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  • Writer's pictureAaron Mead

Grand Canyon: Rim-to-Rim in a Day

Five people standing next to the North Rim Grand Canyon National Park sign

About a year ago, I got the crazy idea to hike, in one day, the grueling, 25-mile, 6200-foot-elevation-gain, bucket-list route from the North Rim to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon—the famous Grand Canyon rim-to-rim hike. In a moment of weakness, four friends agreed do it with me, and over the past six months we spent 106 hours trekking 232 miles, gaining 57,000 feet of elevation in the mountains of southern California, training for the trail.


Over those months, our friendships grew tighter. On our first hikes, we'd avoid relieving ourselves on the trail, sheepishly sneaking off only when absolutely necessary. By our last hikes, we'd boldly "check the horses" (our euphemism), barely bothering to get out of view before doing the business. We'd become family.


On virtually every training hike, we spent time convincing ourselves we'd be ready for the Canyon, comparing mileage, elevations, slopes, and terrain to what we already had in our legs. But beneath this brave-faced self-persuasion, we knew the Canyon would be different, singular, in its own league, a hike we wouldn't know with certainty we could handle until we'd succeeded or failed—no matter how we trained.


Known Unknowns


One unknown was the inverted nature of the Canyon hike. Unlike most mountain hikes and the vast majority of our training, at the Canyon you descend first and ascend second. How would that feel? On this point, Mount Wilson, near to our home in Pasadena, came in handy: you can drive to the top and hike down then up, which we did for our final training hike. That hike filled in some of the blank, but it wasn't nearly as long and sustained as the Canyon would be, so I still wondered.


Temperature was the most concerning unknown. To say the Grand Canyon gets hot is like saying teenagers get pimples. But not every teen gets pimples. Temperatures at the 8200-foot North Rim and the 6850-foot South Rim range from pleasant to downright cold. Even at Phantom Ranch, the 2500-foot bottom of the Canyon, average high temperatures range from mid-50s to low-60s Fahrenheit. In January. The searing hundred-degree-plus temperatures only happen in the summer months—like June, to choose a completely random, imaginary, hypothetical example. It's that summer heat that's caused around 100 deaths in the Canyon over the years.


The tricky thing about hiking rim-to-rim in a single day is that conditions vary so widely between the North Rim and the Canyon floor that you can only do it safely in the two shoulder seasons of the year—mid-May, when the North Rim is finally free of snow and open to visitors, and mid-October, when temperatures in the Canyon have cooled and the North Rim is not yet snowed in.


We chose the spring shoulder, since we didn't want to wait till fall, but in scheduling the hike it turned out the first weekend after May 15th that we could all do it was June 8th/9th, which felt a touch too late. If we were a dress, we'd be off the shoulder and sliding down the arm, though, until hike day, it was impossible to know just how far we'd slid.


I was especially concerned about the low-elevation section called "the box," a four-mile stretch in which the trail winds through a narrow canyon, tributary to the main Grand Canyon, trapping heat and cooking its contents like an oven. Since our winter training had been mostly cool (even in southern California), we knew we hadn't yet experienced what the box might throw at us, even if we got a lucky less-hot day. We'd just have to rely on the advice we'd read: drink lots of water, cool off in every creek you cross, and clear the box early.


People hiking in the Grand Canyon
Hiking "the box" in the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon, Rim-to-Rim


The night before hike day, we stayed in a lodge just outside the park on the North Rim, a half-hour from the trailhead. The walls of my duplex cabin were thin, and my neighbors were loud till midnight. As an altitude headache gripped the base of my skull, unaffected by three ibuprofen, I tossed and turned, worrying I'd lead my four friends to their deaths the next day. When the alarm sounded at 3:30 am, I'd managed a mere three hours of sleep.


Nevertheless, we were giddy at the trailhead. We set out at 4:30, shivering in thin shirts and shorts, headlamps glowing in the half-light, sucking down electrolytes and peeing every ten minutes to prove it. We hit the first rest-stop, Manzanita, still feeling high. We had a snack, refilled our water, dipped our shirts in Bright Angel Creek, wriggled back into them, and continued down, the temperature rising with each step.


Because we started so early, our worries about the box turned out to be baseless. Indeed, that section of the trail was my favorite: the rainbow walls of the narrow canyon were stunning, and because we'd left early, they shaded us most of the way. We reached Phantom Ranch around 11 am, fourteen miles done, feeling pretty good about ourselves.


We sat at a shady picnic table, slurping down lemonade from the canteen, and defended our lunches from the rabid squirrels, bold as meth addicts seeking a fix and looking the part with their yellow teeth and ragged patchy fur. (One of the little gray junkies climbed into my friend's open backpack when he wasn't looking and chewed into a bag of melted chocolate-covered coffee beans.)


After lunch, we lingered barefoot in the creek awhile, then rejoined the trail around noon, shirts dripping cool water once again. We watched inflatable rafts packed with people float by as we crossed the bridge over the mighty Colorado, swollen with spring snowmelt from the Rockies, and began up the winding path toward the South Rim.


