STATE 12 - ARIZONA
03/27/2011 - 03/28/2011 65 °F
The Grand Canyon is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, one of the largest US National Parks, and one of the most awe-inspiring places in the country. It also gives Megan a chance to prove that she can make it out of a giant canyon without the help of a mule. We're off to the Grand Canyon State, Arizona!
The drive out to the Grand Canyon seemed to drag on forever, not because of the distance (it was only about 2 hours), but because of the anticipation and excitement. There was a little bit of nervousness mixed in too. It has been nearly a year since we hiked through the Colca Canyon in Peru. Megan had been training like crazy, whereas I had not made any changes to my normal workout routines. The view on the road was pleasant enough, we were out in the middle of nowhere. Rarely did we pass another car, and even more rarely passed an intersection or building of any kind.
A portion of the drive took us through the Coconino National Forest. However, this was the most pathetic "forest" I had ever seen. Most of the trees struggled to get over six feet tall, and they were not very thick. I'm sure there is some reason this area is protected by the US Forestry Service instead of the National Park Service, but it seems like "forest" was a pretty generous term to describe the area. Despite the small trees, the landscape was pretty, especially with Arizona's highest peak off in the distance.
We finally reached the park entrance, and instead of driving directly to the trails, we decided to drive by some lookout points and get a first view of the canyon. Not long after entering the park, we turned a slight bend in the road and there it was. The canyon was HUMONGOUS! I knew the canyon was a mile deep, but I was unprepared for how wide it was across.
We took in the sight of the canyon for a couple minutes, and then I tried to convince Megan to climb over the wall to stand in front of the canyon for a picture. She was not happy about the whole situation, especially as I tried to encourage her to stand closer to the edge. It was a little freaky being that close to a sheer drop, especially since the wind was whipping around us.
We drove a little further down the rim to see some other viewpoints, including a quick hike out to Grand View Point. It was after noon now, and we still had to hike down to the canyon floor before night settled in. We drove by the visitor's center to fill up our water bottles and change into our hiking gear. We parked the car at the top of the Bright Angel Trail and boarded a shuttle to take us over to the South Kaibab Trail. We would be hiking out of the canyon on the Bright Angel Trail, even though it is a little longer, it has a place to refill water on the trail. The South Kaibab trail, our intended path down, covers more varied lookout points, so theoretically it would be a nicer view on the descent.
The shuttle arrived at the trail head, and we were finally ready to start our Grand Canyon Hike!
The top of the South Kaibab Trail (and the rest of the rim of the canyon) was covered by patches of snow and ice. It was chilly, especially when the wind came blowing up the canyon wall. I was surprised at the number of people hiking into the canyon, especially wearing blue jeans and tennis shoes. The trail was slippery, the snow had melted to form ice and semi-frozen mud on the steep trails. The people coming up the trail were breathless, and some looked like they had just gone through pure hell. I realized that would be me with 24 hours. Here's a view looking down during the first portion of the hike.
Here is a picture showing how steep the wall of the canyon is, it almost drops straight down. You can also see the ice and snow clinging the walls of the canyon.
It didn't take long to get the first lookout. The trail came to a point that allowed a 270° view of the canyon. We took off our packs and crawled out between two boulders hanging over the canyon. You can't really see it in the picture, but I'm straddling a 2 foot gap in the rocks that goes down a couple hundred feet.
In the picture above, you can see the next lookout point on the ridge just to the right of me. This was the destination of most of the people in the blue jeans and tennis shoes. It was about an hour into the hike down, and it offered the first real resting spot. A little plateau formed a flat area with a great view into the canyon. Lots of people were here soaking in the warm sun, and some were even lounging around shirtless (although I think this was more so their shirts could dry off instead of due to the warm weather). Megan and decided to scramble over the rocks of the thin ridgeline to get the best view.
Some birds and squirrels could be seen here, apparently realizing this was the best area to grab the bits of food dropped by the resting hikers. I was anxious to leave the small crowd of people and get back on the trail. Megan was ready to continue only after a picture with a tree that she thought "looked really cool".
For the next hour or so, we moved steadily down the trail occasionally stopping for a drink or to take in the view. The canyon seemed to change color as the sun kept moving further down the horizon. I told Megan to walk ahead so I could take here picture with a wide shot of the canyon in the background.
I took the picture, then began making my way down the trail after her. Just about then, I heard a Megan-pitched squeal come echoing up from below, something like "EEEEEEEIIIIIIIIKKKKKK!". I hustled down the trail thinking that she was standing face to face with a mountain lion or something worse. As I turned the corner, I see her crouched down with her camera in her hand. She had found a lizard.
It wasn't that she was scared of the lizard, she was excited that she could take the picture of one and show it to the six year-old she nannied. Thankfully the lizard scurried away so that we could continue our hike down the trail.
Here are some more views from the middle portion of the hike.
It was starting to get later into the evening, and we still had a couple more miles until we reached the canyon floor. Just as I was wondering if we would make it to camp before the sun went over the wall of the canyon, I saw three guys come walking up the trail. They were easily 3 hours from the top at a quick pace, weren't carrying any water, and were all sunburned. They barely acknowledged us as they passed, and I think they realized the difficult hike out in front of them, especially as night was falling.
