Hiking the Grand Canyon

When is it a good time to visit The Grand Canyon? Whenever you get the chance to! It’s a great experience no matter the time of the year as long as you make the effort to go down the canyon.

Images of The Grand Canyon in my mind were that of a touristy, over-hyped destination laced with gift shops and cafes. I have visited other canyons nearby in Arizona and did not think that the Grand Canyon would be any different except much larger. So, in all these years I had never made special effort to go visit this place. A few months ago a couple of colleagues at work did all the hard work in obtaining a permit to camp at the bottom of The Grand Canyon at the Bright Angel Campground and invited me to come along. Since I had nothing planned around that time I readily agreed. I quickly booked my flight tickets to Las Vegas and forgot all about it for around five months.

Soon it was just a week to the trip and I was scrambling to prepare for the trip. I had done next to no research on this strenuous hike. All I knew was that it would be very hot, August being one of the hottest months at The Grand Canyon, and that I would have to carry all the supplies I would need for three days. Also some of the original six who planned to go a few had dropped out. We scrambled and found people who were enthusiastic enough to join on a short notice. There was no time to coordinate and plan so almost all of us, most who had never met each other or hiked at The Grand Canyon before, prepped independently and met for the first time at the Las Vegas airport on a Thursday evening with backpacks weighing near 40 pounds.

We picked up a couple of rental cars, propane gas for cooking at the camp and started on our four and half hour drive to the southern rim of The Grand Canyon National Park. We reached the park at around midnight and checked into the Maswik Lodge, a rather expensive lodge considering we were planning to stay there for just four hours.

Our plan was to hike down the South Kaibab trail to the Bright Angel Campground stay there for two nights and hike back up to the rim via the Bright Angel Trail. From the little bit of reading that I had done the fierceness of the summer sun at the grand canyon and its ability to crash and burn even a well prepared hiker was foremost on my mind. The park website suggests not hiking between 10am and 4pm to avoid the searing sun and so we decided to start our hike at 5am.

However our lack of preparation; we didn’t know which exact shuttle to take, our backpacks were not fully prepped, we didn’t have water, hadn’t figured out our breakfast etc resulted us in getting to the trail head at 7am well past daybreak.

We had missed the fabled sunrise at the rim and didn’t hang around to take in the vastness of the canyon from the rim as we still had a couple of hours before the sun would start its torment and wanted to make the most of it. We made some final adjustments to the backpacks amidst strong mule dung odor and headed down the trail. We almost immediately got to switchbacks which was going to be the theme for the rest of the trail length.

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I must admit that I was expecting the views and vast vistas to blow my mind as most online readings had suggested happens on seeing the The Grand Canyon for the first time. But that didn’t happen. I am not sure why. Maybe it’s because I had already seen so many photos and videos of the place or maybe because things appeared much closer than they actually were that I could not fathom its vastness.

We steadily made our way down the South Kaibab Trail switchbacks stopping every now and then for photo ops and adjusting our backpacks for comfort.

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This is a 7 mile hike down the canyon with almost 5000 feet of elevation change. There is absolutely no water available on the trail (except at the trailhead during certain months) and the park rangers strongly urge people to carry at least 4 liters of water per person. I realized its importance as we descended. The trail just gets hotter and hotter. The shade vanishes once the sun rises above the canyon walls and suddenly there is no place to hide and the true nature of desert heat raises its hood waiting to pounce on any weak or ill prepared hiker.

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Despite the heat and the heavy backpacks we were making decent pace of about 1.5 miles an hour. Some folks deep in discussion, with lighter backpacks and a gait that suggested that they have hiked here many times, whizzed past us. The reddish yellow striated canyon walls next to me, above me, below me and miles ahead of me across the canyon were covered in a thin sheet of green brush giving the canyon a cooler look than it was.

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The dusty red trails lined with large rocks to mark the trail boundary and evenly spaced with wooden logs hammered in place with large steel spikes juxtaposed against a cloudless blue sky sometimes made me forget the heat.

