Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim
Talk about long shots. When we came up with the idea to spend Christmas in the Grand Canyon, I was sure it won't work out.
During Thanksgiving 2017, we went up to Mammoth and planned to do a three-night backcountry trip over Duck Pass to Iva Bell Hot Springs. Two days before the trip, the weather forecast changed drastically. A front was moving in during the weekend, with 60 mph winds predicted in the lower areas and up to 100 mph winds on the passes, especially for the day when we were supposed to hike back out over Duck Pass. Not something we'd like to be in.
Nonetheless, we went up to Mammoth, spent two nights in the crowded and not-so-nice main campground, while day hiking in the area. The weather was still OK and we had a great time. Pictures here.
The itch for real backpacking kept lingering, of course, and I couldn't stop thinking about where to go during Christmas or New Year's. Suddenly, I came up with the idea to go to the Grand Canyon.
We have been there three times, but only did the "tourist" thing, namely visiting the South Rim and walking around on top a bit. Each time we were with folks visiting from Europe, our parents and friends, so we didn’t have time to hike into the canyon.
I remembered how everybody advised against summer hiking there and I also recalled somebody on a group hike mentioning that they spent Thanksgiving down by the river and had a great time. Also, our dear friend and naturalist extraordinaire, Suzanne Swedo, went for her umpteenth North Rim to South Rim trip in October, and she kept gushing how she can never get enough of the place.
To get away from the storm, we left Mammoth Saturday, and on the way home I mentioned my vague idea to Em. I had no specifics, but she loved it right away.
As soon as we got home, I sat down to look at possibilities. After consulting a few trip reports and then our own availability on the calendar, the plan became clear very quickly: Main Corridor, Rim-to-Rim-to Rim, with four nights in the canyon, plus one night each on the way there and back.
There are many, many hiking opportunities in the Grand Canyon, but by far the most popular is the so-called Main Corridor, the only "easy" and "short" route between the two rims. One way it's about 23 miles with 4,500-5,500 feet of elevation gain/loss, depending on the direction.
Many people do it as a one-way trip, called Rim-to-Rim, with car shuttles, and usually north-south as the North rim is higher, making the climb out from the bottom a bit easier.
There was no chance for us to do it this way, mostly because the North Rim was already closed for the season. The road closes either on November 1 or at the first significant snowfall.
The itinerary became clear quickly. Park the car in Grand Canyon Village at the Backcountry Information Center, take the free shuttle to the South Kaibab Trailhead (there's a specific hiker shuttle every morning), walk down the Kaibab trail, then at the end of the trek walk up the Bright Angel Trail which is very close to the info center, and thus the car. Also, the Kaibab Trail is much steeper, but a bit shorter, the Bright Angel Trail is somewhat longer, but less steep, so it makes perfect sense to descend the steep and shorter way while climbing the longer and less steep way.
The first order of business was to obtain the permit. Busy times are sold out months in advance, most popular dates sell out as soon as they can be reserved. We had almost exactly one month. There's a page on their website to check for availability, and though all slots around New Year's were full, our dates a week beforehand looked good. We decided to give it a shot. I filled in the paperwork and faxed them the application on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
When I woke up next morning, I thought I was hallucinating: the permit was in my email. I guess they weren't busy that morning and processed it right away. We got all our choices, exactly as requested.
Quick note: their fee system is a bit unusual compared to most other national parks. There's a base fee and then each night you spend below the rim, you have to pay per person, per night. Also, you're only allowed to camp in the designated backcountry campgrounds and there's no flexibility with the itinerary. Here's the link to their page:
Scroll down to "Corridor Availability Report" to check your dates.
The month of November went by in a flurry, we were very busy and didn't get many chances to do much hiking, but we were still confident we can make it. I was only concerned about our knees with all that downhill.
Day 0 - L.A. to Grand Canyon Village
If you visit the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, a great option for lodging nearby is Williams, about 60 miles to the south, right on I40. It's a great little Route 66 town with many cheap motels and cool restaurants. We slept there a few times years before.
This time, we wanted to sleep in the park, mostly so we can get going early in the morning. There would have been plenty of spots available in the campground, but the weather forecast said it could be as cold as 6°F in the morning. Thus, we decided to splurge, and I booked a room at Yavapai Lodge, by far the cheapest place to stay within the park's boundaries, but still way more expensive than anything in Williams.
