had hiked the entire Pacific Coast Trail and was currently on the Continental Divide Trail.
After the cantina, sleep was not hard to come by. With the requisite strange dreams that come with a strange bed, the next day held the inevitability of climbing the arduous South Kaibab Trail.

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