Grand Canyon, Day 1: Down Is Optional, Up Is Mandatory

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Have you seen the weather forecast? asks the ranger as he checks our permit in the Backcountry Office. It’s not looking too good, he says with a skeptical tone that gives us a pause. It’s not exactly the way we were hoping this adventure would begin.

Matt and I have had our eye on the Rim to Rim to Rim trek (R2R2R) in the Grand Canyon for years now, but finding a good weather window to do it in on a teacher’s schedule has been tough. Summertime is too hot, while Christmas time is too cold. And scoring a permit from the National Park Service to do this classic hike during our Spring Break—or any time for that matter—is nearly impossible.

Lucky for us, Matt’s school started granting a solid week off for Thanksgiving break a few years back, giving us just enough time to fly to Las Vegas and drive 4+ hours to the South Rim where our hike will begin. This 48.3-mile iconic trek will have us hiking down from the South Rim to the Colorado River, and then up the other side to tag the North Rim before turning around and re-tracing our steps all the way back to Chicago—that is, of course, if the weather (not to mention our knees!) hold out.

This is the year when we finally won a golden backpacking ticket. Our permit application to spend five nights in the Inner Corridor was pulled way back in July after years of trying. Old Man Winter better back off, as far as we are concerned.

This backpacking trip starts out just as many others we have done before. We wake up early on this Monday morning in a motel room in the gateway town of Tusayan, Arizona. It looks like our packs have exploded all over the room, but we are actually in pretty good shape. We shower, finish topping up all of our camera batteries and head out to find a decent breakfast for our last fresh-cooked meal until Saturday. There aren’t a lot of options in this small tourist town, but the local Mexican place makes a mean breakfast burrito. We are well-satiated and ready to roll.

We make our way into the park and find the Backcountry Office where we will leave our rental car for the next week. Before hitting the trail, we drop in to chat with a ranger about the water, weather and wildlife situation we can expect on the trail for the next six days. He tells us that we will find running water taps(!) in 2 out of 3 of our designated campgrounds; there’s a creek we can filter water from running through the middle of the third. We should see a fair number of birds attracted to the water in the camps, he says, which makes us happy.

That’s when he breaks the bad news about the weather. Beginning Wednesday, there’s a pretty significant chance of rain and snow that doesn’t look like it is going to let up for the rest of the week. Microspikes and poles should be enough to negotiate the icy trails we are likely to encounters. But he also advises us to let go of the idea of tagging the North Rim if this dire forecast holds true. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have waterproof boots with us, but it’s too late to do anything about that now.

The weather situation isn’t ideal, but forewarned is forearmed. We are just happy to be here, hiking on a real trail, after months of going up and down the 125 stairs next to the toboggan run at Swallow Cliff in Chicago’s south suburbs. Training for backpacking is far from ideal in the pancake flat Midwest, and we are eager for real terrain.

We stop at the car to grab our packs and do a last minute check to make sure that we haven’t forgotten anything essential. We walk through the parking lot and across the train tracks to the Bright Angel Trailhead at the top of the South Rim. We stop for the mandatory trailhead shot and start making our way down the icy trail. There is a sign cautioning to wear traction devices on your shoes, but the dayhikers coming up and down pay no attention. We follow suit.

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The trail drops elevation quickly, but it’s more of a gradual ramp than a steep staircase. The grade is far more mild than we anticipated, and we are definitely not complaining. The ground is frozen and feels a bit slick, but there’s enough tread with the icy mud and rocks to make us confident enough to keep our Microspikes packed away. Famous last words!

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So, it’s a bit of a surprise when I suddenly find myself hurling face-forward to the ground. My knees hit the hard surface of the trail, and I feel the weight of my heavy backpack stuffed full with six days worth of food slamming me down. I break the fall with my arms and end up on all fours. I’m grateful that nobody is around to see except for Matt who comes running behind me Oh my god! Are you OK?

I get up quickly and test my knees. Surprisingly, they don’t hurt as much as the pointer finger on my right hand—my trigger finger, no less—which better be OK. If I can’t take photos on this hike, I’m going to be so sad!

We continue making our way down the trail, stopping to gawk at the view of the canyon opening up below us that gets more and more impressive with every switchback we take. Matt tells me to stop every few minutes for photos, but I am eager to keep going. There are so many people on the trail, and it has me a bit anxious. The farther we get from the trailhead, the less people we should see, right?

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We pass through another archway carved through the rock and pass our first backpacker coming up the trail and can’t resist asking him about his experience. He is all smiles, raving about how beautiful the canyon is. He asks about our trip. We tell him that we are headed to Indian Garden tonight and then Bright Angel Campground tomorrow. After that, our itinerary is up in the air because of the weather report.

