Fear, Respect, and the Grand Canyon

Heading to the Grand Canyon is a unique experience, at least for me. We took our family in 2015, and did a five mile hike on the Bright Angel Trail, starting from the south rim. Upon seeing the canyon, I was filled with several emotions. Amazement. Awe. Inspiration. Respect. FEAR.

On the Bright Angel Trail @ the south rim of the Grand Canyon

Heading to the Grand Canyon is a unique experience, at least for me. We took our family in 2015, and did a five mile hike on the Bright Angel Trail, starting from the south rim. Upon seeing the canyon, I was filled with several emotions. Amazement. Awe. Inspiration. Respect. FEAR. Until you see it up close, it might be hard to understand fear. When I stood on the rim, I thought of all the different ways one could die. Heat illness. Becoming lost and subsequent exposure. A fall. Drowning in the Colorado River. I feel insignificant. It is really a wonderful and humbling experience. I can almost imagine the reaction of the first Native American to see it. Maybe their reaction was the same as mine. Maybe they thought silently and then decided “No way in hell am I going down in there!” When you hike it now, there are water stations and campsites and forest rangers (and other hikers). As amazing as it us, one is never truly ALONE. That’s a game changer.

A view back up the Bright Angel Trail.

Our kids remembered our last trip. This time we switched it up by camping (we were at the Mather Campground). Our kids hadn’t been camping for 7 or 8 years. Thankfully, they loved it. Except for the outdoor shower thing; Andrew was NOT a fan of that at first. We were in bed at 8:30 PM. Allison had her best night of sleep on the trip.

Early morning starts are the only way to survive on the south rim in the summer.

Arizona is strange, coming out of New Mexico for one big reason: time zones. In Texas, you’re in Central Time. Cross in to New Mexico, and it’s Mountain Time. At this time of year, Arizona is on Pacific Time. That’s a huge change to your biorhythms in not a lot of mileage. Suffice to say, the sun comes up EARLY, such as 5 AM flat early. And the birds, well, they’re making noise in the late 3 AM hour. We wanted to get an early start, and this was unusually easy to accomplish.


The campground is at around 7000 feet, or just under that. The Bright Angel Trail is at 6800+ feet. Unlike most hikes, you have to go DOWN first. This does a few things. One is that you have to remember that the journey back up is more taxing and will take longer. The next is that you have to remember the effect of altitude. It isn’t uncommon for summer high temperatures at the campground to be in the 80s during the day (and upper 30s to low 40s at night). At lower elevations, it’s much hotter. This means you warm up as you descend without having to try. Furthermore, you are surrounded by orange rock that excels at absorbing heat. Want to know how a pizza feels in a brick oven? Hike the Grand Canyon (at least from the south rim) in the summer.

Making progress!

We were well prepared. We started just after 5:50 AM. The kids were so much stronger than two years ago. They were able to observe so much more. They counted dozens of tiny yet speedy lizards, some beautiful royal blue birds I’ve never seen before, and the greediest squirrels in America (Allison, in Pokémon vein, called them Chubachus). They had a lot of fun.

Proof we made it to Indian Gardens.

Another thing I noticed is that many (dare I say most) of the serious hikers were tourists from another country. I’m not sure what the factors for that were. Selection bias? Diluting of Americans given we have tons on national parks from which to choose? Ease of travel for tourists (the Grand Canyon is close-ish to Phoenix)? Lazy Americans? Something else? I’m not sure.


Allison had been struggling with migraines recently, but I hope she’s turned the corner. She rocked it today. Given that Allison has a hard time with heat (she doesn’t sweat much, Lord knows she didn’t get that from me), she had been battling head issues, and Sonia’s hips give her trouble, she and Allison turned around at the Three Mile Resthouse (all four of us hiked together until that point), which is closer to 3.1 miles (or a bit longer) from the top. They did their whole hike in 4 hours and 50 minutes. On the way up, they were told they were the most cheerful hikers on the trail. A lot if hikers were impressed that a nine year old was able to knockout a 10K with that much elevation gain in less than a morning. They did a GREAT job.


Andrew and I decided to push on to the Indian Gardens, another 1.5 + miles down the trail. That’s as far as the forest rangers recommend going for a day hike in the summer. It was incredible. Andrew was amazed by the enormity of the rock walls that surrounded us, and even he noticed the change in vegetation after the Three Mile Resthouse. “This is AMAZING “ was the refrain from behind me.

Family picture right before sunset.

It was 4.6 miles plus to our destination (I don’t know full distance as we had to take the loop around the campground instead of through), and we walked just past the end of official area. That, and I don’t wear a GPS. We dropped 3100 feet of altitude in that window. We really wanted to push on to Plateau Point, but we didn’t want to worry Sonia if we got back later. We agreed that our next day hike on the Bright Angel Trail will go that far. Plus, we have a handshake agreement to hike from the south rim to the north rim. Someday.

The forested area at the center of the photo is Indian Gardens. You can follow the trail to Plateau Point.

We made really great time on the way back up, and completed the out and back in five hours and 37 minutes. We met and hiked with two very nice younger couples on the way back up for part of the hike. They were Andrew’s biggest supporters. We also chatted with a Danish couple hiking with their three teenage daughters. They were nice, 20 minute friends as well. There were a lot of those short term friends today; it’s one of the things I love about hiking. One 20 something dude high-fived Andrew and told him he was unbelievable. That made his day.


Andrew is becoming a good hiking buddy. He’s willing to see what’s around the next bend, he’ll give you a honest assessment of how he feels, he’s funny and insightful, and he’s a strong hiker. It won’t be long until he overtakes me. Allison has always been a fantastic hiking buddy because she just likes hiking and hanging out. Andrew is now coming into his own as well. We’re lucky.


Tonight, we catch a sunset on the Grand Canyon. Then we leave for three nights of camping in the Coconino National Forest. After that, it’s on to Arroyo Grande, CA to visit our California peeps. And we’ll have great company. And a shower. And a bed. But right now, we’re loving our tent.

Sunset on the south rim.

Author: Jason Kesselring

I am a 40 year old pediatrician on sabbatical, happily married, and a father of two wonderful children. I fell out of the Ugly Tree, and hit every branch on the way down.

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