Rim to river and back again at the Grand Canyon

Trip Start May 07, 2011
Trip End Nov 09, 2011

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What I did
Hiked down the South Kaibab trail
Saw a rare California Condor
Saw a Big Horned sheep
Spent the ~7 hours at Indian Gardens avoiding the sun
Started up the Bright Angel trail at 0530
Slept under the stars
Saw a Bark scorpion
Had feet nibbled by small fish
Saw very tame Mule deer
Saw many squirrels and lizards
Sat in Bright Angel creek to keep cool
Camped at Bright Angel Campground
Set off at 0530, just after sunrise
Emerged at the South Rim at 2000 very happy

Flag of United States  , Arizona
Monday, June 6, 2011

We left Boulder City this morning after driving around for a while looking for more quails and roadrunners. We saw another large family of quails crossing the road and about eight big horned mountain sheep. All these animals roam freely around the sleepy housing estate. We've seen more nature here just sitting in the car than we did in hours at the Big Morongo Canyon Reserve!

We spent the rest of the day driving to the Grand Canyon passing through historic Williams on the way. It's a stop on Route 66 so has plenty of old fashioned diners and a saloon with a woman leaning out of the upstairs window to entice you in

We stayed in a motel just outside the Grand Canyon National Park and spent the evening researching what to do while we are here. We got excited thinking about hiking to the bottom of the canyon, staying the night and hiking out the following day. Matthew was so excited about this idea that he didn't sleep.

Day 2

Got up early to get a back country permit. The park restricts the number of people who can stay over night in the Grand Canyon and the permits get booked up months in advance. If you turn up early the day before you plan to hike though, you have a good chance of getting a cancellation permit. We got to the permit office at 8am but Alison's knee was hurting so we thought we'd better not attempt it. Very disappointing. We decided to just do a day hike to test ourselves (especially the knee) first. 

We drove to the rim and parked at the Bright Angel trailhead. The view is spectacular! It's very difficult to describe it and you even struggle to capture the grandness with a photo. Matthew tried very hard though... The views put you in a great mood and really wake you up.

It was only 8am when we parked but the sun was already high in the sky. Boots on and daypack full of snacks and water, we walked down to the 1.5 mile rest house. The trail really isn't very steep and we found it much easier than we were expecting. The walk also did Alison's knee some good and it pretty much stopped hurting. We decided we could walk to the bottom and back again after all! Excited once again.

The scenery on the way down is like nothing we have ever seen before. It also changes quickly as you go down. The trail follows a natural line along walls of the canyon so there is plenty of shade at all times except the midday hours. We stopped and had a snack and a rest at the 1.5 mile rest house before returning to the rim. This trail was the original trail that native americans used to reach an oasis called Indian Garden where they lived in the summer, growing crops and fruit. A miner then bought mining rights along the route and extended the trail down to the river. We don't know what happened to the native americans but the miner opened the trail to tourists and charged $1 per person to use the trail. Originally, people would only travel by horse or mule and it was so steep in parts that the mules had to slide down on their bottoms. 

On the way, we met a park ranger who checked that we had brought enough water and some snacks. He told us he'd walked down and back 4 times a week for the last 10 years! That's about 2000 times! He had walking poles and a heavily strapped knee but moved much faster than we did.

We passed a few exhausted looking people carrying heavy backpacks who must have come from the river at the bottom. Carrying almost nothing, we felt fresh and found the walking quite easy. The trail is way less steep than Catbells in the lakes which was our last walk in the UK. 

As we got to the top, we heard the whistle and huffing and puffing of a steam train. This was a nice sight. It really suited the place. We went back to the back country permit office and asked about getting a permit. A ranger gave us a ticket which put us second on the waiting list for tomorrow's cancellation permits to walk the next day. The permits they give out are always for the following day so you can make an early start and beat the heat. Very excited now!

Buzzing, we treated ourselves to some cowboy steaks in a local saloon to feed our muscles. Tasty. After lunch we drove along the South Rim scenic drive which tracks along the rim edge for about 15 miles. Great views all the way along. The sun was starting to set casting great shadows which played across the gorges. We wandered along the top until we started to get tired, then left the park to find a motel.

