South Kaibab Trail, Phantom Ranch, Bright Angel Trail and Indian Gardens
April 1 - 5, 1998
South Kaibab Trail, Phantom Ranch, Bright Angel Trail and Indian Gardens
I'll start out this adventure by stating that I am 48 years old. I have had a physically active life up until about 10 years ago, when arthritis in my back started to make life miserable. I gave up competitive equestrian sports and seemed to find way too much comfort in an over stuffed leather chair with great lumbar support in front of the television. A couple of years ago, my doctor informed me that my blood pressure was getting "up there" and she would have to put me on medication to control it if I didn't launch into a fitness program. Not one to take pills, I signed up with a weight trainer at the gym and proceeded to work my way back to, and probably well beyond any level of fitness I had had in my life.
After a year and a half, I felt that my expendable money started running thin and I gave up the trainer, but not the gym membership. I kept telling myself that I was gonna make a "come back" someday soon. 6 months went by, and when my brother and sister-in-law asked if I wanted to hike the Grand Canyon with them on April 1st for 5 days, after chuckling at the apropos date, I jumped at the chance.
Then it dawned on me. Just what had I done to myself? I wasn't as fit as I was last year. But wait, it was December, plenty of time to get back in shape. But I was in Portland Oregon, rain city. Besides that, any place with any kind of elevation to hike up and down for conditioning was under snow. Hmm... back to the gym. Set the treadmill at 15 degree grade. Lift weights..upper body, legs, do my cardio. Yeah, that ought to do it.
Thanks to that devil child El Nino, most of Oregon's rain was sent to California, I was able to get out on the muddy trails near my home and walk up a few hills a few times a week, but the key word there is HILLS. A far cry from what I would face on April 1st.
I surfed the web for information on the Grand Canyon and that is where I found Bob Ribokas' great web site. I read the trip reports and looked at the pictures. Oh my, it looked BIG!
I started assessing my equipment. Things had changed ALOT since my last backpacking adventures in the 70's. Lighter equipment was the main thing. My old stuff would not be suitable. Not being sure if backpacking was going to be my new hobby, I elected to rent the internal frame backpack and lightweight tent that I would need from REI in Phoenix. Next was hiking boots. I had been told and had read enough from the stories and tips on the Internet that this was a crucial piece of equipment. The boots MUST FIT or misery could ensue. I took several trips to different stores before making my final decision on a pair of Italian made boots that felt just right. Amazingly, my feet never felt tired or sore during the entire hike in these boots. Careful selection and trying on a variety of boots really paid off.
Sure enough, as time is wont to do, it passed. Soon it was time to drive to Phoenix where my brother and his family live. I dropped my dogs off at a friend's in San Diego. I figured they would have a better time than I on 4 acres with a "dog nut" for a baby sitter. Maybe I should stay.....
Naw, get in the car and get over there. And so I did.
I had arrived early for birthday festivities, and had several days to wait before we left. At that time, storms were dumping plenty of snow around Flagstaff and the Canyon. The rim was showing temps in the 20's and even Phantom ranch was in the 40's. Once again, I was given pause...just what have I gotten myself into?
We started getting nervous about the weather, checking the temps on the Internet daily. Would we be able to go at all?
My brother had asked his long time friend and previous canyon companion Bob Best to come with us. El's wife Denora had made a previous trip as well. It was to be the first trip for my nephews Ryan 15, and Tony 12 . A trip to REI for warm things to wear and crampons was our next move, as we saw that the weather was finally starting to break and we were actually going to be able to go after all.
On March 31st, we packed up and headed north to spend the night at the family cabin up in Strawberry, a couple of hours north of Phoenix and approx. 2 hrs south of Flagstaff. We spent a short night and got up VERY early to make the rest of the drive north in order to have an early start. We were in the snow zone now, the cabin was in snow at 5,000' elev. and the entire trip up through Flagstaff at 7,000' and to the Canyon rim was in snow, but the roads were clear. It was a beautiful drive with snow covered meadows and forests along the way.
