Quick Numbers of the GCT:
- ~575 miles, 35 days, all on the north side of the river, footsteps connected, in totality.
Katie Gerber and I completed a Grand Canyon Traverse over the Autumn of '22. The GCT is a route spanning the length of the Grand Canyon from Lees Ferry at the eastern end to Pearce Ferry at the western end of the canyon, all on foot, all under the North Rim. We utilized the nearest access road on the north side of the canyon on the western end that terminates at an historic ranch on BLM land at Tassi Ranch. Pearce Ferry is usually the choice taken, but we did not want to stash a PFD to float and swim across the river.
The route that I had drawn followed various layers, platforms, and levels of the Grand Canyon with all of the track sketched on the north side of the river. Along the route, I wanted to experience a variety of scenery and challenges in the Grand Canyon while not being too technical. With that being said, this route did not have any rappelling involved nor any scaling or climbing above mid 5th class. Nothing really went over 5.2, actually, if we were lucky. We kept the route more in a fashion of one that is hiked and scrambled with some minor rock climbing. We did use a 30 foot webbing on occasion to hoist up or down our packs in certain spots.
I do not know how this route compares to others who have trekked the length of the Grand Canyon. There are literally a million different ways to find a way through. And, literally there are a million ways to get trapped or stuck. I do not think ours even compares in difficulty to Rudow's route. Our skill levels do not have the rappelling aspect or the experience enough to descend some of those crazy hollows I had heard so much about. We come from a long distance hiking world rather than a canyoneering world, to be a little bit more frank. So, the route was geared and organized as such. Our route followed more or less what another adventurer had used, Eagan. Either way, the GCT of whatever description is very, very dangerous and is not to be taken lightly.
The majority of the route is cross-country. Shoot, although some aspects of the Tuckup Trail felt trodden and used, nothing other than the roughly 9 miles on the Clear Creek Trail is maintained. Everything else is cross-country, user trail, climber trail, sheep trail, deer trail, scrambling, scaling, crawling, creek walking, boulder hopping, ledge walking, tight-roping, cliff tip-toeing, chute sliding, and any other form of precarious foot travel.
Besides the method and characteristics of travel, scarcity of water is probably the biggest concern. The Grand Canyon is a desert ecosystem for the most part. One has to be lucky with storms and potholes. One, however, must not rely on that luck. Monsoons rage in August and September yet the higher elevations could see snow during that same timeframe. Spring can be wet yet the potholes can be dry from an arid Winter. Creeks are few and far between, springs even fewer, and although the Colorado River is used at some points, the river can be inaccessible or muddy and silty. Getting creative with water settling and collection is a tool one must know. Long water carries are an every day occurrence.
The timing of such a hike has to be considered carefully. Spring and Autumn are the usual timeframes. I chose Autumn because of the timing with work, adventures, time for planning, and personal life stuff. We had temperatures ranging from in the low 20s to 100 degrees. We had 3 inches of snow fall on us one night, had an atmospheric river drop a deluge from overhead, and had very hot and dry conditions, all at various points and all at times that were relatively close to each other. We needed a wet monsoon season to fill up the potholes. We hoped the weather in late September would be cool. Yet, Mother Nature does not have our itinerary, as my friend Swami says. Luckily for us, late Summer had proven to be a wet time. Late September can still be sweltering in the Marble Canyon in the eastern end and the Lower Granite Gorge of the western end. We sure encountered that terrible heat when we started.
Resupplying at a store is not an option. Maybe the North Rim or South Rim if one chooses to do so. Other than that, food and water caching is a must. Whether driven by in car, hiked in, rafted in, preparation in advance with plenty of time given is needed. We had caches in South Canyon, Thunder River trailhead, and at Toroweap. Even with the cache at Toroweap we still had an 11 day food carry.
Travel is slow. We learned the hard way. Although I believe my expectations what Katie and I could do, I still underestimated the swiftness of travel. On average, what was drawn on the map was at least 20% less than what was actually hiked. In the planning and preparation process, I thought Katie and I were capable of averaging a 15 miles per day pace. While that is an incredible daily mileage for the terrain and character of the Grand Canyon, I believed with the route designed we could have achieved such a daily pace. That being said, the route dictated our pace and we traveled at a way slower speed than anticipated. Overall, we still nearly averaged that 15mpd pace.
