A group of six went backpacking at the Grand Canyon 08-11 Feb 2014.
Hike Summary: Four days of backpacking from the South Rim to the River, 40+ miles, immense altitude change, perfect weather. A fantastic experience.
I posted the photos from the trip on my Google+ site here.
Well, the trip didn’t get off to a good start. I was on a short-notice business trip to Boston. Was supposed to be gone Monday-Wednesday, returning in time to catch my flight to PHX Thursday morning. Instead, a snowstorm headed to Boston, and I booked out of town late Tuesday, getting into OKC at 0215 Wednesday morning. I went to work Wednesday, got packed that evening, and went to bed late.
I got up early Thursday and got to the OKC airport early, in spite of a sleet and snow mix. We were late out of OKC, but I had a five-hour layover at DFW, so I wasn’t worried. I was planning on having dinner with my friend Keith and his husband Ben in Phoenix, so I thought I had plenty of time. But the connecting flight into DFW was late, and the DFW-PHX flight was really late pushing back, and then we had to wait in a line for deice. At the end of deice, the flight crew gets on the PA and tells us that if they continue the flight, they would blow their duty day. So American canceled the flight, we returned to the gate, and I was left to reorder the trip over the phone. I got on another flight the next morning, got one of the last rooms at the Embassy Suites north of DFW, canceled my hotel in Phoenix, rewickered the rental car at PHX, and called Keith to let him know I wasn’t going to make it. Then it was a shuttle ride to the hotel. It was sort of a pain since I didn’t have any of my bathroom stuff (it turns out my bags made it to PHX that evening), but the hotel had some stuff for stranded travelers so that helped. I had dinner next to the hotel and called it good.
The next morning I got up early, made it to the airport, and got to PHX around 0930, met Chuck at the rental car area, then met our four partners, and we loaded up and headed out.
There was only one sort of funny glitch here: I had reserved an SUV at PHX, for carrying three big guys and backpacks. Avis upgraded me automatically to a Mustang; I don’t think I could fit our bags in that car, much less three of us and bags… I selected a Toyota SUV off of the “free change” line (first of those I’ve seen) to fix the issue, and off we went.
We stopped in Phoenix for supplies and lunch, and then made the drive up I-17 to Flagstaff, and up US180 to Grand Canyon National Park. I re-upped my National Parks Pass for another year coming in to the Park. We went straight to the Rim, and got there in time to see the setting sun illuminate the north part of the Canyon; a great way to start the trip!
We checked into Maswik Lodge for the night. Dinner was at Bright Angel Lodge. We walked over there, and back, just to admire the dark skies and stars.
The Lodge was a good lodging choice. Once back after dinner, we got our backpacks ready to go for the start tomorrow, and crashed.
We got up and showered and had breakfast at Bright Angel Lodge again (wonderful!). We checked out of the Maswik, checked in at the backcountry office, and then headed out to the trailhead at Hermit’s Rest, drinking in the views of the Canyon from the Rim as we drove along, all thinking “we are going down there!”.
We got to the trailhead and dropped off our packs. Dave and I drove back to the backcountry office parking lot to drop off my car, and then drove back out to Hermit’s Rest again. On the way there, we saw some elk right next to the road, which I think was very cool.
At this point, we shouldered our packs (mine was 46 lbs, seems too much), took several deep breaths, and headed down the trail. We started out about 1000.
You can follow along on the Google+ site where I posted all the pictures from this trip.
It was pretty cold (high 30Fs) at the Rim, but we quickly lost outer layers as we hiked. I ended up in a t-shirt and shorts for most of the hike.
We had been worried about snow and ice on the trail, but we only had a couple hundred feet of it, and it was not even slippery, so that turned out to not be an issue. We didn’t even put on our Yak Traks.
The dry part of the trail was enough. It was slow going. There were all kinds of rocks on the trail, from gravel sized to fist or better, and you had to watch your footing at the risk of turning or rolling an ankle. It’s also steep (very steep), and so we made slow going. The first part of the trek, we dropped from about 6600ft to about 4800ft, about 1800ft, over about two miles!
The next not quite three miles are relatively ( 🙂 ) flat, but you slowly but steadily lose another 800ft. There is a spring along this stretch, but unless it happens to be raining, there is no other water. The Spring features a nice little hut that provides protection from the elements.
