A Grand Canyon Hike

The Bright Angel trail from the south rim
to Plateau Point


Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point

It was somewhere about two miles from the rim while hiking back out when I began to doubt that I might make it all the way up to the top again. The light was fading quickly in the side canyon of the Bright Angel trail and my left knee had just had two sharp, shooting pains that felt like someone was driving a metal stake through it. The day had been long, but I had gotten a late start. The morning was spent answering emails and now here I was in another world where the concept of time existed in spans that stretch longer than a human life. And against it all the realization of just how insignificant we all are and especially I was at that moment.

For DSCN7724_f400 years I'd seen the canyon from the rim. Wondering what it was like to see it from the inside. I'd made several short trips down but no more than a few miles. Today I was going almost all the way. Six miles in and 3,100' down. Six miles out and 3,100' up.

The day was clear and comfortable. The strong, cold winds of the last two days was gone, replaced by a gentle breeze. On my back was a new Camelbak pack with 3 liters of water. I also brought another extra two liters just in case. On my head was a big, ugly floppy hat, but perfect for shading my head from the hot sun that would be waiting for me at the bottom of the trail. For now I was in the shade of the cliffs and cool in the high elevation. The trail head starts a 6,860 ft above sea level where the air is cool and pine trees whisper in the wind.

 

 

 


Battleship Butte

Battleship Butte

At the top along the rim as the canyon spreads out before you objects look smaller and closer than they really are. This becomes apparent almost as soon as you begin your decent.


Buttes that seem tiny and fun become larger than your imagination can comprehend. At each turn of the trail the views, although of the same features, changed dramatically, growing larger, tall or sometimes smaller and shorter.

 

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The Battleship

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Cliffs of the south rim

As I descended the horizon began to rise above me. The north rim slowly, the cliffs of the south rim quickly rise up as if shwallowing me whole.

 

The first land mark on the trail would be the Mile and One Half Resthouse, which is 1,140 feet below the rim at an elevation of 5,720. I knew from previous hikes that the section between the trail head to the rest house would be very crowded. This is the busiest part of the trail as more people do this section than any other part. It is not uncommon to see people without any water, in flip-flops and sometimes women in heels.


Mule trains are a constant fixture on the Bright Angel as are their "leftovers", which I call "mule mines". Even when not present the mules scent hangs on the trail. When the trains appear they have the right of way and hikers must stay on the inside of the trail until they pass. Close up the mules look hot and sweaty. I always wonder what they make of it all. Do they enjoy it?

Ye-Haw or Pee-Yoo?

A Mule train

Mile and One half Resthouse

Mile and a Half Resthouse

When I arrived at the resthouse it was crowded with people looking for shade. I decided to skip the confines of the place and the tight press of bodies and continue down the trail. Before I got very far I ran into one of the many Rock squirrels that hang out at the the stopping points looking for food. They're very bold and have little fear of people.

The one I encountered was very used to people and gave me a look that said "You brought lunch, right?".

"Sorry Mr. Squirrel, I thought to myself " but you're on your own, and that's how it should be."

You brought lunch, right?

A Rock squirrel


Panorama from 1.5 mile rest house
A composite panorama from just past the Mile and a Half Resthouse

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Where we're headed

Once past the Mile and a Half Resthouse I could really see the canyon stretched out before me. In the middle section a grove of cottonwoods revealed an oasis on the trail. This was Indian Gardens. For thousands of years the native peoples of the canyon had used this area to grow crops. It was a small patch of shade in a giant desert.

Father off was my goal for the day: Plateau Point. From there one can look down into the inner gorge of the Grand Canyon and see the Colorado river. It looked far away so I kept up my pace.

Off to the west you could see where the trail had twisted down the cliffs. The trail zig zagged back and forth. I hurried down with excitement past the Three Mile Resthouse. This part of the trail, between 1.5 and 3 miles only looses 800 feet of elevation. Not that you'd know it on the way back up.

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Looking back on the trail.

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Jacob's Ladder

Past the Three Mile Resthouse the trail descends steeply. At this point the grade is at 14.85%. Not the steepest grade on the trail, but one of the longest. Before I plunged down I could see the trail snake back and forth below me. Coming back I named this section the Serpent's Tail. It's real name is Jacob's Ladder. Depending upon your point of view I think both names are appropriate.

Not only is the grade steep and unrelenting, but it's often in full sun which adds to the hardship.

