The word Colorado is derived form the Spanish word for “reddish”, and was applied to the river that ran red-brown as it carried loads of sediment from eroding canyons along its route. Since the Glen Canyon Dam was erected to form Lake Powell, the river rarely runs its natural reddish-brown color and is usually clear blue-green. When we first were able to glimpse the river from the Desert View area, we saw the beautiful blue-green ribbon weaving through the canyon below. After the storm, however, the water looked more like chocolate milk than Caribbean sea and did not clear up again for the remainder of our time at the canyon.
On the stormy day during Patricia’s visit, John and I headed over to the backcountry office to inquire about a permit for backpacking. Every national park we’d been to on this trip issued free permits within 24 hours of starting the hike, so I forgot that the more popular parks require advance registrations and charge fees. They do withhold a few spots for walk-up trips, but since we were there a few days in advance the ranger recommended we go ahead and schedule our itinerary. Our plan was to take Patricia back to Flagstaff, then spend a day or two back in Sedona experiencing some of the hiking the town is famous for before returning to the Grand Canyon for the canyon hike. We hoped to do a rim-to-rim-to-rim hike (south rim down to the river up to the north rim and back). As it turned out, spring break was coming so sites were booked up and our options were limited. Campsite availability would not allow a hike all the way to the north rim, and we would have to set out within a few days because most of the campsites in the canyon were booked solid starting the following Friday, March 7th. So we accepted the one itinerary that the ranger could put together for us, paid $50 (a lot more than free!) and hatched a new plan: after dropping Patricia off, return to the park immediately, spend two nights at a campground preparing, then embark on the hike.
|Date||Trail||Destination||Distance (mi)||Elevation (ft)|
|3/5/2014||Bright Angel and Tonto||Salt Creek||12.1||~3300 down|
|3/6/2014||Tonto and Monument Creek||Granite Rapids||5||~1100 down|
|3/7/2014||Monument Creek and Tonto||Hermit Creek||4.6||~600 up|
|3/9/2014||Tonto and Hermit||Hermit’s Rest||8.2||~3800 up|
Once our permit was in hand, we had only four days to prepare. We had everything we needed in the van, so preparing for the hike itself is just a matter of a couple hours packing food and gear, but we had to prepare the van for our absence. Between the high altitude and the strong wind, the propane flame in the refrigerator (a flame that magically keeps our food cold) was constantly blowing out, so we couldn’t leave the refrigerator on during our trip. We had to make a concerted effort to finish all the perishables. We mostly succeeded, except for a full carton of one dozen eggs. I hardboiled them and we took some on the hike with us. We also took fruit we had left over, and books (John took a Kindle and I took a paperback) to read on our short days. Eggs, fruit and books makes for extra heavy packs.
We parked the van in the lot for the Backcountry Office half a mile from the Bright Angel trail head and were walking by 8:30 am to hike our longest day with extra heavy packs on our backs. I was perfectly happy to celebrate my 34th birthday with a long and hard hike, a physical feat that I would not have been capable of on my 24th birthday. John had many birthday surprises in store for me.
A short way down from the rim two mule deer, one small and the other almost a baby, ran down the steep canyon wall onto the trail. They looked forward and toward the mother and son hikers in front of us, then back at us. Wary, they chose to continue directly down the steep incline, rather than sharing the switchbacked trail with humans.
The Bright Angel trail is an extremely heavily used trail, popular among tourists with and without hiking experience. Due to the heavy use and underprepared hikers, there are two “Rest Houses” at 1.5 miles and 3 miles before the Indian Garden campground, ranger station and rest area at 4.5 miles. The rest areas include a shelter for shade and protection in a storm as well as composting toilets in a walled and covered structure. By mile three hiking in the heat of the sun with the extra heavy pack, I was ready to reduce the weight of my pack by eating the grapefruit I brought along so it wouldn’t rot in the van – thankfully fruit peals are perfectly acceptable to drop in the composting toilets so I didn’t have to cart those around for the rest of the hike.
