3/18/14 to 3/21/14
Grand Canyon backpacking –
Morning arrived and it was finally time for the hike! This was the part of the road trip we were most looking forward to. Our itinerary:
- Day 1: Down the South Kaibab trail to Phantom Ranch – all the way down to the Colorado River – to the Bright Angel Campground for the night
- Days 2 & 3: Shorter hike along the river, up to the lowest plateau to camp for two nights at Indian Garden Campground
- Day 4: The toughest day, hiking back up to the rim
We woke, packed our remaining items, and had breakfast at the hotel. We were in a bit of a hurry since there were only three hiker express shuttles from the lodge to the trailhead – we had to be on one of them. The first two weren’t happening (for us, at least) and making the third was going to be close by the time we were finished with breakfast. Driving into the park we got lucky and found parking spots right by Bright Angel trailhead – this is where we’d be coming up in four days. We caught the hiker express and thirty minutes later we were at the South Kaibab trailhead getting ready to head down.
The South Kaibab trail is 6.7 miles to the campground, dropping about 4,780’ along the way. The trail is very uneven despite constant work from the trail building crews due to the constant mule traffic. It also generally follows steep cliffs, so it can be a very unnerving first backpacking experience, especially if you have acrophobia. The South Kaibab trail also lacks water, which can be an issue in summer, but temperatures were barely above freezing when we started, although it warmed up pretty quickly as we made our way down. One interesting thing when hiking in the canyon is how much the temperature varies as you change elevation – it’s typically 20-30 degrees warmer at Phantom Ranch in the bottom as it is on the rim.
Our progress started out a bit slow while the group got used to hiking with their packs (the training walks around the block with the pack helped but were nothing compared to this trail) and Cindy (who hates heights) tried to ignore the cliffs two feet away. But the weather was perfect and there were plenty of rest points, all situated on small outcroppings into the canyon with incredible views. The Grand Canyon is one of the most incredible sites in the world (it completely lives up to the hype and photos don’t do it justice), but even then, seeing it from the rim lodges is nothing compared to the view from within.
After about 5 hours we reached the Colorado River and the Black Bridge. The Black Bridge was built by the park service in 1928 to replace a precarious cable system that was privately run. It’s an amazing accomplishment when you see it in person and realize all 4,000 tons of material had to be carried by man and mule to the bottom. And actually, the 6 cables, each weighing a ton, were carried down one at a time by 42 local Havasupai men (the local tribe displaced by the government when they decided they wanted this little stretch of canyon.) We crossed the bridge and walked through the first lush stretch of trail all day before arriving at the campground. We took the last campsite available and went to set up the tents. Before eating, we had to retrieve our duffel from that a mule carted down for us – 30 pounds we didn’t have to carry ourselves. No one was tending the building we were told to pick it up from, but we found the duffel sitting alone. We opened it to find a minor disaster – the flour and dried milk for our mac ‘n cheese had split open and coated everything inside. The mules, or more likely their handlers, are not gentle on their cargo. We spent the next couple hours cleaning everything up and cooking our first dinner (a hash with potatoes, cheese, bacon, green onions and tomatoes, with of course wine (hey, we had to lighten our packs for tomorrow!)
We grabbed our sack lunches from Phantom Ranch (they were huge so we ate some of it for breakfast) and headed out of camp. We made a brief stop to go down and touch the Colorado River and continued for about a mile, following a mostly sandy trail along the river until we reached the River Resthouse. After that, the trail was all uphill but beautiful, mostly following a valley with a small that creek we crossed several times. Indian Garden Campground was about 1200’ above us, and the switchbacks provided a small preview of what the final day would bring. Indian Garden was beautiful, another oasis of Cottonwood Trees in the arid canyon. More campsites were open here and we found one large enough for our three tents. The main backcountry campgrounds in the park are established sites with leveled tent sites and a covered table. We had plenty of daylight left and, after a conversation with a ranger, we made plans to walk out to Plateau Point for sunset.
