I found it easy to identify with Colin Fletcher’s “The Man Who Walked Through Time”, during my recent trip into the Grand Canyon. Not only was I walking through geologic time as Colin had in his epic 1963 journey as I made my way to the bottom of the Canyon but I was also retracing my steps of 41 years ago when I made my first descent (on my first backpacking trip) to the Colorado River as a wide eyed 20 year-old, fresh out of South Jersey. Additionally, I was accompanying my older brother J, on his first trip to the Canyon and his first (and last, I think) backpacking trip. In a different sense, we were going back in time on another level, spending more time together than we had since we ran from dawn till dark in the summers of our youth.
Almost a year ago, my brother decided that he needed to visit the Canyon after an afternoon of watching three consecutive Discovery Channel shows about the Top Ten Places to _______________. Apparently all the shows listed the Grand Canyon as the #1 spot on Earth to see and my brother being my brother, made up his mind that he needed to put it on his “Bucket List”. Then he called his little brother, knowing that I had some experience in matters concerning the great outdoors. I told him that I’d been to the Canyon a couple times before and had hiked to the bottom once, a long time ago. He asked for my advice on the best way to experience the Canyon and I told him that since he wasn’t a backpacker/hiker, I thought his best bet would be to sign on with an rafting outfitter and float through the heart of it. Good advice I thought. Only way to fully experience the canyon is from within.
My brother didn’t think so (probably after he saw the prices), because instead of taking my advice, he continued asking me what it would take to hike down to the bottom in terms of equipment and conditioning. I humored him, answering his questions to the best of my knowledge, all the while not really believing that he was serious about it. I should have known better, but since this was so far outside of his box, I thought it was something he simply couldn’t do. I should have known better.
He originally wanted to stay at the Phantom Ranch but after a little research we found this option to be nearly impossible, unless you’ve got thirteen months to spare. Being 65, my bro didn’t feel like he wanted to wait that long. On to plan B - backpacking to the bottom and back, spending three or four nights in the canyon.
Based on my recommendations and his own research he started buying good gear. I stressed lightweight, high quality stuff and that’s exactly what he got. I’m not exactly sure at what point in this process I said, “I might be able to go with you if you’d like,” but whenever it was, he bit and I was in.
Applications for campground/backcountry reservations in the canyon have a four month lead time so we applied on June 1st for our first choice, the month of October. After failing to secure a permit for October, we resubmitted on July 1st for November and were successful, getting four nights in the canyon starting on Monday the 7th.
November’s getting a little late to be backpacking, especially when you’re trailhead is at 7,000 foot above sea level. Still, statistical temperature data looked promising - Ave. high on the South Rim for Nov. 7th is 57, low 27. No big deal. Better yet, ave. high and low at Phantom Ranch for the dates we’d be there was 72 and 50. Maybe November wouldn’t be too bad after all.
Day 1 ~ Fort Collins to Grand Canyon NP
Left the house at 5:30 AM on Sunday, the 6th of November, to catch my 8 AM flight from DIA to Phoenix. I arrived Phoenix a few minutes after my brother arrived. Made our way to the rental car terminal and then northward to the canyon. The weather in Northern Arizona had turned from warm and sunny to cold and snowy just in time for our arrival.
Arrived at snowy Grand Canyon NP around 4 pm.
A snowy scene at the Bright Angel Lodge - November 2011
The rooms were tiny with just the barest essentials but did include a mouse which ran across the floor while I was talking with my wife on the phone. We’re talking old school accomodations here.
Went ouside just before dark to peer over the rim. Under the low clouds, far below, we could see the Bright Angel Trail, Indian Gardens and Plateau Point. It was a sobering sight and difficult to imagine that it was possible to walk down there from where we stood. I think my brother was having second thoughts.
Day 2 ~ Bright Angel TH to Indian Gardens
I got up at 6:45, showered and got some coffee at the lodge.
Couldn't see anything from the Rim except snow and clouds
Couldn’t see a damn thing looking over the rim but the white nothingness of thick clouds and snow. After breakfast, with some prodding, I was able to get my brother’s ass in gear and we were on the trail at 10:30.
