The Grandest of Canyons
Phoenix, United States
I had never visited the Grand Canyon, and when I discovered that overnight permits below the rim were sold out for the entirety of September, October, and most of November, I quickly mounted what turned out to be a solo multi-day backpacking trip inside the great chasm.
After assembling the necessary gear over the course of several days, I departed Thursday evening (the 25th), driving up to the Grand Canyon National Park (about 4 hours north of Phoenix). The general itinerary that I decided upon:
- Day 1: Drive to the south rim of the canyon (sleeping for a couple of hours in the car)
- Day 2: Take the South Kaibab Trail down to the Bright Angel Campground the Colorado River (canyon floor)
- Day 3: Take the Colorado River Trail/ Bright Angel Trail to the Indian Gardens Campground
- Day 4: Continue up the Bright Angel Trail to the top of the South Rim; drive home
Not unlike most desert wildlife, I opted to hike as much as possible in the cooler temperatures before sunrise. To that end, I found myself waking up between 3:30 and 4:00 in the morning and actually hitting the trail between 4:30 and 4:45 am. Starting early gave me the added bonus of my choice of campsites when I arrived several hours later.
On Friday morning I shared a 4am shuttle bus to the South Kaibab Trail with a couple in their mid-20's from Montreal. When I passed them on the trail down I noticed, in the pre-twilight light, that they had but one flashlight—which must have made for some interesting hiking. I offered up my auxiliary flashlight to the woman (who had misplaced hers), to be returned sometime later. I moved ahead of them at a brisk pace, but they eventually caught up with me when I stopped for some breakfast and a view. It turned out that they too were on the same itinerary that I had planned, and ultimately setup camp next to/near me both nights.
The inner canyon was hot during the day, with temperatures over 100 degrees in the shade. Again, akin to the wildlife, I found I spent most of my afternoons napping in the shade. On Friday my air mattress provided some entertainment in a tributary about 400 yards from the Colorado. A 1 & 1/2 hour presentation on the history of the trails was provided by a ranger on Friday evening, and was both engaging and informative.
I awoke at 1am on Friday night with rocks cutting into my back, discovering that my air mattress had deflated from an unknown microscopic hole (which I thought could have been a possibility when I pulled it out of storage in a semi-deflated state). I didn't even bother unpacking the thing for Saturday eve, instead opting to clear the ground beneath my tent a little better and lay out some clothing to conjure up some degree of padding.
Late in the afternoon on Saturday I hiked from Indian Gardens out a couple of miles to Plateau Point, an outcropping of rocks that offers up what is widely known as the most spectacular view inside the canyon. I arrived about an hour before the most amazing sunset, and laid out on the flat rocks until the stars came out. I've never seen Jupiter, Venus, and Vega so bright. The few hours I spent at Plateau Point were absolutely breathtaking.
In the end, I pushed myself on the trail about as hard as I dared—trying to find that line between exhilaration, caution, and exhaustion. I made it to the bottom in 3 hours 45 minutes on day 1, to Indian Gardens in 2 hours 45 minutes on day 2, and to the top of the south rim in 3 hours 15 minutes on day 3. The vertical distance that was descended/ascended is equivalent to almost four times the height of the Empire State Building—each way.
Where the mind leads, the body will follow.
There were a few close calls during the trip, two of which come to mind immediately. The first one occurred shortly after I arrived in the park on Thursday night. It was after 10:00 at night and I was doing a final equipment check in an empty parking lot outside the backcountry information office. I had the radio playing as I rummaged through my backpack in the trunk of the car. Finished, I closed the closed the trunk and heard a THUD. "Oh no…" I thought to myself. The drivers-side door had swung shut when I closed the trunk. I tried to open the doors to no avail; I had effectively locked myself out of the car. It was in the low 50's and I was wearing a pair of linen shorts and a t-shirt. My keys, cell phone, wallet, backpack—everything—was locked inside the car with the map light turned on and the radio playing. This wasn't good.
The only thing that saved me from disaster was that I had cracked the passenger side window about an inch and a half while I was going over some canyon information a few minutes prior. After hunting around the brush surrounding the parking lot for 15 minutes or so (which was dangerous enough in itself), I had amassed a small collection of sticks and dead/dried plants with which I hoped to manipulate the door lock with. After several failed attempts (including dropping a couple of sticks inside the car) and a fair amount of cursing, I finally tripped the lock and was inside. Phew, what a way to start out the trip!
The second incident happened about 10 hours later, at the bottom of the canyon. I was approaching the Bright Angel Campground when, mid-stride, I noticed movement and sound to my left. My left foot had landed about a foot and a half away from a rattlesnake. It immediately coiled itself—its warning rattle cutting through the silent morning air—prepared to defend itself. Pausing only a moment to process what was happening, I immediately darted forward, and out of striking range. Afterwards, I took quick snapshot of what could have been a very unpleasant welcome to the campground.