June 7, 2023

Our Writer in Residence Hikes the Grand Canyon

Our Writer in Residence Hikes the Grand Canyon

Rachel Gonzalez, Fictional Café’s Fiction Writer in Residence, recently completed an adventure known as the “Grand Canyon Rim-to-River-to-Rim” hike. In April, 2023, Rachel and three friends started at one edge, or rim, of the Grand Canyon, hiked down a vertical mile to the bottom, along the Colorado River, and then back up – about 17 miles in all. AllTrails says this hike on the South Kaibab, Phantom Ranch, and Bright Angel Trails, is “Generally considered a challenging route.”

Here, in words and images, is the tale of Rachel’s adventure as told to Fictional Café.

Very special thanks to Becky Armendariz for her photography.

Fictional Café: Hi, Rachel. Challenging indeed! When did you hike it? 

Rachel: Hi, Jack! We went out April 13th. We were staying at Bright Angel Lodge, which was also our exit point from the Canyon. That’s kind of the more tourist-friendly accessible place of the South Rim. We had to take a little taxi ride to South Kaibab Trail to get started. 

FC: Were you in an organized group doing this? 

Rachel: Yeah, I was hiking with a little group, four of us – my college roommate’s sister, Carmen, their cousin Becky and Becky’s husband Greg. Becky took most of the photos. She and Greg have hiked the Grand Canyon Rim-to-River-to-Rim every year for the past three years. A few years ago, they did a Rim to Rim to Rim. They’re intense! 

FC: I understand it’s wise to train for this hike.

Rachel: Yeah, it’s definitely something you have to train for a little bit, especially if you’re doing it all in one day, like we did. I got added to the hike about two or three months before we were gonna be leaving, so I had to kind of overhaul my training program for it.

FC: You said you got up at 5:30 in the morning to start. 

Rachel: Right. We were on the trail at 6AM.

FC: And you finished when?

Rachel: Let me check. I have a breakdown for the times. . .. So all told, we did a little over 17 miles in about 9 hours, with a 4,500-foot elevation gain.

FC: Wow. You started at the rim of South Kaibab Trail (1), headed down into the bottom of the Canyon (3), then back up to end at Bright Angel (4-8).

Rachel: Yeah, we had to take a taxi over to South Kaibab. There was another passenger, a man, in the car with us. He was headed out for a solo multi-day backpacking trip through the backcountry for his 65th birthday, hiking into the heart of the Canyon, which was just so cool and such a great way to get started. It turned out he was from a town in Michigan about 30 miles from where my mom grew up, so things were already interesting.

FC: How was the weather? I’m sure it was important.

Rachel: We didn’t really know anything about the weather conditions. There was a lot of uncertainty about like what the ice was going to do, like mostly on the way back up, because Bright Angel really gets the most traffic. It’s kind of like one of the go-to day hikes for people who are just popping into the park, and that can really affect how packed the ice gets. It’s also one of the shadier parts, so not a lot of melting most of the time. We all packed crampons just in case we were going to have to, yeah, stomp our way up. 

It was dark when we woke up. By the time we got to the trailhead the sun hadn’t come up all the way yet, but there was already light in the sky. So, yeah, so we weren’t fumbling around in the dark by any means. It was nice the whole day. Like there never really were any points where we were freezing. The one problem was it was really windy at the top of the rim. So it wasn’t so much like cold, but just like, Ohh, the sun’s not out yet. And the wind. 

FC: And you began the descent.

Rachel: Yeah, so probably about twenty minutes in I got a text from one of my NPR-listener friends that there had been a rockfall on Bright Angel and there would be a slowing down of foot traffic there from like 8:00 AM until about 11. And that was the last text really any of us got before we lost service, as we were too far below the rim. So we were all thankful for that message from my friend, who knew where I was. 

The first part was just really smooth sailing. You know, just walking along in this really gorgeous, gorgeous place. 

FC: Like that photo where you and Carmen are walking away from the camera, down along a kind of promontory.

Rachel: Yes.

FC: And when you get to the end of it, you do a U-turn and keep coming down the trail, right? 

Rachel: Right.

FC: How long did it take to get to the bottom? 

Rachel: I think it took us about 3 hours. Because of taking all the photos.

FC: So many twists and turns. That’s good! I’d hate to think about descending straight down – even on a mountain bike.

I love this shot of you sitting on the rock outcropping at the promontory. It’s truly beautiful. 

Rachel: That’s Becky’s photography. She made it look even more beautiful.

FC: Like this shrubbery. Such beautiful purple flowers. 

Rachel: Yeah, I had never seen anything like that and I don’t think Becky had either. We took pictures hoping we could like use Siri because she can recognize plants and things now. But obviously we had no service in the Canyon so Becky asked one of the Grand Canyon hiking groups she’s part of and their best guess was the Western Redbud, which I’ve never seen anywhere else. 

So we’re down . . .

Rachel, Carmen and Greg

. . . and then we had a nice little rest at Phantom Ranch, where Becky treated us to seven-dollar lemonades, and it was the best thing any of us had ever tasted. 

