by Hank Leukart
January 14, 2010

Hiking in Santa Claus’s bright celebrity spotlight

Trekking the Grand Canyon as Saint Nicholas turns out to be a full time job.

Santa Claus (a.k.a. Hank) walks down Bright Angel Trail into the Grand Canyon. (photo by Brian Leukart)

Santa Claus (a.k.a. Hank) walks down Bright Angel Trail into the Grand Canyon. (photo by Brian Leukart)

This is the second essay in a series about Santa Claus's Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim winter hike. Start with the first essay to read the whole story.

G

RAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Arizona — Brian and I are walking briskly across a parking lot, our stomachs filled with pink syrup, when we realize that we have no idea where the trailhead for the Bright Angel Trail into the Grand Canyon is located. I unfold our topographical map in an attempt to find the huge, one-mile deep hole in the ground that we know is less than 500 feet from us. Suddenly, the group of surfer-looking guys that we met at the Backcountry Information Center seem slightly less ridiculous.

Standing dumbfounded on the asphalt, gazing, bewildered, at a huge backcountry map, Brian and I look like the world’s most inexperienced hikers. We laugh at ourselves — not because the scene is ridiculous, though it is — but because we’ve gotten lost, just like this, within the first ten seconds of every major hike we’ve ever embarked upon. By now, it’s tradition. If we ever know where we’re going at the beginning of a trek, then I’ll worry.

But soon, we’re standing on a precipice looking into a gigantic crevice, over one mile deep, 277 miles long and 18 miles wide, amazed by the expanse of snow-covered, 2-billion-year-old rock striations. The dazzling range of rock colors: brick reds, copper oranges, sunflower yellows, sky blues, and deep purples prompts us to take a moment before starting down the trail.

“It truly is ‘aweful,’” I say.

Brian tries to take a picture of the landscape, but our wide-angle lens totally fails to capture the spectacular vista.

“It’s just too Grand,” my brother jokes.

“Too Grand,” I agree.

Soon, we’re hiking down Bright Angel Trail, a path filled with families and couples taking short day hikes on the Park’s least steep route into the Canyon. With so many people near the Canyon’s South Rim, I decide that this is the perfect time to don the Santa suit that I shoved into my backpack in the parking lot. I stop on a snowy ridge and quickly put on the costume over my jacket and synthetic pants. When I add my backpack over the suit, I’ve become Santa Claus: Outdoor Adventure Edition.

Bizarrely, as we make our way down the snow-covered trail toward the Canyon floor, I seem to fit in perfectly with the wintery backdrop while also looking totally out of place. I’m surprised to discover that wearing a bright red and white felt suit turns me into a totally different person. I start yelling “Ho, Ho, Ho!” and “Merry Christmas!” to every hiker we pass on the snowy trail. As the trip continues, Brian and I begin alternating the Santa suit between us. We discover, to our delight, that the costume casts a magic spell over the other hikers too. Families, couples, and even hardcore outdoor adventurers not only become instantly happy and uncharacteristically friendly when we run into them, but they almost always treat us as though they believe that the one of us with the suit is the real Father Christmas.

“Thanks for the presents, Santa!” many hikers say.

“I’ve been hiking here since 1976,” one woman tells Santa, “and this is the first time I’ve ever seen Santa Claus coming down the trail.”

“Can I take a photo of you and my wife?” a surprising number of men ask Santa.

Children simply stare at Santa in awe. One teenage girl takes one look at Santa hiking down the trail and says, simply: “Awesome.” Tourists riding mules laugh when Santa shouts, “Have a Happy New Year!” as they pass. A 10-year-old boy, first unimpressed by Santa’s appearance, becomes enraptured when Santa reveals his ambitious plan to hike to the North Rim and back.

As we continue down the trail, we start to realize that constantly staying in character is exhausting. “I feel like I need to be ‘on’ all the time,” I complain to Brian. Soon, we begin cataloging a repertoire of witty responses, so that we’re always prepared for other hikers’ clever remarks. We feel like we’re in a Santa role-playing arms race.

“Aren’t you hot in that suit, Santa?” one hiker asks. “Of course not! My suit is magic, and I have 365 of them in my closet — one for every day of the year!” I respond.

“Santa, what are you doing here in the Grand Canyon?” another queries. “My sleigh broke down, and I’m hiking back to the North Pole,” Brian responds. “By the way, have you seen Blitzen? Or any of the other reindeer?”

“Santa, it’s a little late for Christmas,” a few criticize. “Trust me, I didn’t miss Christmas,” I respond. “I was working the whole night. Afterward, I always vacation in the US National Parks. They’re second to none.”

“Santa, I didn’t get what I wanted for Christmas this year!” many complain. “Well, I have my list, and I checked it twice,” Brian retorts. “I’m sorry, Santa. I’ll try better next year,” they apologize.

After a day of Santa banter, all the while taking photos with hikers, Brian and I arrive at the Indian Garden campsite, fatigued from the spotlight of Santa’s celebrity. When we erect our tent and settle in at our campsite, I take off the Santa suit so that we can relax and enjoy dinner.

