Our Grand Canyon Hike

Trip Start Apr 30, 2010
Trip End Sep 05, 2010

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Flag of United States  , Arizona
Thursday, May 13, 2010

An Early Start

As planned, we woke up to the watch's beeps at 6:00am. The sun was already quite high and bright, and we only took a few minutes to sort ourselves out and jump into the front seat, still in our pajamas (which for Matt included his ski jacket shell – he found it really hard to acclimatize to the new cooler weather). We needed to get to the Backcountry Office to line up, which was about 25 miles down the road from our site. We figured if we got there by about 7am we would secure our place in line and, if need be, could take turns holding the spot while the other got changed or made breakfast and coffee at the van.

Well, we were certainly the first people there. Still a bit bleary eyed, we peered through the glass doors of the office to look for signs of life. Matt noticed a clock on the wall – that read 6:25. Bewildered, we double and triple checked my watch. No, it’s 7:30, I insisted, they should be here to start opening up any minute. A pair of fit-looking ladies in matching olive green shirts and pants came from around the corner, sipping coffee and chatting. Phew!

They studied us quizzically, and confirmed what we had thought: The Backcountry Office does indeed open at 8am. Then they added, we’re just maintenance staff, so you have a good hour and a half to wait if you want to go get coffee or something to eat.

Hour and half? Um, so it is in fact 6:30?

So, it turns out that we were caught by a sneak time zone change again (oh yeah – did I mention that one snuck up on us in Nashville?). Anyhow, it turns out that Arizona is the only state in the country that just isn’t into Daylight Savings.

So have we been an hour off ever since we got here? How can that be – we know we were on the right time at several of our pit stops, we checked.

Well, if you were on Navajo land then you would have been right. They change their clocks for Daylight Savings. But Navajo land is about a third of the state, so it would be easy to lose track.

So, we managed to be in one of not many parts of the only state in the country that doesn’t change their clocks on the one morning of the trip when we were getting up at 6 – well, 5 on their time really. Did it pay off?

Not really.

We made our toast and coffee and basically loitered by the office for about 45 minutes on our own. Finally another keen pair showed up – Dave and Susie from New Mexico. Well, Dave is originally from Ohio and Susie’s a Vermonter (St Albans) but they now live in NM and visit the Canyon occasionally. Like us, they were hoping to get a last minute pass – unlike us, they already had permits for the next night, and were hoping to add a second. Since you have to apply four months in advance for a permit (we didn’t even know how extensive our trip would be way back then) we inquired how they had managed to secure one. Dave had actually driven from Northeast New Mexico about a month ago to apply in person and had lucked out.

Our hopes rose for a while as it was only us and Dave and Susie, but around 7:30 others trickled in – and we learned that you usually need two days’ time to get a last minute permit, So, the people rolling in at quarter to 8 actually already held waiting list tickets numbered from yesterday, and were technically ahead of us. Boo.

So, we didn’t manage to get a hold of a permit. We would have been 4th in line for a Friday night pass, but we needed to keep moving to stay on track. One other funny moment in that whole ordeal though, was when we overheard some French – Québécois French – and got to share the news of the Habs’ victory to some fellow fans who hadn’t heard. Turns out they were from Pointe Claire! Good timing.

Bright Angel Trail

Since we didn’t get permits to stay in the Canyon over night, we planned a day hike instead. We decided to do a part of the Bright Angel Trail, one of the most popular trails of the Canyon. We packed our bags – lots of water, snacks and sunscreen – and set off.

Before describing our hike, I should really point out a few key facts about the Grand Canyon. If you’ve been, you know that nothing can really prepare you for how absolutely immense it really is. The Canyon is 277 river miles (446km) long and ranges between 8-16 miles wide (13-26km). The walls plunge 4,600 feet 1,400m – pretty much a kilometer and a half. Personally, I don’t really do a lot of canyon-comparing, but I think I’ll trust the Grand Canyon Visitor’s Guide when they claim that, "the Grand Canyon is the canyon against which all other canyons are compared".

Initially, the walk down Bright Angel Trail is pretty easy, really fun actually. The trail is hard-packed dirt with perpendicular logs set in the earth every meter or two to provide some footholds. We scampered down, breezing past other more precautious downhill hikers and of course past many red-faced, slow moving uphill ones. Of course we knew that for all the easy gliding downhill, there would be an arduous climb back up, but we did want to get some terrain behind us so we wouldn’t have to rush back when the hike was more difficult.

