Adventures in the Grand Canyon (Or How I Almost Died in Arizona)

About a week before Halloween I took off for a bucket-list adventure with my sister and niece. Somehow we managed to book an overnight mule ride to Phantom Ranch in the bottom of the Grand Canyon and secured elusive permits for the campground at Havasu Falls in the Havasupai Indian Reservation. The mule ride must be scheduled at least a year in advance and the window for Havasu Falls opens on Feb. 1 each year. Only 300 people per day are allowed on the reservation so permits are hard to come by. We were very lucky to be able to do both in the same week.

The Sister and The Niece had never been to Las Vegas so we started our trip with a few days hanging out there. I had been to Vegas but with an 8-month-old baby in tow so I didn’t really get the full experience. An early flight and the three-hour time difference had us in bed by 8 p.m. on a Saturday night in Las Vegas. These party animals were up bright and early the next day and set off to explore the big city. We walked from our hotel (Treasure Island) on one end of the strip to Mandalay Bay on the other end to see the aquariums at Mandalay. The sea life exhibit is definitely something to see and worth the admission price but the included polar exhibit was underwhelming. Shopping and sightseeing done and $35 poured into the slot machines, we were in bed early again to head to the Grand Canyon the next morning.

We drove right by Hoover Dam on our way so we made a short stop to marvel at the gigantic structure. It’s worth the stop and it’s amazing to realize that it was built before many of the technologies we take for granted. My favorite part was rubbing the feet of the Winged Figures of the Republic for luck. I love Art Deco styling and I enjoyed all of the architectural details on the dam. But our main objective was to get to the big hole in the ground before sunset. A few hours later, we checked into our lodge at the Grand Canyon and for our mule ride. We made it in time to watch the sun go down over the natural wonder and head to bed for our early morning mule ride appointment.

The mules were brought into a stone corral and each rider was assigned a mule. The Sister and I were nervously saying how one of us was going to be assigned to the biggest mule in the bunch. The Sister’s mule was led over and she was a dainty little thing named Delilah. The Niece was put on a slightly larger animal named Sansa. (No one was sure whether the mule was named after the Game of Throne character but I have to assume so.) And then it was my turn. I was assigned to Lucy. Lucy towered over all the other mules in the group. I’ve ridden bigger animals but arena riding on a huge horse is much different than trail riding on a giant mule that hangs her head over 1,000-foot drops beside the path. For the first hour of the trip, I was sure I was going to plunge right over the edge with this animal. Despite the assurances of the wranglers that no one has died in the 100-plus years of mule rides because of the mule, I knew I was going to be the first.

Eventually the ground leveled out a little and there were fewer sheer drops to make me want to pee myself and the ride became more enjoyable. I was able to focus more on the scenery around me and less on the fact that I was about to die. The geology of the canyon is incredible and spans billions and billions of years from the top to the bottom. The vastness is incomprehensible even when you’re down inside it.

Ten miles from the start at the top we rode into Phantom Ranch in the bottom without having plummeted off a cliff. Saddle sore and tired, The Sister, The Niece and I decided to hike to the Colorado River that we’d crossed on the way in. The hike was relatively short but did wonders for working out aching muscles. Signs warned of the dangerous currents of the Colorado River so we just put our feet in the cold water for a few minutes and relaxed on the sandy beach before heading back for a steak dinner and another early bedtime. At dinner, I realized that you could mail postcards from the store and they’d be marked as having been mailed by mule from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I wanted to send those postcards to the kiddos at home but the store closed for dinner and didn’t reopen until 8 p.m. It was a struggle to stay awake long enough to mail those postcards but I did it! My companions, however, were sound asleep by then, snug and warm in our cozy cabin that had been built by the Civilian Conservation Corps nearly a century ago.

I was dreading the ride back to the top because it was so frightening on the way down. I can say unequivocally, though, that the trip up was much less frightening than the trip down. I don’t know if I was used to Lucy by then or just too overwhelmed to care as much but it was more enjoyable. The worst part was resting the mules. They’re working hard to haul us up the inclines and deserve to take breaks frequently. I just wish we hadn’t had to turn the mules to face into the canyon, looking over those dramatic cliffs. The wranglers want the mules to see where they don’t want to go. That makes perfect sense but Lucy was being a bit of a pain that day and fighting with the mules next to her, kicking and biting at them. I was imagining a kick from her neighbor that would send us both flying into thin air.

Safely back at the top, we dismounted and said goodbye to our rides and fellow adventurers, including the 80-year-old woman who was checking off her own bucket-list item. We’re now officially “mule wranglers” and have the certificates to prove it. A few stops for souvenirs and we set off for the next leg of the trip, heading to the Havasupai Indian Reservation for an early trek into the canyon to see the waterfalls.

The trail head was about an hour away from the only hotel in the area and we hit the trail about 9:30 a.m., later than originally planned but typical for us. The hike started with about a mile or so of switchbacks leading into the canyon, easy enough when going down. The rest of the eight-mile hike into the village of Supai was relatively flat and led through red-rock canyons and along dry creek beds. I love the Southwest and find the starkness beautiful. The temperature was warm but not too warm and made for an enjoyable hike. By the time we reached Supai, though, I was tired and hungry and we still had two miles to the campground. The village is only accessible by foot, hoof or helicopter and we watched a chopper bring in load after load of supplies. You can take the helicopter out of the canyon for under $100 but residents and cargo go first so there’s no guarantee you’ll get a ride out.