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I regularly took sips of water from my hydration pack even though I wasn’t thirsty and we ate at every stop.

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We stopped every hour or so at the only shaded spot for a few miles. Sometimes at a bend in the trail with the sun behind the canyon walls or sometimes at the shadow of a restroom right next to the septic pit. It didn’t matter as long as we could escape the heat which was hovering around 105F.

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Did I mention that it was switchbacks all the way?

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We also came across a pack of mules carrying people back up to the rim from Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon. Mule service is popular at the Grand Canyon. For around $100 one can book a ride on a mule up or down the canyon. They will even carry your luggage for you. Quite a nice way to explore the canyon if you don’t enjoy hiking.

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As we hiked past the Tip Off point we got our first glimpse of the architect of The Grand Canyon, the mighty Colorado!

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Soon we got close enough to see and hear the Colorado almost all the time. We could now see the Black and Silver bridges across the Colorado. The Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch area are hidden in the inner canyons lined with trees.

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In the last couple of miles the Colorado, the calm brown stream that it appeared to look like revealed itself as the raging muddy chiseler that it is.

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We stopped for a bit in the shade at the tunnel leading to the Black bridge to listen to what the noisy Colorado had to say while taking a well earned break from the heat.

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We crossed the Black bridge and made our way to the Bright Angel Campground and took our time to find the shadiest camp site that we could find and setup camp.

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The shade was short lived as the sun made its way across the sky forcing us to find different ways to keep cool. We soon took to the Bright Angel Creek which provided much needed respite from the heat and the biting horse flies and contemplated heading back the very next day to escape this vile concoction of heat, flies and red ants that plagued the campground.

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If you for a moment forget about the these minor inconveniences, which they tend to become once you spend some time and settle down, the beauty of the Bright Angel Campground dawns upon you. The campsites are neatly lined in two columns on the banks of the Bright Angel Creek. There is access to drinking water across the sites which is supplied via a pipeline which snakes down all the 5000 feet from the rim down to the canyon along the Bright Angel Trail.

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The Bright Angel Creek is quite cool contrasting the hot canyon walls. It’s barely 20 feet in width strewn with smoothened out rocks of varying sizes and the swift flowing water not more than 2 feet at its deepest parts. There are conveniently placed rocks along the creek that make perfect seats to sit on while you dunk your fiery feet. Some rocks were deliberately positioned to dam the water and create small pools to lounge in. The sloping grassy banks of the creek were lined by large trees which provided shade while you sat in the creek. These cottonwood trees were too evenly spaced to be wild. In fact, I later found out, they aren’t native to the canyon and were planted by early American explorers. As I looked beyond the canopy of these trees I could see the canyon walls towering above us. They looked really far and the distance we had covered since morning put it in perspective.

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A much needed soak later we headed to the Phantom Ranch Canteen which has some snacks and accessories that hikers might have forgotten to bring along. They also provide breakfast, lunch and dinner although that has to be reserved much in advance. But sometimes you can get lucky and jump in on cancellations.

We weren’t aware that there were daily ranger talks held near the campground. The ranger spoke about the peoples who had lived in the grand canyon for thousands of years and some archaeological sites which were a short walk from where we were. I listened in rapture to stories of the Puebloans who were cliff dwellers and the various archaeological artifacts that have since been discovered that provide glimpses of their lives. This made this desert like pit we were in seem to come alive.

A second talk later in the evening covered the history of Phantom Ranch. The ranger spoke about John Wesley Powell the one armed explorer who was the first to raft down the length of the Grand Canyon in his famous 1869 geographic expedition. The ranger recounted some stories from the expedition. She also spoke about the time the Apollo astronauts came to Phantom Ranch to study rock formations and identifications to help them on their mission to the moon.

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I walked back to the camp dizzy from all the stories and feeling very spaced out and small in the grand scheme. The sun had set and the cloudless dark blue sky now sported a rather large looking full moon which had just risen above the canyon walls. It was so bright that I didn’t need a flashlight to make my way back. The moonlight cast giant shadows of the canyon wall on the opposite one. The part of the canyon walls lit up by the moon now looked grayish white as if they were from the moon itself.