A hiker in the Grand Canyon, near the Colorado River
Bright Angel Trail at the Colorado River, in the Grand Canyon

(No) Walk in the Park


A few miles in, despite gaining some elevation, the heat built and slowed us down. One friend showed early signs of heat exhaustion, so at the next creek crossing she lay down in the stream and let the cool water flow through her clothing.


On the next leg, to Havasupai Garden, I began mental calculations of when I could finish if I went on ahead. I'd told my daughter—who'd dropped us at the North Rim and made the four-hour drive to the other side—she could start worrying no earlier than 6:30 pm, after 14 hours on the trail. If I didn't arrive by then, she might use the nuclear codes and call her mother, igniting a mushroom cloud of atomic anxiety.


We arrived at Havasupai Garden together, but I felt wrecked. My ankles and feet screamed at me, and my head was light. Nevertheless, my calculations told me I'd need to go on ahead for any hope of finishing by 6:30. I lay on a bench, feet up, eyes closed, for around 15 minutes, then topped up my water and headed onward, solo, propelling myself with my hiking poles as much as my legs, as if I were skiing.


The higher I climbed, the worse I felt. Just before 6:30, I arrived at the rest stop one mile from the South Rim and lay down again, my breath rapid and shallow. I had cell signal, so I texted my daughter to let her know I was almost there, and that we were making progress. I took some water and continued poling my way up the hill, the last and steepest mile the slowest of them all. Just after 7:00, I arrived at the South Rim, texted my daughter, and laid down on a bench.


A half-hour later, my friends arrived—we cheered and whooped as they crossed the line—and we went for food at the lodge. As I sat waiting for dinner, my head felt still lighter, and I was nauseous. I rested my forehead on the table. Maybe I just needed food? I ordered a veggie burger but ate only the fries. My friends ordered drinks, full of joy and energy; two said they'd definitely hike the trail again. I said never. What was going on?


Grand Canyon Rim-to-rim trail, viewed from the South Rim
Grand Canyon Rim-to-rim trail, viewed from the South Rim

Flying Too High


After asking how I felt, our waiter diagnosed me not with heat exhaustion—it'd been downright cool the last few miles of the hike—but with altitude sickness. It made sense: we'd descended from 8,200 feet to 2,500, then climbed again to 6,850, a mere day after driving from sea-level. And as my headache the night before had attested, I'm pretty sensitive.


Altitude was one wildcard we hadn't trained for. Though we'd completed hikes with elevation gains in the neighborhood of the rim-to-rim's 6200 feet, training through the winter in southern California meant we couldn't hike at elevation. There are some tallish mountains in SoCal—for example, Mount San Jacinto (10,800 feet) and San Gorgonio Mountain (11,500 feet)—but snow covered these throughout our training period, and we weren't up for ice axes and crampons. So that left us lowly Mount Wilson, slouching a mere 5700 feet above sea level, 2500 feet lower than the trailhead at the North Rim.


Fortunately, after more water, more ibuprofen, and the one-hour car ride to our hotel in Williams, Arizona, I felt well enough to eat my boxed veggie burger and finally flop into bed. The next morning I felt fine, just a little stiff.


Uncertainty


I take away many things from our hike and the six months of training that led up to it, not least new physical strength, stunning canyon and mountain views, and forever memories with friends.


But my lingering thought is of life's uncertainty. There are some things we just can't prepare for. That thought might drive some of us into hiding, doing all we can to avoid risk. But the truth is, sooner or later life's tough contingencies find us out, even in our hiding place.


My advice? Hike the Canyon, climb the mountain, sail the sea, marry your mate, quit the job, have the baby, make the art, roll the dice, and improvise. It's more fun, and life is coming for us anyway.

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Guest
Jun 25
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Hi Aaron - long time no see, saw this link on linked-in, wonderful to learn of your adventure, and very glad your altitude sickness was short-lived. I really appreciate your takeaway on embracing uncertainty...so much time we spend planning, working, planning, working - all sometimes to avoid risk...but yes, you ask us to consider the risk of not trying things, and what is lost by not taking some chances...keep well friend!

Ken

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Aaron Mead
Aaron Mead
Jun 26
Replying to

Wonderful to hear from you Ken! Long time indeed! And thanks for reading; I'm glad the piece resonated with you. I hope you and your family are doing well. Peace to you.

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Angela Mead
Angela Mead
Jun 24
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Wow! What a beautifully written account of your adventure...as well as an inspiring view on how to live.

Angie

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Aaron Mead
Aaron Mead
Jun 24
Replying to

Thanks, love! 😊

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Guest
Jun 23
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Hi Aaron, I enjoyed reading your experience Rim -to Rim in a Day, First Word to Last. I especially appreciate your honesty and your advice.

Terry Hoffman

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Aaron Mead
Aaron Mead
Jun 23
Replying to

Thanks for reading, Terry, and for the encouraging word. Means a lot to me!

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Guest
Jun 22
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Great piece.

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Aaron Mead
Aaron Mead
Jun 22
Replying to

Thanks for reading!

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