Total Miles: 103.8
One hundred miles north, far from the banks of the Bright Angel Creek on which we slept, Bryce Canyon National Park sits at the top of a geological feature few will notice. Known as The Grand Staircase, layer upon layer of sedimentary rock stretches from the high elevations of Bryce Canyon all the way to bottom of the Grand Canyon, telling the story of 600 million years of the planet’s history. If it were a history book, Bryce Canyon would be the introduction and the floor of the Grand Canyon, whose walls we could touch mere feet from our tent, would be the conclusion. An uninterrupted chronology found nowhere else on earth.
When we woke under starlight, a thin veneer of condensation clung to the inside of the tent. A reminder that even here in a place one does not necessarily associate with anything but dry, water is quite literally the story of its history, of deposition and erosion multiplied by millennia of millennia.
Wrapping your mind around 600 million years of water shaping the landscape we know today may be an exercise in the abstract, but look closely enough and there are subtle reminders of the same forces at work today. Case in point, when we took our first steps down the trail in the hazy light of dawn, the Colorado River swept past in a turbid shade of brown reminiscent of chocolate milk. Locked in suspension, a captive to its current: tiny particles of rock and sand, courtesy of the recent storm, being carried away to some distant new home. The engine of landscape sculpting still hard at work.
Of course, The Grand Staircase is also quite literally what stood before us as we took those first steps across the Colorado and landed at the foot of the South Kaibab Trail. Rising above us, there was nothing but an unrelenting climb with no shade or water to be found—all 4,700 feet of it. Oh, and did I mention stairs?
And more stairs...
And still more...
As we found our rhythm and steadily chipped away at climbing out of the hole in the earth that we’d spent yesterday descending into, we eventually passed trail runners, then day hikers, and finally backpackers going the opposite direction. For some of them, I wondered if they were familiar with the first law of hiking, as with each step they slowly dug deeper the hole that they must climb out of. The near constant beating of helicopter blades against the air later in the afternoon told us the answer.
The South Kaibab Trail itself is a marvel that almost never was. Snaking its way down from the South Rim, its switchbacks cling to the walls of what would otherwise seem like slopes unsuitable for a hiking trail of any kind. Built in the 1920s, it has stood the test of time, an homage of sorts to the timeless creation it grants hikers access to. Well built or not, the views it provides almost defy words.
The morning light created alternating waves of light and shadow that made layers of the canyon appear like the rippling dunes of a desert. As the sun rose higher still, bright reds and pinks were on full display. A train of pack mules on their morning commute to the bottom of the canyon completed the picture.
Every turn gave new perspective on what feels like an endless sea of stone ridges, towers, and lesser canyons, and as the angle of sunlight changed so too did the shades of color that came echoing back at us. A vast chameleon made of stone.
It might not be Angel’s Landing, but portions of the South Kaibab—like its North Kaibab sibling—are no strangers to exposure, a narrow ribbon of trail sandwiched between a rock wall on one side and a vertical plunge on the other. It’s hard to imagine such a trail, requiring a boldness of design as it does, being built today.
By the time the throngs of day hikers were thick and heavy, we were only a few hundred vertical feet shy of finally stepping foot on the South Rim. When we turned to glimpse a sign that greeted hikers just setting out, we had to chuckle at its effort to dramatize further a hike that, admittedly, can become very dangerous very quickly. Humorous or not, it’s true what the sign says: vomiting on trail is generally a bad sign.
As triumphant as it was to finally take a step on level ground, it was dulled only slightly by the realization that the 7 miles of climbing we’d done from the banks of the Colorado to here were only half as far we’d need to walk today. The consolation prize at the end of those next seven miles? Our first shower and bed of the trail.