We stopped at the village café to get some dinner and rest before continuing on to the campground. If you read reviews about Supai, you’ll find that some people think the residents are rude and unfriendly. We didn’t really find that to be true except when my order at the café (which was placed first) hadn’t even been started by the time my partners had finished eating their meals. It was getting late, the sun was going down and we still had to get to the campground where we had to find a site and set up tents. I’m hangry by this point so I get my cheeseburger to go and we get back on the trail. Our first glimpse of the beautiful turquoise water came at Little Navaho Falls before we entered the campground. We snapped a few pictures but wanted to have camp set up before dark so we didn’t linger. The majestic Havasu Falls marked the entrance to the campground and again we took a few photos but hurried on. The Niece and I picked the first suitable campsite next to the rushing creek. I’m sure there were better sites further along but I was ready to drop my pack and get my tent up.

We had one full day at Havasu Falls and we started by heading back to the village to arrange for mules to carry our packs out the next day. (The cost is $121/mule which can carry up to four packs. It’s completely worth the money.) Then we hiked to Mooney Falls on the far end of the campground. It was a short walk but a dangerous climb down to the bottom of the falls. We had to travel through tunnels in the side of the cliff and the last bit required going down steps hacked into the rock while holding onto a chain railing. I noped out of that one but The Niece was game to descend. She got part of the way down when she met a large group coming back up so none of us made it to the bottom of Mooney Falls. We headed back to Little Navaho Falls and spent some time admiring it. It is not as high as Mooney or Havasu falls but it was my favorite because it’s wider and the water is split by multiple big boulders. It reminded me of the waterfalls you see in the Smoky Mountains.

Back at camp we changed into swimming gear and sandals and headed back to Havasu Falls. It was about 72 degrees that day and the water was brisk. The Sister and The Niece were determined to swim but I again chickened out and decided just to get my feet wet. I don’t enjoy swimming all that much and I definitely don’t enjoy swimming in very cold water. We had a quick lunch next to the falls and The Sister and The Niece headed into the water. I took some pictures of the two of them in the water before posing for pictures myself in front of the waterfall.  Wanting to get back to camp so the two of them could dry before the sun set, we were back in time to see a group of about 25 Boy Scouts set up in the large site next to ours. Despite our fears, they group was polite and mostly quiet. Many of the boys were in their tents long before the adults heading off to bed.

We had to get up early the next morning to have our packs ready for the mules by 7 a.m. We made it with plenty of time to spare and shoved a few snacks into our pockets for the hike out. At Supai we stopped for a breakfast pastry and hit the trail to hike out. It was clear very early on that this was going to be a difficult hike for me. I did not realize how much the trail had descended on our way in and it seemed to be a constant, slight uphill trek on the way out. The Sister and The Niece are faster hikers than me and, not wanting to hold them up, I told them to hike ahead and I would see them at the top.

The further I hiked, the harder it got. There were times I would walk about 100 feet and then have to stop for a minute to rest. A 10-mile hike takes a long time under the best of circumstances but this struggle was going to make it even longer. I gave myself pep talks along the way, telling myself there was only one way out of the canyon and that was on my own two feet, that I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. On the way down, I had barely drunk any water so as we headed out I thought my Nalgene bottle full of water was going to be enough. Boy, was I wrong.

About 7 miles into the hike, long after my companions had reached the trail head, I was taking one of my frequent breaks in the shade. The sun had become intense and reflected off the rocks, driving the temperature even higher. I had a tiny amount of water left in my bottle and was starting to worry a bit about running out. As I was sitting there, a group came along and asked if I was The Sister. He handed me a half full bottle of water that my sister had sent down for me. I could have cried. OK, I did cry a little but not until that group had walked away.

I managed to make it a couple more miles and was out of the canyon itself. Now I was facing a trail that traveled sharply uphill from this point on. And I had to go to the bathroom. Anyone who has spent any time in the wilderness knows there’s only one place to go. And I was in a wide open section of trail with only knee-high scrub brush to hide behind. With no choice, I took care of business and sat down on a rock for another necessary rest break.

Throughout the canyon I’d had intermittent cell service and I had fully realized by then that I needed some help to get the rest of the way out. Water critically low and nothing but some Oreos in the way of food, I was beginning to get scared. As I turned on my phone to send a text requesting help to The Sister, I was almost in tears again to see I had no service on that section of trail. Then I see a woman running towards me. She stopped and asked my name, then told me The Sister had sent me and asked how I was doing. You know how when someone asks that you just automatically say “Fine” or “Good”? I first said “I’m good” and then realized I wasn’t good. I needed help.

Jessica, my trail angel, gave me a 5 Hour Energy and had three bottles of water with her. I chugged the first bottle and she gave me a pep talk about how we were going to get to the top. She was patient with me each time I needed to rest and told me about her life, effectively taking my mind off my immediate struggles. We only had about a mile of trail left but it was all up. We stopped many times and talked about the wild horses we saw below us. She told me about her kids and I talked about mine.  She encouraged me every step of the way, even when I was feeling ridiculous for having gotten into such a bad place.

In the end, we made it to the top. I know I would have made out of that freaking canyon eventually but it would have taken me much longer than if Jessica had not been with me for the last mile or so. I’d love to blame my struggle with the hike on jet lag or elevation or anything else but the truth is that it was simply my fault for not being prepared for that difficult of a hike. Poor lifestyle choices (being overweight, not exercising enough and smoking again after five years of being off cigarettes) on top of not carrying enough food and water for the trek are the real culprits. I wasn’t really going to die in that canyon but that ill-fated hike was enough to make me think about some changes I need to make.

What it didn’t do, though, was take away my adventurous spirit. The Sister and I are already making plans to hike the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier. But first I have to quit smoking.