We checked in to the 7 Mile Lodge in Tusayan just outside the park entrance. The motel owner told us that Harvey is a famous name around here and that a Fred Harvey built the first hotels and restaurants in the park and helped establish the tourism in the area. He also started the first restaurant chain in the USA, putting them at strategic stops along the Santa Fe railroad, becoming incredibly wealthy in the process.

Day 3
Neither of us slept well again due to excitement and nerves. What if we don't get a permit? What if we injure ourselves and can't walk out? What if we get bitten by a scorpion?

We got to the permit office for 0800 which is when they give out the cancellation permits for the following day. Being number 2 in line, we got a permit without any problems. The ranger man who helped us had pristine hair which impressed Alison greatly. He looked like Harvey Keitel (but with better hair). We checked that we could get away with out the tent and he agreed that he wouldn't bother with a coat either. We asked him about scorpions and he said "There are more than you'd think. In fact, my colleague here got bitten just last week!" 

The Grand Canyon is home to the bark scorpion which is the most venomous in north america. They are about 1.5 inches long and blend in to the rocky background. He said that we should be fine as long as we shook out are boots, didn't go around barefoot at night and didn't pick up rocks. If we did get stung then we could console ourselves that we wouldn't die. It'd just hurt. A lot.

Permit collected, we went to the local store to buy supplies. Alison hired some trekking poles for $2 a day to help take the load off her knee and we bought iodine to treat our water, energy bars and some bagels, ham and cheese. Afterwards, we stopped by the Mule Corral to visit the mules. They are quite inquisitive and some come to the edge to see you. Unfortunately you aren't allowed to pet them. 

The mules are used to carry supplies and tourists. Mules are smarter and better natured than horses or donkeys and inherit characteristics from both parents. Mules are stronger and need less food for the same size horse. We really liked them. Much better than horses. If you want to ride a mule to the bottom and back, you have to book about a year in advance and have no fear of heights.

Afterwards, we returned to the motel to pack our bags and get an early night. We plan to be hiking by 0530 to avoid the heat of the sun. Very very excited now and a little nervous.

Day 4

Neither of us slept very well due to nerves and excitement. We were half awake when the alarm went off and it didn't take us long to put clothes on and leave the motel. We drove to the Grand Canyon as it started to get light and got there at about 0430. We parked the car at the top of the Bright Angel Trailhead, filled our water bottles and walked to the bus stop. The sun rise today was 0512 and it is spectacular over the canyon. At the bus stop we met a fit Californian girl who was doing a day-hike down the South Kaibab trail. There was also a german couple and a single guy who were hiking to the bottom as well as us. 
On the bus ride we ate some poptarts and granola bars for breakfast. The sun came up as we were on the bus making the sky suddenly a lot lighter. We saw some nice mule deer in the road. Not sure what they drink up here since there are no streams. Maybe they get all their water from the vegetation.  

Once we get off the bus at the trailhead, we are greeted with a stunning sunrise view over the Grand Canyon. This place looks like nothing we have ever seen. We set off down the trail and the day hiker quickly leaves us behind. The walk is not at all tiring and the views are unbelievable. Shadows play over the landscape and they change really fast as the sun rises. It was nice and cool at the top but as soon as the sun comes up, it starts to heat up. There is no way we could do this in the mid day heat with our packs on. There is no shade on the South Kaibab trail. This trail is more recently made with parts where the path leads out on top of a ridge to jutting points with 360 degree views. Unlike the other trails this one was totally man made (rather than following natural erosion paths and animal tracks) and there is no water. About a mile down the trail is a "Ooh Aah Point". It isn't sign posted but you know it when you reach it. The view opens up and you get about a 300 degree vista. There are rest houses at roughly every 1.5 miles which is a good distance to stop and eat something and have a short rest. There were about 6 other people making their way down the trail at roughly the same pace as us. One guy was limping with a strapped knee right from the start. Didn't look fun.

Every time you turn another corner or drop another down via a switch back the view changes, especially as the sun is rising at the same time. You find yourself saying 'wow' all the time. After the third rest point there are no more rest houses until the end of the trail which is about 2.5 miles further. By this point the sun was getting hot even though it was only about 8.30am. This is the point where you descend into the gorge with the colorado river at the bottom. There is little breeze here and the heat is becoming stifling. We are very glad we didn't leave any later in the morning than we did

On the way down, we had to stop for about 20 minutes to let a mule train pass us on its way up. At the head of the train were some cowboys leading 4 or 5 mules laden with camp goods. Then followed more cowboys leading tourists on mule back. Most of the tourists did not look happy. Probably due to the sheer sides to some points of the trails and just having to trust their mules. Also, the trail is very dusty so most people were wearing bandanas over their faces to avoid breathing in the all the kicked up dust. It was a great sight but the sun was still rising while we waited for them to pass. We got our first glimpse of the Colorado river from this point, still a very long way below.

