It is 9:45 a.m. on a beautiful March morning and I am just starting down the South Kaibab Trail to spend a night at the Bright Angel Campground, located at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, across the Colorado River and near to Phantom Ranch.
I will be coming back to the rim the next day for a trip most would consider as Grand Canyon Backpacking 101. Newbies will invariably try for this itinerary as their introduction to the canyon. Although I have been hiking in the canyon for more than 40 years, I am excited to step foot into the abyss, as this is my first hike since an accident four months earlier.
That was on Black Friday this past November when I was hiking out in the western part of the canyon with two hiking buddies. I stepped on a large rock at the edge of a ravine that went flying off, along with me. My knee bent ninety degrees the wrong way. Jamie and Doug rushed to my aid and helped me to a place of safety until help could arrive. So ended my fourth attempt to hike around Fishtail Mesa on what is known as the Esplanade level.
With my knee in a short, flexible, brace, I gingerly headed down the icy switchbacks at the start of the South Kaibab. The Kahtoolas on my boots felt very reassuring. There were many hikers on the trail, but it didn’t feel especially crowded. I had surgery in late December to repair my torn meniscus, but am still uncertain about whether I will get surgery to repair my torn ligaments – the ACL, PCL and LCL. My doctor advised me to keep the pack weight down and mine was 16 pounds, consisting mostly of my tent, sleeping bag and water. For meals, I was able to make reservations at Phantom Ranch.
Most casual day hikers only go as far as Cedar Ridge, which is 1.5 miles down the trail and I reached in less than an hour. There is no water along this trail, but there is a toilet facility here and a chance to wander out along the broad terrace to the north. It is about another mile and a half to the top of the Redwall, called Skeleton Point, and this section is one of my favorites.
The trail gently drops down through the Supai formation and then you have a nice flat walk out to the point. This took me an hour and was a nice place for another rest break. From here, you can see the river and the area of Bright Angel Creek just above the campground still far below you.
The hike down the “red and white” switchbacks of the Redwall is quite grueling. In the summer, this can be brutally hot until very late in the afternoon. There are many, many, many switchbacks and you begin to wonder if they will ever end. But they will, and after more descending the trail levels off briefly to cross the Tonto Plateau.
It had taken me another hour to get here. My knee was doing fine. I was getting tired, which is to be expected. My feet were getting sore, which is also par for the course. And, I was also getting hungry, as it was now well past noon. I had come down 4.5 miles, but still had 2.5 miles to go to reach the campground.
The trail drops off the plateau and into the inner gorge, which is composed mostly of the shiny black Vishnu schist. In May, June and July the walls reflect so much heat that you feel like you’re in an oven. But today, in late March, the weather is great -- a bit cool and mostly cloudy -- with more and more blue sky opening up over the course of the day. I only hiked down below the Tonto for about 10 minutes before stopping at one of my favorite spots to have my lunch. I can’t remember the last time I had a tuna fish sandwich at home, but I almost always have one when I’m hiking.
It was 3:00 p.m. when I reached the black bridge that spans the Colorado River, which is some 4,800 feet below the rim. The campground is less than a half mile away and there will be plenty of spots to pick from at this time of the day. A few hours later, it will be full up with backpackers that have made camping reservations up to five months in advance.
About 20 minutes after arriving at the campground, two other hiking buddies met up with me. John and Jim had taken over my eight-day permit (obtained before my accident) and were coming back out from Clear Creek. Their last night would be with me on my one-night permit. After setting up camp, I made the half-mile trek to Phantom Ranch to get some lemonade and to buy a tee shirt and post cards. I thought I would have the chance to fill them out before dinner, but my exhaustion was kicking in and I postponed the letter writing until later in the evening.
We were able to get the 5 p.m. steak dinner at the ranch, which can be reserved up to 13 months in advance. We sat next to Karen and Christy who were from Texas and doing their first hike in the Grand Canyon. We chatted with a few other guests during and after dinner before returning to our camp. By 7:30 p.m. we were all ready to turn in for the night.
It was a challenge to get up the next morning when the alarm went off at 5:00 a.m. But, we had been able to sign up for the early breakfast, which was motivation enough. Sitting is a real chair, with the smell of bacon in the air and a cup of hot coffee made the half-mile walk well worthwhile. Of course, there was also the eggs, the pancakes and the fruit that filled us up. We dropped off our post cards in the canteen’s mail bag, which gets carried out by mule.
By 8:00 a.m. I was all packed up and ready to start the slow hike back up. My companions left about a half hour later and would catch up to me at the top of the Redwall. As I walked along the sandy trail near the bridge, I stopped to talk with some of the trail crew. They had come down to Phantom Ranch in order to erect a new plaque commemorating the designation of the black bridge, built in 1928, as a “National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.” I would have liked to stay and watch them finish the job, but I have many miles and many hours to go.
This day was warmer with lots more blue sky than the previous day. I was slow, but steady, hiking up. I felt more confident in my knee going uphill than I did coming down, so I was less anxious hiking out. I reached the top of the Redwall by noon, and took a long break. I reached Cedar Ridge at a quarter to two and stopped for about 40 minutes. In my journal I wrote, “Doing ok. Tired & slow.”
I topped out on the rim at 3:45 p.m. feeling quite worn out, but very much pleased about my continuing recovery and my ability to keep doing that which I am so passionate about -- hiking and backpacking the Grand Canyon. As I gazed once more at the canyon, my thoughts turned to this coming Thanksgiving and a possible return to Fishtail Mesa. Perhaps the fifth time will be a charm.