Sunset is always a special time at Grand Canyon. It's during the fading twilight that a new canyon emerges. Dull light and lengthening shadows conspire to tease rich color from the rock. The canyon reveals her deep reds and earthy hues. This was the world I entered at sunset on June 5, 2009 when I visited Grand Canyon on the eve of the longest day hike I'd ever undertaken.
The idea of doing the Hermit-Bright Angel loop as a day hike had come to me, just a few days before. Northern Arizona had just finished one of the warmest and wettest months of May on record. We'd been treated to rain on an almost daily basis the last half of the month. And the chill weather of the last few days was forecast to continue into the weekend. Despite being early June--a month when inner canyon highs often climb into triple digits--the weekend appeared to offer favorable conditions for this 24-mile long trek.
But why do such a long hike? What's the attraction? The thing about a long day hike is that it's not about fun. It's about constant walking and putting the miles behind you as quickly as possible. It's also about the pace. You need to set a pace that won't burn you out. There's no time for long, luxurious breaks in the shade by a flowing water source, and definitely no time to explore an interesting side canyon. It's about the pace, the miles and meeting a challenge. It's about pushing yourself to the limit and beyond.
Friday after work, I'd driven the 76 miles from Flagstaff to the Canyon. While showing my annual pass to the ranger at the entrance station, I asked if there were any openings at Mather Campground. She explained that Mather was full and suggested doubling back to Ten-X campground south of Tusayan. I nodded to myself in agreement and pulled away from her window to enter the park. Ten-X would have openings but, first, I wanted to visit Mather Point for sunset. The parking lot at Mather was surprisingly empty but there were still several hundred visitors roaming the rim and drinking in the spectacular view.
The golden hour having passed, I left the Mather Point parking lot and drove back to Tusayan. Stopping only to hit the Burger King drive thru for dinner, I cruised through town, south of the airport and looked for the signed turn to Ten-X campground. I've camped here with Matthew several times and felt confident there would be open sites. It didn't take long to find one. After delivering my one-night fee to the self-service pay station, I laid out my sleeping bag in the back of the Rodeo and crawled in for a few house sleep. It was 9:00 pm and my watch alarm was set to go off just six hours later at 3:00 am.
The route for this day hike begins at Hermits Rest west of Grand Canyon Village. Leaving the rim, I would descend to the Tonto platform via the Hermit trail, follow the Tonto trail east to the Plateau Point trail and Indian Garden, and then use the Bright Angel trail to reach the rim. I parked my Isuzu Rodeo at Bright Angel trailhead just before 5:00 am and walked to the Hermit Route bus stop. The shuttle arrived as scheduled, picked me up along with five other hikers and began its leisurely progression toward Hermits Rest. Some 40 minutes later, I stepped off the shuttle and made a b-line for the trailhead. It was 5:53 am when I set boot to path.
Initially, my thoughts were focussed on the task at hand. If I maintained an average pace of 2 mph, it would take 12 hours to complete the 24-mile trek from Hermits Rest to Bright Angel trailhead. That estimate didn't include any time for rest stops and lunch. So, I added an hour to make 7:00 pm the goal for finishing the hike. But at 6:45 am when I rolled into Santa Maria Spring, my focus was more immediate: Put as many miles behind me as possible before the sun got too high. So it was that, after a short break, I resumed the trail with an eye towards Cathedral Stairs.
I passed two hikers just a few minutes down trail from Santa Maria Spring. They were heading for the rim and we exchanged brief greetings in the chill morning air. At 7:45 am, I passed through Lookout Point. At 8:14 am, I was at the top of Cathedral Stairs. And at 9:18 am, I was standing at the signed junction of the Hermit and Tonto trails. What a difference a couple of years make. In May 2007, I did the Hermit-Bright Angel loop as a multi-day backpack. Leaving Hermits Rest at 8:15 am, it had taken five hours to reach the junction with the Tonto trail. Of course, much of that time had been consumed by frequent stops for photo ops. Also, I was suffering from the heat when I made the turn for Hermit Creek on that 2007 trip. On this day, it had taken less than half the time to arrive at the Tonto and I turned the corner heading east feeling strong. I was more than 6 miles into the hike and anxious to begin the 13 miles of trail that would take me to Indian Garden.
The Tonto trail between its junctions with the Hermit and Plateau Point trails rolls for approximately 13 miles across the broad plain of the Tonto platform. Along its path, the Tonto passes through several significant side canyons, including Monument, Salt and Horn. En route from Monument to Salt, the trail passes through Cedar Spring in a minor unnamed drainage off the north face of The Alligator. When I'd first hiked this stretch of trail in May 2007, I didn't encounter anyone between Monument Creek and Plateau Point. That experience would repeat itself on this hike.
Cresting the ridge north of Cope Butte, I met a family of four taking a mid-morning break. They'd spent the night at Monument Creek and were on their way to Hermit Creek. Normally, I would have paused to chat. But with 17 miles yet to come, I stopped just long enough to exchange itineraries before continuing down the trail. Perhaps 15 minutes later, I met another party. This was a group of four hikers from Europe; Germany or Austria would be my guess. They'd camped at Horn and Monument the last two nights, respectively, and were also en route to Hermit Creek. I stepped off trail to allow them to pass and, once again, was off.
