Hiking the Grand Canyon

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No, it's not for couch potatoes, but you don't have to be a 20-year-old triathlete, either. Best of all, it's doable without digging too deep into the old pocket

It's a piece of cake," said Grand Canyon National Park Ranger Pam Cox. Her face a giant smile, she was making a gung-ho try at bolstering our courage for the rigorous 9.6-mile hike we faced the next morning. Having descended to famed Phantom Ranch at the very bottom of the Arizona canyon the day before - the first leg of a three-day, five-star adventure on a tightwad's budget - we now had to climb back out again. The South Rim, our goal, towered high above. Way way above. Maybe for her it's no big deal, I thought. She's done it dozens of times. But what about all of us first-timers? Entering the canyon, we had taken the shorter (7.2-mile) but much steeper South Kaibab Trail, and my upper thighs still screamed in pain from the experience. Outbound, we planned to climb Bright Angel Trail, more than two miles longer but reputedly less demanding. Still, I was more than a little worried about whether my legs and lungs were up to the task, and I suspect so were many other hikers gathered for Cox's after-dinner chat under the stars. In the quiet, we could hear the mighty Colorado River spilling over the rapids just down the path.

Obviously I made it to the top, or I wouldn't have written this story. And, no, it wasn't really a piece of cake; Cox (as we all suspected) had exaggerated. Though the trail begins with an easy and spectacularly scenic mile-long hike along the Colorado, the real ascent turned out to be a slow, sweaty, 6 1/2-hour slog (with half a dozen time-outs to recoup our strength). But despite causing aching muscles, the climb also proved to be an ego-boosting climax to an adventure of a lifetime, played out to one of the most beautiful backdrops in America.

The descent to Phantom Ranch (or to Bright Angel campground)

For anyone who relishes outdoor challenges, no self-guided adventure anywhere rates as more rewarding - or cheaper-than a rim-to-river (and back) hike in the Grand Canyon. Just think how many friends you can amaze by telling them: "I hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon."

In her pep talk, Cox pointed out that five million people visit the Grand Canyon annually. But fewer than one percent ever get to the bottom, a mile below the rim, where the views - up close and intimate - appear even more awesome. This near wilderness can be reached only by raft, mule, or afoot. Raft and mule trips (I've done both) cost hundreds of dollars; hiking sets you back next to nothing. Better yet, going on foot turned out to be more satisfying because I did it on my own power. We hikers sort of turn up our noses at the mule-back softies.

From the moment I stepped over the rim, the South Kaibab Trail treated me to nonstop views of multicolored rocks in fantastical shapes: soaring pinnacles, flat-topped buttes, sawtooth ridges, and sheer cliff walls. Though no geologist, even I could spot the dramatic change in rock formations as I descended deeper into the chasm. Far below, the racing Colorado, a vivid green, marked the day's goal. Though distracted by grand vistas, I watched where I walked. The trail clings to the edge of precipitous drop-offs as it zigzags in countless switchbacks down the face of a canyon wall. A stumble could be disastrous.

Part of the fun of this trip is staying at Phantom Ranch, an oasis in the arid canyon depths. A historic national park lodge built in the 1920s, it stands in a shady cottonwood grove alongside Bright Angel Creek, a tumbling Colorado tributary. With Jack Hawes, an old college buddy from California, I planned two nights there, giving us a day to relax between the hike in and out. So how did we relax? We hiked the gentle trail that winds through the narrow, steep-walled gorge traced by Bright Angel Creek. At age 65, we both keep fit - I run five miles almost daily; he's a demon on an exercise bicycle - but we weren't taking chances.

Canyon costs

The hike itself costs nothing, and guidance and commentary from the National Park Rangers is of course similarly free. This, combined with the cheap rates at Phantom Ranch, makes this adventure affordable for almost anyone in decent shape. A friendly, low-key retreat, the lodge accommodates a maximum of 88 people-either in small stone-and-log cabins (48 guests) or in four ten-bunk dormitories (40 guests) - two dorms each for males and females. The cabins rent for $71 a night for two people, not a bad price considering their unique setting. But folks on the mule trips get most of them. The dorms, where we stowed our packs, are reserved for hikers. The $25.50-per-person rate includes bed linens and a towel. Each dorm boasts a hot shower, sink, and toilet.