FC: What is Phantom Ranch? 

Rachel: It’s one of the campgrounds down on the Canyon floor, one of the more sought-after ones. You have to enter a lottery to get a campsite and it’s one of the only places that has, like, proper cabins. It’s also an outpost so they have like a little general store and a small restaurant. You can buy a postcard and mail it from there, because it’s one of the places where the mule trains stop when they’re carrying supplies in and out. 

FC: Mules? Real “mule trains,” huh? 

Rachel: Oh yeah, absolutely. They’re all over the place in the Canyon. 

FC: You’re at Phantom Ranch and you’re going to get your fuel tanks filled up and get ready to get back on the trail. 

Rachel: Yeah, yeah. 

FC: How much of the hike is actually at the bottom of the canyon?

Rachel: Yeah, you’re walking on the flat part down at the bottom of the Canyon, but it doesn’t last very long. The climb really starts once you get to the Colorado River, once you go through to the Phantom Ranch area. 

We stopped there and had like, a little break, a snack, pumped ourselves up for the rest of the hike because we knew it was going to be the longer half of it. We went probably not more than two miles where the trail was completely flat before we started gaining again. So hydrating was very important. 

FC: What did you snack on?

Rachel: Ohh, so actually, there’s a funny story there because my best friend and I had been at Target like a day or two before we left for the Canyon, and found this lunch box? Well, it’s not even really a lunch box. It’s a Hershey’s S’mores-shaped plastic box.


FC: I’ve seen them at the grocery store. 

Rachel: Yeah, it’s designed specifically to carry a supply of S’mores. So I picked it up and we both agreed it was perfect. I had to take it into the Canyon with me, so I loaded it up with a ton of strawberry jelly Uncrustables, some little Cutie oranges and Gushers that are basically just candy, so they have no nutritional or hydration value. When we were getting into our lunch, I pulled out my big S’mores lunch box and Becky just started laughing because I brought an entire lunch box into the Grand Canyon and everyone else just had, like, baggies of food. And we filled up our water bottles there at Phantom. 

FC: Now, how far do you have to go? How far before you start the climb up?

Rachel: Ohh, as soon as you exit Phantom Ranch. Because it’s kind of tucked into the back. Once you’re at Phantom Ranch, you’re not even halfway yet. So right after you cross that steel bridge, you go down a little flat path, and you have the option to either get back on the trail toward Bright Angel or to head over to Phantom Ranch. So we headed to Phantom, which took us off trail for a little bit, then we had to backtrack. After that it was just kind of like a little beach area. We crossed another steel suspension bridge – there’s one at both ends of Phantom Ranch – and then we were heading back, but we still had most of our way to go.

FC: There’s another scene I really loved, where you guys are going through a stone arch. Kind of a rock tunnel. Where was that? 

Rachel: Oh, that was on the down hike, before crossing the Colorado River. 

FC: You’re climbing now?

Rachel: Yeah, the front end of it was easy because it was just going straight down the wall. You get to the river and it’s flat, then you start making your way up the other side. But it’s not until you get to Bright Angel Trail, which is the last two and a half miles of the hike, that you’re really really hurting. Because that’s all (elevation) gain. Switchbacks all the way up. It’s the toughest part of the hike.

FC: What about the Bright Angel Trail rockfall?

Rachel: Yeah. We timed it really perfectly and were just hoping that, like, the damage wouldn’t be too bad because we still had a lot of uncertainty about what Bright Angel was gonna look like in general. 

FC: So here you were, about six hours into a strenuous hike and now you have this last grueling push. What did it look like?

Rachel: So actually, because of all the snow that happened this year, there were a lot of water crossings as we started to climb. They were just snow melt. All of them would eventually converge into the Colorado River, but they were just a tiny little streams, really.

FC: This next one of the river flowing toward you, that’s the Colorado? 

Rachel: Yeah, that was, but now we’re heading up, passing kind of like a lot of the same people who are all doing pretty much the same thing we are. Maybe trekking organizations, groups like us, a few solo hikers, a couple of trail runners which just blows my mind. All getting ready for this crazy ascent, taking breaks when we can. 

The Colorado River

FC: You stopped for a S’more, right? 

Rachel: Yeah, no, (laughs), we’d stop and have an Uncrustable or a PB&J sandwich. So they were like our little moments of levity when we were just exhausted and our calves were cramping. 

FC: A comedy snack to relax the stress and pain.

Rachel: Yeah. We’re heading up and there was one rest spot right after the Colorado River called the Devil’s Corkscrew. It’s a really nice shaded area where you’re kind of walking along some of the streams that are coming down to form a confluence for the Colorado River. If I could have stopped and put my feet in I totally would have, but the more you stop the harder it’s gonna get, ‘cause your muscles just seize up right away. So that was probably my favorite part because I’m a big fan of water. It was kind of where we started to get a taste of how hard the ascent was going to be, because it was where the switchbacks kind of started up. When you’re on a steady climb like this, there’s something mental about a switchback like, Oh, I have to keep doing this in quick succession and it already hurts and I have to keep going. 

