Sunday, June 13, 2021

The Grand Canyon - An Upside Down Hike Into a Summertime Oven

Figure 1: A view of the Grand Canyon from the South Rim. The faint line in the middle of the image is the side-trail that leads out to Plateau Point from Indian Gardens Campground, which sits along the main Bright Angel Trail.

It’s one of the Wonders of the World and for anyone who has ever visited the Grand Canyon, there are really no adjectives that can adequately capture its immensity and raw beauty. Around 6 million visitors come to this National Park every year, second only to the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, my home.   However, it is estimated that less than 5%, or 1 in 20 visitors ever set their foot below the Rim of the Canyon.

Figure 2: A hike from Rim to Base in the Grand Canyon is best done in the Spring or Fall and over 2 to 3 days. Hikers need to be prepared for such an arduous journey. That includes proper clothing, a good-fitting backpack, hiking poles and its very important to have the proper footwear. The most important item on any hike in the Grand Canyon however is water, and lots of it. That could be the difference between life and death.

I have been fortunate to hike down to the base of The Grand Canyon, to the Colorado River, twice in my life, the most recent hike just this past Spring. For anyone who is physically fit enough to attempt this hike, the rewards are truly amazing, with views that take your breath away. The hike gives one the sense of just how big and beautiful this wonder of nature really is.  However, there are a number of factors that make this hike a significant challenge for most people regardless of how physically fit you are and a very dangerous one for those who are not prepared for the arduous journey.

In this blog, I discuss the issues with the weather making the hike during the summer months, when most people visit the Canyon. There are separate issues that come into play in the other 3 seasons, mainly snow and ice on the trails but I will not cover that in this article. By the way, to learn all about the Grand Canyon, I have found the absolute best site is right from our own National Parks Service.   

The Upside-Down Hike

That “upside-down” nature of a Grand Canyon hike is the first factor in the challenge of attempting even a partial walk down into the Canyon. Most hikes usually start out low and end up higher than the start. Often, you are trying to get to a mountain top or some other landmark that offers a great view of the surroundings. When you hike “up” to a goal, most of your energy is expended in that uphill climb. If you tire out and do not feel you are able to go on too much farther, you can turn around and gravity will do the work to get you back down with far less energy as it took to get you up the mountain. In this case, you sort of know you can make it back because it won’t be as difficult as getting up to where you hiked.

In the Grand Canyon, the opposite is true.  The hike down into the Canyon can be very deceptive. You drop in elevation rapidly, and before you know it, you may be 1,000 ft. below where you started out. Visitors, many of whom are from far distant locations, may have no idea just how strenuous a hike it is to come back up out of the canyon after venturing down several hundred or even thousands of feet. In addition, many visitors are not prepared for a strenuous hike, along rock strewn trails that can easily twist an ankle or worse.  

The full hike to the base of the Canyon from the South Rim is usually done on one of two trails, either the South Kaibab Trail, or the Bright Angel Trail. Each has their own particular advantages and drawbacks. However, the distance you travel covers anywhere from 7 to over 9 miles one-way and the elevation change approaches a staggering 5,000 ft. 

By the way, before you ever start down into the Canyon, if you are not acclimated to the altitude, you already will feel out of breath, even after a short walk. That’s because there is only about 80% of the air at this altitude, of nearly 7,000 ft, compared to sea level. It already puts you behind the 8-ball if you are thinking about hiking.

Fig 3: Google Earth view of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and the two main trails that lead down to the Base at the Colorado River. 

As noted on the U.S. Parks website “there are no easy trails into or out of the Grand Canyon. Over 250 people are rescued from the Canyon each year. Rangers respond to an average of 400 medical emergencies each year.”

When you combine the fact that millions of visitors travel to this remote high-desert location, unaware of the unique hiking conditions, let alone the dangerous changes in temperature and weather from the rim to the base of the Canyon, it makes the Grand Canyon a dangerous place for those who are not prepared.

Fig 4: Proper planning can result in a hike that is safe and enjoyable. My partner and I made this stop at Skeleton Point on the South Kaibab Trail. This is about 3 miles and 2,000 ft. lower than the Rim and offers beautiful views of the Inner Canyon.  

