Grand Canyon Backpacking Tour – Random Thoughts

It’s done. We arrived home night before last very tired and battling emotions of disappointment that it is over, happiness to be home, and satisfaction at having accomplished a long-set goal. I could assign many superlatives to this experience: epic, fantastic, spectacular, awesome. Whatever. None capture my feelings appropriately, but I think you get the idea.

I’ve got a lot of pictures and videos to browse, sort, and cull and it’s going to take a few days to do that and get detailed blog posts up. But I’m writing this post to capture some thoughts while they are fresh on my mind and relieve the internal pressure to rush the more detailed posts so my family and friends can hear about my experience. Thus, in no particular order…


I made a determined effort to take in the big picture even while focusing on the trail, which you absolutely must do to keep healthy and safe. For many reasons, you keep your eyes on the trail to your peril. But the thought that I kept returning to is that I cannot really comprehend the size of the Grand Canyon. When you’re up on the rims and seeing the grand vistas, it’s a painting; it’s not real. And, even then, you’re still not seeing the bottom. (You don’t see the Colorado River until way down the trails.) And when you’re down in the canyon, you’re rarely seeing the top. There are layers upon layers upon layers than only reveal themselves once you’ve conquered the previous layer or two. I don’t think I’m accurately capturing the feeling so I don’t expect anyone to understand without going into the canyon and walking mile after mile after mile thinking you’re seeing it all only to realize that an entirely new and huge experience was waiting around the ridge in front of you.

Clearing the Mind

For clearing the mind, resetting the circuits and recharging the batteries, there is really nothing like a tough physical challenge. When you strip away the first world conveniences and problems and reduce the equation down to simply bone, muscle, and gray matter plus foot and water versus nature, life becomes simple and clear. I learned this a few years ago on the AMBA ride, which was 500 miles over seven days, and I was pleasantly reminded of that in the last week. Relaxing on the beach is great and I cannot wait get back to the gulf. But as peaceful as that is, there are still too many free brain cycles and, like any microprocessor, the brain won’t just stop and sit idle. It will fill that time with interrupts to check on email or throw random thoughts after the personal or professional problems you’re trying to escape in the first place. When you’re reduced to thoughts of eating and drinking enough to keep the body from shutting down, keeping the bones intact and the muscles healthy, and putting one foot in front of the other whether in hiking boots or on pedals, there’s little time for the nuisances of modern life over which we stress so much.

That said, your mind does return to what does count; your family and friends hoping they’re all safe and healthy while you’re incommunicado.

Park Rangers

We were really impressed by the Park Rangers we encountered… and we encountered quite a few. They run a tight operation there, at least as tight as they can given their limited numbers. There are quite a few different types of Rangers: some are full law enforcement carrying guns, tasers, and handcuffs; some are maintenance; at least one was an interpreter, and some just patrol trying to keep visitors safe.

Since camping in the canyon requires a back-country permit, rangers met us each time we set up in Bright Angel Campground. We were also met by Rangers, the law enforcement type, at the North Rim campground who’s primary intent was to make sure no one was going to get into some trouble. And we listened to a fascinating talk on California Condors by another Ranger; obviously very passionate about his job and quite a good presenter.

But the Rangers that stick most in my mind were patrolling the trails performing what they call PSAR; preventative search and rescue. They approach absolutely everyone they see to both evaluate their condition and preparedness and to offer helpful tips to make sure visitors don’t get into distress. While being very, very helpful, I’m sure this is also beneficial to them because evacuating sick or injured from the Canyon via Ranger escort, mule, or helicopter (and we saw evidence of each) is time consuming, dangerous, and, in the case of the helicopter rescues, expensive.

If my memory serves me correctly, we only encountered women in this role, but I have no doubt both men and women serve in this regard. We encountered them at the rest stops and we encountered them hiking the trails. No one just walks by them; they speak to the person and if that person doesn’t stop, they stop them. While speaking to each person, you can tell they are evaluating their physical condition, discovering their intent, and trying to find out if they have enough food, water, and experience to get where they’re going safely. I could say a lot more, and maybe I will later, but suffice it to say that I have a great deal of respect for the Rangers in this park.

Temperature Swings

The temperature profile that we experienced was dramatic and, even though we knew what we were getting into and planned for it, it was something quite different to experience. It got down to 35F our first night in the Mather Campground on the South Rim. From that in the morning, we hiked into mid 90s (F) as we descended into the canyon with very little shade to be found in the Bright Angel Campground until near sundown. From a low of around 70F we climbed the North Kaibab in the mid 80s (F) thanks to an overcast sky and ended the day with a night on the North Rim around 45-50F. We then descended the North Rim and came through the section called “The Box” with temperatures over 100F. And finally, we hiked out of the canyon via the Bright Angel trail in temperatures around 80F and ended our last night in the Cococino National Forest at around 50F. There is only one way to deal with temperatures swings of 70 degrees (F) and that is layers of appropriate clothing and good gear. Buyer beware.


