Monday, December 14, 2015

G is for Backpacking the Grand Canyon

Partway down the South Kaibab Trail, admiring the indescribably magnificent view and imagining what it might be like to be even farther in.
A little over three years ago, I sat excited, almost beside myself, as I listened to our Scout troop's Senior Patrol Leader say he wanted to set a goal of the troop hiking the Grand Canyon by the end of the year and then planned out the dates we would hike in preparation for that momentous event.  I had more experience backpacking than anyone else in the troop, so I was chosen as the adult leader to guide the planning and preparation.  This was going to be the best hike ever!  To make a long story short, though, we had a relatively small window of availability during one of the peak seasons, and we weren't able to get a permit, so we opted for a 50-mile jaunt along the Mogollon Rim (that's a whole other story!).  Just two months after that, I landed in Afghanistan for a year, and I knew the sun was beginning to set on my opportunity to mark this huge accomplishment off my bucket list.

Finally, as my time in Afghanistan drew to a close, my two older kids, my hiking partner, Doc, and I all made plans for an April hike.  Our intent was to do a rim-to-rim hike, starting at the North Rim and exiting out the South Rim, but, alas, the North Rim doesn't open until May, and our calendars wouldn't allow for a May trip.  We looked at several other options and finally settled on a route that would expose us to as much terrain as possible while maximizing our opportunities for water along the way.  We started our five-day trip at the South Kaibab Trailhead, hiked down to Bright Angel Campground at the Colorado River, then halfway up the North Rim to Cottonwood Campground.  We then hiked back to Bright Angel Campground to spend another night, up the Bright Angel Trail to Indian Garden Campground the fourth day, and out on the fifth day.

After eating lunch in Flagstaff, we made the hour-and-a-half drive to the South Rim.  We stopped at the Visitor Center for souvenirs, took a few minutes to drive around Grand Canyon Village to get oriented, then headed to our campsite.  We were a bit concerned about the weather that night:  It snowed the night before and was supposed to get down below freezing that night.  We brought sleeping bag liners and heavy clothes that we intended to leave on the rim, though, and we stayed plenty warm.  Striking camp and cooking breakfast the next morning, though, was cold!

We got a late start at the South Kaibab Trailhead, taking our first steps down into the canyon about 10:00.  We were immediately impressed with the views, and it seemed every turn in the trail brought even more incredible views!  Along the way, we met a German couple who had been touring the US, and their culminating adventure was backpacking the Grand Canyon.  We stopped for lunch at Cedar Point, 1.5 miles in to our 7-mile hike for the day, where we took advantage of the toilets available.  While standing in line for my turn, I saw a squirrel.  The lady beside me made the comment, "Aww, they're so cute!  If I had some food with me, I'd give it to him!"  I held my tongue but thought, "Yes, and it's people like you that have led to squirrels in the Grand Canyon not only unafraid of humans but aggressive to boot."  It was lunchtime, so I found the only shade available on the backside of the bathroom, and we ate.  The German couple also joined us, and we exchanged stories, Addison and I having lived in Germany.  We also found out they would be camping at Bright Angel with us that night.

Halfway down the South Kaibab Trail
We finally got our first view of the Colorado River at Skeleton Point, 3 miles in, which got us excited; we could finally see our destination!  That turned out to be a mixed blessing, though, because it seemed for a while that we were getting no closer.  We enjoyed the middle portion of the South Kaibab Trail because of its slight grade as we traversed the Tonto plateau mid-way down, but the final push down to the river was a grueling and seemingly endless set of switchbacks.  I cannot describe the elation of being at the bottom of the Grand Canyon for the very first time and crossing the Colorado River.  This was a dream come true!

Shortly before crossing the Colorado River for the first time.  The tunnel on the bottom right heads to the bridge.
Bright Angel Campground is just a short walk past the river and sits right beside Bright Angel Creek.  Since we got a late start, we were one of the last ones into camp that afternoon and campsites were limited.  We weren't able to get one beside the creek, but we were fortunately able to find one big enough for our four tarps.  Our German friends came over and asked if they could use our stove to heat up their dinner, and we gladly obliged.  It turns out they had been carrying a 32-oz Chef Boy Ar-Dee anvil for the last 7 miles!

Our campsite at Bright Angel Campground the first night
Bright Angel Creek that flowed beside the campground
The next day, we headed up the North Kaibab Trail past Phantom Ranch, which is a primitive inn (think hostel) that serves real food and has bunkhouses.  Legend had it that the drinks and candy bars tasted pretty good after a long hike, so we vowed to stop by there on our way back to Bright Angel the next day.  We could no longer see the Colorado River, but we followed Bright Angel Creek through a beautiful slot canyon for about 3 miles.  Not long after the terrain opened up and we had lunch, we came upon a fork with one direction pointing toward Ribbon Falls via bridge.  We wanted to stop, but it wasn't clear which way was correct.  The lower route seemed to head over to the falls, and the route the sign pointed to went up an extremely steep grade.  I offered to run ahead and finally saw a bridge in view.  By then, the group was tired because our legs were aching from the long, steep downhill the day before, so we decided we didn't want to stop after all and made plans to stop on our way back the next day. 

