Death and water are both five-letter words and to avoid the former you had better pay very close attention to the latter when exploring Grand Canyon National Park, especially during the warmer months of the year as my friend John Paulson and I did in June.
We took the South Kaibab Trail down to Phantom Ranch where we spent four nights (John had drawn a lottery reservation), exiting nearly 10 miles to the South Rim along the Bright Angel Trail. We packed a gallon of water each on the South Kaibab as there is no water available on the trail. When John hiked up the South Kaibab Trail in 1976 celebrating the bicentennial of our country he ran out of water. “The Last go on the trail was hell because of this!” he exclaims.
The Bright Angel, though, has water at Indian Gardens, Three-Mile Resthouse and Mile-And-A-Half Resthouse, along with water available (providing you have a filter) in Pipe and Garden Creeks from the Colorado River to Indian Garden.
Boston Marathon runner Margaret Bradley, 24, (robbiesenbach.com/how-a-story-can-save-lives) died from dehydration in the Grand Canyon in 2004, one of many stories of what can occur if not properly prepared for the conditions in this beautiful but unforgiving environment.
This is the 100th year celebration of Grand Canyon National Park (1919-2019), one of the great wonders of the world. Last year — 15 months ago — John was selected in a lottery system, enabling us to spend four nights at this coveted location, the only lodging available below Grand Canyon’s rim. With the park celebrating its 100th birthday, we were extra exuberant with this lottery draw. John invited his Wisconsin/Colorado cousin Carmen Paulson and her boyfriend, Joey, to accompany us, which they did for two of the four nights.
John and I drove from our Southern Oregon homes to Portland, took an Alaska Airlines flight to Vegas (where we spent a night each on the front and back ends of the trip), rented a car for a week plus, then drove to Flagstaff — including a section of the famous Highway 66 — where we spent a wonderful, relaxing afternoon, night and leisurely morning at the charming, venerable and historic Monte Vista Hotel. Located in the heart of old downtown Flagstaff, the Monte Vista was a frequent stopover for Hollywood stars such as Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Alan Ladd, Ester Williams, Spencer Tracey and John Wayne. We stayed in the room that Wayne often stayed in while filming Western movies in the area.
We then drove to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim where we also spent a night each at the Bright Angel Lodge on the front and back of the trip. The day after exiting the Canyon, we drove to the North Rim, spending one night at the famous Grand Canyon Lodge. This itinerary allowed us to be well-rested for our hike in and also to decompress after our hike out.
No matter what one’s age is, the hike in and out to Phantom Ranch is not for the faint of heart nor for the weak of body. We conditioned ourselves with daily walks/hikes from our respective homes or wherever we were traveling. John added a yoga class to the mix, too. “If it wasn’t for the yoga, winter skiing and daily walking, I don’t think I could have made the trek,” he elaborated. Less than 1% of Grand Canyon visitors hike below the rim and among the baby boomer generation (which both of us belong to), the percentage of visitors trekking to the bottom of the Canyon slips into the .001 percentile.
Backpack or day-pack weight is critical when making this hike. John had already made arrangements for all of our meals at Phantom Ranch, so the only food needed was for the hike down and out. You can purchase power bars, salty nuts, candy bars and electrolytes at Phantom Ranch so essentially you just need enough energy food for the hike down. Upward of a gallon of water is recommended for the hike down the Kaibab Trail. In my water containers I placed electrolyte tablets. Taking salty snacks such as almonds and jerky is recommended to replace depleted salt from sweating.
