The Grand Canyon is a place viewed by multitudes, but only really experienced by those who choose to venture below the surface. A mile-deep labyrinth that swallows you up and consumes the worries of the world above with the daily tasks of survival and wonder. A landscape on a scale that is difficult to fathom…. My husband and I have spent about a dozen weeks of our lives on backpacking trips into various regions of the Canyon. It is a place of unparalleled majestic splendor…
In October we ventured below the rim… again, to see places we had not yet explored. Our first time down from the north rim along the North Kaibab trail… our first autumn backpack into the canyon… And.. the first time we would spend all of our time on a popular “corridor” trail… teeming with curious day hikers and fanatical “rim-to-rim” racers focused on time and reaching their next destination.
Our journey was comparatively slow… seven miles of hiking to the next camping spot each day with side trips and pauses along the way.
The North Kaibab trail begins in a forest of pine and aspen just beginning to turn golden. Color dribbles over the edge to trees perched on steep slopes overlooking the canyon below. The first 2 miles through the Coconino Sandstone are shared with daily mule trains that pound the trail and leave behind occasional odoriferous obstacles. The journey of mule riders stops at the Supai tunnel. From here the trail narrows and the switchbacks shorten and descend to a small bridge across the side chasm below.
The next 3 miles take us along a ledge of rock through the redwall and mauve limestone layers to the confluence of roaring springs and bright angel creeks. The expansive views are of this single canyon that runs through the bright angel fault that traverses the larger canyon- rim to rim. A couple of miles beyond, we are 4000 feet below the rim. Cottonwood campground lies on the banks of Bright Angel Creek where we soak our feet and gaze at the walls as the sun throws shadows across the bands of rock and the moon climbs into view. Above us the lights of the north rim lodge glow in the night sky.
The next day of hiking is relatively level…. down along Bright Angel creek as it winds its way to the Colorado River at Phantom Ranch. We stop for a couple of hours at Ribbon Falls to enjoy this place we had heard about so often but never yet experienced. The travertine ledge where the water splashes relentlessly is covered in moss and almost tropical vegetation… an oasis in this dry desert landscape. We pause to scramble in the rocks, photograph, sketch and … marvel at the view.
…. then we continue our journey downriver. The final 3 miles or so is between narrow canyon walls with occasional slot canyons feeding in. The precambrian rock is angular and crystalline. Every curve brings a new view.
Phantom Ranch is just as I remember it… although it has been nearly 30 years since I’ve walked here. We choose a campsite and venture back to the ranger station, cabins and store/cafe. People gather here from various routes… the rim-to-rim hikers pause to refill canteens, mule trains bring people dressed fashionably and carrying large bags packed for their overnight resort lodging and prepared meals, others amble up from rafts that stop along the river for the night. There is a ranger campfire presentation and community gathering for beverages and camaraderie in the cantina after dark. A unique and memorable experience to be found 14 miles along the trail.
We spend two nights here at the farthest point in our current journey… and the weather above us spills into winter. Snow on the rim… wind and drizzle here. After some mishaps involving our camping equipment, we chance to inquire about the availability of cabins here- unlikely, as they are typically booked months.. even years in advance…. but the inclement weather on the rim has changed somebody’s plans and we manage to secure a single night in a rock cabin designed by Mary Colter. It is simple and decadently luxurious at the same time. We are given a key to the bathhouse where we languish in a hot shower with soap and shampoo. We sleep in bunk beds with clean sheets … and splurge on a hot breakfast of pancakes, eggs and bacon prepared in the cantina. Our packs are dry and our spirits light as we gather our belongings and head back toward Cottonwood campground where we will spend another night on our way back to the north rim.
As we walk along the winding narrows of Bright Angel Creek, we contemplate the journey ahead… 14 miles of trail and a mile in elevation. I am running on gratitude… realizing that I am seeing and experiencing this place I love in all of its glory… and that I may not pass this way again. Enjoying the moment… loving the adventure.
The trek out is slow… the landscape stretches before us and above us as far as we can see… the views all around us are familiar and sacred. We stop for photos, for snacks and for pure pleasure.
The snow begins to pelt us as we climb the last couple of miles. We pull jackets from our pack and prepare for the below freezing temperatures we will encounter on the rim…
Another amazing week of wonder is behind us… captured in our memories.
On this trip, we discovered that having a flexible schedule is all that’s needed to secure time on these Grand Canyon trails. While advance backcountry permits are competitively issued four months ahead of time… Several permits a day are held back purposely for popular corridor campsites. We arrived at the north rim backcountry office during the most popular month for hiking this trail and secured a four night permit heading down the trail the very next morning! (we were prepared to wait up to 3 days on a waiting list)! Perhaps next time we will add a couple of nights off the corridor by advance permit… At Clear Creek or Horn. Or, more likely, we will hike down Hermits, Boucher, Bass or Nankoweep trail next time!
Would I like another opportunity to venture below the rim? Sure… Let’s Go!