It’s about 1.5 miles out to the point and the trail is fairly flat, which is great as it gives you plenty of time to soak in the increasingly amazing views as the sun sets and the colors intensify. The point itself is on a rock outcropping and requires you to get very close to the edge of the cliff to see the view. Cindy overcame her fear and walked along the edge to get to the viewing platform. It was great having everyone out there to watch what turned out to be the best sunset of the trip. After the sunset we walked back to camp and cooked our next dinner, gnocchi with a brown butter sauce (backpacking meal good enough to eat at home.)
It was after dinner the fun started. Being our rest day, we sat around the table drinking wine and chatting (Eric decided it was a good night to finish the whiskey his colleagues got him.) Everyone had a few drinks (we really didn’t want to carry heavy wine back up), and we were probably a bit louder than we should have been – oh well. There were deer and other small critters running around, but suddenly we heard loud noises from the creek right behind out campsite. We all turned wondering what animal could possibly want to get this close to us when we heard ‘Hello?’ An older man in sandals was walking through the creek without a flashlight. A bit stunned, we greeted him and he pushed his way through the brush into our camp. It turned out he had gone out to Plateau Point after sunset when his headlamp died. The moon wasn’t too bright, so he walked slowly back on the trail until reaching the valley where the campground was. Being too dark to see the trail anymore, he decided to just follow the creek until he hit a campsite. Our camp had the only light on, so when he was close enough to see it, he came over. His very anxious guide came over after hearing us and chastised him a bit. Eric walked him back over to his campsite since the guy’s headlamp still didn’t work. We thought the whole thing was hilarious and agreed that because we stayed up late drinking, we likely saved a man’s life that night (probably more true than we’d all like to think, actually. It got cold that night.).
Day 3 – Life Is Good
Our rest day. We didn’t have to change camp, so we stayed in camp for awhile and made breakfast (pancakes,) then headed towards the plateau and followed the Tonto trail for a bit. The Tonto trail goes along the canyon for a long distance and doesn’t change elevation much, making it an easy way to see different angles of the canyon. We walked for about 2 miles and turned back since we knew we’d be hiking more later. We went back to our site to rest and read for a bit, and then headed back to Plateau Point again to watch what ended up being a disappointing sunset. But dinner (bacon mac n’ cheese) was great.
We woke up early, ready for the big day. Seasoned hikers now, the crew packed up camp quickly, quietly trying not to disturb the other sleeping campers while we got going before the sun came up. The hike out along the Bright Angel trail wasn’t long at 4.6 miles, but with 3,300’ to climb, we guessed we’d be towards the later part of the 4-7 hour typical hike time back to the rim. We chose to skip breakfast at the camp and save it for the first rest stop – a quick energy bar and we were on the trail.
We started out the hike without a lot of chatter. You can see almost all of the trail ahead of you as the switchbacks rise up steeply, and no one seemed excited to reach them. We reached the first resthouse, representing 1/3 of the way to the top, much sooner than expected. Everyone’s mood seemed to improve as soon they found how quick the first section went by and we got the food ready – tortillas with bacon & Nutella, delicious! The next section we started moving just a bit slower, and the trail traffic increased now that we were in easy range of day hikers. Many of the day hikers we passed had questions and seemed amazed when we told them we came ‘all the way’ from the bottom (backpacking is easier than people expect it would be.) By the time we made it to the second resthouse, the crew was getting a bit tired but we were so close. The last 1/3 everyone just put their heads down and moved along, four consecutive days of hiking was quite a bit for a first backpacking trip! Much quicker than expected, we reached the rim in four hours; the group did awesome. We took some photos at the top and celebrated with ice cream at the lodge. On the way out of the park, we stopped by the entrance sign to add the Grand Canyon to our growing collection of pictures. We said goodbye to Taylor’s family and headed to our next stop, but not without a fun detour along the way…