South Kaibab Trailhead
When we got to the Bright Angel Lodge, we found that it was in the 20's for temp all right, the remaining snow had that windblown freeze-dried look. We assembled our gear at a shuttle stop shelter and waited in the cold, we would have to take a shuttle to the South Kaibab trailhead. We shared a shuttle with a large group planning on walking half way down and back to study the geology of the place. We felt like sardines in that shuttle, how would the trail be with all of these people? At the trail head we put on our packs, adjusted the load, put on our crampons, got our hiking sticks and down we went. As we fit our crampons, the geology crowd passed by and took to the trail first. The trail immediately launched into a series of steep switchbacks and was slick with packed snow and ice with some mighty fine drop-offs. Several of the geology group looked underdressed and under prepared. One woman who must have been in her 70's had been left to her own devices to get down that slippery trail. I couldn't believe it! Luckily my brother noticed as he passed her, that if she took the rubber end off of her hiking stick, she would have a metal poker to dig into the snow for traction. She was much appreciative, and I hope she made it!
The trail was slippery, even with crampons, and I was unaccustomed to the weight of the pack. Being one who does NOT like to slip and slide downhill, I found myself tending to be too careful and slowing down so much that my defensive action often made the going worse. Sometimes I would want to turn and step down some steeper areas sideways, but the weight of the pack threatened to pull me over to the side. I just had to relax and walk facing straight on the trail. Eventually I got the hang of the crampons and started to trust them more. We kept them on in the mud zone for awhile as well. There was a bit of wind and it was blowing a bit of dry snow at us. The clouds were solid gray across the sky. We kept our warm clothes on, and rain gear on top of that for several hours.
The snow and mud had really slowed us up. But we had gotten an early start and were in no hurry, so it was all okay. We weren't out to set any records. After about 5 hours, several of us were starting to show some fatigue. Our muscles in our legs were so tired of that constant braking. I swear I wore through a few sets of brake pads that day. At one point, on one of our rest breaks, I took off my pack and I still could not take more than little tiny steps. I think my brain was so used to braking that when it felt the freedom in my body without the weight of the pack, it still wanted to hold me back.
For several miles down the trail, I had been struck by how beautiful all of the rocks were. Everything was so green. I have a long tradition of collecting rocks on my travels and it was frustrating to pass so many by. But realizing that I would have to pack them back up out of the Canyon kept those rocks where they belonged....along the trail. As I walked along the trail, I noticed that even the mule dung was a brilliant green. Whoa, I have had horses for years, and never have they produced anything like this! As I walked on in my green reverie, I noticed a man hiking up the trail in shorts and saw that even his legs were...well, GREEN. I looked at my hands......green. Hey, what is this? A green tint to the light? Must be.
About the time we hit the last set of switchbacks down to the black bridge, our quadriceps, knees and calves were done for. Other muscle groups were called upon to take over some of the work. But strangely enough, once I got to the bridge and knew that Phantom Ranch campground wasn't far, a new energy emerged, (something about finally being on LEVEL GROUND!) and I found myself wasting no time covering the last half mile to get there.
Bob and Ryan had gone on ahead of us, and had found a good campsite. As we approached, they showed up to take our packs. We had made it! But just the same, Ryan and I found ourselves looking back up at the top and thinking...."ohhh my, now I have to get back up there somehow." *gulp*
It rained that night, but we had the rain sheets on the three tents so all was well, and by morning it was dry, and the sun was starting to tickle the tops of the rocks above us. Rolling out of that tent was another matter. If leg muscles could whine, the sound would have out shouted the loud creek just the other side of the trail that ran past our camp. Talk about stiff! Everyone had a tale to tell about their quads, calves or knees, so I was not alone. I had decided a day in advance to start premedicating myself with Advil, and I shudder to think how I would have felt if I hadn't. After a bit of breakfast, El, Bob, Ryan and I hiked 1.5 miles up the Clear Creek trail to get a view of Phantom Ranch and the bridges over the Colorado river. It was a nice little muscle stretcher and it felt okay to go uphill for a change. Unfortunately...what goes UP must come DOWN, but I had decided to worry about that later. I was here and no sore muscles were going to keep me from experiencing everything I could.
