Liz at Pipe Canyon Beach

Backpacking in the Grand Canyon

November 15, Sunday — Grand Canyon

Departing fairly early, Liz and I closed up the house, gave the cat a last scratch behind the ears, and headed for the Grand Canyon. The day was cool and mostly cloudy, but except for some heavy rain near Seligman, the weather was fine for our five-hour journey.

Rain on I-40 Eastbound

Rain on I-40 Eastbound

Upon arrival at the South Rim, we secured a site in Mather Campground and headed out to investigate trail conditions. We intended to hike down the South Kaibab Trail, so we parked at the visitor center and caught the shuttle bus to Yaki Point.

About the time we arrived at the Grand Canyon, it started snowing, and out at Yaki Point, the ice-encrusted sign read: Trail may be Icy. True it was, but people were going down and coming up, so we figured we could get down in the morning.

South Kaibab Trailhead Sign

Yaki Point, South Kaibab Trailhead Sign

Yaki Point

Liz at Yaki Point before the Storm

We then went to the Backcountry Office to check on our permit and current trail conditions, all of which were fine, but we learned of a wind advisory for the next day with winds of 40+ mph expected on the narrow ridges along the South Kaibab Trail — Yikes! At least there was some chance that the storm would pass in the night and the morning would be clear and sunny.

In the blustery cold, we decided to eat an early dinner in the Bright Angel Lodge rather than at the campground. After dinner, we walked along the rim towards the El Tovar Hotel as the sun set around 4:30 PM and the darkness began to close during these short days of winter. Dark-eyed Juncos and Western Bluebirds hastily scratched among fallen leaves looking for tasty morsels to fill their bellies as the cold of a long night approached, and we visited the warm Verkamp’s Visitor Center where the Park Service has done a nice job of reviewing cultural history at the South Rim.

Back at the campground, the ground was white with about an inch of snow covering everything, but the sky was clear (foretelling a cold night) and we hoped that the snow storm had passed. Retiring to a warm nest in the back of our van, we settled in for a long night anticipating an early start to our morning backpack. The winds blew hard during the night, but a 3 AM bathroom trip confirmed clear sky, the wind had died, and we had no new snow.

November 16, Monday — Grand Canyon Backpack Day 1

Expecting a sunny morning, dawn seemed to take a long time as we stayed snuggled down inside our warm, zip-together sleeping bag. Eventually we realized, however, that it was later than we thought and the windows of the van were crusted over in a thick layer of snowy ice. Getting up, we were alarmed to learn that the sliding side doors were frozen shut, but Liz was able to raise the back door and we escaped our icy enclosure.

Mather camp with snow

Mather Campground. First Morning. Liz in the snow with the van

During the pre-dawn hours, we added a couple of inches of snow during the 26-degree night, and it was still snowing hard. Unsettled by the storm and in anticipation of a steep and icy, even dangerous South Kaibab Trail, we decided to drive back to the backcountry office and see if we could change our hiking permit to a safer trail.

Some of the roads had been plowed during the early morning hours, but the road was icy and drivers were doing a fair bit of slipping and sliding. We slowly and carefully drove to the backcountry office, and it seems that shortly after our arrival at the long-term parking lot, the park shut down the shuttle bus service due to the dangerous road conditions.

We were able to change our permit from the South Kaibab Trail to the Bright Angel Trail. Technically, our first night was scheduled for the Bright Angel Campground at Phantom Ranch in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, but that would mean hiking 7 miles down the steep South Kaibab Trail or 9.5 miles down the not-so-steep Bright Angel Trail, and I wasn’t sure that we could make 9.5 miles on our first day out. Thus, we changed our permit to allow us to spend our first night in Indian Garden Campground, which is only 4.5 miles down the Bright Angel Trail.

With a shorter hike for the first day, we decided to eat breakfast at the Maswik Lodge and wait to see if the storm would clear by noon as forecast.

The storm did not clear, and in a driving snowstorm, we loaded water and final items into our backpacks before closing the van. We walked the few hundred yards to the Bright Angel Trailhead, glad that we didn’t need to wait for a Yaki Point shuttle bus that might come tomorrow. Jim did take a nasty fall on the ice while crossing the railroad tracks, and we both hoped that didn’t portend things to come.