But soon after, a friendly, 40-year-old blonde woman from Wisconsin rushes over to us. “What happened to your suit, Santa? It really raised my spirits! I loved it!” she gushes. “May I play you guys a song on my harmonica?”

As we cook dinner, she serenades us with “Red River Valley” — an old, lonely cowboy folk tune — while snow falls on us under the shadow of the Grand Canyon’s towering South Rim.

Come sit by my side if you love me
Do not hasten to bid me adieu
But remember the Red River Valley
And the cowboy who loved you so true.

As we compliment her impressive musical talents, I realize that this is the first time ever that we have been offered a harmonica performance while backpacking. I realize that the red felt coat in my backpack is, indeed, somehow magical. It has a surprisingly powerful ability to bring people together and put smiles on their faces.

With hopes that we’ll someday meet again, the woman with the harmonica asks for our e-mail addresses, which we write for her on a stray piece of a National Park brochure that she’s carrying with her. We write our contact information just above the Park Service’s slogan, which is printed on the paper. “Hank and Brian Leukart: Experience Your America,” it reads. She laughs.

Early the next morning, Brian puts on the Santa suit and goes to fill his Camelbak with water. A twenty-something-year-old woman interrupts him.

“Santa! Do you mind if I sit on your lap and get a picture?” she asks.

“Of course not,” my brother says. “It’s my job.”

We used to think that Santa worked only one night per year. Now, we know there’s no escaping Santa’s celebrity. It’s a full time job. But it’s an easy job to love.

Read the finale to this series about a Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim hike in winter, in which ten-foot snowdrifts and dangerously cold temperatures call into question Hank and Brian’s ability to reach the North Rim safely.

Comments

  • January 16, 2010, 10:46 AM

    Paul Sanchez

    Ha, awesome -- Santa Claus hiking the Grand Canyon! My friend and I hitch hiked across the US, dressed as Catholic Monks, which was a blast. Loved reading about the responses people gave you on the trail.

Hank searches for the Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trailhead on a topographical map. (photo by Brian Leukart)

Hank searches for the Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trailhead on a topographical map. (photo by Brian Leukart)

Hank poses in his Santa suit on Bright Angel Trail. (photo by Brian Leukart)

Hank poses in his Santa suit on Bright Angel Trail. (photo by Brian Leukart)

Mules carry riders down the Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail. (photo by Brian Leukart)

Mules carry riders down the Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail. (photo by Brian Leukart)

Hikers stand in a rock tunnel on the Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail. (photo by Brian Leukart)

Hikers stand in a rock tunnel on the Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail. (photo by Brian Leukart)

A woman laughs as she spies Santa Claus approaching her on Bright Angel Trail. (photo by Brian Leukart)

A woman laughs as she spies Santa Claus approaching her on Bright Angel Trail. (photo by Brian Leukart)

A sign reminds hikers to be respectful of plants in the Grand Canyon. (photo by Brian Leukart)

A sign reminds hikers to be respectful of plants in the Grand Canyon. (photo by Brian Leukart)

Hikers ask Brian to pose for a photo at Indian Garden.

Hikers ask Brian to pose for a photo at Indian Garden.

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.
    1. South Kaibab Trailhead to Bright Angel Camp
    2. Bright Angel Camp to Cottonwood Camp
    3. Cottonwood Camp to the North Rim Campground
    4. The North Rim Campground to Cottonwood Camp
    5. Cottonwood Camp to Bright Angel Camp
    6. Bright Angel Camp to the Bright Angel Trailhead
  • FOUR-DAY ITINERARY: This short itinerary is for experienced hikers but still prevents you from having to complete more than one rim ascent or descent in a single day.
    1. South Kaibab Trailhead to Cottonwood Camp
    2. Cottonwood Camp to the North Rim Campground
    3. The North Rim Campground to Bright Angel Camp
    4. Bright Angel Camp to the Bright Angel Trailhead
  • TWO- OR ONE-DAY ITINERARY: It is possible to do this hike in two days (or even one day) in ideal weather conditions (April and October) without a backpack. The advantage of doing this is that you won’t need a backcountry permit, but you won’t get to savor your journey much and you’ll probably be starting and ending your days by hiking for hours in the dark. You’ll also need a hotel reservation on the North Rim since you won’t be carrying a tent. Only the fittest hikers should try this stunt:
    1. South Kaibab Trailhead to North Rim Campground
    2. North Rim Campground to Bright Angel Trailhead
  • ONE-WAY ITINERARY: If a rim-to-rim-to-rim hike seems like more than you’re ready to sign up for, you can always try a shorter rim-to-rim hike. For $80 per person, Transcanyon Shuttle will take hikers on the 4.5 hour drive from one rim to the other. You can also try exchanging car keys with someone you see in the Canyon and arranging a meeting point or dividing your hiking group into two groups, starting at opposite rims.
  • View our route and download the Without Baggage Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim GPS track in GPX or KML format. Note that GPS devices only work intermittently on the Canyon floor.