There are at least two back-country outhouses on the two trails. I only took one extra pair of socks, underwear, shirt and just the pants I wore (which can be unzipped at the leggings to make into hiking shorts). I hand washed clothes when needed inside the rustic Phantom cabin. A pair of hiking poles, a wide-brim hat, a small first aid kit, small flashlight, a bandanna (which you can wet and wear around your neck), a whistle (which you can blow if you are off trail and in a predicament and need aid), small writing tablet, small sunscreen, toothbrush, essential meds, cell phone (there is no, or very limited, coverage in the canyon, but your GPS indicator can be useful to others if you get in a pickle) and camera gear, including a small tripod as I planned on doing some time exposures. For a fee (and it is not inexpensive), the Phantom Ranch mule team will carry extra gear in (John and I used this for several items including one of my heavier lenses). The only mistake I made was not in packing enough spare batteries for my camera. I expended both batteries a mile shy of trail’s end down and up.
In front of the Bright Angel Lodge, John and I caught the hiker’s bus at 5 a.m. and we were delivered to the head of the South Kaibab Trail half an hour later. We wanted to hike in the cool of the morning as much as possible. The sunrise sprayed glorious first light on the upper canyon walls as we worked our way down the well maintained trail. I was like a kid in a candy store photographing. A parcel of other hikers hit the trail, too.
Few trees for shade exist on this trail which drops nearly 5,000 feet to the Colorado River, 6.4 miles away. There are numerous switchbacks, offering extraordinary views of the inner canyon. Good footwear is essential. I reveled in the beauty of numerous flowering plants and cacti. Wet spring weather gave the dry landscape a greener than normal vibrancy. We were deliberate in hiking but we were also wise, taking time to rest, hydrate, photograph, fuel our bodies with snacks. We stopped and lingered a little longer at Ooh Aah Point, Cedar Ridge, Skeleton Point and The Tipoff. Carmen and Joey, both in their 20s, caught up and passed us, their younger legs allowing them to get to the ranch much quicker.
The lower we hiked into the canyon, the hotter it got, resulting in 100 degree temps when we reached the Colorado. We had to slug it out with our bodies during the last mile plus of the trail. Later I read that when you sweat off two quarts of water, one’s ability to function is reduced 25%, and when hiking in 100 degree temps, it reduces efficiency another 25%. John and I slugged it out with the elements, persevering to the welcome shade and water at Phantom. The first thing I did was a dip in Bright Angel Creek to cool off my interior radiator. The swamp cooler inside our No. 11 cabin was a welcome sight! John said, “I’m sure glad we have these four nights here as we’ll need it to regain our strength for the walk out!” He further iterated, “Hiking that trail once is sufficient for this lifetime!” I agreed. Our legs were like putty that evening and following day but on the third and fourth days at Phantom, I took side hikes on the River and Clear Creek Trails. Later I read that at least a half dozen people had perished on the South Kaibab Trail. John and I talked three India hikers into turning around at Ooh Ash Point as they were ill-prepared to go any farther. I fully understand now why some hikers make the trek at night in the warmer months — especially with a bright moon — to avoid the scorching temps. The park sternly recommends to not hike the South Kaibab Trail to the river and back in a day. If there is a next time, I’ll hike the Bright Angel Trail in and out, just because there is plenty of water and shade available.
Dehydration and heat stroke happens often on these tougher Grand Canyon trails. Many people hike in but are unable to hike out. A public relations employee mentioned to me that there are around 250 helicopter rescues each year in this part of the canyon (note: no commercial helicopters are allowed to fly past the South and North Rim walls; only park and concessionaire Xanterra helicopters can). I also heard that if you hike in but wish to take a mule out, it will cost you a cool $1,000!
Phantom Ranch is like a Shangri-la to a hiker or a mule rider. It lies near the mouth of Bright Angel Creek (named by John Wesley Powell who said: “ I named it Bright Angel to offset the name Dirty Devil which I had applied to a stream farther up river. The little affluent we discovered here is a clear, beautiful creek or river ... in beautiful contrast we concluded to name it ‘Bright Angel’.”) that empties its fresh mountain and canyon bounty into the Colorado. Famous architect Mary Colter and others designed the buildings at the ranch. Our log cabin was small, simple and perfect for our minimalist needs. Two double bunk beds, a toilet (which we had to use outside filled water buckets for flushing), a wash basin, small table and two chairs occupied the 12- by 12-foot room. Outside we had a picnic table under a large native creek cottonwood. The hitching posts for the pack mules were beside our cabin so we had the pleasure of witnessing two pack teams arrive and depart every morning. Seven days a week, they bring in supplies for the ranch and take out all trash, recyclables, guest’s luggage and other items. The electricity for the ranch comes in from the North Rim, as does fresh piped water. Beware extreme cyberheads: there is no internet at PR! Nor ice cream!