This route, if undertaken, will be a very challenging endeavor. One will be on a true adventure. Research upon research, back up plan after back up plan, whatever you think is kosher just do more, double it in fact; the diligence and preparation of a Grand Canyon Traverse is stupendous. The logistics alone is mind-boggling. This blog is not intended to assist one with hiking the length of the Grand Canyon. After hiking the route and getting to know the intricacies, I realized I didn't know shit about the canyon no matter how much research I had done. I have so much respect and admiration for the folks who have spent a lifetime out there in the Grand Canyon. This route is simply not one to 'plug and place.' I will reiterate that the route is very, very dangerous. I will reiterate you will need to do more research for this than anything you have undertaken before. And, when you feel ready, you still need to do double the research.
Lastly, I will not be sharing a resource set with anybody. This mainly includes the maps, drawn track or GPS track. I am more than available to assist anyone with preparation or to answer questions about such a route.
In '13, while on the Hayduke Trail portion of the Vagabond Loop, I met Li on the North Rim. Some friends had put me in contact with him. He hosted me for 2 days. We got to know each other. I had fallen in love with the Grand Canyon via the route of the Hayduke. Li provided me some history of how that route was drawn up through the canyon. Li introduced me to Grand Canyon explorers George Steck and Harvey Butchart. He showed me the books and I began scouring the books there at this house on my days off. Then, he mentioned Rich Rudow, who had thru hiked the Grand Canyon in '12. Needless to say, Li planted a seed in my brain.
Over the years, I heard about other hikes and continued to read Steck. Some friends who had spent time in the canyon as raft guides led me down a blog path where I found Eagan's. I pondered the route often but felt it was too much to undertake as I just did not have the knowledge enough to hike the Grand Canyon. However, I believed I knew it was possible and I knew I would plan for it eventually. In '19, I began the planning. I felt ready in the physical sense and my hiking and scrambling ability. I also felt ready to absorb the massive amount of information needed to undertake such an adventure. I began planning for an Autumn '20 hike. Sure enough, as everyone knows, the Pandemic hit and I put aside the plans. By early '21, I began the planning for a GCT attempt in the Autumn of '22. Now, as they say, the rest is history.
Our intention was to hike from east to west, from Lees Ferry to Tassi Ranch in a continuous fashion. I had sketched an estimated 475 mile route and broke that up into 4 sections. I estimated our daily average to be 15mpd. The first section from Lees Ferry to the North Rim would be the first 10 days, so Marble Canyon and the Northeast portion of the Grand Canyon. Then, Katie had to take 10 days to work guiding hiking groups in West Virginia. This was a planned break. We would then reconvene at the North Rim to finish the last 23 days to Tassi Ranch. The second section would be from the North Rim to the Thunder River trailhead. The third section would be from the Thunder River trailhead to Toroweap. Finally, the fourth section would be from Toroweap to Tassi Ranch.
For our caching efforts, we hiked in a cache in South Canyon. We utilized the North Rim as a resupply point two different times using Li's apartment. We drove in caches at the Thunder River trailhead and Toroweap. With all that laid out, our 1st leg was from 9/27-10/6 and the 2nd-4th legs were from 10/20-11/10.
We ended up adding a couple of days on the 2nd-4th legs due to what we had figured out with the pace of travel. We moved way slower than anticipated. We also missed a 4 day stretch in Marble Canyon due to me having a medical bout with hypernatremia and heat exhaustion. This bout was serious enough that we had to leave the canyon. I was in seriously bad shape. You can read about it in the journal entries. We ended up completing that stretch after getting to Tassi Ranch. Although, the route ended up not being continuous, we connected all of our steps and in our eyes completed a thru hike that aligned with our intentions.
