Dry Weekend: Grand Canyon Backpacking

This past weekend I took off from the crowded, loud and smoggy streets of LA for the spacious, quiet, clean air of the Grand Canyon. This is a yearly trip I’ve been taking with a small group of friends from college, and finally I feel like we’ve nailed our timing and planning down. Previously we headed out in March (too cold, with snow & ice on the rim!) and in May (blistering head made hiking miserable) but this year we planned and were able to get a permit for the  middle of April. Plagued by horrible blisters in previous years I also bought new, much better quality and properly fitting hiking boots. So early Friday we left the comfort of my Aunt and Uncles house just outside of Flagstaff and drove into the canyon. We arrived outside of Bright Angel Lodge, parked and walked to the shuttle stop just before 6:00AM anxious and excited.

Our plan for the weekend was fairly loose with certain camp points to hit…Cottonwood Campground on Day1, Phantom Ranch/Bright Angel Campgroup Day 2, and we were hiking out of the canyon Day 3. Originally our goal was to top the North Rim on Day 2 then hike back to Phantom making it a 20 mile total day, but after the exhaustion of Day 1’s 14 miles we decided that it would be more enjoyable to do a slightly shorter hike (about 12 miles) and see a few of the sights in the canyon instead.

Day 1: Friday – We left the South Kaibab trailhead a little after 7am. Making great time compared to past years we blew through Cedar Point in less than 45 minutes. The weather was fantastic, it started off chilly but soon we were stripping layers. I stayed in a long sleeve t-shirt most of the day not because it was cold, but mostly because the weather was cool enough that I could and it offered great sun protection. We continued on, hiking down switchback after switchback. Every now and then we’d stop for a little breather, but overall we kept up a solid pace. One nice little resting spot comes just before a huge set of switchbacks that bring you just about to the plateau.

This section had a neat little cave above the trail that offered a lovely view of the next section of switchbacks and the canyon itself. It also offered some nice shade and a spot to sit for a few minutes!

You can see the switchbacks just ahead, then the trail continues to wind down the canyon nearing the plateau before dropping into the inner canyon towards the river.

One important thing to note with the South Kaibab trail is that there is no water whatsoever. If you plan to hike down this way make sure to pack enough water to get you to the bottom safely. One nice thing with the trails we took this weekend is that they are some of the most traveled trails in the canyon which meant that there was very little chance of getting off trail or lost.

As we continued down the weather began to work even more in our favor by bringing in some clouds. The overcast sky cooled the temperatures and created stunning views and great picture taking opportunities! While some of the clouds looked a bit on the dark (ie: rain) side, we lucked out and had no wet weather.

Another great aspect of hiking the canyon in mid-April was the wildflowers. Every time i’ve been down the canyon before I haven’t seen so many bright and blooming flowers. Every color from reds and oranges, yellows, purple and blues. They were everywhere! Many of the cactus were in bloom as well, another beautiful sight.

Dropping into the inner canyon is always neat because immediately you get a sense of age. The rocks in this section just look and feel so much older than anything else. They are more jagged, and darker, and appear worn, almost tired. We finished the last round of switchbacks as we neared the river crossing. The hardest part I feel about this hike ends up being the switchbacks. Not because you’re going back and forth as you wind up or down the canyon, but because when they were built the trail makers spaced all the retaining logs so perfectly that you really only get 1 step in between each. This means that you always end up stepping down (or up) over the log with the same leg which tires quickly. Trying to hit the step with the other leg usually requires several shuffling steps and throws off your whole rhythm!

As always the black bridge across the river was a welcome sight, and we trekked across and down into the shade by Bright Angel Creek for lunch. 7 miles down, which put us at our halfway point for the day.

 

After lunch we barely managed to pull ourselves up to continue on. In previous years, this site had been our stopping point so at first it was difficult to wrap our minds around the fact that we still had another 7 miles to trek. As we left Phantom Ranch I was amazed at how GREEN everything was. Grass was blooming the trees were luch with leaves, and of course the wildflowers. It was all so gorgeous and different from my past canyon experiences.

Now on the North Kaibab trail we were heading towards and a little bit up the northern side of the canyon to Cottonwood campground. This section of trail is fairly easy, the elevation gain is not much and there are few switchbacks. Mostly you are just hiking back into the Bright Angel Canyon following the creek upstream. The hard aspect of this section of trail is usually the heat. The first part of the North Kaibab trail from Phantom is called “the Box” because the canyon is so narrow that its almost like you’re trapped in a box with steep walls on either side.

This also means that on bright sunny days the heat just radiates off the canyon walls creating almost an oven effect. Luckily for us, it was still over cast and with a slight breeze the intense oven like heat was not present.

What was still present of course were the wildflowers! Finally I came across some beautiful blue ones!

After a few more stream crossings and bridges we neared the campground. There is one stream crossing with no bridge that we were told is usually a trickling tiny stream that joins into the main creek we’ve been following. Well thanks to El Nino this year we ended up with a wide rushing creek that got to almost kneed deep. Feeling exhausted and wanting to be done some of use decided to not bother trying to take shoes off and crossed anyways which left a little less than a mile of hiking in squishy wet shoes. In retrospect it wasn’t the brightest idea, but my shoes dried out by the next morning so no harm, no foul. On the return trip though I would be sure to remove my shoes.

