Glenwood trio hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon

One day two, we entered the Bright Angel Trail and suspension bridge across the Colorado River. Contributed photo

It’s estimated that over 6 million people visit Grand Canyon National Park each year, but only one percent of them ever travel to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Three Glenwood residents became part of that elite club in April of last year when they hiked nine hours down the south rim of the Grand Canyon.

Kim Kremin and Karen Kirckof have been friends since childhood. The women, now in their early 60s, still enjoy each other’s friendship.

“We met in a first grade Sunday School class,” said Kim, “and we both love being active, finding new adventures and traveling.”

In 2017, the two began talking about hiking Northern Arizona’s Grand Canyon, staying at a place called Phantom Ranch, and trekking back out again the next day. They researched, talked to an acquaintance who had completed the hike, and in February 2018, they filled out the application which entered them into a lottery. Not every person or group who applies for a stay at Phantom Ranch is chosen because the business must limit visitors to 20 men and 20 women. Their four dormitories each hold 10 people. Kim and Karen received their notice of acceptance in March 2018.  Barry was not part of the original application, but in March 2019, just six weeks before the hike, the Phantom Ranch website noted that there was an opening in the men’s dorm for April 1.  Barry (Kim’s husband) called and was able to book it.

Barry Kremin rests along the trail, something the group did frequently along the way to and from the bottom of the canyon. Contributed photo

It was 30 degrees at 7:50 a.m. on April 1 when the trio donned their 20-pound backpacks, picked up their trekking poles and headed down South Kaibab Trail. The trail, mostly built by the National Park Service, is the shortest route (7.5 miles) from the rim of the canyon to the Colorado River and on to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the gorge. They dressed in layers and within an hour shed their jackets and gloves. “Planning is really important,” said Barry. “You are on your own out there on the trail so you need to carry everything you may need.” There are no guides, no cell service and no guarantees that you’ll be rescued if something goes wrong. The hikers each carried three liters of water, jerky, granola, cheese, nuts and apples in addition to change of clothes.

“We stopped a lot,” said Karen. “We’d just sit down on the rocks and have a snack and that’s all it took for us to feel re-energized and ready to move on.”

They didn’t see many other hikers on the trail that day – perhaps a dozen.    

After a couple hours, the three reached a placed marked Ooh Aah Point. “Our knees were starting to hurt so we were saying, ‘Ooh! Aah!’” said Kim with a smile.

The trail was a combination of gravel, rock formations and steps chiseled into wall of the canyon. The elevation went from 7,700 feet at the trail head to 2,200 feet at the bottom. As they walked they were amazed at the awesome beauty around them. Each turn and switchback in the trail brought new panoramas to enjoy. The trail brochure for South Kaibab Trail lists certain signposts and mile markers along the path as well as the location of restrooms (pit toilets). Kim carried her digital camera during their hike and ended up capturing hundreds of memories of their once in a lifetime adventure.

The group met several mule trains like this one. Contributed photo

As they descended they saw several mule trains consisting of about 5 or 6 animals carrying tourists down the path. One of the rules of the trail is that mules have the right-of-way and hikers must move to the inside of the trail to let them pass. The mules seem to move along the trail with ease, walking at a good pace. The sure-footed animals drink water before they set out on the journey but don’t need water during the five hour hike. “We were told that even if offered water, they’d turn it down,” said Barry. “Mules are built for walking long distances and don’t drink again until they arrive at their destination.” Although hikers are warned about snakes, Kim, Karen and Barry didn’t see any. They did see squirrels, birds and a big-horned sheep along the trail.

The crew crossed a long, single file suspension bridge over the Colorado River and knew they were getting closer to Phantom Ranch. But as they walked the last few miles along the river, they wondered if they’d ever arrive. It was 80 degrees and exhaustion was setting in. At times, instead of sitting down to rest, it was just easier to lean against canyon walls and sip a bit of water. They started to see more green plants, cactus and flowers growing at this elevation, and at five o’clock that afternoon they finally reached Phantom Ranch, having walked for nine hours. The sun was dropping below the canyon rim and the air cooled. They found their sleeping quarters and dropped off their belongings. 

“There were only four steps up into the women’s dormitory but I felt every one of them,” said Kim.

Our group encountered big horn sheep as we got closer to the river. Contributed photo

“I don’t know if I’ve ever felt that spent,” said  Karen, pondering the trip down the canyon. One might think that walking downhill is easy because gravity is assisting the movement, but it actually places higher demands on your knees. According to a published medical report, as you descend, the leading knee absorbs the impact of your weight plus whatever you’re carrying. The force on the knee joint is seven to eight times your bodyweight when going downhill. Kim, Karen and Barry found that the trekking poles really did help reduce the impact on their legs, knees, ankles and feet.

The dinner bell at Phantom Ranch rings each evening at 6:30 p.m. so the trio had a chance to rest and learn about the ranch before heading into the dining hall.

Phantom Ranch covers 14 acres within Grand Canyon National Park that extends for almost 2,000 square miles. The ranch has four dorms, 11 rustic cabins, a mule corral, emergency medical facilities and the canteen which serves as front desk, restaurant (advanced reservations only), bar, gift shop and recreation hall. Employees of the Ranch work 10 days straight and have four days off but must either rent a mule or hike to the rim if they want to leave the ranch during their days off.

“Everything that comes to the ranch is either carried by mule or human power,” said Kim. The charge for one night lodging and two meals is $120 a person. Mule rental is an addition cost, and there’s an option to spend a second night and reserve additional meals. Not far from the ranch is a ranger station, a beach which is frequently visited by Colorado River rafters and a 30-site campground run by the National Park Service.

“It was a delicious supper,” Kim remembered. “Homemade stew, salad and sweet cornbread – really good food!” As they ate, they chatted with others who had made the journey down the canyon walls either by foot or mule.

(L to R) Barry Kremin, Karen Kirckof and Kim Kremin reached Ooh Aah Point on the first day of the hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Contributed photo

Kim, Karen and Barry slept well after their full day in the canyon and were up early for a 6:30 breakfast at the dining hall. The morning meal consisted of pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, fruit, orange juice and coffee.

The 10-mile hike up the canyon on Bright Angel Trail, began at 7:50 a.m. and ended 10 hours later when they set foot on the canyon’s rim.

“The hike up the canyon took longer but was easier than the hike down,” said Karen. “I remember standing at the rim, looking out over that huge canyon and feeling completely overcome with emotion.”

For Barry, who is 68, it was about attaining his goal: “I wanted to be able to say that I hiked down to the bottom the Grand Canyon and back out again…and now I can say that!”

“It really was an amazing trip, and I’ll never forget the adventure and the beauty of the canyon,” said Kim.

Even though millions view the Grand Canyon each year, for Kim, Karen and Barry, their visit was much more than a visual adventure. They are thrilled to have joined the exclusive ranks of the One Percenters Club.