by Kim Portelli
I don’t think that my husband and I view hiking much differently than most. It is our chance to get away from the stresses of everyday life, take in some beautiful scenery and enjoy some peace and solitude. All of that changed on Saturday, April 21. We were both excited about our up-coming Grand Canyon hike. We’ve hiked the canyon many times before, but this time around, we had months of training under our belts and we were excited to be going with a group of close friends. My vote was to do rim-to-rim, but we all eventually decided to do South Kaibab down to Phantom Ranch and back up South Bright Angel.
We arrived at the canyon around 5:00am, giving us ample time to park, use a flushing toilet one last time and walk to the bus stop to catch the 6:00am Hiker Trolley to the South Kaibab trailhead. The first indication that something was amiss that morning was the packed parking lot. The lot, that we have parked in for years, was completely full. After finding another lot a short walk away, we headed to the Lodge and the bus stop.
My husband and one of our friends exchanged worried looks. Why were there 60-70 hikers waiting at the bus stop, when in past years there would typically only be 12-15 hikers waiting for the 6:00am trolley? I’ll tell you why. Saturday, April 21 (the start of National Park week) was one of four free entrance days to the National Parks (the other three being January 15, September 22 and November 11).
Luckily, we were able to get on that first trolley (there were quite a few hikers who didn’t), arrive at the trailhead and begin our hike. It was a gorgeous day, not too cold, bright blue skies and no wind. Garmins were started, laces secured, packs adjusted and we stepped on the trail at 6:40am, along with the hordes of other hikers. The day prior, it had rained up north, so the trail was not dusty. That was a plus, considering hundreds of feet were stomping down the trail. Within the first mile, however, our cheery mood turned to annoyance at the lack of trail etiquette we were encountering that morning (all day, in fact).
Back at Sole Sports, I brought up the fact that many of the hikers in the canyon that day were either disregarding simple trail etiquette or had no knowledge of trail guidelines. When we started talking about specific dos and don’ts, an immediate discussion broke out as to who was correct. According to the American Hiking Society (AHS) and to put the debate to rest, here are some guidelines for how to share the trail with others.
Here is the big one - even some experienced hikers/trail runners may not know or always remember this - hikers going uphill have the right of way. This is because in general, hikers heading up an incline have a smaller field of vision and may also be in that “hiking rhythm” zone and not wanting to break their stride and lose their momentum. Often, an uphill hiker may let others come downhill while they take a breather, but remember, it’s the uphill hiker’s call.
On many of our local trails there are numerous mountain bikers, and generally, mountain bikers are expected to yield to hikers. However, since mountain bikers are often moving considerably faster than hikers, it is usually easier for hikers to yield the right of way. Conscientious bikers should call out as they come down steep slopes and let hikers know how many bikers are in the group.
As the largest, slowest-to-maneuver and least predictable creatures on trails, horses get the right of way from both hikers and mountain bikers. When horses or mules are passing, get off the trail on the downhill side as they trot by. Horses are more likely to run uphill than downhill when spooked, and you definitely don’t want to be in the path of a spooked horse.
These next two guidelines were broken the entire way down South Kaibab trail. When hiking in a group, always hike single-file and allow faster hikers to pass. Also for groups, stay on the trail itself and don’t spread out across its entirety, as this increases erosion. In the same vein, move off-trail when taking a break. Remember, there are likely other hikers on the trail behind you, so please move out of their way when taking a break.
The next protocols concern noise out on the trails, and my husband and I see these decorums frequently ignored. The first is to use headphones if you want to listen to music. Not everyone wants to listen to your choice of blaring music while in a nature setting. On South Bright Angel trail, we encountered hikers, heading in both directions, sharing their unwelcome, loud tunes. The next sound, according the AHS, that should be kept to a lower volume is voices. They state, “Hike quietly, enjoy the sounds of nature and let others do the same.” Granted, the loud group was teenagers, but we actually stopped for minute or two, to let the large pack get ahead of us, as their loud, high-pitched voices echoed down the trail several hundred yards.
The rule is, “Leave no trace.” This guideline should seem obvious, but unfortunately, we see it being ignored all the time. Whatever you pack in, pack it out - all of it. This even includes biodegradable items, such as apple cores and banana and orange peels, which are unsightly and slow to decompose. Also, relieve yourself 200 feet from the trail and water sources. Dig a “cat hole” deep enough to completely bury waste and toilet paper. Don’t cut switchbacks, as it takes trail maintenance volunteers hours of tireless work to prevent erosion when hikers do not stay on the trail. While there is much discourse regarding cairns (stacks of rocks showing the route), the best bet is to leave existing cairns and don’t build new ones. Finally, don’t feed wildlife. It disrupts their normal foraging process and tricks them into thinking that human food is their primary food source. At Indian Garden, on South Bright Angel trail, the stopping point is almost overrun with squirrels and chipmunks since hikers are freely sharing their snacks.
My husband and I stepped off the trail at 4:10pm, being the second and third of our group to do so. The rest of our crew were only 30 minutes behind us. It may seem like the crowds and the lack of etiquette displayed on the trail ruined our experience, but I will assure you, it did not. It was an amazing day, with all of us completing our hike happy and healthy, albeit sore. What our hike did do, was give me a jumping-off point to research and share the guidelines for trail etiquette, so that everyone can thoroughly enjoy their next hike or trail run.