April 22 - 28, 2001
Clear Creek, Phantom Creek
Jerry Forster, John Leonard, Norm Kern
"Excessively Dangerous Hike! Hiker insisted on Itinerary!" That's what the permit said. We applied for a permit to be in the Clear Creek use area on the first day. The letter from the Ranger said that many hikers attempt to hike to Clear Creek on the first day and fail. He reminded me that we would not be allowed to stay at Bright Angel Campground no matter what. I had to explain the plan for the whole trip and list all the other trips we had done, then describe all of my equipment (presumably so they could identify our stuff if they couldn't find our bodies). All we wanted to do was to hike down South Kaibab trail, hang out at BAC and Phantom Ranch a few hours and then get back up to the Tonto to camp that night. No illusions of making it to Clear Creek on the first day. After the explanation, they issued the permit complete with disclaimer.
Sunday - We left the car in lot D, near the Bright Angel Lodge, so it would be handy upon our exit out the Bright Angel Trail. We took a shuttle to the new visitor center, and then another to the SK Trail head. Started down about 7:30. It was unseasonably cold and there was a half inch of fresh snow on the car. We were down to shirt sleeves by Cedar Ridge but the cool helped us make good time; across the bridge by 11:50. Stopped at the first picnic table. Hung out as planned, cooked supper just off N. Kaibab trail at foot of Clear Creek Trail, and then climbed up to the Tonto. The CCC boys had done lots of work to make CC trail simple and nice; especially at the overlook down on Phantom Ranch, complete with stone bench. The work continued in trail widening and buffer stones at some steep drop-offs right up onto the Tonto. We passed a nice camp site just after Sumner Wash because we were happy to keep going. It was the last nice site we saw for several miles, but near sun down we found a suitable flat spot above the trail on the left for a camp.
Monday - Hiked to CC camp in 4 hours. Having the 2 hours out of the way from Sunday night's work was nice. It seems like you must be near CC about an hour before you really are. The trail just keeps going around washes off washes. The last 30 minutes are loose with steep drop-offs on one side. There are 4 well used sites. 3 have midday shade. There are ammo boxes to protect food from varmints. We didn't see any. There is a pretty decent pit toilet. Norm and Jerry hiked up CC a mile or two in Teva's splashing in the creek, and taking side trails occasionally. It seemed the walk to Cheyava falls would be "wet boots time".
Tuesday - At breakfast we had gnats like never before in the Canyon. John and Jerry hiked up to Cheyava falls. They were back by 1:30 with dry feet. About 5:00 we headed back toward BAC. We passed an excellent site at about 6 and found a suitable site amongst some sand stone outcroppings at about 6:45.
Wednesday - Back to North Kaibab Trail by 10:30 due to the head start Tuesday night. The highlight of the trip was to be a hike down Phantom Creek. The end of such a hike requires crossing Bright Angel Creek to get onto the North Kaibab Trail. We wanted to be sure this was going to work out. We dropped our packs in the shade and walked upstream to the Phantom Creek confluence. Norm took his Tevas and crossed where the trail seemed to end on the west side of BA creek. He used his stick for stability and had no problem crossing. He walked up PC for a quarter or third of a mile to a water fall. He noted that there was plenty of dry land on the north side of the creek all the way to the water falls. Everythink looked great for the hike down Phantom Creek. Life was good.
We ate in the shade and then walked back to Phantom Ranch for an Iced Tea and sent some post cards. Then we hung out at BAC. Norm and Jerry bathed and did laundry in the creek. About 5:30 when the whole trail was in the shade we started up toward Piano Alley and Utah Flats. It was a demanding hour. The first 3/4 is steep and loose. It is much easier going up than down. We learned that last trip. The last 1/4 is through the huge sandstone "pianos". This is Norm's favorite part. The route is not obvious so it takes some thought, and the footing is non-skid because of the sandstone. It's great!
We couldn't find the spot we had slept our other two nights on Utah flats. We set up the kitchen and Norm found a flat spot to the left of the kitchen. After we ate, John and Jerry found a flat spot well right of the kitchen so we were quite spread out.
