Happy Campers - May 21, 1997 - Jim Hadlock
My first visit to Arizona was in October, 1995, for the start of an eight day bicycle trip from the Grand Canyon to Nogales. Riding along the south rim of the Grand Canyon, stopping at all the viewpoints, I knew I would be back someday to do some hiking in the canyon. That opportunity came the week of my birthday in May, 1997.
Although "THE GUIDE" (National Park publication) says "there are no loop trails for day hikers", it shows a map with the Tonto Trail connecting the South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails partway down into the canyon. This 13 mile loop became the focus for my first Grand Canyon hiking experience. The South Kaibab was my choice for the way down since it's steeper and has no water. Coming up the Bright Angel, there's water at Indian Gardens and the two resthouses, and it's less exposed to the afternoon sun.
Let me say at the beginning this is a non-trivial day hike and requires some preparation and planning. Not being an experienced hiker I read whatever I could find about hiking, especially in the Grand Canyon (see John Annerino's "Hiking the Grand Canyon"). Physical training included climbing a nearby mountain (about 3500 feet in 4 miles), and frequent hikes on a local water pipeline trail. My years of running and bicycling experience was useful for knowing my body's needs for food and water during extended activity, and knowing when to rest.
The day started with an early morning shuttle bus ride to Yaki Point. There were about a dozen people on the bus, about half of whom were going to head down the trail. At the trailhead there were no crowds, just a quiet morning with the wind rustling the trees and the sounds of birds. I carried a day pack with water, food, extra clothes, a first aid kit, and of course a camera. The weather was cloudy and cool and being from the Pacific Northwest, I even carried a raincoat.
The hikers quickly seperated going down the switchbacks at the beginning of the South Kaibab trail; my pace was leisurely, taking in as much of the experience as possible. "THE GUIDE" recommends Cedar Ridge, about 3 miles down, as a day hike destination. Those first 3 miles are enough to get away from the crowds and gain an impression of the majesty of the canyon. Being mostly on ridges, the views from the South Kaibab are splendid just about every step of the way down. Impressions going down to Cedar Ridge were of the layered rocks, with stronger layers undercut by weaker layers. The trail had lots of switchbacks, but was wide and well maintained. There were great canyon views from ridges, and being spring the foliage was green and flowers were in bloom.
From Cedar Ridge to the Redwall the marvelous views kept getting better. It was overcast to the east and clearing to the west, with the sunlight beginning to filter in under the clouds. The lush green plants stood out against the browns and reds of the ground and rocks. Descending the switchbacks to the Tonto Platform I first heard the river, a subtle rustling almost too faint to detect. Here the trail was steep, I couldn't help being impressed by the work of those who had built maintained it. Coming onto the Tonto Platform I encountered a mule train coming up the trail; it carried people, looking a little mule-worn, returning from Phantom Ranch. I wondered what they thought of me, the lone hiker standing by the trail as they passed. I encountered three more mule trains in the next half hour, one more with people and two carrying mostly garbage - a commentary on the impact we humans have on the environment wherever we are. The rock colors changed several times in a few miles, and I spotted the natural bridge up on the ridge to my left.
Continuing down the South Kaibab about a quarter mile beyond the Tonto Trail junction to the Tipoff, I sat on a rock overlooking the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch about 1500 feet below and ate my first lunch. Looking at the trail descending the ridge below I could feel the allure of going on down to the river - it would only add another five miles or so to my hike. But I knew that's how people get themselves into trouble, and resolved to save the river for another day. The climb back to the Tonto junction was the first uphill hiking I'd done all day, and I could feel that my muscles weren't used to those motions.
The first impression heading west on the Tonto Trail was how narrow it was, after the freeway like South Kaibab. The bushes along the way scratched at my legs, the trail wound around little mounds and was rarely visible more than a hundred feet or so ahead. The canyon walls dominated the view to the left, red walls with the creamy colored limestone above like frosting on a cake. On the right the view was across the Tonto platform, the gulf of the inner gorge with the unseen river, and spectacular views of the rock formations to the north. The trail wound around drainages, where cottonwoods and bushes took advantage of what little moisture was available. Small lizards scurried through the brush and did pushups on the rocks. The quiet was wonderful - sometimes I could hear the river, often there was just the whisper of the wind, a trickle of water, or the crackling of leaves in the sun.
At one point I stopped to watch a pair of turkey vultures soaring. They would drop into a side canyon flying within inches of the canyon wall and disappear from view, then climb back above the Tonto, never moving their majestic wings.
Coming around a bend I heard a new sound - voices, human voices. Far ahead I could see hikers on the trail to Plateau Point. My brief sojurn in solitude had come to an end. All too soon I was at the junction where the narrow rocky Tonto Trail joined the wide dusty Bright Angel Trail just below Indian Gardens.
Indian Gardens was like an oasis - running water, cottonwoods, and shade. I stopped for about a half hour for another lunch and to rest before the climb out. It was there I met two other hikers celebrating birthdays at the Grand Canyon - what better place could there be to ground your life for another year? One woman was handing out tootsie rolls to celebrate, I declined and ate my dried apricots. Better to avoid exotic foods when preparing for five miles of climbing.
Leaving Indian Gardens I passed the campground and rangers' cabins, wondering what it must be like to spend your days in such a glorious place. The other impression was that I was heading for a wall. I could see the rim 3,000 feet above but there was no discernable trail up what appeared to be a sheer face. Get into climbing mode, easy pace, step by step, switchback by switchback. The Bright Angel Trail, unlike the South Kaibab I went down, is in a side canyon. The feeling was almost claustrophobic after all the open space and canyon views of earlier in the day. Focus on the trail, step by dusty step. The clouds were getting darker, and I heard thunder on the north rim, what a treat! Then there was thunder above on the south rim, this was getting more interesting. There were some sprinkles of rain as I climbed and at one point I pulled out my raincoat, but it was too warm to wear while I was climbing so I just enjoyed the cooling shower.
As I climbed I encountered more and more people, some enjoying themselves and others definitely not having a good time. The climb was tough, no worse than my training mountain at home, but I had never climbed after eight miles of hiking before. I found a few soft rocks to sit on and rest on the way up, greeting other hikers as we leap-frogged each other up the trail. The last half mile or so was a mass of tourists, little kids in sandals tip-toeing around the mule spoor on the trail, people taking pictures of each other, and tired hikers plodding through the crowd.
I reached the rim to face a cold wind and rain - definitely raincoat weather. When I climbed on the crowded shuttle bus all dusty and sweaty from my day on the trail people seemed to give me a little extra space. I needed it.
The hike took eight hours: three hours down the South Kaibab to the Tipoff and lunch, two hours on the Tonto to Indian Gardens, half an hour at Indian Gardens, and two and half hours to climb up the Bright Angel Trail. It's certainly a manageble day hike if you're well prepared.