We were now completely exposed in the sun and getting hot. After a long series of switch backs, we finally found a shady spot to cool down in just before the South Kaibab bridge over the river. So hot. The bridge is reached through a short dark tunnel. Not long now.

We made it to the Bright Angel campground by 10am (4.5 hours, 7.1 miles, 4780 feet descent). We could have walked faster but the views are so incredible that you have to spend time to take it all in! No point racing and missing out. All the walkers seemed to arrive within minutes of each other. Just before the campsite, there was a sheltered seat and a note directing hot, exhausted walkers to go sit in the Bright Angel creek. Tempting but we just took a minute to sit in the shade and drink some more water. Fantastic feeling knowing we'd made it!

Very hot, we found a camping spot and stored all our food in the canisters. You have to store all your scented items to prevent animals such as the squirrels and ring tailed cats from chewing holes in your packs and tents. Neither of us had ever been this hot before. Even though we constantly sipped our drinks on the way down we were still dehydrated by the bottom due to sweating so much in the dry heat. Now that we had stopped, Matthew started shivering. In 100F heat. He didn't feel like he had heat exhaustion but maybe he shouldn't have run around so much taking so many photos on the way down!

The heat down here is unbelievable and there is only a little shade provided by some thinly leaved trees. The Bright Angel creek runs along side the campsite so we sat in the creek to cool off. To start with we just dabbled our feet but later on in the afternoon it was so hot we just sat in the creek fully dressed - and you dry off within no time at all when you get out! There are little fish in the creek that nibble on your toes. Tickles. The water is less than 10C but you can comfortably sit in it and still be too hot in the sun. We were really looking forward to the sun going down. Not carrying a tent meant that we had lighter packs but it did make escaping the sun difficult. Matthew tried to build a small shelter with our ground sheet but the wind was so strong that it acted as a wind tunnel and covered him in dust. Scratched his kindle too. Grrr. The wind was gusting up to 40 miles an hour today but was really really hot. We returned to the creek.

The camp is also home to some friendly mule deer. They like to stay down here because the human presence has chased off all their natural predators. Very dosile, they eat leaves off the shrubbery and walk right by you.

Our cheese had completely liquefied so we had to make do with salami bagels and some pretzels for dinner. Afterwards, the german couple joined us for a while and we swapped stories about our trips. They were on a month long honeymoon visiting national parks. They were from a quiet village in Germany and weren't impressed with the lights and excesses of Las Vegas but enjoyed the national parks here. Their highlight was spending a week in Sequoia and seeing two bears.

Just after the sun set (thankfully!), the camp ranger gave a talk telling us about what to eat and drink down here to keep from getting dehydrated and losing all our salts. He also told us about the animals native to the area including rattlesnakes, bark scorpions, squirrels, mule deer, ring tailed cats and big horned sheep. Surprisingly, the most dangerous animal is the squirrel. They have been fed in the past and now bite. They look cute but carry diseases including rabies. As we were walking to the talk, a deer walked by and we spotted some squirrels tearing apart someones backpack. The backpack was hung up to keep it away from the animals but it wasn't high enough. Two squirrels were climbing around inside the pack and Matthew chased them away. They had made big holes and chewed through some of the straps. The pack had been open but they must have preferred to make their own entrances. 

The ranger told everyone to eat as much salty junk food as possible and to continuously sipa water. We ate and drank continuously all day long but it is very hard to stay hydrated down here.

After the talk the ranger gave a really interesting question and answer session about anything to do with the Grand Canyon. The Colorado river is the biggest killer in the canyon drowning people and causing hypothermia. It reaches a depth of 80 feet in parts but is only 45 feet deep near the camp. About 20000 cubic feet flow past per second. It's very fast flowing and murky brown as it carves away the canyon. 