Bright Angel Trail winds its way to the bottom of the Canyon through a series of steep descents and zigzagging switchbacks. Our plan was to go to Indian Garden, which was described by Visitor’s Guides and friendly Canyon staff as an attainable day-hike destination as well as a rewarding, shady midpoint. Round trip, our hike would be 9.2 miles or 14.8km. The vertical drop would be 3,060 feet, or just shy of a kilometer. The Canyon Guides estimate that the round trip should take 6-9 hours.

The descent into the Canyon is incredible, and really is difficult to describe. I hope the photos will do it at least some justice, but the dazzling colours, precisely striated textures and sheer enormity are hard to wrap your mind around. The other bizarre part is that you’ve seen the Grand Canyon so many times: on postcards, on TV, in National Geographics and it’s so utterly iconic that when you look at it in person it almost seems like an enormous false backdrop. Your mind can’t fathom that you are looking at actually rock and not some incredible trompe l’oeuil mock up.

We heard many different languages spoken as we picked our way down the trail, and saw people from all over the world. Some elementary school kids doing a survey informed us that “there are a lot of Canadians here today” so I guess we were often among our own kind (and we did see one Habs shirt for the record – he puffed a Go Habs as he labored uphill past us).

We took a break at the Three Mile Rest Stop for about half an hour to snap photos and fuel up while we chatted to Andrew, a well-travelled Aussie who’d actually been to Montreal and found it surprisingly quiet on New Year’s Eve. We told him to go back when the Canadiens were in the playoffs and see what he thought then.

Indian Garden

After about an hour and half, the flora of the Canyon began to subtly change. For the first few kilometers down, the land on either side of the trail was dusty, hard packed and offered mostly squat shrubs and the occasional splotch of bright but spare desert flowers. As we neared Indian Garden though, the flowers became more frequent as well as more varied in colour. Soon, the trail was lined with bursts of purple, orange, white, yellow and crimson. Pale green cacti with round, flat plump leaves appeared – a few at first and soon they were choking the sides of the trail. A patch of trees was visible, and had been for a while, but from a distance it had just seemed like a tiny, compact bunch. Now, we realized what a garden Indian Garden really was – cottonwoods towered overhead, with dense dark leaves creating a thick canopy above. The Garden Creek rushed by gurgling in the background. Everything was suddenly green and cool and the air felt river-damp.

There is a collection of little buildings in Indian Garden, camping cabins, restrooms, and ranger stations. There is also a water fountain and a few picnic tables scattered about. We sat down at a table to enjoy the lush shade and guzzle more water and Gatorade – we drank several litres throughout the day – and as it turned out - fend off the pushy Canyon squirrels.

We rested for about half an hour and then prepared for the long hike back up hill: all planning documents and staff advise you to allow at least twice the amount your descent time to get back up. We had taken about two hours to get down, so we were looking at about four hours uphill. At this point, the sun had come out and felt fierce on our skin, even though the temperatures in the Canyon were only supposed to be in the low to mid 70s. The weather and temperature difference from rim to bottom can be drastic – a few days later, the Canyon temperatures were forecast to be in the 90s even though the top would only reach about 75 during the day.

The first few kilometers felt great – we couldn’t believe how quickly we made it to the Three Mile Rest Stop. We stopped nonetheless for water and sunscreen, and continued on. We were still holding a pretty quick clip on the second leg. I had to push a bit to keep up with Matt, who’s naturally faster than I am, but we both felt good and kept a pretty steady pace compared to the last section, 41 minutes for the first 1.5 miles, then 49 for the next, which got a bit steeper (of course I was timing us). That last third though, was tough. I guess if you’re reading this you know either me or Matt and probably aren’t surprised that maybe we went out a bit too hard at the start (mostly Matt of course). He didn’t crash as hard as I did, but we both were definitely laboring up that last leg, especially the last kilometer or so.

For me, my body wanted to shut down a bit because I knew I was close to the end – but the tricky part is that as you gaze up at the towering layer of rock that stand between you and flat ground, you can’t really tell where the actual end of the cliff wall is. Several times, we said to each other, “ok – just make it to that next ledge and we’re there!” and then you get “there” and realize it’s just an overhang from the next switchback.

But when we did reach the real “there” it felt pretty awesome to high five each other and look down – waaaaaay down – at the tiny dark speck that was Indian Garden.

Final stats: That last third up was our slowest: 55 minutes of grueling uphill. Total roundtrip time: 6:13:58 (including 1 hour 48 minutes of rest and fuel time) just over the Canyon Guide’s low hike time estimate of 6 hours. Woo hoo!
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