They say five million people visit the Grand Canyon National Park each year. Most of them only peer over the rim, buy some souvenirs and eat some ice cream. Some of the more adventurous types might even walk a short distance into the canyon before heading back. We wanted to be among those fortunate few who backpack down, stay in the canyon for a few nights and then hike out again.
Most of all, we wanted to share this experience with our children, Sarah (age 10) and Matthew (age 8): a safe adventure, done at a pace that we could all handle, leaving lots of time for exploring and having fun. So in late 2006 we began planning to do the trip over Easter weekend 2007, which happened to coincide with the local schools' spring break.
We planned on taking one day to walk down and two days to walk up. The first day of our three-day, 27-km (17-mile) trip would begin by walking down the South Kaibab trail, crossing the bridge over the Colorado River, and spending the night at the bottom of Grand Canyon at Bright Angel Campground (11.7 km or 7.3 miles). On the second day we planned to re-cross the Colorado River and walk the River Trail west along the inner canyon, before heading up the Bright Angel trail to camp overnight at Indian Garden (7.5 km or 4.7 miles). Our final half day was a steep walk out the Bright Angel trail, ending with ice cream at the Maswik Lodge (8 km or 5 miles).
Having loaded everything into the van , we arrived at the Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim early on the evening before the start of the hike. Maswik Lodge is a good choice for backcountry hikers because it is right next to the Backcountry Information Center, where you can register your trip, park your car, and catch the “Hiker Express” park shuttle bus. It is close to the main village, and is more reasonably priced than the historic lodges. It also has one of the few cafeterias in the park that is open at 6 am.
After checking into our room, we moved the gear from the car to the motel room so that we could finish packing. Everyone had a pack. The kids, who would be hiking overnight for the first time, carried their sleeping bags, some snacks and a share of the water or Gatorade. The parents carried all the rest, including food, tent, clothes, and various other items. The largest single source of the weight that we carried was water. It is recommended that an adult should drink a gallon a day, or in hot weather a liter of water per hour. We carried down a total of 14 liters (3.5 US gal). At 1kg per liter, that adds up to a total weight of more than 30 pounds at the start of the day. That was just enough for the four of us in early April. We drank often during the next day and reached the bottom with about 1 liter to spare.
With packing done, we headed to dinner for a little carbo loading. After dinner we stopped off Bright Angel Transportation desk to pick up the meal tickets we had reserved for Sunday breakfast at Phantom Ranch and a sack lunch (to save carrying a bit on the first day).
Saturday, April 7: The day began fairly early. We were up, dressed, and eating breakfast in the Maswik cafeteria before 6:30 a.m. We were all really excited. It was chilly enough at the rim – close to freezing – to need warm shirts to start with. At 7 a.m. we were strapping on backpacks and water bottles in the Backcountry Information Center parking lot. The shuttle arrived a few minutes later, and we were at the South Kaibab trailhead by 7:30 a.m. It is possible to get a much earlier start, but we deliberately chose not to. We figured we would not be the fastest hikers on the trail, and that we would have plenty of time to get where we were going, so the later start allowed us not only to get a little more sleep, but also to avoid the rush of really serious hikers, especially those doing a rim-to-rim route.
The first part of the walk was in the shade , and we got a truly spectacular view of the low morning sun lighting up the canyon walls. The trail starts with some easy switchbacks (or maybe they only seemed easy because we were just getting started), which go on for quite a while. There are a couple of scenic spots to take a break , and along one section we saw mule deer grazing. As we steadily descended, we pointed out the changing geologic layers to the kids. All through the day we could track our progress by marking off the different colors of shale, sandstone, and limestone layers.
Once we left the switchbacks, the trail struck out toward the heart of the canyon, following a ridge to O'Neill Butte. This was a stunningly beautiful section of the hike, with expansive views all around us as we walked. A little over an hour after starting, we arrived at the Cedar Ridge rest spot. This is a spread-out level area with pit toilets and a few scrubby trees (cedar?) including a picturesque dead one. Most people, like us, take a break here before continuing. We stopped frequently throughout the day for short water breaks, which is especially important for small humans, and had packed lots of snacks, though we found we didn't really eat much while walking. The trail mix was the most popular, though Dale noticed that as each shared baggie got lower, he was finding more peanuts and salty raisins and fewer cashews and M&Ms!
We knew, as we left Cedar Ridge , that from here on there would be little or no shade until we reached the river. The next part of the trail is a beautiful walk around to the other side of O'Neill Butte and then continuing along the ridge. Along the way we encountered a pack-mule train ; from the doubly-worn path, it looks as though this happens a lot just here. We also got our first glimpse of the river since we got on the trail , just before reaching Skeleton Point. This is the spot where the South Kaibab stops being a pleasant walk and becomes a gruelling slog down stepped switchbacks in a long section of trail that some people call the Devil's Staircase. The steps, which pass through the Redwall Limestone layer, are created by placing logs across the trail and levelling the patches between them. They were close together here, and just went on and on and on. Ruth found them very disruptive to her natural stride, which made them even more exhausting to negotiate. But eventually we reached the end. At this point we were on the Tonto Platform, a geological layer that makes a broad, fairly level plateau and offers great views back up to the South Rim. This is when you really begin to grasp that you are inside the Grand Canyon!
By now it was 11:15am and we were definitely getting hungry. We made our way to the Tip-Off rest stop, near the intersection of the South Kaibab with the Tonto Trail (which runs along the plateau from east to west), and with the hot sun blazing down we ate our lunch in the scrap of shade under the deck of the toilet building. We felt noticeably re-energized after eating and resting out of the sun. As soon as we got up to leave, our little shady patch was snapped up by another group of hikers.
Beyond here, at the Tip-Off itself, is where we began to descend into the inner gorge. The trail is reasonably wide with a gentle slope at first as it passes by some crumbling rocks. There are some great views of the jagged inner walls, including a first glimpse of the bridge below (using the zoom in this shot) , and in places it looks like the curve ahead just disappears into air. It's no accident that the trail is so good: all along here we encountered work crews rebuilding sections of the trail. We learned later that these crews live down at Phantom Ranch. They leave each day at dawn, walk up the trail to their work site and then labor all day until dusk. It's an amazing feat of endurance, and we thank you!
The final stage of the South Kaibab is another long set of switchbacks down to the bottom. Although tiring (Ruth was especially glad of the hiking poles here), they were not nearly as hard as the Devil's Staircase because they were shallower, with steps much further apart. It took us about an hour to work our way through these, including water breaks in the occasional patches of shade cast by rock outcrops. Partway down the trail passed through another geological layer transition where the color of the earth changed sharply from red to gray. Both the bridge and the entrance to Bright Angel Canyon on the north side of the river were now clearly visible. When the South Kaibab ended at the River Trail, we walked a little way east to the mouth of the tunnel that leads to the imposing black bridge over the mighty Colorado River. Notice the wooden planks along the center; this is the bridge that the mules cross. It actually looks even more imposing from the far side. The bridge is an impressive 440 feet long, and was built in 1928 with most of the work being done at night to escape the daytime heat. The long cables that support it could not be loaded on mules; they had to be carried down by men.
From here it was a short, pretty stroll along the river to the entrance of Bright Angel Campground, where we were greeted by a ranger. It was then about 2:30pm, so it had taken us almost exactly 7 hours to do the downward hike. Everyone was in pretty good shape, although Ruth and the kids were eager to set up camp and switch from hiking boots to the flip-flops we'd brought. Once we'd selected a campsite, put up the tent, and let our feet ooze a bit, we wandered over to Phantom Ranch. Overnight visitors can stay in one of a number of sleeping cabins at the Ranch; all of the people who ride down on the mule train stay there. It's a very pretty spot at the mouth of what would, in a different location, be considered a fairly large canyon created by Bright Angel Creek. Lots of bushes and small trees grow here, making it green and peaceful. As you might expect, since you can see Phantom Ranch from a few places at the South Rim, you can see the very top of the South Rim from here, too.
Everyone is welcome at the Phantom Ranch Canteen, which combines a gift shop with a fixed-menu restaurant. Meals here are included in the mule trips, but are only available for a limited number of hikers and must be booked well in advance (and don't expect it to be cheap!). We had heard great comments about dinner there, both the steak and the stew, but even three months in advance there were no places left for that evening. We treated ourselves to cold drinks and drank them while we all wrote postcards. If you drop these into the mail bag in the canteen, they get a special postmark and are carried out by the last remaining Pony Express in the U.S. — or Mule Express, to be more precise.
Later we walked down Bright Angel Creek to the Colorado River,
visiting the ruins of an ancient Anasazi
settlement , and found a sheltered sand bar
where Sarah and Matthew could play. They made sandcastles complete
with moats, and splashed in the ice cold water.
After we ate our dinner we put all our food etc. away in the large animal-proof lockboxes at our campsite and walked over to the Phantom Ranch amphitheater for the evening park ranger talk. It turned out to be first-class. The ranger was an excellent speaker: knowledgeable about her topic (mountain lions) and enthusiastic. She moved around a lot, incorporated humor very nicely, and gave some effective demonstrations — like having an audience member help her measure out the distance a mountain lion can leap: about 45 feet! The main premise of her talk was that the mountain lion is the perfect predatory machine. She really did a good job creating an image in the minds of her audience when she pointed out that our food doesn't slash at us with hooves and horns when we open the refrigerator door! She related them to household cats as well — so we all went home eager to greet our own "mountain lion kitty". ☺
Sunday, April 8: This day started really early for two of us: the boys had the 5:00 a.m. breakfast seating at the Phantom Ranch canteen. Dale and Matthew walked to the Ranch by moonlight. Not only did buying breakfast there provide a substantial hot meal to get us moving, it also reduced the amount of food we had to carry into the canyon on the first day. It's not gourmet fare, but it was well prepared, and there are plenty of eggs, bacon, pancakes, toast, coffee, and juice for everyone - no fear of running out of food even though everyone displayed a good appetite! Not long after the boys returned, Ruth and Sarah got dressed and headed out for the 6:30 a.m. seating. We also picked up sack lunches, which turned out to be a generous quantity of the same sort of things we would have brought had we carried our own (bagels and a variety of other bits and pieces). On the whole we would say that the lunches, although filling, were not as good a value as the hot meals.
We were in no rush to leave this special sanctuary at the bottom of the canyon. After breaking camp and carefully stowing everything back where it had come from, we hit the trail around 9:00 a.m. Crossing the silver suspension bridge is a little unnerving if you stop to think about it (although the kids seemed unfazed), because the metal mesh you walk on gives you a clear view of the rushing river beneath your feet.
For the next mile and a half, the trail follows the edge of the river. The views are spectacular, especially looking back at the two impressive bridges. Much of it is some distance up from the bottom with the steep walls of the canyon on our left and a dropoff to our right, so although Sarah and Matthew weren't really aware of it, Dale and Ruth focused a fair bit of their attention on watching where the kids were putting their feet. (The kids were oblivious to this.)
Around 10 a.m. we reached the intersection where Bright Angel Trail branches up from the River Trail. A very short distance in is the River Resthouse. It's a small, airy stone hut with a little stream running past it , and as we had the place to ourselves, we rested and snacked in the shade for half an hour or so. Dale put his feet up , while Matthew sucked on the spout of the water-pack he was carrying that day.
The next part of the walk is different. For starters, the walls of the ravine that the trail follows are close together, and you walk up a narrow path, crisscrossing the stream several times. It's always nice to walk with the sound of water nearby, but the fun stops at Devil's Corkscrew. Dale had somehow forgotten this section of the path from his previous hike two and a half years earlier. Although they were certainly hard work, we didn't find these quite as brutal as the downhill switchbacks the day before. Maybe that's because the muscles we exhausted on the way down were different from the ones we were using to go up! What did make it difficult was that we started up several hours after breakfast, and didn't want to stop climbing until we had the worst behind us, so we could relax and enjoy our lunch by the river. It quickly became clear that we were gaining considerable elevation as we made our way up . And while there weren't any really comfortable places to take an extended break on the switchbacks, there were some pretty sights, like a trickling waterfall drenched in greenery , and wildflowers along the edge of the path: blooming prickly pear and coreopsis . We kept thinking we were almost to the top of this stretch, but even when we left the inner gorge behind at last , there was still some distance uphill to go. The phrase "just around the corner" got used fairly often!
Now the path was again running beside Garden Creek, and eventually we found a wide, relatively flat patch of ground off the trail where we could take off our packs and sit for an hour to eat and recover. This is the prettiest part of the Bright Angel Trail. There are lots of small trees by the stream and some very large cactus growing along the edge of the trail . Not too long after setting off again, we realized we were getting fairly close to Indian Garden campground , and that our day's journey was nearly over. Indian Garden is literally an oasis, with plenty of trees and even grass. It is also Grand Central Station for below-rim hiking in the Grand Canyon. Not only does everyone doing the full trail have to pass through here, but many people come down this far from the village, and then turn around and go back up, as a day hike. So it is quite busy — even busier, it seemed, than Phantom Ranch, perhaps because it is not as spread out. It was not even 4:00 p.m. yet, but there were only a few sites not already staked out. We chose a decent one from those available and set up our tent . Notice the gear hanging on the T-bar in the foreground; this is to keep it out of reach of wildlife.
We refilled our water bottles for the next day and ate our dinner (cheese, hummus, and pita bread). At one point when Sarah and Matthew weren't paying attention, a woman from a neighboring site came over and very thoughtfully gave us a couple of Easter-bunny chocolates which we hid under the kids' pillows for them to find that night. By early evening it was quite windy and we overheard people commenting that it was supposed to rain hard that night. Even though it was nearly dark, we still heard people walking past on the trail who were clearly not stopping for the night — not a good situation to put yourself in. We retired to the tent fairly early and, with the wind rattling the tent around us, played several rousing games of Indian by flashlight. It was the first time the kids had ever played this deceptively simple game, and we got some great demonstrations of classic trade-in-your-king-for-a-two situations. We were all laughing so hard we had tears rolling down our faces and could hardly breathe. (Definitely be sure to bring a deck of cards on your hikes; they take up no space, weigh nothing, and generate a lot of good fun.) Finally, at about eight o'clock, we hit the bathrooms, brushed our teeth, and went to bed, knowing that we had a long, tough hike the next day.
Monday, April 9: Ruth and Dale both woke early the next morning. As expected, it had rained fairly heavily during the night as well as being extremely windy, but now it had cleared up nicely. The only damp spot inside the tent was a small patch of Ruth's sleeping bag that had been next to a windward seam; otherwise everything was dry (pretty good for a $50 tent purchased on impulse at Costco a few years earlier). Outside, however, it was not the same story. With 4.6 miles of walking and more than 3,000 feet in elevation gain ahead of us to reach the rim, we decided to just pack up everything as quickly as possible and get an early start.
After a quick breakfast of Kashi bars and peanut-butter bagels, we hit the trail at 6:15 a.m. with the moon setting behind the South Rim . The air was fresh and cool, with misty clouds scudding over the towers of the North Rim . The hike seemed to go very quickly; we were feeling pretty fresh, and were excited about completing the adventure . Almost before we knew it we were in beneath the rim walls, with our destination still high above us but now in sight . There were many places where little rivulets of rainwater runoff were trickling across the path. As we approached 3-Mile Resthouse, the vertical distance we had climbed was very noticeable in the perspective across the river to Bright Angel Canyon on the other side . We took our packs off for a few minutes at the rest house while we ate a snack and listened to the very odd noise being made by a vent pipe located right next to it. We presumed this was letting air out of the pipe that carries drinking water to Indian Garden and thence all the way down to the bottom of the canyon, across the river under the silver suspension bridge, and on to the campground and Phantom Ranch (go back and take a look at the photo of the river through the floor of the bridge).
Above 3-Mile Resthouse the trail begins to get more heavily traveled. It is again built by laying logs at intervals across the path and levelling between them with dirt. Unfortunately, the mules have had quite an impact on this section of trail. As they step between the logs, they erode the level dirt, leaving large curved hollows that are hard to walk in; in some places, the depression is so deep you have to step from log to log. Worse, however, was the pervasive odor of mule urine. Manure, which is largely just decomposing grass, dries out and blows away pretty quickly. Urine, on the other hand, soaks into the dirt, and when it has been freshly rained on, its pungency returns full strength. It was noticeable for most of the middle stretch between the two resthouses. Maybe that's the time when most of the mules need to take a leak? At any rate, it made this part of the hike much less pleasant.
As we walked, we found that we had different ways of "taking it in stride". Dale and the kids tended to walk fairly quickly for twenty minutes or so, and then take a break. Ruth preferred to keep going at a steady, slower pace, often making use of the hiking poles and the "rest step" (where you pause momentarily as the foot you're moving forward passes the one on the ground — a little like a wedding step). Periodically she would catch up with the others, who would then finish their break and move off ahead again. It worked quite well for all of us.
We stopped for lunch at 1.5-Mile Resthouse. The rest house itself is quite small and is up a steep flight of stone steps; few people actually came up to it (except for a couple hoping the water had been turned on, which it would not be for another few weeks). So we had a peaceful meal pretty much by ourselves. In contrast, the toilets a hundred yards down the trail had a steady stream of customers .
Now we knew we were on the home stretch. It's pretty much all switchbacks from here, and the hike took on a slog-like quality. But there were moments of surprising beauty, including a section of switchbacks which were bounded on one side by a sheer rock wall; it looked like the path was about to simply end . We were now high enough to see the path going through Indian Gardens and beyond — where we had been! — with a definite feeling of looking "down" into the canyon . By the time the path widened and began its long sweeps back and forth along the cliff face approaching the top, it got positively crowded, and the "yob" factor went up considerably. A couple of groups of teenage boys passed us, actually running down the path and in some places sliding through loose earth to cut off the corners. More than once we had to ask groups of casual walkers on their way down to step aside a little so that we could get past them. On one occasion, Sarah got bumped almost off the path; she was actually quite frightened by it. But finally we were walking, together, past the turnoff to Kolb Studio and on up to the end of the trail. It was quite a triumph when we emerged just after 1:00 p.m. and saw that we were back on top!
Since we were parked only about a quarter of a mile away, we walked back to our van. The first thing we did was take off our packs. The second thing we did was take off our boots. Dale took the kids over to Maswik Lodge cafeteria to get ice cream while Ruth changed into clean clothes and then joined them. The weather was warm and sunny, and it's a safe bet that ice cream tastes best when you've just hiked for three days.
From there we drove to our hotel near Williams. We each had a hot bath, stuffed ourselves on all-you-can-eat spaghetti, and headed back for a solid night's sleep in a comfortable bed.
Tuesday, April 10-Thursday April 12: Dale was scheduled to give an invited lecture at UNLV later in the week, so we headed to Las Vegas by way of Hoover Dam. The new bridge over the Colorado River was not quite completed, so in time-honored tradition we drove over the top of the dam and then pulled into the new parking garage on the north side so we could take the "dam" tour. Ruth had done this in 1970 on a family road trip, and although they have made a few changes for security reasons, you can still go down inside to see the huge "dam" generators and the "dam" sluiceways. The exhibits in the new visitors' center were quite good, including a walk-through model turbine. It's hard to describe just how big the dam is; numbers like "3.25 million cubic yards of concrete" are hard to grasp. It's also a bit freaky the way the electrical pylons lean over the side of the cliff .
After all the hard work of the hike, we had decided to treat ourselves in Vegas, and stayed at the MGM Grand. It was certainly a beautifully-appointed hotel, but it's awfully big. The swimming pools (and, more importantly for stiff hikers, hot tubs) are about a 10-minute walk, through a mall no less, from the hotel lobby. Every time you go to or from the Strip, you have to — pardon the pun — hike through what seems like endless casino filled with zombie-like gamblers, being careful to keep the children moving at a good pace on the defined pathways so the security guards don't give you a hard time. The contrast between the simplicity of the Grand Canyon and the glitter of this artificial oasis in the desert of Nevada was a bit disturbing. Still, the room was excellent, and we had a cool view at night . During the few days we spent in Las Vegas, we did variety of activities:
On our final night, we headed to a small hotel an hour out of town in Boulder City to avoid rush hour the next morning, and then drove the 600 miles home the next day.
Resources: The National Park Service Web site for the Grand Canyon is a good place to start. Be sure you understand park rules, permits, dangers, etc. Grand Canyon Hiker is an excellent Web site for advice on equipment and planning, and a little Googling will find a number that are run by former park rangers with lots of tips and suggestions. There are a number of guide books available. If you are sticking to the "corridor" trails (Bright Angel and North/South Kaibab), you need only basic trail maps. Spend some time reading up on the geology of the Grand Canyon; the knowledge will add to your enjoyment as you move through the many ancient layers of rock.
Equipment and Food: Do some research on the Web well beforehand. Invest in a comfortable backpack with a proper waist belt and chest strap for better weight support, along with a well-fitting, comfortable pair of sturdy hiking boots. These are probably the single most important pieces of equipment; don't try to get by with everyday packs or footwear. Take a pair of sandals or flip-flops to wear in camp, to give your hardworking feet a break. Ruth occasionally has back problems, especially when sleeping on the ground. As a preventive or comforting treatment for chronic muscle pain, she has found ThermaCare heat wraps to be indispensable, and this backpacker air mattress is also very helpful. Everyone else in our family is comfortable with standard Thermarest self-inflating mats. A lightweight sleeping bag that stuffs or rolls into a moderate-sized sack is a must; unless you are hiking in winter, a three-season bag should be fine. Those little stuffable camping pillows help, too. Your tent should be relatively lightweight, but a moderate-quality one is fine. Ours, a 4-person Ozark Trail dome, was not intended for backpacking but was light enough to do the job nonetheless. Be sure you don't forget the poles and the fly!
One of the first decisions you'll need to make about food is whether or not you want to cook. If the weather is reasonably warm and you are trying to save on weight, we recommend skipping the stove. This also lets you skip the pots, pans, plates, cutlery, dish soap, etc. etc. You're only going for a few days, so your diet doesn't have to be a model of balance. You do need decent-quality protein (try tuna kits, hummus, and peanut butter), carbs (pita bread keeps well), some salty and some sugary snacks (gorp containing salted nuts and dried fruit is perfect), fresh fruit and vegetables (apples, oranges, and baby carrots travel well although they are heavy), and of course some powdered Gatorade or something similar for mixing on later days of your hike.
Keep in mind that you will be carrying out all the garbage generated by the stuff you carried in. This includes toilet paper if you need to use any outside of the established toilets! Bring several plastic grocery bags and a few zipper bags to hold it.