He also told us about the history of the trails and where the water for the Grand Canyon village comes from. The national park has no rights to the water from the Colorado river so they have to pump water from a creek north of the canyon. There is a pipe which takes the water down the North Kaibab trail,  across the river and all the way up the Bright Angel trail to the village above. The pipe is made from alumin(i)um so it often breaks. It had actually broken the day before we got down here but lucky for us it was fixed just before we arrived. We did have iodine tablets to treat the creek water but it's much easier and better tasting from the tap.

After the talk, the ranger took us on a scorpion hunt. Being near the summer solstice, it wasn't really dark enough when he took us out. The scorpions are nocturnal and won't even come out in the full moon. We did see two scorpions though hiding between rocks in the wall of the mule corral. One hid straight away but the other just sat. Until a moth fluttered by it. Then it sprang to life and scurried out and chased the moth. Truly horrible. One minute it is as still as the rock and the next it's an fast moving monster. All this while it was hanging upside down to rock. The ranger told us they can live for years without food or water. A researcher friend of his kept one in a glass jar for two years without feeding it. It didn't move once in that time but as soon as he put a moth in to the jar, the scorpion sprang to life and ate it. The picture we took of the bark scorpion is not very clear so see some more here if you like.

It is now completely dark except for the stars so we go to bed. After checking all over our ground sheet for scorpions! Matthew wanted to go turn over rocks looking for more but Alison wouldn't let him. Sensible. They are really hard to spot anyway since they are tiny and camouflaged. The ranger only found them by shining a UV lamp on them. They fluoresce and no one knows why.

We slept on our ground sheet in our sleeping bag liners. Well, we watched the stars for a while first. You can hear the creek and some cicadas or the local equivalent. Going to sleep in just a sheet was easy but we woke up at about 0300 cold. Putting on some of our dusty clothes fixed it. 

Day 4 Hiking out

We woke up at 0400, surprisingly not too sore and feeling quite fresh. No scorpions got us either although Alison went from fast asleep to sat bolt upright in a flash when Matthew accidentally touched her! Breaking camp and eating a bagel didn't take long but somehow we left just after 5am. First we crossed over the Bright Angel trail bridge before starting up the Bright Angel trail. The sun was just rising over the canyon rim and it gets light very quickly. Even before sunrise it is quite light. As we walked alongside the river, the sun just crept over the edge casting a golden red reflection in the water. Very pretty against the muddy, browny green water of the Colorado river.

The strange thing about the bottom of the Grand Canyon is that the coolest part of the day is actually about an hour after sunrise. The heat gets stuck inside all night long but as the sunrise only hits one side of the canyon, thermals start to pull some of the heat out. This means that walking up early in the morning isn't too bad and it gets a little cooler before heating up again. 

This morning we were only walking up to Indian Garden where we planned to sit out the heat of the day and wait for the sun to start its descent in the late afternoon. Walking up hill with your pack on is really difficult in the heat and you can lose well over 2 litres of sweat an hour. June, along with July and August are the danger months at the Grand Canyon where the temperature reaches over 100F (38C) below the rim and that's in the shade. It's much much hotter feeling in the sun. There is little water on some of the trails and none at all on others so every year people need rescuing with heat exhaustion, dehydration and hyponatremia. There's also the odd death. There are warning signs everywhere telling people not to leave the rim unless they have plenty of supplies and not to walk between 10am and 4pm due to the extreme heat. 

This trail follows a natural creek water course up to Indian Garden so there is plenty of shade along the way. It is only 4.5 miles up but we are very tired by the time we get there and very very hot. We were in the sun for about half the time. Most of the way up to Indian Garden you walk next to a small creek. It's very tempting to jump in and cool off. If we had done that though, it would have taken longer to get the Indian Gardens and proper shade. In total it took about 3 hours to get to Indian Garden and we were exposed in the sun for at least the last hour of the walk.

The Grand Canyon is a strange place to walk in. Every time you pass through to a different layer of rock, the colour of the walls and dust changes. You also tend to get a different view as the different layers have eroded at different rates. There are 11 visible layers of rock with the oldest being about 2 billion years old. Each time you drop down a level, you tend to get a completely different view. A lot of the canyon is hidden from the top and the bottom is much further than you'd guess from looking down at the trail heads. At the bottom, the walls are close together and steep so you don't see the Colorado river from either trail head and you can only see it from a few viewpoints along the scenic drive.