We stopped for lunch and water at the Indian Garden campground. Salt Creek, the campsite we were headed to for our first night, is directly under a former uranium mine. The official warning printed on the permit states that the level of radioactive uranium is higher than the EPA threshold for municipal water supplies; however, if you need it, drink the water. Dehydration will kill you immediately, while a little radiation will just increase your chance of cancer in the the future. Abiding by the motto “best to be safe”, we filled up with a day’s worth of water at Indian Campground. So despite the weight reduction of eating the fruit and lunch, our packs were even heavier for the afternoon than they were in the morning!
John surprised me with fresh apples at lunch that he snuck into his pack when I wasn’t looking. Fresh apples on a backpacking trip are even better than birthday cake! This was after surprising me with a necklace in the morning even though he had already given me a long sleeve desert-hiking shirt as my birthday gift. The final surprise he had in store was a kazoo rendition of happy birthday when we arrived at camp after a long and tiring day. Yes, he hiked in a kazoo just to play me a birthday song. I love my crazy boyfriend!
The Indian Campground picnic area was hoppin’ for lunch and we had much opportunity for people-watching, John’s favorite pastime. He also witnessed a squirrel trying to steal a bag of food, but it aborted its mission because the bag was too heavy…later we overheard the owner explaining that her cellphone was also in the bag. You’ve gotta watch out for those squirrels; they may be adorable, but they are also wily.
A couple miles past Indian Garden campground, which is a large campground with capacity for 16 groups up to 55 people, we hiked through the Horn Creek campground before finally reaching our home for the night, Salt Creek. At Horn Creek we stopped and chatted with the family staying there that night. The family of four, two parents and two adult children, are from Maine and clearly have a long history of hiking. The oldest of the children even finished the full Appalachian Trail a few years ago. Despite their extensive backpacking experience, they had a strange approach to packing; they claimed to have hiked in 16 oranges and fresh broccoli! Sixteen oranges on a weeklong backpacking trip?! That is insane. Maybe they were joking.
Both Salt and Horn Creek campsites are limited to one small group, and the family had already booked Horn Creek, which is why we had such a long first day of hiking. We’ve hiked equally as far before, but the extra weight and intense sun made the day particularly exhausting. To top it off, we had extra pressure to get to camp by sundown, as John forgot his headlamp. (The previous day I finally made a spreadsheet checklist for backpacking, something I had been meaning to do for months. John looked over the checklist, yet he still forgot his headlamp!) Despite the grueling day, we made it to camp with daylight to spare. As we dropped our packs, John whipped out the hidden kazoo to serenade me with “Happy Birthday”.
We were happy to have the campsite to ourselves to have some privacy. Though the privacy may have been an illusion…we looked at this very same campsite through binoculars at one of the Hermit Road viewpoints a few days prior. The short walls around the composting toilet do not block views from above!
In contrast to the cold weather at the rim, down the canyon under 3500 feet the evening air was warm. After sunset in the warm canyon, we laid on a giant boulder looking up and the stars and inventing our own constellations as the sky darkened and the stars became visible.
An amazing view of the canyon rim tower above greeted us as we opened our eyes in the morning. I lazed, cozy and warm in my sleeping bag for a while after waking up. I relished the quiet while watching the sky slowly brighten. The moment the sun crested over the canyon wall, a high-pitched bird announced the sunrise with a raucous “tweet-tweet-tweet”. Even after that noisy and startling notification that it was daytime, I decided to fall back asleep. The day ahead was short and I needed extra rest after the hike the previous day. The ravens did not cooperate with my plan to sleep in, rousing me with their loud “kaw-kaw-kaw”.
One of the ravens had a little predicament. John noticed its beak was discolored, and looked at it through the binoculars. The poor thing had gum stuck to its beak that it was trying to scrape off so aggressively that it rubbed the black color off, exposing white underneath. After some effort, it had removed all but a couple strings across the side of its face.