It was April 2, and the desert is in bloom this time of year. I marveled at all of the plants, flowers, and cacti with butterflies flitting here and there all along the trail. I took several pictures of plant and rock groupings.
We rested at the stone bench, consumed a bit of trail mix and Gatorade and took some photos of the Canyon from this great viewpoint. We then headed a bit farther up the trail for more views before deciding to turn back. Coming back down, my leg muscles were not happy at first, but in no time at all, they started to feel quite good. It had been a good idea to give them a bit of a stretcher.
That evening we all went to the Phantom Lodge for some beers, hot chocolate for the boys and some games of Uno for all. The mule riders were in there as well, making for a full house, and everyone was having a good time at the tables in the cozy dining room. It seemed odd to see women with hairdos and makeup on. How quickly ones' frame of reference can change.
We were pretty happy, as the weather had improved and we looked forward to the hike half way out the next morning, destination Indian Gardens for two nights.
Bright Angel Trail - Indian Gardens
The next morning I filled my water-pouch with 73oz of water and powdered Gatorade. This pouch was a great idea to bring. It is a plastic bladder that fits in an insulated pouch designed for bicyclists to wear on their backs, has a hose that can be within easy reach to take a drink while walking. I attached mine to the side of my backpack. The first day I had quickly learned not to adjust it very high on my pack, or the water pressure was enough to give your face a good rinsing! After some hot chocolate and some breakfast bars, we packed up and headed up the Bright Angel trail. The map said Indian Gardens, 5.1 miles. Bright Angel is a longer trail at 9.3 miles to the rim, in comparison to S. Kaibab's posted 7.3 miles, but the Angel is kinder by not being as steep the first half. That is why it is the favored route out of the Canyon.
We had a very pleasant hike, once we got away from the river and the soft sand in parts of the trail, we found ourselves in a sort of side canyon that had a nice stream running along it in several places, cottonwoods and lots of shade. We ran low on water, and pumped a few quarts through our water filter from the stream beside the trail. It was some tasty water. Just a few spots where we felt we had a short grunt up some switchbacks and the rest was more gradual. We found Indian Gardens to be quite busy with day hikers and backpackers alike converging for the water and restrooms. There are some benches where some of the hikers had decided to nap. Our campground had just enough room for 3 tents and had a roof over the picnic table with a faucet sporting running water nearby. Such luxury! We had found an oasis of cottonwoods and beautiful canyon walls. The mule deer here think nothing of walking close to your camp for their evening and morning grazing. The grass around the campgrounds was a real draw for them. Throughout this trip, we made sure to keep our food stuffs and garbage in the metal boxes that are provided at all of the campgrounds, and our packs hanging up to keep those pesky little canyon squirrels out of them. They are seasoned professionals at their line of work, don't miss a thing and they are everywhere.
At night, the moon shone so brightly that we didn't need flashlights to walk along the trail to the rest rooms or out to Plateau Point. We could see the canyon walls quite clearly as long as the moon was up. Above us, at the rim, we could see the lights of the Bright Angel Lodge. Very small and wayyy up there. A reminder that our journey was sadly near an end and yet , not over yet, until we made it up the steepest part of the remaining 4.5 mile trail. For us, that was a couple of days away, so we kicked back and enjoyed the scene. It was a bit disconcerting to hear jets flying over the Canyon though. Made it seem much less like a wild natural place that we had just spent a day hiking down to get to!
The next day Denora was kind enough to wash our hair in the faucet at the stone water facility. That was a great refresher. Later, the boys stayed in their tents and napped while the rest of us walked the level mile and a half out to the Plateau Point where one is rewarded with some super canyon views. All along the plateau, purple cacti grow in patches in amongst some sage brush type bushes. I had never seen purple cacti before. We could see where some cactus had been planted to border the trail.
