Hiking the Grand Canyon

April 19 - 23, 2017

Note: As you read this log, you'll see this symbol scattered throughout: (w). Those symbols are links to Wikipedia articles giving more in depth information about places I went and things I saw, for those who are interested.

How It Happened

I'm not the world's greatest outdoorsman. I used to enjoy camping - when I was growing up, all of our family's vacations were camping trips - but these days, I'd much rather sleep in a bed than on the ground.

Still, I do enjoy the occasional hike, and I like climbing mountains. Over the years, I've climbed to the top of Mt. Baldy (w) (10,064 feet), Half Dome in Yosemite (w) (8,844 feet), and my proudest achievement, Mt. Whitney (w) (14,505 feet - highest point in the 48 states).

So, one day in late 2013, the idea occurred to me that I'd like to hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon (w). I'd hiked the canyon before - years ago, when I was in my twenties, I hiked about halfway down, spent the night at a campsite, and hiked out the next day. But this time, I wanted to get all the way to the bottom and back. My parents did it when they were in their fifties, and since I was pushing sixty at the time, I figured I'd better do it while I still could!

Then I had another thought, and I asked my sister Katherine if she thought her son, my nephew Slate (10 years old at the time), would be interested in coming with me. The next thing I knew, not only Slate, but my brother (Paul), his husband (Desmond), and my sister were all on board! This had turned into a major family outing. The only holdouts were Katherine's husband Richard, who said he'd come along for the trip, but wouldn't join us for the hike, and Terry, who elected to stay home and leave a candle in the window for me.

Well, you know what they say - if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans. Turns out that hiking the Grand Canyon isn't all that easy. Well, that's not quite right - anyone can hike the canyon at any time, there are no restrictions. But the Park Service strongly advises against hiking to the bottom and back in one day. There are some diehards who do it anyway, but I didn't plan to be one of them.

In order to spend the night at the bottom of the canyon, there are two options. There's a campsite, and there's a lodge, Phantom Ranch (w). Well, I've already expressed my reluctance to sleep on the ground at my age, so I decided to make a reservation at Phantom Ranch. And that's where the fun started.

Phantom Ranch is small. And popular. Consequently, getting a reservation turned out to be damn near impossible. On the first day of each month, they begin taking reservations for the same month of the following year. So, on April 1, 2014, at 6:00 AM, I started calling to get a reservation for April 2015. I got a busy signal. I called again. Still busy. I kept calling over and over again, and got nothing but busy signals. Then, after about an hour and a half, I finally got through - and was told that the Ranch was sold out for the entire month of April!

Well, by comparing the date in the previous paragraph with the date at the top of the page, you can guess the rest of the story. It took us two years to finally get a reservation. By that time, Katherine and Desmond had lost interest, so Team GC (as Katherine dubbed it) ended up being Paul, Slate and myself.

By the way, most of the pictures that follow were taken by me on my iPhone. A few, however, were taken by Paul or Katherine.

Getting Ready

Well, despite the frustration and the long wait, it was probably just as well, because it gave me some time to prepare for the hike, and to get in shape. I did this by - what else - going on hikes. I hooked up with the Los Angeles Trail Hikers (LATH), a loosely organized bunch of hiking enthusiasts. I say "loosely organized" because there's no membership, no forms to fill out, no dues to pay - you look on their website, find a hike you want to go on, and show up. They give you a speech about how you're there on your own responsibility, and then everyone takes off hiking. I went on several hikes with this group:

The intrepid adventurer at Turnbull Canyon (w)

The intrepid adventurer and friends on Mt. Wilson (w)

The intrepid adventurer and friends on Cucamonga Peak (w)

That's just a representative sample. Over the two years, I probably went about a dozen hikes.

