Early on in our relationship, Crow happened to mention that he had walked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon once with his family. They had dipped their toes in the Colorado River, and then climbed back out. 18 miles, all in one day. (Exactly what every guide book, piece of literature, and podcast from the park tells you not to do, I would learn later.)
One thought popped in my head when he told me about this adventure: “Hey, I want to do that too.”
Because anything that sounds incredibly grueling is immediately I’m interested in doing.
So we decided pretty early on in our honeymoon planning that we would hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and spend the night at the Bright Angel campground and Phantom Ranch. We really would have liked to have hiked the North Kaibob trail from the North Rim but we didn’t really have time. When we looked at the plan for our honeymoon, we realized we’d only have two days to spend at the Grand Canyon. The North Kaibob is 14 miles long. While I might be able to hike 14 miles in one day down, I did not think I would be able to climb 14 miles up the next day. We realized if we wanted to do that trail, it would be much wiser to cut it to 3 or 4 days. (Nevermind the fact that while hiking the Bright Angel trail, we ran into people who were hiking the North Rim to the South Rim–over 20 miles!–in one day. Now that’s NUTS.)
We ended up choosing the Bright Angel trail out of convenience. The South Kaibob–about the same mileage–was more primitive, which would have been nice, but had less available potable water available. I suppose Crow and I will have to eventually break down and purchase some water purification equipment, or maybe just those tablets, for future backpacking adventures, but we didn’t have any such equipment, so we figured it would be easier to just use the most used trail with all the water stops.
To stay at a campground in the Grand Canyon, you need to have a back country permit which you can only obtain on the first of the month four months prior to your trip. You have to specify which trail you are using and how long you plan to stay. Reservations at the Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch can fill up quickly too. We learned while we were down there that the maximum capacity at any given time–including staff–is about 200. Fortunately, we also learned, out of the millions of visitors who go to the Grand Canyon each year, only 1% hike to the bottom! I’m int he 1%, go figure!
We made our reservations at Bright Angel and submitted our request for a back country permit on March 1st. We really sweated it for a few days thinking we wouldn’t get our dates, but everything turned out all right, and our reservations were made! To save us room in our backpacks, we also decided we’d get our dinner and breakfast at the canteen at Phantom Ranch. This turned out to be a great idea because the seating was family style and we ended up meeting some cool people (a couple who was catching a rafting trip down the Colorado River!).
I think the hike down the Grand Canyon was one of the adventures that I was looking the forward to the most. I talked about it the most when people asked me about out honeymoon plans; my mom dreaded it the most out of our honeymoon plans because she envisioned harrowing drops off the side of the trail and thought we’d surely plummet to an untimely death. So there was a lot of talk about this hike. It was probably the one thing I was doing on the trip that most people understood. I don’t think that a lot of people knew a whole lot about the other parks we said we were visiting. Everyone knows the Grand Canyon.
Unfortunately, by the time the day arrived to hike the Grand Canyon, I was suffering from a huge sore on the back of my heel that I got while hiking the 9-mile round trip trail to Observation Point at Zion just two days earlier. I don’t know what happened. My hiking boots were not new–I’ve had them for about two years and they were definitely worn in. Maybe I didn’t tie them tight enough, as Crow suggested. But unfortunately by the time I got down walking that trail in Zion, the top layer of skin had pretty much rubbed off the back of my heel. It had obviously blistered and popped while I was on the trail.
I thought I was going to be able to heal it in enough time before the Grand Canyon. I wore sandals continuously to expose the cut to the air, hoping it would start to mend. It did start to crust over and harden in those few days. However, it wasn’t enough. When I put my hiking boots on that morning we were to set off into the Canyon, I was in so much pain that I limped. The limping was the result of having to twist my foot in such a way that pressure would not be applied to the back of my heel when I walked. From a little sore at the back of my heel….
So after we picked up our back country permit and Phantom Ranch meal vouchers, we ended up going to the grocery store in town to buy some sort of products that would help ease the pain. We bought a blister pack that I did not correctly use and a self-adhering bandage. I wrapped my whole foot in the self-adhering bandages which helped a little and put the wrong blister stuff in the area of the wound. Then–mistake number two–I loosened my boot so that I could move my foot forward when I walked. Do you see the problem with this? Yes. For several hours, my front big toe would push into the front of my shoe, sending bolts of pain shooting into the root of my toenail. This would eventually lead to the inevitable loss of my toenail a few days after returning from the honeymoon. Sad. But after you’ve lost some toenails (which I unfortunately have on multiple occasions), the whole process is less terrifying. Unfortunately, because I’ve lost toenails before, I also knew during the hike that that was the inevitable outcome.
