AZT Days 7 & 8: North Rim

Today’s miles: 13.3

Total miles: 83.1

In the night I wake to the sound of something quite large crashing through the dry underbrush nearby, and my heart pounds. Bear? Deer? Elk? It is elk mating season right now, and we’ve read warnings that they can be very unpredictable and aggressive during this time. I listen in the darkness while Cyn sleeps next to me, my pulse rushing in my ears as the animal walks past, footsteps gradually fading. A few hours later I wake again to a light rain, and we both scramble to close the tent doors in the dark. The early morning arrives with the sounds of coyotes yipping and howling very near. They sound extra rambunctious, the group howls winding down only to be jump-started again by one lone coyote who’s not quite finished. Cyn and I grin at each other in the dawn light: today we will reach the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, hopefully snag a walk-up permit, and — foremost in our minds — take showers, do laundry, and eat town food [Hiking in the desert where there is no water to spare for washing up makes you extra gross. -Cyn].

Entering Grand Canyon NP from the north. Cyn is carrying out an empty water jug from the bear box—good trail etiquette.

With these luxuries ahead of us, we hike our butts off all morning. It’s only one tenth of a mile to the park boundary, then through forest, dodging elk poop everywhere, until we reach the park’s entrance station and small ranger cabin. There are a couple of picnic tables here, and a giant blue jug filled with potable water for hikers — what joy! We have second breakfast here before proceeding uphill and then on a handful of easy miles. There’s a nice spot trailside for lunch, and while we eat a solo hiker passes us, stopping only briefly to say hello. Just as we’re finishing up, a ranger with a long white beard and walking staff shows up for a chat and a weather report (overcast with chance of showers for the next several days). He is in the best of moods, loving the morning and the landscape. After he leaves, Cyn and I agree that this is #retirementgoals.

In the park, on our way to the canyon itself.

It’s not far now to the North Rim, and we power hike with determination. Cyn’s so motivated that they actually initiate conversation on an uphill stretch! I’m impressed — we’re now at about 9,000 feet elevation and it’s not easy on the lungs. [Despite the conversation, this uphill winds me more than I think it should and I start panicking again about the canyon, but Toby reminds me we will be hiking down a lot of this elevation before the big climb. -Cyn] We see Kaibab squirrels chasing each other around the trees, adorable with their big tufted ears. I have a list of Arizona wildlife I hope to see during this hike, and these cuties are on it.

The North Kaibab trailhead is confusing, lots of day hikers milling about, filling water bottles and taking group pictures. After some scrutiny of the map, we hike uphill to the permit office. Unfortunately we’ve arrived during the rangers’ lunch break, so we sit impatiently, watching a large group prepare for their guided backpacking trip through the canyon. In the parking lot, the guides show them how to optimally pack their packs. Some of them heft their packs onto the hanging scale by the permit office. I am aghast at how much some of their packs weigh, especially when I overhear that they haven’t even distributed the food yet! The guides are trying to convince one woman to leave behind her 3+ pound first aid kit, reminding her that the guides themselves are carrying group first aid already. She’s very reluctant. I mean, everyone should carry the pack they want to carry, but man, the Grand Canyon is a lot of elevation change. A lot.

As usual, the permit process is an anxious one. The park tries to make special provisions for AZT thru-hikers, offering walk-up permits to camp in one of the three campgrounds along the rim-to-rim corridor. We’re really hoping to get a permit for Bright Angel campground, which would most evenly split up our two-day trip through the canyon [Well my actual ideal was to spend two nights in the canyon, but we are quickly told that’s not an option for thru-hikers. -Cyn]. The ranger (also named Cynthia!) does manage this for us, but for the day after tomorrow. So we’ll have an on-trail zero day at the North Rim tomorrow. [I’m almost positive that our shared name got us this campsite as Ranger Cynthia’s mood got considerably perkier after I told her we shared a name. It’s rare to meet another Cynthia out in the world! -Cyn]

On our walk to the North Rim campground, a truck slows down. “You thru-hikers? You need anything?” The driver works at the lodge, and is a former AZT thru-hiker named Chef Boyardee (truly an outstanding trail name), who left those sodas in the bear box a few days ago. We gush some thanks for that trail magic, but decline the ride — the campground is just ahead. When we arrive, we learn that the showers and laundry are closed. Ongoing COVID precautions, it seems, which is understandable…but we’re both devastated. We wander around the campground, populated by huge RVs and camper vans, finally making our way to the hiker/biker site. And wow, I don’t know who layed things out this way, but they’ve assigned hikers to the most spectacular site ever. We are literally ten steps from the edge of the canyon, with views for days.

At the overlook by our campsite. Can you even believe this.

I pitch our tent under a sturdy tree and we buy enormous sandwiches from the small general store, happy to have access to different food for a few days. [Sandwiches!!! Mine was roast beef with one underripe slice of tomato, one sad piece of lettuce, mayo and mustard and it was GLORIOUS. -Cyn] In the afternoon Cyn does trail laundry by filling a stuff sack at the sink [The water was dark brown within seconds. -Cyn] and we occasionally chat with a few other hikers camped nearby. There is a breathtaking sunset over the canyon; I’m overwhelmed with feelings as I gaze at it.

Cyn took this perfect sunset photo.

There’s a light rain overnight, though the temperature is very warm. Cyn wakes up sweating, blearily convinced that they’re somehow dying, before realizing it’s just a really hot night. We’re both up and out of the tent by 6am, and eat single-serving cereal with cold milk on the general store’s porch. The store has an instant coffee & cocoa machine that blows my little hiker mind.

We have all day to chill out, but I’m restless, so we take a leisurely hike along the Transept Trail out to the lodge and then to Bright Angel Point for some sweeping views. Back at camp, Cyn does more laundry while I stand in the campground bathroom waiting for my phone to charge. We buy a small resupply at the store and eat sad salads for dinner, dutifully consuming “fresh” vegetables while we can. Cyn pops several blisters and we lie in the tent reading until a big storm crosses the canyon with lots of lightning. It’s not on top of us, but close enough to be unnerving. I fall asleep hoping it will all clear before we drop down into the canyon tomorrow.

Another view of the canyon, from our trip along the Transept Trail to Bright Angel Point.

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