The best part about hiking with LATH was that I picked up a lot of good tips about preparing for The Big Hike. I already knew that I needed a good pair of hiking boots, and I bought those before my first hike with the group. But eventually, I learned about:

Another thing I discovered while hiking with LATH was what I came to think of as "the camaraderie of the trail." What I mean by that is, as I hiked, people we passed on the trail, total strangers, would smile, greet me, give words of encouragement, give high fives, sometimes even engage in conversation. It reminded me of... well, let me digress for a moment here:

In my younger days, before I was married, I rode a motorcycle, and I would occasionally go on road trips. From time to time, as I was riding along, other motorcyclists would come by. And often, as they rode past, they would salute me with a raised fist. I found this rather amusing - they would be riding big bad Harley Davidsons, and I was on my little 125 cc bright yellow Yamaha - almost a toy compared to their rides - but they still saluted me. I was a Member Of The Club. It was a good feeling.

Anyway, that's what came to mind on the trail when other hikers would greet me. End of digression.

Day One: Getting There (4/19/17)

Not much to tell about this day. A long, uneventful drive, with a stop for lunch at Needles, CA. I got to the Grand Canyon mid-afternoon, and checked into my room at the Bright Angel Lodge (w):

Katherine, Richard and Slate had left several days earlier. They drove down from their home in McKinleyville (way up at the north end of California), picked up Paul at his home in San Francisco, and they all spent a few days on the road, stopping at Death Valley and Hoover Dam. They arrived at Bright Angel late in the afternoon, and we all went to dinner in the lodge's restaurant. While waiting for our food, we were surprised - and amused - to look out the window and see several elk having their dinner in the bushes outside:

We spent a little time walking along the canyon rim and admiring the scenery. I pointed out where I had hiked before, back in the day:

In that picture, you can see a trail winding its way out to a point in the distance, called Plateau Point. You can also see a grove of trees at the near end of the trail; those trees mark the location of the Indian Gardens campsite. When I hiked down in my twenties, I hiked out as far as Plateau Point, spent the night at Indian Gardens, and hiked out the next day.

I also took some pictures of the view from the rim (I may have taken some of these the day after the hike, but never mind):

That last one is a panoramic shot, and you'll probably need to scroll to see it all. That's Slate at the far left - he's a budding young photographer, and took hundreds of pictures while we were there.

That was it for the day - we went to bed early, knowing that tomorrow would be a long day.

This is a good place for a digression about the canyon. What many people don't realize about the Grand Canyon - I didn't, until I read a trail guide - is that it's not just one canyon, it's a whole system of canyons. There's the main gorge, carved out by the Colorado River, but there are also many side canyons, carved out by the many streams and smaller rivers that flow into the Colorado. To see what I mean, go to Google Maps, find the Canyon, and switch to Satellite View. Here's a representative sample:

That picture also highlights one other fact about that canyon that many people don't realize. The sides of the canyon level off into a plateau about halfway down - remember the picture of Plateau Point, above - and then there's an inner gorge, or as I like to call it, the Canyon Within The Canyon. In the picture, the dark line down the middle of the canyon is the inner gorge.

Day Two: Going Down (4/20/17)

There are many trails from the rim of the canyon to the bottom (w), but two of the most popular are the South Kaibab Trail (w) and the Bright Angel Trail (w). The South Kaibab Trail is shorter and steeper, and the Bright Angel Trail is longer, but not as steep. The Park Service recommends hiking down the South Kaibab Trail, and hiking up the Bright Angel Trail, and that's what we did.

(The North Kaibab Trail runs from the North Rim to the bottom of the canyon. In case you were wondering.)

So here are the intrepid adventurers, ready to hit the trail:

The big beard on the left is my brother Paul, and the beardless youth in the middle is my nephew, Slate Grinnell Almy Taylor (yes, folks, that's his full real name). We started out together, but for most of the hike, Slate was way out in front, and Paul was way behind. We arranged to stop and meet up at various points along the way. Katherine hiked down with us to the first stopping point.

