Grand Canyon -- May, 2010

More than 40 years ago I went to the Grand Canyon (at Christmas time) with two friends, Alan Pendleton and Ray Kunselman. We spent a strenuous day hiking to the river and back to the South Rim and never forgot it.

Last year we talked about hiking the canyon again, though more conservatively. We would go "rim to rim" and camp along the way. Summers are hot, winters are cold. We decided May would be the best time. The campsites were reserved, with an extra place for my daughter Kate, and we met at the South Rim in early May.

The plan was this,

We set off on the South Kaibab trail. This trail goes along a ridge and gives you wonderful views from the start.

Ray teased Alan about his "yuppie hiking poles", but they served him well.

They call these "rock squirrels". They are bold and voracious, and they can shred a bag in seconds to get at the food.

It had been a wet Spring and there was more than the usual green. Even so, it is still a desert.

A panorama of Cedar Ridge

Our first glimpse of the river 2500 feet below.

Ray Alan

Our first campsite, Cremation Creek, had no facilities of any kind and no water. We each packed about a gallon and a half of water for that day.

Ray found some antlers

Kate observed that the canyon did not seem so big once we were in it. At the rim you overlook much of it. Inside, the canyon walls bound a smaller horizon.


Our days were paced by sunset at about 7:30 pm. and sunrise about 5:40 am. It was breezy during dinner and the early evening. I went to sleep by 8 and woke about 9:30 when it was dark. The wind had died, the sky was utterly clear, and the Big Dipper was spread across the zenith like an advertisement for Astronomy.

The next morning we were up at dawn and moving soon after.

Here we began the steep trail into the inner gorge.

A panorama showing the "Tipoff".

Just to the right of center is a patch of green where Phantom Ranch and the Bright Angel campsite are.

The bridge was built in 1929. Previously there had been a cable with a wheeled basket hanging from it. It is sturdy enough to carry mule trains. Notice that Bright Angel Creek carries more silt than the Colorado and the water is browner. Before Glen Canyon Dam was built the Colorado itself was about that shade.

Phantom Ranch is a rustic lodge with cabins and meals. You must make reservations up to a year in advance, but anyone can hang out at the store and buy drinks and snacks.

Our goal this day was Cottonwood Camp, about 7 miles north up Bright Angel Creek. It wasn't steep, but it was a good slog. , including a creek swollen by the wet season's recent rains.

Ray, the most experienced camper, had forgotten his stove and his tent poles. Note the improvisation here.

The geology of the Grand Canyon is an amazingly complex story. The Colorado plateau has been raised, lowered and tilted over time. One strange but generally accepted theory is that the river once flowed east through the Little Colorado Canyon into the Gulf of Mexico. Today the flow is west and it goes to the Gulf of California.

Most of it is sedimentary rock of one kind or another, in a huge variety of colors and textures, from solid red limestone to delicate brown sandstone in layers almost as fine as filo dough.

The bottom is metamophic or igneous rock more than 2 billion years old.

We met several people, like these, who were running the canyon, rim to rim to rim. They started about 3 am. carrying only water, power snacks and headlamps. They crossed from south to north and back in a day. The distance must be about 35 miles, and it goes down and up a vertical mile twice.

We had two nights at Cottonwood, so this was our day to go from Cottonwood at about 4000 feet to the north rim at 8100 feet elevation.

I expected the trail to be interesting, but I had no idea.....

Not far from Cottonwood is a bridge and then Roaring Springs. It is the water source for all the facilities at the South Rim. We watched a Park Service helicopter apparently practicing touchdowns at a tiny helipad at the bottom of the canyon.

Above Roaring Springs the trail is literally cut into the cliff.

The white stuff is probably calcium carbonate being leached out of the limestone.

The trail becomes more and more dramatic and exposed.

Kate and Ray had gone ahead. We met them as they returned from the N. Rim.

The San Francisco Peaks are just north of Flagstaff and about 75 miles south of us.

Reaching the goal. Rim to rim and now back to the other rim.

Back down the trail. It's surely one of the great hiking trails of the world, but anyone with acrophobia (and I have a bit) will find it extra thrilling.

Clouds threatened rain that night, but luckily it didn't happen. Kate and I had tarps but no tents.

Next day promised to be easy, only about 8 miles and a gentle downgrade to Bright Angel camp, right at the Colorado and next to Phantom Ranch.

We made a short side trip to Ribbon Falls. The big lump the water falls on is travertine, calcium carbonate precipitated from the waterfall itself.

Camping, as here at Bright Angel, can be so civilized if there are tables, toilets and water. A bit worn but happy

Our last day was back to the South Rim, about 9 miles and 4400 vertical feet. Unlike the South Kaibab trail, there are several stops with water so we didn't have to carry all we would need.

The Silver Bridge. It carries the water pipe to the South Rim. Hikers can cross it but not mules.

Upriver , downriver . Notice the mule and rider at right.

The trail is up and up and up . Notice the rest house and viewpoint. Lots of day hikers here. You can come this far in flipflops and without water.

This bighorn sheep showed almost no nervousness about people.

And up and up,

Almost there .

And finally success and pride and a shower.

© David Rowland