Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Down the Canyon

With spring just around the corner and our imminent move to one of the most beautiful areas in the country just a few weeks away, I thought I'd post about our short adventure into another beautiful area of the country that occurred this past May: the Grand Canyon. Plus, this blog needs some pictures, and I got lots of decent shots of the Canyon while hiking from rim to river.

It was an experience. Six of us rented a van in Vegas and drove to the South Rim, knowing full well our backcountry permit had been denied in February because the corridor trails (South Kaibab and Bright Angel--the most maintained trails in the whole park) into the canyon are so popular. But we figured we'd get on the in-person waiting list and hope for the best. If we weren't successful, we'd just explore the upper regions of the canyon with several day hikes.

We made it to the South Rim, gear and people smooshed into the van (I told the annoyingly skeptical rental counter guy we could do it--that naysayer), and it was cold at night. Snow was still on the ground. Some of us were freezing in our tents. I was pretty warm though.

The next morning, we got on the waiting list, and we received the last available permit to do the hike. Some of us were a bit freaked out; some of us were pumped. We'd be going almost a vertical mile down and then up; in actual walking distance, it would be about seven miles down and around nine miles up. Not all in one day. Hike down, camp near Colorado River. Wake up next day, and hike out.

Next morning, we had to catch a 5:30 a.m. shuttle to get to the South Kaibab trailhead. Backpacks were loaded with clothes, quick-energy, high-protein foods, and various camping supplies. I had almost two liters of water clipped on to my pack. It was a chilly morning on the rim. But that would change.

The South Kaibab has some spectacular views. There ain't much in the way of trees or shrubs to impede your vision, which, as we would find out, makes for a warm sun beating down on you later in the day. But it was amazing to see the river get closer as we trekked onward.

We had several encounters with the NPS resupply mules and their rented bretheren that carry the non-hikers down to the bottom and back up. Give the mules room! Stay close to the inside of the trail!

The downward hike is more vigorous than one might think. It takes a toll on the legs always going down, down, down. And down (the South Kaibab is pretty consistent across the length of the trail when it comes to elevation change). And we shed layers as we went.

After the mainly desert/steppe environment of the South Kaibab, the bottom is like an oasis. The dammed-up Colorado is wide, tranquil, and beautiful. Bright Angel Creek, which roars down from the North side of the Canyon into the Colorado, makes you want to jump right in and cool off. Our rugged campsite was about 10 feet from the creek, and we enjoyed the sound of the rushing waters and the beautiful riparian flora.

Phantom Ranch is up the North Kaibab trail a piece, and after setting up camp, we headed that way. They have a small general store there (best lemonade and Snickers I've ever had), a kitchen (you must reserve a meal--and it's pricey), and park ranger workshops, as well as some cabins/rooms for those who don't like to camp. People who work in this remote village, live there. The rangers who work there live there for something like seven days at a time, then they get something like six days off, where they must hike up the canyon in some form or another, whether it's the backcountry or the rim. This consistent ascent and descent keeps them fit in case they have to run up the trails to help an injured hiker. You should see their calves.

So we took in a couple great ranger talks and then fell asleep early. We woke up early and hiked up the Bright Angel Trail. The Bright Angel is much different than the South Kaibab. There were several streams flowing across this trail in May, which is a welcome sight because you go through so much water during the heat of the day. I still was only carrying my nearly two liters of water, but because of all the flowing water (and my water filter), I wasn't really concerned about not having enough. Anyway, the Bright Angel is a much more lush experience than the Kaibab, but the tradeoff was that there were less grand views (but still lots of good ones).

So, the trail seemed easy at first (despite it being a much hotter day). We blew through the first half of it in no time, which made us a bit cocky about the ascent. But by the time we hit the Three Mile Rest area (that's three miles from the rim) we experienced a shift in the terrain. Those last three miles, and especially the last 1.5 miles, are a near constant climb. Frequent rest and food breaks were the norm.

But we made it back to the rim after several hours (I can't remember the specific time now). (And, just so we're clear, there were lots of people doing this hike. People of all ages and sizes. It just takes a little mental toughness and some sound preparedness.) We ate a large, warm, delicious meal at the surprisingly good Grand Canyon cafeteria, and then we took off for out-of-the-way places in Arizona.

The night ended in a cheap, rundown, dirty (did I say cheap?) hotel in Kingman, Arizona, where we treated ourselves to a sink full of beer on ice, Taco Bell, and The Flight of the Conchords.

One to remember.

(Note: Nothing I could do about the inconsistent formatting in this post. Blogger wasn't letting me put pictures where I wanted, so I did the best I could.)

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