Departing the trailhead at 11 AM, fogged in with heavy snow falling and still at 26 degrees, we started down into the Grand Canyon under a forecast of snow all day but clearing by the next morning. We passed a few people higher up, but the trail was unusually empty even for this time of year. Parts of the trail were icy, but the fresh snow improved our grip on the trail, and never again did either of us slip and fall, which is particularly good given that from many places along upper parts of the trail people could slip into the abyss and never be seen again.

Bright Angel Trailhead

Liz and Jim at Bright Angel Trailhead; 26 degrees

We descended into the canyon at a fairly quick rate, and even wearing layers of coats and rain gear, we stayed cool. We didn’t stop to rest until we reached 1.5-mile Resthouse, a stone structure built during early days of the park. Inside was dry, and we propped our packs up on the windowsill, ate trail snacks (it was now noon), and shed some layers as the snow was now falling more gently and in the narrow canyon, the wind was merely a light breeze. The nearby toilets were useful for returning some of our Maswik coffee to the canyon.

1.5-Mile Resthouse

1.5-Mile Resthouse

Departing 1.5-mile Resthouse, the trail was still covered in snow, but shortly below there, the trail became clear. We still had plenty of snow on the bushes and trees, but the trail was becoming muddy rather than icy. Descending this section, the clouds lifted somewhat, giving us views down into the canyon, and at one point, even a bit of direct sun on the fall-colored trees in Indian Garden Campground.

Muddy Bright Angel Trail

Muddy Bright Angel Trail

We arrived at 3-mile Resthouse and again took a break inside the structure at 2 PM and again recycled coffee at the nearby toilets. A group of noisy young adults joined us there, but we were glad they had more energy and walked faster than we did, and soon their noise faded away in the depths of the canyon.

3-Mile Resthouse

3-Mile Resthouse

Departing 3-mile Resthouse, we descended quickly through the Redwall Limestone, an imposing vertical wall of limestone, some 500-ft thick, where the trail was blasted out of the cliff. This cliff, about halfway down the canyon, forms a barrier to travel that can only be breached in a few places.

Redwall Limestone

Bright Angel Trail descending through the Redwall Limestone

Below the Redwall, the trail drops into the bottom of Garden Wash and continues down at a fair grade, but at this time below all of the visible cliffs rather than above them. Along the wash, we encountered the first of several groups of mule deer, this one with a yearling.

Yearling Mule Deer

Yearling Mule Deer and Doe

About a mile down the canyon, we arrived at Indian Garden Campground at 3 PM. For desert backpackers, this is a high-end place with shade trees (Fremont’s cottonwood, velvet ash, redbud, and even wild grapevines), covered picnic tables, running water, and composting toilets well provisioned with paper.

Indian Garden Campground

Campsite in Indian Garden Campground

Indian Garden was, in fact, an Indian garden before white settlers ran them off in the early 1900s, that is well supplied with spring water. Our campsite was between to two small springs, and during warmer weather, we probably would have been serenaded by canyon tree frogs and red-spotted toads. During this cold weather, however, everyone was silent and probably sleeping away tucked down in the mud.

With the storm, most of the 25-or-so campsites were empty when we arrived, but by dark (before 5 PM) few sites remained open. It was a damp cold that evening, and most campers were in their tents early, but we stayed up later than most as Liz cooked a nice box dinner with a package of chicken. We too eventually turned in and settled into a long night that got down into the high-20s. We also heard what sounded like the calls of a Flammulated Owl during the night, but it seems a bit late in the year for this species.

After only hiking 4.5 miles, we were both surprised by how sore our legs had become, although we didn’t really notice them until we got to camp and our muscles started to stiffen up. Jim also pulled a muscle in his back, but that might have been the result of the fall on the railroad tracks.

November 17, Tuesday — Grand Canyon Backpack Day 2

After a cold night with high, blustery winds and temperatures in the high 20s, the sun arrives late in deep side canyons on the south side of the Grand Canyon, and we were up and long gone from camp (9:30 AM) before it came up over the cliffs. A ways down the trail, however, we stopped for a few minutes to bask in the warn sunshine. At this elevation, the cottonwood trees were just starting to turn color, and after a day under the clouds, tree-fulls of bright yellow sun-lit leaves were striking.