After a slow and lazy morning we eventually rallied, donned our heavy packs and started down the trail to our one night with a river-side campsite. Hiking through the desert canyon we frequently saw lizards scurry away from the trail. We would both jockey for the front position in order to see more lizards. We even caught one of the fat striped ones with its butterfly meal in its mouth. Most of the lizards were small with red heads and green to blue bodies and tails, though we didn’t get a picture of those.We stopped for lunch above Monument Creek under the “Leaning Tower of Rock” as John described the stone feature. We believe this tower is the namesake “Monument”. As we ate a leisurely lunch, the family from Maine we met the day before hiked by us – they decided to do a 20 mile day hike to the river and back! The kids were carrying most of the gear, lightening the load for their parents. I imagine that when they were little the parents carried the gear, and now it is reversed. It was heartwarming to see.
We arrived in the early afternoon at our campsite on a sand beach dotted with beautiful striped boulders adjacent to one of the most difficult rapids on the Colorado, Granite Rapids. Footprints zigzagged all over the sand, signs of the animals whose home we were visiting. Most interesting were large lines where an animal had dragged its tail. The sand captures footprints well, but obscures the details so all I could tell is that it was a medium sized animal, around cat-sized, with a dragging tail. It’s unusual for mammals to drag their tails, and it was too big to be a lizard, so these prints were a mystery to me. The sand was also dotted with conical indentations ending in small holes that John said are “sand lion” homes. He caught one for me to see. I refused to hold it, though…those pinchers look dangerous! (Research indicates that they are actually antlions).
As I stood examining the chocolate milk-colored river, trying to determine the line a boat should take through the large rapid, a river group came into view. It was only about 4:00 pm, so I thought they would run the rapid for us to watch, but instead they set up camp just upstream of the rapid. I was able to talk with them while they scouted the rapid to learn what time they would start out the following day.
A very strange creature flew into camp at dusk to drink nectar from a flower. We couldn’t even decide if it was an insect or a bird. It seemed like it was probably an insect, but it looked a lot like a hummingbird, with fast-beating wings and a long proboscis with which to drink nectar. After some skilled Google searching by John, we think it is a Sphingidae moth, commonly called “hawk”, “sphinx” or “hummingbird” moths. My best guess is the white-lined sphinx.
At night when we were laying in the tent talking, I thought I heard a noise outside the tent. I put on my glasses, sat up, and sure enough, I saw the outline of an animal in the bright moonlight. The creature was a little larger than a house cat. John sat up and immediately said “that’s a beaver!” I wasn’t sure until I opened the tent door to shine the light at the animal (my first attempt at shining the light through the mesh wall resulted only in a blinding reflection). At first it looked to have only a narrow tail out of its wide behind as it waddled slowly away, so I didn’t think it was a beaver. Eventually it turned to the side so I could see that it did have a wide tail, but it was covered in sand and therefore camouflaged. The tail-dragging print mystery was solved!
Sand is amazing for showing a story of animals that pass through. In the morning we could clearly see that some little critter, likely a mouse, made a few laps around the perimeter of our tent and backpacks in its nightly search for food. Since the trees were all pretty low, we kept the food in the tent with us, but thankfully the critter did not decide to chew through the tent to get at the food inside.
Standing on the sand beach feels like standing on the ocean shore. Despite the lack of salt water, something about the river smells vaguely of ocean, and below the large rapid waves even lap on the shore. It’s a strange contrast, standing amid the smell and sound of an ocean while being closed in by shear rock walls a mile tall.
We watched one river group through the rapid. The rafts floated over the rough water without incident, and a couple people in catarafts almost popped out and lost hold of their oars, but managed to get through the rapid still in their boats. The kayakers are another story. The two kayaks ran the rapid last, after all the rafts were through. We watched the first kayaker enter the rapid, and flip over a second later. We watched the bottom of the boat get bounced through the rapid, willing it to not get sucked into the huge hole near the bottom of the rapid. With our attention on the first boat, we missed the second kayak entering the rapid, and only saw the bottom of that one as it was swept downstream to catch up with the first. After the worse of the rapid, and thankfully missing the hole, both boaters made some weak attempts at rolling upright. Failing to flip the boats right-side-up, they gave up and pulled their skirts to exit the boats. Their rafter friends helped them to shore and after collecting themselves, the group moved on downstream.