At the bottom of Jacob's Ladder comes Cardiac curve. The air is no longer cool, it's hot and dusty. Gone are the pine and pinyon trees, replaced by cactus and other lower desert plants. There is no breeze. Between the Three Mile Resthouse and Indian Gardens the trail looses another 1,120 feet, but here, just before getting to Indian Gardens the trail seems almost level. Another deception that will rear it's ugly head on the trip back up. By the time I get to Indian Gardens I am hot, sweating and need to rest for an extended period.

Approaching Indian Garden

Approaching Indian Gardens

 

The north end of Indian Gardens

The north end of Indian Gardens.

Indian Gardens is truly an oasis. The giant cottonwood cast shade everywhere and rustle in a cool breeze. You hear the sounds of voices in the distance and walk along a garden of giant prickly pear cactus. Looking back you can clearly see the full profile of the south rim. I gaze with wonder "I really climbed down from way up there? I really have to climb back up there..?" Putting that thought aside I go in search of a place to lie down, cool off and rest up before I make the final push to Plateau Point.

Coming into Indian Gardens I'm deluding myself that there will be a ranger waiting to great people as they come off the trail. Tell them where things are and the general layout. Nothing greets me but the empty breeze, a sign for the restrooms, water a bench and a wooded bulletin board explaining how ugly your death will be from any number of causes. Dehydration, exhaustion, sunstroke and of course don't forget those pesky mountain lions. All of this is accompanied by drawing of a man prostrate from his fun little hike down the canyon. I wonder to myself "shouldn't this sign have been at the the trailhead?".

The bulletin board

The bulletin Board

Lying on a bench I put my feet up, a recommend way to rest among the bulletin boards warnings, and munch on a cliff bar. My head is hot so I pour a little water over myself. It feels good.

Indian Gardens

Indian Gardens

Next to me other hikers are eating lunch. A squirrel walks up to them without care. He ducks under and behind their bench. Without any fear at all he reaches up and tries to grab a box to crackers right off the bench. I find this all very fun, the other hikers do not and decide to move to another bench. The squirrel, being no dummie follows them.

I fall into a light sleep. The wind picks up suddenly, leaves rustle and I turn my head to see a deer slowly walk across the trail not ten feet from me, quiet as a phantom, and like a phantom he is gone the moment he enters some bushes. The air is heavy with mysticism.

I'm tired but excited to press on and get out into the main canyon and out on the Tonto Plateau. I follow the trail sign to Plateau Point and cross a small creek. After climbing a small rise the trees part and the canyon opens up. Very quickly everything is laid out in full view. The ground is not flat as it looks like from the rim but undulates up and down. My excitement builds.

Entering the Tonto Plateau

Entering the Tonto Plateau

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On the Tonto Plateau

Everything seems farther away down here. On the rim the north rim seems much closer and taller. From inside the canyon it seems much farther away and yet shorter. The farther I walk out to the point the more cliffs come into view. They seem to loom over me all the while receding. Familiar landmarks look familiar yet completely different. Bright Angel Canyon on the north side of the river looks enormous. Above it all stands Zozoaster Temple.

On the Tonto Plateau of the Grand Canyon
The north rim looms in the distance

More and more of the canyon comes into view. I know each point and pinnacle has a name but I don't know them. Would I even recognize them if I did? The size of everything and the space of it all is staggering. Nothing I've ever seen before was anywhere near as large. I know my camera will never be able to take it all in.

When I make it to the point I feel like I'm in the center of the world, in a womb of rock. Cliffs tower all around me in every direction.

View from Plateau Point
From Plateau Point

The North Rim to the Inner Gorge
From Plateau Point

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A composite pan from Plateau Point

 

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The Colorado river.

River swirls below me. Even though I'm still more than 1,280 feet above it I can hear the roar of the rapids. The mighty Colorado river is now the Verde river as it's waters have turned cold and green from Glen Canyon dam upstream. Gone is the once warm brown color from which the river got it's name.

Below to the right I can see the Bright Angel trail as it makes it's way down to the river and winds out of view toward Phantom Ranch.

Mather Point from Plateau Point

Mather Point from Plateau Point

Looking back toward the south rim everything looked so different. I searched for familiar places: Mather Point, Yavapai Point, Hopi Point. Nothing looked right. I finally found what I believed to be Mather Point by locating some of the butte below it. Logic would then say that Yavapai Point would be the next one to the west. But after that things still looked too different.

As time was not on my side I didn't stay at Plateau Point long, but began the trek back to Indian Gardens. The pain in my left leg that would give me so much trouble later had already begun. I tried to pace myself.

