A Grand Hiking Adventure

By Kevin Tankersley

Erik Romanov and eight Wacoans went rim to rim through the Grand Canyon

There’s a scene in “National Lampoon’s Vacation” where the Griswold family is at the Grand Canyon. Clark is in a rush to leave, even though they’ve only been there a few minutes. After hurrying the kids to the car, Clark’s wife Ellen says, “Don’t you want to look at the Grand Canyon?”

Clark turns and, for 2.5 seconds, surveys the magnificent view from the South Rim of the canyon before rushing off.

That is, obviously, not the way to experience the Grand Canyon, though Erik Romanov said he shot some video that “harkened back” to the 1983 film that starred Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo.

Romanov was one of nine Wacoans who traveled to the canyon last month. Their goal was to hike from the South Rim to the North Rim — a purported distance of about 23 miles — in one day.

The rim-to-rim idea began a couple of years ago when Romanov and some of the others were running the Zion Half Marathon in Utah.

“Kay Williams made the comment, ‘Hey, I’d really love to do rim to rim, that’s always been on my bucket list,’” Romanov said. “And all us crazies said, ‘Yeah, that sounds like a lot of fun.’”

The group planned to do the hike in May 2023, but a late snowfall caused the closure of part of the North Trail. The trail didn’t completely open until June, “and it gets really hot at the bottom of the canyon, so that killed those plans.”

Just last month, there was a notice posted on the National Park Service website that said: “Hiking into the canyon is not advised. Heat warning below 4,000 feet — 105 degrees.”

So the trip was moved to May of this year.

The group consisted of Romanov, Williams, Don Bland, Nancy Goodnight, Cori Madewell, Louis Perez, Wendy Perez, Jim Seidensticker and Nicki Seidensticker.

“We had been friends through triathlons and trail running and road running and things like that, and so now all of a sudden we had to start the training,” Romanov said. “One of the best things we did to train was we would hike up and down Jacob’s Ladder in Cameron Park. That is probably the best way to prepare. Nothing is natural about trails. Over many, many years, the trails have been formed and shaped and restored, and some of the steps were very deep. Some were very shallow. There were longer steps, shorter steps.”

Rim-to-rim hikes can start at either the North or South Rim, Romanov said, and the Waco group opted for the South to North route, which is the more challenging of the two.

“The North is 1,000 feet higher than the South, so if you hike from the South to the North, not only are you gaining elevation anyway, but you’re gaining an additional 1,000 feet because of that added altitude.”

The group began its hike at 4:20 a.m. on May 20. It was still dark at that hour, so everyone wore headlamps, and with temperatures in the low- to mid-40s, they layered clothes as well.

“Before daybreak, it was magical, mystical,” Romanov said. “The sun rising, hitting the red rocks. It was just awe-inspiring.”

The downhill portion of the hike — “Literally, from the first step you’re going down,” Romanov said — is almost 10 miles, and it’s all along pretty much a single trail. They shed layers as the temperatures climbed, and reached the bottom of the canyon incident-free.

Many hikers choose to do rim-to-rim in two days, which entails spending the night in the canyon. For those who opt not to camp in the canyon, the only lodging option below the rim is at Phantom Ranch, which features cabins and dormitories — which are, at the moment, closed indefinitely — for overnight stays.

“They’ve got a dozen or so cabins,” Romanov said. Reservation is “by lottery only. You have to put your name in and hope you get picked. I’ve heard of people being on the list trying for 10 years to get to Phantom Ranch and still not being able to.”

The Phantom Ranch Canteen — one of a few dining options in the canyon — is famous for its lemonade. One review on Trip Advisor said: “They sell the best lemonade you will ever have.”

Another canyon tradition is mailing postcards from Phantom Ranch.

“They put a stamp on it that says, ‘Mail delivered by mule train from the bottom of the Grand Canyon,’” Romanov said. “I mailed some postcards to my grandkids, and they showed up probably a week-and-a-half after we got back.”

The Waco group rested for a bit, drank some of the legendary lemonade, and then began the harder portion of the hike. One reason for the increased difficulty is “the box,” an area at the bottom of the canyon “where the temperature just sits and hovers and lingers,” Romanov said.

“The temperature was in the mid-90s when we were at the bottom.”

Though still warm, weather conditions were favorable as they gained altitude.

“Winds were up that day, so we got some nice breeze most of the day,” Romanov said. “We got a lot of good shade, so conditions were great.”

The wind was so strong that day, a park ranger said, that it would be impossible to fly in a rescue helicopter to take out a hiker in distress.

If the National Park Service uses its equipment to evacuate a hiker, there’s no charge. However, if the NPS helicopters are busy or out of service, rescue by a private helicopter ambulance can cost about $18,000, some locals told Romanov later that night after the hike.

The park ranger, upon learning that the Wacoans were doing a one-day rim-to-rim hike, gave them advice to stay hydrated and well-fed, and to “get yourself wet and cool as often as you can,” Romanov said.

