The Grand Canyon is indeed a natural wonder and one of the best ways to experience its breathtaking landscape is to hike the trails.
The canyon is a gift that transcends what we experience. Its beauty and size humble us. Its timelessness provokes a comparison to our short existence. Its vast spaces offer solace from our hectic lives. - Visitors Guide to the Grand Canyon
There can be nothing truer than the opening paragraph above. The Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, the US, is often described as one of earth's greatest geological showcases.
|The mules know exactly how to get you a good view. (Photo: The Star)
With its craggy cliffs, sandy slopes and multi-hued vegetation, the Grand Canyon is the embodiment of nature's beauty. While the rocks are ancient, the canyon is young. Geologists agree that 'canyon carving' began in the last five to six million years.
Millions of visitors have seen this wonder. And since it has always been on my list of places to see, my buddy Swee Sin and I decided to explore the South Rim recently.
We purchased our flight tickets, rented a car and drove there. To our disbelief, we learnt there would be no rooms or camp spots available for the next four months!
"You can come back early tomorrow morning and see if you can get a camp permit for Friday or you can choose to sleep outside, in your car, under the stars, inside the canyons . . . but at your own risk," said the ranger.
Replying to our enquiry on the trails, she said, "Do NOT attempt to hike down to the river and back in one day. It's extremely difficult and people die from overheating. There are no loop trails for day hikes so you will be hiking the same trail in both directions. Also bear in mind there are no water stops until you reach the river (10km away)."
She added: "The trails are steep and extremely difficult. You've got to get out of the canyon before sunset as it gets dark in there."
Having previously lived in the US for many years, we have come to know that Americans generally exaggerate 'extremely beautiful' and 'extremely difficult'.
I turned to Swee Sin and winked - of course we are fit and can trek the South Rim in a day.
|The Malaysians hiked along the canyon rim in socks and slippers on Day 2 because
of sore feet. (Photo: The Star)
We decided to sleep in the car. After all, we had ample jackets, gloves and blankets to keep warm.
Bad idea. Not only was it freezing (2'C in spring), we kept running to the bushes to ease ourselves besides starting the car engine every hour to turn the heat up. Not a wink did we sleep.
Dawn greeted us and after a cup of hot java, we armed ourselves with plenty of food and three water bottles each. At 8.30am, we set out on our journey, beginning from the South Kaibab trail (downhill), cutting across the Tonto West trail and back up the canyon via Bright Angel Trail.
Young, old, babies strapped to their dads' backs - all kinds of hikers were here to savour the experience.
|Artists come here to try and capture the magnificence of the Grand Canyon on canvas.
(Photo: The Star)
There is no word to describe the beauty of the place. We stopped dead in our tracks after 10 minutes, bewitched by the sight. There was a dazzling variety of rock layers, impressive buttes and shadowed side canyons. At every point, hikers stopped to gawk at nature's gift.
And to think the canyon has sustained the native Indians both materially and spiritually for thousands of years. Extreme changes in elevation, exposure and climate support a range of plant and animal communities.
Just then a raven soared majestically above us.
We saw a dozen mules carting riders. For those who want to experience the canyons but have weak legs, mule rides are available. The mules know exactly when to stop and how to position themselves to give the rider the best view.
|Cacti are always a good sign. (Photo: The Star)
Along the hike, we spotted many squirrels and birds. We found a small, inconspicuous cross that read 'Tonto West'. This was where the real adventure began for the trail was narrow and not clearly marked.
The Tonto platform is a relatively flat terrain meandering 148km east of the canyon. The landscape is rugged with sparse vegetation.
"Should we lose our way, we can depend on the abundant cacti for water,?" I joked, little realising how true it would become a few hours later. At this point, the heat was piercing and the air dry.
