We got to talking about time travel, rewinding to save the day or walk with dinosaurs. Wondering about technicalities, and, if time travel is really possible, wouldn’t we have seen or heard of future-folks roaming around in this time?
Hiking from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and time traveling are likely not very similar experiences. However, traveling to those places untouched and unaltered, we glimpse now what was back then. The layers of the landscape mark years by the tens of thousands, a time frame we strain to understand.
The Grand Canyon is the river’s masterpiece, its portfolio from the last six million years. At the deepest point, six thousand feet below the rim, the exposed rock is 2,000 million years old.
We haven’t planned ahead so we have no idea whether or not we will get a permit to stay in the canyon. We’re lucky- there have been cancellations and we leave the backcountry permitting office with a reservation at Bright Angel Campground for the following night.
My cousin and her friends are staying in Mather Campground at one of 300 sites spread across a maze of culdesacs. We spend the afternoon with a frisbee and a few beers at the close-to-empty campground. Elk laze in the shade nearby.
Yavapai Point for sunset. From the white rocks we can see the switchbacks leading from the canyon floor to Bright Angel Trailhead.
Morning of. Wake up, make coffee, eat breakfast, organize food for the next 36 hours, pack backpacks, snag neighbor to give Old Faithful a jump, arrive at the South Kaibab Trailhead at 11am.
A 7 mile, 4,780 foot drop to Phantom Ranch.
Rim temp: 72°
Phantom Ranch temp: 94°
The bottom of the Grand Canyon can be accessed in a variety of ways. You can hike, carrying your own food, water, shelter, etc. You can hike, carrying water and a change of clothes, and stay in the cabins at Phantom Ranch. You can take a boat. You can ride a mule. Though we pass a string of mule-riding guests looking happy enough, my ego would never go for that.
The first mile and a half is congested, people clogging the destination photo-opps. Past that, the numbers dwindle and the rim of the canyon slips from our sights, a series of false summits plaguing the upward-hiker. The trail alternates between steep, two way trails and conveniently placed plateaus where the rest stops are located. As our elevation drops, the temperature increases. It’s a beautiful day, the sun is harsh, the shade is sparse.
We’re gaining on another hiker. He stands out with a mangled bike strapped to his back. As decrepit as a hermit crab, he is hunched and moving slowly. We catch up to him as he breaks and I let go my flood of questions
His name: Elliot DuMont
Trail name: Bike On
Purpose: Arizona Trail 750, Mexico to Utah, longest single-track bike race in the world, mandatory 24 mile portage across the Grand Canyon, began April 11 at 7am.
Destination: the border of Arizona and Utah. He’s hoping to be there in the next 48 hours.
Jargon: hike-a-bike (to push one’s bike while walking alongside); bikepacking (to disassemble, strap and carry a bike on one’s back)
He tells us his back is killing him, yet his smile is fixed. He’s got the look of accomplishment, determination, hilarity. “I’m enjoying the celebrity”, he says when I appologize for all the questions.
We catch our first glimpse of the Colorado River about four miles in. Shortly thereafter we take a bathroom break at Tip Off. A thermometer hanging on the wall of the outhouse reads 100° F, 40° C.
Down, down, down, we pass a few hikers in the last miles, faint and red-faced in the shade. The sun takes its toll. Down, down, down, through the tunnel, over the bridge, onto the beach and into the water. It’s 3:30pm. The water is clear and cold. Strained through the Glen Canyon Dam from the bottom of Lake Powell, the usual sediment has been filtered out leaving the water the same green as the Little Mermaid’s tail. We can only sit for a moment before our bones start to ache. After the initial plunge, I wade in just long enough to rinse my socks, relishing in the return to those old hiking rituals.
Everyone knows that John Wesley Powell led the first expedition down the Colorado River in 1869. Along the way, the explorers camped on the beach of what is now Phantom Ranch. At the turn of the 20th century, the place began its evolution into a tourist destination. A hunting trip brought President Theodore Roosevelt to the ranch in 1913, helping the Grand Canyon attain national park status in 1919. During the Great Depression the CCC was employed to make improvements to the ranch and access trails.
