South Kaibab, Bright Angel Trail & the Death Zone
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
South Kaibab, Bright Angel Trail, & the Death Zone – The South Kaibab Trail was one of the more well-known trails in the Grand Canyon and very heavily traveled. It’s one that you can hike down 100’ simply for a different perspective or you can take it 22.5 miles back up the other side of the canyon to the North Rim. We had planned on taking it easy and doing anything from 2 to 6 miles, which would leave us all with enough gas to go big the next day, maybe even for the river.
After a little under a mile of some casual switchbacks and passing Ooh-Aah Point, (it’s definitely named properly), the hike seemed to get easier down to Cedar Point, which felt like more like a trading post than anything else. As the guide says, Cedar Point is “a good turn-a-round for first time canyon hikes, casual hikers, and late starters,” and even though we fit all three categories that day, it didn’t feel like a good end point. Plus, from what we could see of the trail leading North past O’Neill Butte, it looked pretty flat as it traverses the ridge out to Skeleton Point (6 miles roundtrip).
Skeleton Point is where we caught our first glimpse of the Colorado River and it was one of the first places where the size of the Grand Canyon was actually put into perspective for me. Not because I was tired from the hike, but because I was able to look down at the very distant river, yet back up at a seemingly equally distant rim. We poured over the map discussing what might be ahead of us if we went for the river and I heard what can only be described as a snicker from an older couple sitting a few feet away when I said, “Screw it, why not?”
I can still hear, “You crazy kids!” in a fake old-person voice.
Seven miles and two hours forty-five minutes after getting off the shuttle bus near Yaki Point, I was laying back on a sandy beach with my feet in the cold Colorado River feeling completely accomplished. Even the slightest perspective change can alter one’s mindset of the scene laid out in front of them, but sitting on that beach brought the Grand Canyon to a whole new level for me.
Not wanting to leave the soft sand and cool water, we forced ourselves to keep moving towards Bright Angel Campground to stock up on some much needed water and begin to head back up the Bright Angel Trail – 4400’ feet of gain at an average grade of 10%.
A few weeks after our hike, we came to learn that this area of the hike starting back up the Bright Angel Trail is called “the Death Zone” – 200+ people are rescued from this area each year (mainly during summer) and years ago, 10 deaths in this zone prompted the ranger service to implement a Preventive Search and Rescue program where they patrol the trail and assess hikers.
Out of all the hiking I’ve done in my life, I have never felt as horrible and disoriented as I felt in the Death Zone. It felt like it was somewhere around 95° (that’s a total guess…) and despite already downing about three liters of water, I felt so dehydrated that I was worried I was about to pass out. Every step was a struggle for me and I couldn’t help but think we had made a pretty bad decision.
Luckily after about the first 3.5 miles, the trail wound up through a small canyon next to Garden Creek and there was some re-energizing shade, but even after refilling water and getting re-energized at Indian Garden Campground, the next 4.8 miles were torturous.
I had gotten a second (or third or fourth) wind and was finally feeling fine. Tired, but a hell of a lot better than was through the Death Zone. This section was more mentally tough, being able to look up and see not only the final destination of the rim, but also the “3 Mile Resthouse” and “1.5 Mile Resthouse” in between. It all looked so looked so close, yet there were just miles of switchbacks in between them. It was draining.
Up top, I couldn’t help but smile up top when a couple asked us how far we had hiked and we replied with, “the river.”
Toughest hike I’ve ever done… Best hike I’ve ever done.