We chose our trail and walked for what seemed like hours with no other hikers in sight. Three hours passed, our throats were parched and water bottles empty.
|Pondering life in the canyons. (Photo: The Star)
A 73-year-old man suddenly jumped out of a bush, catching us off-guard, but we were happy to see another human being. He told us it was about an hour to the first water station.
"You girls are crazy. I nearly died the last time I tried what you are doing and that was 30 years ago! I hope you make it," he encouraged before waving us goodbye.
We finally reached our first water stop at Indian Gardens, a former farming area of the Havasupai Indian tribe. Here we met many hikers, equally exhausted from the dry heat.
I gulped down the cool, spring water which tasted heavenly. We had exactly four hours to get out of the canyon following the Bright Angel Trail.
|No rooms available? Rent a recreational vehicle (RV). (Photo: The Star)
The temperature started to dip and it got chilly. Many friendly hikers stopped for a chat and groaned about their aches as well. At the next water station, a sign read, "Going down to the canyons is optional, coming back up is MANDATORY".
From here, my jello-like legs moved at a snail's pace. Swee Sin, being fitter than me, spurred me on but I could tell she was exhausted too. We also didn't have flashlights.
Five minutes before sunset, a little more that 17km and 10 and a half hours later with nary a rest in between, we reached the top.
Dusty, cold, and slightly dazed, we dragged ourselves to the car and drove to the nearest hotel outside the park.
No more nights in the car! The hot shower, hot food and comfy bed did wonders for our fatigue.
Later, we discovered that each year park personnel receive 400 requests for assistance from hikers suffering fatigue, heat exhaustion and medical conditions. Most of them were young, healthy males between the ages of 18 and 40 attempting to hike to the river and back in one day.
Oh well, we were a little foolish but we made it! Never mind if our toes were numb. We continued the next day hiking in our socks and slippers.
About 70 million years ago, heat and pressure generated by two colliding tectonic plates formed mountains in North America.
An area known as the Colorado Plateau was raised more than 3,000m and water from the Colorado River, drained off the slopes of the Rocky Mountains, carried sand and gravel, cutting through the layers of rock and sculpting it.
The oldest rocks within the Inner Gorge at the bottom of the canyon date 1,840 million years.
Without the Colorado River, the canyon would not exist.
The Grand Canyon is 29km wide, 1.6km deep and 446km long. Because of the enormous depth of Grand Canyon, the river is visible only from certain viewpoints.
The Grand Canyon is divided into the South Rim and North Rim. Most people visit the SouthRim.
The South Rim (2,134m) is open 365 days a year, seven days a week. Visitor facilities are open and available every day.
Visitors with respiratory or heart problems may experience difficulties and walking at this elevation can prove strenuous.
The North Rim is a thousand feet higher and closed from mid-October to mid-May.
Many look-out points offer spectacular views of the canyon.
Desert View Drive (Highway 64) follows the canyon rim for 42km east of Grand Canyon Village to Desert View - the east entrance to the park. Desert View Drive is open to private vehicles throughout the year.
Hermit Road follows the rim for 13km west from Grand Canyon Village to Hermits Rest.
Hermit Road is closed to private vehicles much of the year, but the park runs a free shuttle bus.
Source: National Park Service, US Department of the Interior.
When out and about . . .
The park authorities have these hiking tips.
Be prepared. Know your route and weather forecast as the weather can change quickly and dramatically. Carry a map, torch and extra clothing.
Stay comfortable. Dress in layers as this allows you to adjust to the changing condition as you go up and down the trails.
Go slowly. If you can carry on a conversation, you are hiking at the right pace. If you find yourself out of breath, your legs and digestive system are not getting enough oxygen and this can cause fatigue, heavy legs and exhaustion.
Rest often. Stop beyond certain points from 10am to 4pm. Find shade and relax with your feet elevated at least once every hour.
Eat and drink frequently. Consume twice as much as you eat at home. Salty snacks help replace electrolytes lost through perspiration. No matter what the temperature, you need fluids, fuel and energy to keep you going.