We saw a couple more huge lizards on the trail; I convinced John to fight his urge to catch them in case they were Gila monsters (I did not quite recall what North America’s only poisonous lizard looked like, except that they are huge and stripy, so I thought it prudent to not harass this one). Later I learned that it is actually a desert spiny lizard. With a name like that, I had to verify that this was the actual name of the lizard, and not the label someone applied to a lizard they didn’t know (it sounds like something I would name a strange, spiny lizard I found in the desert).
We stopped for lunch at a shady spot under a rock shelf beneath the trail. Even hidden away in this nook, a ranger walking the trail spotted us and came down to check our permit. I mentioned our beaver sighting and she got really excited, and asked our permission to share our phone number with the biologist studying beavers in the park (specifically something about frogs as indicators of beaver habitat).
Further down the trail we came to the edge of a plateau above the Hermit Rapids where we watched another river group run the rapid. The three rafts and three kayaks all made it smoothly through the rapid. Both Hermit and Granite rapids are among the most difficult rapids on the Colorado.
We made it to Hermit Creek camp in the early afternoon. Even though the campground is large with many sites available, we had it to ourselves this first night.
On the fourth day, we rested. We camped at Hermit Creek campsite on two consecutive nights, so we had the day in-between to rest. I chose to take a little walk, and hiked down to take a look at the river hoping to see more boats run the rapid, while John stayed behind to take full advantage of the “zero day” (in thru-hiker parlance, a day where no miles are hiked is a “zero day”).
We spent our lazy morning sitting on a giant boulder overlooking the creek. Motion on the canyon wall opposite the boulder caught our attention and we saw a rock squirrel running across the wall. We watched as he bounded up to a view point where he stopped to take measure of his kingdom before scurrying up to the next vantage point. During the squirrel’s escapade we also witnessed rocks falling from the canyon wall; a reminder of the ongoing erosion in the canyon.
I hiked down to Hermit rapids but no boats came in the hour-plus I spent at the river. I came back early in the afternoon to see if John wanted to hike a bit up the canyon in the other direction, but he was happy resting after having explored the creek bed and we both spent the remainder of the day reading.
Throughout the evening three more groups joined our campground. One pair was in the midst of a 200 mile hike, most of which had been off-trail walking over sand dunes. They even hitch-hiked a ride from a raft to get across the river! They said that this is allowed – river groups, who are issued permits with strict regulations, are allowed to give rides for something like 10 miles. When they saw us reading in the evening, one came over to ask us if we had an extra book – I really wished I had one to give, but I was only halfway through mine and John uses a Kindle.
Despite careful counting while packing for the trip, on our last water fill in the evening we ran out of iodine tablets! Oops; we need these to treat the water for drinking. We saved some untreated water to boil for breakfast (an effective but inefficient treatment method) and made due on our final day with two liters each. Two liters is plenty for John, but I would have preferred a third.
Our hike out of the canyon did not require a lot of miles, but we did have a lot of elevation change ahead of us. In typical Heidi-fashion, we didn’t read about the trails ahead of time, so we were surprised to come across huge rock slides over the trail. Undaunted, we scrambled over the boulders and had a very lovely hike out passing several large groups hiking in.
We stopped for lunch and a rest in Santa Maria Spring rest house. Many other hikers came through while we sat there, and we had such a great time talking with them that we rested for two hours!! The first couple we spoke with were on vacation from Chicago. They spent a year planning and researching this hike, and knew exactly what terrain and features to expect because they had watched youtube videos of the hike. They did not, however, appear to know what to expect physically. Their packs were huge, much heavier than necessary for a couple night trip. It took them three hours to get DOWN to the rest house; it took us an hour and a half to hike up from it. They were staying one night at Hermit Creek, one night at Hermit Rapids, then hiking out all the way from the river. We worried about their ability to make it out of the canyon on their final day, but had no way of checking up on them after we parted.
We arrived at the rim around 3:00 pm, tired and happy after an amazing hike down to the storied Grand Canyon. We were lucky to see a variety of creatures, including a rare sighting of a beaver (right outside our tent!), fun and cute squirrels, birds, and lizards. We had a great time talking to fellow hikers and watching boats tackle big rapids. This was a very special experience that we will remember for a lifetime.
March 5-9, 2014