Bright Angel Trail

Cottonwood Tree along Bright Angel Trail

Scattered cottonwoods lined Garden Creek, and as we followed it downstream, the trail initially ran along sandstone ledges above the stream, putting us at eye-level with the yellow leaves. The stream channel slowly cut down through the Tapeats Sandstone, a cliff-forming layer of early to middle Cambrian age, and after crossing the Great Unconformity, we dropped into the wash and hopped across the stream a few times.

Bright Angel Trail

Bright Angel Trail following rocky ledges

The Great Unconformity, a “non-layer,” represents pages missing from the book of history in this area where about 1-billion years of history are missing. Not really missing, mountains once stood here, but over those billion years, the mountains eroded to form a flat plain. What we now see as the Vishnu Schist is the core of those old mountains, and as sea levels rose, the Tapeats Sandstone represents beach sand that washed along the ancient shoreline.

Great Unconformity

Liz at the Great Unconformity

Now in the Vishnu Schist, the “basement rock” of the grand canyon, our narrow Garden Creek Canyon opened abruptly onto the broad shoulder of a ridge. Here, atop the Devil’s Corkscrew, Garden Creek falls away into a narrow canyon in a series of waterfalls, while the trail turns away from the creek to cut down and across cliffs where the trail was blasted out of the bedrock.

Garden Creek

Garden Creek cascades into narrow canyon

Near the top of the Devil’s Corkscrew, the trail crosses two seeps where a few cottonwood trees cling to the cliff and shade rocky walls covered with marsh vegetation including ferns, mosses, and even orchids. Unfortunately, none of the flowers were blooming.

Devil's Corkscrew

Top of Devil’s Corkscrew

In the Devil’s Corkscrew, the trail winds down and around the head of a canyon ending in a series of switchbacks. Here, the summer sun reaches straight down to cook the rocks and produce an oven-effect for hapless mid-day hikers. For us, however, after passing the sunny seeps, we descended into deep winter shadows.

Devil's Corkscrew

Middle of Devil’s Corkscrew

Below the Devil’s Corkscrew, the trail runs down Pipe Canyon at a moderate grade. Higher up, Pipe Creek ran as a trickle, but about a mile down canyon, Garden Creek cascaded down the cliffs and joined Pipe Creek. We hopped back and forth across the wider creek a few times, only dampening our boots a time or two. Pipe Canyon eventually narrows and sharply winds back and forth through S-curves making all of the canyon walls look the same until suddenly there was no canyon wall ahead, and we arrived on the bank of the Colorado River just after noon.

Pipe Canyon

Bright Angel Trail along Pipe Creek

We stopped to celebrate our arrival at the bottom of the Grand Canyon by eating lunch and taking celebratory photos. It was a bucket-list item to get Liz to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, so technically we could check it off at that point, but we decided it made more sense to do the checking when we got back to the South Rim.

S120_10820

Liz in the bottom of the Grand Canyon

The Bright Angel Trail technically ends here, and after lunch, we followed the River Trail east heading upstream along the Colorado. Along most of this section, the Vishnu cliffs drop straight into the river, so trail builders again took to blasting a trail into the cliffs. We were actually following the trace of a water pipe along here, which it turns out to be nice because the engineers made for gentle slopes and wide turns. We learned that all of the water on the South Rim comes from Roaring Springs, high on the North Rim. Water is piped down from the North Rim following the North Kaibab Trail, across the Colorado under a suspension bridge, down the River Trail, then up cliffs to Indian Garden (delivered to our campground water faucets), and finally up to the South Rim.

River Trail

River Trail heading upstream

Eventually the River Trail dropped to the banks of the Colorado and we crossed the river on the Silver Suspension Bridge to the north side. A few more yards upstream, and we turned up Bright Angel Canyon. The delta of Bright Angel Creek is broad and is used by the Park Service for mule corrals, ranger housing, and a waste treatment plant.

