Thank you Jo Ostgarden for this inspiring article! Jo is the editor and principal writer of Best Places Northwest travel guide, and has worked as a health, fitness and travel journalist for 30 years, and has her MA in magazine journalism.
I can say with certainty that if I died tomorrow it would be with no regrets.
By the time I was 40, I had fulfilled nearly every imaginable adventure travel fantasy on my bucket list, including numerous backpacking trips in the Grand Canyon, circumnavigating nearly 10,000 miles of the planet by bike, hitchhiking across Spain, traveling by train in North Africa, flyfishing in the Kenai River, rafting a river in Jamaica, swimming with dolphins off the coast of New Zealand and snorkelling a breathtaking reef off a tiny island in the South Pacific.
The only thing I missed was climbing Denali—North America’s highest peak better , perhaps, known as Mount McKinley. And in a funny way that’s where this story begins.
In the last months of my 41st year, my son was born. By then, I figured my epic adventure days were over. I gave him the middle name of Denali to mark the transition. A late-comer to parenthood because of a health diagnosis that had hit me in my 30s and left me struggling with conception and pregnancy, I figured Samuel Denali was about the last epic adventure I had in me.
In his first year, I surrendered to lack of sleep, and settled contently into a life of serenity and gratitude. The desire to challenge myself in any kind of physical way was pretty much gone.
Nine years later, the prospect of turning 50 changed all that. Suddenly, I was hot to trot. And the Grand Canyon was suddenly back on my life “revisit” list.
The last time I had been in The Canyon, my absolute hands-down favorite place on the planet, was a trip down the Tanner Trail with my husband a decade earlier. By then, it had been more than 32 years since the first time I saw The Canyon—ironically not from the rim, but from below it.
During my first year in college, a friend and I had planned a backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon to coincide with Spring Break. Back in Minnesota, we hadn’t given much thought to the possibility of snow on the South Rim in April, nor would I have considered it a deal-breaker. And sure enough, that’s what the weather God delivered on day one of our permitted trip. Undaunted, we made our way through a ferocious snowstorm to the South Kaibab Trailhead, and down several miles of a cloud-obscured trail. When the sun finally broke through the clouds, I was overcome with awe as I watched the Canyon, deeply incised into an elevated plateau— much like the Himalayas in reverse—unfold before me.
Fast forward to Spring 2009. Backpacking in the Grand Canyon, with its immense tilted and contorted terrain, is akin to taking a pilgrimage across time. The Big Ditch, as Arizonans are keen to call it, is a geological phenomenon that has a funny way of pushing your psychic awareness to God-like infinity. That April, when my 9-year-old son, Sam, and I arrived at the rim, I took in all the iconic visual reminders from more than 28 previous backpacking trips I had taken along and below the rim: Rama Shrine, Sheba Temple, Krishna Shrine, Vishnu Temple, Freya Castle, Wotan’s Throne, Thor Temple, Angel’s Gate and the Granite Gorge.
The Canyon is so immense that it’s easy to misjudge distances and confuse directions, and those sentinels can be lifesavers. Over years of trips and trails, I memorized them, and consider them not only bearing points on a compass, but also as points of emotional reference that help me connect the dots from past to the present.
Framing these rocky protrusions are the geological layers you must traverse to reach the Colorado River: the Kaibab Formation, Toroweap Formation, Coconino sandstone, Hermit Shale, the Supai Group, the Redwall Limestone, the Temple Butte Formation, the Mauv Limestone, Bright Angel Shale, the Tapeats Sandstone (part of the Tonto Group), The Grand Canyon Supergroup and finally the Vishnu Basement rocks.
In early spring, the perfect cobalt day sky is the ideal backdrop for the pyramid buttes and walls of rock of translucent red and orange. In late winter, it’s not uncommon to see the North rim dusted with snow, while the inner Canyon shimmers in heat. The ceaseless dance of cloud shadows on each spectacular layer is breathtaking.