It wasn’t as bad as it seems. I’m not a complete masochist so as much as I wanted to hike down the Grand Canyon, if it had been unbearable the entire time, I would have not gone down. Given that downhill generally makes your foot move forward in a shoe, no matter how tight or lose the shoe, I had the descent working to my advantage.
About a week before we arrived at the Grand Canyon, there had apparently been a big flash flood that washed out parts of the Bright Angel trail. It wasn’t anything that would endanger foot traffic, but the debris made the trail impassible for the mules. So on our trip, there were no mules coming up or down the Bright Angel trail. I don’t think this would have been much of a problem anyway as the trail is pretty wide and it is not exposed at any point. To assuage your curiosity, though, had there been mules on the trail, a sign at the trailhead informed us that hikers get to move to the inside (rock-side) of the trail and mules go to the outside (cliff-side) of the trail. Even if there had been mules, I don’t think I would have felt unsafe at any point during this hike. In fact, the trail to Observation Point at Zion had more exposed, narrow trails than anything I experienced on the Bright Angel trail.
The first half of the journey is really very stunning when you’re going down. (On the way up, the same view becomes your biggest source of frustration.) The trail is very busy through this section, filled with hikers of varying degrees of preparedness. There was us. And there were tourists in flip-flops carrying bottled waters. Or not carrying water bottles at all. And, on our way back up the second day, a Japanese guy who could barely speak English asked us if the bottom was just another half-hour. Ha!! That question after we’d spent 6 hours climbing up from the bottom. We hoped he understood us, but he did continue walking down. With a child running ahead of him who was about 5.
The first three miles to Three Mile Resthouse campground give you great views of the canyon and the path ahead. You can see the switchbacks and the next rest house from quite a distance away. The grade is pretty strenuous, though going down is relatively easy, but I did note the looks of anguish on the faces of those coming back up the other direction. This was definitely going to be like a mountain climb in reverse with the hardest part being the return. The trail levels off for a bit to less of a grade once you pass the Three Mile Resthouse.
Indian Garden is the halfway point on the trail. For those who are not inclined to hike to the bottom in one day, there’s a campground with a ranger station. The Indian Garden is an odd spot in the canyon where life miraculously thrives and it looks less like a desert. The lush greenery and shade probably owes its life to the creek that runs through it. Okay, I call it a creek, but that “creek” contained the flash flood that washed out parts of the trail before we got there. According to the rangers we talked to, the creek got pretty high and it actually redirected itself somewhat. Oh, the mighty forces of water in motion!
I gather that a lot of day hikers hike down to Indian Garden and turn around. There’s also a trail from that spot that goes out to an observation point that hikers can get to from Indian Garden. So it was quite a busy spot with people resting, eating, and filling their water bottles. For this reason, there were no shortage of canyon chipmonks–the little rodents who have capitalized on the droves of hikers who feast in this spot. For some reason, neither of us seemed to have taken any pictures at Indian Garden. I guess the trees were obstructing our view?
The Bright Angel Trail beyond Indian Garden is far less populated and more peaceful as a result. We did pass groups of trail workers who were fixing the washed out parts of the trail. They were always pleasant and happy to exchange greetings despite how much work they were doing. It looked like extremely tough work for sure! I thanked them for all their hard work each time we passed them. Without people like these, most of whom were volunteers, we wouldn’t have all the beautiful trails we do in the National Parks.
We lucked out that we had such beautiful weather for our hike down. It was monsoon season and afternoon storms were likely; however, that day was filled with blue skies and the occasional dotted with wispy little clouds. Unfortunately it did also get quite hot. That last stretch to the bottom of the canyon from Indian Garden to the River Resthouse was HOT. I even got a bit grumpy and frustrated after we descended the last set of switchbacks because the path just went on and on with no sign of the Colorado River. I also timed my water consumption badly and ran out of water shortly before we reached the resthouse.
In the canyon, the view becomes claustrophobic, as you are surrounded always by the goliath rocks that from above merely seem like bends and folds in a long rugged rip in the earth. I thought about how I was so tiny compared to the whole of the Grand Canyon that people couldn’t even see me at all from the observation points near the Bright Angel trail, though they could maybe see parts of the area where I was now walking. It’s pretty amazing. The trail at ground level follows a stream that eventually flows into the Colorado River so for much of the walk, the constant static of flowing water was our background music.