It was December 21, the day of the winter solstice. We left L.A. around 6am and arrived at the park's entrance at 2pm local time. Some snow fell a few days prior, and though it was melting and the roads were clear, there was still enough on the ground to make it look great. We were hoping to get some snow on the rim, and this wasn't much, but still better than nothing.
First, we picked up our permit, then drove and walked around the rim a bit, enjoying the view and taking pictures. Quite a few other people were there, but nothing compared to what I hear about summer crowds.
This being the shortest day of the year, the sun set early, giving us a great show, with the waxing moon following not much behind.
We checked into our little motel room (very basic, but nice and clean), ate dinner, took a walk to the rim in the dark, then went to bed.
Day 1 - South Rim to Bright Angel Campground
Overnight, I left our thermometer in the car to see how cold it gets. It showed 8°F, meaning the forecast was not much off.
We checked out from the lodge, drove to the info center, then ate breakfast in the car. The shuttle showed up right on time, and the adventure began!
Half an hour later we were at the South Kaibab Trailhead, ready to go. It was still cold, way below freezing, but the sun was out in full force and the wind was relatively calm.
Acting on the ranger's advice, we made the cautious decision to take our microspikes. This end of the trail was OK, but we were told that they might be needed for the ascent to the South Rim.
There was some snow and ice on the side of the trail, but the trail itself was completely clear. The first part, right below the trailhead, descends with a few ultra-sharp switchbacks, making for great photo opportunities. Well, almost everything in the Grand Canyon makes for great photo ops.
The going was easy, but we couldn’t make good time as we just had to stop for photos every few steps. The usual story. Then we had to stop for a deer who was coming our way on the trail. About half an hour and a mile later, we got to Ooh Aah Point (sic), 800 feet below the rim. This is a great short hike to experience the canyon a bit if one doesn’t have more time.
Down and down we went, undulating on the sharp switchbacks carved into the side of the rocks. The trail was in great shape and relatively well graded.
I started to suspect that we’ll be in trouble with our knees as we kept stopping for photos, then hurried to make up for the lost time. We only had a total of 7 miles to go from the trailhead to Bright Angel campground, but we wanted to get there early to have a decent choice of campsites, plus to have time before sunset for a short hike in the area.
A bit past Ooh Aah Point, there’s Cedar Ridge, another awe-inspiring spot with steep drop-offs on either side. This is also the site of the first toilet on this trail, and when I first saw it, I needed a second to figure why it looks the way it does. I’m an architect’s kid, I can’t not admire these things.
The restroom is a two-story setup with a small staircase leading to an elevated platform where the actual toilet is. On the “ground floor” there are locked compartments with big canisters holding the waste. It’s an ingenious setup on rocky terrain. First, there’s no need to blast a whole into the rock, and the waste wouldn’t have anywhere to go anyway. Second, this way it’s easy to get rid of the waste by bringing empty containers by mule and swapping them. Also, the barrels contain bacterial cultures to break down waste, and fans powered by small solar panels on the roof provide the necessary air circulation to make it work. Another huge upside of this is that the toilet doesn’t smell almost at all. It’s hard to believe, but that’s the case.
However, there was plenty more to see. The sun was much higher now and we got out of the rim’s shadow, so we could shed a few layers. Being around Christmastime, I decided to put on a wintry necktie (featuring penguins and snowflakes) and a silly elf hat. Em donned a Santa hat.
An hour later we passed Skeleton Point. We were about 3 miles from the trailhead and 2,000’ lower. The truly steep part begins here, with a 1,200’ descent in only 1.5 miles, getting to The Tipoff, where the South Kaibab Trail meets the Tonto Trail. This is a trail we’d love to explore in the future, it contours along the side of the South Rim, connecting many remote and less crowded destinations.
It was time for lunch. We stopped a bit past the Tipoff and took a break on a fantastic ledge overlooking the canyon, with glimpses of the Colorado River and Bright Angel Campground below. We had another 2.5 miles to go with an elevation loss of cca. 1,500’. I can’t stop repeating myself: the scenery was breathtaking and the trail super-steep. I could already feel my knees.
About 1.5 trail miles before the campground, there are a few spots with vistas of both bridges (more about them soon) at such a steep angle, you have a feeling you’re in a helicopter. Photos look like drone shots.