Until this point, we couldn't really see the Colorado River. The sounds of the rushing water had been echoing up off the canyon walls. We finally reach a ridge that presented us with a view of the river and the bottom of the canyon. Some buildings were visible, presumably the ranch at the bottom of the canyon.
We reached one last resting spot that offered an overlook of the canyon. We stopped to refuel on some crackers and watch the sun sink lower. The air was much warmer down here as compared to the rim of the canyon.
Instead of hugging the canyon wall, the trail began weaving through boulders and rock formations near the canyon floor. The trail was still steep at times, but we no longer followed a lot of zig-zags. We were definitely getting closer to the end of walk downwards.
We eventually reached the Colorado River. Up close you could see how fast the water was moving through the canyon. This was not a lazy river winding through the canyon, but a powerful, gushing river that had carved tons and tons of rock to form the canyon over the last 17 million years.
Crossing the river, we passed by the ruins of a village from the Indians that used to live in the canyon. You can see the square rooms lined up next to one another and the circular, sunken common space that was used for religious purposes.
After walking one final, flat mile, we reached Phantom Ranch lodge. Phantom Ranch has a common space for serving meals and four separate bunks (2 for males, 2 for females) with 10 beds in each. I was surprised that the ranch actually had flushing toilets and running water for a fresh shower. Megan and I had passed on the meals and chose to hike our own food to the bottom of the canyon, $40 a piece was a little too pricey for the convenience of hot food.
After a refreshing shower and a picnic dinner, we walked down to the banks of the Little Colorado. Phantom Ranch lies off the Little Colorado river, which runs into the Colorado river near where we crossed the steel bridge. The water was crystal clear, and some people were soaking their feet after the long hike. We walked further down stream towards the ranger house to catch the nightly presentation, which that night it was about the California Condors. It was surprisingly an excellent presentation, and really the only thing to do to pass the time since it was pitch black in the camp. Megan and I wandered back towards the bunk, pausing to lay down on the ground and stare at the stars. One of my life goals is to see the Milky Way (living in Raleigh doesn't provide clear enough nights), but it was the wrong time of year to see the it. However, there were more stars than I had ever seen (even in the middle of the Australian Outback).
We decided to get to bed early (although we were the last ones each to make it to our bunks). I slept like a baby on the cheap mattress. At 5am the next morning, someone came by to bang on the door to wake up those who had paid for a hot breakfast. I got up, put on my boots, and waited for Megan outside. The sun still wasn't up, but I was eager to get on the trail. Megan came down to the picnic table and began to gingerly eat some crackers. I told her she needed to eat a heartier meal to have enough for the energy out, but she resisted defiantly saying she wasn't hungry. Realizing I was fighting a losing battle, we started off from the camp.
We made it back to the bridge, and the rushing water providing the only sound early in the morning. The sun just started coming up over the ridge of the canyon.
We had picked to hike up the Bright Angel Trail because it was longer, and therefore theoretically less steep, but I realized that wasn't quite the case. The trail winded along the Colorado River and through a shallow canyon for several miles. Streams cut across the trail at several points, providing tricky maneuvering for Megan.
A mule deer ran across the trail, directly in front of us, which startled me because I hadn't expected to see something so big on the canyon floor. The ranger had warned that mountain lions are in the area, but still I didn't seriously consider that a large animal could survive in the bottom of the canyon.
After about an hour into our hike, a loud thumping sound could be heard coming up the trail behind us. A mule train was making its way up the trail at a vigorous pace. We scrambled off the trail just as the mules ran past. They had large bags on either side of them that could easily knock you off the trail. They were already soaked with sweat in the cool morning, obviously the driver was eager to get them out of the canyon before the trails got too busy.
We took a break, and again I encouraged Megan to eat the rest of her breakfast. She was not happy at my nagging, and then glared at me like a little kid who has been told to eat her vegetables. She then got up, and started away at a pace matching the mule train.
The gently sloping trail suddenly turned steep, and the real work began. We paused occasionally to take in the view, but we were both more eager to make it out of the canyon.
The trail zig-zagged up the same cliff face, allowing us to measure how high were going since the view staying pretty much the same for the steepest part of the trail. Here is pretty much the last 3 hours of the trail.
Once we got to the last mile, the trail got thicker with people doing a quick hike from rim. The air was much cooler, and the trail got muddy and icy. I was glad I had boots on, and felt sorry for those wearing nice tennis shoes through the slippery, goopy mud. At one point, I started to slide down the ice to the edge of a cliff, but thankfully I regained traction. After seeing that, Megan was a lot more cautious climbing up the icy path.
We finally reached the top, gave each other a quick hug, and then found our way to the car. We had hiked 18 miles through the canyon, 1 mile vertically down, and 1 mile back up. It had taken 6 hours to hike out of the canyon, but we still had 5 hours of driving to do that afternoon. Our next stop is Colorado and the high desert!