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The Long Way Down in Grand Canyon

There is a sense of surrealism when I get to the edge of the rift. The landscape, picturesque with fir and spruce yet flat as a crêpe, suddenly opens up in front of me. It is a mammoth gash, as if a colossal knife stabbed into the ground leaving an abrupt, yawning gap. Looking over the edge of the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, I see endless cake layers of red, orange, and brown. The multi-colored strata summon me to explore their cryptic depths. I choose the North Kaibab trail, running down the precipitous switch back as the canyon soars, its thin bands swelling into thick slices of geologic history. The farther I go down the deeper I enter into the story of our earth, my steps easily transporting me from the Permian period to the Carboniferous period to the Cambrian period. Each is a hundred million years worth of lost animals, plants, and tumultuous climate change.

“Present time vanishes as I race through the eras;”

the sun blazes overhead before I realize that I have traveled over seven miles into the gorge. The descent is so easy that I continue just a little further, then a little further on, until the rim is an indistinct slash across the sapphire horizon. Squinting at it, I wonder if I have made a huge mistake.

grand canyon pathThe day is dying and I forgot to calculate for the harsh climb back to the top of the Grand Canyon. I halt in my tracks, face about, then start the steep ascent darting past fellow hikers with determined faces and substantial backpacks; but scaling the trail is not like gliding down the ravine. The chasm bakes in exposed sun which bleaches the rocks into shades of beige and rose. Vapors shimmer from the sizzling walls warmed throughout the long day. My pleasurable trek turns into painful drudgery. Every stride sends fire arrows down my thighs. I pant and sweat in the late afternoon heat, while my head steams. I dig my cumbersome way up with my back bent forward, my nose almost pressed to my knees. I gasp step by step past the merry rovers traipsing down. At this hour no one is heading up the abyss with me. I lean against the rock bands to catch my breath. It is thirsty work so I take a sip from my canteen only to feel it unbearably light. I shake it to hear a faint splash. I peer in to catch a sliver of liquid. There is not enough water for my journey back. I might have made a huge mistake.

grand canyon stationThe hours tick by as my pace slackens. The sun sets in a crimson conflagration while I am still making my progress toward the Canyon’s lip. The colors, though gorgeous, symbolize the bodily and mental misery I am suffering. My throat is parched, my head throbs, and a thousand lead pins travel down my legs with every tread. I know I have made a huge mistake. I should not have gotten distracted by the effortless travel into the crevasse. I should have planned for the return ascension. I should have paced myself physically for double the mileage. I didn’t and now I am paying the piper.

“Yet even in my unfortunate condition I do not regret my mistake.”

If I had not entered this storybook world I would never know the thrill of discovering our planet’s past. I would never have touched those radiant lithographic slabs. I would never have experienced the dangers of hiking the Grand Canyon. It was an error I had to make in order to know firsthand the hazards of couloir tramping. This is not my first adventure blunder, but as I slog up the switch back in the waning dusk I recall all my other goofs —some humorous, some hurtful, and others colossal— both during my travels and in life. I have grieved over every one and often berated myself for making them when I should be thankful for each of them. They have enriched me with stories, they have painfully nurtured my growth, and they have made my life valuable.

The stars are just peeping through a cobalt velvet sky when I stumble up onto the rim. My trembling legs, my sore back, and my dust-covered hands have all learned an important lesson: always plan for the return portion of an up-and-back hiking trip. After a two-week rest in bed I will be able to laugh about this. It is not the last time I will make a mistake, though. What future blunders will I commit? I do not know, yet intend to embrace them as they guide me towards better decisions. My missteps will all be adventures in my life’s journey; without making them I will simply be left at the starting gate. Where is the fun in that?


The Grand Canyon is 6,000 feet (1,800 meters) deep with over two billion years of geology exposed through its delicate hued strata. Given so much history to peruse, it is natural to lose track of time examining the chasm walls. Always plan your hikes into the Canyon, bringing enough water for the return trip.

Have you visited the Grand Canyon? Have you ever made a hiking mistake?

43 replies »

  1. I did that journey – decades ago now. I was 19 and traveling the US on those wonderful go anywhere $99 Greyhound passes. I met up with some fellow adventurers at the bus station in Flagstaff the way young people do. They were renting a car and offered me a ride to the rim in time for a late afternoon/ early evening descent.

    On the way down I saw my first rattlesnake, We all slept at the bottom of the canyon on a kind of concrete platform where everyone was freaked out by the rumours of scorpions. And then next day we knew we needed to start early – well before the sun was over the rim. I don’t remember any breakfast. If there was any it would have been what I had carried down. I had a gallon jug of water. It was gone by the time we staggered our way back to the top and over the rim. Then back to Flagstaff for the next bus to Colorado.

    With a Greyhound pass and when you sleep on the bus and when all you need is a six pack of bread rolls and a pack of Philadelphia cream cheese you can travel very cheaply!

  2. An unforgettable experience I’m sure! My visit there was maybe not quiet that adventurous (or maybe it was, it was by then end of a cross country trip with my one year old baby, and two rescue dogs!) I think a visit to Grand Canyon should be mandatory in ones education.

    • Wow, your cross-country trip sounds quite a feat. I visited Grand Canyon after having seen Yosemite, Arches, and Bryce, so I didn’t think I would be so moved by it. While the sudden view of the canyon is jaw-dropping, I’m also glad I went on the hike to appreciate the subtleties of the landscape (and obviously learn my lesson).

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