Finding Wilderness in the Second Most-Visited National Park
Nick Lake is a photographer, outdoorsman, adventurist, and Garmin ambassador. He’s journeyed across the world, deep into the heart of the wild, to capture images that tell the story of our astounding planet. Recently, Nick explored Grand Canyon National Park and described his experiences in his own words below.
They say that less than 1% of visitors to Grand Canyon National Park ever make it below the South Rim of the canyon, and fewer still descend all the way down to Phantom Ranch along the Colorado River. The goal we set—to reach the North Rim and return, in mid-winter. It set us on a course upon which far fewer still have embarked. Since so many millions of people congregate to gawk from just a few, isolated areas on the South Rim, it’s ironic that the Grand Canyon is saddled with the stigma that it is no longer a wild place worth visiting. Long gone are the days of John Wesley Powell’s valiant forays into the great fissure, many say, replaced by convenience stores, flip-flops, and forty-foot RVs.
In fact, even I initially balked at the idea when my friend, Ryan, originally proposed it. He’d been working with the US Fisheries eradicating invasive species from the Colorado’s tributaries for a few months and had grown accustomed to climbing into and out of the canyon twice a week. I’d been marinating on my couch since the start of an especially dank and gloomy Seattle winter and felt I could think of a dozen better, wilder places to spend a week. But when I heard about the dream team of adventurers slated to head into the canyon I bought a last-minute flight to Flagstaff and joined the group.
We set out later than expected along the Kaibab Trail after a bit of a permit snafu, and immediately donned microspikes to combat the hard-packed ice coating much of the upper reaches of the trail. Despite clear skies and temperatures hovering around 45 degrees, we found that the trail didn’t dry out until at least 1,000 vertical feet down into the Canyon, according to the stats on my fēnix 3.
By the time arrived at the base of the canyon and crossed the suspension cable bridge, intrepidly placed across the raging Colorado River by hearty engineers in the early 20th century, and entered Phantom Ranch, my knees were aching in ways I’d never experienced before. Descending more than 5,000 vertical feet over seven miles succeeded in jarring the hubris out of me and the knowledge that my first day on the trail was only half over gave me the feeling I might be in over my head. We continued through “The Box,” a narrow slot canyon along a gurgling creek rife with cactus, sagebrush, yucca and agave, in sharp contrast to the scantily clad upper canyon. By the time we arrived at Cottonwood, our first campground, we were too exhausted to set up tents, opting to sleep under the vigilant eyes of Venus, Jupiter, and the moon.
Sunrise on our second morning smeared the now-distant South Rim with cotton candy pink. We could see our breath as we exhaled from the sultry depths of our sleeping bags, but any chill we may have felt soon dissipated as we trudged seven more miles and nearly 6,000 feet up the North Rim along rusty red pathways blasted into the sheer cliff sides. Our trail became more wintery still with each passing mile, at times completely frozen under feet of ice from waterfalls, requiring a bit of deft, if not cautious, navigation. The landscape completed its winter transformation as we passed through the Supai Tunnel, emerging onto a trail covered in four feet of snow. We continued to posthole the remaining three miles to the top of the North Rim where we arrived as the last light of day waned. Thankfully, in the face of rapidly plummeting temperatures and a stiff breeze, we were welcomed by a cozy yurt replete with a wood-burning stove—our home base for the next two nights.
We spent the third day of our trip traipsing through the snowy Ponderosa forests that blanket the North Rim and marveling at the utter solitude of the place. Cut off from civilization by over fifty miles of unplowed roads and trails, the North lies entirely dormant through the winter months, visited by just a fraction as many tourists as the South Rim. Only those with skis or skids make it as far as the shuttered Bright Angel Visitor’s center. We had the place completely to ourselves, laying the first, and only, boot tracks out to Bright Angel Point where we watched the sun slip below the western horizon, enjoying a view nobody else in the world would experience.
After our much-needed rest day, we woke to the trickle of melting snow under sunny skies and began our descent back into the springtime of the lower canyon. After the steep drop-off from the North Rim, we were rewarded with a more leisurely walk back to Phantom Ranch, back through The Box as golden afternoon sunlight crept up the canyon walls. We laid out our sleeping bags under the stars one last time at Phantom Ranch and enjoyed our last dinner on the trail together as a solitary owl hooted nearby in the darkness.
I awoke before sunrise on our fifth and final day in the canyon. I had a flight to catch out of Flagstaff, so I opted for an earlier start back up the Kaibab Trail to the car. The morning air was crisp and the sky clear, promising a beautiful golden sunrise. I’d had to cut the back of my left boot open with a pocketknife the previous day to relieve pressure on my achilles tendon, so my foot swam around, threatening new blisters with each step. Being Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I opted to listen to several of his most famous speeches as I ascended the South Rim, closing back in on civilization with each step. It was a special experience hearing the words of a uniquely American icon resonate as I made my way through a uniquely American landscape.
As I crested the canyon edge at last, weary and sore, yet euphoric in light of my accomplishment, I sat to reflect for a few moments before re-entering the bustle of the connected world. There, atop a boulder at the trailhead, my five days of introspection and community with the natural world was interrupted in the most “Grand Canyon” of ways as the hiss of opening bus doors signaled an impending flood of tourists. I wove my way through the crowd, hopped onto the bus, and hurried back to the airport to catch my flight.
Learn even more about Nick’s adventures here and stay tuned for more amazing content from @NickrLake on social media. Don’t forget to share with us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and use #HaveNoLimits.
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