Hiker's Peril - Temperature and Humidity

The properties of the atmosphere and location of the Grand Canyon account for some amazing daily temperature differences. The change in temperature you will experience from the Rim to the Base of the Canyon may be the greatest you will ever feel on any hike. It is not out of the question to see greater then a 60-degree temperature change from a hike that starts out in the morning on the Rim and ends by mid-afternoon at the Colorado River! In the summer, the temperature at Phantom Ranch at the base of the Canyon regularly tops 100 degrees and on occasion can get as high as 120 degrees.  As an example, on Saturday, June 12, 2021, the sunrise temperature on the South Rim was 43 degrees. That afternoon, at the base of the Bright Angel Trail, down at Phantom Ranch, the temperature had skyrocketed to 116 degrees!

Figure 5: Summary of weather conditions on June 12, 2021 at the Rim and Base of the Canyon. At 5:43 AM the temperature at the Rim was 43 degrees, later that afternoon, Phantom Ranch at the Base of the Canyon recorded a sweltering 116 degrees.

There are two primary factors that cause this tremendous difference in temperature.  The first is elevation. In the atmosphere, the temperature changes by about 3.5 degrees for every 1,000 ft. of elevation. As you go higher it gets colder, that’s why you see snow on mountain tops. The reverse is true if you descend into a Canyon. So, with a nearly 5,000 ft. difference from Rim to Base of the Canyon, the temperature difference will approach 18 degrees.

The second is the desert location of the Canyon. The air is exceptionally dry in this part of the world. The drier the air, the quicker it heats and cools down.  So, it gets colder at night and hotter during the daytime than air that has higher humidity. Sandy soils also heat up and cool down much more quickly than soils that hold more moisture.

This combination of factor produces a “double-whammy” in the Canyon. Let’s look at a standard “desert climate” hike that starts in the morning and ends in mid-afternoon, like the one from the Rim to the Base of the Canyon. Sunrise will be extra cool. However, by mid-afternoon, the desert air has heated very rapidly so it’s hot. Now add the fact that the temperature will actually increase, on average, another 17-18 degrees from when you began at the higher elevation in the morning and you end up with hot on top of hot!  In the example below, a person starts out on a Rim to Base hike at 45 degrees in the morning and ends up at 107 degrees by mid-afternoon! 

Figure 6: This cross section of the hike on South Kaibab Trail from Rim to Base shows the combination of the rise in temperature due to elevation that naturally occurs in the atmosphere. Coupled with a daily temperature rise from sunrise to mid-afternoon in a desert environment, it is common to start a hike in the 40s and end in an oven at over 100 degrees!

This kind of heat in very dry air promises to literally desiccate anyone who does not have adequate water on a hike like this. In a very dry environment like the Canyon, you don’t feel like you are sweating because your sweat immediately evaporates into the dry air. This makes it even more dangerous for the unsuspecting hiker because you do not feel like you are losing water. Far too often, it’s too late by the time one discovers just how dehydrated they are. Those who are not prepared pay the price with severe dehydration, heat stroke and in some cases death. It is paramount to carry enough water and sip it frequently when hiking. The South Kaibab Trail has NO water sources on it. We each carried about a gallon of water on our trip down. On the trip back out along the Bright Angel Trail, there are a few water sources available depending on the time of the year.  However, you cannot rely on them. It is always important to take along your water filter if you need to pull water out of a creek. 

Most of the issues associated with those who need medical attention or need to be rescued can be traced to two factors; people do not carry near enough water for a hike in this high-desert environment and they are not dressed for the conditions to hike, especially when it comes to footwear.  Even if you decide to take a short walk down the Bright Angel Trail from the South Rim of the Canyon, make certain you have adequate hiking shoes that give you the support necessary to walk on rocky, sloping trails. Many of the injuries that occur in the Canyon are associated with improper footwear that lead to anything from twisted ankles to broken legs. Carry water, more than you think you will need. Sip it often, and remember, even though you may feel you are not seating and don’t need water, your body is constantly evaporating water but because of the dry air, you do not feel sweat.

Understanding the unique climate of the Grand Canyon and the fact that your first half of the hike will be much easier than the trip back up and out, will make your experience much more enjoyable. Any trip into the Canyon is sure to give you a better understanding and feeling of this Wonder of the World. Take the time to plan and prepare and your rewards will be well worth it. Enjoy!!

Figure 7: Looking up from the base of the Canyon, this hiker reflects the awe one feels as they fully experience this Wonder of the World. It can be a bit overwhelming to see how far they have hiked and how far they still have to go. But it's truly worth it. After a Rim to Base hike, you really understand this Wonder of the World.