The last time I visited the Grand Canyon, I was working the night shift at the A&W Root Beer Stand. Al and I were bored and decided spontaneously to have breakfast the next morning at the Grand Canyon Lodge. We left work about midnight and immediately set off on the five or six hour drive, arriving just as the sun was rising above the canyon.
We stopped a couple of times to ooh and ah, but mostly we needed coffee, so we were waiting by the door of the restaurant in the famous Grand Canyon Lodge when they opened. We probably didn’t look too good, and it’s possible we smelled worse. In any case, we were taken to a table by the kitchen door, far away from the windows and their great views of the Canyon, and were served the quickest breakfast I have ever eaten, our plates cleared away even before we could get the last of it in our mouths. We were in and out of there in about five minutes. The Bum’s Rush. Outside again, we looked at each other and sighed… Time to hit the road again. We were due back at work.
For well over 40 years, I’ve wondered two things. First, who was looking out for us as I briefly fell asleep at the wheel on our way home. And, second, what was the Grand Canyon really like. I had a couple of free days last month to find out.
I didn’t have much more of a plan this time than I did years ago. I was in Phoenix to attend a high-school reunion and I had my backpacking gear with me. I thought I would visit the Canyon after the reunion, snag one of the two or three daily wilderness camping permits the Park Service reserves for people like me who don’t plan ahead, and get down to the river and back up in a couple of days.
On Sunday, I lingered over breakfast with friends I’ve known since grade school, then started toward the Canyon mid-morning. There was little traffic until I reached the Park entrance. Then, suddenly, there were five lanes of cars, stacked about 10 deep. Yikes! I planned on camping in the on-site campground while I was here. I hoped the people is this crowd were all day visitors.
About 20 minutes later, I made it to the front of the line. I showed my lifetime National Park pass to get in. (This is the one and only advantage of getting old, but an incredible bargain at a one-time cost of $10. You can pick one up, until Congress gets wind of this, at age 62.) I asked for directions to the Backcountry Office and headed straight there, even before I knew if I could find a place to camp for the night.
The rangers in the Backcountry Office are incredibly kind and helpful. But, they are used to dealing with, you know, tourists. They think any five mile hike into the canyon is going to be cause for a rescue helicopter. In any case, dropping hints that you might be an experienced hiker who just finished 500 miles on the Colorado Trail doesn’t even phase them. I’m sure they have good intentions, but I would take their extensive advice with a grain of salt if this isn’t your first time hiking. My advice: bring a stick to bash over the heads of the idiots who stand on every overlook and holler to one another on the South Kaibab Trail. This will be much more useful to you than most of the advice you get at this office.
In any case, there were no openings for wilderness camping the next day, so I was given a number (4), which the ranger assured me would get me one of the three permits he expected to become available the next day, for travel the following day. Normally, a number 4 would assure me the number 1 tomorrow, and delay my entrance into the canyon by another day. But, in this case, the ranger was sure the person with number 3 tomorrow was not going to show up (everyone has to be there at 8:00 AM sharp to win the prize), so it looked good for me. I had no problem securing a camping site in the campground for the next two nights.
As it happened the next morning, the people with numbers 1 through 3 did show up, causing me worry, but I did manage to obtain a permit to camp, not down in the Bright Angel Campground on the river, where I wanted to camp, but in Indian Gardens campground, an area about five miles down the Bright Angel Trail and about 4.5 miles from the Colorado River. With my camping permit squared away, I had a day to fool around and do the tourist thing in the Grand Canyon.
Public transportation in the Park is terrific. I left my car parked in the parking lot near the Backcountry Office, took a bus to the Visitor’s Center, then decided to walk the three miles or so back along the Rim Walk, stopping wherever whim took me to enjoy the sites, museums, and shops. A Monday in October is not a particularly busy day at the Park, and while there were certainly a lot of people, it didn’t feel overcrowded.
One of the things I noticed in particular on my rim walk is that even though there are plenty of iron bars and hand rails at the overlooks, there are plenty of places where tourists in flip-flops and other appropriate footwear can walk out as close as possible to the edge of the canyon and scare themselves to death. To my eye, these young people (almost exclusively 15-25 year olds) looked like candidates for the Darwin Awards. My recommendation to the Park maintenance people is to install more loose gravel.
In the course of my wanderings, I came upon reference to the Hermit Trail, a trail at the far end of the Rim Drive, accessible by bus, and said to be a “difficult” and lightly maintained trail into the Canyon. “This is more like it,” I thought, and made plans to hike down this trail later in the day. It turned out to be a wonderful trail, and a lot less difficult than many of the trails I hike in Colorado. And, of course, there were far fewer people on this trail than on the more popular trails in the Park. I walked about half way down the Canyon, ate a late lunch, and walked back up. It really did not seem like a big deal to hike in the Canyon, although it wasn’t hot, about 80 degrees or so. The most difficult part of the hike was dealing with all the aircraft noise. Small planes and helicopters flew around the Canyon rim constantly. While Canyon air space is more regulated now than it used to be, I found it constantly annoying while walking in the Canyon.