After just under a ten hour day on the trail with about seven hours of hardcore hiking we stumbled into camp.We had a few more hours of sunlight, so we shuffled around getting camp set then relaxing on a large flat rock nearby reading, chatting whatever. Shortly after was dinner (for Rob and I it was a delicious Orzo pasta with sundried tomatoes in olive oil and spinach with chicken for rob and albacore for me!). After dinner I had the boys keep the rest of the group busy on the rock while I snuck back over to the picnic tables to pull out the birthday cake and frosting I had lugged down the canyon in my pack. It survived better than I thought it would and I covered it with chocolate frosting and candles before slowly making my way to the group. We had two birthday’s this year, Steve’s the weekend before and Megan’s the weekend after our trip so I thought it would be fun, and completely unexpected to hike a full cake into the canyon. The only caveat was that everyone had to have a piece because I sure wasn’t going to carry it out! Luckily everyone was impressed and super excited to get to eat a big calorie filled, sugary piece of cake and it was gone in a matter of minutes!

It was decided that evening that we would forgo the attempt of Rim to Rim to Rim, and just hike a few miles up the trail to Roaring Springs before returning to camp, gathering our gear and heading back to Phantom Ranch and the second day’s campsite.

As we packed up for the short hike in the morning there was suddenly a loud thunderous noise that startled us all. Looking first at the cloudless sky I couldn’t figure out what it was until Steve pointed at a distance cliff where gigantic boulders were careening down the sides. Rock slides like this are not commonly seen in the canyon and it was pretty amazing to witness.

The hike up to Roaring Springs was nice, especially because other than my full bladder of water there was no weight in my pack. I felt light and free as we walked up the trail. The springs were beautiful, large waterfalls pouring out of the middle of the canyon wall into lush greenery as they formed a main vein of the creek system that supplies all the water inside the canyon. We hiked down to the top of the springs where a small creek starts down. There was lots of shade and several large pools. It was relaxing and cool, so we rested for a bit, explored the area (hoping to find a way to the top of the larger waterfalls, but no luck).

After a little while we decided to head back so we could pack up camp and get the hard part of the day done. We crossed back over the flooded creek crossing (no shoes this time) and rested while our feet dried. Then we continued on. The sun was out in full force today and it was starting to get hot. There is not much shade on this part of the trail as you walk along the river path, but overall the weather was fairly cool.

 

Another mile down the trail was the turn off for another sight, Ribbon Falls. We decided to make that our lunch spot, so we detoured from the main trail and hiked back into the falls.

Ribbon Falls is great because you are able to hike all the way up to the falls and even up behind it. Although five minutes ago every had been starving and talking about food, as soon as we got to the top of the falls the only thing on our mind was getting under that cold, refreshing water. Everyone began to strip away clothes and we all had nice refreshing waterfall showers!

After the shower, it was lunch time, then relaxation before we struck out on the trail again. The hike back to Phantom was fairly uneventful. Our morning hike and long lunch meant that we timed the section in “the Box” perfectly, arriving at that section of trail around 4pm. The sun had moved far enough west that most of the trail was shaded and it was much cooler. We got into Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Campground with a little sun light left. Total hiking for Day 2 was about 12 miles which had us up and about for around 10 hours again, only about 6 hours of that time was actual hiking.

After setting up camp, and making dinner we all headed up to the Phatom Ranch Canteen for some cards and nice COLD beer and some card games. Somehow we managed to last until a little after 9:00pm when we walked back to camp and promptly passed out. Worried about the uphill hike tomorrow we set our alarms for 5:45 wanting to be up and on the trail before 7:00am. We almost made it, heading out from the water pump just around 7:20.

The first part of the hike along the river trail and into the canyon was still shaded which helped us keep our speed up and get some miles under way before the blazing sun hit us. We came into the sun with the first real brutal set of switchbacks called the “Devil’s Corkscrew”. Our pace slowed a bit as we started baking in the sun, but the overall temperature was still pretty nice. That and the wildflowers and scenery could not be beat!

After a few more switchbacks then a long section that lead back into the canyon along the small creek again (intermittent shade!) we strode into Indian Gardens. Impressed that the first half of the hike had taken us just about two hours, we sat, relaxed, ate and filled up our water before moving on. While chilling in the shade at the Gardens, we noticed a small sign that we had not seen before.

 

This little pictogram warned vistors of a new threat to the canyon…

BEWARE

THE

VAMPIRE

SQUIRREL!

It wants your blood!

 

 

So after a good laugh with that we were off… only 4.5 miles left to go. The nice thing with this section is that every 1.5 miles there was a rest house, which really breaks up the hike. The last bit of the hike was fairly uneventful. We continued up and up, resting every now and then, but keeping a good pace. We stopped at both rest houses, taking a nice long break to cool our bodies, give our legs a rest and get some snacks in. The fatigue might have been starting to set in while resting at the 1.5 mile house (1.5 miles from the top) as we started to worry about the dangerous canyon predators…the squirlociraptors…dangerous tiny rodent predators…they hunt in packs and are always watching. Yeah… don’t ask, honestly I’m sorry I told you, but its true. The canyon is full of dangerous squirrel type fiends.

Finally we began to near the top. Leapfrogging with a boyscout troop for the last mile and a half we passed them for the last time, and after pausing for a quick picture under one of the cut outs on the trail, we climbed out of the canyon. Total hiking distance for day three was 9.6 miles and it took about seven hours including our breaks. We finished with tired muscles but big smiles, mostly to be done and that much closer to a long hot shower and good meal! I was pleased because my troublesome knees behaved admirably and my new well fitting boots protected my feet and did not cause any excruciating blisters like I had experienced in years past. All in all we hiked about 35 miles over the course of 3 days.

 

 

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