I have always been an avid hiker, so one year I took my son and daughter to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, where we hiked the Bright Angel Trail.
There were only a small number of campsites available at Phantom Ranch at the bottom, so I booked the site one year in advance through the National Park Service. The only dates available were in December, so this was going to make the hike more challenging, because of the possibility of snow and ice on the trail.
It is approximately 9.9 miles from the South Rim to Phantom Ranch. The elevation at the top is 6860 feet, and at the Colorado River, 2480 feet. I studied maps of the trail, and learned that the heat can be very dangerous in the summer. In the winter, ice could be on the trail, since sunlight never falls directly on many parts. The trail is rocky and steep, with many switchbacks and ledges. Halfway down is a rest area called Indian Garden, with water and toilets.
We needed to pack twenty-one meals for the three of us, rain gear, warm clothes, cooking gear, tent, and adequate water for cooking and drinking.
I packed powdered meals, and self-heating military rations. For fire I used a small tripod burner with butane canisters for fuel. We also needed crampons in case we encountered ice on the trail. All of us wore heavy-duty hiking boots, thick jackets, and wool caps and gloves. I was worried about how much water to bring so I asked a man at our hotel. He thought two gallons per person ought be enough.
In any case, our packs would be heavy. Meals would consist primarily of dried food pouches that only needed hot water added. For lunch we would eat soup and sandwich, and for breakfast, more dried pouches and hot tea. Snacks along the trail would be raisins and nuts.
I didn’t know how long the hike down would take, so I decided to start at sunrise.
On a cold December morning, our backpacks bulging, we approached the Bright Angel trail head. Two park rangers sat on a ledge and inspected our camping permits. We appeared to be properly prepared for the grueling hike.
We took our first steps into the darkness, and soon a spectacular vista unfolded. The sun was a stranger here, but indirect light crept up the canyon walls and painted the sculptured rocks red and purple. I felt humbled to be surrounded by eons of time. We were going to descend into the pit of the earth, a multi-million year creation unlike anything in the world.
The first part of the journey featured many switchbacks as we zigzagged back and forth along vertical walls. The trail was perhaps eight feet wide, strewn with rocks. The distant sun peeked above the horizon, revealing the etched patterns in the stone walls. We were ants in a giant bowl.
Perspiration clung to my neck and back, and I removed my jacket at the first rest area. It didn’t feel like winter. The air was becoming warmer. We drank some water and took pictures. The South Rim seemed a distant memory. We were full of enthusiasm and we took in wonderful views.
A group of Japanese tourists riding mules passed us. They headed toward Phantom Ranch. Mules are the only other way to descend to the bottom of the Canyon. They can make the descent in 4 hours.
While traversing the upper canyon, we passed through 2 tunnels decorated with petroglyphs, signs of people who inhabited the canyon in the distant past.
After the switchbacks, the trail leveled off. Ample vegetation grew here, including prickly pear cactus and grass. Tall Cottonwood trees provided shade. After a few hours, my back was soaked with sweat. My legs felt stable. My knees did not hurt yet. But my thighs were tiring. My backpack was the heaviest, since I carried most of the water, and a tent. We stopped to rest in the grass.
With the sun higher in the sky, we reached Indian Garden. I boiled some water and we ate soup. My daughter refilled the water bottles and I put a bandage on my son’s blister. My thighs felt so sore I could barely walk to the outhouse, thirty yards away. I rested and massaged my aching thighs. I could not turn back now. The kids seemed fine. Except for a blister, they did not have any complaints.
After Indian Garden there would be no more water. Thirty minutes of rest and I was ready to continue.
The trail became narrow and meandered past rocky ledges. We walked slowly and carefully along the rock formations. The vegetation grew sparse. To our left, a gully carved by an ancient river. To our right vertical walls of rock.
The trail leveled off again for a short time, then we came to a point that offered a spectacular view of more switchbacks with steep ledges. The books described this place as the Devil’s Corkscrew, because the temperature can easily reach 130 degrees in the summer.
We descended the narrow, dusty trail. The next switchback was a hundred feet below. We walked in single file. My thighs still ached, but the meal had given me strength.