Here's a picture of the view from the trailhead:

And here are a few pictures to show what the trail was like:

As you can see, the trail is quite well maintained. Sometimes the trail would go along a ridge, with dropoffs on either side:

...and sometimes the trail would hug a cliff wall:

And of course, there were lots of the dreaded switchbacks:

The switchbacks in that last picture bear the picturesque name "Devil's Corkscrew." It's actually on the Bright Angel Trail, but again, never mind.

There were lots of wildflowers along the way:

...as well as occasional wildlife:

...including insects, butterflies (yes, I know butterflies are insects), lizards, squirrels and birds. Occasionally, I would see a bird soaring through the air - below me!

And of course, we also saw mules:

Tourists who want to go to the bottom of the canyon, but don't want to hike down, have the option of riding down on a mule. Also, supplies for Phantom Ranch are brought in by mules, and trash is packed out by mules. We saw two passenger mule trains, and one freight train. The second picture above shows the mules corralled at the Ranch.

There were many interesting rock formations along the way:

...as well as large rocks that had evidently fallen from somewhere above, causing me to comment that I'm glad I wasn't there when they fell:

And then there were these pictures (taken by Katherine), both of which reminded me of The Old Man Of The Mountain (w):

(That first one looks like a cartoon caricature of Richard Nixon.)

And this is as good a place as any to throw a couple of pictures that don't fit anywhere else. This is a picture of a tree that I passed - I just took the picture because I thought the tree looked interesting:

...this is a picture of a vista somewhere along the trail, but I don't remember where:

...and this is a picture of a waterfall that we passed, but again, I don't remember where:

...and a picture that Katherine took of something I totally missed - some Native American pictographs:

The first stopping point on the way down was the aptly named Ooh Aah Point:

Where I took this picture of Slate in a contemplative mood:

King Of The Mountain

At the next stopping point, Cedar Ridge, I was amused to notice this admonition:

One prominent rock formation that we passed was O'Neill Butte, named for Bucky O'Neill, an early explorer:

At one point along the trail, I was interested to note this emergency phone:

As you might expect, there's no cell phone reception in the canyon.

Eventually, we came to The Tip Off, where the trail begins the descent into the Inner Gorge:

Somewhere along the way - I don't remember just where - we got our first glimpse of the Colorado River, way off in the distance:

...and of course, as we made our way steadily downward, it kept getting closer:

At the bottom of the South Kaibab Trail, the river is crossed by the Black Bridge:

Just before you reach the bridge, the trail goes through a short tunnel. When I reached the end of the tunnel - and found Slate waiting for me there - I collapsed against the tunnel wall and said "We did it!" Of course, we still had a little ways to walk to get the Ranch - but we were at the bottom!

When Paul arrived a little while later, he took this selfie of the three of us:

...after which we suddenly had to jump up and hustle ourselves across the bridge, because a mule train was coming. Paul commented that it reminded him of the railroad bridge scene from the movie "Stand By Me" - those who've seen the movie will know what he meant.

After crossing the bridge, the trail follows the river for a little ways:

...passing these Indian ruins:

...and then the trail reaches the point where Bright Angel Creek runs into the Colorado from the north; the trail then turns and follows the Creek until it reaches Phantom Ranch.

Phantom Ranch

Phantom Ranch consists of a number of small buildings. Visitors stay in cabins:

...or in dorms:

This was the inside of our dorm:

Cozy, to say the least. But better than sleeping on the ground. There were ten bunk beds, a shower the size of a phone booth, and a lock box where we were advised to store any food we had with us - the cabins aren't secure against nighttime prowlers (of the four footed variety).

The Phantom Ranch Canteen serves as a general store, restaurant, post office, and social hall:

I asked the cashier something I had been wondering about. Obviously, the staff at Phantom Ranch can't commute to work every day, so what kind of work schedule do they have? It turns out they work ten days on, four days off. I don't know... it was enough of a challenge for me to do this hike once... I can't imagine having to do it every two weeks!

