Timing is everything – a Grand Canyon adventure

Last May, three of us decided to hike from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the South Rim in one day. Now this is a 25-mile hike, down about 15 miles and 6000 feet to the Colorado River and then back up to the North Rim another 10 miles and about 5000 feet; a challenging hike at the best of times but the real difficulty is the temperature at the bottom of the Canyon, where even in May, it can be well over 100 degrees at midday. I did the hike with my wife and a friend, and my wife suggested that in order to avoid the highest temperatures in the middle of the day, we should start at midnight, have a leisurely breakfast at Phantom Ranch at the bottom at 6:30 am, and then start our hike back up before it got too hot.

Grand Canyon hike
Quite a hike, but the views are worth it.

In order to execute this plan, we decided to fly our Cirrus SR20 from Oxnard (KOXR and our home base) to Kanab (KKNB), and rent a car, which would enable us to drive the 18 miles from our hotel to the North Rim trailhead at midnight. There are shuttle services available, but we were not successful in arranging one for our planned midnight departure. The flight to KKNB was uneventful with a slight tailwind helping us along, and we landed about two and a half hours after departure. We did file a VFR flight plan for our route over Palmdale and Hector, since there is lots of desert out there. Upon arrival, we closed our flight plan and tied the airplane down securely, since we knew from experience that it can get windy in that area. The plan was for the pilot (me) to get the Grand Canyon Shuttle back to the North Rim (275 miles and 5 hours) and fly back to the South Rim to pick up the rest of our party and fly home, but more about that later.

Kanab is a small but friendly town on Southern Utah just north of the Arizona border, and only one car rental outfit so it is important to make a reservation way ahead of time. We picked up the car and drove through picturesque terrain about an hour to the Kaibab Lodge, and checked in where we found the accommodations rustic but comfortable. We had a few more hours to spare before turning in for an early night so we drove another 45 minutes to the North Rim to check out the trailhead and the North Rim Lodge, which is a beautiful historic hotel perched on the edge of the canyon with a magnificent dining room and fabulous views. After a delicious meal at the lodge we were ready to drive back to our hotel and try to get some sleep. Well not quite ready, as it turns out, as it is hard to get some rest when you know you have to get up at midnight, but we did our best.

Our trek down the north Kaibab Trail was awesome even at night as we had the benefit of a full moon and beautiful weather. We had to keep moving as we needed to cover the 15 miles to Phantom Ranch to make it in time for our 6:30 breakfast reservation. We arrived a few minutes late but if you ever want to really enjoy a 6:30 breakfast try hiking 15 miles before you eat and I assure you it will be delicious. The bacon was outstanding!

After breakfast we took a short break and soaked our weary feet in Kaibab Creek. By this time it was about 8:00 am and the temperature was a balmy 75 degrees, but we knew that soon it would be over 100 and we had better get moving, so we headed across the Colorado River on the suspension bridge and on up the Bright Angel trail on the other side, toward the South Rim. Our progress slowed as the temperature soared and the trail got steeper but we were expecting this and took regular rests with lots of water and electrolytes. By the time we got to Indian Gardens half way up the trail, it was over 100 and we were pretty tired. We even wished we had started earlier so we could get up out of the canyon before it got too hot. Pilots are very familiar with adiabatic lapse rate and we knew that even though it was over 100 down in the canyon it would be a comfortable 80 degrees 5000 feet higher at the South Rim.

We reached the South Rim at about 3 pm, tired but happy about completing a challenging hike without incident, and headed for our hotel. We found out later that some others who had started behind us around 6 am were not so lucky, and had serious problems with heat stroke and cramps. Our early start had paid off. Timing is everything, at least when it comes to reducing the risk of problems when embarking on outdoor activities. As experienced mountaineers, we were used to an early start, as this is common practice when climbing high peaks in order to avoid afternoon thunderstorms.

After a celebratory dinner and a good night’s rest at the Grand Hotel (the only thing Grand about it is the name), we were ready for the next step in our little adventure. Since there is no bridge across the Colorado nearby, it is necessary to take a detour to the east about 130 miles to the bridge near Lee’s Ferry, cross the river at that point, and then head back west  toward our starting point to pick up the airplane. Fortunately there is a very convenient shuttle service departing the Bright Angel Lodge at the South Rim at 8 am every day. Although the trip takes five hours, the scenery is spectacular and I really enjoyed the ride. One concern, however, was that the wind, which appeared to be blowing fairly hard out of the West, was increasing as the day went on.

Cirrus on ramp
The Cirrus is a very capable airplane, but 55 knots is a lot of wind.

By the time we got to the North Rim where the car was parked, the trees were swaying violently, and it was obvious that winds were going to be a factor for our flight. By the time I picked up the car and drove back to Kanab, the wind was blowing out of the Southwest at 30 knots gusting to 55. Even though it was pretty much straight down runway 19, the area is mountainous and one could expect severe turbulence under such conditions.  Dust storms coming off the surrounding area made accurate wind velocity measurement unnecessary. It was around 3 pm and I was unsure of how to handle the situation. Even if I had departed immediately from KKNB and headed South for Grand Canyon, (KGCN) the 30- to 50-knot headwinds predicted for the trip back home to Oxnard would have made for a miserable flight.

I parked myself in the unoccupied airport lounge at Kanab, and contemplated my options, while keeping an eye on the ATIS transmitter screen in the corner of the lounge. I noticed that the wind velocity was dropping steadily, and decided that if I delayed my departure, it would be too late to make it back to Oxnard that evening. However, the winds aloft early in the morning were predicted to be much reduced and an early departure the next day would make a lot of sense. I thought back to our recent hiking adventure where we had departed at midnight to avoid the high temperatures in the bottom of the canyon at midday and realized that here again, in planning this flight timing would be everything.

I called my wife at the South Rim and told her that I thought I could fly across the canyon later in the evening, and to see if she could get a hotel.  Another night in the Grand Hotel! Oh well, it sounds OK anyway. I began to write down wind velocities every 30 minutes and decided that 25 knots down the runway would be fine for my 40 minute flight across the canyon.  Around 5 pm I began to prep the airplane for the flight, and although I had flown in the area many times, I had never actually flown across the canyon because it is restricted airspace below 10,000 feet. I checked the wind again and decided it was OK to depart and headed South.

Grand Canyon from air
A spectacular view from any altitude.

I contacted ATC to get flight following, and informed them of my intentions. The controller was very helpful and told me there was a corridor across the canyon at 10,500 feet or I could follow any route at or above 14,000 feet. I responded “unable 14,000 feet” and requested vectors for the corridor to KGCN. He vectored me pretty much along the road we drove to the North Rim and over the trail we had just hiked. It was awesome and although it was still pretty bumpy I was able to take some good pictures with my cell phone to share with my hiking buddies. Too bad they were not along for the ride but there was no point in three of us taking the five-hour shuttle ride. I landed at Grand Canyon and although the wind was still gusting to 35 knots at touchdown, the tower commented “nice landing, Cirrus” as my wheels kissed the runway and that pretty much made my day. The flight home the next day was uneventful, and although we had a 20 to 30 knot headwind the whole way, it was not bumpy and we had a pleasant trip.

The Grand Canyon was really spectacular, both from in the air and on the ground. I don’t know which was more impressive but I sure do know which one more hard work. One thing is for sure: timing was important in both parts of our adventure and the lesson I learned from the hike and avoiding the worst of the heat during the day helped me out to avoid the highest winds for our flight home.

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