Later that evening I decided to walk back out with El and Bob for some sunset viewing. It was great watching the shadows deepen on the canyon walls changing the look of the Canyon seeming to emphasize its depth. At one point I saw a Raven cruising at our level out over the Canyon, and I remarked that I was tired of seeing these scavenger birds in the Canyon now, I wanted to see some birds of prey. At that point, the Raven did a 180 roll to the left and back to center, a 180 roll to the right, back to center, a 360 roll and flew on as if to say, "Just a scavenger eh? Well watch THIS!" It was so well timed that it had us taking pause to look at each other with our jaws slightly dropped. We had to laugh. Okay, okay, scavengers are cool too!
After the sunset, the guys wanted to stay out longer, so I started back along the trail on my own. It soon grew dark, which was fine, the moon was bright and I had a flashlight if I needed it, but after almost a mile, my thoughts turned to what might be "out there". Just what kind of wild creatures might be watching me at this time and were they friendly? I felt that something was watching me, so I picked up my pace, berating myself for thinking such thoughts. As I took a turn in the trail along a short hillside, for some reason I stopped and listened. I heard the sound of chewing. As my eyes grew accustomed to the darker shadows from the moon, I realized that I had come upon a herd of deer, the closest one not 10 feet off the trail. I greeted them with a soft "Hello" and "Aren't you all very handsome." I went on my way, and they went back to munching the new spring grass. And so ended our full day at Indian Gardens.
Bright Angel to the Rim
We woke up to a sunny morning once again. I looked up at the rim, finding it hard to believe that in a matter of hours I would be up there looking down on where I was standing now. So far the boys had taken all of the physical efforts in stride. Backpacking seemed to agree with them, I was confident that they would make it all the way with no problems. Not so confident in myself, as the two trips out to the point and back had taken the starch out of my legs. I could tell as I headed up the trail with my pack on my back, that I had no "umph", my thrusters were on 4 cylinders. Oops. So I took it slowly. Denora has had some knee surgery removing her cruciate ligament and actually needs to have her knee rebuilt. She was wearing a knee brace to stabilize the knee, and it was sore. So she was going about the same pace as I was. Bob and Ryan, always our point men, went to the front with El not far behind. Bob had stressed early on, that everyone needs to go their own pace. I found this to be absolutely true. Very hard for one to speed up beyond their stride and maintain it, and just as hard to slow down and be kept below your natural pace. So we didn't worry as long as we could catch glimpses of each other on the trail, we were all doing fine. One step at a time. We would meet up at each rest break, compare notes and have help for any adjustments we might have needed.
One of the mule guides informed us that a Bighorn sheep had been spotted farther up the trail, so we eagerly looked forward to finding him. Sure enough, about a mile farther on, up on a rock above the trail he lay sunning himself seemingly without a care in the world. I stopped to fish out my long zoom lens and put it on my camera. The only time that lens was used. All of my photos were taken with a 50-80 zoom lens.
The trail was beautiful and we had many viewpoints to gauge our progress by. The Plateau Point Trail was visible most all of the way up, and it was getting smaller and smaller. I could look down at the point and remember that once I stood there and looked way up here.
As many people before me have commented, the farther down you go on the trail, the fewer people you run into. As you go up the trail, the more people you will have to contend with. Unfortunately for tired backpackers trying to keep their pace going, the trail becomes clogged with what I call the Disneyland Tourists. They don't seem to have much sensibility about getting out of your way, they are often wearing shoes totally unsuited to what they are doing. We saw two East Indian women wearing Saris and uncertainly following a young male relative down the trail through the mud and snow.
We shook our heads and trudged on. As Bob had said, he didn't care who got in his way, "this horse could smell the barn." Well, Bob can be a bit of a curmudgeon. :-)
About halfway up, my energy returned and I was able to finish the hike feeling strong. It was great to get to the top, I wanted a ribbon to break through, or at least some confetti. We went into the bar for a beer and some fries and I had a strong reaction to the close feel of the room. I had just spent 5 days out in unbelievable openness, and this was just too confining, claustrophobic, actually. I had to talk myself out of running back out to the wide open spaces. I think this hiker just got hooked on The Canyon.
View of Indian Gardens campground in the trees and rim from Plateau point trail