Grand Canyon Bright Angel Trail

March 3, 2009

I figured I missed the window of opportunity to hike the Grand Canyon about 20 years ago. Both the length and difficulty of this hike are outside my current comfort zone (2500-3000 feet/5-8 miles a day). Then it occurred to us that by backpacking, we could spread the hike over four days instead of two, camping two nights at Indian Garden and one at Bright Angel.

The permit process is complicated. Camping permits are doled out by the Backcountry Information Office on the first day of the month four months before the start of the hike. Reservations for meals and lodging at Phantom Ranch are governed by Xanterra, a megacorporation that operates 33 hotels, 53 stores, 66 restaurants, three marinas and five golf courses within national and state parks. Persistence paid off, and we eventually secured the camping permits as well as rooms before and after the hike at historic Bright Angel Lodge. To increase our odds, we chose dates in the middle of the week and very early in the year, so our biggest concern was the weather. We checked the forecast daily and did not commit until two days before the trip, which we spent racing around town buying new hiking boots, ice crampons and other supplies.

We started down Bright Angel Trail Tuesday, March 3, under perfectly clear skies. The first mile of the trail was a mixture of ice, dirt and mule exhaust. We weren't tempted to defile our new lightweight ice crampons. From the rim to Indian Garden, Bright Angel Trail drops 3100 feet in 4.6 miles. It's not so much steep as it is RELENTLESS. It took us five hours with stops to cool our feet and fight the squirrels for our lunch.

Indian Garden is a true oasis, shaded by giant cottonwoods and straddling a permanent stream that slices into the inner canyon. After a quick nap, we opted for a three-mile round trip trip to Plateau Point, a peninsula with stupendous views of the setting sun lighting up the layer cake formations of the inner canyon. We saw more than a dozen deer along the way, some of them grazing right next to the trail.

We were a little stiff the next morning, but the hiking was easy along a shelf above Garden Creek through colorful Tapeats sandstone. This leg of the hike was 4.7 miles with an elevation loss of about 1200 feet.

About 1½ miles below Indian Garden, we "cliffed out" at a hairpin turn, and to our right, the entire earth opened and fell away more than 1000 feet.

"We're going down THERE??! Holy %#@$!"

But the narrow ledge that circles down and around the "Devil's Corkscrew" is not as difficult as it looks, and after crossing over from Garden Creek to the Pipe Creek drainage, we had easy hiking beside a sparkling stream that tumbles about another mile to the Colorado River.

And speaking of "emptying into the Colorado River", you can't believe everything you read at Pipe Creek Junction. Very funny.

The last 1½ miles on a ledge above the Colorado River was euphoric, even though by then I was shuffling along in Tevas and moleskin. The fatigue was gone and we were only aware of the roar of the river, and the play of light and shadow on the red canyon walls and pale monoliths.

We crossed and endless suspension bridge in extremely high wind — not my favorite part of the hike — but on the other side was the most beautiful place imaginable to spend the night — next to a rushing stream in a narrow red canyon lined with lime green cottonwoods.

We both managed a bath in the stream (water temperature 52°), and looked up to see our tent and its contents parting company and cartwheeling in midair. We weighted down the tent with big stones, but were sandblasted all night long. Around 2:00 or 3:00 am, we took a walk to the restroom under a dazzling canopy of stars, but never thought to mark our campsite, indistinguishable from 29 other campsites next to the river. It took us quite a while to find our way home.

One of the advantages of our offbeat itinerary is that by being rotated 90° out of sync, we often had the trail to ourselves. This was especially true on Day 3, when landslides closed the Bright Angel Trail temporarily. It was a comfortable 75° when we started back up the River Trail. The uphill hiking was easy for us, and we arrived back at Indian Garden at 2:30 (five hours with stops from Bright Angel Campground).

The final day of the hike was the most difficult, with a +3000-foot climb including one mile of ice with backpacks. It took us 5½ hours.

A hot shower and a change of clothes was most welcome, second only to sitting quietly in the lobby at the El Tovar with a big, cold glass of beer and a laptop. We awoke the next morning to an eerie silence and a strange glow. Overnight more than an inch of snow had blown into Grand Canyon Village, and the temperature had dropped to 14°.

Our hike was physically challenging, but incredibly rewarding. I may have waited very late in life for my first descent of the Grand Canyon, but I don't think it will be the last one. Stay tuned!