Silver Suspension Bridge

Silver Suspension Bridge

A few minutes up Bright Angel Canyon, Bright Angel Campground begins on the west side of the creek. The canyon is narrow here, and designated campsites line the rock wall. About halfway along the campground, the trail passes restrooms with flush toilets, electric lights, and electrical outlets. Above there, the canyon is somewhat wider and campsites line both sides of the trail. Campsites on the left lie up against the rock walls, and those on the right overlook Bright Angel Creek. Considering what little remained vacant, we were lucky to get the relatively isolated campsite against the cliffs just south of the toilets.

Bright Angel Campground

Campsite in Bright Angel Campground

We had heard that there had been a problem with the water pipeline, but the park website suggested that everything would be fixed a month before our arrival. Alas, this was not the case. Somewhere up the canyon, the pipe broke, and while water is flowing to the South Rim, they were having problems with the system in the Phantom area (Phantom Ranch Lodge and Bright Angel Campground), and the water was turned off.

Camper water was available from a single faucet outside the dining room at Phantom Ranch, necessitating a 1/2-mile, round trip, hike from the campground. Of course we could get water from the creek and treat it ourselves, but it was downstream from the Phantom Ranch mule barns and so not too inviting. At the restroom, the water was turned off, but the park service had stationed a 1,500 gallon firefighting water tank by the men’s door, and everyone had to carry water in 5 gallon buckets from the water tank to pour into the toilet to effect a flush. It worked, but it was less the optimal. The people staying at the lodge for $140 per cabin per night had similar inconvenience with the toilets, but also suffered from lack of showers — without an annoyance discount.

Phantom Ranch

Phantom Ranch; camper water outside the Cantina

Perhaps the true motivation for the trip was the opportunity to see Ringtails (aka Ringtail cats) in the campground where some years ago they had become real pests for campers as they did everything they could to steal food. When Jim was there in 2006, a pack of Ringtails raided his campsite, but he woke up too late to see anything more than a black-and-white banded tail disappear into the bushes.

Ringtail

Ringtail: Our most-wanted mammal species

We’ve looked for them elsewhere, and we’ve interacted with captive Ringtails, but we’ve never found them in the wild. As a result, Liz cooked a dinner that smelled good enough to bring in ringtails, but no such luck. We sat up late into the night hoping for nocturnal visitors, but alas, by 10 PM we gave up and went to bed. We never did see any ringtails, so we’ll have to keep looking elsewhere.

Bright Angel Campground

Night sky from Bright Angel Campground

November 18, Wednesday — Grand Canyon Backpack Day 3

At the bottom of the Grand Canyon, at only some 2,500 feet elevation, it is supposed to be warm at night, but it was not to be as temperatures dipped to about 30 degrees. Again, we were colder than we expected, but at least here on the north side of the river, the sun comes up earlier than it does in Indian Garden. With nothing to do today, we lounged around breakfast and enjoyed an extra cup of coffee. We decided to do two short hikes today, or maybe just one if we were still feeling sore.

Bright Angel Campground

Too early to get up in Bright Angel Campground

At about 10 AM, we set off on the River Loop Trail, which departs Bright Angel Camp upstream to the Black Suspension Bridge, crosses the river, goes through a tunnel, climbs steeply towards the sky, then descends at a gentle grade about a mile downstream to the Silver Suspension Bridge. From there, we could retrace our tracks from the day before back to camp for a total of 2+ miles.

Bridge over Bright Angel Creek

Bridge over Bright Angel Creek

Starting out, we crossed a bridge over Bright Angel Creek, which already was warm from the sun. Across the bridge, we headed east on the South Kaibab Trail, upstream along the Colorado, and quickly arrived at a trail junction. We detoured to the right and wandered down the Boat Beach Trail to where river runners haul out on a sandy beach in a backwater area. There were about a dozen small rafts and several kayaks tied up along the beach, and one group of yahoo raft guides made us glad we were just wandering by rather than doing the river with them.

Boat Beach

Boat Beach

Back on the South Kaibab Trail, we continued east and saw that the Side-blotched Lizards already were coming out to bask in the morning sun. We also passed the grave site of Rees Griffiths, a CCC trail-crew foreman killed by rock fall in 1922, and the Bright Angel Pueblo, an interesting archaeological ruin where several families lived while farming the Bright Angel delta during about 500-1250 AD, but mostly 1050-1150 AD.

