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GCNP Trip Report 3/98 - Grandview to Bright Angel


Who: Tim Ward and Kathy Kerr, St. Paul, Minn.
When: March 23-28, 1998
Where: Grandview Point to the Bright Angel Trail via the Tonto.
Why: If you need to ask why you shouldn't be reading this :-]

We began the trip by flying into Phoenix, where Northworst Airlines lost our hiking sticks, along with a whole cartload full of golf clubs. Stood in line to make arrangements to ship the hiking sticks to Flagstaff, with people grumbling about missing their tee times. We had a day to kill before entering the Canyon, so we killed it on a pleasant five-mile hike in Boynton Canyon, near Sedona, while being appalled at the Californication that has overtaken Sedona. I was asked, coming out, "Is this the trail to the vortex?" Argh. Damn New Agers. I wish they'd take their pyramids and their crystals elsewhere, as the town is terribly overbuilt.

DAY 1: Grandview Point to Horseshoe Mesa

Drove up from Williams, checked in at the Backcountry Reservations office to get the latest update on trail conditions and water availability, packed up at the rim, and headed down. After posing for our pre-trip photos, resplendent in our full packs and hiking sticks, Kathy was interviewed by a camcorder-toting Japanese tourist.

We shortly discovered that their advice to bring instep crampons for the Grandview should have been heeded. The top mile and a half were covered with a foot of slushy snow in spots. It made what would have been a challenging trail scary. There was one really bad spot where the trail hugged the side of a cliff, with a several hundred foot drop off the other side--tricky if the trail is covered in snow. At this point, we slid our packs in front of us and crawled around the corner. It took us nearly two hours to descend the first mile. After the trail dropped below the Kaibab and Toroweap formations (the top two rock layers in the Canyon), and entered the Coconino Sandstone, it became a bit more reasonable; still patchily snow-covered, but not as exposed. The snow was with us through the Coconino and Hermit Shale below it--anomalous in sunny, 65-degree weather.

The trail moderated after dropping through the Hermit, and had a long, nearly level traverse through the Supai Group, a reddish-purple formation of alternating sandstone cliffs and shale slopes. The trail in the Supai was occasionally obscured by rockslides, but was still always easy to follow. We were pretty tired from the snowy descent, though, so it took awhile. Finally the trail dropped down to Horseshoe Mesa, a flat, juniper-dotted plateau with a red butte rising out of the middle. On the way down to the mesa, we passed the entrance to Pete Berry's Last Chance mine (mining copper, closed around 1910) and hiked across the tailings pile. The hike was a little over 3 miles, but it took us over four hours because of the snow at the top. Crampons would have helped. Watching the evening sunset light up the walls of the Canyon was lovely.

Sinking Ship from the Grandview Trail

DAY 2: Horseshoe to Cottonwood Creek (side trip to Page Spring)

Awoke at 7 a.m., then headed on the side trail to Page Spring. Another clear, warm day. The side trail passes what looks like a winch, from the mine, then dives off the mesa through a steep break in the Redwall Limestone (the Redwall forms a sheer cliff, and thus any trail crossing it has to find a break in the cliff. The breaks are nearly always steep, so that descending the Redwall is one of the more challenging parts of any Canyon trip). There was an awkward scramble right at the top around a rock jutting into the trail, where a slip could very well send you sliding 100 feet down a steep slope, then over a cliff. After that, the trail switchbacks down a steep, rocky, eroded trail. Like climbing a staircase, with the steps all different sizes, and no railing of course. After this tricky descent, the trail passed another mine shaft with some more mining equipment, and descended a little more gently. I could see an opening in the canyon wall across from the mine entrance, right at the base of the Redwall. I hoped that was the spring, as it was getting hot and we were nearly out of water. Continued downward; at a signed junction the trail crosses the canyon and shortly arrives at the spring, a fern-covered grotto in the rock. Plenty of water here. We filled all our water bottles, then headed up the trail (not as hard as coming down). It was a little over a half-mile to Page Spring, but it sure felt like longer!