The setting of the sun did lower the temperature but only to around 70F. It was still too hot due to the canyon walls still radiating the heat they absorbed during the day. We slept in our tents without rain flies and on top of our sleeping bags staring at the few stars that were bright enough to be seen.

Since we had decided that we would not hike out the next day we had different plans for what we would do the next day. There are three well defined hikes that can be done from Phantom Ranch or Bright Angel Campground.

One of us set out on an early morning 12 mile hike to the Ribbon Falls.

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Another did the 3-4 mile hike to the Phantom Overlook.

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The rest of us did the simple 1.5 mile long River loop that takes you across the Black Bridge then along the Colorado for a mile or so giving you a bird’s eye view of the whole Phantom Ranch area and finally back across the Silver Bridge.

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I spent some time lounging at the creek and the canteen until I chanced upon this amazing book ‘Corridors of Time: 1,700,000,000 Years of Earth at Grand Canyon‘ by Ron Redfern at the canteen. This book has an intro by Carl Sagan and is filled with amazing panoramic photos of the Grand Canyon. The author starts explaining the history of the Grand Canyon starting from the Big Bang to the present day. It was quite an experience reading about the creation of the canyon in context with continental drifts, tectonic forces, earth’s cooling and its geologic composition while sitting at its very bottom amidst rocks that were billions of years old. I recommend that book to anyone with a desire to understand how these geological marvels were formed.

We slept early that night as we didn’t want to repeat the delayed start from the day before. I was going to pack my tent up and sleep outside until I saw this little tarantula that made me crawl right back into my tent.

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We woke up, packed up and were on the Bright Angel Trail well before sunrise. We weren’t going to take any chances with the heat this time. I had also made it a point to eat almost all the food (sometimes forcefully) I had carried down with me. I wasn’t going to carry more than what I needed. I even reduced the amount of water I was carrying as the Bright Angel Trail has water at three places along the way.

While packing up I heard light scuffles from the campsite next to ours. I turned and shone the red light from my head lamp towards the noise. I saw around four pairs of shining eyes stare back at me. I could make out the faint outlines of really long bushy ringed tails. These were the very elusive Ring-Tailed Cats. These are small nocturnal animals of the raccoon family who are very shy. The ranger had spoken about them and I was quite excited to see them. One of us had hung their backpack on a pole in the other campsite and had not zipped it shut completely and these Ring-tails were helping themselves to the stash of energy bars! This was definitely not something that should have happened as we had kept almost every other bit of food in animal proof containers. Nevertheless it felt nice hearing them jostle and play in the dark while I packed.

We left the Bright Angel Campground around quarter to five and hiked in a single file along the Colorado for about an hour. The moon had already set and the sun had yet to rise. But there was still some lingering moonlight which shined off the canyons, the trail and the Colorado which kept on flowing as it has been for millions of years. It was quite an experience listening to the Colorado knowing that it’s digging deeper into the depths of geological time slowly and steadily no matter what we are up to in our lives. I used my headlamp for a bit but a few minutes later I decided to switch it off and hike in this faint moonlight. The Morning Star (Venus) shone brightly above the canyon walls. It was the brightest I had ever seen it.

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Soon the trail started to gain elevation and we were back onto switchbacks. But we were making good pace as we passed a few hikers who had started off before us. The Bright Angel Trail is around 9.5 miles long and climbs around 5000 feet to the Grand Canyon Rim. Most hikers use this trail on the way up and the South Kaibab Trail on the way down. This trail has the most access to water, shade and emergency phones.

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They weren’t kidding about the shade. Starting early meant that the sun didn’t rise until a good couple of hours into our hike. Even after the sun did rise we were almost always in the shadow of a big ridge that lasted until the last mile of the hike. There were some streams running down by the trail and I wet my hat and buff to keep me cool. The only time I felt hot was when the wind stopped blowing.