A snowy start at the TH-this guy obviously didn't get the e-mail about the weather
Snow was coming down pretty hard when we started down with the temperature hovering around 33. Our first break came at the 1.5 mile rest house which was near the snowline. Below there it was just lots of water and mud on the trail although snow was still falling.
My brother coming down the muddy trail
Next stop was at the 3 mile Resthouse where we met a group of women on their way back to the rim. I was more than glad to help them lighten their load by eating some of their tuna on pita bread. My brother worked the crowd with stories of his only other previous outdoor experience, Army Ranger School in 1968 and quips about the weather and trail conditions.
Below the snowline it was all water and mud
My brother’s pace slowed as he struggled with the trail conditions.
My boots got me through it all dry!!
I found myself unable to move at his pace and pushed on at my own. Made good time though I stopped occasionally to let my bro catch up.
Looks like we're about to enter "The Lost World."
Made it to Indian Gardens at about 3 and set up camp. The advertised “flush toilet” restrooms in the campground were being redone so we were left with the outhouses along the trail which were about a five minute walk away. Not a big deal except in the middle of the night.
Finally emerged below the clouds just above Indian Gardens
One of hardest things about being in the canyon in November is that after dinner there’s nothing to do. It gets dark not long after 5 PM, there’s no campfires and it’s frickin’ cold, 33 degrees on this night.
Indian Gardens camp with J chillin'
Most exciting prospect was my sleeping bag and the newly aquired liner I’d bought for the trip. Crawled in about 6 and read more of “The Man Who Walked Through Time” and made some notes in my journal before totally succumbing to the beckoning warmth of my bag.
Though a little rain fell during the night, the main theme remained the damp cold. Our neighbors, a group with lots of young teens, were a bit noisey at times during the night contributing to a restless nights sleep. My brother mentioned that he heard me getting some good sleep. Not sure what he meant by that???
Everything I read about staying at this campground mentioned critters, from ravens to squirrels, messing with your stuff. I woke up in the pre-dawn darkness of 5:30 AM hearing what I thought was something was messing with my pack. Crawled out to find that nothing was.
Day 3 ~ Indian Gardens to Bright Angel CG
Got up and at em’ early Tuesday morning. It was still cold and damp but a cup of coffee and breakfast took some of the chill off. Packed up and were on the trail just before 9.
Weather cleared for a beautiful but cold start to the day
It was 32 degrees when we started down the trail. Wearing everything we had with us-long johns, gloves, balaclavas, fleece jackets and full raingear, we moved down the trail, still in the shadows of a cold November morning. After an hour of hiking we finally came out into the sunlight above the Devil’s Corkscrew and immediately dressed down. The sun felt wonderful!
Looking at the top of the Devil's Corkscrew below.
Upon reaching the river I set my pack down by the Restouse and walked to the river’s edge. Everthing looked pretty much the same as when I saw it 41 years earlier though the river seemed like it was a little higher and green instead of the muddy brown I remembered. In 1970, flows were probably lower due to water being held back to fill Lake Powell, which took from 1963 to 1980. I knew from checking the USGS website before the trip that the flow was 1-1/2 times the statistical average. It felt cool yet strange to stand at the same spot I’d stood 41 years earlier. I thought about the friends I was with at the time and wondered what they were up to.
Silver Bridge at the bottom of the canyon-as low as you can go, unless you float downriver
After J caught up, we pushed on along the trail to the Silver Bridge. The River Trail as it’s known, clings to the steep rock wall above the river. It’s a 1.2 mile stretch that undulates slightly before slipping into the sand not far above the river, just below the bridge. Crossed the bridge, and arrived at the Bright Angel CG at 1:30.
I checked out some campsites while my brother went to the Ranch to see if any cabins were available.
He returned saying he’d had no luck getting a cabin so we set up camp. When J crawled into his tent for a nap I headed off to the Ranch, for a little “Bill time”.
Bright Angel Creek
It was a beautiful, cloudless day and I wanted to take full advantage of the sunshine which, as I was learning, is very short lived in the bottom of the Canyon in November.