The trail to Cottonwood leaves at the ruins of the mess hall, near the mine entrance (a stone building about seven feet high, with a higher chimney still remaining), and drops steeply through the Redwall. The trail was rocky but not exposed. Still tiring, though. After about a mile and a half we crossed the dry streambed of Cottonwood, with a wonderful view south towards the rim, where we could see snow at the top. We had lunch beneath a juniper (good campsite), and continued on the now-level trail, crossing a creek that drains into the main channel of Cottonwood, fed by some springs a short ways upstream. We continued to the junction of the Tonto trail, and a lovely campsite framed by two huge junipers. It was a fun scramble a short ways downstream into the slickrock of the Tapeats Sandstone. The stream spilled over a few falls, before we came to a 20-foot one with a deep pool at the base. It looked like it might be possible to scramble down it, but we didn't try. It was very windy that evening; felt like our tent was about to take flight.

This was our shortest day of hiking (maybe 2.5 miles with packs on) but the side trail to Page Springs made it a challenge.

DAY 3: Cottonwood Canyon to Grapevine Canyon.

Began on another clear, warm morning. Easy climb out of Cottonwood, and we were onto the Tonto Trail, the main cross-canyon trail. The hiking was fast and easy, as we crossed another side canyon with flowing water, as the main canyon was now hundreds of feet below us. We came out of the canyon and onto the rim of the Inner Gorge, where we got our first look at the Colorado 1200' below, running muddy red. Continued past a small side-canyon, and then reached the mouth of immense Grapevine Canyon, easily the largest of the side canyons we would cross on this trip. It was perhaps a quarter-mile across the canyon as the crow flies, but it's about six miles by trail. The views here were excellent, dominated by a huge butte called Wotan's Throne on the north side of the river. Wotan's Throne looks like a piece of the north rim separated from the main rim by a ridge, although on our map there appears to be no easy way up. It dominated the views for the next two days.

The trail swings to the south, and very shortly comes right up to the edge. The rim of the canyon is a sheer, ledgy cliff of brown Tapeats sandstone, five hundred feet thick, then the somber blackish-red Vishnu schist shot through with pink granite below. The trail was exposed, but level, and the footing was good. It's unsettling, though, to be walking along the trail and have your peripheral vision registering a huge empty space off to your right. The trail winds into numerous small side canyons plunging over ledges of the Tapeats into the main arm of Grapevine. About 2/3 of the way along, we pass a small seep with mesquite trees and some other leafy green shrublike trees I don't know the name of. After the seep is another exposed side canyon, and a scary section as it emerges from the side canyon on the side of a steep slope, and finally a long traverse high on the slope above the rim of the canyon, safe at last. In general, though, this side of Grapevine was easier than it would seem: numerous times we'd look ahead and see what looked like a terrifying stretch of trail--a few inches wide above a sheer drop--but it was usually safer than it looked from a distance.

By the time we turned away from the rim, it was around noon, and very hot, well over 80 degrees. The trail contoured along the slope for awhile, then dropped to Grapevine Creek, which was cool and clear, with numerous pools and small falls in the sandstone; a couple bathtub-sized pools made for a refreshing dip. There was a group of seven hikers from Utah, and we were later joined by two other groups. I think the BRO may have over-booked Grapevine tonight, as it was a little crowded, since there aren't many good sites. Either that, or one of the later groups was camping here without a permit.

DAY 4: Grapevine Canyon to Boulder Canyon.

To our great surprise, although it was clear when we went to sleep, it began to rain at about 4:30 a.m. Quickly scurry out of the tent to put the rainfly on, and manage to do it without getting totally soaked. It continued to rain until about 7 a.m. When we awoke, it was cool and cloudy, and the clouds were below the rim. The trail climbed up, then back down into another arm of Grapevine, then up again, for the traverse along the west side of Grapevine. This was, mercifully, much easier than the east side; it was further away from the edge, and there weren't as many side canyons. Emerged to see Wotan's Throne in clouds, and turned to the west again. All along the Tonto Trail we saw tons of little purple wildflowers, blooming out of a low green plant that was covering the ground. There were also bright red flowers about 18" tall that looked like Indian paintbrush, but I didn't think Indian paintbrush bloomed in the spring. In general, the Canyon was much greener in March than I remember it being in summer.