Bright Angel Pueblo

Bright Angel Pueblo

A few minutes beyond the pueblo, the trail reaches the Black Suspension Bridge. We had nice views up and down the river from the bridge and probably stopped to relax in the sun for a few extra minutes before dipping back into the shadows.

Black Suspension Bridge

Trail approaching Black Suspension Bridge

Interestingly, the south side of the bridge ends at a tunnel, where the trail cuts through a rocky buttress (about 40-50 yards long) before emerging onto steep, rocky slopes on the south side of the Colorado River.

Black Suspension Bridge

Black Suspension Bridge: trail goes into tunnel on south side.

On the South Kaibab Trail, we immediately began climbing a steep series of switchbacks and Liz just busted up the trail without stopping until we reached the River Trail junction, which was several hundred vertical feet above the river. It turns out this was a good omen for our upcoming climb out of the canyon.

South Kaibab Trail

South Kaibab Trail

On the River Trail, we turned downstream and followed the trail west. As elsewhere, the trail was blasted out of the rocky cliffs and supported both the trail and the water pipe. From the trail junction, the trail runs mostly level for a ways then descends to the Silver Suspension Bridge, for a total of about 1 mile. Along the way, we enjoyed one spot of warm sun, explored a narrow slot canyon, saw several species of blooming shrubs, and generally had a nice stroll above the river with grand views into the distance. In this area, the Vishnu Schist is highly metamorphosed, twisted, and incised with striking granitic dikes of Zoroaster Granite.

S120_10991

River Trail: Vishnu Schist highly incised with Zoroaster Granite dikes

At the Silver Suspension Bridge, we crossed back to the sunny side of the river and returned to camp for lunch and a chance to rest for a few minutes in the sun. The high for the day got to about 60 degrees, and basking in sun the was a treat.

Silver Suspension Bridge

Silver Suspension Bridge

After lunch, we hiked up through the campground to Phantom Ranch, then continued up the North Kaibab Trail for 1-1/2 miles or so. Starting out, we enjoyed the warm sunshine, but eventually the canyon narrowed and began to wind about, plunging us back into the shade of winter.

North Kaibab Trail at Phantom Ranch

North Kaibab Trail at Phantom Ranch

As on the south side of the river, the Vishnu Schist is highly metamorphosed and incised with granitic dikes making rock walls that are a mix of pink and black, but here the walls supported wonderful cactus gardens. Most of the species were familiar from home, but we saw lots of Graham’s Fishhook Cactus (Mammillaria grahamii), a species of fishhook cactus that while small, is much larger than our familiar species from home. Other common and familiar species included Catclaw Acacia, Nevada Ephedra, and Brittlebush. We also saw a few more Side-blotched Lizards.

North Kaibab Trail cactus garden

North Kaibab Trail cactus garden

We hiked upstream, crossing two bridges, to the confluence of Bright Angel Creek and Phantom Creek. We had intended to hike up the deep and narrow Phantom Canyon, but Bright Angel Creek was running too high for us to ford the creek without getting our boots wet. It was also too cold to wade the creek and get wet, although we would have enjoyed private baths up the canyon after three days on the trail. Hiking back down, we did find a quiet spot off the trail where we could get quick baths, but it sure was cold!

Bright Angel Canyon at Phantom Canyon

Bright Angel Canyon, looking up Phantom Canyon

Back at camp, we relaxed a bit, then after dark walked back up to Phantom Ranch for dinner. The lodge offers dinners for campers, steak at the early sitting (about $50/plate), and beef stew at the late sitting (about $35/plate; all you can eat). Eating out during a backpacking trip was a treat, but it wasn’t as good as I had expected from my 2006 visit. Even so, we had fresh green salad with vinaigrette dressing, cornbread with butter, hot and cold tea, coffee, and chocolate cake. They also make a vegetarian stew, which to me was the highlight of the meal. Liz was good, but I ate too much. Dinner is served “family style,” with people sitting at long tables and passing things back and forth. We met an interesting woman from Phoenix who works for a local NPR radio station and was doing a report on hiking in the canyon. Another couple was from Vermont, and we kept running into them on the trails.

