Sunday, October 26, 2008

Backpacking the Grand Canyon

On virtually everyone's list of Seven Wonders stands the Grand Canyon. It's far more than a place just to view from the rim. Whether by plane, helicopter, raft, mule or foot, to truly experience the enormity and beauty of the place, one must descend down into it... and that's just what my hiking buddy Dan and I did this week... 45 miles in 3 days.

Preparations for the trip:

Securing permits. We faxed in our permit request four months in advance on June 1. That day, the Grand Canyon backcountry office received 100+ walk-up requests and 800+ faxed in requests for the month of October. We listed 16 different choices for dates and campgrounds for our trek. We got our 7th option and it turned out to be perfect for us.

Decrease the weight and increase the fun. This time, I got my pack down to 35 lbs including food and water… down 10+ lbs since my last backpacking trip. Dan and I shared some items such as a water filter and a stove. No need for a pocketknife or headlamp... a simple razor blade and LED are sufficient.

Food. My daily rations consisted of nutri-grain bars, fig newtons, PB & crackers, beef jerky, powdered Gatorade, oranges, and a freeze-dried meal. Good sustenance.

Water. Unfortunately, since we were hiking after October 15, drinking water was shut off for the winter at most of the main stopping points on the trails, even Cottonwood Campground. So we filtered water from the creeks along the way and had to carry several liters in a Camelbak bladder.

Weather. We picked October because of its "Goldilocks" weather… not too hot and not too cold. We had lows in the upper 30s and highs in the lower 70s. We mostly had 50s and 60s during the day. Perfect hiking weather… no chills and no sweat. We had clear skies without a slight chance of storms or rain… also perfect for star-gazing at night. The only downside of hiking in October is the limited daylight hours… only eleven hours of sunlight a day since sunrise was supposedly ~6:45am and sunset ~5:45pm... although deep in the canyon we saw far less of ELSO (= the evil life-sucking orb) than that.


Tues, Oct 21: Drive 450 miles to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Camp in Mather campground.

Wed, Oct 22: Hike 14 miles… 7 miles down the S Kaibab trail from the TH (7,260’), cross the river (2,480’) on the Black Bridge, and 7 miles up the N Kaibab trail to Cottonwood campground (4,080’). We also took a short side trip below our campground to go see Ribbon Falls.

Thurs, Oct 23: Hike 21 miles… 7 miles up the N Kaibab trail to the N Rim (8,240’), then 7 miles back down to Cottonwood campground (4,080’), and then 7 miles further down the N Kaibab trail to Bright Angel campground (2,480’) near the Colorado River.

Fri, Oct 24: Hike 10 miles up the Bright Angel trail from the Bright Angel campground (2,480’) to the TH (6,860’) on the S Rim. Camp at Mather campground.

Sat, Oct 25: Drive 450 miles home.

This three-day hiking itinerary divided out perfectly. None of the days were disproportionately hard or easy. The first leg of our trek not only got us across the river but also partially up towards the N Rim. The second day was the longest, but only 7 miles were uphill and at the start of the day when our legs would be the freshest. Also, we stashed our full packs at the campground and only took water, food, and emergency essentials for the 14 miles up to the N Rim and back. The last day was the shortest, but it involved the most elevation gain with a full pack.


• Seeing the canyon gradually light up as we descended down the S Kaibab trail. We had started while the stars were still out and it was a while before we saw the first rays of sunlight on the higher points of the canyon.

• Sleeping under star-filled skies at night with the Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon.

• Coming across deer at Phantom Ranch, Cottonwood campground, the N Kaibab trail, the Bright Angel trail, and Indian Gardens.

• Having a Bighorn Sheep come crashing out of Bright Angel creek as I rounded a bend. The big ram stood in the trail and stared at me and then quickly darted up the steep cliffs above. We saw four more high on the Bright Angel trail the next day.

The quiet serenity of the North Kaibab trail. I’ve hiked a lot of trails, but it’s hard to top this one. The trail really has three distinct sections to it. The first few miles go through a narrow canyon that receives maybe an hour or two of sunlight each day. The next stretch opens up into a wider valley which includes Ribbon Falls and Cottonwood Campground. The upper five miles are a breathtaking route that edges its way along the steep red cliffs of Roaring Springs Canyon.

The vegetation gradually changes from desert flora to the tall pines and deciduous trees of the North Rim. Since the North Rim is shut down after October 15, we came across few hikers on this stretch. The quietness allowed us to absorb the gentle sounds of distant creeks and cheerful birds. By far, the upper stretches of the North Kaibab trail are some of the greatest parts of this grand park. But since the South Rim is more accessible than its northern counterpart, most people never experience the magnificence of the North Rim.

The quiet serenity of the N Kaibab trail made the upper portions of the Bright Angel trail to the S Rim to be disappointing. After backpacking for three days on our own, it just wasn’t the same to come up a trail crowded with park visitors unprepared for any sort of hiking. The S Rim appeared more like Disneyland… in fact, on the trail, I came across someone eating a chocolate-dipped, rice-crispy treat shaped like Mickey Mouse, and I thought, how appropriate. Near the top of the trail, my friend Dan ended up trapped behind a bus load of tourists dressed in business attire. Ok, hopefully I didn't become too much of a backpacking snob... but it's somewhat culture shock to finish off three days in the wilderness in the most commercialized area of the park.

The fall colors of the North Rim. Having grown up in Tennessee, I didn’t anticipate a full palette of fall colors on the trees of the North Rim. But we came across reds, oranges, and yellows mixed in with the green of the pines, and even the white bark of an aspen grove.

Water. It’s easy to think of the Grand Canyon as only being dry, hot, and desolate, but there’s an amazing amount of water in this place… even beyond the swift currents of the Colorado River. Bright Angel creek is a vibrant stream that descends for miles down the north side of the canyon. Roaring Springs is a gushing flow of
water that comes bursting directly out of a canyon wall. From a distance, Ribbon Falls seems like a minor trickle, but on closer examination, it’s a fascinating stream flowing over a hollowed-out, red-rock cliff. At the base, calcium carbonate has built up to form a raised, moss-covered basin to catch the water… essentially a hollowed-out stalagmite without a cave. In other places, it was easy to detect the presence of water by the lush, verdant vegetation that thrives in large places like Indian Gardens or tiny trickles between the rocks.

Rock formations... a natural arch high above the S Kaibab trail… a tall thin spire on the N Kaibab trail... the precipitous cliffs of Roaring Springs canyon… the angled buttes that dot the horizon… the changing colors of the rock… white near the rims, dark red below the rim, pink sandstone further down, and the dark browns and blacks closer to the river.

Tunnels. In a rugged environment like the Grand Canyon, water didn’t always carve the canyons in a way that was conducive for building trails. Each of our three trails eventually made its way through a man-made tunnel. The southern entrance to the Black Bridge crossing the Colorado River was through a long tunnel. When we got there, a mule train was coming through. High on the N Kaibab trail is the Supai Tunnel which serves as a shady resting spot three miles from the top. Two short tunnels are found near the top of the Bright Angel trail.

Bridges. Obviously, there’s no bridge spanning the entire canyon, but the number of bridges within the canyon is surprising. Two major bridges cross the Colorado River (the Black Bridge to the east and the Silver Bridge to the west). The N Kaibab trail alone crosses a half dozen bridges.

Of course, words alone can’t depict what our experience in the Grand Canyon was like. Here’s a small fraction of the pictures I took.