When the switchbacks ended we found bushes again, and walked between towering rock formations. We were so deep in the canyon, the light was fading fast. We needed to reach our campsite before dark.
We passed through the crevice, and found the Colorado River. I thought we reached our goal, but the campsite was not in view. Where was Phantom Ranch? We looked upstream and a quarter mile away we spied the outline of a suspension bridge.
“That better be the camp,” I said.
All of us were tired. We hiked on a sandy trail along the river.
We crossed a metal suspension bridge high above the river. The bridge swayed, and we grabbed cables to keep our balance. On the other side of the river, we still did not see a campsite. We followed a small stream. By this time darkness had descended into the canyon and I was afraid we would become lost.
Across the stream we saw tents, so that must have been our campsite, but how to cross the stream?
“I am going across, I’m tired,” grumbled my son.
We followed. We stomped across the shallow stream and found an empty campsite in the dark.
“Let’s hurry and pitch a tent so we can eat,” I said, dropping my backpack.
We rushed to build our home. The campsite was flat and had a picnic table. With the tent up and our backpacks inside, we made a hot meal. I boiled the water on top of the picnic table but a ranger came by and suggested I put the butane burner on the ground. He didn’t want me spilling boiling water on myself. Tired and sleepy, we ate a pouch dinner and retired for the night.
In the morning we ate greedily. At the bottom of the canyon it was Springtime. The sun never rose above the canyon wall but the air was warm. We were always hungry. We ate every few hours, perhaps because we had expended so much energy on the hike down. My thighs ached again. I limped around the campsite and took pictures.
A couple deer lay in the grass by the creek. After breakfast two wild turkeys marched through our camp.
We strolled upstream to Phantom Ranch. No one seemed to be around. Small cabins lined the path, and a guesthouse offered light food and snacks. We drank hot tea and ate biscuits inside. We played some board games, then limped back to our tent for another meal and a nap. I didn’t know why we were hungry all the time.
I rested my tired legs and wondered how I would be able to make the ascent.
The trip down took eight hours. How would we get to the South Rim in one day?
The afternoon passed in lazy fashion and we were hungry again. An early dinner, and we planned the brutal climb. At least our packs were lighter because we ate most of the food. If I were to hike the trail again, I would pack a lighter tent and less clothes. A forty pound pack was too heavy. I had brought too many butane canisters, also.
We awoke before dawn, boiled some water and ate breakfast. We broke down the tent and hit the trail. We crossed the suspension bridge in the dark, and began the trek along the river. My legs felt better.
We needed more rest stops on the way up. The kids led the way this time. I was the straggler. By the time we departed the river and ascended along the switchbacks of the Devil’s Corkscrew, I was struggling.
We reached Indian Garden a few hours later, and ate lunch. The food was gone. We had a few snacks left and some water. The last part was going to be steep with more rocky switchbacks. We passed people going down. One person wore nothing but running shorts. Some people were making the ascent. They passed me. The kids were far ahead of me. I looked up at the massive cliffs encircling my puny self. How was I going to scale this invincible fortress, with jagged red rock at the lower levels and almost vertical white stone walls at the very top? Light was leaving the canyon again and I have no idea when we would reach the top. Luckily we didn’t need our crampons. The trail was still dry.
The last mile took an eternity. My legs were so sore I stopped every fifteen minutes. The kids reached the top well before me.
Finally, I reached the trail head. To my surprise, it was snowing in the darkness. The cold wind bit my face, but I was relieved I had made it to the top. The ascent had taken fourteen hours. I dropped my pack, and propped by back against a rock. My son fetched our van. We drove to the Yavasupai lodge, changed our dusty clothes, and ate a meal at the lodge cafeteria.
“I’m proud of you,” I told my kids.
“We’re proud of you, Dad.”
I felt elated. I forgot my tired legs. Such a unforgettable experience will remain with me the rest of my days. I would gladly make the hike again. But next time I would pack much lighter. December isn’t a bad time. The weather on the bottom is mild, though it may be snowing at the top. If you want to hike the Canyon, plan carefully, don’t pack too much, carry a light tent, and go in the winter to avoid the oppressive heat.