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South Kaibab - Phantom Ranch - Bright Angel Day Hike

South Kaibab Ė Phantom Ranch Ė Bright Angel Day Hike
August 2003
Darin Kerr

This report details my first hike in the Grand Canyon - August 19, 2003. After completing this hike, I would agree with all the reports that I have read that the sheer beauty and awesome scale of the canyon can only be appreciated from below the rim. Just visiting the canyon and looking out from the South Rim appears to be surreal and your eyes deceive you into thinking it is not real. Going down the trails opens up the experience and you see how complex a place the Grand Canyon really is.

I first contemplated doing a hike in the Grand Canyon in the spring of 2003 when my family was planning on where to go for summer vacation. They wanted to go to Las Vegas. Iíve been to Las Vegas several times before and it doesnít have anything that interests me very much. I thought that since we were driving there, a stop at the Grand Canyon would be a great side trip.

After searching the internet and finding what hiking trails went below the rim, my initial plan was to hike down the Bright Angel to Indian Garden and return via the Bright Angel. But, the more I read about the canyon, the more the urge compelled me to do the full rim to river and back day hike. Hiking just to Indian Garden would have been like Sir Edmund Hillary only hiking halfway up Mt Everest and turning around!

The distance for my hike to the river and back? 16 miles. The real killer is the 4,500 ft descent and a 4,500 ft climb back out of the canyon. It's like doing a mountain climb, only in reverse.

I had only been to the Grand Canyon once before Ė It was 1968, and I was 8 years old. I only remember looking over that large expanse and wondering how those explorers ever made it through there. I never imagined I would venture down to the bottom myself. It took me until the age of 42 to decide to venture to the bottom and see it firsthand.

During the planning stages of the trip, I read every piece of information I could find on the internet regarding the Grand Canyon. Everything you read on the National Park Service site warns you not to hike to the river and back in one day, and especially not to attempt this in the hot summer months.

I would be breaking two NPS recommendations Ė hiking to the river and back in one day, and doing it in the summer. I also broke a third one Ė donít hike alone. While I agree that the length and difficulty of the hike tested every muscle in my body, I really never felt alone on that August day, nor did I feel like I was in any physical danger. I met dozens of hikers during my trek through the canyon. Though Iíll admit that none of them that I spoke with were planning on doing the full round trip in one day. Call me crazy.

I did heed the warnings about the need for extensive physical training, and I worked hard in the 3 months prior to the hike. I logged 6-8 miles a day running, hiked in full gear on weekends, and did weight training 4 times a week to get my upper body in shape. This training paid off big time during the long climb back out. Summertime temperatures in Oklahoma reach mid 90ís with 40-50% humidity, so I calculated that if I could handle the heat/humidity here, it would match the higher temperatures but much lower humidity of the canyon.

Morning of 08/19/03:

I began my long day at my hotel room in Williams, AZ. I had set my alarm for 3:15am, as my original plan was to make it to Bright Angel lodge and catch the 5am bus to Yaki Point. I was so pumped about the hike that I only slept a few hours that night. I showered, did a last-minute double check of the gear I was carrying in my REI backpack, ate a breakfast bar and some fruit, and hopped in my rental car for the hour drive up to the South Rim.

Highway 64 was deserted at this early hour, but I kept my speed down due to all the deer in the area. I didnít want to start my day off by getting into a deer accident. The drive took longer than I anticipated, and I didnít pull into the parking lot at Bright Angel lodge until 5:05am.

I missed the 5am bus to Yaki Point by just 5 minutes! This would mean I would need to wait another hour until the 6am bus came by. This hour delay would mean more hiking in the heat of the day at the bottom of the canyon. And little did I comprehend how really hot it can get down there.

As I waited at the bus stop, other hikers began to congregate. I spoke with a father who was taking his 4 kids down the trail to the river that day. The youngest of his family couldnít have been more than 9 or 10 years old. I couldnít imagine they would be prepared for such a hike. It didnít look like they were carrying much water, either. I never did see them once I got on the South Kaibab trail. A couple in their mid 30ís were waiting, and I overheard them say they were hiking to Phantom Ranch at the bottom. So far, no one was attempting the complete round trip in the same day. When I mentioned to the others what I planned to do, most looked me over and said they wished me luck. Not a good sign.

Perhaps I was carrying too much; I had 3 liters in the water bladder in my pack, and a 1 liter bottle in each of the two side pockets in my pack. I did feel like a camel who was tanked up with enough water to walk across the Sahara. I was also packing a Fuji digital camera, a Canon 35mm camera, and a Sony 8mm camcorder. Overkill? Yes, but I wanted to get as many pictures and video that I could.

The shuttle made two other stops after picking up the group at Bright Angel. On the second stop, a group of 4 men carrying overnight packs/tents climbed aboard. They must have been headed for the campground at Bright Angel creek, I assumed.