My knees started to hurt, so I tried to put as much weight as possible on the hiking poles, but it was brutally steep. The view compensated for all this, though.
Finally, around 1pm, we got to the Black Bridge (sounds like something from a Tolkien novel). A quick rundown: there are two bridges over the Colorado River here: the Black Bridge, constructed in the 1920’s, and the Silver Bridge, a bit downstream, made in 1968. Both are wide enough for mule trains. The Silver Bridge’s main purpose is to carry the trans-canyon pipe feeding water from the North Rim to the South Rim - more about this later.
The Black Bridge is a true feat of engineering. The south bridgehead is blasted directly into a huge rockface with no real access, so a short tunnel has been constructed. I can imagine the mules freaking out here. I couldn’t help it but take dozens of pictures of the anchoring and other details so I can show my architect dad.
The bridge itself is amazingly cool with the water rushing below. Em even said she got vertigo by looking through the slits between the boards.
On the far side, a group of boats were about ready to leave. We chatted with the oarsmen for a few minutes (how I'd love to go on a boat trip on the Colorado River!), then walked up toward the campground, stopping at the ruins of the old Native American village first. Those guys surely knew how to choose a great location.
In the creek emerging from the canyon, we spotted a fish trap. I speculated that it must have to do something with protecting the creek upstream from invasive species in the main river, but couldn't be sure.
Bright Angel Campground is on the left (west) side of the creek, Phantom Ranch is opposite, a bit further up. After crossing the small bridge, we walked up to the campground, looking for a spot. At this time of day, most were still unoccupied, and we chose a spot two or three spots down from the restroom, it being the most private still available. All campsites here feature a picnic table, several old ammo cans for food storage, and a hanger for backpacks to keep critters away.
Several deer were milling around, asking for food. Of course, we didn't give them any and made sure to store everything edible in the ammo cans.
Side note: you even have to be careful with empty plastic bags. For some reason, deer think they're food, and eat them. A few years ago, several dozen deer had to be shot by the rangers because their stomachs were full of indigestible plastic and they were starving to death.
All our collective knees here hurting a lot, but we couldn't wait to drop our gear and go for a walk. Everybody highly recommends doing the so-called River Loop, and that's what we did after quick snack and a Tylenol.
This loop is only about 1.5 miles, crossing the Colorado on both bridges, giving you a very nice views of the river from several angles. The Silver Bridge freaked out Em even more as the floor is metal grating offering unobstructed views of the frothing water below.
The sun was already behind the rim, turning the air a bit chilly, and we were walking slowly on our hurting legs, but it was a great little hike.
On the way back, we saw a gentleman tending to the fish trap in the creek, so we walked up to him for a little chat. He was very friendly and talked in length about their project, confirming my conjunction.
The traps are indeed to prevent the trout from going from the Colorado River upstream into the creek and decimating native fish populations. As a result, the creek has been trout-free for over a year now and the local fish are making a comeback.
Then we sat down at our campsite for dinner and sage tea. To be honest, I don’t like this campground very much. It’s too civilized with all the sites marked like you’re in a little garden, then the tables and ammo cans, and the big restroom building with running water. However, I fully understand that it has to be this way. The place is way too popular and us humans are doing enough damage as it is. Anything with a bigger footprint or less controlled would be exponentially worse.
Keeping our usual custom, we went for a walk in the dark after dinner. On the north end of the campground, the trail crosses the creek again on a nice foot bridge, then passes by the ranger station, and even a bit further up, skirts Phantom Ranch. There was no reason to walk through the ranch in the dark, so we decided to do that in the morning and returned to our campsite.
Day 2 – Bright Angel Campground to Ribbon Falls and Cottonwood Campground
The night was relatively cold, it got down to almost freezing at dawn. We slept until 8am, then slowly got ourselves organized and left at 10. It was still cold, but I was sure I’ll warm up quickly, so I started hiking with only my shirt on. Big mistake. We had to stop every few minutes to take photos, so warming up was out of the question.
At the footbridge, looking south, the rising sun filtered through the yellowing cottonwood leaves, making for a great spectacle. On the north side of the bridge, a group of deer was milling around. One of them must have been very horny as he kept trying to mount one of the does. We watched from a distance as the doe couldn’t make up her mind, she stood still for a second, then took a few steps, making the buck’s job impossible. He gave up after a minutes and returned to grazing.
