Grand Canyon, Day 3: An Early Exit

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The alarm goes off at 5 am. There’s no snoozing allowed this morning. We’ve made the decision to hike out today in hopes of avoiding a possible blizzard that is threatening the Canyon.

The rangers last night gave us the latest weather forecast and explained that snow is elevation dependent. Down at the bottom of the canyon we would likely only receive rain, but at 3500 to 4500 feet snow accumulation was likely. The prediction was 12” at the South Rim. The difficulty would be getting out of the Canyon, because the last few miles would involve hiking up the steepest part of the trail through cold, wet and slippery snow.

In addition, we do not have water proof boots or a winter weight tent. So, reluctantly we decide not to push on to Cottonwood which would put us 4500 feet up the North Rim in the wrong direction and further jeopardize our escape. Ok, a bit dramatic, but we were trying to justify cutting short our original plan after months (years!) of planning. I think we’ve read enough tales of hikers who got caught in the elements unexpectedly to not risk the situation.

It’s pitch dark when we get out of the tent and start packing up, but we’re not the only folks up and making plans to hit the trail early. We have a quick cup of coffee and a breakfast bar. As the sky begins to grow light in the pre-dawn light we begin walking out of Bright Angel Campground. We cross the Colorado River on the Silver Bridge and follow the relatively level River Trail for 1.7 miles as it meanders 50 feet above the rushing water below. Slowly the light of a cloud-covered sky reveals the colors of the canyon at river level.

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At the Resting House the trail turns onto the Bright Angel Trail and follows a winding side canyon gently gaining elevation. We stop for a short break at a little waterfall and remove layers before starting the big ascent up to Indian Garden.

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It surprises us that there are green things in the desert at this time of year, but the ribbon of water trickling down the creek is enough to support life in the desert. The cottonwoods that thrive near water still hold onto their yellow leaves adding a touch of color on the way up.

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There are all sorts of hikers making their way up and down the canyon. We encounter many folks who stayed in the dorms at Phantom Ranch and are only carrying small day packs, making us jealous of their light loads. The ability to hike into the canyon and sleep in a bed makes this experience a great introduction to the joys of backcountry trekking without having to carry a full backpack.

We pass one older woman who is hiking up with her daughter and six grandchildren! She is impressive in her determination to keep walking. Several trail runners pass us on their way down carrying nothing other than water with them. They will hit the river and make their way back to the South Rim in just one day. We even cross paths with a large mule train carrying a group down canyon to enjoy the legendary Thanksgiving dinner at Phantom Ranch. Everyone manages to find their own fun.

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We can see Plateau Point rising above us, and, before long, we have hiked our way up to level and back to Indian Garden Campground, completing the lollipop. We decide to stop, take a break and grab a snack before tackling the last 4.5 miles out. As we are walking up, we cross paths with a National Park Ranger who says she has just posted the most recent forecast. The snow/rain prediction has been downgraded slightly. She tells us that we could stay at Indian Garden tonight if we want. She will make room for us if it fills up.

Her offer is tempting but we’ve made our choice—no sense provoking Mother Nature. Three days down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back feels like a solid first attempt that we can live with.

So we hoist the packs on and begin the final ascent up the steepest portion of this nearly 10 mile, 4200 foot vertical climb. Luckily there are stops at 3 Mile and 1.5 Mile Houses along the way to evenly break up the return journey. We are passed by a mule train ferrying empty coolers and trash up from.

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As we get closer to the rim we pass more and more day hikers making their way down and a few brave backpackers heading in. It’s getting colder as we climb and the last mile of the trail is icy and snowy. It’s packed down and slippery so we stop to put on micro spikes to give us extra traction.

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We wind our way up the final few switchbacks and back onto the South Rim and tag the sign that marks the completion of our journey. The wind is blowing, there’s fresh snow on the ground, and it is cold! It is all the confirmation we need to know that we have made a wise choice.

After dropping our bags off at the car, we head over to the Backcountry Office to let the park service know that we have headed out early. A sign on the door reads that the office has closed early due to the impending winter storm. A maintenance man locking up says that we are smart to get out, too.

He advises that we drive south toward Phoenix if we want to get to a lower elevation where the snow will turn to rain. He says there’s a real likelihood that Flagstaff will get snowed in. They do not have the snow plowing equipment that we are accustomed to in Chicago. In fact, we learn on the news that Arizona Highway Patrol closed portions of I-40 and I-17, and visitors to Grand Canyon National Park were unable to leave the park. Park Rangers had to set up temporary shelters for some folks who were stranded. (Click here and here to see more!)

It’s been a shorter introduction to backpacking the Grand Canyon than we would have liked, but this trip has already got us thinking about future, less-traveled routes that will allow us a chance to explore further this amazing natural wonder.

As a consolation prize, we drive down to Phoenix and spend the next two nights waiting out the storm in a warm and dry hotel room. We are able to get out for a climb up Camelback Mountain (surprisingly tough for such a popular hike), a productive birdwatching walk in nearby Gilbert and a visit or two to some local microbreweries.

When the storm finally passes, we get out for a short overnight backpacking trip in the enchanting Superstition Wilderness, trading canyons for cacti in a lush desert setting—no advance permit required!

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10 thoughts on “Grand Canyon, Day 3: An Early Exit

  1. That was indeed a wise move to spend your remaining time exploring the trails around Phoenix. We’ve lived in northern IL, CO and now AZ and can attest to the fact that other states aren’t nearly as good at plowing like IL. I love the Superstitions. Glad you had a chance to explore around there.

    1. We were very thankful in the end with our decision, but it was a tough pill to swallow at first. They closed the interstate for a few days, and we would have had a hard time getting back to Vegas for our flight. It was a good thing we got out, and we are definitely eager to get back to Arizona for a lot more backpacking in the future. The AZT is on our list!

  2. Two teachers demonstrating great judgment! I’m sure your blog followers, students and many others are grateful for the wisdom you displayed by your decision to get out of there in time.

    1. Thanks, Frank! I had already used a few personal days to make this trip happen and couldn’t afford to take the chance of missing more school. It all worked out for the best. We definitely did not have the right gear to be out in that kind of weather!

  3. awe you guys! love it. and I love how people validated you along the way on your decision…always a temptation to stay. Gorgeous photos! love you both.

    1. Thanks, Jenn! We will have to get back to the Grand Canyon sometime soon. It was so beautiful, and there are lots of other trails to explore there that will feel a little more remote. We will be back for more. You should come with us!

  4. WOW!! Really enjoyed your 3 days in the Grand Canyon. Many photos are keepers. I am looking forward to a presentation at a photo club meeting.

    1. Thanks, Jamie! We need to spend some more time exploring this beautiful park. There are a few trails from the North Rim that we have our eye on. If we can do those, we might have enough for a program in the future. 🙂

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