When we finally reached the Colorado River, the roaring sound of rapids got much louder. I was surprised by how muddy looking the river was. For some reason, I expected the water to be clear. We approached the little beach, climbing over hard, pinkish gray rock (I think quartz) and reaching the sand. I gladly removed my boots–the back of my heel was unbearable at this point–and we both stepped into the river to symbolically mark the near completion of our rim to river journey.
The water was pretty damned cold. To say it was like ice would be an understatement of metaphor. Despite the fact that I was very hot from the hike (it was probably near 100 degrees at the canyon bottom), I had no desire to do anything more than put my feet in. You had to stay close the beach anyway because the shallow shelf dropped off pretty quickly (or so we figured) and the rapids just a few feet away were quiet fierce.
After rinsing my feet, I had to reset my makeshift bandaging. This time I read some of the helpful instructions on the blister kit and I found this tape that contained a sort of goo. I put in on my heel and then the provided band-aid over top and instantly the wound felt 100% better. When I put my shoe back on, I didn’t even feel a tinge of pain in my heel. I kicked myself for not discovering that stuff sooner because it would have saved me a lot of discomfort on the hike down. For the remaining mile to Phantom Ranch, I walked in complete comfort. Well, that is, except for my sore muscles from the long hike.
The last bit of the trail followed the river on a trail cut into rock wall. It was really beautiful. We stopped a dozen times to take pictures of the river from every angle. We knew we would get to cross the river on a bridge eventually. We were anticipating the bridge we’d seen on a photograph on the wall of the restaurant we’d eaten at the night before–the bridge in the picture led to a man-made tunnel through the rock. It turns out that was the bridge from the South Kaibob trail to Phantom Ranch. The bridge from the Bright Angel trail was built to also bring the pipe for Trans Canyon Water Line. It was a little bit frightening because it is just a grate floor through which you can see the raging river maybe a hundred feet below. Scary! We were a little disappointed; however, we later learned that the River trail, which continued on passed that bridge, went to the other bridge. Since the mules can’t use the “gray” bridge (I don’t know why? Too narrow?), the River trail leads to the black bridge (the one we saw in the picture).
Once over the bridge, it was a small walk to the rustic Bright Angel campground. We found ourselves a site next to a creek and set up camp. We had set out on the trail around 8:30-9:00am and we finished at about 4:30pm. Not bad!! Of course, that was DOWN.
It’s a small walk from the Bright Angel campground to Phantom Ranch. I didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out to be a cute little cluster of very rustic cabins and a main canteen house. Not unlike Indian Garden, the area around Phantom Ranch has lots of vegetation and greenery. There is a ranger station as well as a cabin at which some of the trail workers we’d passed earlier stayed.
The dinner was remarkably good. We both had the beef stew which was so filling after a day of granola bars, Clif bars, and beef jerky. And–dream come true–they actually had beer you could purchase!! We gulped down two cans… it was some kind of local Arizona brew with Grand Canyon in the name… Beer is the recovery drink of choice, after all!
We ended up hanging around Phantom Ranch for a ranger program which turned out to be a Q and A session. People asked the ranger all kinds of questions about Phantom Ranch and the Grand Canyon. We learned a lot. For example, the reason that the maximum capacity of people at Phantom Ranch is 200 is because their flush toilets and running water use a septic system… and every few years, a helicopter has to move the solid waste out. Ew?
We learned also about the wildlife in the canyon. The Grand Canyon is home to a very unique species of rattlesnake that has evolved to a coral color to hide itself better in the red rock! We were lucky enough to actually SEE one of these rattlesnakes while hiking out of the canyon the next day, in fact. I was turning a corner on the trail when I heard a rustling and was able to sight a beautiful coral rattlesnake slide across the trail into the bushes! Crow saw it too but neither of us stuck around to take a picture. Though the ranger told us the rattlesnakes at the Grand Canyon are not very aggressive and only attack when provoked, I didn’t feel like taking a stupid chance. I was honestly not scared when I saw it either, more fascinated. I guess the ranger’s excitement about how cool she thought it was when she saw these snakes kind of made me feel at ease. (She actually said that the people who tend to get bitten by snakes is young men between the ages of 16-25. Go figure.)