When he hears this is our first time in the canyon, he tells us not to miss sunrise or sunset at Plateau Point and suggests we take Tonto East, an alternate trail, from camp across the midsection of the canyon to the South Kaibab Trail on our way down to Bright Angel tomorrow. It’s a great idea that will lengthen a short day tomorrow and allow us to see more of the park.

Just before saying our good-byes, he asks us where we are from. We say Chicago, and a big smile spreads across his face. He is from Evanston just a few miles north of us and turns out to be Jay of Jay’s Chicago, a public television show he produces showcasing human interest stories about people living in the Chicago area. What a small world! We exchange info and agree to get in touch when we get back home.

Before long, we reach the 1.5 Mile Resthouse. There are lots of hikers stopped here, resting up before moving on. We find an out of the way spot, drop our packs and make use of the facilities. There are composting toilets here, a luxury we aren’t expecting but are happy to take advantage of.

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Our next milestone is 3 Mile Resthouse, and there’s a 1000-foot drop and a mile and a half of gorgeous scenery between here and there. The trail hugs the wall of the canyon, which has changed from white rock to a rich red, and we continue down, down, down.

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We were advised by a salesman at REI to trim our toenails as short as possible just before setting out on this hike to save our feet from the constant pounding of the downhill, but, so far, we have been pleasantly surprised by the gentle grade of the trail. Mules ferrying food supplies and passengers down to Phantom Ranch ply this trail up and down everyday, and the gentle grade insures they can make the trip safely. As hikers, we benefit from this, that is if we don’t mind the presents the mules leave for us on the trail in their wake.

At the 3 Mile Resthouse, we pull off the trail and find a little viewpoint where we can have our lunch. There are lots of people all about, climbing all over the rocky outcrops, hoping to get the perfect selfie with the canyon as the backdrop. We hold our breath as we watch them scramble to various precarious perches around us.

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We pack up our things and visit the very clean, non-smelly composting toilets before starting the long series of switchbacks leading down to Indian Garden Campground, our home for the night. From here, we can see a strip of yellow Cottonwood trees far below that must be the campsite. Beyond it lies a trail leading out onto a massive shelf. This must be the trail to Plateau Point, where we will get our first view of the Colorado River. From this vantage point, it looks so far away, but we know we’ll get there eventually as long as we keep moving.

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The engineering on this trail is impressive, and it’s fun to look down below and see the maze of tight switchbacks spiraling down below. We continue making our way down until they finally straighten out a bit before reaching the long, flattish stretch to Indian Garden. The clouds occasionally part, casting some dramatic afternoon light on the rock formations off in the distance.

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We arrive at Indian Garden Campground by 3:00 pm and take a quick stroll through camp to get the lay of the land. There are about a dozen or so individual sites and a group site nestled under a stand of cottonwood trees that have turned yellow in late fall but are still holding onto most of their leaves.

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Several of the sites are already taken, but there are plenty of sites to choose from. We select one on the upper side of the camp. It comes with a flat tent pad and a picnic table beneath a shelter. On top of the picnic table is an aluminum food locker in which we are required to store all our food and odiferous items to protect them from pesky rodents. Potable water is available which is a blessing since there’s only a tiny bit of water trickling in the creek. There are also a couple of outhouse blocks which are kept sparkly clean by the park rangers. We set up our tent and get our mattresses and sleeping bags ready for the night.

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We have about an hour or so until sunset, so we decide to take a stroll out to Plateau Point to get our first view of the Colorado River. We have some daylight left and a desire to take advantage of OK weather while it lasts. With the forecast for rain and snow later in the week, we have no idea how that will affect our plans. We pack our bags with our stove, makings for dinner and our camera gear in case the skies open up for either a sunset or stars. We want to keep our options open.

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The walk is only 1.5 miles each way, and the trail is fairly flat as it meanders around some contours in the topography. We pass a few people on their way back who say the view is incredible but that it’s also very windy out on the point. As we make our way out, sunlight occasionally pokes through the clouds and lights up the multi-colored rock formations on the north side of the canyon. The closer we get to Plateau Point, the stronger the wind gets. We change hats both for warmth but also to make sure our baseball caps don’t make an unwanted departure into the depths below.

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The views across the canyon continue to improve with every step until we reach the overlook, a sheer drop down to the Colorado River. When we arrive there are only two other hikers. They ask us to take a picture of them and head back toward camp, leaving this amazing vista all to us!

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Even though it’s cloudy, the views are spectacular. We gaze down 1300 feet to the mud-red Colorado River winding below in complete awe. The views across to the striated bands of colorful rock that make their way up the opposite side defy description. It’s difficult to fathom how far away those incredible buttes are off in the distance. We can hardly take our eyes off of them. What can we say, We like big buttes, and we cannot tell a lie! 