From Yavapai Point, the night before, my brother, George, my friend and sister in law, Kathy, my 16-year-old nephew Eric, my husband Michole, and my son Sam watched the sunset in anticipation of our trip below the rim the following morning. The Canyon’s contours make the sentinels stand out. From this vantage point along the rim, you can see temple buttes spread out across 12 miles of the central Canyon, their edges softened by the setting sun, emerging shadows and ever-changing shades of what I have come to call Grand Canyon purple.
We hit the trail on a nearly perfect April morning. Carrying much of Sam’s gear in addition to my own, I managed an uneven load. Before long, I slip on a patch of ice along a steep part of the upper trail that featured heart-attack inducing exposure. It took some effort to right myself, but enthusiasm parsed caution and I forged on fearlessly.
The Grandview is a beast of a trail, when compared to the South Kaibab or the Bright Angel, which are like interstate highways in comparison. Impossibly steep cobblestone ramps dominate the first mile and half from the trailhead, and make for rugged, eyes-to-the-ground, uneasy travel.
More than a century earlier, a miner named Pete Berry built the Grandview. The upper 430 feet were completed around 1910. The rest was laid in the 1890s. In some places, dynamite was employed by trail builders to clear paths around sheer cliffs to form walkway ledges. In other places, the rock along these ledges were drilled and pinned with metal rods and reinforced with logs. On top of these, a continuous series of long white angular pieces of stone were placed, and the whole thing held together by chinks of stone and dirt to produce a cobblestone effect. It’s beautiful, but for surely as challenging for backpackers as it was for mules back in the day.
As we descended through the Coconino Sandstone, the trail curves east, then north, traversing through the Hermit Shale and the Supai Group and onto Horseshoe Mesa. On the mesa, the main trail intersects the Horseshoe Mesa Trail, which goes east and west, and north. Follow it north and you pass a defunct copper mine, and the chinked stone remnants of Berry’s cabin. On the southeast side of the saddle between the Grandview Trail and Horseshoe Mesa, a steep trail descends 700 feet through the Redwall Limestone onto to the Tonto Platform.
We spent our first moonlit night camped on the mesa near Berry’s cabin, watching a lone condor circle above us as the nearly full moon crept over the rim 2,600 feet above us. Earlier Sam and I walked out to the northeast arm of the mesa just in time to see the signal light turn on 12 miles down the Canyon on the rim at Desert View’s watchtower. It was intensely quiet save for periodic wind gusts.
Eventually, the wind gust grew so strong we crawled into our tent to hunker down for the night. During the long night the wind blew so hard and howled. The tent felt like it might lift off on the mesa and land somewhere on the platform. Sam was terrified and my nerves were frayed, and I was very grateful to have my brother, my sister-in-law and their 17-year-old son joining us on this adventure. By night two, Sam and I both felt like old pros. I stuffed silicone earplugs in my ears to get some sleep.
The next two days, we meandered around the Mesa, along the Tonto and down to Hance Creek Canyon. One evening, we hike up to the Mesa from the Tonto just in time to see the full moon in all its glory crest the rim.
By our final day in the Canyon, I began to realize how incredibly strong and good I felt, a feeling that stayed with me as I made the physically taxing but joyful hike out. We practically sprinted up the trail, covering the last stretch of the 2,700 feet ascent in three hours. As I stood at the top and surveyed my effort, I immediately began envisioning my next trip.
Part of the reason I had put this trip together was my desire to share my experience of the Canyon with Sam. The other part was to celebrate turning 50. But if you had asked me a year earlier whether I would hike The Canyon again in my lifetime, let alone with my son, I would have answered with a definitive no. But then, standing there, looking out at this incredible place, I no longer had any doubts about what I could do, and I was more determined than ever to keep on backpacking as long as I possibly can with no end date in sight. As we piled our gear into our car, I started thinking of the women I knew who were older than 50, but completely capable of an adventure like this given the right amount of motivation and training.
In Spring 2010, Mary Bothof, Mary Wahlquist and Jody Guth joined me for their first descents of the Grand Canyon, and I am already planning my next trip.