Phantom Ranch Cantina

Phantom Ranch Cantina before dinner

Afterwards, we attended on impromptu evening program in the outdoor amphitheater given by a National Geographic photographer who was trying to do a thru-hike of the Grand Canyon. It turns out that more people have walked on the moon than have thru-hiked the canyon, and as he described the difficulties, it was clear to understand why. He had walked from Lee’s Ferry to Phantom Ranch in about 2 months, and intended to take a break before continuing downstream.

Back at camp, we spent a few minutes hoping to see ringtails, but gave up before it got too late and we got too cold. We did hear Great Horned Owls calling, so not all was lost. While we had been in Bright Angel Campground, the nightly forecasts were for temperatures in the mid-40s, but both nights were actually in the mid-30s, colder than we expected, and we should each have brought another layer of clothing.

Bright Angel Campground

Bright Angel Campground stars

November 19, Thursday — Grand Canyon Backpack Day 4

On our last morning in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, Jim awoke in the early dawn hours to see a Great Horned Owl fly over camp heading for its roost tree somewhere upstream.

We actually set an alarm and got up about 6:30 AM hoping for an early start on the trail because we didn’t know how slowly we would hike back up to Indian Garden Campground. We ate a quick breakfast and broke camp in time to get on the trail shortly before 8 AM — not bad timing for us — about an hour earlier than usual.

Bright Angel Campground

Bright Angel Campground: packing up last of the gear

We crossed the Silver Suspension Bridge into the winter shadows, said good bye to Phantom Ranch and all of the uncooperative ringtails, and headed downstream along the Colorado River. About 1/2-hours out, we got into a spot of sun and stopped to bask for a minute or two, then continued up across the cliffs on the blasted-out trail.

Bright Angel Trail

Bright Angel Trail: a spot of sun

In about an hour, we arrived at the River Resthouse where we planned to stop, rest, and eat trail snacks. We felt fine, so we just recycled some coffee and turned up Pipe Canyon, glancing back for one last look at the Colorado River and leaving the bottom of the Grand Canyon, proper.

Composting Toilet at River Resthouse

Composting Toilet at River Resthouse

We hiked up along Pipe Creek for about 45 minutes without stopping until we reached the base of Devil’s Corkscrew. We had planned our second stop here, and this time we took off the packs and spent a few minutes relaxing. This time, we also noticed a mine opening across the creek, so of course, Jim had to go investigate. The adit ran back about 30-40 feet into the cliff following a narrow vein of white rock. Not sure what is was, apparently it wasn’t valuable enough to keep working the mine. This likely was one of the Cameron mines operated not for the minerals but rather to control access along the trail where Cameron charged tourists $1 each to pass through his claims.

Old mine entrance along Bright Angel Trail

Old mine entrance along Bright Angel Trail

After our 20-minute rest, we started up the Devil’s Corkscrew, which starts as a series of steep switchbacks. To Jim’s surprise, Liz just kept going and going and going. Jim took a lot of photos, and in doing so, had a hard time catching up with Liz. We finally stopped for a 5-minute break at the upper spring where the cottonwood trees seemed even more yellow than before. This point is essentially the top of the steep Devil’s Corkscrew, and Liz hiked the entire way without stopping to rest — amazing!

Devil's Corkscrew

Devil’s Corkscrew: Liz climbing the switchbacks

From the spring, we walked the remaining 5 minutes to the top of the Devil’s Corkscrew, and this time stopped for a short sit-down break and a few trail snacks in the warm sunshine. While there, we looked up to the top of the adjacent cliffs and saw tiny dots moving along the edge. The tiny dots turned out to be people atop Plateau Point (atop the Tapeats Sandstone layer) that looked impossibly far above us, but was actually about the level of Indian Garden. Jim joked that we could just climb the cliff and short-cut the trail, but the joke was more to relieve the tension of thinking that Liz really could hike that far up (even on the trail) without having any trouble.

