The irresistible call of the Grand Canyon

With the Grand Canyon as a magnificent backdrop, hikers make their way along the South Kaibab Trail. From here, there’s a glimpse of the Colorado River below. (John Kieffer / Getty Images)

8:35 a.m.: Several plunging switchbacks and some broad, sun-drenched traverses later, we hit Skeleton Point (5,220 feet), the trail's approximate midway mark and a suggested turnaround spot for day hikers — who appear to show no interest in turning around in spite of posted park warnings, in four languages, that each year hikers suffer serious illness or death from exhaustion by pushing themselves all the way down to the river and back in a single day.

9:12 a.m.: Hiding below Skeleton Point is the descent's greatest acrophobia test, a narrow, blasted-out ledge that isn't an ideal place for two-way traffic — but here come the morning's first heat of pink-faced, sweat-soaked climbers hauling themselves out of the canyon, edging past us with distorted faces that don't look nearly as joyful as they may have on the way down.

9:30 a.m.: It's getting hot. Every few hundred feet lower, every few minutes closer to the midday high is a twist on the canyon's thermostat. The temperature swing today between the rim and the inner gorge will push 60 degrees.

10:19 a.m.: First, we hear it. Then we see it. The Colorado River, swooshing doggedly across the canyon floor. What a bang-up job it's done, carving mile-deep canyons and quenching the thirst of seven states. We should stop for a moment and pay our respects. Instead, we numbly plod on, past some 900-year-old Anasazi ruins to a row of campsites lined along a burbling stream. Bright Angel Campground (2,480 feet).

"What time is it?" Mark asks with a grimace while rubbing his foot. "Like 4?"

11:11 a.m.: "So this is what heaven looks like," Mark says with a sigh, basking in Bright Angel Creek, a picturesque, spring-fed brook framed by cottonwood trees, towering red cliffs, rays of hot, desert sun and a huge, imaginary "Payoff" sign. "Lie down right on your stomach," he tells me as I wade into the cold, shallow water. "Trust me."

I lie face down on a bed of river stones. An intoxicating sheet of icy water rolls over my heels and calves and spine.

If there's one reason to hoof all the way down into the Grand Canyon, this must be it.

1-4 p.m.: Or this — an icy glass of lemonade at Phantom Ranch, the canyon's legendary rustic retreat a short walk along a cactus-lined trail from the campground. Guests can (and should) reserve cabins, dorm bunks and steak dinners more than a year in advance at this 90-year-old, air-conditioned mirage. The rest of us can stumble into the lodge's canteen between 1 and 4 p.m. to hide from the afternoon heat, guzzle lemonade and read through a box of 30-year-old Trivial Pursuit cards to see who's the smartest guy at the bottom of the Grand Canyon today.

'Round midnight: It must be at least that late. I check my watch. 8:06 p.m. Lying wide-eyed at the bottom of the Grand Canyon in an open tent in the pitch dark, one's grasp of time soon becomes as trivial as any other human pursuit.

It's the greatest sleepless night of my life, tempered by one little preoccupation. Tomorrow we have to walk out of the Grand Canyon.


6:28 a.m.: At sunrise, the canyon reappears in silky, pink light you can almost touch. Ten feet away, a deer stands in the creek having a drink. Hulking above us, the canyon is stunningly, quietly real — nothing two-dimensional about it. You're really in it down here. That's the greatest payoff of all.

"This is not going to be fun," Mark says as he wakes up with a hiker's worst hangover — a pulled foot muscle. "You guys go on ahead," he says, staring at the mountainous cliffs. "I'm going to be taking a very, very long time."

No. We're sticking together. We're either walking out of this thing as a band of brothers, or we're settling down here and opening a new lodge with cheaper lemonade. Three Guys. All for one and one for all.

7:42 a.m.: The safest route back up to the South Rim is the Bright Angel Trail, which follows a massive fault break with shade, ranger stations, emergency phones, water fill-up stops, petroglyph sites and four segments of 1,000-plus-foot climbs that look much friendlier on a national park trail map.

The first major hurdle is an interminable set of switchbacks through a massive, craggy bowl — aptly named the Devil's Corkscrew. Here, a giggly group of young women jog (yes, jog) past us, down the Devil's Corkscrew, in bright tutus — one of them with a tiara on her head. A minute later a middle-aged woman (a bachelorette party chaperon perhaps?) trots by in a kilt trying to catch up with them. Are we hallucinating already?

9:25 a.m.: By the time we haul ourselves up to Indian Garden (3,800 feet), a riparian oasis covered in cottonwoods and wildflowers at the trail's halfway point, the Bright Angel's morning pageantry of super-fit trailblazers has revealed a serious gender imbalance. About 90% women.

9:42 a.m.: The midway mark may be behind us, but the bulk of the climb is dead ahead. The last four miles feature endless switchbacks on a massive series of steep, sunbaked cliffs furnished with a couple of little rest houses named, deceptively enough, "Three-Mile" and "Mile-and-a-Half."

"How long to the top from here, would you say?" Mark asks a young park guide, striding up into the cliffs with a small group.