The coolest part about the ranger program was, once it got dark, she took us on a scorpion hunt! Armed with a black light, she walked around the empty corral used to contain mules, and showed us the glowing figures of scorpions. I didn’t know this, but scorpions glow in black light. Pretty wicked cool, too. The first set of scorpions she found were in the middle of their mating dance. I felt like we were intruding a little but I watched on with a sick fascination. I guess scorpions don’t eat each other in the act of mating, though. They just dance and wiggle and eventually copulate.
We found a total of 12 scorpions in that little area. It was fascinating, but it kind of freaked me out a bit. When we got back to our campsite, well after dark, we shook out all of our shoes. I didn’t reach into my backpack, which had been sitting outside of the tent on a pole, until I’d beaten it for about five minutes with my hiking pole. Scorpions are neat… But their bites are not pleasant.
I have decided I need to buy a portable black light before any future camping adventures in the desert.
Before going to bed, we lay for awhile on the picnic table to enjoy a rare view of the stars. The sky was filled with little glowing dots of various colors and, of course, I could plainly see the arm of the Milky Way. I forget how beautiful the night sky is when it’s full of more stars than you can count.
The next day, we had breakfast at Phantom Ranch. We packed up our gear and set off towards the first part of the South Kaibob trail so that we could walk across the black suspension bridge. As we were leaving camp, we saw a mule team leaving Phantom Ranch on the other side of the creek. All supplies are brought in by mule to Phantom Ranch. All garbage and such is brought out by mule which is why there are no garbage cans in the Bright Angel campground, Phantom Ranch, or at any of the resthouses along the trail. If you pack it in, you must pack it out.
We saw the mule team crossing the black bridge later. I wondered if the post cards I’d mailed from Phantom Ranch (they had a mail pouch) were already making their way out of the canyon.
The black bridge was neat and worth the extra mile we had to add to our trip after crossing it. Just the experience of walking through the rock tunnel at the other side of the bridge was just kind of cool. Also, the black bridge had a solid wood board along the middle that the mules walked on so there was less of the frightening sensation of walking on the air over the river.
Luckily, the first couple of miles out of the canyon are relatively flat. But it starts getting real at the first set of switchbacks. When I’d come down these switchbacks the previous day, they hadn’t seemed nearly as bad (other than probably contributing to the knee strain I felt all night). Boy, they certainly rough going on the way up! I think this was the steepest section of the trail.
By the time we made it back to Indian Garden, I was feeling a bit whooped. We spent a long time sitting on a rock by the little creek having our lunch of assorted dry food. Crow lay down fully clothed in the water to cool off. I finally relented and soaked my shirt in the water. It really did feel good!
About part way up the last 3 miles, we started to have some threats of afternoon rain showers. Thunder rumbled in the distance, but never got close. You could see rain falling in the distance, circulating around the canyon constantly for the rest of the afternoon. We got some sprinkles and maybe a little bit of a rainfall for a bit, but the storms thankfully held off until we were both taking showers and doing laundry at the RV.
I will say that those last 3 miles sucked. While not as steep as the bottom switchbacks, the last three miles is consistently upward at varying steepness with very little relief. And, worse yet, the top of the rock never seems to look like it’s getting any closer! So you feel like a hamster in a wheel… walking, walking, walking uphill and getting nowhere. I want to say that I enjoyed that last leg as much as I enjoyed the entire experience… But, really, by the time we reached the trailhead, I was pretty damned happy to be done. And famished. And I needed a beer.
That said, especially in retrospect, it was a great experience. Crow and I have both expressed a desire to go down to Phantom Ranch again sometime. I think next time we’d like to come fully prepared and take the North Kaibob trail from the North Rim. We’d like to stay a few nights at Phantom Ranch and explore the area casually. I’m not sure we’re ready for a rafting trip down those wild rapids. But we’d definitely like to see more of the canyon from the bottom up.
We didn’t have much time after we showered and laundered our clothes to see much more of the canyon. We were off to our final destination: Vegas. Funny, we had thought days earlier that we might like to go mountain biking in Vegas. However, after the Grand Canyon–which was probably the most rigorous hiking we did the entire trip–we decided to just be lazy in Vegas. At that point, though, we’d been hiking for several days straight so I think it was probably good to finally rest.
In case you’re wondering, the wound on my heel did not fully recover for awhile. For about a month after the trip, I could still see a ridged lineo f skin the shape of a circle marking the spot. It’s finally all gone now. But for awhile it was my “red badge of courage”… along with the toenail I lost. The toe still looks a bit rough. I wiggle it with pride.