We wanted to attempt the GCT in an ultralight trekking style. Our gear had been proven in some of the most harshest environments. We are experts in this style and philosophy. We would also utilize the planned break we had and the caches we planted to re-up, replenish, and repair any gear we were having trouble with or with gear that needed attention. We didn't always follow that rule, in particular with footwear. Sure enough, we both could have used another pair of shoes at the Toroweap cache. All our other lightweight gear handled the harshness fairly well. By far, the biggest strain on gear, other than the wear and tear on our shoes, was to our MLD Exodus 55L frameless backpacks. We wedged and scraped the pack in chimneys, chutes, and atop boulders of various gritty textures. The packs' durability held up supremely, however. I was really impressed when we loaded up the Exodus with 11 days of food and 2 gallons of water. An ultra lightweight pack held strongly with nearly 45lbs!
Along the lines of the ultralight trekking style was our intention to move swiftly, light and fast. We moved from the first crack to the last strands of daylight every day. We had limited daylight with the Autumn lighting, so we more or less hiked the whole day with 3 small breaks. This is the style we feel the most comfortable with. Maybe to hike the length of the Grand Canyon like this is unprecedented, I am not entirely sure. But, I can probably be sure that not a hiker before had roughly 10-12lb base weights.
Finally, and most importantly, I wanted everything to be self-sufficient. We did not have years of experience on the river or in the canyon. But, we came from a very extensive and experienced background in long distance travel in very tough environments. I do not mean the Triple Crown Trails either. We had extensive lengths of time in very remote places without much of any trail. While clearly I knew this GCT endeavor would be bigger in every way, I still wanted to be entirely self-sufficient. So, this meant we could hike or drive in a cache, but we were trying not to rely on the rafters for support. In the end, we were more or less self-sufficient other than Li picking us up at Tassi Ranch and letting us use his apartment on the North Rim.
Sketched at 475 miles but estimated in earnest at 575 miles.
The sketched route was considerably lower in mileage than the actual miles walked. The terrain and method of travel became toilsome, extremely so. The sketched route cannot account for all the boulder hopping, climbing, the constant up and down travel over, in, and out of ravines, gullies, canyons, and rocky knobs. The sketched route does not also take into account the constant weaving within and among the fields upon fields of various cacti. It is so hard to communicate clearly the severity of travel and the slowness of movement within the GCT route. The 575 estimated hiked mileage still feels on the conservative side.
Anticipated roughly 32 days, finished the route in 35 days.
Hiking dates: 9/27-9/28, 10/1-10/5, 10/19-11/10.
Red Tape and Safety:
Get a permit! The GCNP Backcountry Office is super helpful and will work with you if you have done your due diligence. Albeit the permits in total cost a pretty penny, having the proper permit felt safe most of all. While the process of obtaining a permit can be clunky, usually it is because one does not know the canyon that well. The rangers at the office are super knowledgeable. In fact, some have even thru-hiked the Grand Canyon, as well. Overall, the NPS provides a safety mechanism in an otherwise inaccessible place. Getting a permit for the Grand Canyon is the responsible thing to do.
With that in mind, have your own safety plan. We used a DeLorme InReach with a messaging and SOS subscription and checked in with our support team nightly. Having a plan with the capability to check the weather is crucial. You will not have any cell service, you will be in very remote places without any access to the outside world. All that said, learn the river and how people use the river. I regret not doing this as much as I should have.
In the Grand Canyon, getting in a dangerous spot or being in danger is a legitimate concern. Even when you feel safe you are so far away from anywhere. Seriously.
So many too list! To preface, this is no doubt absolutely the toughest and most challenging hiking I have ever done while also being the most rewarding experience I have ever had. I had the time of my life through everything. Living second to second, each decision vital to the next decision, each decision with immediate circumstances, the GCT felt like the epitome of adventure. Second to none in my life. This GCT adventure has been the best time of my entire life.
- First and foremost, saying aloud to myself when it was all said and done: I can now say I have walked the length of the entire Grand Canyon. I experienced the best possible adventure I could ever have dreamt. At one point in my journal I texted out: The hardest shit seems impossible. Typing this now, hiking the length of the Grand Canyon feels unbelievable.
- Hiking with Katie. This adventure was a team effort. I have known Katie for about 5 years now. Last year she hiked most of the Great Basin Trail with me. We are so different personality wise yet have similar temperaments. So, we sync up with expectations and balance out our ways of doing things. Order and chaos, pull and push; however we balance each other out we get down to business when we have to. To be honest, I like hiking with her because she likes hiking and pushing the limits as much as I do. Out on the GCT we really flourished in navigating the route. I was normally out front picking out the way and reading the immediate terrain. She was not far behind looking at the bigger picture. We definitely had a co-piloting thing going on and the rhythm we had felt smooth. I know her well enough that we don't have to say much to know what the other person is feeling about a decision.
