Hiking the Grand Canyon

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Sunset at Grand Canon from the South Rim

The Grand Canyon is on virtually everyone's bucket list.  I've had the good fortune to hike it several times; this puts me in a somewhat rarefied group.  Of the 5 million annual visitors to the Canyon, only about 50,000 venture below the rim.  Still, that's a staggering number, considering that the Canyon is a very fragile desert environment.  Signs from native tribes are still clearly visible, some 1,000 years after their departure, so the impact of 50,000 pairs of shoes is significant and long-lasting.

To protect the desert, the National Park System enforces a strict permit limit for people who want to spend the night below the rim.  There are two ways you can spend the night at the bottom – carry a permit and a tent or stay at Phantom Ranch.

I take every opportunity I can to visit the canyon and to spend time below the rim.

I had a few extra days after our training with LaMesa RV in Phoenix, so on Thursday night I abandoned the swank Hilton Hotel and headed north.  I arrived after the Backcountry office closed, so I headed to Mather Campground.  Mather is on the South Rim, and is the only campground open all year.  It has no hookups and strict limits on generator use.  I snagged one of the many open sites and set up my little backpacking tent, had dinner, and crawled inside for a night of rest.  Temps dipped below freezing.

At 3 AM I was awakened by the coyotes singing.  If you never heard coyote song, you're in for a treat.  There's something very spiritual in listening to coyote song on the high desert.  I lay there in my tent, listening, while the songs went on and on. Each pack has its own songs, so they always vary.

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At the South Kaibab Trailhead, about to head down into the Canyon

Next morning at 8AM I was at the Backcountry office, hoping to pull a permit.  Normally permits are hard to come by and you have to apply months in advance; I was hoping to score 3 nights below the rim, and I really didn't have any preferences where.  The ranger got me the first night at Bright Angel, the second night at Cottonwood, and the third night back at Bright Angel.  Both campgrounds are along the corridor trails, the main trails in the canyon.  All excited, I parked the car and hopped on the express bus to the trailhead.

There are two main trails to get to the bottom; South Kaibab and Bright Angel.  Most people choose to go down South Kaibab and up Bright Angel; this is the route I took.  The top thousand feet or so was very icy; dangerously so.  (More on that later).  I persevered and was rewarded by a great hike down, past the Tip Off into the inner canyon.

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The Tip Off into the inner canyon

Most people don't realize that, looking down from the rim, you only see the top half of the canyon.  The inner canyon is largely hidden from view.  You must hike down to the Tonto Platform and look down, or hike down, to truly experience the canyon.  On the Kaibab trail, you drop drop into the inner canyon at the Tip Off.  Off the Tip Off I went, into the inner canyon.

Bright Angel Campground, while technically a “backcountry” campground, is highly developed, with defined sites, picnic tables, and bear boxes for food storage. The bear boxes aren't there for bears; bears are not unknown but extremely rare as the dry desert is not hospitable to them.  The bear boxes are there for the ever-present crows and rock squirrels, who will tear apart backpacks, tents, and anything else if they suspect they house a morsel of food.  So you empty your pack into the bear box, and hang the pack on the rack provided.  The rangers come through and check, as there are quite a large number of first-timers at Bright Angel, who don't quite know or understand the rules, or think they don't apply to them.  Arghhh… The rules aren't there for the sake of rules; once a rock squirrel learns that backpacks contain tasty morsels, no backpack is safe – and a trip can end in disaster with a shredded pack.

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My spot at Bright Angel Campground

I inadvertently offended one of those first-timers in the site next to me; she came to me all indignant about the danger of the icy trail, telling me how her husband “almost fell off”, and demanding that “they” should close the trail because it's not safe.  I said something like “It's the backcountry; did you read the signs that said ‘icy trail', ‘danger', and ‘crampons recommended'?  You read the signs and you took your chances.”  She went off in a huff and didn't say a word to me after that.  More on the backcountry rules later.