The Devil’s Corkscrew

So yeah, we kept just kind of heading up and then we got to Havasupai Gardens, another little rest stop with running water and a bathroom. I believe there was a mule station but there weren’t any mules hanging out. All the mules we saw were working, bless them. So we filled up with water for the last time and got ready to head up Bright Angel. And the rockfall had been cleared. 

FC: That’s good.

Rachel: Now we could kind of tell we were getting close to the Bright Angel Trail and the end because a lot more people were in kind of athleisure clothes with a single water bottle and like Nike sneakers. That was kind of reassuring, like, OK, we’re coming up on the end, but that feeling didn’t last very long because the end was still two miles off and that took us probably about an hour and a half to do. 

FC: Wow. Wow. 

Rachel: Yeah, Bright Angel was a beast because it was so steep and the ice, the closer to the top you got, the more packed it was. And it’s where you have to be really careful because you run into a lot more people who are just there for the day who might not be wearing shoes with the best tread. That kind of stuff. 

So it got slower and for the last time as a group, we stopped at this little like way station. I think it was the two-mile mark for Bright Angel. I dug into the rest of the food I’d brought, and the strawberry Uncrustable and two clementines tasted better than anything I could have ever thought of or imagined. So then we just headed up the rest of the way. 

FC: Yay!

I had my trekking poles out the whole time, which I wasn’t really expecting, but I was really, really happy to have them. Before this I had never been a trekking-pole hiker, but it was really nice to use them. On the way down they helped me not pitch all the way forward with my very heavy backpack and saved my knees. 

FC: Yes, I noticed you all had huge backpacks.

Rachel: A lot of strain but the poles were a good way to like drag myself up, like literally plowing my way up these last steep pitches. 

FC: You made it! 

Rachel: So Becky was amazing and had medals made for us that had, like, our route on them and then “finisher.” So that was it.

FC: Well done! Congratulations to all four of you, Becky, Carmen, Greg and Rachel. What were some other things you took away from this adventure? 

Rachel: Well, I think it was two Octobers ago I hiked in Zion National Park. It was incredible. That was where I really caught the National Parks bug. Our national parks are incredible.

FC: What’s the map I see behind you? Is that your bucket list?

Rachel: This is something I’ve had since I was probably like fourteen. It’s just, like, a list of all the things I want to do. The note cards are left over from a NaNoWriMo I did about four years ago.

FC: Did you finish?

Rachel: I did. Yeah, I did.

FC: You got a novel out of it?

Rachel: I did. It’s very rough. It needs several more passes, so yeah . . .

FC: Let’s work on it if you’re still interested.

Rachel: I think I am. I want to look at it again now that it’s been several years because it’s something I had been working on for a very, very long time. OK, so I think definitely I should take another pass at it.

FC: What do you usually do for exercise?

Rachel: Oh, boy. So I hike a lot, with all the time I have. I now have two backpacks. I have my regular day pack and then the big orange one that I took into the Canyon, but I’ve recently had to retire my hiking boots because about a week before the Canyon trip, one of the seams popped and I had to super glue it back together. But I still did Camelback Mountain, which is kind of the bigger residential hike out here. I did that three days after Grand Canyon.

Yeah, and I rock climb a couple times a week, usually. I teach yoga, so I do yoga. I was getting back into running before the heat started to pick up again, but lately I’ve been doing a lot of lifting, so kind of just all over the place.

FC: Was the Rim-to-River-to-Rim a bucket list event?

Rachel: Yeah, I’ve never done anything like this one, with just the distance and descent and all. There’s not really much like the Grand Canyon out there.

FC: Would you do it again?

Rachel: Absolutely yeah. Yeah, it’s funny. My other college roommate who’s out in Oregon getting her law degree right now, she and her boyfriend are also like big outdoor National Parks fans. So about three weeks before I was going on this Grand Canyon hike, she texted me and her boyfriend, “All right, group, I’m thinking next spring break we do Grand Canyon,” and I’m like, ‘Ohh yeah, that sounds great. I’m in. Also, did I tell you? I’m three weeks out!’ She and I always send each other postcards whenever we go to a new National Park. So if anything, I’m going to do it again next year. And I talked to one of our friends from college and he’s in, too.

I’m interested in doing another Rim-to-River-to-Rim and I’d like to spend a night down below the rim if I could, but it’s tricky getting a campsite down there these days. You’ve got to get lucky and you’ve got book in advance.

FC: You recently finished your undergraduate degree in English and creative writing at Northern Arizona University. What are you doing these days besides your outdoor activities?

Rachel: I’m a library assistant and am studying for my Master’s degree in English Literature at NAU. I’ve loved all of my classes and my professors, one in particular. I hope to stay in touch with her for years to come. She’s just been wonderful. I’m excited to start my summer course and then get into the fall semester courses already.

FC: All right! It’s been great fun talking to you.

Rachel: Good to see you again.

FC: I really like your energy.

Rachel: Thank you.

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