- The second day and going through the hypernatremia and heat exhaustion. Yes, I know once you read the trial this sentiment seems absurd. But, I think a highlight is also one where one grows and learns rather than just being peachy, scenic, and positive. I learned so much because of that experience. In some way, that severe medical incident prepared me both mentally and physically for the rigors of the Grand Canyon.
- The mountain lion encounter. Like I wrote in the post, an image I will never ever forget is of the mountain lion slinking and lurking away, weaving through the shrubs, her haunches raised and churning, her tail hanging in the air like a rudder in the water, her tail afloat as its own entity; that whole experience with Katie was exhilarating, frightening, crazy, life threatening, scary, exciting, and could have gone in so many directions. We feel very lucky to walk away from that situation unscathed.
- The long nights, the very long nights. Simply stargazing, moongazing, observing the heavens and the world spin slowly by all under the darkest skies I have ever seen; observing the moon cycle over the month, feeling the bright glow of the moon and watching the shadows cast from the brilliant moon; sensing time by the location of Orion in the sky, praying ritualistically to the moon and Orion and Canis Majoris every night; these nights became my religion. I am not one to swoon on prayer and such. I just believe in the power of nature way too much, however, I fell into a religious swoon with these long nights. I succumbed to the darkness and fell in love with the world all over again. I found a faith I had never known because of these long nights, because of these constellations and moon. The cooking of dinner, laying on my back and drifting to sleep while stargazing, waking up throughout the night to have the blanket of the Milky Way above, to wake up with Orion in the same spot on the horizon, to preparing breakfast in the predawn darkness, all of this touched on something primordial, even pagan. I felt to be living life differently, so different than the world outside of where I was living the past month. The Milky Way became the murals and myths, the pages of a great book, all the temples and buttes became the dome inside the place of worship, the canyon walls and cliffs became the holy edifice and the sanctuary, the slabs of rock I slept on became my altar; the Grand Canyon became my church.
- The potholes. I wrote a lot about the potholes, the oracles of the desert. Water falling from the sky and collecting into pockets in the rock, looking for the shimmers, knowing the gleam, then gathering up this water felt so engrained in my DNA, some ancient act of survival. Without these potholes, throughout the whole canyon, the accomplishment would other be impossible.
- The Shamans Panel. My friend Sirena gave me a waypoint for this powerful and cultural site. The colors, the imagery, the spiritual power, the connection with people of the past, the connection with nature, the setting, all of this left me stirring in spirit. I am so grateful for the brief yet powerful time among the ancients.
- The navigating. Yea, this is my favorite thing to do. And, to do it in such a harsh and unforgiving landscape through such inhospitable conditions with so much rock, so much carnivorous and menacing rock, is simply amazing. With every different section I had to learn the nuances of travel within that particular landscape. I had to learn the language of the Grand Canyon all over again. In all my 45 years of life on Earth, I have never been so engaged with one act as I was in navigating the way through the Grand Canyon. Every second of every day. The Grand Canyon holds secrets, a secret language and I am so grateful in learning even a little bit of that special language.
- The utter beauty of the scenery. Jaw dropping at every point. Every night was the best campsite ever. Too many superlatives to go on. Everything about the Grand Canyon is simply incomprehensible and indescribable. From Marble Canyon to the Nankoweap area to the Inner Gorge, from the Kanab Creek area to the Esplanade to the Tuckup area and then onto the Lower Granite Gorge -- nothing but spectacular.
- Reconnecting with Li. Seeing him at Tassi Ranch brought a huge smile to my face. I knew he understood what we had accomplished the instant we saw him. I cannot thank him enough for all the support and help he so generously provided. I cannot also thank him enough for introducing me to Steck and Butchart. He encouraged a wanderer's curiosity. All these years later, that vagabond has walked the length of the Grand Canyon. Li is a big reason and inspiration for that.
- I could go on an on, on and on...