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Headed to the North Rim via Bright Angel Canyon

The next morning I slept in; I only had 7 easy, mostly flat miles to cover so I was in no hurry.  I waited until the sun drove the morning chill off, and ambled out of my tent, had a leisurely breakfast, and set out for Cottonwood Campground.  Cottonwood is halfway to the north rim (the easy half; the lower 7 miles that I was hiking are easy and flat; the last 7 miles are steep and rugged).  The trail winds through Bright Angel Canyon, a steep canyon with tall walls of granite.  On the way you can stop by Ribbon Falls, an incredible structure of moss and water.

At lunch, I came to a somewhat uncomfortable realization – I had thought that I would get maybe two or three days below the rim, so I planned my meals accordingly.  When I got my permit for 4 days, I jumped on the trailhead bus and didn't think through the simple fact that I only had enough food for 3 days.  So I went on limited rations – only about 1700 calories a day, which is about half of what you should be eating on an outing like this.  So it goes.

I arrived in Cottonwood Campground early afternoon.  The campground is a bit more rugged than Bright Angel, but still highly developed as it's one of the two stopping points for people doing the rim-to-rim hike.  Picnic tables and bear boxes, yay.  I napped, I read a book for a while, I played in the creek, and generally killed time.

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Ribbon Falls

Remember how you would kill time when you were a kid on summer vacation?  We lose that as a rite of passage into adulthood.  Backpacking, away from lights and Internet and phone service is a good way to regain that youthful mindset.

That's one thing you realize when you disconnect from the modern world; there is no phone service in the Canyon, clocks don't matter because there are no lights, so you get up with the sun and you go to sleep with the night.  Your world is not governed by a clock, appointments, emails, but rather sundown and sunup, and “is it warm enough to wash in the creek yet?”

I talked a bit about taking your chances in the backcountry.  About a mile or two uphill from me a hiker had broken his leg; at the time I was at Cottonwood he had been there for two days hoping for a rescue.  I had thought about hiking up a ways to see a waterfall but got lazy.  Fortunately, the next day, a runner found this person, and notified the rangers.  He was airlifted out three days after he broke his leg.  “You read the rules and you take your chances.”  The backcountry, while wonderful and kind and gracious to our souls, is also unforgiving to our physical selves.  Had I gone to see the waterfall, I could have saved him a day of suffering.  Had this runner decided to take a rest day, the hiker could well have died.  Fortunately he was rescued and is recovering.

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The old man watching the first rays of dawn light up the rocks

I took my time getting up the next morning, ignorant of the drama just a mile or two from my tent.  I had breakfast and started on the way back to Bright Angel Campground.  I played around in the creek by Ribbon Falls again.  I arrived at Bright Angel Campground mid-afternoon and set up my camp.  Fortunately Phantom Ranch has a cantina with a stock of energy bars.  I bought about 2,000 calories worth of bars, thinking that I will have leftovers.

The last day was also the hardest – I chose to go up Bright Angel Trail, which is 9 miles, plus I added the side trip to Plateau Point, which adds another 3 miles.  Altogether it was about a 12-13 mile day, most of it uphill.  I started early, at first light, and was rewarded with a wonderful show of the desert sky turning from black to purple to all the colors of the desert.

Bright Angel Trail winds along the river and then rises sharply to Indian Garden.  Indian Garden is the last place to get water along the route to the top.  There are some Pueblo ruins along the trail.

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The view from Plateau Point

From Indian Garden I took the side trip to Lookout Point.  This is a 3 mile round trip to a point that overlooks the inner canyon.  Well worth the effort. From the rim, this is a 12 mile round trip.

From Indian Garden it's an uphill slog all the way to the rim.  The views are beautiful, and the climb is unrelenting.  4.6 miles of up. Oh and I ate every one of those energy bars I bought earlier.

I can always tell how close I am to the top by the amount of soap and perfume in the air.  After 4 days in the backcountry without a shower, I was quite stinky – but what I really noticed was the smell of soap on the day hikers coming down from the hotels on the rim.

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At the top, after 4 days in the Canyon

Once on the rim, a lady asked me incredulously if I could just camp where ever I wanted to?  I'm not really sure if she thought I was homeless living on the rim, or if the idea of someone backpacking for pleasure was foreign to her, or even if it made a difference to her.  I tried to explain the permit system and my trip and even show her the route but it was as if we were speaking different languages and I don't think I got my point across. But she did smell of soap.

Altogether a great trip and another memorable weekend in the backcountry.