Speaking of which, as you walk, you go in towards the cliff, then out, then in, then out, over and over again. These are small washes and subcanyons, and there are dozens of them.
We got to the top of Cathedral Stairs, which is a serious set of switchbacks, short and steep. I was glad we were going down. It was here we ran into the only people we saw on the trail this day; a party of three, and a solo hiker, all four of which were headed back up, late in the day. The drop down the Stairs is about 1300ft. Once at the bottom, we found the Tonto Trail junction, and headed east.
This was an interesting hike. Sticking out from the Stairs is a large, pointy ridge, and we had to walk around the point, contouring up a bit, but generally down, back into another subcanyon area. It’s around a couple hundred feet, mostly down.
The closeout of the days hike is a walk to one of the arms of an upside-down “Y” canyon, down into one of the arms to the bottom of the canyon, and then to the junction and back up the other arm to camp. At the junction is a very tall rock tower.
We got to camp about 1830, got set up quickly, and made dinner in the dark. Everyone was in their tents and asleep by around 2000.
Our campsite was Monument Creek, in a stand of scrubby trees. The campsites can hold one or two tents only. There are plenty of rocks for cooking and sitting. Water is a bit downstream from the camp area.
There was a newish composting toilet at the camp, which was kind of surprising.
Our first day hiking was 3600ft of altitude loss (probably closer to 4000ft once you count the pop-ups and back-downs), and 9.2 miles of hiking.
We all woke up around 0700 or so on the second day. It was warm overnight, probably in the 40s.
After breakfast we headed out again, about 0820. Right out of camp, you zip up about 500 ft to get onto a plateau. From there it is a steady more-or-less level, but overall you have a steady up. There are several rises on the way there, and the now-expected drops into the heads of subcanyons.
We had company in camp overnight, they left shortly after we did, and passed us on that first climb. We caught up to them on the first major ridge and talked for a bit; the three of them were on a 90-mile trip along the Tonto Trail. They had hiked into the Canyon over a period of months and cached food. That’s serious backpacking.
We found water at Cedar Spring, but it took some doing. We search upstream first, then James noticed rock cairns going downstream, and we found a nice little area about a quarter mile down.
That spring flow was in an amazing almost-tunnel cut into the rock. It opens into a sheer drop of at least 500 ft. This would make a Yosemite-class waterfall in a heavy rain.
We had lunch just above Salt Creek camp. We kept on walking. The trail was a nice walk, with subcanyons and views of the Colorado occasionally.
We got into Indian Gardens around 1800. This camp has several composting toilets, but even more luxuriously, it has picnic tables and shelters in all campsites, with large ammo boxes to store food in. There are also pegs and t-bars to hang packs from to keep critters out.
After we got the tents set up, we walked back up the trail a little less than a half mile to watch the setting Sun illuminate the north part of the Canyon. It was beautiful.
We had a more leisurely dinner, and talked for a while before heading to bed.
Our second day hiking was net 900ft of altitude gain (probably over 1500ft once you count the pop-ups and back-downs), and 11.8 miles of hiking.
This was a dayhike day. We left our tents up in Indian Gardens, to hike down to the Colorado River.
We got up around 0700 again, and after breakfast and a bit of clean up, we put on daypacks and headed out on the Bright Angel Trail. This follows Bright Angel Creek steadily downward, until the creek dives down a slot canyon, and we dive down what I called the “Death Spiral”. The trail goes down a series of steep drops and switchbacks around three sides of a what looks like a large shaft. The altitude drop is about 600 ft in about 400 ft of space: it’s steep!
At the bottom of that, it’s a decent slope down right to the river, in a series of narrow canyons. At the river, it pops up and down a couple times until you end up at the silver bridge.
We walked up to Phantom Ranch and had lunch. They have snacks and drinks. The guys got cold beer, lemonade, and iced tea! Talk about civilized. PR has cabins for people to stay in, and a real dinner (steak for $60 and stew for $25, IIRC) for people staying down there. And flush toilets!
After we had lunch, we walked down to the river to a sandy beach and felt how cold the water was, then we headed up the other bridge, and hiked along the south side of the river back to the other bridge, and then we traced our steps back to camp. It was a heck of a climb.
We had our only equipment casualty of the trip here. I was hiking along at a pretty good pace, and stumbled pretty good. My water bottle came right out of the mesh pocket of my daypack, and went right over the cliff. There was river access just in front of us, so while the guys went there, I backtracked on the shore to look for my bottle. I guess it got hung up somewhere up above.
