PrologueWhat we are doing, and why we're doing it!
We fulfilled a lifelong dream this week. We hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, spent the night in Bright Angel Campground, and walked out the next day. It was, however, not quite as imagined. It was better!
There are many stories that could be told about a hike into the Canyon: the vibrant life of springtime, the geology that carries you back through millions of years as you descend, the history of ancient people, or the Colorado River that is the reason for it all. There is also a story of personal achievement realized at the Canyon rim after having returned from the River.
Carrying a backpack to the bottom and back is a noteworthy accomplishment. It's often said (and I agree) that it's on the scale of running a marathon. It was clearly harder than riding a Century (100 mile bike race which I did) or the triathlon that Barb completed.. The biggest difference between hiking the Canyon and a marathon is that it's a challenge that, once accepted, can't be abandoned. Once you've walked down, you have to walk back up under your own power.
The Grand Canyon is one of the great personal motivators in the world. Standing a couple of miles from where you slept near the River, skin glistening with sweat, the sight of the Canyon rim many miles away, and many thousands of feet above will surely light a fire in your soul. The only way to the top is simply to keep putting one foot in front of the other. There is no alternative, no shuttle to the top, no spare mules to carry you up. You appreciate deeply that it's something that you have to do for yourself.
There is no doubt in my mind that the effort involved was well spent. The Grand Canyon is amazing enough to draw millions of people each year to stand at the rim of the chasm. The spectacle at the rim gives only the slightest hint of the grandeur experienced most of the way down. Oddly enough, the very bottom wasn't the most awesome place to be, in our humble opinion. Most of the Canyon is simply not visible from the River. The area that lies most of the way to the bottom is where you sense Nature in all her true majesty.
There are numerous trails into the Canyon. We chose the South Kaibab trail (7.0 miles) for our descent to escape the crowds, and the aroma left by numerous mule trains. We decided to return on the most popular trail, Bright Angel (9.6 miles), as it was the only trail with available water.
As a backcountry permit is needed for any overnight stay below the rim, our adventure started with a visit to the Backcountry office. Permits are available in advance by mail, or on an in-person first come, first served system at 8AM each morning. Permits issued in person are always for at least two days in the future, so you need to have some flexibility with your time if you do it this way. We showed up in the morning and, as we were trying to time our adventure with the best weather (it was several days in advance), they were unable to accommodate us. However, they gave us the #1 spot for the next morning. First thing the next morning, Friday, we requested they check Monday's availability - no openings. But the ranger bent the rules and checked Tuesday for us. Fortunately, an opening was available in the campground. We were in!
We enjoyed our time waiting for our permit days by exploring the Canyon Rim, and taking an exploratory training hike part way down Bright Angel (6 miles roundtrip) and attending various, always interesting ranger talks. We also spent some time inside the motorhome while it rained and hailed and snowed outside. Our walks along the rim yielded more than just beautiful vistas of the Canyon. We saw Mule Deer so accustomed to people that (assuming you remain still) you might as well have been just another rock. We also saw some of the mighty Condors that have been re-established in the area. It's hard to understand how big these birds are until you realize that the other birds with them are ravens with nearly a two foot wingspan!
The evening before our hike, we packed our backpacks so we could leave bright and early. Carissa was going to have a different mode of adventure by being alone for two days and one night, as she had decided that she didn't want to do the hike.
The trip into the Canyon started with a shuttle ride to the South Kaibab trailhead. It was easy to spot the other hikers on the shuttle (big packs and bigger grins), and conversation about what to expect helped establish a sense of camaraderie. We had learned from our previous hikes that we would be seeing many of our fellow hikers again all along the route.
The South Kaibab trail is considered a ridge trail, as opposed to ones that follows side canyons. It works it's way down a point jutting into the Canyon. The exposed location of the trail features some wonderful views of the surrounding cliffs, but it does leave travelers vulnerable to high winds. Fortunately, we had a beautiful, cool day between cold fronts to descend. The temperature was perfect for physical exertion.
As we passed, and were passed, by several groups we struck up a conversation with a couple, Al and Jill from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. We traded stories about adventures, both past and forthcoming, places we wanted to go back to visit and why, our jobs, lifestyles, etc. Chatting sure helps pass the time on a long, though beautiful hike. It also gave us extra people to "ooh and aah" with as we came around the next spectacular vision.
The vibrant life of springtime was both a joy to see, and a prime topic for conversation with our newfound friends. We were immersed in the glory of Mother Earth. In our awe, we were treated to more than just springtime blooms, we were able to see the changes in the native flora as we descended to warmer elevations. It was a truly remarkable thing to see. As we worked our way downward we first saw early wildflowers and cactus buds waiting to flower. The further we descended, the wildflowers became more common, and cactus were in full bloom. As our 'home turf' is desert, we were able to share our knowledge of the flora and fauna with our new friends.
At one point, we saw what at first appeared to be a small humming bird. It turned out to be a huge moth! It's flight was more notable than it's large size, as it moved from flower to flower with startling speed and deliberation. It displayed none of the fluttering typical of moths.
