by Hank Leukart
January 12, 2010
Santa Claus snowshoes the Grand Canyon, rim to rim to rim
Brothers tackle a classic trek with magical, holiday cheer.
Santa Claus (a.k.a. Brian) dons a Santa suit on the Grand Canyon's South Kaibab Trail. (view all Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim, Arizona photos)
RAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Arizona — Before I tell the story of how Santa Claus ended up hiking in the Grand Canyon this December, I suppose I must tell the Story of My Santa Suit. The story begins with me buying the world’s cheapest Santa Claus costume — one made of thin felt, with no beard and fake leather pieces that supposedly make normal shoes look like Santa’s boots — in an attempt to entertain guests at my Christmas party in early December. Strangely, when my sister Jen saw the resulting photos of (sometimes reluctant) partygoers sitting on my lap (thanks, Facebook), she demanded that I stage an encore performance of my unconvincing Santa at her Christmas Eve party for her neighborhood’s kids. Always willing to embarrass myself, I covertly climbed up onto the high porch of her backyard tree house in Orange County on Christmas Eve, hid behind a forest of palm fronds, and loudly jangled a garland of sleigh bells. Immediately, my six- and seven-year-old nephews, as well as ten other children, came running outside the house to see Santa. The children yelped with delight when they caught a glimpse of me, dressed as Saint Nicholas, hiding behind the trees high above them. I was amazed that my seemingly magical suit enchanted the kids so easily. Nevertheless, my strained rendition of “Ho! Ho! Ho!” prompted my brother-in-law to exclaim, “Uh, oh. Santa’s angry.” I tried.
Just a few days after my not-even-close-to-Golden-Globe-winning Santa performance, my brother Brian and I threw our backpacking equipment, as well as the Santa suit, into my car, and we began driving across the Arizona desert toward the Grand Canyon. We have a history of seeking out the world’s best hiking expeditions, then figuring out how we can amp up their difficulty and danger levels, to turn them into true adventures. On Vancouver Island’s West Coast Trail, we jumped across hazardous surge channels and raced against high tides on our way to Michigan Beach. In Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia, we tackled two side trips, 21 additional miles in pouring rain and snow, in addition to the typical park loop. When we traveled to Alaska’s Denali National Park to hike to McGonagall Pass, we escaped from a freezing glacial river and then added a 15-mile detour across an almost impassable glacier. So, when we decided to take on the Grand Canyon’s iconic rim to rim to rim hike — which demands that hikers trek from the South Rim of the Canyon, down to the canyon floor, up to the top of the North Rim, and then back again — we wondered what we might be able to do to make our fantastic hiking plans even more fantastic. (After all, we have friends who believe that our secret motto is, “Whoever dies on the craziest, most dangerous adventure, wins,” and we never want to disappoint them.)
We had already encountered difficulty trying to embark on this particular hike. Backcountry hiking in the Grand Canyon is famously popular, and hikers who want reservations must apply by FAX four months in advance. I sent FAXs three separate times, and each time, the National Park rejected our application because other hikers managed to beat us to it. It’s also possible to simply show up at the Grand Canyon in an attempt to nab a small number of last-minute permits, but during the ideal hiking season, last-minute hikers often have to wait for days before starting their hike. But then, an idea dawned on me: if we attempted the hike outside the ideal season, in late December, we would have almost no competition for permits, because deep snowdrifts and sub-freezing temperatures on the North Rim’s North Kaibab Trail make the hike all but impossible that time of year.
In early December, I decide to call the Grand Canyon’s Backcountry Information office to run my idea past the Park Ranger.
“Well, you won’t be able to get up to the North Rim,” she says. “It’s closed, and you’ll risk hypothermia if you try to hike through the deep snow up there.”
“What if we carry snow shoes?” I ask.
“That might help,” she says. “But it would still be extraordinarily difficult. No one has been up there in a month. “
That’s all I need to hear. Soon, I’ve convinced Brian to buy two shiny new pairs of Atlas 925 snowshoes with me, and we’ve resolved to hike to the North Rim and back.
At 3:00 AM on the morning after leaving Orange Country, we arrive at the world’s most famous hole in the ground. After only four hours of sleep, we show up at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim Backcountry Information Center at 7:58 AM, where we’re greeted by a gaggle of other eager hikers holding priority numbers, assigned to them the day before. We don’t yet have a number, so things don’t look good for us. While we’re waiting, three twenty-something guys in sunglasses and hoodies, who look like they’ve just came from a surfing competition, get out of a big RV and join us in line.
“What are we waiting for?” one of them says. “Is this the line to the Grand Canyon?”
My brother and I helpfully point them toward the huge, adjacent void in the desert.
Finally, after all of the number-holders receive permits, the Park Ranger tells us that a few remain. We tell her that we want to hike to the North Rim.
“You’ll never make it. The snow’s too deep,” she says. “Also, this morning, a water main burst on the trail to Cottonwood Camp. We closed the route because we think the trail may break off the side of the Canyon, and there won’t be any drinking water past that point.” Apparently, being a Park Ranger means being a professional discourager.
We explain our ambitious snowshoeing plan to her, adding in details of our extensive trekking experience, and she backs down. Reluctantly, she enters the details of our planned 5-day, rim-to-rim-to-rim snowshoeing itinerary into the park’s archaic computer system.