Devil's Corkscrew

Devil’s Corkscrew: Liz at the top

Departing the top of the corkscrew a minute or two before 11 AM, we continued up the trail following Garden Creek. We re-entered the narrow canyon with its winter shadows and hopped the stream twice as we worked our way up through the last of the Vishnu Schist to the Great Unconformity and the base of Tapeats Sandstone layer (11:20 AM). We stopped for a couple of minutes looking for a good place to photograph the Unconformity, but we realized that we’d already come up too far and weren’t about to hike back down looking for it.

Pipe Creek

Pipe Creek crossing

Winding up through the narrow canyon following Garden Creek, we dipped in an out of the shadows, hopped the creek a couple of more times, and suddenly we were above the Tapeats Sandstone (11:30 AM). Without even stopping to rest, Liz had hiked all the way to the level of Plateau Point that had looked impossibly high only 30 minutes before!

Bright Angel Trail atop the Tapeats Sandstone

Bright Angel Trail atop the Tapeats Sandstone

We stopped for a few minutes on a rock ledge in the sun that made for a nice bench, then continued up what turns out to be a steeper than expected hike along Garden Creek where it crosses the Tonto Platform (Bright Angel Shale layer).

Bright Angel Trail along Garden Creek

Bright Angel Trail along Garden Creek

We arrived into Indian Garden Campground a few minutes after noon and chose a site high on the hillside with nice views of the cliffs and fewer trees to provide shade (which is to say: more sunny than others). Surprised to be in so early, we relaxed in the sun, hung our gear to air and dry out, ate lunch, and generally lounged around for the afternoon.

Indian Garden Campground

Indian Garden Campground: Jim enjoying the sun

We wandered about the local area visiting the ranger station, the visitor center, and other facilities, but generally just relaxed. By about 1:30 PM, the sun went behind the cliffs and we bundled up again. We borrowed a book from the lending library about park rangers, and had fun reading about our former life. By 6:30 PM, it was dark enough for some great star photos, but by then it was cold and we went to bed. It wasn’t too cold, only getting down to about 40 degrees, but in Indian Garden it was a damp cold. Great Horned Owls called in the distance as we drifted off to sleep.

Indian Garden Campground

Indian Garden Campground: our campsite

November 20, Friday — Grand Canyon Backpack Day 5

This was another lay-over day, so we enjoyed sleeping in and eating a slow breakfast (hot oatmeal) with an extra cup of coffee.

Indian Garden Campground

Indian Garden Campground

Our adventure for the day as a 1.5-mile hike over gently rolling terrain to Plateau Point, the impossibly high cliff were we had seen dot-sized people the day before. It was a nice walk out over the Tonto Platform, and it gave Liz a good example of the terrain I’d traversed during several long, solo winter backpacking trips a decade ago. It is hard to believe the way time flies, but it was nice to be back on the Tonto.

Plateau Point Trail on the Tonto Platform

Plateau Point Trail on the Tonto Platform

We relaxed in the sun out on the point where the smooth rock allowed us to take off our boots and walk about freely. The 360-degree views were grand with the North and South rims standing tall above us and the Colorado River far below. It was even fun to look down on dot-people along the trail where we had been the day before. Right at our feet, the stone recorded the passing of Cambrian-era creatures as they scurried around on what as a muddy ocean bottom.

Plateau Point

Plateau Point

We spent about 1-1/2 hours on the sunny point, and during that time, we mostly had the site to ourselves. Day hikers from the South Rim occasionally interrupted our silence, but we had a chance to meet trail runners from Austria, a pair of elegantly dressed hikers from Spain, a lone hiker from Holland (where he says the land is entirely flat), and even one American kid from Iowa.

Plateau Point

Plateau Point

Hiking back to camp, we enjoyed the last of the sun for the day and dipped back into the winter shadows. In camp, we busied ourselves getting ready for the long hike out tomorrow, relaxed, ate too much so we wouldn’t have to carry it out, and listened to the owls again.

Indian Garden Campground

Indian Garden Campground: Redwall Limestone and stars

November 21, Saturday — Grand Canyon Backpack Day 6

Up early again to the sound of the iPod, we managed to get out of bed by 6:15 AM even though here in the canyon it was still dark enough to need a flash for photos. The night had been windy, but by dawn it was only breezy, and the breeze served to dry the tent and ground cover before we packed them up after an otherwise damp night.