Then we walked through Phantom Ranch to get an idea of the place. It’s surprisingly big, with over a dozen buildings, most of them sporting wooden walls with stone corner pillars (I’m guessing sourced from the creek bed). The place looks very quaint and has a nice atmosphere.
Not much past the ranch, the trail enters The Box. This is a very narrow slot canyon, about 3 miles long. They say the trapped air can get super-hot here in the summer, and I believe it. This time it was still cold with the sun hiding behind the canyon’s edge (also, a reminder, this was only two days after the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and the lowest the sun ever goes).
The Box is impossibly scenic. It’s on a few dozen feet wide in most places, with the creek in the middle and the steep walls of multicolored rock rising a few hundred feet on either side. The trail crosses the creek four times, but always on well-built foot bridges.
Besides the trail, another sign of civilization are the remnants of the trans-canyon telephone line. Constructed in 1934, the line was supported by system of simple pipe poles. Most of them are still in place, some became the backpack hangers in the campgrounds.
The line is part of the National Register of Historic Places and it’s not being maintained or demolished, just left to the elements.
It was still cold, but at least not windy. We kept stopping for photos, making for slow progress, but there was no pressure to hurry. Around noon, we got to a part with a bit of sunlight hitting the bottom of the canyon, so we stopped for a snack.
The Box ends after about three miles, with the steep walls dropping away and the trail climbing to a beautiful valley with a surprisingly wet area covered in reeds (the trail is a raised walkway here), then widening further and taking on a much more desert-like appearance. Part of Ribbon Falls is visible a short distance to the left.
We planned to do a side trip to the falls. Several people mentioned how beautiful the place is, so we didn’t want to miss it. Some say it’s worth setting up camp at Cottonwood first, then venturing back to the falls, but it was late.
Quick note: the main trail goes up a small hill here, and the official spur to the falls is on the other side of this hill. If you’re coming from the south and it’s not a high-water period, take the use trail at the bottom of the hill. You save time and the effort to climb that hill. This time, there was even a small sign pointing to the falls and a note saying that the bridge on the “real” trail is out of commission (this turned out not to be true).
We followed the use trail, a bit overgrown but still obvious among the bushes and reeds. There was a creek crossing, easily manageable with rock hopping this time, but any more water would have made it a shoes-off affair.
Then some more meandering through the bushes, and we got to the real trail in the tiny slot canyon leading up to the waterfall.
There’s a spot where it’s a bit confusing, the trail peters out and there’s a big rock to climb over, but past that Ribbons Falls reveals itself in all its glory. It’s not terribly tall or wide, but the interplay of all the elements is gorgeous. The fall itself has two segments, the upper around 20 feet, cascading onto a huge rock. A thick and contiguous layer of moss and other aquatic plants covers this rock, making it look like a big green hill. The water spills down on each side, braking into countless rivulets, finally arriving in a shallow pool underneath. The reddish rocks framing all this make the picture perfect.
There was no sunlight hitting the falls – my guess was that at this time of the year, the only brief, direct sunshine had been about two hours ago, but it still looked great.
To our great delight, we saw a small sign saying “Trail Behind the Falls” on the left side. Indeed, the steep little spur takes you up between the two segments and you can enjoy the spectacle of the water splashing onto the big moss-covered rock up close.
We just stood there for the longest time, enjoying the view. Then hunger got the better of us, so we climbed back down and sat for lunch on a huge rock next to the waterfall. We didn’t want to leave, but we knew Cottonwood will be almost full that night, so to have a chance at selecting our site, we left around 4pm.
There was no reason not to believe the sign saying the bridge is out, so we wanted to go back on the unofficial spur, but then we met two people coming from Cottonwood who told us to take the mapped trail as the bridge has been repaired, but apparently they forgot to remove the sign.
The bridge was there, indeed, crossing a narrow and deep little gorge. There’s no way one could get over the creek at this point without the bridge.
We reconnected with the Kaibab Trail and walked another mile to Cottonwood Campground. It’s a big grove of cottonwood trees (duh), with a “main square” featuring a ranger kiosk– unmanned this time - info boards, and a turnoff to the restrooms.