Phantom Ranch Welcoming Commitee
Went into the Canteen and ordered a Tecate and a little bag of pretzels. It was so good that I bought more pretzels, some peanuts and another beer to wash it down.
Sometime between that second and third beer J showed up. He stuck around for a 4 PM ranger program on condors and for his 5 o’clock steak dinner in the Canteen. I mosied back to camp just before the Canteen closed at 4.
Day 4 ~ Clear Creek Trail Hike
I woke Wednesday morning at 6:20 in a panic thinking breakfast at the Ranch was at 6:30. I was relieved when my brother told me it was at 7. Breakfast was good!
My brother and I took off on our hike at 9, aiming for the Clear Creek Trail which starts just north of the Ranch and climbs to the Tonto Plateau. SPer Mark Didier
turned me on to this trail and I’m grateful that he did. It’s an awesome hike.
South Rim and cactus from the Clear Creek Trail
The weather was clear and cool when we started. After leaving the North Kaibab Trail, the Clear Creek Trail climbed steeply. Took a break at the stone bench near the overlook that was built by the CCC. At the Phantom Ranch Overlook J turned back.
In spite of how it looks, the trail takes a hard left
I was pumped to continue, feeling strong and loving the trail and the day. The trail was mostly level, had very few hikers, and was a delight to travel on.
Looking east, upriver, from the Clear Creek Trail
The hardest thing was keeping one’s eyes on the trail, not on the spectacular views that unfolded at every turn.
Looking SW toward the South Rim. Both bridges are visible in this shot
Stopped at the three mile mark, taking a break in a south facing, scoured out bowl at the bottom of a dry wash. Below me was a great drop-off. In a thunderstorm, it would have been the top of a waterfall. A great place to sit in the sun and play my flute while gazing at the river far below.
From Phantom Ranch
Made my way back down the trail after that brief interlude and arrived at the ranch just after 1 PM. Headed to the Canteen for a cold beer and found my brother all ready there, drinking lemonade. I had a couple beers and played the house guitar for a little while before heading back to camp.
Sunshine is leaving Bright Angel Canyon for the day Cactus in bloom??
When the sun left the campground, I walked back toward the Ranch, seeking a sunny spot. Wrote in my journal and enjoyed the last of the afternoon’s sunshine.
From the center of the Silver Bridge. Looking downriver in late afternoon Underneath a sycamore at the Ranch where programs were held every day
Joined my brother there at 4:30, just in time to here the tail-end of the ranger’s program about the history of Phantom Ranch.
Steak dinner at the Ranch was the most expensive meal I’ve ever had at $42 and it fell far short of my expectations.
Day 5 ~ Bright Angel CG to Indian Gardens
Another early morning wake-up call, this one just after 5 AM for 5:30 breakfast at the Ranch. On the trail at 7:50.
Crossed the Silver Bridge then trucked along the River Trail.
A morning look upriver from the River Trail
I felt like moving at my own pace for a while and left J at the Riverhouse, telling him I’d wait for him at the top of the Devil’s Corkscrew.
A beautiful day on the Bright Angel Trail-Top of the Corkscrew
Arrived at Indian Garden Campground at 11:20, 3 and 1/2 hours from BA CG.
A glorious afternoon at Indian Gardens
It was a spectacular day and in spite of temps around 50, the afternoon sun felt amazingly warm. Once camp was set we crashed in our tents, trashed from our morning hike.
Late afternoon view to the north, Plateau Point Trail in the foreground
Made a trip to the restrooms along the trail and was struck by the show of late afternoon color in the still sunbathed part of the canyon to the north. Scrambled up the slope from there, above the heli-pad and took a bunch of photos.
My brother was up and about when I got back to camp. The ranger came by, as they did every day, to check our permit and give us the do’s and don’ts. J mentioned the noise our neighbors made in the middle of the night on our previous stay at the campground which prompted the ranger to tell us that we should report any such issues to him.
After dinner, we turned in for the night at 6:30. Sometime after midnight, I was awoken by voices that were at times quite loud and sounded like they were coming from just below our site. At first I tried to ignore it by turning on my side and pulling my head further down into the sleeping bag but that didn’t work too well and the voices seemed to be getting louder.