(Note: There are hikers who manage to hike from rim to rim (and sometimes back) in one or two days. If you’re a glutton for punishment and a talented athlete, such a trip is possible, though only by traveling in ideal temperature and snow conditions and not carrying a backpack with heavy camping equipment. But to properly savor and enjoy this adventure, hikers should set aside at least four, and preferably six, days for this trip. Considered to be one of the most dangerous hikes in America, this trek has left many people injured or dead in the Canyon due to poor trip planning and unforgiving weather conditions.)
By the time we leave, she begins encouraging us — I assume because, at this point, there’s no reason for her to be honest about what she thinks will happen. She doesn’t want any of her gloomy predictions to end up becoming true.
“No one has been up there since November,” she calls out as we leave. “But if you make it, let us know what it’s like up there!”
In the parking lot of the Backcountry Information Center, we pull our 45-pound backpacks out of my car’s trunk, and I notice my Santa suit, still sitting in the trunk from my sister’s Christmas Eve party. In a sudden moment of inspired whimsy, I stuff the bright red jacket and pants into my backpack. Admittedly, this action is an enormous protocol violation, because Brian and I normally weigh and mutually approve every item that goes into our backpacks to minimize weight.
“Really?!” Brian asks with a strong dose of sarcasm.
In the El Tovar Hotel’s white-table clothed dining room overlooking the Canyon’s South Rim, Brian and I order El Tovar’s Pancake Trio: a plate of buttermilk, blue cornmeal, and buckwheat pancakes. While we wait for the food, my brother writes a postcard to his girlfriend in an affected voice intended to give the impression that we’re colonial explorers, discovering the Grand Canyon for the time:
“It hath been over a fortnight since last I wrote,” Brian scrawls. “The road west tests a man to his very limit. Hank has been struck with typhoid. A kind Navajo healer has done all he can, but he told us that the only chance we have is to continue to a mysterious, awe-inspiring place called the Great Gash of Awe. We’re calling it the Aweful Canyon. We’re still working on the name.”
Soon, our waiter arrives with our matching breakfasts and a saucière of bright pink prickly pear syrup.
“This is prickly pear syrup, which is the syrup that the chef paired with these pancakes,” he says nervously. Then he pauses for about 10 seconds, looking at us, as though he’s challenging us to beg for normal syrup. We get the impression that he’s had previous problems selling his diners on the neon goo — or maybe he doesn’t think we look sophisticated enough to handle a radioactive-looking pancake topping.
What he doesn’t know is that my brother and I will try anything. He doesn’t know that we’re carrying snowshoes, a Santa suit, and an endless yearning to do the impossible. He doesn’t know that his prickly pear syrup is the least risky thing we’ll try during the next five days, during our mission to hike the Grand Canyon in winter, rim to rim to rim.
We slather our pancakes with the syrup, and quickly, we’ve cleaned our plates.
Read the second part of this series, in which Hank and Brian discover the surprisingly demanding spotlight of Santa Claus’s celebrity.
Hank discusses an itinerary with a Grand Canyon Park Ranger at the Backcountry Information Center. (photo by Brian Leukart)
How to Hike the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim
- Visit the Grand Canyon National Park Backcountry Permit information site to learn how to apply for a permit. You should FAX the Backcountry Permit Request Form four months in advance of your planned hiking dates to give you the highest chance of receiving a permit.
- The best months to hike the Grand Canyon are March through May and September through November, because temperatures on the Canyon floor can exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer. Unfortunately, those months are also the most difficult months to obtain permits. All North Rim services are closed mid-October to mid-May, and hiking to the North Rim without snowshoes (and even with them) is extremely difficult during the winter months.
- You can also simply show up at the Backcountry Information Office to attempt to get a last-minute permit, but due to the waitlist process, it’s likely that you’ll have to wait at least two to three days before starting your hike during the typical Grand Canyon hiking season (March through November).
- The Grand Canyon South Rim, usually the starting point for rim to rim to rim hikes, is located in northern Arizona. It’s a two hour drive from Flagstaff, a four hour drive from Phoenix, and a six hour drive from Las Vegas.
- SIX-DAY ITINERARY: This itinerary lets you savor the Canyon and prevents you from having to complete more than one rim ascent or descent in a single day. Descending South Kaibab Trail makes more sense for most people because, as compared to Bright Angel Trail, it’s significantly steeper and its expansive views are more scenic. Then, hikers can return by way of the less grueling Bright Angel Trail.
- South Kaibab Trailhead to Bright Angel Camp
- Bright Angel Camp to Cottonwood Camp
- Cottonwood Camp to the North Rim Campground
- The North Rim Campground to Cottonwood Camp
- Cottonwood Camp to Bright Angel Camp
- Bright Angel Camp to the Bright Angel Trailhead
- South Kaibab Trailhead to Cottonwood Camp
- Cottonwood Camp to the North Rim Campground
- The North Rim Campground to Bright Angel Camp
- Bright Angel Camp to the Bright Angel Trailhead
- South Kaibab Trailhead to North Rim Campground
- North Rim Campground to Bright Angel Trailhead