Dinner was served family style, 10-12 people at a table, passing around large platters of food. The ranch serves two kinds of dinners on alternate nights, steak one night, stew the next. We were there on a steak night. The food was good, but unfortunately, I didn't have much of an appetite. I had started feeling poorly on the way down, and by dinnertime, I was really feeling sick. I had a headache, my stomach was upset, and I just generally felt rotten. These are all symptoms of dehydration, so that might have been the problem, although I had been drinking plenty of water, or at least I thought I had. So I never did figure out if I was dehydrated, or if I just caught some kind of bug at an inopportune time. In any case, I wasn't happy.

So I went to bed early and got a good night's sleep.

Day three: Coming Up (4/21/17)

I didn't feel much better the next morning. But as we've already noted, "Up is mandatory." So after a good breakfast (at least I was starting to get my appetite back), we hit the trail.

We crossed the river on the Silver Bridge:

Unlike the Black Bridge, the Silver Bridge features a see-through roadbed making it inadvisable to look down:

...so I looked out at the river instead:

I don't have as many pictures from the hike up. It was a long, hard climb, and I was still sick, and I was less concerned with admiring the scenery and taking pictures, and more concerned with just getting to the top alive.

I saw one thing along the trail that darn near gave me a heart attack:

For a moment, I was afraid I was going to have go all the way back down to the river, and hike back up the South Kaibab Trail. Fortunately, it turned out to be only a brief detour.

On the way up, I noticed these evidences of human intervention:

I'm not sure what they were doing there, but there they were.

About a mile and a half down the trail from the rim is the Mile And A Half Resthouse, the last stopping point on the trail (or the first, depending on which way you're going). Katherine had told us that she'd hike down and meet us there. So I'm slogging along, and I see someone coming toward me, and she acts like she knows me, and suddenly I realized it was Katherine! I said "Oh! I didn't recognize you!" She said, "Hi. My name is Katherine. I'm your sister." And a guy passing by me commented, "Long walks will do that to you!"

I rested at the Mile And A Half Resthouse for about an hour, waiting for Paul to catch up. Then I hit the trail once more, to face the last wall:

...but I was heartened to discover that, looking in another direction, I could see some of the buildings at the rim:

Shortly before the end (or beginning) of the trail, it goes through this tunnel:

...and then - finally, at about 5:30 in the afternoon - I was at the top. I had conquered the Canyon!

And here's a picture of the Intrepid Adventurers at the end of the trail:

Hmmm... Slate seems to have aged considerably...

Actually, Slate hit the rim about an hour and a half before I did, and went straight to our room for a nap, so he wasn't available for the group picture. The guy in the middle is someone that Paul met on the trail - I've forgotten his name.

And here's another picture of the Intrepid Adventurers, with their sister:

Well, I should have felt triumphant, or exhilarated, or something. What I mostly felt was sick. I went back to our room for a shower and clean clothes, we all went out to dinner, and I went to bed.

Day 4: Recovery (4/22/17)

I spent the next day resting up and getting my strength back. After breakfast:

...Paul, Katherine, Slate and I took a long leisurely walk along the Rim Trail, which runs for 13 miles along the south rim of the Canyon (we only walked for about two miles).

Later, we all drove out to The Watchtower (w), about 20 miles to the east. This is a stone tower which looks like an ancient Indian ruin. In fact, it's not ancient at all, it's just designed to look that way. It was built in 1932, and was designed by Mary Colter (w), the architect who also designed Bright Angel Lodge and Phantom Ranch.

The interior walls and ceiling of the Watchtower are painted with murals. Again, these are not authentic Native American designs, but were designed to look like them:

Again, several of those pictures are panoramic, so you'll need to scroll.

I climbed to the top of the tower and took several pictures of the view:

We also saw this monument to a mid-air collisions that occurred over the Grand Canyon in 1956 (w):

And that was pretty much it for the day. The next day, I drove home and resumed normal life.

Here are two final pictures. This is a strange building I saw along the way home - I never did find out what it was:

And here's a picture of a tree at twilight, taken by either Paul or Katherine, which makes a fitting close to this trip log: