The Arizona Trail on Unicycle: Day 27, Welcome to the Snow


April 26, 2017

We weren’t sure who was going to have a harder day. Our three hiking friends, Lexi, Colin and Ashley, had to hike back out to the south rim of the Grand Canyon in one shot, and take a slightly longer hiking path via the Bright Angel Trail. The Bright Angel Trail is less steep, but longer, and from the Cottonwood Campsite it was a full 20 miles. The unicyclists, Jamey, Rebekka and myself, had to hike about seven miles to the north rim and ride as far as we could.

We got up a bit earlier than the previous days and started on our way about 6:30AM after saying goodbye. Initially we were planning for about a 5am departure because we heard that the trail would be closed a few miles ahead from 9AM-4PM due to some trail work that had falling rock hazards. Indeed, it was closed a day before, but we got direct word from a ranger at the Bright Angel campsite that it would be open, so we got to sleep in a bit. It would have been a race to get up at 5 and hike a hard pace to make sure we could make it through before the workers closed off the trail.

Jamey decided to do some modifications to his hiking technique — instead of carrying the unicycle over his shoulder he borrowed a strap from Rebekka and strapped it to his backpack. He quickly decided that this technique was much better. Rebekka and I knew this all along; there was no way getting around carrying the weight, and it was much easier to have it strapped to your back; the closer it was to your body the better.

The hike up to the north rim was definitely the most beautiful part of the Grand Canyon. I thought the previous few days were amazing until I got up to the point in the trail that had some steep cliff faces. The drop down to the right was a death defying height where a wrong slip would send you screaming down the abyss. My mind would start to wander as we were hiking along, and I’d imagine how we’d rescue someone if they were to fall at some in opportune point. To my left were tall cliffs directly heading to the north rim, with the trail cutting back and forth through various switchbacks. The rock was fairly loose, and nothing worthy of a rock climber’s envy. But looking back we would start to see Humphrey’s Peak again — all the way to Flagstaff. It was amazing, but we didn’t spent too much time staring at the views since we had to get some distance under our belts.

We did hit some “trail closed” signs, but based on the info from the ranger we simply ignored them and continued on. I’m glad we did — there was exactly zero trail action going on, and we could see a ton of work that the trail guys had recently accomplished. The trail was in awesome shape, making the hike less tedious and painful than it would have been. We eventually crossed through all the work, and saw the other end of the “trail closed” sign and walked right by it. It is a shame that the park service didn’t remove the sign; I had heard it confused a bunch of rim-to-rim trail runners the day before, since there were no workers monitoring the trail and it really wasn’t closed at that time.

The top of the trail was a relief. We could assemble our unicycles and attempt to start riding again. Or so we thought. We saw a sign posted that said the roads were officially closed, and explicitly said “No bikes allowed on roads”. We figured we would have to ride on the roads due to snow, and we didn’t want to have to deal with an encounter with the park service giving us trouble for doing something we weren’t supposed to do. We ignored the signs, and immediately rode about a half a mile away from the trail to the ranger station to fill up on water. There was no reason to haul a ton of extra water up the trail, as our packs were already super heavy, and we needed some for the next part of the journey. The trailhead normally has water, but it was shut off for the winter.

The ranger station was an easy rode ride, and it was simple to fill up on water. I put two liters in my pack and noticed a manual scale under an awning, and I was curious how much all the stuff weighed. The unicycle: 32 pounds — including my loaded panniers and rear bag strapped on. The backpack: 22 pounds, including 2 liters of water and 3 or 4 days worth of food. So I was carrying 54 pounds on my back all the way up the trail. Rebekka weighed hers and it turned out the same. Jamey, going super-light, was 10 pounds less than us.

At this point we decided to skip the trail and take the road. There was a ton of snow around, and we knew it would not be ridable. So, we slogged through 9 road miles, but had a treat along the way. There was an open field in the distance off to the left, and I saw something out in the field. It looked familiar, and then it started moving, and I knew right away what it was: a coyote! I hadn’t seen one in a long time, and it was fantastic to watch such a beautiful animal strut along.

After 9 miles of road, we decided to hop on the official Arizona Trail. It was uphill, with fallen trees and patches of snow, but it didn’t seem to bad. There was even an old lookout tower that Jamey and I climbed up, fighting the cold wind, and checking for cell reception on the top (there wasn’t any, and we didn’t really need it), and looking at some boring tree top views. Rebekka opted to save her legs and not walk a bunch of stairs up a dilapidated tower; she was a bit worn out from the long hike. The trail also initially seemed ridable…it was almost enjoyable for a short bit.

Then we hit lots of snow. So much snow, that it was hard to tell where the trail was. It was slushy, sloggy, and our feet got wet. At times we were literally pushing our unicycles through small rivers. It was windy. It was cold. We kept going, as we had to get to a good water source for dinner and sleeping. Luckily that small river that we were pushing our unicycles through became larger and larger, and turned into a large river that we could camp by.

I setup my tent and cooked from inside the tent. You should never cook your food in the tent, I would tie open my front door and lean out front and cook. But this allowed me to keep myself a bit warmer by wrapping my sleeping bag around me and having some shelter from the wind.

Bedtime was early, and we were sure glad we stopped at 5:30pm. By 6pm it was snowing. Not hard, but it was dropping out of the sky.


Today: 24.8 miles
Total: 602.9 miles  




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