At the last stop, four European women in their mid-20ís got on, but I didnít speak with them as they were involved in a discussion in French. Only 2 of them were carrying a pack, and the other 2 women were only carrying a camera and a small water bottle each. I guessed that they couldnít be planning on going any further than Cedar Point, then would turn around.

By the time the shuttle made all the stops, it was 6:25am by the time we made it to the parking lot at Yaki Point. At this late of a start, I knew I would be at the Colorado River during the hottest part of the day. The hot weather training in the heat and humidity in Oklahoma would surely carry me through this, I thought.

Our group piled off the shuttle, then started to make our way to the trailhead. The South Kaibab trailhead is about a hundred yards or so from the parking lot. I stopped at a picnic table near the water faucet and did a last quick check to make sure I had everything I needed. Satisfied that I was ready, I walked up to the trailhead sign and checked my watch Ė 6:30am. I was already behind by an hour according to my calculations.

Stepping down that first switchback and looking down at OíNeill butte was perhaps the most picturesque thing my eyes had ever seen. The early morning sun brought out all the colors of the different rock layers. I took a long look across the expanse, hoping to burn the image into my brain permanently.

The group of hikers quickly dispersed and spread out on the trail. Several of the hikers walked ahead of me and I never saw them again. In a few minutes I passed the group of men with the large packs headed down to Bright Angel campground.

My first stop was at Ooh Aah Point. I can see why they call it this due to the panoramic view from the rocks jutting out over the canyon at this point.

OíNeill butte is in the center of the picture. This shot was taken around 7am. There was a cluster of hikers from the group that I started with at this point. I would imagine this is one of the most photographed views from the South Kaibab trail.

There were a number of switchbacks on this section of the trail due to the steep descent the trail was making on the way to Cedar Ridge. In about 45 minutes, I was standing at Cedar Ridge:

I wasnít tired at all, and at this point the temperatures were still in the 60ís and quite comfortable. I had brought along a mini tripod that I used to mount my camera equipment. There was a large automobile sized rock in the middle of the clearing at Cedar Ridge to place the tripod. There was definitely no shortage of large rocks for this purpose!

I stopped here at Cedar Ridge for 10 minutes, then continued on my way down. By this time, I was out of the shade, and beginning to notice the air was warming quickly as the sun got higher. When I was shopping for hiking supplies, I picked up a hat with flaps on the sides to shade my neck and sides of my head. I felt stupid wearing it at first, but at this point in the hike, I was glad I purchased it. Another purchase which seemed like extreme at the time were the Leki trekking poles that I purchased. They were worth their weight in gold on the climb back out.

During the next leg of the hike, I stopped to let a group of mules with riders pass me. They were headed up Ė the mules always have the right of way no matter which direction you are headed on the trail. I also noticed large 5 gallon jugs full of water were sitting along several spots on the trail. Knowing that someone had placed them there for a reason, I left them alone. I had plenty of water, and had drunk 1 liter of water, so I still had about 4 left. Plenty to get me to the water stop at Phantom Ranch.

This picture was taken just before I reached Skeleton Point.

The next stop for rest and pictures was what I believe is called the Tip off. There was a outhouse and a mule hitching post there. As there was a group of riders stopped there, I proceeded just a little further down the trail to stop for a rest.

If you look closely in the center of the frame, you can just make out the Colorado River. The water appeared to be quite muddy that day. That is where Iím headed!

No sooner than I snapped this picture than I began to hear the sound of a sheep or goat. This guy was just around the corner, and fortunately he was more interested in the goat across a ravine than he was in me.

I proceeded cautiously in front of the goat, and headed on down the trail. Checking my watch, It was after 9am, and I knew I should pick up the pace in order to make it to Phantom Ranch by 11am. The trail wound through more spectacular scenery, and I walked through the section that looked like it was from somewhere other than Earth. The soil was a very fiery red color.

Since I was trying to make some time, I didnít stop for any pictures until I made it to the bottom. Here is the Black Bridge.

Iíve read that all the mule trains use this bridge to cross because the mules wonít walk across the silver bridge due to the open mesh steel floor that you can see through.

Well, hereís the Colorado River. Indeed it was very muddy that day. I donít know if they had received some rain upstream, or if extra water was being let out from Glen Canyon Dam for generating electricity? I took this picture from the Black bridge. If you look closely in the center of the frame, you can see the Silver Bridge that leads to the Bright Angel trail.

Crossing the Black bridge, I then walked the mile up to Phantom Ranch for lunch. It was about 10:30am, and I stayed at the ranch for about an hour. Lunch consisted of a bagel with peanut butter and some beef jerky. Not exactly gourmet fare, but filling. After eating, I walked into the Phantom Ranch canteen and mailed a postcard to my parents. I thought Iíd need some material proof that I made it down. On my way back to the river, I noticed the outdoor thermometer read 115F!