Thursday - We started across cactus flats working our way west. There is no trail although now and then it seemed there might be one. If there is, it fades frequently. The terrain takes you to the right and across the slope down to the creek (not near any edge though). Eventually we saw a well worn trail working it's way west. It took a right turn north and then was down, down, down to the creek. The first part of the descent is quite steep and loose. The pitch decreases a bit. There is a fork in the trail which Norm missed. The right fork took us right down near the water fall. The left fork gets to the creek about a half mile upstream. As we descended we tried to pick out the route up and over on the north side to get past the water fall. We thought a large rock slide right off the camp site by the falls would work. Norm went over to the falls. There is no longer a log to help climb. On the left someone has anchored a loop of cable in the rock. Perhaps you can rappel from that? There was no means for these three guys to climb down at the waterfall. Norm had several Internet communications about routes around the falls but we neglected to study them while we were AT the falls. We hiked upstream to the overhanging sandstone where we had stayed last time. We seemed to be the only ones in the use area that day. Norm went back to check out the rock slide. It showed no signs of being part of a trail and many of the rocks moved. Norm got to the top and contoured around toward the falls, but there was no trail up there. Upon returning to camp Norm studied the Internet notes again, and found he should have looked for the trail immediately downstream of the falls on the North side.
Friday - We hiked back to the falls. Norm found the first cairn and up we went. This trail is steep but has several cairns. We probably drifted off and on to the trail a few times but we got to the top and the easy crossing. We found almost no markers during the descent which is steep and loose. We pretty much stayed to the right. Norm worked his way out to the middle and got cliffed out. John found the way by staying on the right. The final yards are squeezing between some Tammies and boulders to escape right at the creek. We don't know how you'd know where to start the climb if you came up stream. We were to find out just how difficult it would be to go upstream. The up and down took about 30 minute each. Neither was fun. We rested in the shade on some huge boulders. Life was good. We progressed slowly down the creek taking breaks when shade was available. Phantom Creek is beautiful and highly preferable to the crowded campground so we took our time. Eventually it clouded over, and then started to rain. Nothing good could come from rain in that situation. Footing would degrade. There would be more water in Phantom Creek; more water in Bright Angel Creek when we finished. We hoped it would just be another Grand Canyon momentary shower but it persisted. We had put our sleeping bags and cloths on top of our packs to keep them dry from the creek. Now the rain was getting them wet. We broke out the plastic ground clothes and waited it out. Each of us had a monitor rock in the creek we checked to see if the flow had increased. After about 30 minutes the rainfall decreased and we started down again. We knew Phantom had flashed a few years ago and people had died, so we were on edge but we were quite committed at that point. It would have taken over an hour to get back up to the point where we could leave Phantom Creek, and that would have required climbing the steep pitch then descending back to the creek and then going back over Utah Flats to BAC. We elected to go down, but quickly. Everything was slippery now. We continued to cross the creek as necessary in ankle deep water and then going high if necessary to get around the many small falls and chutes. Eventually we had to go quite high and the descent pegged Jerry's adventure meter as he hugged the rocks with his pack hanging out over the creek. Norm couldn't negotiate it at all with his pack. After that point there were no opportunities to go high. The walls were pretty well vertical and smooth. It was wade the creek or rather slide the creek. With the footing poor we just had controlled slides into the pools. Norm lost his footing and got completely submerged in one pool. Soon thereafter we were faced with a 4 foot chute leading to a pool which was 40 feet wide, with no way to know how deep it was. John slid down the chute and into the pool about chest deep. When Norm slid in he could not get any footing and John had to pull him to a shallow spot. Likewise Norm pulled Jerry out. The pattern continued for another mile or so. In and out of the water. We couldn't figure out how anyone could hike upstream under these conditions. There was no obvious way you could climb up the chutes with the water flowing down. Eventually we reached another chest deep pool. We entered from the side not from a chute, so we could have floated our packs but they and we were so wet, we said "why bother"? When we reached the point Norm had turned around two days before he didn't recognize it because there was so much more water in Phantom Creek. There was no dry ground on the final stretch to BA Creek. BA Creek was flowing about 30% higher than 2 days ago, but we had no choice. Norm found a decent spot even further upstream. Miraculously each of us still had at least one complete set of dry clothing. We changed immediately to get warm again, and walked toward BAC. We stopped for lunch at the same sandy spot we ate 2 days ago. We got coffee at Phantom Ranch this time, then got our site at BAC.
Saturday - John had to be at a wedding by 3:30 in Flagstaff, so we had to get up early and then had to make good time. We got up at 4:45 and left the site at 6:00. Norm set a quick pace on the river trail and up to Indian Garden. We were early enough so most of this was in the shade. The walk through the top of the Schist and the Tapeats was idyllic with the creek flowing and the birds singing. From Indian Gardens on, the day hikers got thicker and thicker. All seemed to feel obliged to say Hi. We got weary of responding. The higher we got the cleaner the people seemed to be. They also got older and had younger babies. When we got to overweight grandmothers in dresses holding babies, we know we must almost be at the top. These ladies weren't going to come down that trail very far. We reached Bright Angel lodge at 11:50. After the mandatory stop at McDonalds we rushed to Flagstaff and John got to the wedding on time. Coming up the BA trail allowed us ready access to the car without a shuttle.