Before I start my story, I want to thank the people without whom I would not have been able to accomplish this adventure. To my wife Jennifer, thanks for all the support, the trudging on large elevation hikes with me to make sure I was ready for the climbs, and all the positive encouragement as I was preparing. To our good friends Jeff and Susan, thanks for all the motivation, the training, the expertise, and the time spent bringing this novice backpacker up to the level of confidence necessary to make it to the bottom and back.
While hiking in North Cascade NP last fall, I got the crazy idea I wanted to hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon on my 60th birthday. Not sure of the full motivation. Maybe it was the mountain air of the North Cascades Mountains, or the fun I was having hiking, or maybe it was a mid-life crisis moment. Anyway, I talked with my friend Jeff, an avid hiker and backpacker, to see if he was interested in going with me. I did not even finish my sentence when he said heck yes! Turns out it has been on his bucket list for some time. A couple years ago, he day-hiked down to the mid-Canyon area and it cemented his desire to hike to the bottom. So, we set our goal and started preparing. We went through and inventoried all our gear by spreading it out all over the garage floor. For some reason, my 20-year-old stuff from when I was a Boy Scout leader was too heavy and outdated. So, I resupplied with modern gear and we planned a couple training events. Jennifer and I started doing an 8-10 mile hike with elevation gain once a week, me wearing my full backpack, so I could get in shape and ready for the big event. (I will do a separate post of the training. I thought you would rather read about the actual event first.)
As they say, going down is optional, coming up is mandatory. The main objective, other than to make it back up and out, was to make sure we enjoyed the time in the Canyon. So, we planned for Day 1 to be a trek down South Kaibab to Bright Angel Campground at the bottom. Spend Day 2 at the bottom exploring. Hike part way up and out on the Bright Angel trail on Day 3, spending the night at Indian Gardens and exploring the mid-canyon area. Day 4 back to the rim.
*Instead of the usual “trip” video I divided the video by day. Each day’s video link is included in that day’s description.
Our adventure began with a road trip in our motorhome. This was Jeff’s first time in a big coach and he fit right in. His week prior was long and tiring, he got very little sleep the night before we left, and the ride in the coach seemed to be just what he needed to rejuvenate and get going.
After getting settled in our RV spot, we spent some time in the evening getting a lay of the land. We found the backcountry office where our shuttle was to leave in the morning to take us to the trailhead. We got our first look at the canyon and even saw parts of our upcoming trail from the top. Dinner was a pasta feast to get us started on the right energy level.
Day one started early; we were at the backcountry office at 4:30 to catch the 5:00 am shuttle. We were numbers 14 and 15 of only 20 allowed on the shuttle at a time. The shuttle dropped us at the South Kaibab TH and we started down about 5:30. South Kaibab trail is about 7.4 miles and 4700′ down to our destination at Bright Angel Campground.
The early morning sun was just magnificent on the walls of the canyon. It seemed to bring out every imaginable color. We even managed to catch a sunrise from Ooh Ahh point.
The hike down went faster than I anticipated. It was a lot of steps and a lot of downhill, but the morning was cool and the scenery kept you from thinking about the physical act of hiking. We ran into Jeff’s friend Rader just before Tip-Off point and visited with him. Rader is a ranger at the park and he gave us a lot of neat recommendations and advice to follow.
It was not long until we caught our first glimpse of the Colorado River and the bridges that span it. Our trail took us over Black Bridge, the eastern of the two bridges. Just before we got to the bridge, we ran into our first mule train. It was pack mules carrying stuff up and out of the canyon. The leader told us that for $70 they will haul your backpack up. Now while that sounded like a good thought, it is not what I had been training for. We opted to decline and carry our own packs.
Black bridge is accessed via a long tunnel. You walk out of the side of the cliff from the tunnel, right onto the bridge. It was a big landmark for us, as that is the “bottom”. We made it. The bridge is made of steel hauled down by mule. It was built back in the late 1920s.
We arrived at Bright Angel CG about 10:00. Got set up in our campsite and spent the day exploring. Bright Angel Creek runs right through the middle of the campground and there are a ton of cottonwood trees where we could just lay in the grass, put our feet in the creek and relax. We even had lemonade from Phantom Ranch Canteen. Later in the afternoon we ended up moving campsites as the one we picked in the morning, with a lot of shade, was in the blazing sun by early afternoon. We moved across from it and along the river into site #10. A wonderful site right on the creek where we slept to the sound of creek and the cool breeze off the water.
As the day wore on, it really started to heat up. It was 130 degrees in the sun! So, as it was there, and that is what you do, we decided to take a swim in the Colorado. We found a nice place, Boat Beach, and took a dive in. Cold, YES!!!! Refreshing, yes. Couldn’t go to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and not swim in the Colorado.
As our first day came to a close, we took one last walk out to Silver Bridge to watch the sunset from the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Day two started with a spectacular dawn. The overnight weather was absolutely wonderful; 60 degrees with a slight breeze. We did not need the extra fly on our tents, so the view looking up out of them was spectacular. You could even still see the moon at dawn.
