Hiking Down the Grand Canyon: A Family’s Journey

The Canyon Defies Imagination. Our 9-year Old Thought it was Two Steep Rocks that We Would Climb Down. Our 7-year Old Pictured a Humongus Hole in the Ground but Couldn’t Imagine Not Being Able to See the Other Side of It

I wanted to mark my 40th birthday in a unique way. Nostalgic for my youthful penchant for trekking in exotic places, I decided an overnight hike is what I needed to defy age. The hitch: I now had two kids, aged 9 and 7, and any exotic trek would have to include them. My husband and I settled on hiking down the Grand Canyon and spending the night at Phantom Ranch, the only lodging facility below the rim. It would be a 16-mile round trip and a descent of over 4,500 feet but we were confident our kids could handle it.

The second hitch: my birthday falls in the middle of January. We flew from New York to Phoenix and drove north. At the entrance gate to the canyon park, the kids piped up and told the toll keeper that we planned to hike down the Canyon. He looked at us dubiously. “Do you have crampons?” Uh, no, the adults had hiking boots and the kids were in sneakers. There had been record-breaking amount of snow that winter and the man warned us not to attempt the slippery trails without proper footgear. A bit worried, we continued to El Tovar, the grand old hotel on the south rim once favored by President Teddy Roosevelt. The waiter at dinner that night made matters worse by telling us that our 7-year old, who barely weighed 45 lbs, was too small for the hike.

Determined to at least try, we awoke to a beautiful morning, walked to the edge of El Tovar’s property and stepped off.

Several things make viewing the Grand Canyon unique. One is the rock color, a rosy pink deepening to brick red but interspersed with so many other shades. Another is that the colors appear in broad lateral bands that continue as far as one can see so you can almost imagine the whole plateau that once existed before being carved by water and erosion. Finally one can see entire bluffs as stand-alones, all 5,000 feet of them, their sheer size taking the breath away. As we descended the snow lessened till it only appeared frosting-like on the adjacent bluffs.

The eight miles to Phantom Ranch took us five hours. There was fresh excitement as we began hearing the mighty Colorado and then crossed it via a narrow iron bridge. The kids loved Phantom Ranch’s communal table and the attention they got for being the youngest by far at the camp. Our ascent the next morning was estimated to take 7 hours.

The trouble began about an hour below the rim. The bright day went overcast and the temperature dropped alarmingly. My son had talked nonstop the entire trip. He went suddenly quiet and still from the cold. We had assumed Arizona would be warm and instead of proper winter gear, were clad in jeans and wool mittens. More alarmingly the wind had picked up and we had an open ridge to traverse. We hunkered down and went single file across the ridge, the kids sandwiched between the adults and holding on to each other. Safely across, we still had a long stretch of climbing ahead of us. By this time the 7-year old was totally spent and cried to be picked up. My husband obliged with me now carrying both packs and holding on to our daughter. Trudging for an hour more than anticipated, we finally saw with relief the trailhead sign and knew we had made it.

Later in the warm welcoming dining room of El Tovar, my daughter said matter of factly, “When you first described the Grand Canyon I thought we would have to walk down between two long narrow rocks. And I thought we would surely fall and die”.

The grandeur and the sheer size of the Grand Canyon indeed defy the imagination. You simply have to see it to believe it. And hike it to feel young and alive.

This article was first published on Yahoo! Associated Content

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