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It’s super windy, but we are in no hurry to leave. We find a protected rock shelf and hunker down to fire up some hot water for coffee. The sun goes down early at this time of year, so we down our last drop and head back to camp. It turns dark quickly, and we have to finish the walk with our headlamps on to help us locate the trail.

When we get back to camp, we can see that many more backpackers have arrived since we left. We boil water and make dinner. The temperature is dropping quickly as the wind gusts through camp. A deer wanders into our campsite and hunkers down for the night below a bush just a few yards from our tent.

As we are eating, the first rain drops start to fall. Luckily, we are beneath a shelter and have little to worry about—or so we think. When we finish eating, we realize that the wind has been blowing the rain under the shelter, and our backsides are pretty wet. We clean up dinner as fast as we can, stowing all our food, cooking gear and scented items in the aluminum locker bin .We jump inside the tent, hoping to avoid any more rain and warm up.

It’s far too early to go to sleep, so we talk and read a bit. We notice that there is a little water puddling at the foot of the tent but don’t think too much of it. When the rain finally lets up a bit we decide to use the bathroom and brush our teeth. We step outside the tent, shocked to discover that we have been sitting right in the middle of a rather large puddle.

We scramble to pull up the stakes and manage to drag the tent several feet uphill out of the puddle where we hope to dry out. The crisis is averted for now, but what bad luck! It’s off to sleep—warm, semi-dry and eager for day two in the Grand Canyon.

26 thoughts on “Grand Canyon, Day 1: Down Is Optional, Up Is Mandatory

  1. Yay!! You’re back… pun-ny butte jokes and all!

    And I’m glad you’re okay… I found myself gasping loud at the point of your early trail fall!

    1. Thanks for being such a faithful reader, Clancy! It’s funny. I spend a lot of time worrying about falling on the trail. When it actually happens, it happens so fast that you don’t even know what hit you. It was definitely a shock!

  2. Great to read about your first day, A and M. Such wonderful photos! And especially wonderful to meet you on your way in! Thanks for the shout out and link. 🙂
    Looking forward to day two – and another Chicago rendezvous.

  3. Wow!! Incredibly beautiful! Looking forward to reading about the rest of the trek and seeing more of your stunning photos. Thank you for sharing.

  4. I’m equally impressed and envious. Thank you for sharing your adventures. LT and I read them and get inspired to plan our own trips!

    1. That’s awesome, AC! You and LT have some incredible adventures of your own that make us pretty envious, too. 🙂 Do you have any desire to hike the Grand Canyon in the future? You can stay in the dorms down at Phantom Ranch at the bottom, making this a great intro to backpacking. Getting the permit/reservations is the tough part!

      1. Yes, the Grand Canyon is on our list. Good to know there are dorms as we aren’t as hardy as you two! We are going to Arches in March. Got a lovely bed and breakfast lined up! Would love some hiking recommendations or tips if you have any. I searched your blog but nothing came up….

      2. That’s great! The food at Phantom Ranch is supposed to be pretty good, too, albeit a bit pricey, as you would imagine.
        Arches should be amazing. We have only spent a quick day there on our drive out to California to hike the JMT in 2016. It was July, so we did all of the typical short day hikes early in the morning and then late in the afternoon to avoid the heat. The trail out to Delicate Arch is a must-do. Will you have snow in March?

  5. Alison and Matt, it’s so nice to see you both back on a trail! It’s a bright spot in my day to tag along with you two on your wonderful adventures- your narratives are so fun to read and your beautiful photos always inspire me to plan another backpacking trip. Glad you didn’t take a face plant like I did while hiking part of the PCT- ended up in the emergency room and had to cut my trip short. Be careful!

    Sure fun to hear about Swallow Cliff- I grew up on the Southside and we used to go there as kids.
    When I make it back to Chicago, I’d sure love to meet you two!
    Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    1. Ouch! So sorry to hear about your mishap. How far were you from civilization? I was very lucky indeed!
      Swallow Cliff is the best thing we’ve got anywhere in the area, but it is a far cry from a real trail. It definitely makes us appreciate being out in the wilderness!
      Please reach out to us the next time that you are in Chicago. We love talking hiking and travel! 🙂

    1. Exactly! We have been trying to take full advantage, but it’s a tricky time to hike in the US. So far, we have been to Arizona and New Mexico, and the weather has been a little dicey. Maybe Southern California would be better? Thanks for reading!

  6. There is an awesome picture that I would love to download to my Facebook. How can I do it? Or can you do it? It is the 33rd picture from the top.

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