We got back to camp well before dark, talked a bit, had dinner, talked a bit more, and crashed.
Our third day hiking was a net 0ft of altitude change, but in reality 1500ft of gain, from the river to Indian Gardens, and 12.2 miles of hiking.
We got up around 0645, had breakfast and did some packing, and then did a side hike out to Plateau Point to our north. It has marvelous views of the river, and an interesting perspective on where we hiked yesterday.
We walked back to camp, finished packing, and headed out for the last time.
The highlight of the day is walking back up to the South Rim. There’s not a lot to say except it’s doable if you are in reasonable shape. The views are incredible.
One note: it was February, and it got colder as we climbed. There was ice and snow on the trail for the last 800 or so vertical feet, and the Yak-Traks we brought were invaluable. Don’t go without them for any winter-related trek.
We got to the top to find a bunch of Chinese tourists. There was a language barrier, but they made it clear that we were interesting, and they took a bunch of pictures of us, and then they all took pictures of themselves, with US! Kind of cool.
Our last day hiking was 3300ft of altitude gain, and 7.7 miles of hiking.
We went and had a snack at Bright Angel Lodge, then walked to Maswik and showered, did our reverse car shuffle at dusk, and then walked back to the Lodge for dinner. We walked around the Rim some more, checked out the lobby of El Tovar, and generally took it easy. We all slept really well that night.
After breakfast Wednesday morning, we went back along the Rim to Hermit’s Rest.
It was way, way cool to look down, and be able to recognize the terrain, because we had walked it! I couldn’t get enough of the rock tower we had walked next two at Monument Creek. The top of it just peeks out from the vantage point of the Rim, but we saw the whole thing.
After the Rim drive, we headed back to PHX and went home. Definitely sad.
Things That Worked
I was really happy about the food situation. I’ve pretty much decided to stay with dry breakfast, with the possible exception of hot tea or cocoa. My typical breakfast is a package of PopTarts (I like brown sugar cinnamon), a 3.2oz squeeze bottle of applesauce, and a Quaker Oats bar or two. I do two tea bags in my blue metal mug, and carry sugar and some sort of powered milk or creamer. At the REI in Phoenix, I found Backpackers Pantry dried WHOLE MILK! It was great in my tea. I have found packets of dried skim here, but that whole milk blows the skim away.
My lunches were usually PB&J on a tortilla, usually a couple. For this four-day trip, I packed a 15oz tub of PB (used about half) and a 20oz strawberry jam (used about 2/5th). So that’s a good chunk of weight that could have been eliminated. I usually also had another applesauce and a trail bar.
Dinners are dehydrated meals. I sometimes had another two-bag tea. My dinners this time were Backpackers Pantry Potatoes and Gravy with Beef (OK at best), Mountain House Chili Mac (outstanding as usual, recommended), and Backpackers Pantry Santa Fe Rice with Chicken (excellent, I liked this a lot!). The P&GwB was bland, very bland. The Chili Mac and Santa Fe meals were just spicy enough to be enjoyable, and both have strong flavor.
One thing I tell people: those dehydrated meals claim to feed two, but use them as single-serving. You need the calories.
I like flavoring my drinks while walking. Country Time lemonade comes in packets that are for 8 oz, and I usually double those up (as we called it at Philmont, “ranger strength”).
My snacks on the trail are “puppy chow”, which is wheat chex coated with powered sugar, peanut butter, and chocolate. Braum’s in OKC sells a very good variety.
Things That Could Be Improved
NOTHING! This trip was perfect. I can’t say anything about how strenuous it was; that comes with the territory. Our timing, teamwork, and training were right on.
Backpack Weight: I think my backpack was too heavy. I started with a 46lb load, and at the end of the trip it was 36lbs. I am going to weigh it all and see what can be pared down.
Yak Traks: this way my first time to use them. They will always go with me any time I go hiking in the winter.
Here are the overall trek path and altitude:
And here is one annotated with our major locations:
This was a perfect trip. The distances were long, but not unmanageable for us. If you wanted, you could have done an overnight at Salt Creek instead of the layover we did at Indian Gardens.
You need to watch the water situation along the trail.
Next time I do the Canyon, I think I would like to go down from the North Rim. We’ll see.