Colorado River and Inner Gorge, looking east from near Grapevine Canyon

It was a short, easy hike to Boulder Canyon, with occasional drizzle, then occasional brief spells of sunlight. Boulder is not nearly as big as Grapevine, but the streambed is wider, and there are more campsites. There was no flowing water where the trail crossed the stream--the streambed was filled with sand and gravel, so the water probably was flowing underneath rather than at the surface--but a short hike downstream found a small trickle, and where the stream entered the Tapeats and flowed over bedrock. We filled our bottles at a small pothole about two feet deep, then continued downstream to see what we could find. A couple hundred yards further, we came to a fifty-foot fall, and could see a large pool and a bigger stream at the base, but no easy way down. It began to rain steadily around dinner-time, and rained off and on all night.

DAY 5: Boulder Canyon to West Arm of Cremation Canyon.

A light drizzle in the early morning kept us in our tent until about 7:30. Like yesterday, it was a cloudy, cool day. The cloud deck was sitting right at the rim, at about 7000 feet. Occasionally it would clear up enough to show a patch of blue and maybe ten minutes of sunshine, then it would cloud over again, and rain for a few minutes. We had a little trouble finding the trail out of Boulder, but kept heading in the same general direction we were supposed to go, and we always found it again. The cairns would occasionally lead us astray. Shortly after leaving camp we passed two hikers coming the other way; their trail was about 20 yards to the left of the trail we were on. This is the first time that the Tonto's been as obscure as it was described. The trail cuts round the head of a small side-canyon, then swings back towards the lip of the Inner Gorge, before it turns again into Lonetree Canyon. The sky was fascinating today; the clouds would give us brief views of the top of Wotan's Throne, before closing in again, and there was sunlight breaking through the clouds east of us, beyond Horseshoe Mesa. About 30 minutes after that, we could see rain falling on Horseshoe Mesa, while there was blue sky above us.

The hiking was easy (except for the occasionally disappearing trail) into Lonetree, the smallest of the named side canyons we'd come into. The canyon was walled off by sheer Redwall cliffs on three sides, and there was a steady trickle of water flowing. We refilled our bottles and continued on towards Cremation, passing another group of hikers. Once again, they'd left their slowest hiker at the back, which strikes me as a Bad Idea. The straggler didn't seem bothered: he was an experienced Canyon hiker who with bad knees. He says he never filters or boils water he finds in the Canyon, and the only time he's gotten sick was from drinking out of the Colorado.

Unlike the other side canyons, where the trail swings around almost to the canyon's head, the trail here drops steeply into each arm of Cremation. We camped in the third, westernmost arm; the trail coming into the second arm was the steepest (except, as we would discover tomorrow, the trail climbing out of the western arm back onto the Tonto). No flowing water here, and not as many nice campsites as at Boulder. After setting up the tent, I followed the west arm downstream with no problems until it joined the middle arm. Here I turned around, but I couldn't see any drop-offs ahead, and I was below the Tapeats into the Vishnu Schist, which isn't as ledgy as the Tapeats. Maybe it goes all the way to the Colorado with no major obstructions, but I doubt it.

DAY 6: Cremation to South Rim via Bright Angel Trail

This was our longest day, about 10 miles total. In retrospect, it would not have been bad...if the weather had cooperated. We decided to go for the luxury of a hot breakfast with tea, coffee and the last of our oatmeal, and take the long way out, getting water at Indian Gardens or Pipe Spring, rather than go up the steep and apparently very muddy South Kaibab trail. I'd hiked down the South Kaibab in 1991, and I was in no hurry to hike up it. The climb out of Cremation Canyon was tough; steep and rocky. At the top of the climb we passed an ideal campsite; flat, with great views, and a huge, house-sized chunk of Tapeats leaning over at about a 45-degree angle making a nice dry hangout. Had we but known...

The trail continued level for awhile, then climbed steeply uphill again. We could see the South Kaibab as a slash in the side of O'Neill Butte; the trail contoured away from it, then back towards it. There is now a chemical toilet at the junction of the Kaibab and the Tonto that wasn't there in '91. It was a very welcome stop, as there was a little wooden balcony out in front of the toilets that made a good resting place. A mule train was going up the Kaibab as we passed. The Tonto continues straight across the Kaibab (it does not jog to the right, as the Trails Illustrated map indicates), into a small side canyon, then into Pipe Creek Canyon, which is huge. Coming around into Pipe Creek, we saw a clear patch of sky across the Inner Gorge, then a small piece of a rainbow at the base of one of the buttes on the north side. A lovely wisp of iridescence, that faded away after about five minutes. This was the last hint of sunshine we would see.