Our days were spent hiking, cooling off in the creek (one day reached 115) and Colorado, reading, resting, conversing. Hikers from all around the world come to the ranch. The 14-mile North Kaibab Trail (it begins at the North Rim) ends here. Backpackers use the Bright Angel Campground. Everyday, national park rangers put on two informative presentations about the park. Breakfast and dinner meals are communal sit-downs in the mess hall. Ranch cabin visitors also receive a sack lunch which is picked up after breakfast. Beer ($8), wine ($8), lemonade ($4.95 with $1 refills), candy and power bars, accessories and tourist items are sold at the Ranch. Postcards stamped ‘Delivered by mules from the bottom of Grand Canyon’ are available.
We had packed the evening before. After a 5 a.m. breakfast, we hit the trail. John went ahead (photographers are always lagging behind!) and I would not see him until 4 p.m. at the Bright Angel Lodge. He made the South Rim at 1 p.m. I came in at 4 p.m., but I photographed for several hours and explored two slot canyons en route.
The morning light was glorious in the canyon along the River Trail. I captured the first sunlight bathing the far canyon walls above the mighty Colorado. My hiking pace was strong but I took ample time to soak in the canyon’s inner blessings as I knew that I may never hike these trails again. After following the river a mile and a half, the River Trail gives itself up to the Bright Angel Trail, departing the Colorado, leading to Indian Garden and eventually the South Rim. At this junction, Pipe Creek empties into the Colorado. The richly colored creek rock offered some beautiful contrasting patterns which I photographed.
Ascending, it felt good to be in the canyon’s morning shadows. Equally comforting was the creek water which I often stopped to drench my shirt, hat and bandanna in. Beyond the top of Devils Corkscrew, I hand rappelled down into a slot canyon and photographed a small waterfall. I marveled at the richness and variety of plants, trees and scrubs all the way to Indian Garden and beyond. I took a lunch break in the shade of a willow and cottonwood at the Garden. I replenished my water there, too, as I would also at Three-Mile-Resthouse and Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse. Indian Garden has a great campground, too. I was carrying half the water as I did on the South Kaibab. Inside my pack, I carried a wet washcloth in a sealed bag which on occasion I used to wipe sweat off my face. I made great time all the way to Three-Mile-Resthouse, then slowed down as the trail became steeper and hotter the remainder of the way to the top.
Clouds hung over the North Rim the entire day but never made it to the South Rim, as I was hoping. The closer I got to the Rim, the busier the trail became with day hikers. I overheard several children and adults say “This trail is a piece of cake, much easier than I thought.” Under my breath — and I know many other hikers said the same — I muttered, ‘Well, hike all the way to the river and back and then tell me how ‘easy’ it is!’ Visiting with one lady and her two sons that holed up in the shade (they had done the North Rim to Phantom the day before) she said, “I’m going to cry when I make it to the top, if I make it to the top.” I encouraged them and told them just to take their time. Later John would say, “I was exhausted and exhilarated when I reached the top. And humbled to experience this hike in one of the Ten Wonders of the World.” Carmen sent a note from Colorado saying “ it was the greatest trip ever.”
When I reached the top of the South Rim near Kolb Studio (a must to visit, by the way), I was ecstatic that this baby boomer body had come through for me. I gave my camera to a fellow hiker to document the moment. Then I had to decide what I wanted first: a shower in our Bright Angel Lodge room or a salted margarita on the rocks in the lodge lounge. I chose the latter.