Past this, the campsites line the trail, some more private then others. About half were already occupied, meaning we still had choices, and finally chose one as much as possible out of sight. A small side trail led to it through the bushes and the foliage gave it relatively good privacy. Just like the spots at Bright Angel Campground, it had a picnic table, an ammo can for food storage, and a hanger for the backpacks.
For most of the year, there’s a working water spigot at Cottonwood, but this time, it was already turned off, meaning we had to get water from the creek. There was no access trail to the creek, and the shore is “protected” by a wide jumble of rocks, bushes and cactuses. A friendly guy returning with some water pointed me to a sort-of use trail, but even so, it took considerable effort to fight way my way through 100 feet of that mess to get to the water. All fun, though. I filled up the water bags and the shower while Em was already unpacking and making dinner preparations.
There was not much time to waste, we wanted to get to bed early as we knew the following day should be a hard one. Of course, we’re always slow in this sense, by the time we retreated to the tent, it was almost 9pm.
Day 3 – Cottonwood Campground to Bright Angel Point and back
The alarm went off at 5am, of course still in total darkness. Get up, quick breakfast, and you're off! If all goes to plan, we’ll do around 18 miles with a 4,000-foot gain, then loss. As we were told there could be snow and ice on the last section before reaching the top, we even took the microspikes with us.
The first mile and a half was relatively gently uphill, the wide valley narrowing. Looking south, the lights of Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim were well visible. The valley turned into a canyon, the trail crossed the creek on a big bridge and we got to Manzanita Rest Area, with dawn finally breaking. The ranger station here looked like it was manned, with the lights on, but we saw no movement. There was a big blackboard for messages, and this being December 24, Em added our own Merry Christmas greetings.
The truly spectacular part of the hike began here. Just past the rest area, the trail starts climbing sharply, gaining a few hundred feet in a mile, entering Roaring Springs Canyon. We passed the turnoff for the picnic area and kept going uphill. From this vantage point, Roaring Springs can be seen on the other side of the canyon. The water erupts from a gash high up on the rock. If you look closely, you can spot scaffolding and piping where some of the water is captured and conveyed via gravity all the way to Indian Garden on the other side, from where it’s pumped up to the South Rim. Built in 1960, this pipeline is truly a marvel of engineering, but it has long outlived its original planned 30-year lifespan, and the NPS is looking into how to upgrade or replace it.
The next mile and a half or so is one of the most exciting and beautiful place I've ever been to. The canyon gets narrower and narrower, with the trail climbing on the side, just as tiny ledge high up on a wall well over a thousand feet tall, contouring in seemingly impossible places. It looks scarier than in it is, though, the trail is in great shape and at least 6-7 feet wide at all times.
Our favorite part was a small, horseshoe-shaped contour where the trail was almost lost to the sight on the opposite side of the wall. Em went ahead so we can take pictures of each other for scale. Even so, it's hard to convey how awesome this looks. Also, the morning clouds started thinning out and the sun broke through, giving even more color to the rocks.
Somewhat further up, there's a drop of about 200' to the Redwall Bridge, a sturdy metal and wood construction spanning the canyon. Looking carefully, one can see where an old landslide took out the trail on the other side. I’m sure there used to be another crossing higher.
From the bridge, the North Rim looks deceptively close, but we knew it's another three miles and (get this:) over 2,000' in elevation gain. Boy, does it get steep here. We were more or less on schedule, even despite all the photo breaks, so we took it easy and kept a slow, but steady pace. The sun was out and I can imagine how hot it can get here in the summer, but now it was almost pleasant.
We kept climbing and climbing, the bridge shrinking below by the minute. Less than another mile later we got to the Supai Tunnel, a very short, but cute little hole in the rock with a scenic rest area on the other side. After a quick break there, it was up and up again. Here the vegetation changes drastically, becoming more of the pine forest you find up on the North Rim.
Patches of snow started showing up on shaded parts of the trail, but it was very soft and even after it turned into an almost contiguous snow cover, microspikes were not needed. The ground underneath was soft sand, and that mixed easily with the snow, creating a non-slippery and non-muddy mix.
From the footprints and the messages we knew a few guys went up here the day before, but as far as we knew, there was nobody in front of us, only maybe 2-3 people a few hours behind us.
It took about an hour to climb the 600' over 1.3 miles to the Cocconino Overlook, a rocky ledge cca. 700' and 0.7 miles below the rim with great views of Roaring Springs Canyon. Down below, Redwall Bridge looked like a tiny plank.