Indian Garden Campground

Indian Garden Campground: too early to get up

On trail at 7:50 AM, we started up along the gentle grade of Garden Creek. We had our daily strategy set, but Jim thought it might be overly aggressive, despite how well Liz did coming up from the Colorado River. We arrived at our first rest stop, the base of the Redwall Limestone at 8:40 AM, sooner than we expected. We stopped to rest and snack. It was cold, and we only stayed long enough to let a mule train go by before Liz was ready to carry on.

Bright Angel Trail

Bright Angel Trail above Indian Garden

Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, a steep series of tight switchbacks, we climbed through the Redwall layer with barely more than a moment’s stop here and there.

Bright Angel Trail at Jacob's Ladder

Bright Angel Trail at Jacob’s Ladder in the Redwall Limestone

Taking photos, Jim stopped more often than Liz, and we arrived atop the cliffs at 3-Mile Resthouse at 9:20 AM. Only 30 minutes and Liz had climbed all the way through the Redwall! Things were looking good, but we still had 3 miles and thousands of feet to climb.

3-Mile Resthouse

Bright Angel Trail at 3-Mile Resthouse

After what seemed like a long, cold rest, we felt ready to go and departed 3-Mile Resthouse at 9:40 AM (only 20 minutes rest). Powering up the trail in slow-gear, Liz just kept climbing through the Supai Group, a mix of layered sandstone and mudstone. On the way down, we had slogged through mud in this area, but now the trail was dry, or seemed to be dry although we occasionally saw ice crystals in the mud.

Bright Angel Trail in the Supai layer

Bright Angel Trail in the Supai layer

Liz powered on, and by 11:10 AM we arrived at 1.5-Mile Resthouse where snow from our Monday storm had been pounded by so many feet into snow-ice on the trail. We stopped here to rest, snack, and recycle the last of the coffee, but it seemed very cold here, and by 11:40 AM we were back on the trail.

1.5-Mile Resthouse

Bright Angel Trail at 1.5-Mile Resthouse

Fortunately, as we left the 1.5-Mile Resthouse area, the snow cleared from the trail and the temperature seemed warmer. Climbing towards the base of the Coconino Sandstone, the big layer of vertical cliffs, Jim recalled seeing a bobcat here in 2006, and keeping an eye out, we saw several bobcat scats along the trail, so it was nice to see they were still around. We also saw a coyote scat, so the kitties better watch out.

Bobcat Scat

Bobcat Scat

We arrived at the base of the Coconino Sandstone at 12:00 noon and Liz kept powering along, taking only 20 minutes to climb all of the switchbacks and cross back through Second Tunnel. We had been told by a ranger at Indian Garden about clearly visible ruins near the trail just below the tunnel, but as hard as we looked, we saw nothing and kept climbing upward.

Bright Angel Trail in the Coconino Sandstone

Bright Angel Trail in the Coconino Sandstone

By this time, we were encountering more and more snow-ice on the trail, and even icicles at seeps along the cliffs, and by about 12:40 PM we found ourselves with serious slippery ice on one of the steepest parts of the trail. We carefully negotiated the worst of the ice, but often that meant walking on the very outside edge of the trail where a slip over the edge would surely be the last. We passed the steep section without incident, and the rest of the trail was either clear or much less steep. We were glad to have our trekking poles, but wished we’d brought our instep crampons.

Icy trail

Icy trail

By 1:10 PM, we were passing through First Tunnel accompanied by what turned out to be three bus-loads of Asian tourists. The icy trail was a bit crowded, but we continued upward, and Liz crested out onto the South Rim at 1:15 PM. Jim was amazed that we’d come all the way up in only 5-1/2 hours when he was afraid we might be coming out in the dark, and surprisingly, neither of us felt tired or sore.

Bright Angel Trailhead

Bright Angel Trailhead: we made it!

We checked off our bucket-list item, got a double-scoop of ice cream to share and celebrate, and hit the road. Driving pretty hard, we make it home by about 7:30 PM, successfully completing our grand adventure.

Ice cream on the rim

Ice cream on the rim: it takes two hands to handle a whopper!