Southwest Road Trip: Part One - Grand Canyon National Park
Experience the true scale of the Grand Canyon by backpacking into its depths.
My wife and I stare out of our rental car at the driving rain, listening for the hint of a lull that will be our cue to hop out and set up our tent. Our growing hunger for dinner, however, slowly overtakes our desire to stay relatively dry and we scramble out and pitch our tent a short walk from our car in an open campsite. A couple more trips and we have all our gear for the night stashed inside. After dinner I lay back on my sleeping pad with a cold beer and listen to the rain drum on the fly. We've lucked out so far. It's almost halfway through our trip and this is the first unwanted rain we've had to deal with. Before settling down for the night, I pop out of the tent one last time. Through the rain I can just barely make out the silhouettes of several massive sandstone buttes looming in the distance, stumps of red rock towering over the surrounding scrubland. Just this morning, my wife and I surfaced out of the depths of the Grand Canyon, and tonight we're camped in the shadow of Monument Valley, and we still have more than a week left to go on our road trip through the southwest.
The drive to the south rim of Grand Canyon National Park is mostly uneventful. Shortly after leaving Las Vegas where we began our trip, we pass the Hoover Dam and get our first glimpse of the Colorado River. The next time we see it will be under very different circumstances. From here the road enters a vast area known as the Colorado Plateau, and until we return to Las Vegas in two weeks, it's geology will define our trip. Covering large sections of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah, the Colorado Plateau consists of multiple layers of sedimentary rock uplifted through tectonic activity with very little faulting or folding, leaving a perfect environment for the formation of canyons and unique geological formations. As a result, there are more national park units concentrated in this region that any other place in the U.S.
The south rim of the Grand Canyon is the most popular destination for visitors to the park. Shuttle services into the park and along the rim make getting around to the various vistas and overlooks extremely easy. The sprawling complex includes several lodges with accommodations ranging from hotel to dormitory style rooms, a campground, post office, and a grocery store. One could easily spend an entire day exploring the area. But to get a true sense of the scale of the canyon, a hike below the rim is a must.
Our three day trip began before sunrise. While daytime temperatures at the rim hover around a pleasant 75 degrees in the summer, the inner canyon often climbs to temperatures over 105, so an early start is important to reach the bottom before the heat sets in. At around 4,500 feet of elevation change, hiking to the bottom of the canyon is no easy task, hiking back out even more difficult. While some attempt the whole hike in one day (rim to rim hikes connecting both the north and south rims are popular) I opted for two nights below the rim for a more leisurely trip. The south rim has two main trails into and out of the canyon, the South Kaibab and the Bright Angel. Our descent would be along the South Kaibab trail, which is less frequently visited due to its lack of water sources for its entire 7.0 mile length.
With the sun just beginning to crest over the high walls of the canyon, the steep decent was pleasant and shaded most of the time. I would love to be able to call out particular vistas along the way, but in reality, every switchback or turn in the trail brought another stunning view. As the trail winds its way into the canyon, it passes through layer after layer of sedimentary rock, each type imparting its characteristics on the landscape. For those looking for a good day hike, Cedar Ridge is 1.5 miles in, has a privy, and makes for a good turnaround point as well as sunrise vista. As the morning progressed, the sun began to beat down on us, having finally risen high enough to penetrate the inner canyon. For this trip, I decided to give a trekking umbrella a try for the first time, knowing the shade it cast would be welcomed in the heat of the exposed canyon. I attached it to my shoulder strap with some Velcro ties, leaving my hands free for my trek poles.
Bring up the Grand Canyon to people and most of them will mention the mules. As your hiking in the canyon, don't be surprised to come upon a mule train carrying supplies or visitors to and from the bottom. The mules have been an integral part of the Grand Canyon for centuries and provide a sure footed mode of transportation in and out of the canyon. You can even mail a postcard from Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon that will be hauled out by mule as part of its journey.
The trail crosses the Colorado along one of two metal suspension bridges and follows the shore to meet Bright Angel creek. Here, Bright Angel campground and Phantom Ranch can be found nestled in the valley, shaded by cottonwoods. Permits are required for stays at Bright Angel campground, so be sure to acquire one ahead of time if you're planning on spending the night. With temperatures pushing 110 degrees, and our legs sore from the descent, my wife and I spent the afternoon relaxing in the shade and enjoying the view, now looking up out of the Grand Canyon instead of down into its depths. A short walk from the campground is Phantom Ranch, where cabins and dormitories can be reserved. There's a small store with snacks, souvenirs, and cold beer for sale. Full meals are also available but need to be reserved in advance. As the sun set, the heat remained, but we settled in for the night early, anticipating to hit the trail before sunrise for the next leg of our trip and the start of our ascent out of the canyon.
In the morning, we hiked out of camp in the dim pre-dawn light. The air wasn't much cooler, but the lack of direct sun was preferable. We followed the Bright Angel trail across the Colorado on another bridge and turned west along its shore. After a short time the tail turns south and begins to ascend into the canyon where Pipe creek empties into the river. Our destination for the day was Indian Garden campground, just 4.7 miles and 1,300 feet up, saving the worst of the elevation gain for our last day below the rim. Only one particularly steep, switchbacked section had to be covered before reaching the relative oasis of Indian Garden, where Garden creek meanders through on its way to the bottom of the canyon. We took the rest of the day to relax and enjoy the weather. A brief passing storm provided a glimpse at one of the dangers of canyon hiking, flash floods. A short time after the storm passed, a roar filled the campground. A short walk to the trail revealed that Garden creek, minutes before running clear and gentle, was a murky, raging torrent, and not safely passable, to the dismay of a stranded hiker on the other side. It took a good 30 minutes for the water to calm.
Guided by the light of our headlamps, we hiked out well before sunrise the next morning. Bright Angel trail has two seasonal water sources between the south rim trailhead and Indian Garden, making it the more popular choice for day hikers looking to venture below the rim. But that doesn't mean it should be taken lightly. The steep elevation and heat of the inner canyon means every year dozens of hikers find themselves unprepared and in need of rescue. Both the park service website and visitor center have excellent tips for hiking in the Grand Canyon, most important of which is to bring plenty of water. With our early start, we were able to put in some good miles before the sun crested the high canyon walls. But every step brought us into cooler temperatures near the rim. By mid morning, as day hikers began to flood the trail heading to points downhill, we emerged onto the south rim.
...to be continued...
Permits: Needed for any stays below the rim. Apply by fax on why first of the month four months prior to your trip's month.