As a result of this excursion, I decided I would hike down the South Kaibab Trail in the morning, spend a few hours poking around near the river, then head up the Bright Angel Trail to camp at the Indian Gardens Campground. I wanted to get an early start, so I was at the Backcountry Office parking lot, with about 30-40 other people, at 6:00 AM the next morning, waiting for the express bus to the Kaibab Trailhead. I had taken care of my business before leaving the campground, so I didn’t have to wait in what looked like a two-hour line to use the bathroom at the Trailhead. I was on the trail by about 6:30, with the sun making its appearance. I was probably in the first group of 20 or so people to head down the trail. There may have been 100 people milling around, some with backpacks going down to camp, many others carrying day packs and just going on a day hike, not intending to go all the way to the river.
I’m not a particularly fast hiker, especially going downhill, but I passed a fair number of people and was, in turn, passed by others, usually much younger than I am. I don’t mind being passed by young hikers, I usually reel them in on the up-hills. But, there is enough of the old road racer in me that I still hate being passed by someone my age or older. I try to be gracious about it, however, when yielding the trail. Probably half the hikers on the trail are unaware of trail etiquette and fail to yield even when you are clearing your throat and clanking your trekking poles on rocks behind them. I had to ask several groups if I could move past them.
Speaking of trail etiquette, I’m sure the Grand Canyon seems like one of the world’s sacred places to others besides me. I feel a reverence walking into it. The beauty is palpable. And, I can understand a person getting excited about it. But, would you holler and scream in the Sistine Chapel? In the Cathedral at Notre Dame? Why do you feel a need to scream your friend’s name at every single overlook!? I finally spoke to a couple of young men after I caught up with them. Thankfully, they understood what I was talking about and gave it a break, which was a welcome relief for the second half of the trail down.
Over the years, I had heard much about mule trains in the Canyon. Mostly about how difficult they were to pass on the narrow trail. I didn’t find the trail particularly narrow or difficult to find a place to step aside when a mule train approached. What I did find interesting about mule trains, however, was how many mule skinners were extraordinarily beautiful women. Almost half, I estimated from my limited experience. Too many for it to be a coincidence. I learned later that if a mule skinner’s picture shows up on a blog, and other mule skinners find it, the person in the picture has to buy everyone a round a beer. So, I guess there is good reason for this delightful hiring practice. It would certainly give me reason to hire a mule when I can no longer walk the Canyon.
About five minutes after I arrived next to the Colorado River, there was a tremendous racket, and I looked up to see a helicopter circling around me, coming in for a landing at a small helipad next to the Ranger Station. I hustled over there, hoping to see someone air-lifted out to the hospital in Flagstaff, but this helicopter was delivering supplies in duct tape-wrapped Styrofoam coolers. Beer, it looked like. I asked about it, but couldn’t get an answer from the Ranger. “You’re tax dollars at work,” is all he would say.
I hung out near the Phantom Canyon Ranch for a couple of hours, re-hydrating, eating some lunch. Just as I was leaving, I encountered Fort Collins runner Dan Berlin and his entourage passing through. Dan is blind, and was doing a Rim to Rim to Rim run. Fantastic achievement and he was running strong when he passed me at the bottom of the canyon.
It was a little past mid-day and about 80 degrees, not hot, so I decided I’d start up the Bright Angel Trail to Indian Gardens. As I started up, I began to notice other hikers on the switchbacks and trail above, and–naturally–this got my competitive juices flowing. This is, of course, ridiculous for someone my age, but I seem to be wired with the same instinct mountain lions use to go after running prey. Sigh… Without going absolutely crazy about it, I decided to see how many of these folks I could reel in. The backpackers, who had spent the night at the campground near the Phantom Canyon Ranch, were easy pickings. Almost to a person, they had large backpacks and were moving slowly, with plenty of rest stops. Of course, I had a backpack on, too, but I had stripped it down to essentials, and it didn’t weigh more than 15 pounds, even with all the food I had in it. The day hikers gave me more trouble, but I was passing them regularly, too. I recognized some of them as having passed me on the trail on the way down to the river.
I took a long break near a stream, where I took off my shoes and used my handkerchief to give myself a sponge bath. Almost no one passed me. Eventually, I just pushed on to Indian Gardens, arriving about 2:30 in the afternoon. I took a quick look around, ate some food, then decided that, truthfully, I am more of a hiker than a camper. I decided to forego using my camping permit and push on to the rim, another 5 miles uphill.
I got up to the top about 5 PM, having caught up with everyone I saw on the trail in front of me while I was hiking, except for one couple who were running down to Indian Gardens and back to the top. They blasted by me both ways, as if I were standing still. I could have stayed with them, I thought wistfully, if I were 20 years younger.
It was a great day. Beautiful, taxing, and with just enough competition to make it interesting. Just about everything a perfect hike is suppose to be. Next time, I’ll probably travel less popular trails and maybe plan for a camping permit in a less popular location. But, do go for it. You will love it!
You can see a collection of these and other Grand Canyon images in my Grand Canyon Gallery.