This is obviously the lower end of the North Rim tourists' reach as the trail becomes a veritable highway here, at least 20 feet wide in most places and very well graded. I can only imagine how crowded this can be during the main season. This time, however, there was nobody around.
Another half hour later, we were up on the Rim! The trail crests into a nondescript parking area with a few info displays and restroom. The trees obscure any view of the canyon.
Everything was covered in a few inches of snow and there was no sign of anybody, other than a few track marks on the main road.
From the prints in the snow it was obvious that the guys got up here the day before, trudged to the trash bin in the parking area, then went back down again. Big mistake. Having read about how anticlimactic this is, we had other plans. It would add over five miles to an already strenuous day, but we felt OK and there was time.
In the snow unmarked except for a few animal tracks, we took the trail climbing the little hill to the North Rim "village". Up by the main road we found the Backcountry Office. As promised, there was a working water tap here, and to our biggest surprise, even a fully working, lit and heated restroom with hot water and all. No humans, though. One car drove away in the distance and that was it. (Yes, the road is closed to the public, but there are maintenance and SAR people up there almost all the time, especially before the road becomes truly impassable.)
We continued south on the Bridle Path, past the campground, past the visitor center and the hotel. It was very quiet and beautiful, easy going in the snow, with the sun filtering through the trees.
Then the forest ends and there's the Grand Canyon. We found the trail to Bright Angel Point, a lookout about a quarter mile out on a rock. Oh, wow. Let me put it this way: if you're strong enough to climb to the North Rim and you don't come out here to enjoy this view, you really missed out on something great.
There's not much to say. Take a look at the pictures.
I was afraid it's going to be windy there, but it was perfectly calm, with the sun having warmed the rocks well enough to lounge on. We sat down for lunch and a long break. We even realized that our cell phone was picking up a signal from the South Rim and we called our parents to wish them Merry Christmas.
It was time to go, though, we had a very long descent over almost nine miles.
After a quick walk through the forest, we were back at the parking area in no time. Now we saw that a few other people came up, too, but obviously nobody followed us out to Bright Angel Point. Their loss.
This part of the canyon was already in the shade, and we had to watch our footing a bit, as the snow started turning slippery on the rockier parts of the trail - however, there was still no need for the spikes.
By 3:45pm, we were back at the Supai Tunnel and the thermometer on the side of the restroom showed 48°F in the shade. Half an hour later we crossed Redwall Bridge again and got over the little climb. Then it was the impossibly scenic contouring part again, this time with great opportunities for silhouette pictures as the far canyon walls were still lit by the sun.
The headlamps came on around the Manzanita Rest Area, and we arrived back to our spot at Cottonwood at 6pm.
We both took quick showers. Before leaving at dawn, we placed the shower so it would get as much sun as possible during the day. This being a short and somewhat cloudy December day, the water didn't warm up a lot, and then it cooled off between sunset and the time we got back. Still, it was way less cold than the creek water and we enjoyed our shower very much.
Around 7pm, we started our festive dinner, i.e. the usual trail food plus a small pine branch with some European holiday candy around it and a 3D-printed reindeer on a wine cork (yes, really). I even concocted a Christmas carol that featured the Grand Canyon, smelly clothing, and many profane elements not suitable for sharing here (full disclosure: we're very much not religious).
After a quick evening walk down to the restrooms, we retreated to our tent and slept soundly. It's been a great day with one of the most exciting scenery we've ever seen, and though I was concerned about our knees, neither of us was in any serious pain.
Day 4 - Cottonwood Campground to Indian Garden Campground
We slept in, then broke camp in our usual slowpoke way and only left after 10am. Walking past Ribbon Falls, the temptation was great to visit it again, but it was late and we wanted to have at least some choice for a spot at Indian Garden, which was supposed to be full that night.
In the Box, we had a cool encounter with a deer. After rounding a corner, she was right in front of us on the trail, coming our way. The trail here was narrow and a few feet higher than the shrubbery on the side of the creek with no room for any of us to yield. The deer first turned around and ran back a few feet, but then we decided to try to let her pass. We went back behind the corner, and there was a small alcove which fit us both. After a few seconds, the deer poked its head around the corner. We stood as still as possible, with Em shooting video. The deer was very skittish, of course, we realized that she even got scared if we moved our eyes. We had to stare at the ground, and after about a minute of back and forth, she finally made up her mind and squeezed past us. Take a look at the video.
