We don’t set an alarm, and I’m surprised that it is already 6:30 when I check my phone. Time to move!
It’s cold unzipping the sleeping bags and getting dressed, but it’s never as bad as you think it is going to be once you start moving. By the time we exit the tent, the mountains behind the campsite are lit up beautifully with alpenglow, signaling a photographic opportunity we can’t pass up. We decide to make another dash out to Plateau Point to see if we can get better lighting than we had last night.
We throw some bars, coffee and the stove into our backpacks and race down the trail hoping to beat the sun. It’s about a mile and a half all the way to the end, so we know we don’t really stand a chance. Along the way, our progress is slowed by a few deer grazing off the trail as well as some attractive cacti that make for interesting foreground subjects.
The sun has been up for a while by the time we finally make it to the lookout, but it’s such a different experience this morning than what we had last night that it’s worth the return trip. Yesterday we huddled behind a rock for shelter from the brisk winds, but today it is quiet and still with bright blue skies that look most attractive against the sculpted red rock formations that stretch out as far as the eye can see below.
After we take as many photos as we can, it’s time for coffee. This one’s for Okey, Matt says as he pulls out the stove, referring to our dear friend who relished simple pleasures like a hot cup of coffee in a beautiful place such as this. We reminisce about our buddy who also married us. Okey passed away nearly four years ago this month, far too early from pancreatic cancer. It’s a sobering reminder that we never know how much time we have on this planet and that we want to take advantage of our time to see and enjoy as much of it as we can before our time is up.
We are amazed and grateful that we have this prime spot all to ourselves once again this morning. How wonderful it would be to stay all day, but we need to get going. We reluctantly pack up our things and make our way back to the campsite, much less rushed this time. The campsite has cleared out for the most part, except for a few hikers from the group site next door. We break down the tent and repack our bags for the trek down to Bright Angel. A raven supervises all the action from the roof of the shelter in our camp.
We have decided to take Chicago Jay’s advice and follow the Tonto East Trail 4.2 miles over to the South Kaibab Trail. It adds a little mileage to our day and will allow us to walk a different path than the one we will take to get up from the river in a few days.
The junction to Tonto East is only a few minutes away from the campsite, and, almost immediately we begin climbing up onto the plateau and into the bright sunlight, which feels delightful on this chilly morning. We stop to remove a few layers and continue on our way through this desert scrub land of cacti, sage brush and rocks that exists in the middle land between the rim and the river.
The trail meanders in and out of the cliffs on our right, drawing us farther and farther from the river on our left. It twists and turns its way around rocky outcrops, skirting vast chasms and eventually bringing us down to a green oasis surrounding a babbling brook that must be a lifeline of water in this harsh environment.
We work our way up to a commanding vantage point where a large, flat boulder looks like the perfect spot to stop for lunch. We take advantage of the bright sun and pull out the tent, which is still quite wet from our rainstorm last night. It’s good and dry by the time we are ready to get going again, and we are thankful to know that at least we will be starting out the night dry.
We only have about a mile to go on the Tonto East before we reach Tip Off Point, the junction with the South Kaibab Trail. We take advantage of the composting toilets we find here before making the big descent.
There is a threesome of hikers taking a break here, too, and we realize that they are the same people that we met yesterday near the train tracks on the rim. They are headed to Phantom Ranch and carrying much smaller packs than we have. They tell us the trail at the top was icy from the rain last night, but they handled it fine with their Yaktrax. Good to know, good to know!
We wish them well as we pick up the trail again. It’s a steady descent down a wide trail that snakes down the canyon. It’s late afternoon now, and the light is just starting to turn golden making the dramatic landscape all around us look even more striking. From every bend, we get new views of the river and the compact twists and turns of the trail far below us. What an impressive feat of engineering! We stop off at every viewpoint to take it all in.
Just before reaching the bottom, we come to a long tunnel blasted into the rock wall that separates us from the Black Bridge, a lengthy footbridge that will take us across the mighty Colorado. We cross the bridge watching the murky, red water pass swiftly below our feet. How nice it is to be suspended above it, dry and safe from the strong currents.