Water becomes your biggest focus in the canyon. It’s not that it is not available; only on the South Kaibab Trail are you completely cut off from any water and the only other place where you don’t have access to drinking water is the 7 mile stretch on the North Kaibab between Cottonwood Campground and Phantom Ranch (including the section called “The Box”) and, even then, you have access to the Bright Angel Creek assuming you have a filter or other purification methods. So, it’s not that it’s not available; it’s that you must drink and drink and drink and drink some more. You must drink before you are thirsty and, if you are really humping it and expending a lot of energy, you must drink until you almost can’t stand it.

There are signs in the canyon showing a cartoon of a hiker holding her head and puking in the dirt explaining that the symptoms of heat stroke and dehydration are headache, nausea, and vomiting and warning that if you get to that point, you may well die. I have been to that point a handful of times in the past the worst being my first century ride where I ended up puking in front of 20 other cyclists and SAGging out of the ride. I know that I’m very susceptible, I know the symptoms, and I am very diligent about drinking water until I could stand toe-to-hoof with any of those mules on the trail in a pissing contest.

Knowing what I know now, I would not attempt the North or South Kaibab Trails without a minimum of 3L of water carrying capacity. I carried a 3L Camelbak bladder in my pack, which I could overfill to 3.25 or 3.5 litres. During our descent of the North Kaibab, I knew that we had 7 miles of a very hot trail with no drinking water coming up after a steep, 7 mile descent of the North Rim. I overfilled my bladder and I still ran out of water 3/4 of a mile from Phantom Ranch.

In addition, I carried an empty 1L bottle that I would immediately fill and drink upon entering one of the rest stops with drinking water. The bottle was also useful to mix up electrolytes. The combination of the bladder and the bottle served me well and I recommend it.


The Rangers stress food in addition to water. Most people know that you must drink in hot, arid climates especially when hiking up or down mountains. However, most people don’t know that you’re body also needs nutrition and minerals to keep itself in balance. As the hike wore on, I began to focus much, much more on snacking (grazing really) than the meals. I ate something at every rest stop and, quite a few times, staged a snack in my hip belt pouches so I could pull it out and eat it on the trail.

In addition, there is plenty of food on both rims. Both rims have excellent grocery stores, the South Rim more so than the North. There is a canteen in the canyon at Phantom Ranch, but it is not well stocked for groceries and you must have reservations for meals. If I were to do this again, I would not prepare and carry four, full days of food. I would concentrate heavily on the right kinds of snacks (salty/savory more so than sweet) and worry much less about the meals.

Trail Runners and Day Hikers

There are many different ways that people experience the Grand Canyon. As the Park Rangers told us, only 2% of people who visit the canyon actually make it to the bottom. Most people go to the South Rim only to walk along the Rim Trail and view it from above. Other people take a short hike down, maybe to the 1.5 or 3 mile rest houses. Others ignore all the warnings and day-hike down to the bottom and back in the same day (remember, you must have a permit to hike down with the intent to stay in the canyon). And, of course, there are plenty that obtain the back country permit and backpack through the canyon, many spending more days than us at the various campgrounds within such as Bright Angel, Indian Gardens, Phantom Ranch, and Cottonwood.

But the ones that really grabbed my attention where the rim-to-rim day hikers and the rim-to-rim-to-rim runners. Consider this feat of starting off in darkness (anywhere from midnight to 5 A.M.) to descend the Grand Canyon at a run and running/walking close to 50 miles while ascending and descending 5000 feet and 5500 feet of the South and North Rims, respectively… in one day… without dying (no small feat). When I climbed out of the North Rim, sometime around 1 P.M., a guy followed soon after me that had just completed a rim-to-rim-to-rim run. He said he had run approximately 35 of the 45-50 miles. That is a spectacular feat, IMO. I respect them enormously while hating them at the same time.

The reason I hate the trail runners is because they denied me the feeling of being a badass. A few weeks ago, we were the day-hikers on the AT feeling absolutely inferior to the intrepid thru-hikers of the AT so we really felt we were going to be in that role; the intrepid rim-to-rim thru-hikers of the Grand Canyon barely deigning to acknowledge the tourists and day hikers. But how can you be a badass when you’re taking four days to do what someone else is doing in one? I really wanted to grab one of them, bow to their physical prowess, and then simply push them off one of the many precipices along the trail. Sonsab******.