Me being me and remembering the ranger’s words, I put on my boots and jacket and crawled out into the cold, darkness. Once I was out of the tent it became obvious that the noise was coming from above, not below our camp. So, off I went up the campground trail towards the ranger’s cabin to report the problem.
As I approached the ranger’s cabin it became clear where the noise was coming from. The cabin next door looked like party central with a number of people silhouetted in the muted moonlight on the deck in front. Knocked on the door of the ranger’s cabin a couple times and got no response. I was starting to get the picture of what was going on as I walked toward the other cabin. The construction workers that were redoing the campground restrooms were there and I was convinced that the ranger was there with them, drinking beer and having a good old time.
When I got close to the deck the shadowy figures turned in my direction, one muttered, “What’s this?” as I got close. “Good evening!” I said, trying to come-off diplomatic instead of pissed. After they sheepishly responded I asked, “Are you guys not subject to the campground quiet hours rules?” They replied that they were. I informed them that they were being way too loud and asked them to keep it down. They apologized saying they didn’t realize that their voices were carrying that far. I told them that it sounded like they were next to my tent. They promised to (and did) keep it down.
Day 6 ~ Indian Gardens to the South Rim
Friday morning dawned mostly cloudy with temps still on the cool side, low 40’s. Got on the trail by 9. I hiked at my pace leaving my brother to hike at his. I moved steadily up the trail until I reached the switchback below the big, red wall.
I knew this place. I’d played my harmonica here in 70’ and wanted to see how my wooden flute would sound as it echoed off the canyon wall. This was something I’d wanted to do as soon as I knew I was returning to the Canyon and it felt and sounded good to realize that dream. I continued playing for about 15 minutes until J caught up.
The Big Red Wall and the still snowy South Rim above
Three Mile Resthouse
In the steep upper stretches, the altitude started having more effect. From the Three Mile Resthouse to the rim, the altitude gain is a little over 2,100 feet with the elevation at the rim being 6,845 ft. It’s all relative but after spending four nights de-aclimatizing at lower elevations, I could definitely feel it. Not debilitatingly so but noticeable.
When I strode onto the paved rim trail I ran into a group of people that looked at me with wonderment, as though they knew what I had just done. I answered a few of their questions then politely excused myself, wanting desperately to finish that last hundred yards to the Lodge.
Day 7 ~ Grand Canyon NP to Phoenix to Fort Collins
Figuring we need to leave by 10 AM to get to the airport by 2, I got up a 6:30 Saturday morning to begin the process. After a shower and some coffee I walked over to the rim to check out the sunrise. Holy shit, it was amazing!! Every few seconds the light, the colors and the shadows changed. My camera was full so I had to delete a shot to take one. Deleted quite a few. Everytime the scene changed I took another photo and ended up with a boatload of shots.
Called my brother to see if he was awake, he wasn’t. He didn’t know it was me and went so far as to tell me that he didn’t request a wake-up call.
Finally got on the road just after 10, taking a different route back to Phoenix, which in hindsight, might not have been the best idea. It was a nice drive heading east on Hwy 64 along the South Rim then turning south on Hwy 89 toward Flagstaff. Don’t know if it took longer than the way we went to the Canyon, but I did start to sense that we were going to be cutting it real close.
“J Time” called for us to stop at Arbys in Flagstaff for lunch. Got back on the highway, putting the pedal as close to the metal as I dared to make up some time. As it turned out, brother had to run through the airport to catch his 3:30 flight and barely made it, his bags didn’t. My 3:45 flight was delayed, so after rushing to get to the gate, I ended up sitting there for a 1/2 hour, waiting to board.
I’m glad that I got a chance to visit the canyon again and I thank my brother for coming up with the idea and letting me tag along. Seeing it through 61 year olds eyes is radically different from a 20 year olds. I knew it was a cool thing to do when I went to the river in 1970 but I feel like I saw so much more and perhaps more importantly, fully experienced the wonders of the Grand Canyon for the first time.
I was amazed that my brother pulled it off. A sixty-five year old that never hiked, let alone backpacked hiking to the bottom and back is mind blowing to me. He was in very good shape and above all, is a very determined individual. But then I knew that.......