Slot Canyon just north of Bright Angel Campground
The North Kaibab Trail after leaving the slot canyon
We finally pulled into Cottonwood Campground early afternoon, hot and tired.  The temperature in the inner canyon was about 90 degrees, and Cottonwood offered very little shade.  We chose our campsite and cooled our feet in the cold Bright Angel Creek.  After about an hour of rest, Addison, Brennan, and I decided we wanted to hike farther up the North Kaibab Trail -- 1) To say we had been closer to the North Rim, and 2) To get a view of the Roaring Springs falls.  We talked briefly along the way about going farther than the falls, but next to the turn-off to the falls, there was a placard that showed the elevation change along the North Kaibab Trail, and the trail grade went from a nice steady uphill to near-vertical at the point of that sign.  So we decided we had gone far enough and headed back to camp!  We didn't even set up tarps that night, opting to cowboy camp under the stars.

Brennan dipping his feet in Bright Angel Creek at Cottonwood Campground
On the way to Roaring Springs
Roaring Springs Falls
The next morning, we struck camp and headed back to Bright Angel Campground, thinking about our stop at Ribbon Falls and the candy bar and Gatorade we'd have at Phantom Ranch.  Our legs were still extremely stiff from the first day, so forward progress took significant determination of will.  We arrived at Ribbon Falls and dropped our packs a short distance but out of sight from the splash pool at the base of the falls.  Another hiker that had been here before mentioned that the two holes at the base of the falls actually connected, and you could crawl through one hole, down the tunnel, and out the other.  Next thing I know, Addison cried, "YOLO", and headed off into the water.  Now, understand that the water is cold because, after all, the water is generated from snowmelt.  Nevertheless, Addison trooped out there, stood under the falls, and headed down into the tunnel, coming out the other side.  You could clearly tell she was rethinking her decision at that point!

Addison at Ribbon Falls
Coming out of the tunnel
Doc headed back to the packs as Brennan and I waited for Addison to change back into dry clothes.  When we got back to the packs, he pointed at a squirrel and said, "There's the culprit!  He's the one responsible."  When I asked him what he was talking about, he said that a squirrel was chewing into Brennan's pack when he walked up.  Apparently that was his second course, though, because not only had he chewed into Brennan's pack and eaten part of his lunch, he had chewed into Addison's pack and chewed through her bladder tube and part of her Oreos for lunch dessert.  With over five miles still to go that day, we were very concerned about the bladder tube since it was another hot day.  As our only alternative, we emptied her bladder into the 1-liter water bottle she was carrying.

That afternoon, we pulled into Phantom Ranch, practically drooling with anticipation for that candy bar and Gatorade.  We were sorely disappointed.  They only had a couple of varieties of candy bars and no Gatorade -- either lemonade or tea.  Not what we were longing for, but we made do.  After a nice rest, we walked the quarter mile back to Bright Angel Campground and claimed our site, this time one of the first to arrive.  We put our food and other smellables in the ammo can and our packs on the pack poles and headed down to the Colorado River.  I wanted to say I had filtered water out of the Colorado River, and I was amazed at how clear the water was.  I've never seen clearer water from any source!

On the bank of the Colorado River
We headed back to camp and saw a squirrel up on the pack pole.  He had literally undone the zipper on Doc's pack and had gotten into some trail food he had forgotten about.  That was it.  We declared war on the Grand Canyon squirrel colony!  We began throwing rocks at every squirrel we encountered, starting with the perp on the pack pole (PETA folks, you can rest assured that no squirrels were harmed in the making of this adventure as we had bad aim and didn't hit a single one).  That evening, we tackled the bladder tube to see if we could repair it.  I intended to cut out the chewed portion and then duct-tape it back together, but Doc had other ideas (he's a rocket engineer -- literally!).  We took two paperclips out of his emergency repair kit and straightened them then put them alongside the two cut tube pieces to create a splint of sorts and duct-taped it together.  The idea was to keep it from bending so that the seam in the tubing wouldn't separate.  Then we took twine and wrapped it around the tape to help the tape bind to the plastic tubing even better.  It amazingly lasted through the rest of the trip with no signs of any leaks!

With a hint of sadness, the next morning, we began the journey out of the canyon.  Our destination was Indian Garden Campground that night, our last night in the canyon.  We crossed the river, and the Bright Angel Trail hugged the river for about a mile and a half.  The views were spectacular, and we were sad when the trail finally turned inward, although the rest of the trail did not disappoint.  It seemed every day brought new views to marvel at.  Our hike was only 4.5 miles that day, so we pulled into Indian Garden at lunchtime and chose a premium spot with lots of shade.  Indian Garden was by far the best campground because it was not only shady but each campsite also contained a pavilion to rest and eat under.

Bright Angel Trail toward Indian Garden.  We had just hiked that portion of the trail you see.
We rested for a while after lunch, playing cards, when a squirrel approached me.  Having declared war on the little rodents, I threw a rock at him.  Would you believe the little sucker came back at me within inches of my foot?  We all wondered if he was thinking of attacking!  I stretched out to kick him, but common sense prevailed, and the squirrel retreated...for a few minutes.  There was more target practice to be had later.  Grand Canyon squirrels:  Alone and unafraid.

After our card game, we took the 1.5-mile hike out to Plateau Point -- the edge of the mid-level Tonto plateau for another good view of the canyon.  Once again, we were amazed at yet another gorgeous view of the canyon.  I guess you never really get tired of it.

The inner canyon from Plateau Point
The last day we left early because Brennan wanted to make it back to Williams for lunch at the Route 66 Diner in town.  It really was bittersweet coming back above the rim.  We were glad to have accomplished our objective and ready to see our families but sad to be leaving incredible beauty behind.

On our way out of Indian Garden Campground the last day
Back at the South Rim

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1 comment:

  1. I'm so happy you've written down the whole story of your trip so that we can have it for our memory books.