As I mentioned above, people get into distress every day. The Rangers do their best, but they cannot prevent people from getting themselves into trouble and and becoming sick or injured. One ranger told us that as long as people are not violating park rules and as long as they are responsive, they cannot force anyone to do anything. Get that? If you hike into the canyon untrained and unprepared, the Park Rangers can see your demise coming a half mile away, but cannot force you to turn around as long as you are conscious.

When training, bodies, and brains all fail, the Rangers must step in to rescue people and, as I also mentioned earlier, we saw evidence of three types of rescue. In one case, a man hiked out of the North Rim shortly after I did and explained to his group waiting there that a women in their group was in bad shape down the trail. He had hiked out with her pack and left her in the care of a Park Ranger who was trying to cool her down and escort her out… slowly. The first morning in Bright Angel Campground, we awoke to an SAR helicopter flying over our heads. We didn’t get the story of that one. And finally, on our last hike out of the canyon via the Bright Angel Trail, we saw a pair of mules with a single rider heading down into the canyon and a Ranger had explained that this tiny mule train had been summoned via radio to carry someone out who couldn’t carry themselves.

The Body Versus The Canyon

My body made it out with few defects considering what I put it through. I was initially very concerned about how difficult this would be and that worked to my advantage because I trained hard, very hard, to compensate. In the days leading up to the trip, I was confident that I could meet the challenge and I was no longer worried. And that felling turned out to be accurate. Of the hard challenges I’ve undertaken over the last few years, I don’t consider this the hardest. Completing my first century ride and the aforementioned 2012 AMBA ride were much more challenging to me.

The climbs in the canyon were a joy to me. As soon as we hit the steep grades, my mood spiked high and I accelerated. It’s ridiculous to be so happy to put thirty pounds on your back to climb a mountain faster than you’d walk though a mall, but that’s the way it was for me. I’ve rarely felt more alive than climbing those steep switchbacks.

The descents were a different story. I descend like an 80-year-old coming down stairs. It’s probably mental; climbing is muscle, heart, and lungs, which can all be conditioned. But descending to me seems more about joints and bones, which can’t be conditioned. I’m blessed to have healthy ankles, knees, and hips considering my fifty years, which brings me to my weakness. If climbing is my superpower, my kryptonite is my feet. During the descents, my feet take a pounding that I don’t feel on the ascents. In the war of Dell Wilson versus the canyon, every step becomes a tactical decision. I mean it, every step is a conscious decision to conserve energy or lessen the impact. I choose to step down on the rock rather than step over it because descending four inches at a time is better than eight inches at a time. I choose to step over the log on the next step rather than on it because to step on it adds two inches of descent that I will just have to rescale the next step; i.e. its better to ascend six inches than ascend eight and then descend two. Now, this may be a personal experience only, but I’m not exaggerating one bit here.

Cowboys Were Filthy

You know, you see the old Westerns and you see cowboys pay for baths at the barbers upon entering a town. However, aside from a few of the movies like maybe the Trinity movies, they really didn’t look dirty. Forget that. If you were a cowboy spending days out in an arid climate like that, you were filthy. And we were filthy. Dirt is all over everything. You can take cowboy baths in the stream and sinks everytime you get near water, but as soon as you walk away, you’re standing in dirt and if you touch your gear, which you must, you’re putting your hands back on dirt. You learn to live with it. You learn to get creative about cleaning yourself in the streams and sinks, but you learn to live with being dirty. When we climbed out of the Bright Angel Trail amidst all the tourists, I knew I smelled like ass and I dared any one of them to say a word. Dammit, I just walked across the Grand Canyon and back and I’ve earned the right to smell post-apocalypse. Go ahead Glen or Barb or Cliff and say something. I dare you.

That’s All Folks

Well, those are my thoughts; some formed while hiking, some while driving and flying home, and some in the 24 hours since. If you stuck with me though this stream-of-consciousness rant, thanks for reading and stay tuned for more detailed posts later as I have time to organize it all.

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2 Responses to Grand Canyon Backpacking Tour – Random Thoughts

  1. Jan says:

    Dell, I loved reading about your experience. Thank you for sharing. I’ve never hiked at the Grand Canyon but have visited twice, both times when our kids were very small. I can understand to some degree what you say about it looking surreal, like a painting. It IS impossible to comprehend! I also enjoyed hearing your thoughts on the mind/body/spirit connection. I’ve noticed when I push myself physically, it chases many demons away. (And I’ve never done anything to the magnitude you have) congratulations! You’re still a certified badass! 🙂

    • dellwilson says:

      Thanks, Jan. A lesson that I’ve only learned late in life is that our bodies are capable of much more than most of us think possible. Some people learn that lesson young. I didn’t.

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