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An early morning hike means you get to hear the birds going about their business. I heard a lot of birds but never did see one. I saw some animals though. I saw some deer on the trail ahead of me. They stopped to look at me and then scampered across as I walked along.

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I even spotted a Kingsnake trying to warm itself up by the side of the trail.

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Five miles into the hike is the first water stop at Indian Gardens. The next water stops were at the Three-Mile Resthouse and the Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse. Each of us had our own pace for hiking and were pretty much hiking by ourselves. This worked out just fine for me as I hiked quietly working on observing my rhythm, heart rate, water consumption, pack weight, watching out for any niggles in my knees and watching other hikers on the trail. As time passed and I got closer to the rim the number of hikers kept increasing. These were the day hikers who had started out early from the Bright Angel Trailhead at the rim.

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The Bright Angel Trail is definitely prettier than the South Kaibab Trail. It’s greener, the canyons look bigger and wider, maybe because we are hiking up and always looking up. The switchbacks also looked prettier. The whole nine and half miles are pretty much laid out in switchbacks.

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The last few miles were quite intense in terms of maintaining my breath, temperature and momentum. It was as much a physical as it was a mental effort to haul that backpack while watching day hikers spring past me with huge smiles and wide eyes. I soon reached the rim around five and half hours since I set out at Phantom Ranch. I felt quite accomplished especially since I realized that I wasn’t entirely exhausted and walked around looking for people I knew while still carrying the backpack.

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I took a bus to the Grand Canyon Visitor Center where we had decided that we would all meet up. While on the bus I got talking with a couple of elderly ladies. They have been hiking buddies for decades and were on their way to hike a section of the Arizona Trail. The Arizona Trail is around 800 miles long right through the middle of Arizona stretching from the Mexican border to the Utah border. It has around 43 sections and these ladies had done around 26 of those over the last 6 years. A very interesting project indeed. A great way to get to know your state.

One of the ladies used to work on the board for the Grand Canyon Association and was very interested in my experience of the canyon. She seemed genuinely happy to know that I had a good time and strongly suggested that I do a river trip down the Colorado for a life changing experience.

At the Grand Canyon Visitor Center I grabbed a sandwich and waited for the rest to arrive. While I munched peacefully on my sandwich I was joined at the table by an elderly gentleman who was riding a BMW motorcycle. He was from Connecticut and was quite fun to talk to. He knew a lot about motorcycles and we exchanged few stories.

Suddenly I heard people running. It was raining. In fact it was hailing. What a drastic change in weather! It continued to rain for the next few hours. The cloud cover getting darker and darker. The huge raindrops came down with such force that they actually bounced a few inches off the ground. I had to see for myself how the canyon vista would have changed. I grabbed my rain jacket (I am amazed that I actually got to use it) and boarded a shuttle towards the South Kaibab Trailhead. Another friend came along too. He didn’t have a rain jacket but the gentleman from Connecticut insisted that he use his and mail it back to him in case he was gone by the time we got back. What a guy, eh?

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The pouring rain had caught many people off guard. The streets were soon filled with fast flowing streams diving over the rim into the canyons. I wondered how the people who were day hiking down the trails would fare. When I got to the trail head I could barely see a hundred feet or so into the canyon. The rim on the other side of the canyon was such a faint line that I could only notice later in a photograph. It was quite thrilling to watch the heavy clouds empty themselves into the canyon and feed the Colorado. This reminded me of passages from the book ‘Corridors of Time’ describing millions of years of thunderous precipitation which cooled the earth, formed rivers, seas and eroded the Earth’s crust.

Thunderstorm over the Grand Canyon

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We soon met up with the rest of the folks and quickly got on with our journey back to Las Vegas. And thus the trip to the Grand Canyon ended. I felt that I never really got a good look at the Grand Canyon. Even after three days of hiking in and out I was left thirsting for more. What I did get was a great glimpse of what the Grand Canyon had to offer given ample time. Not from the rims, the labeled vista points amidst thousands of other hurried gawkers and selfie takers but at its very heart along its walls that held great geological and archaeological treasures and along the Colorado which spoke of great adventure.

I have to go back!

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