I took this next picture just to send back to friends and family at home and show to them that I actually made it. Iím standing on the north end of the Silver Bridge. The sign by the bridge indicates it was primarily built for the water pipe that is hung just below the walking platform.

I felt like I had accomplished so much at this point. I could look up and see my final destination at the top of the South Rim, but it really looked a lot further than it did from the top.

I bid farewell to the Silver Bridge and the Colorado, and began to plod through the beach sand on the River Trail. The sand was fairly deep in places and with a heavy pack it did slow my pace considerably. I noticed what appeared to be a wheelbarrow track in the sand as I continued along the River Trail. Who on earth would be pushing a wheelbarrow down here? Around the next bend I found out. A couple of National Park Service employees were working the trail and were using the wheelbarrow to haul their equipment and stones. I think to myself, here it is the middle of the day, and these guys are working away with picks and rakes. If they can manage this type of manual labor in this heat, then surely I can manage hauling this backpack back up Bright Angel.

At this point in the climb, I think I made the biggest mistake of the day. As I came up on the River Rest station just uphill from the Colorado, I continued on past it without resting. I think my ego was doing the talking, and convinced me that I didnít need to stop yet. Later in the hike I wished I had.

The next big climb in the hike was up the Devils Corkscrew. The trail seemed to have endless switchbacks with minimal shade. I was beginning to look ahead on the trail for anyplace to stop that was out of the sun. It beats down on you relentlessly at this point along the trail.

The trail made several crossings of the creek, and I took this opportunity to wet down a towel and placed it over my head. Cooling off my head and neck seemed to help tremendously. I stopped at one spot along the creek and found a rock in the shade to sit on. A couple of squirrels kept me entertained with their antics and it seemed to help get my mind off the climb I had ahead of me.

After what seemed like an eternity, I made it to the Tonto Plateau and the trail began to flatten out considerably. I made it to Indian Garden by 4:30pm. Here I am at the picnic area looking a bit haggard:

I rested at Indian garden for about 30 minutes, and tried to finish the rest of my food and drink most of my water so I could reduce some of the weight in my pack. I knew there was water at Indian Garden, 3 mile resthouse, and the 1.5 mile resthouse, so I figured that carrying no more than 2 liters at any one time would be a safe bet. Squirrels were everywhere at Indian Garden, and I saw several groups of people camped in the area nearby. I had to close up my pack and not wander far from it due to all the squirrels looking for a handout. There are signs warning visitors not to feed the wildlife, and if caught there can be some hefty fines.

After leaving Indian Garden, the trail began to climb once again. This is the view from Indian Garden looking up at the top of the South Rim. Still a long way to go!

In no time, I was within the box canyon and heading up a seemingly endless procession of switchbacks. It was almost 6:45pm by the time I made it to the 3 mile resthouse. A couple in their mid-20ís were resting there. They told me they had hiked down to Indian Garden, and were on their way back up to the top. When I told them I was doing the rim-to-river and back hike, they said they initially were going to do it, but their plans changed and they werenít able to get an early start that morning.

My Oklahoma low-altitude training was not helping me here, as my lungs were working way too hard in order to bring in oxygen. I was only walking about 100 yards at a stretch before I needed a minute of two of rest. As I watched to sun fall behind the canyon walls, I began to be concerned about my pace and I tried to pick it up some. This only seemed to slow me down more, as I then required more rest stops in order to get enough air.

It gets dark early in this part of the time zone. By 7:30pm, the sun had set behind the canyon wall. There was no moon, so it was getting dark fast. I stopped at the 1.5 mile resthouse and filled one of my water bottles. I calculated that one bottle would be enough to get out. I got back on the trail, and noticed several flashlights on the trail below me. It was a little comforting to know I wasnít the last hiker out on the trail that night.

The last mile of Bright Angel is a bit of a blur to me now. I think my body was running on autopilot and I just willed myself to the top. It was about 8:30 by the time I got to the top and Bright Angel lodge. It was grueling, but I had done it!

Closing commentary: Would I do this hike again? Most definitely YES. What would I do different? I would hike the trail in cooler spring or fall weather, carry a bit more food, carry less water, and only carry one camera. Iím sure if I had done this same hike in October, I could have completed it several hours faster than I did this August.

If you train properly and carry the right equipment, a rim to river and back day hike can be a safe hike. The NPS warns you not to attempt this, but Iím sure they have to take the conservative attitude in order to keep from being sued. Aside from the physical aspects of this day hike, about the only negative I saw in doing this in one day is that you feel a bit rushed and donít have the proper time to take in the beauty that nature has blessed the canyon with.

Next year, Iíll be back. I want to take more time to enjoy the scenery, so I plan on hiking to the bottom and either stay in the cabins at Phantom Ranch, or tent camp at Bright Angel campground.

Copyright © 2003, by Darin Kerr

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