A year and a half ago, my brother called me and said, “Let’s hike down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon!” The time had finally arrived. What follows is part two of day one.
Indian Garden was a lovely oasis in the arid plateau that is midway down the Grand Canyon on Bright Angel Trail. Here we enjoyed some shade, used the restroom for the last time, and filled my water bottle. Aaron was well outfitted for water. His backpack came with a three liter refillable bladder and a tube that fed around to his frontside making it easy for him to take a drink at will. I had refillable bpa free water bottles, which was just fine other than the fact I had to carry them in my backpack thus making them fairly inconvenient to fetch when wanting a drink. When I did need a drink, we had to stop and either I took off my backpack and got the water bottle or I just turned around and Aaron got the bottle out and handed it to me. It wasn’t the biggest inconvenience in the world, but next time I’ll have a Camelbak of some variety.
We began trekking out of Indian Garden and were immediately faced with a decision. We could stay on Bright Angel Trail heading to Phantom Ranch, or we could take an additional out and back trail called Plateau Point Trail which would provide a nice overlook of the Colorado River. It was 1.5 miles to the end of Plateau Point trail making the entire venture 3 miles, which for us would add about an hour and a half to our hike. In that we didn’t know exactly how much further it was to Phantom Ranch, we chose to pass up Plateau Point Trail, which we really hated to do. It turned out to be a very good decision.
Casting off down the remainder of Bright Angel, we enjoyed some nice, level ground for about a mile or so. To our left was the Indian Garden Creek which began with the spring mentioned in the previous post. It ran, as most canyon creeks do, snake-like, constantly curving left then right. Surrounding the water was stands of vegetation and rounded river rock. It was refreshing to hear the babble of the rushing water, a different kind of background noise to accompany the rhythmic crunching of pathway beneath our feet. To the right was canyon wall comprised of various reds, browns, and blacks, very slowly rising, until finally things shifted for us rather dramatically.
The easy trail we had been hiking since Indian Garden took a hard turn to the right. As we came around the corner, we were confronted with a stunning view of mountain and valley as the canyon opened up to us. It was completely unexpected as the level trail that we had been trekking for some time gave the impression that you were somehow near the bottom. The creek that had been running to our left took a quick turn and then downward, creating a small waterfall of sorts that we couldn’t quite see. To our right was the continuation of the trail, an imposing set of switchbacks called Devil’s Corkscrew. The hike had been pretty easy since Indian Garden, but Devil’s Corkscrew was going to ensure we felt some degree of accomplishment.
We sat for a bit, hydrating and taking in the scenery, then began packing it down. It was here the canyon began to remind me of Japanese mountain scenery, if only that the rugged and mostly barren rocks were accompanied by some pines. I looked at the downward trial and imagined that in a different part of the world, there might be Buddhist monks, clad in orange and gold, climbing to a temple for a chance at experiencing and exploring peace.
During the descent of the corkscrew, we only saw two couples. It was getting later in the day and we couldn’t help but ask if we were on the right trail, thinking we should have arrived at Phantom Ranch by now. They said we were on right path and would find it soon. Though physically we were doing fine, our concern became making our dinner appointment.
Phantom Ranch offers two meals a day, breakfast and lunch. When you call for a reservation you also make your meal choices. There are only two dinners to choose from; a steak dinner or stew. For variety’s sake we chose one of each, since we were going to be there for two nights. Steak dinners are served at 5:00 PM and stew served at 6:30. After half way down Devil’s Corkscrew, it was becoming obvious to us that the four to five hours we had thought the hike was supposed to take was simply not right. We had been hiking for at least five and half and the end was nowhere in sight. We were told when ordering dinners that if you miss your dinner reservation, you don’t eat. Now at 2:30 in the afternoon, we were beginning to worry about missing our steaks, which would not be good for two reasons: first, the steak dinner was $45 a piece, and second, when when hiking, food is fuel.
Finally at the bottom of Devil’s Corkscrew we again were mercifully given level ground to traverse. We were also fully into this second layer of the canyon as on either side of us rose massive craggy rock walls to dizzying heights, mostly shadowed as the sun had already crossed the narrow slice of sky.
We rejoined our traveling companion from earlier, the Indian Garden Creek, having to cross it four times. The crossings were shallow and with our hiking poles to give us extra stability, stepping on exposed rock to cross was no problem.
As the creek began to increase in intensity, we felt a change was coming, and soon we rounded a corner and at last saw the Colorado River before us with its jade-colored water rushing past. We celebrated thinking Phantom Ranch was near by. We consulted the map and found it was not. We had at least a mile to go and just under an hour and a half to make dinner. But the Colorado River gave us encouragement with its pulsating water, flashing bright in the afternoon sun. Here we were a bit more exposed to the sky as the river basin carved out a large swath of the canyon. I became urgently motivated with the thought of missing dinner and we kicked our hiking into overdrive, pushing forward at a rapid pace, our legs and arms mechanically pumping like pistons.
The trail from here to Phantom Ranch differed slightly as there was much more loose sand due to our proximity to the river. It mostly followed the shore but we were a good fifty yards from the water at all times. After cursing a bit due to exhaustion, we finally saw the suspension bridge that crossed the Colorado River and would take us into Phantom Ranch.
There was so much beauty around, sunlight bursting off of the river water, the quenching vision of greenery from the cottonwoods across the other side of the bridge, it was hard not to stop and appreciate, but it was 4:20 and we still didn’t exactly know how much further it was, even though it seemed we were near.
After crossing the bridge, we passed a few stone buildings that looked to house mules, then took a left at a small bridge that crossed Bright Angel Creek, and within ten minutes, we had arrived finally at Phantom Ranch. It was 4:35. We quickly checked in, tossed our stuff in our little cabin, and patiently waited for dinner. The wait was not long however, and we were happy for it.
We spent the rest of the evening relaxing. I took a very long, hot shower. The hike had taken us eight hours rather than the four to five hours we were told it would take. We would soon learn why this was the following day at breakfast.