On Thursday at 9:55 am, I set off down South Kaibab trail to begin my first overnight backpack in Grand Canyon. Along for the ride was fellow astronomy geek and hiking buddy, Kevin Schindler. We had a permit for two nights at Bright Angel campground and one night at Indian Garden. Winter had set in for our arrival at the South Rim. Temps were in the single digits when we pulled into a parking spot near the Bright Angel trailhead. But the Sun was out and the wind was reasonably calm, which translates to rather chearful weather for this former Wisconsin boy.
We stopped at the Xanterra desk in Bright Angel Lodge to pick up our dinner and breakfast tickets. It was then a short walk to the bus stop where we caught the express shuttle to the South Kaibab trailhead. And after recruiting a volunteer to photograph me and Kevin at the brink of adventure, we set off on our hike. We kept an easy pace during the 6.9-mile hike to Phantom Ranch, drinking in the view at "Ooh Aah Point," snacking at Cedar Ridge and lunching at the Tipoff. About 5 and 1/2 hours after leaving the South Rim, we arrived at Bright Angel campground and set up our campsite. Tired, sore and famished, we set off for the 5:00 pm dinner at the Phantom Ranch cantina.
I had hoped to get the "Hiker's Stew" dinner but, when I called, the only openings were for the vegetarian dinner; lentil loaf. In hindsight, this was the perfect choice. The meal was hardy and filling without being too heavy. I still want to try the stew during a future visit, but wouldn't hesitate to take the vegetarian dinner, again. During the walk back to our camp site, we met the local turkeys. That's right, turkeys. A couple of toms that have adopted Phantom Ranch as their home in the canyon. I couldn't believe those fat, ripe birds survived Thanksgiving.
Friday after a breakfast of pancakes, eggs, bacon and coffee, we hiked the first 2 miles of Clear Creek trail. The trailhead is about 1/2 mile north of Phantom Ranch off the North Kaibab trail. Clear Creek trail was carved from granite and desert scrub during the Great Depression by a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) crew. The first mile ascends about 920-feet to a mostly level section 100-feet below the Tonto. The next 3/4 mile contours across the junction of the Tapeats and Vishnu Schist until reaching a drainage that allows an ascent of 100-feet to the Tonto.
Kevin and I took our time, making the 2-mile short hike to the Tapeats shelf at Sumner wash an all-day excursion. This was also something of a scout for me as I have a permit for three nights at Clear Creek, in March 2007. We stopped to explore vistas and rock outcrops. The geology along this stretch of trail is truly amazing. One of the most fascinating features of Grand Canyon, is the Great Unconformity. This billion year gap in the geologic record lies between the neatly horizontal Tapeats layers and the pink & black collage of Vishnu Schist. The stark contrast between the carefully-layered Tapeats sandstone and the schizophrenic randomness of the Grand Canyon Supergroup is both astounding and confounding.
Later at camp, we dined on freeze dried meals. I went for the Mountain House re-hydrated beef stew--mmmmm. Afterwards, we did a short loop hike by moonlight across the Black Bridge, west along the river trail to the Silver Bridge, across the Colorado and back to the campsite. We visited the cantina to write post cards and enjoy some hot cocoa before turning in for the night.
Saturday was my birthday. So, while hiking from Phantom Ranch to Indian Garden, we stopped at Pipe Creek beach for a cermonial dip of my trekking pole into the Colorado. We snacked at the beach and explored a small cave before taking on the Devil's Corkscrew. I was using trekking poles for the first time on this trip--they were a birthday present from my wife & son--and, my goodness, they were invaluable on the Corkscrew. It didn't take long to get into a rhythm with the poles during the ascent. And the ability to use my arms along this steep, switchbacking section really made a difference. I am a trekking pole convert.
Indian Garden was in shadow when we arrived, late in the afternoon. That's what the canyon is like in winter. The steep canyon walls shield bottom dwellers from the Sun much of the day. A given campsite at Phantom Ranch or Indian Garden may get direct sunlight only a few hours each day. A ranger at Bright Angel Campground had suggested we make the hike to Plateau Point to catch the last light of the day. So, after setting up camp at Indian Garden, we packed our dinners and stoves, and hiked the 1.5 miles to the Plateau Point overlook. Along the way, we stopped to get some shots of the waxing gibbous Moon rising over Sumner Butte and Zoroaster Temple. We also encounted a small herd of mule deer grazing near the trail. Dinner at Plateau Point was satisfying and watching the last light of day paint the canyon was, perhaps, the highlight of the trip for me.
Saturday night, the light breeze kicked it up a few notches to strong gusts. I had hoped the gusts would subside by morning but that wasn't to be. I prepared breakfast in the vestibule of my tent before packing for the hike to the south rim. This time of year, the Bright Angle trail gets direct sunlight only a few hours out of the day. We were hiking during the morning and early afternoon when you don't catch the sun until the last section of the ascent near the rim. But, despite the wind and chill, it was an enjoyable hike. We stopped to snack and catch our breath at the Three-Mile and Mile-and-a-Half resthouses. I pointed out some petroglyphs on a large boulder just above Mile-and-a-Half resthouse to Kevin and, later, to a family that caught up to us just as we were about to move on. We stopped for an ocassional photo op and to let a mule train pass. Upon reaching the rim, we dumped our gear in my Isuzu Rodeo and headed straight for the Bright Angel Lodge and a bread bowl of their hiker's chili.
It was a great trip, the only negative being that I didn't have a suitably warm sleeping bag for the cold nights. I'd packed a lightweight Big Agnes bag that is rated to 40 degrees. Lows were in the teens and 20's. I'm probably going to pick up a warmer bag before the Clear Creek trip, next March.