It was a long, but easy hike through Pipe Creek, which is beautiful, with lots of cottonwoods just beginning to leaf out. We passed two springs along the way: Burro Spring was muddy, spilling through cattails as the trail crossed it, and Pipe Spring was clearer. The west arm of Pipe Creek was dry, and it was a bit of a drag to go through it, since we'd already come about four miles and had a long ways yet to go.

We came around the bend, dropping down to the hiker's freeway--Bright Angel Trail. It was an easy walk to Indian Gardens, where we ate lunch at the foot of a huge cottonwood, and filled up our water bottles for the climb out. There was another couple there, from Tucson, who had hiked down to Phantom the day before. They reported it was snowing on the rim when they left. By the looks of the clouds, now hiding the rim completely, it looked as though it was still snowing. A passing ranger told us that a blizzard was heading our way, and would probably hit the rim in about 3 hours, with snow as low as Indian Gardens. This did not augur well for the hike out. We began hiking steadily, in a cold drizzle. The trail climbed gently for about 0.5 miles, then began to switchback through the Muav and the Redwall, climbing more steeply. The trail was wide, well maintained, but a bit muddy. As we climbed, it began to rain more steadily. After a seemingly endless series of switchbacks, we reached the 3-mile resthouse; the thermometer there read 40 degrees. We could only see to the base of the Coconino; everything above was veiled in clouds. We stopped only for a little while, as it was cold and we weren't prepared for winter weather. The couple from Tucson cought up with us at the resthouse. Both Kathy and I were tired already, but there's no point in stopping.

I got into a slow, steady rhythm of taking two steps with each breath: Ex...step...hale...step...In...hale...step, not noticing much but the back of Kathy's pack as we trudged up the trail. A long traverse across the ledgy Supai, and another series of switchbacks brought us to the toilets and the 1.5-mile resthouse. Now it was sleeting, and the wind was picking up. Another short stop, and again slowly upwards. Shortly after leaving the resthouse, snow began to mix with the rain, and as we reached the Coconino the clouds closed in, and the Canyon disappeared. We couldn't see the rim, we couldn't see Indian Gardens, only the trail, cliff, and the first few hundred feet of the dropoff a foot beyond the edge of the trail. Shortly after leaving the resthouse we crossed a recent rockfall; the trail had been cleared but it looks like the rockfall buried it completely when it came down. At this point the snow began for real, and the wind strengthened as we climbed. With a little less than a mile to go we reached a short tunnel, which didn't provide much protection. We caught up with some dayhikers who had turned around, and we headed up the rest of the way together, cold, wet, and tired. The trail was beginning to get slippery and icy. The rim didn't come into view until we reached another tunnel, and had to give way for a mule train. The mules churned the trail into mush, but their droppings improved the footing. At last, Kolb's studio came into view, we rounded the last switchback, and reached the rim in swirling snow. We stumbled a few hundred yards into the lobby of Bright Angel Lodge, standing there covered in snow, in a hypothermic daze, while hotel guests gawked. The mediocre, overpriced meal in the restaurant was a godsend.

We barely made it back to our car, at Grandview Point, and I would like to thank the taxi driver from Fred Harvey who made a difficult 15-mile drive through intensifying wind and snow, and waited until we got our car safely out. I'd also like to thank Daniel at the Bright Angel lodge for spotting us $3 when we came up a couple bucks short for cab fare. It turns out that they got 15 inches of snow, and the roads closed a couple hours after we left. The drive back to Williams, a 55-mile trip, took nearly three hours, with blowing and drifting snow most of the way. After we left, I noted that the Grand Canyon had the nation's low temperature on Monday, with -4 degrees.

In general, we had a wonderful time, but the hiking was considerably harder than we expected (and we were both expecting it to be difficult). The descent on the snowy Grandview was easily the worst, and the last day was really too long, particularly with the snow at the end. The hike along the Tonto was beautiful, and except for the east side of Grapevine Canyon not at all difficult. We found flowing water in all the side canyons except for Cremation, and even there found a few pools. I would not want to do this hike in June, when the flowers would be gone, the water would be nearly gone, and it would be over 100 degrees every day.

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