Earlier this summer, TripAdvisor ranked the Grand Canyon as the #1 National Park. I couldn’t agree more with their top pick. I have meaning to write about the Grand Canyon ever since I first saw TripAdvisor’s list (the complete ranking is here, BTW), but it has taken me until the hottest week of summer to get my thoughts on paper. It was similarly hot when I hiked from the rim (top) of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and back…twice! No wonder my ex-girlfriend called me crazy! 😉
My first visit to the Grand Canyon was in October, 2000. It was little more than a two-hour stopover on my way from Chicago to Los Angeles, my first cross-country move. My friend Chuck came along for the ride. We took photos from various South Rim vantage points, hiked perhaps one-quarter mile down the Bright Angel Trail, ate at one of the Grand Canyon Village restaurants, and continued on our way. Still…the few pictures I took, including the photo above, taken from Hopi Point with my $60 manual camera, lent quite the inspiration, and I promised myself that I would one day return and hike all the way down to the canyon floor.
That “one day” came twice – in May, 2010 and July, 2012. I lucked into last minute reservations at Phantom Ranch, an encampment of hostel-like cabins on the canyon floor, and opted to hike down from the South Rim (2010) and from the North Rim (2012). Triple-digit temps, blazing hot sun, rattlesnakes, and 6,000 feet in elevation gain/loss? No problem…right?
But first, a geology lesson.
The Grand Canyon, visible from space, is the mother of all our planet’s natural wonders. Though not the deepest canyon in the world (that honor goes to Colca Canyon, in Peru), it is the biggest. The Grand Canyon is 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and over one mile deep. The closest big city, Las Vegas, is four hours away, while Los Angeles, the departure point for my 2010 and 2012 trips, is a nine-hour drive.
The watercourse that winds its way through the canyon and is responsible for its creation over six million years, the Colorado River, flows all the way to the Sea of Cortex, forming Lake Havasu en route, but is at its muddiest – and mightiest – here. Those distinct “layers” that you see as you gaze into the canyon from the South Rim? Those are nothing special – merely a million years of sediment each. Sandstone, limestone, shale…a geologist’s delight.
The canyon has been home to Native Americans for thousands of years, long before westward expansion brought the white man to the desert southwest. The Pueblo, Hopi, Hualapai, and Navajo people are just four of the tribes with permanent settlements in the area. Pueblo ruins can be found near Phantom Ranch, and petroglyph drawings are visible near the top of the Bright Angel Trail.
Famed conservation president Theodore Roosevelt first visited the Grand Canyon in 1903. He designated it as a game preserve in 1906, and as as national monument two years later. It wasn’t until 1919 when Woodrow Wilson signed into law legislation by Congress that made the Grand Canyon the 17th national park in the United States. It remains protected to this day. That being said, large swaths of the canyon fall outside of national park boundaries, and most of these sections are in Hualapai Indian land.
From the South Rim
The South Rim, which is open year-round and receives the majority of park visitors, averages 7,000 feet in elevation. The terrain here is mostly desert sage, with patches of pine forest offering shelter to deer and elk.
I opted for a “loop” hike in May, 2010 – the South Kaibab Trail down and the Bright Angel Trail up. I parked my car overnight in Grand Canyon Village and caught a free shuttle bus to Yaki Point. After posing for the requisite trailhead photos, I joined a horde of day hikers down, down, and down. GringoPotpourri note: there is no water available along the South Kaibab Trail. Please pack accordingly.
The crowds all but disappeared after 45 minutes. Further down, a level shoulder below Skeleton Point met with a cross-trail, the Tonto Trail, which connects the South Kaibab Trail with the Bright Angel Trail. The Tonto Trail is narrow and unmaintained. I didn’t hike it, but what little I saw resembled a “game” trail more than anything else.
Continuing down from here, the trail got ever steeper, but finally entered the shade as it contoured behind a rock wall that blocked out the sun’s rays – if only for a moment. The Colorado River popped into view and I soon reached a fork. The River Trail (to the left) led a short distance to the Bright Angel Trail, while the trail straight ahead soon entered a tunnel which, in turn, opened onto Black Bridge, one of just two pedestrian suspension bridges spanning the Colorado River.