It was 10:07 am when I arrived at the Monument Creek campsites. I was 4:14 into the hike, had covered more than 8 of the 24 miles and felt confident about what lay ahead. Since my 3:00 am breakfast, I'd snacked on trail mix and a bit of jerky. My stomach was begriming to complain about the diet so, I decided to stop for an early lunch. Normally, I like to take an hour lunch break but I didn't have that kind of time. I devoured the salami, cheese and bagel sandwich in about 15 minutes. The remainder of my 35-minute break was devoted to filtering enough water to top off my 3-liter bladder. There would be no reliable water sources between Monument and Indian Garden
I left the quiet confines of Monument at 10:40 am. When I'd hiked from Granite Rapids to Indian Garden in May 2007, I didn't see another person between Monument Creek and the Plateau Point trail. That was an experience I would repeat on this hike. The isolation of Grand Canyon hiking is one of the attractions that draws me to this place. The quiet and solitude make room for the mind to wander. Miles and time pass with minimal attention given to my surroundings. Cedar Spring came and went at 11:20 am, Salt Creek at 12:05 pm and Horn Creek at 2:12 pm. I took short breaks at Salt and Horn but, while on the trail, my mind often turned away from the canyon to random targets.
Beatles lyrics often come to mind, especially "The Long and Winding Road." If I was stuck in an elevator with Barack Obama, what would we talk about? People working on faster-than-light travel make the mistake of assuming you've got to build an engine that will accelerate a ship to light speed. The better approach is to design a field generator that causes the universe to perceive the ship as having no mass. If it has no mass, the universe will accelerate the ship to light speed. Is that coyote scat? Should I write that letter to Brett Favre encouraging him to not play for the Vikings? These are the issues that weigh on my mind while hiking Grand Canyon.
Approaching Horn Creek, I looked toward the South Rim for an old companion. I had camped at Horn in May 2007 and was pleasantly surprised to realize the head frame of the Lost Orphan Mine could be seen from this region of the Tonto. But on this day, the South Rim didn't look right. The head frame was missing. The Lost Orphan Mine had been dismantled. While I can appreciate the park's interest in preserving the park as a wilderness area, I also believe its important to preserve evidence of our human impact on the Canyon. Ancestral puebloan ruins that are protected, as a matter of policy. We should also preserve the remnants of modern human activities. In the aftermath of Powell's 1869 expedition, many of the first white men to visit Grand Canyon were miners. The trails they built are still in use, today. And when they realized there was more--and easier--money to be made catering to visitors, those early miners traded in their pick axes to promote the Grand Canyon as a tourist destination.
Mining has played a central role in the development of Grand Canyon. And the men who operated those mines played a central role in the evolution of Grand Canyon into one of the most-visited natural wonders on Earth. So, while it may not be fashionable, I believe it's important to preserve this bit of history.
I rolled into Indian Garden at 3:15 pm and took a much-needed break. Indian Garden is home to the world's most intelligent squirrels. These critters will do anything to pilfer trail mix. I've seen them work in tandem with the skill and artistry of seasoned grifters. In between squirrel assaults, I managed to snack a bit, re hydrate and get to know some of the other hikers resting at the benches. But all too soon, it was time to move on. The rim was still about 3 hours away and I wanted to be out before dark.
Leaving Indian Garden at 3:45, I made good time on the trail and covered the 1 1/2 miles to the first rest house in 45 minutes. At 4:30, I climbed the steps into 3 Mile Rest House and promptly shed my pack and lay down on one of the benches. After hiking more than 22 miles during nearly 11 hours on the trail, there was a subtle twinge of nausea. It wasn't serious, but would need to be managed. So, I gave up on the notion of finishing the hike before 6:00 pm and focussed on two things: slowing the pace and taking regular breaks.
After a 30-minute rest, I resumed the trail and began the climb to the next rest house. At some point, a French student came alongside and, in halting English, explained that he was spending the summer in America on an internship. He asked if I we could talk while hiking so he could practice his English. It was just what I needed, someone to help keep my mind off the exhaustion, sore muscles and nausea tugging at my gut. So, we hiked together to 1 1/2 Mile Rest House. He did most of the talking. Occasionally, he'd flip through the pages of his French/English dictionary to find the right word. I don't speak French so, but we both could speak passable German. Several times, I used a German word to help convey the meaning of my thought. This conversation, which progressed slowly in fits and starts, was probably the most fun thing I had all day.
As usual, I caught something of a second wind near the top of that really long switchback between the two tunnels in upper Bright Angel. This wasn't the kind of second wind that had me feeling I could tack on another mile or two. Rather, it was the kind that allowed me hike at something approaching a normal pace. I topped out at 7:08 pm or 13 hours, 15 minutes after I'd left Hermits Rest.
At 24 miles, this is the longest day hike I've done in Grand Canyon. It pushed me to my limit, leaving me exhausted and sore. But finishing the hike also gave me a sense of accomplishment. A hike of this magnitude is no small task and the knowledge that I'm capable of covering 20 or more miles in a single day gives me the confidence to take on new trails and challenges in this amazing place we call, Grand Canyon.