At some point during the constant parade of magnificent vistas, an appreciation of the enormity of the Grand Canyon began to settle into our minds. The huge expanse of the Canyon is, perhaps, simply too large to comprehend at the rim. From a perch deep in the Canyon where you can see both the rim looming above and the River deep below, the enormity of the Canyon permeates your consciousness. Perspective overwhelms the dizzying heights. It even overwhelms the beauty of the vibrantly colored cliffs. Only from the depths of the chasm can you understand how Grand this Canyon truly is.
Far below the rim, we saw evidence of the Canyon's immense age. Laying along the trail were rocks covered with the fossilized burrows of marine worms. Thousands of feet below the rim, our footprints rested among the remnants of a sea floor hundreds of thousands years old. From one of the ranger talks we had learned that this whole area was one a shallow tropical sea similar to the Caribbean. To see actual evidence so far below the rim was cause for pause.
As we entered the gorge, we could see the River at it base. The Colorado was no distant image. We could hear the muted roar of the rapids, and feel the humidity from its waters. The temperature at the bottom is generally about 25-30 degrees warmer at the bottom than the rim. It was a welcome warmth as we would not be heated by exertion much longer.
The gorge at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is like a canyon within the Canyon. It's younger, it's sides are steeper, and it cuts through ancient Vishnu Schist volcanic rock that juts skyward instead of the sedimentary rock that makes up the rest of the Canyon.
As we approached our campground, we saw Bright Angel Creek rushing down to meet the mighty Colorado. In California this 'creek' would be considered a river unto itself. The final switchbacks of the trail led to a tunnel at the start of a suspension bridge across the Colorado. Once on the north side of the River, it was a short walk up Bright Angel Canyon to the campground near Phantom Ranch. As we walked the along the river, we saw an ancient building and kiva that had been dated back to 800 A.D. Humanity had settled in this remote spot long, long ago.
Phantom Ranch is a rustic complex of cabins and dorms surrounding a Canteen/Store/Dining room. It's usually booked years in advance, and the folks that stay there usually arrive on mules. The couple that accompanied us down the trail were an exception. They went to their dorms to await dinner while we headed for the campground. One interesting and salient point is that mule or person carries everything that is brought into the campground or ranch. Everything. This means that they have exact counts for meals - which have to be booked far, far in advance also. All garbage, all laundry, everything is transported on the back of some living being. Helicopters are strictly for ranger use, and then only for emergencies and bringing in large tools to maintain the trails, etc.
The campground only has 31 camp sites, including group camp sites (therefore the need for permits). It stretches along the Bright Angel Creek, so we laid out sleeping bags out to the soothing sound of rushing water and slept beneath the stars. It did sprinkle off and one in the early evening and we spread out our 'space' blankets to keep our sleeping bags dry - we looked like we were sleeping under aluminum foil. We had consciously decided to spare the weight of a tent (rent-able from Market Plaza in Grand Canyon village) and have one less layer between us and the heavens. With no light pollution the sky was ablaze with stars. The earlier clouds seemed to dissipate and it was fascinating to watch the moon rise and then shift through the night sky. So deep within the canyon were we that the walls blocked part of the sky and the course of the moon. The moon seemed to skirt the edge of the walls of the canyon instead of being bright above our heads. It was a mystical feeling to be immersed in such a gorgeous, natural display. The night-time temperatures were comfortable. We learned later that it had hailed at the rim but the moisture had evaporated before it reached us at the bottom.
We rose early the next morning and set to repacking our loads. We took time to stretch our tired muscles - especially our calves and then re-assumed 'the position' beneath our packs. We walked back across the Colorado over a second suspension bridge (underneath it is the main water pipe that carries the water from the north rim to the south rim), and ate breakfast overlooking muddy rapids.
Upon reaching the base of Bright Angel trail, we turned away from the River and began to climb in earnest. The lower reaches of Bright Angel trail parallel Pipe Creek. The creek helps the ascent seem less onerous. It was wonderful to have the stream for company. Every few hundred yards was a cascade, a water crossing, or simply an explosion of plant life.
A lush area called Indian Gardens greeted us roughly half way up. By this time, the strain of the effort spent climbing had begun to take its toll. While not being exhausted, there was no doubt that we had been working hard. It was shortly after leaving Indian Gardens that the true rim of the Canyon first appeared. The sight of the rim was accompanied by the sobering realization that there was no other way to get there other than under our own power.
The upper half of Bright Angel was much less entertaining without the creek to keep us company. We focused on keeping ourselves going. As we had done a training hike we knew what to expect for the last three miles. This really did help psychologically. We paid careful attention to drinking enough, eating small snacks, and taking short breaks at least every half hour. We helped each other with encouragement and sharing the load.
The break between weather fronts was closing rapidly; the last mile of the trail saw us trudging in brief showers with flurries of hail. We had perfect rain gear so this wasn't a problem. The storm filling the Canyon behind us created a dramatic view of buttes and spires between dark gray curtains of rain.
About 3:00 o'clock in the afternoon, we crested the rim after approximately 8 hours of hiking. The rain had stopped but we were greeted by a chill wind gusting up to 30 mph. We took one long last look into the Canyon, congratulated one another, then trudged back to the shuttle that would carry us back to our coach - our refuge with hot showers and cozy beds. We did it!