Romanov’s equipment included a hydration pack that held three liters of water, and two smaller bottles that held about a half-liter each. There are refill stations at several spots on the trails, and while the water is safe to drink, “it didn’t always taste good,” Romanov said. To combat that, he mixed the water with a flavored electrolyte mix.

He also packed Uncrustables peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, PayDay candy bars, Jolly Rancher candies, beef jerky and chewing gum.

“I brought way too much food. I didn’t eat half of what I brought,” he said. “The body is not going to be able to consume as many calories as you are likely to burn in doing that kind of an event, so you have to be judicious in what you eat and be able to tolerate what you eat. I think my Garmin said I burned like 5,600 calories over the 14 1/2 hours. My goal was somewhere between 100 to 200 calories an hour, but I just got to the point towards the end, like the last six miles, where I just couldn’t eat anything. My body just wouldn’t let me eat, and instead of really chugging water, I just would sip.”

About five miles up the trail after leaving Phantom Ranch, and about a half-mile off the main trail, some of the Waco group took a detour to Ribbon Falls, a 100-foot waterfall that offers much-needed shade and refreshing cold water.

“It was beautiful — just unbelievable,” Romanov said, and well worth the 45 minutes it added to their hike.

After that came the most difficult part of the hike, Romanov said.

“The steepest section we encountered was the last two miles,” he said. “You gained 1,400 feet of elevation in two miles. It was a lot of switchbacks. You go back and forth, back and forth, and it was just a beat down.”

During those final two miles, Romanov said he would walk about 50 yards and take a break, then walk another 50 yards, take another break.

“That’s the hardest two miles of the whole event,” he said.

Romanov bought a commemorative t-shirt and hat after the hike, and they each have printed on them “23.9 miles.”

“When we finished, every one of us had at least 29 miles on our devices to track it,” he said. “And I had just over 29-and-a-quarter miles. Now if you take the mile excursion to Ribbon Falls out of that, that’s still 28 miles. Psychologically, when you’re preparing for 24 and you still have three or four miles to go, and it’s the toughest three or four miles of the whole hike — it’s a mental beat down and a physical beat down.”

Romanov said the Waco folks had planned on a pace of about two miles an hour, which, at 24 miles, would have made for a 12-hour hike. The first of the group made it to the North Rim at 6:30 p.m., taking just over 14 hours, and others finished in the following 30 minutes or so.

“A number of our group are runners, and you could be tempted to run on certain parts of the trail,” he said. “We wanted to set the expectations from the very beginning. It was going to be a hike and the plan was for all of us to stay together.”

They got stretched out a bit over the last couple of miles, but everyone finished.

“The first thing I did was I took the pack off and I sat on the rock wall at the exit and I just leaned down. I put my hands on my knees, and took a moment to kind of recover, just take a few breaths,” Romanov said.

Romanov’s wife Holly and their daughter Kiersten Hurst were waiting for him at the top of the Canyon.

“The greatest [thing] about having my wife and daughter,” he said, “they were able to check into the hotel, so we went back. I took a nice hot shower and grabbed myself a beverage and we just kind of just relaxed up until our dinner reservation.”

Most of the group, and several other hikers, were staying that night at the Grand Canyon Lodge, about two miles from the North Rim. The hotel shuttle was running slow that evening, so Kiersten ended up making multiple trips in the family’s rented Jeep Grand Cherokee, offering rides to other hikers finishing their trek, including a brother and sister — Matt and Becky — from Massachusetts that Romanov befriended during the day.

Romanov said it took him just a couple of days to recover from the hike.

“Just like the Iron distance triathlons I’ve participated in, after every one of them, I’ve hurt,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed them for the challenge that they were, and when you finish, you have a whole different appreciation for what you just did.”

There were just a few dozen other hikers doing the rim-to-rim that day, Romanov said, and about the only wildlife they encountered were “some really nice, big lizards.” They did not, however, see any pink Grand Canyon Rattlesnakes, a species found nowhere else in the world.

“I was kind of hoping we’d find a pink one just to say I saw it,” he said.

Romanov, who is retired from the Air Force and now works as a supply chain manager for L3, said the next adventure on his calendar will take him back to the same part of the country. He and Holly and some life group friends from First Woodway Baptist Church will fly into Durango, Colorado, then hike at Arches National Park, visit Monument Valley then hike at Mesa Verde National Park. The group visited Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park last year.

“One of the goals of our group is to hit as many national parks as we can, so that’s what we have planned for October,” he said. “And I’m sure there’s going to be something that somebody’s going to talk us into, whether it’s a biking event somewhere in town. We have the Skittles Wild West ride. I’ll likely do a shorter distance ride there. And I’ll do some trail running with the Waco Striders.

“It’s easy after you retire from the Air Force, where you’re forced to exercise, to continue that pattern. And I did when I got into triathlons. But now with a different season of life, when I have four grandkids and taking the RV to places with other friends, the time commitment necessary to do really significant triathlon events is just not manageable at this point for me, so I do the smaller stuff — just do the runs and stay involved with the running group to stay fit.”