Returning to Indian Gardens

Return to Indian Gardens.


Is anybody home?

Anybody home?

It took about 30 minutes to get back to Indian Gardens. Once again I rested a while. This time however I was the only person there. The quiet was nice but made me edgy, as if I'd missed the cut off to head back up and everyone else had already begun their ascent.

Like before, not a ranger was in site. I passed what looked like a ranger station, it's flag listlessly flapped in the wind. Was anybody home?



Yavapai Point

Looking up at Yavapai

Once I left Indian Gardens the sun beat down with unrelenting strength. This time the view ahead of me, instead of being the wide expanses of the canyon were of the ramparts and cliffs that I was about to tackle. Above me loomed the rim 3,100 high. It seemed like Everest.

Gigantic alcoves appeared in the rock face and far above the Observation Station at Yavapai, to far to be visible.


Going Up

Going up

The trail, hot and dry, went slowly up to the cliff face. From here the view was much more confined and although I knew the hike would soon become much steeper with it would come welcome shade.

My thoughts swam with the excitement of being out in the canyon, the views and goal accomplished, but also with thoughts of the climb ahead. I put away any thoughts of doubt and tried to ignore the pain in my leg, knowing that I had no choice anyway. I would get to the rim on my own strength and determination.


The shade was a welcome relief from the hot sun and lack of any breeze. After a short rest I proceeded like a heavy truck climbing a grade in low gear, slow and steady.

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Slow and Steady


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The trail

Bright Angel trail near 3 mile rest house

Shadows and light

The light was slowly fading, casting longer shadows and bring out the canyon's multicolored rocks. I paused to take a breath and a photo.

Then came the Serpent's Tail (Jacob's Ladder). My pace slowed down, my focus narrowed to each single step. While the canyon soared above me I was concentrating on every little detail of the trail. Choosing the best place for every footstep among the rough and broken terrain.

I didn't stop at the Mile Three Resthouse but pressed a little farther before stopping and once again catching my breath and some photos.


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Above the Mile Three Resthouse

The canyon walls got steeper as I climbed higher. The views once again showed distant vistas and wide horizons. I passed other hikers resting who in turn passed me during my rests. My spirits were soaring and then the pain kicked in.

Both my feet were sore and I could feel growing blisters. My thighs felt like lead and suddenly every tendon below my waist made it's presence felt.

Then came the two stabbing pains to my left knee. First one and the a step latter another. Each was excruciating. For the first time I felt a real fear that I might not make it.

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Closing In


Adjusting my stride I found the pain didn't repeat itself. I slowly hiked on and worked on rebuilding my confidence.

Stopping to rest I distracted myself by watching a turkey buzzard slowly drifting in circles on an unseen thermal rising against the cliff to the east of me. I marveled at his effortless

 

 

acsension with wonder and envy. He could make the rim with little effort and have the sky as his trail.

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Sky Trails


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The Battleship

Soon familiar land marks came into view. More and more people appeared on the trail. We talked as we rested. I met a family from the UK. Three kids and their parents. Before they came to the Grand Canyon they had rafted the San Juan river near Bluff and Mexican Hat. The kids were sunburned but raced up and down the trail with ease. Their parents, like me a little slower. They too had been all the way to Plateau Point.

We moved on and soon spread out. They disappeared ahead of me.


Finally the last cliffs can be seen. About a 1,000 feet remain. My feet hurt but my spirits are high. The air is once again cool and the tall pines return.

Slowly I made my way up to the top just as the last rays of the sun set below the western horizon. I am tired, sore and dusty but already planning my next hike down.

Over the next few days my legs cramp up a little and one of the blisters on my right foot hurts, but the pain is like a trophy. The whole experience seems like a dream and the pain and stiffness makes it stay real.

I also recorded an improvisation after my hike. Called "Bright Angel" it's a free MP3 download to members of my E-mailing list. If you're already a member visit the members section to hear it. If not, joining is free. Check out the Email List page for more details.

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The last cliffs


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Back at the top


OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES
How to Buy a NAF, part 1
How to Buy a NAF, part 2
How to care for your NAF
Playing your first NAF scale
Strengthening your Fingers
Playing from the Heart Part-1
Playing from the Heart Part-2
Recording your NAF, basic, easy Home Studio set up
NEW Starting your Own Music Label part 1
NEW The Basic Scale of the Anasazi Flute

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Native American flute music by Scott August
Sacred Dreams
Native American flute music by Scott August
Ancient Light
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