At Indian Garden, we found ourselves a spot to wait out the sun and the heat. Matthew promptly fell asleep. Neither of us were very comfortable but it would probably have been much worse trying to walk all 9.3 miles in one go. At our spot, we saw a few more mule deer, lots of desert spiny lizards doing press-ups and many squirrels. There was also a raven which liked to hop along the ground and chase squirrels. Mostly the time was passed by watching the wildlife, reading on our kindles (best inventions ever) and dozing in the shade. The garden is very shady with many trees. The lizards provided much entertainment running through the crispy dry undergrowth and trying to impress each other. We watched two lizards on a tree performing a courtship. The male one had a bright blue under carriage whilst the female had a red head. The male chased the female around the tree doing press-ups to impress her. We watched for over two hours but she wasn't having any of it. She out press-upped him at one point. Matthew took many photos of a blue damson fly (we think) which wasted the camera battery. The dust of the Grand Canyon has made the camera unreliable and it may be on its last legs. It's only a year old but the dust is causing focusing issues and the lens mechanism keeps jamming up requiring a reset. Shame. Nice camera.

We'd had enough by 1530 so we decided to start up the trail once again. The sun was still up but would be setting in the next hour or so anyway. Alison didn't really enjoy this part as much due to being tired and hot. Alison now loves hiking poles though and wants to get some for the lake district. They take a lot of weight of your knees and allow you carry a heavier pack and use less energy. About 1.5 miles up, at the 3 mile rest house we were passed by a incredibly fresh looking guy who had walked down the South Kaibab trail yesterday like us, but had walked half way up North Kaibab trail today and was walking all the way up Bright Angel today! He wasn't even sweating. He had the tiniest bag and we have no idea how he carried enough food and water.

After enjoying the view for 10 minutes (read: resting), we carried on up trail. The day before, we didn't think the trail was very steep but it must have gotten steeper over the past two days. Or it could be that our legs are tired this time.

Next we walked up to the 1.5 mile rest house but just as we got to it, a big horned sheep jumped down onto the trail in front of us. We stood watching it for about 10 minutes as it ate shrubbery. They are the muscliest animals we have ever seen and they live on the cliff faces. The ranger last night told us he once watched a flock of them run to the edge of the rim and jump over the side without even looking. When he looked over they were about 100m below and fine. Eventually we made lots of noise and walked towards it. The sheep reluctantly left the path to us and carried on munching leaves whilst balancing on a rock. We got a few photos but the battery was going flat and they were coming out blurry so we carried on. Alison was getting tired at this point.

The last 1.5 miles took us a lot longer today but the sense of accomplishment kept us going. Being able to spend time in the Grand Canyon really makes you smile. It's a magical place. Just to prove it, the canyon gave us a parting gift of a rare California Condor perched on a rock about 100m from the top. Amazing and very lucky. There are only only 73 condors in all of Arizona and only 181 in the wild. In the fading light we could just make out that it was tagged number 46. Mostly we could just see its silhouette but we took a few pictures just before the battery died. It was huge and is the largest north american land bird. We looked it up on the internet afterwards and found the most amazing photos of it here. Definitely take a look! After a few minutes it lolloped to the edge on its big feet, spread its wings out and dropped off the cliff. Swoosh. Amazing and a great way to end the trip. 

The condor recharged Alison and we made it up the last few feet with big smiles on our faces. Weirdly we bumped in to the day hiker who started with us yesterday watching the condor as well. Matthew ran back to the car to get his phone so we could get a triumphant photo of us at the top. Made it!


South Kaibab trailhead to Bright Angel campground: 4780 feet down and 7.1 miles
Bright Angel campground to Bright Angel trailhead: 4380 feet up and 9.3 miles
Total: 9160 feet and 16.4 miles
Number of photos: 872

This trip gave us a massive buzz from start to finish. After dropping off the trekking poles, we went for a meal to celebrate. Yes, they have a McDonalds at the Grand Canyon! Alison had a Quarter Pounder with cheese and Matthew had a Big Mac. Delicious after a diet of pop tarts and bagels.

By now we were hobbling on our sore feet so we asked for a ground floor motel room and had no trouble falling straight to sleep (after showers!). Totally amazing trip! 

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