Not cheap enough? If you're willing to rough it, Bright Angel Campground (928/638-7875), adjacent to the ranch, caters to serious hikers able to tote tent, sleeping bag, food, and cooking gear. That's in addition to drinking water, energy bars and other trail snacks, toiletries, and extra clothing we dorm-bound hikers carried. The campground offers 33 sites, available to a maximum of 90 campers a night. The cost is $5 per person a night, plus a $10 permit for each site.

To save money, pack food. We took the easier option and ate the ranch's group meals dished up at tables for 12. The dinner menu is limited to the same two choices. The steak dinner, served nightly at 5 p.m., is $27.75 per person; mule trippers get first choice. We tucked into the hiker's hearty stew, served at 6:30 p.m. and priced at a more modest $17.25, including green salad, corn bread, and chocolate cake. A breakfast of sausage, eggs, and pancakes is $14.50, and a bag lunch, full of high-energy snacks, $7.50.

At the above prices for room and board, our two-night, three-day adventure totaled just $118 per person, not including modest taxes and a $3 Tecate beer at dinner. Entertainment was Cox's informative wildlife talks. One night, she described efforts to preserve the park's bat population; the next, we learned about the apparently successful effort to re-introduce California condors.

On the trail 

Prehistoric peoples began carving the gentler Bright Angel Trail into the canyon walls. In the early 1900s, an entrepreneur claimed rights to it, charging a fee for its use. The National Park Service, ultimately successful in disputing the claim, built the South Kaibab Trail in 1925 to provide free public access into the canyon. Much of the route had to be blasted out of solid rock.

On a sunny November morning, the temperature at the South Rim trail head (elevation 7,000 feet) was an invigorating 59 degrees F. Both of us wore shorts, light shirt, and wide-brimmed hat; jackets (in case of snow) stayed in our packs. In switchbacks below, we could see the early birds ahead of us. Soon enough, I realized the Kaibab was going to be a test. Full of rocks and staircase steep, it forced us to pick our way slowly. As we dropped steadily, the temperature grew warmer. Ahead, Phantom Ranch at 2,400 feet promised a balmy 77 degrees.

Summer is the busiest hiking season, but Phantom temperatures can reach a scorching 110°, and heat exhaustion is a danger on the trail. Hiking weather is best in spring and fall. In winter, snow and ice are always possible at upper elevations. We carried strap-on cleats for our boots in case a surprise November storm hit.

Fifty minutes into our descent, we encountered a mule train packing out some of Phantom's previous night's guests. Joked one young woman, "Next time, I'm hiking with you." In two hours, we caught our first distant glimpse of the Colorado. Near here, the trail edges briefly across a slender ridge, presenting dizzying drop-offs on either side. After four hours we reached the Colorado, crossing over a high suspension bridge to the ranch. Three rafts, docked briefly at Phantom's sandy beach, pushed off into the rapids and disappeared around a bend.

At the Phantom's canteen, we downed a glass of cold lemonade, dropped packs in the bunkhouse and headed for the river to soak hot, tired feet. Already the setting sun cast curious shadows on the rock walls. As I watched, I reveled in our feat. We'd made it to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, weary but bedazzled by the views. Later, I'd worry about climbing back out. Now I was content.

Getting ready

Phoenix, the closest major airport to the Grand Canyon, is served by Southwest, America's largest budget airline. Distance from the airport to the South Rim is about 220 miles via I-17 north to Flagstaff and U.S. 180 on to the park. A check of the Internet shows Dollar (dollar.com, 800/800-3665) offering a weekly rate this summer of $144 for an economy car. Next lowest is Thrifty (thrifty.com, 800/847-4389) at $149. Grand Canyon National Park entrance fee is $20 per car, good for seven days.

Plan on spending the night before and after your hike on the South Rim. Cabins for two begin at about $65 at Maswik and Bright Angel Lodges. The cafeteria at Maswik provides inexpensive meals. All South Rim and Phantom Ranch lodging reservations can be made through AmFac (303/297-2757, grandcanyonlodges.com). For peak-season summer hikes only, you may have to book Phantom Ranch bunk space 23 months in advance. An adventure like this is worth the wait. Grand Canyon information: 928/638-7888.

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