Noon found us marching through Phantom Ranch and sitting down for lunch at Bright Angel Camp. Here we saw a guy in full Santa outfit running the trail. He waved cheerily at our just-as-stupid hats and kept going.
It was warming up quickly, with the temperature rising above 60°F.
We made this a quick break and after filling up with water, left the camp and crossed the Silver Bridge once again, but then turned right on the River Trail. First it follows the river downstream for a mile or so, gaining one or two hundred feet. We found some old mining equipment and had to try the 3D-printed wrench our friend made us (it's hollow biodegradable plastic, weighing only a quarter ounce). Thus having started a new mining empire, we continued on the trail, dropping again to the river at Pipe Creek.
There's a very nice beach here, just upstream of Pipe Creek Rapids, and I fully understand why they put up all those signs warning people not to swim in the river. The current is extremely powerful, even above the rapids. Great scenery, though, with the wide river and all the rocks, Sumner Butte prominently peeking out in the east. The temperature was even higher here, maybe around 70°F.
The trail (called Bright Angel Trail from here on up to the rim) turns south into Pipe Creek Canyon, following the creek. This part, too, is amazing, with a relatively lush riparian area in the narrow canyon. There are cascades, small waterfalls, and our favorite: another huge growth of algae and greenery on the rock where water is abundant. After a mile or so, the trail crosses the creek a third time (it was flowing nicely, but all crossings were easy rock-hops) and starts the climb in the dreaded Devil's Corkscrew, gaining cca 500' in less than a mile.
Honestly, it's not that bad. It's sort of steep and it's "long", but the trail is in great shape and views make it very much worthwhile. We just kept to our slow uphill pace we usually use on high mountain passes, and it was over before we knew it.
The scenery is very dramatic, though. The Corkscrew's bowl is one of a kind, and looking back at the trail, it looks truly daunting.
At the top, it enters Garden Creek's drainage, yet another lush riparian area. The creek was flowing well, and the two crossings looked like they could be a real challenge in times of more water.
The canyon narrows considerably, but the climb is not very steep. Just before reaching the Tonto Plateau, we got treated to the sight of a bighorn ram standing on the plateau, looking at us from the other side of the gorge.
He was standing there as if being on guard duty, and we hoped the larger herd is behind him, but as it turned out later, this was not the case.
A bit after 3:15pm we reached the plateau and crossed the Tonto Trail.
Indian Garden was just another 10 minutes further up. This is a big "village" with a ranger kiosk, stables, a group camping area, and - for our taste - overdeveloped campsites with awnings and tables. The area is beautiful with big trees and the creek, but the campsites are awfully close together and the whole place feels way too civilized. Like I said before, the need for reducing the footprint as much as possible is understandable, but it still felt anticlimactic.
About two thirds of the sites were already occupied, but we still found one that was somewhat (very loosely speaking) private. Then we dumped our gear and headed for Plateau Point to catch the sunset.
On the way, we say the ram again, grazing peacefully. He was by himself, no sign of a herd. At least he was kind enough to pose for pictures.
The trail is essentially parallel to the main trail where we came up, but higher. Here the vegetation is desert-like with creosote and a purple version of the prickly pear cactus.
This point is a must-do destination. It's a jutting out from the Tonto Plateau about 1,400' above the river and needless to say, the views are magnificent.
We lingered there for well over an hour, eating a snack and chatting with fellow hikers. Then it was back to the campground that felt more like an overcrowded fairground. Not just people, but deer everywhere. They were lounging around the tent sites, not minding anybody.
After dinner, we went for another quick walk, rousing a few deer who slept right on the dirt road in the middle of the campground. The night was not pleasant, we could constantly hear people snoring and moving all around us. It was almost like a hostel dormitory.
Day 5 - Indian Garden Campground to South Rim and then Williams
We had a relatively short day ahead of us, but we still got up at 6am because we wanted to hike out to Plateau Point again, this time to catch the sunrise. In the same spot where we saw the ram the day before, a big stag was standing now, looking at us without a care in the world, but we couldn't get decent enough pictures in those lighting conditions.
