Continued (page 2 of 4)
South Kaibab Trail is a popular route into the canyon – it’s shorter than its counterpart to the west, the better-known Bright Angel Trail, by several miles and provides a more direct route to Bright Angel Campground, our destination for the next two nights. That said, it’s also much steeper than Bright Angel. The trail begins at an elevation of 7,250 feet. In 6.8 miles you drop 4,800 feet to the Colorado River. That level of steepness is difficult to comprehend, and the heavy fog that shrouded the canyon made it even more difficult to grasp. At one point, I looked over the edge and couldn’t wrap my mind around what I saw: The trail continued below us in a serious of endless switchbacks so steep they looked vertical. No human can walk on that, I thought. Yet walk we did, grateful for the metal spikes that gripped the granite boulders and stuck firmly into mud the consistency of potter’s clay. When we told people we were hiking into the Grand Canyon, they all assumed the trip down would be fast and fun – gravity would be on our side, right? Nope. After months of training, our muscles were strong, but how do you prepare your joints for seven miles of bone-jarring descent?
Occasionally, the fog would thin or lift, giving us glimpses of the canyon and reminding us why we weren’t at home enjoying the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. We missed the view at Ooh Aah Point (0.75 miles into the trip), ate turkey sandwiches with numb fingers at Cedar Ridge (1.5 miles – restrooms available but no water) and caught our first sight of the Colorado River at Skeleton Point (3 miles). The trail became even steeper after Skeleton Point, though the mist became lighter the farther down we went. As we passed the Tonto Trail junction and reached the Tip-Off (4.5 miles – restrooms available but no water), the point where the trail makes its final descent into the canyon’s inner gorge, we were switching on our headlamps to combat the dark.
Hiking the canyon in the dark wasn’t as frightening as it sounds. The trail is wide, and it’s not like we were enjoying tremendous views up until that point, but the darkness did make the hike seem longer. I imagined family members lounging at home in the stupor of tryptophan and pumpkin pie, planning Black Friday shopping excursions, while I looked forward to a freeze-dried meal of vegetable lasagna, campground toilets and a night sleeping on the hard ground. Grumpiness was beginning to take hold….
We began to catch glimpses of the lights from the ranger station and Phantom Ranch below us – too far below, I sourly thought. Finally, we heard the sound of the river, only to come across yellow caution tape barring access to the trail that would take us over Kaibab Bridge and to Bright Angel Campground. Rockslide. Instead we detoured along the River Trail to Bright Angel Bridge and, finally, the 33-site camp. I’ll be honest: The exhaustion was so complete by the time we reached the yellow caution tape that I contemplated forging my way across the rockslide or just setting up our tent on the spot. Fortunately, my partner in crime was a little more rational and kept us moving forward (the detour was about a half-mile, we later learned). We set up our tent by lantern light at about 8:30 p.m. and dutifully ate our freeze-dried meals, which tasted like a four-diamond feast after snacking on nothing but trail mix and Clif Bars since the turkey sandwiches. We climbed into our sleeping bags, noting it wasn’t nearly as cold as it had been when we started our hike so many hours ago….
I awoke the next morning to a tent filled with yellow sunshine and a feeling of intense pain in my calves. My calves: the one muscle I ignored at those early morning gym sessions for fear I’d wind up unable to fit into my favorite straight-leg jeans. Vanity hath been my undoing. Moaning dramatically but inspired by my desire to survey the surroundings, I stumbled out of the tent and into a gloriously sunny day. The sounds of other campers preparing breakfast were overpowered by the babbling of Bright Angel Creek. Bright Angel Campground (with year-round drinking water and restrooms) sits at the confluence of Bright Angel Creek and the Colorado River; many of the campsites sit on the shore of the idyllic creek. All around us, jagged rocks and reddish-purple craggy mountains stretched toward the sky, reminding us of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California (the campground sits at an elevation of 2,450 feet). Cottonwood trees lined the banks of the creek, their leaves a vibrant golden yellow. On the other side of the creek, a family of deer foraged for breakfast. Suddenly, my calves were the last things on my mind as I took in our surroundings. We’d made it. We were at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. And it wasn’t raining.