Dark brown Park Service buildings appear amidst the cacti and cottonwoods. The trail follows Bright Angel Creek and a string of campsites appears on either side of the trail. We walk the gauntlet, eyeing the set-ups of our fellow campers. Backpacks hang from metal racks and metal boxes for food storage sit on picnic tables to keep the squirrels away. At this point, we’ve seen the sign repeatedly (squirrels = fleas = plague = no touching, emphasized by a picture of a hand with a nasty squirrel bite) and take their warnings seriously.
We drop our gear at the far end of the lineup and head to the canteen/restaurant for water, 5 minutes further on the opposite side of the creek. The canteen serves beverages of all sorts and a few snacks, but dinner is limited to those with reservations made ahead of time, extinguishing our fantasies of burgers on the canyon bottom.
A pipe has burst. The ranger talks it down, a frequent occurence due to the high pressure and old pipes that transport the water across the Canyon. It’s happened three times over the past three weeks. We learn that all water on the South Rim comes from one source: Roaring Springs, located on the North Rim. Despite the burst pipe, drinking water is still available, but we have to flush the toilets with buckets of creek water.
Our friend Bike On is inside refueling, a couple cans of soda and bags of snacks laid out on the table in front of him. After a quick rest he’ll continue his journey up the North Rim.
The mules are housed between the campsite and the canteen, ten or so swishing their tails in the corral. The handlers tell me that the outfit has 140-some mules that hike the canyon and 60-some mules that stay up at the rim. The animals make the trip down and back, then rest for two or three days up top. “They get more days off than us!”
It’s serene in this little green canyon. The various types visiting are similar enough to get along and diverse enough to mimic a community. Unlike the typical resort, the range of cost to access this place, physical and monetary, keeps the clientele interesting.
A park ranger accompanied by a volunteer makes the rounds, checking permits, informing us of the spawning fish and proper use of headlamps. At dinner the gas runs out and I make a trade with the neighbors: two packets of hot chocolate in exchange for access to their fuel canister.
It’s still hot. Even as the sun sinks, the heat persists. We take a walk back to the river before we lose all light. In the dusk we see the cacti on the verge of a massive bloom. We sit and talk on the rocks, watching bats whoosh over our heads until the dark envelops all of it. We find our way back to camp, weaving through whispers and bobbing lights of other campers. The heat keeps us on top of our bags for most of the night and the starlight is incredible.
My eyes open at 5:20am and we’re on trail by 6:30. After yesterday’s heat we don’t want to push our luck.
We finish the five miles to Indian Garden and water by 9:30. Though we’re half-way, we’ve got a 3,000 foot grunt ahead of us. Luckily the weather is mild, the sun filtering through clouds and the temperature dropping as we make our way up. We leap-frog with another family coming from Bright Angel and make friends with Payton, a fifth-grader from Oregon. The trail’s grade forces us to break every mile or so but the 70° air assures us that there is no need to rush.
We reach the rim at noon, racing another new friend and fifth-grader Rhiannon the last mile or so, finding that we can’t compete with the energy of eleven-year-olds. Payton is also waiting at the top with a smirk on his face.
18 miles and 10,000 feet of elevation gain. We revel in our accomplishment, pigging out next to the snack bar amidst cleaned-and-pressed tourists. Another delightful hiking ritual, dirty and smelly, downing town-food with audible joy.
The Grand Canyon is such a celebrity-landmark and it feels like a great accomplishment to have hiked to the bottom and back. The beauty we see is delicate, a continuous transformation by the tiniest forces, building up and tearing down, grains of sand and drops of water that weather, sculpt and carve. A great work of art, perfect and balanced. And though we leave wanting more, I am glad that only a sliver of this place is accessible to us so that we can appreciate without entirely disrupting. Let the artist work.