The Grand Canyon Reprised – 43 Years After
November 17-18, 2019
Bright Angel Trail down, 10 miles, 4,400 ft.
South Kaibab Trail up, 8 miles, 4,780 ft.
The Grand Canyon at Sunrise
My first trip down the Grand Canyon was in November of 1976, on the Dartmouth College Geology field camp, affectionately called the Stretch. That was my first view of the Canyon, and its immense majesty struck me then, and on each subsequent visit. That trip was a quick 2-day blast down the Bright Angel Trail, an overnight at Phantom Ranch in the bottom of the Canyon, followed by a quick trip up via the South Kaibab Trail, a shorter but steeper route.
I had been watching the website to see if I could grab a couple of nights at the Phantom Ranch in November, and finally got a break; two spots in the Phantom Ranch bunkhouses, and a night at the Thunderbird Lodge on the South Rim the night before. The spring and fall are peak season for tourists in the Grand Canyon – summer in infernally hot, and the winter can be quite cold and snowy.
The Grand Canyon is a peculiar hike – everybody can go down, but many can’t make the climb back out (almost a mile vertical). Ignominious failure is remedied by an emergency mule ride out – a very expensive mule ride indeed. Despite facing a knee replacement in April of this year, Martha agreed to come along to get the last full measure of her OEM knees before the replacement parts are installed. Trusting to luck, vitamin I, and a high tolerance for pain, we headed into the Big Ditch (as the locals call it).
Happy Hikers headed down into the Big Ditch
The Grand Canyon boasts some of the clearest air in the US, which makes the views even more spectacular. We arrived during the close-out of controlled burning of undergrowth, and I was worried that we would not get the great clear air for views and photos. Fortunately, the wind picked up from the SW, and the air steadily improved over our visit.
The Battleship Formation
Hikers on the Bright Angel Trail
The Canyon is a 5,000 ft cut by the Colorado River through 2 billion years of rock. The rock was uplifted as part of the Colorado Plateau in the Laramide Orogeny. The cap rock is the Kaibab Sandstone, which forms a massive erosion resistant cap, about 1,000 feet higher on the North Rim, than the South Rim. Amazingly, the Canyon is only about 5-6 million years old – testament to the amazing power of moving water.
The Canyon was one of Teddy Roosevelt’s first targets for a National Park, but competition from commercial interests delayed its inclusion in the Park system until 1919. The physical beauty of the Park, and the amazing trail system and lodges make it a tourist magnet, with constant struggles for increased utilization through aircraft and updated/increased facilities against the desire for peaceful enjoyment and preservation.
An Angular Unconformity
Morning Moon over the Canyon
Bright Angel Trail, following the Bright Angel Fault
Interlaced sandstone and limestone in the first light
This is desert country, with 6 different ecological zones as you descend the Canyon; but it is all desert, and it gets hotter as you descend due to air compression. You really need to have at least 3 liters of water per person on this hike, with more in the summer. There is very little vegetative shade (only at Indian Springs – about 1/3 of the way down), and hikers can expect to cook in the sun and heat.
Indian Springs, with a mule deer
Colorado River from Plateau Point
On the way down Martha took a rest at Indian Springs, and I tool a quick run out to Plateau Point to enjoy the view and get my first view of the Colorado River. It is about a 3-mile round-trip from Indian Springs, but dead flat, good trail and spectacular views – well worth the effort.
The trip down from Indian Springs to the River is easy, with only one section with switchbacks. The trail along the River is spectacular, and the built environment at the Phantom Ranch location includes Indian ruins – people have been at this location a very long time. The trip along the River affords the chance to see the dark Vishnu Schist which was the constant harbinger of trouble for Major John Wesley Powell and his crew in the first water passage through the Canyon in 1869.
The bridge over the Colorado to Phantom Ranch
The food and accommodations at the Phantom ranch are excellent for US based wilderness providers – very good food, clean sheets and showers. We met a very interesting couple who do this hike several times per year and really know the best routes. After a good night’s sleep, we grabbed an early breakfast, and were off before dawn; determined to beat the heat of the day on the way out. We enjoyed the beautiful dawn and solitude before the crowds got out of bed.
Temples of Zoroaster and Brahma
View from the South Kaibab Trail
Nearing the Plateau
The trip up was fast, but shared with numerous ascending mule trains, which are long and malodorous. The South Kaibab Trail is a crowd favorite, affording terrific views within 1.5 miles of the trailhead. Accordingly, the last hour of the hike was a maelstrom of people and mules on a very narrow stretch of trail – not a lot of fun. The last bit up to the Plateau is an amazing series of switchbacks – really quite a feat of backcountry engineering.
Final switchbacks on the South Kaibab Trail
On balance this was a terrific trip, and well worth the effort. I’ve been a fan of the “Big Ditch” since my first visit in 1976, and I was very glad to be back.
Adios, from the Grand Canyon