Day 2 was about exploring the lower canyon area around Bright Angel Creek and Phantom Ranch. It was amazing to just enjoy the wonderful scenery and experience the vastness of the Canyon. We started the day being spoiled with a full hot cooked breakfast from the Phantom Ranch Canteen; eggs, sausage, pancakes, OJ and of course, hot coffee. Our morning was filled with short hikes to keep us loose and in shape for the climb up.
After breakfast we donned our day packs and took a 2.5 mile hike along the River Trail to explore the Colorado River vistas. It is a loop trail from Silver Bridge to Black Bridge and above the south shoreline of the river. There are some great views of the river and we did some reconnaissance of the beaches on the south shore for our potential afternoon Colorado River swim repeat. We were surprised with the “rollercoaster” elevation change of the trail along the river but the elevation gain is what gave us the great views. There is an old electric tower building and a cable basket we explored as well.
During our hike down yesterday, Rader mentioned some waterfalls that we should visit. They were a short 2 mile excursion up and back the North Kaibab trail along Bright Angel Creek to Phantom Creek. We called them “Rader” Falls. We decided to put on our full backpacks to stay in shape for our hikes the next two days. The hike followed Bright Angel creek, up a beautiful canyon along North Kaibab trail for about 1.5 miles. We crossed two bridges and came to the confluence of Phantom Creek with Bright Angel Creek, just as Rader described. We switched into our water shoes to ford Bright Angel Creek and wade our way up Phantom Creek to “Rader Falls”. The falls were wonderful with a small pool at the bottom, and of course we took a swim because that is what you do when it is hot and there is cold running water. We had the whole place to ourselves and we hung out for a while and headed back.
We spent the afternoon being lazy around the campground, enjoying the cool breeze off the creek and lemonades from the Canteen. It was a little warmer today, the thermometer in the shade was bumping against the century mark so that called for another swim in the Colorado River, because it is there and we could. We enjoyed a giant ribeye steak dinner from Phantom Ranch to celebrate my birthday. In all a great, relaxing day.
As I mentioned, with the weather so nice we did not use the flys on our tents, we were able to sleep with a full view of the sky. The stars were crystal clear and we could even see the Milky Way.
Day 3 was the start of our hike out. Our goal for the day was to get up to the mid-canyon area, Indian Garden, in time to spend a day exploring that area. We set out about 5:30 to beat the heat and sun. It was a wonderful hike. Not too much climbing. The hike up to Indian Garden is 5 miles The first 2 miles is along the Colorado River and pretty flat. Then it turns south up the Bright Angel trail at the very nice River Resthouse where we had one last look at the Colorado before our climb up
The remaining 3 miles is a 1300’ climb along Pipe Creek and Indian Garden Creek. We were amazed with how lush and vibrant the canyon was as we climbed our way up. This was an oasis along Pipe Creek we did not expect and we were in the shade most of the hike. While it was not a hard climb, there were definitely some switchbacks to keep us alert and cognizant of the fact that we were hiking up a canyon.
We arrived at Indian Garden Campground a little after 8:00, got our site set up and had something to eat. We pretty much just hung out in the area. It was much hotter there than I anticipated, fortunately our campsite and campground area had abundant shade so we just explored and hung out.
The highlight of the day was the 1.5 mile hike out to Plateau Point to watch the sunset. It was amazing out at the edge of the canyon. The colors the sunset sun cast on the walls of the canyon were incredible. A great stay. So glad we decided to spend a night and see the mid-canyon area. The night skies were beautiful once again.
Our final leg of the journey, we knew, would be the toughest. It is over a 3000’ climb in 4.5 miles. This section of Bright Angel, despite its steepness, is actually a pretty structured hike. It is 4.5 miles up with rest stations every 1.5 miles and potable water at both. After a great night at Indian Garden, we were up early and on the trail by 5:00 to beat the heat. We did not want to be the guy on the warning signs.
Above the 1.5 mile rest house there are two tunnels near the top. There is also much more foot traffic as this is the section the “casual” hikers try. This is where all my training, motivation and drive paid off. There were plenty of tight switchbacks and the last 1.5 miles was steep, but I knew I had it conquered by then. The last tunnel was .2 miles from the trailhead and was a nice flat walk. We made the top about 8:00, had a celebration of our accomplishment, hung out and just enjoyed the view and tried to absorb the magnitude of the past few days.
That evening we did a side trip to Yavapai Point to watch the sunset one more time before we departed the canyon for good.
This really was one of those once-in-a-lifetime events for me. Not that I have not had others, but this one was unique. I set a goal to do this almost 5 months ago and worked towards it. The sights, the journey, the activity, the company were all so amazing. All the more so, I think, because of our preparation, which I could not have done without the help, support, and motivation from Jennifer, Jeff and Susan. Will I do it again, maybe, but I would change up the itinerary and start at the North Rim to go Rim-to-Rim. I do want to go back and hike with Jennifer down Bright Angel Trail as far as she wants to go so she can see the wonders of the canyon from within it.