On the other side of Black Bridge, the South Kaibab Trail wound past a natural boat ramp, some ruins, and a small beach. I removed my boots and dipped my feet, but the river shows no mercy and I caution you to swim at your own risk! Another junction just beyond here marked the merge of the Bright Angel and South Kaibab Trails. Silver Bridge was immediately to my left, while Bright Angel Campground was on the other side of the tributary directly in front of me.
I turned right, passed a horse corral to my right and a footbridge to the campground on my left. The cluster of buildings in front of me could only be Phantom Ranch! (More on Phantom Ranch in Part Two.)
Excitement about the climb made sleep difficult in coming. Nevertheless, I left early the next morning – about 6:30 a.m. – for the long hike back to the South Rim. The Bright Angel Trail, at 9.1 miles, is longer than the South Kaibab Trail’s 7.1 miles, so I knew that I would be spared some of the latter trail’s steepness of grade. But 9.1 mile is a long way when midday temps reach 120, so an early start when climbing out of the Grand Canyon is always necessary.
Something of a completists, and not one to slack off when hiking, I crossed Silver Bridge, hiked the one-mile River Trail to its junction with the South Kaibab Trail, then reversed my steps back to Silver Bridge. The River Trail gains perhaps 150 feet of elevation on its short journey; great photos of rafters tackling the Colorado River’s Class III-IV rapids can be had from here.
The half-mile stretch of the Bright Angel Trail immediately past Silver Bridge can be either a relief or a frustration depending on the individual hiker’s state of mind. On one hand, is level and sandy – a piece of cake, except for those softball-sized mule turds that hikers must frequently sidestep. On the other hand, every level stretch means a steeper grade further along the trail.
After Pipe Spring Beach, however, the trail climbs in earnest. I remember passing a small waterfall and then a tiring series of switchbacks. Indian Gardens, the halfway point of the hike in terms of mileage but only a third of the way in terms of elevation, was a welcome sight indeed. I was knackered!
I passed the Tonto Trail again, refilled my water, had a snack, and continued my climb. Red cliffs dominated the view in front of me. It wasn’t long before I hit the proverbial wall. I had to stop every few minutes. It seemed an eternity to Three Mile Resthouse, where there was shade and water, and longer still to Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse. When a mule train passed by, I was only too happy to get out of its way and catch my breath.
I finally got a boost of adrenaline once the South Rim was in sight. I stopped just twice during the last mile, to photograph a “gate” blasted into the rock, and to check out the aforementioned petroglyphs nearby. The Bright Angel Trail dropped me off besides historic Kolb Studios, and I made a beeline for the nearest refreshment kiosk. The giant pretzel and 94-ounce Coke that I purchased were like sweet manna from the heavens.
I made it! I can be hard on myself sometimes, though. I was embarrassed by my time, and knew that I could do better. I was to spend the next several nights at a hotel in nearby Williams, Arizona, as my plan was to explore other points of interest in the region, such as Meteor Crater and Petrified Forest National Park. As such, I decided to end my trip in fine, competitive style, and spent my last day in Arizona hiking the Bright Angel Trail again. The route this time was from the South Rim to Indian Gardens and back, adding on a two-mile side trip from Indian Gardens to Plateau Point. Wildflowers, buttes, sheer cliffs, squirrels, and the Colorado River far below combined for perhaps the best viewpoint of the trip.
A strong breeze blew past Plateau Point, making my pose in the picture above especially unwise. Most deaths in the Grand Canyon are the result of careless falls; do as I say, not as I do, and respect the Grand Canyon.
The return trip, uphill all the way for almost six miles and over 3,200 vertical feet, was tough going once again. But I made great time, reaching the South Rim in three hours less time than the first time I attempted the climb. The distance wasn’t the same – Plateau Point was still 1,500 feet above the canyon floor. My pack was lighter, too. But damned if that wasn’t good time. I left the Grand Canyon with two SD cards full of pics and with a head full of great memories.
TO BE CONTINUED