The repeated trek out to the point was very much worth it. The conditions were perfect with a few clouds, lots of blue sky, and the rising sun illuminating all this.
The weather was cool, but where was no wind, so we spent well over half an hour at the point before walking back to the campground. It was much cooler there, it still being in the shade. We took our time, ate some soup, then broke camp around 10:30am and headed up towards the South Rim, 4.5 trail miles away and 3,000 feet higher. The trail exits the garden’s grove on a gentle grade, but then starts its relentless climb. It’s still not steep, though, just uphill without any breaks.
Quite a few people were about, including a group on horseback. They kept stopping for interpretations, so we leapfrogged each other a few times.
There’s switchback after switchback after switchback, the vegetation slowly changing with the gain in altitude. It was the usual story: walk, photo, walk, photo. No hurry, though.
There’s a place called 3-Mile Resthouse with water and toilets, but it was very crowded, so we stopped for a long snack break a bit further up. Indian Garden already looked far below, but in reality only about 900 feet, we still had over 2,000 to climb.
Then there’s the next creatively named place: 1/2-Mile Resthouse, with the crowds getting thicker and thicker.
One of my favorite parts on here was the last mile or so where the trail contours all the way to the west and before going back east, there are really cool views of the trail on the opposite side where the final climb is. It looks like people are walking on the side of the rock wall stacked on each other.
It was 2pm by the time we got to the top. A sign said the trail can be icy and crampons are recommended, but that was simply not true. There wasn’t a drop of water or ice anywhere on the trail.
We took some more pictures, then walked over the railroad tracks in the direction of the Backcountry Office. Two huge elk were hanging around the back of a maintenance building, behaving almost like stray dogs looking for scraps. We gave them a wide berth, of course.
The car was where we left it, and soon we were on our way to Williams. We had a room in the cheapest motel we could find, had dinner at a nice little Mexican restaurant (great food), then fell asleep early.
Day 6 – Williams to Los Angeles via some Route 66
We left Williams around 8:30am. When planning this trip, we discussed driving home partially via Route 66 if there’s time and we’re not too tired. We felt great, it was early, so a few miles west of Ash Fork, we turn off I40 onto Route 66. First it parallels the I40, but past Seligman, it turns north-west, making a 100-mile U-shaped loop back to the I40 at Kingman. This portion is really cool and it’s a very relaxing drive. Highly recommended if time allows.
Just past Kingman, we turned off the I40 again, following Route 66 through the Black Mountains. We had no idea what to expect and it turned out to be one of the most fun experiences. The road is paved and in great condition, but very winding, going up into the rugged desert mountains. We saw a sign that warned of wild burros on the road, and indeed, we found a group grazing on the side among the chollas and yuccas. Of course, we had to stop for pictures.
Then we came to the amazing little town of Oatman. Those people are geniuses. The I40 bypassed them long ago, but they made sure to stay alive and thrive by turning virtually the entire town into an attraction. It’s touristy, sure, and a bit cheesy, but it doesn’t feel awkward. Every building on the main street is either a restaurant, a bar or some sort or a souvenir/art/trinket shop, but they all create this kind of cute synergy. By far the most fun part, though, are the burros. These supposedly “wild” animals are roaming the streets by the dozen, fed and cared for by locals and very friendly with everybody. You can pet them, take pictures with them, etc. There was even a guy who was walking around cleaning up all the poop. Em fell in love with a small burro and we contemplated taking her home in the back seat of our car. Well, we had a blast.
For a minute we considered having lunch here, but then decided against it and drove on, back to the I40, crossing the California-Arizona border and heading home. Originally, we wanted to take another Route 66 detour between Fenner and Ludlow, but we spent way too much time with the burros and part of that road was closed anyway.
We weren’t even home in L.A. yet, we were already discussing the next possible outing to the Grand Canyon.
The Grand Canyon is amazing beyond words. The size is hard to convey. By standing on the rim it looks and feels huge, but when you’re down in the canyon it’s when you truly see and feel how small you are.
To experience the scale, colors, sounds and flora-fauna of the place was a unique experience for us, especially that we’re coming from a place with very different geography. We had a great trip, but I don’t think we would want to go back to the main corridor soon. Way too many people for our taste. The good news is, there many other opportunities in the area, most of them way less crowded.
Make sure to check out all the pictures from this trip in the full gallery.