From her decades-long nursing career to raising five (yes, five!) daughters, my mom has been a constant source of inspiration and set for us a wonderful example of how to live a full, rich life.
So when she told us all that she wanted to do was to hike down — and then back up — the Grand Canyon, my sisters and I knew we had to find a way to make it happen. As in most situations, persistence pays off. After years of planning, weeks of training, and even a couple of close calls at the airport, we were able to complete our adventure… and make memories we’ll never forget.
Here’s how we did it, what we learned along the way, and what you might want to consider if you’re planning a similar bucket-list type trip with a parent.
Originally, my mom wanted to hike down to the canyon floor, stay at the famed Phantom Ranch, then hike back up the next day. This was the vision of the trip that got us stuck, for years! It is extremely tough to score those coveted reservations. The ranch’s quaint cottages are available by lottery only — and despite our efforts for three full years, we could never win a spot. When we finally did receive word we had reservations, it was during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we had to turn them down.
At that point, mom let us know that she thought the trip might never happen. She was really disappointed that it just wouldn’t work out. That’s when we learned an important first lesson that served us well during planning and the actual hike: flexibility.
We did some research and realized that while the U.S National Park Service doesn’t recommend a down and up one-day hike, it can be done. One of my sisters found YouTube videos of people embarking on, and completing the trek, and shared them with our mom. Fortunately, she’s extremely fit for her age and decided she would be up for the challenge. And getting reservations at one of the lodges in Grand Canyon National Park was a snap compared to securing them at Phantom Ranch.
We knew this would be an endurance event requiring careful preparation. But pivoting — and going with the flow when it came to both our accommodations and the hike — allowed us to make Mom’s bucket list trip a reality. We quickly booked our flights and rooms and downloaded training plans.
My sisters, my mom, and I live in different states. We had flights converging on Phoenix from Newark, St. Louis, and Atlanta. Getting them coordinated and booked was a bit of a logistics challenge, made more daunting by labor shortages at several airlines. One sister missed her flight due to long security lines but was able to fly standby to arrive in Arizona just 3 hours late. We had two rental cars, and part of our group hit the road north toward the park while Mom and another sister waited for our late arrival.
The Grand Canyon is about 3.5 hours from Sky Harbor, up mountain switchbacks to reach an elevation of around 7,000 feet. When we arrived, we were able to check into our rooms early and scout dining options, as well as pick up last-minute supplies for our packs. Once we were all together, we caught up, went through our packing lists and gear choices, and then tried to get a decent night’s rest after the hectic travel day. It was going to be a very early morning — with a 6 a.m. hike start!
Surprises Along the Way
When getting ready for a hike as intense as a down and back at the Grand Canyon, you try to think of every possible situation — and pack for it. One item I was especially thankful for early on was my headlamp. When we set out, we had about 90 minutes before sunrise and it was nearly pitch black, save for the stars. I couldn’t have imagined how dark the start would be!
Although we brought layers, I wasn’t prepared for the wild temperature swings we experienced during our 13-hour hike. Don’t get me wrong, the early November weather was picture-perfect, with no precipitation and next to no wind. However, it was in the mid-30s when we set off. On the canyon floor, it was 86 degrees with bright sun.
Going down the South Kaibab Trail and back up the Bright Angel was intense, made more so because the trails were quite dusty, which made it tough to get a solid foothold at times. There were a couple of slips and falls on the way down — none serious, thank goodness!
While we all knew this adventure would be tough, I also didn’t realize how significant the altitude change would be. We did pack portable oxygen spray, which can be breathed in like an inhaler. It certainly helped on the way back up!
The final thing I could not have possibly prepared for: the incredible beauty inside the canyon. Each switchback — on the way down and going back up — revealed another breathtaking vista or view.
What We Learned
As mentioned before, we were on the trail for a total of 13 hours with my mom. We took it slow and steady, had plenty of rest breaks, and took the last 1.5 miles especially slow. If you’re going to take on the canyon, it’s important to take your time.
Planning out your nutrition on the trail is of vital importance. You’ll need to eat more than you think you need, and most of it on the go. We packed GU Energy Gel, protein bars, nuts, and meat jerky. Things that were easily accessed and munched during the trek were the best bets. Also, it nearly goes without saying, but you must be hydrated and carry a lot of water. Water sources along the trail are limited, and it can be dangerous — even deadly — if you run low or out.
This was not a walk in just any park. It was physically demanding in a way I had not anticipated, and I was in absolute awe of my mom and my sisters. I learned we can truly do anything we put our minds to. We cheered each other on, wouldn’t let each other quit, and made it back to the rim, together. The sense of camaraderie and teamwork we felt in helping our mother achieve her big bucket list travel adventure was worth all the pain, aches, and black toenails we ended up with; there was no better feeling than finally finishing up the trek. Please pass the Advil!
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