On the opposite shore, we head down to the sandy beach used by rafters as a boat launch. It’s almost dark, and we spend the last few minutes of daylight combing the shore for the best spots to capture the bright yellow leaves of the cottonwood trees against the red rock of the canyon walls. The temperature is dropping as quickly as the light is fading, so we give up and head towards the campground to find a place to call home for the evening.
We cross a small footbridge and enter Bright Angel Campground at the bottom of the canyon. The trail skirts along a small creek revealing a series of attractive flat sites to choose from.
We run into a pair of rangers doing their nightly permit check who tell us that there are plenty of sites ahead still available, so we press on, knowing we can be a bit choosy. They tell us the campground is full tonight with 140 people, but that they base capacity off the number of bodies staying here rather than by filling each campsite. They also let us know about a ranger program tonight that will begin at 7 pm in the amphitheater, which sounds like a fun way to pass some time during the long, cold hours of the night.
We find a suitable site along the creek but bail on it when, on closer inspection, we notice a dip in the tent pad that would be sure to collect water when it rains. Fool us once… Luckily, there’s a cozy little spot available right next door that backs right up to the canyon wall, and we haul all of our unpacked gear over to it. We don’t have all that much time before the ranger program, so we quickly pitch the tent and get dinner going.
As we are eating, I spot two pairs of eyes crawling in the brush right next to our tent. There’s hardly any light left, but I can just barely make out their long, pointy faces as they run across our campsite to the picnic tables of the neighboring site. They jump up onto the table, scouring every inch for crumbs. Now we can see their long, striped tails and finally realize that they are Ring-tailed cats. How cool!
They work quickly and are off to the next campsite before we are able to get our headlamps pointed at them, but we are ready for them if they come back again. We finish dinner, hoping the cats will return when something suddenly catches my eye behind me. I turn quickly and see a kitten-sized black animal just a few feet behind me, walking my way. The very second it sees me notice it, it does a 180 and flees into the bushes faster than my eye can follow. All I can make out before it’s gone is a white puff of a tail.
It must be a skunk, and I am surprised and deeply grateful that the brief encounter didn’t leave us with a stinky spray as a souvenir. For the rest of our meal, we watch the little spotted skunk and the two ring-tails frenetically working every inch of our neighbor’s campsite, taking turns vacuuming up any crumbs that might be left laying around. We clean up after dinner, taking care to put all of our food, garbage and scented items into the metal storage box near our picnic table.
Just before 7, we make some hot apple ciders and head up to the amphitheater for the ranger program. It turns out that tonight is a trivia contest about the Grand Canyon, and we are paired up with a couple from Indiana who are sitting next to us. It’s a Family Feud-style trivia contest, and we are asked all kinds of questions about the animals, the ecosystem and the ways that people can get themselves into danger in the park. Our small team doesn’t do as well as some of the larger groups, but we have a lot of fun anyway.
By the time the game is over, we are all sufficiently chilled, and all we can think about is climbing into our sleeping bags. Before we go, we are given an update on the winter storm that is scheduled to hit on Friday. At the moment, they are predicting 12-14 inches of snow coming in on Friday with heavy winds causing blizzard-like conditions. It’s Tuesday, and we are scheduled to hike up the North Kaibab Trail to Cottonwood and spend two nights at that campground. Our intention is to tag the North Rim on a day trip and return to Cottonwood before making the reverse trip.
The rangers advise us against heading up to Cottonwood (we already knew that the North Rim was unlikely due to snow on the trail above 4000 feet), and they suggest that the campsite we are at now will likely be full due to the Thanksgiving holiday. This means it’s risky to even attempt a day hike up to Cottonwood, because the only other option would be to hike up to Indian Garden, not knowing if we would find a free spot there, in which case we would be forced to go all the way out of the canyon on a really long day. We are not sure we have enough daylight—not to mention energy—for that!
It’s a difficult decision for us to make because we have planned to do this trip for so long, but the only sensible choice is to wake up early and hike out to avoid getting trapped by the incoming snow. Better to play for a better day than risk it, so it’s off to bed with plans for an early departure.