Walking from winter to summer in six hours: Hiking the Grand Canyon in Spring
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This spring break we walked from winter to summer in just less than six hours. Breakfast was in the crunch of icy snow. Supper was prepared in the give of soft sand, an 80 degree sun baking the winter freeze from my old bones.
The quickest way to summer is not to drive south but to walk down. Down into the welcoming heart of the Grand Canyon.
We’ve done it for ten springs now, a family tradition, taking different trails from the south rim down to the river. In one sense it’s a trip through deep time, walking down this layer cake of rock through ever older sediments. But in another sense it’s a fast trip from Canada to Mexico. The rim is in the Canadian zone of Ponderosa pines while the river flows through the Sonoran zone of cactus and mesquite. In six hours we walked south across the North American continent.
The ideal hike to meet the inner Grand Canyon
While there are nine trails snaking their way down the south rim, only two are maintained. They join at the river to make a loop. Here’s my prescription for the perfect spring break backpack.
Get up in the dark, dress warmly and stumble to one of several overlooks to watch dawn’s light show. Sipping hot coffee adds to the pleasure. As the sun eases up over the horizon, it highlights ridge upon ridge below you. A giant condor, recently reintroduced to the park, may heighten your wonder.
This year my son decided to reintroduce the pterodactyl. He bought one at Walmart, complete with red streamers and yards of string.
Enjoy a good breakfast then hike down the South Kaibab Trail to the inner oasis of Phantom Ranch. It’s a seven mile walk, descending 4,740 feet. Built by the Park Service in the 1920’s the trail was made to stun with the most dramatic views. While the other trails are tucked into side canyons, the South Kaibab is out on a ridge.
Free shuttle buses will take you to the trail head at Yaki Point.
The trail’s broad tread and sure path allows a hiker to look up and around. The canyon, painted with ever changing patterns of light, evokes every human emotion. Dawn can be playful and fun, revealing ridges like show and tell. Cloud cover can bring a somber mood. Billowing cumulus are full of adventure and pride. Sunset can feel full of sorrow. All is awesome.
We stopped for lunch on the broad Tonto platform, a great expanse of brush, our knees and calves aching. There is a busy composting toilet as well to add to the attraction. But most importantly, would Peter Pterodactyl fly? We carefully assembled his bones and ran out string. But the gusty wind kept flipping him over, crashing his great wings into thorny salt brush. Wrapping him back up we marched down the Tip Off, steep switchbacks descending ever deeper, ever warmer.
A suspension bridge leads across the river to the welcoming sight of an inner canyon oasis. Here the clear waters of Bright Angel creek rush down from the north rim to water a garden of cottonwoods, redbuds and mesquite. Here’s summer and a well deserved rest. Many will cool their feet in the creek, some their sitter as well.
A night, or preferably two, at Phantom Ranch offers several possibilities. Thirty-three campsites are spread between the creek and the inner canyon wall, nestled in shade and birdsong. There’s cool drinking water, flush toilets, picnic tables, strong boxes to keep your food and toothpaste away from the squirrels.
Or you could choose to bunk in the modern bunkhouses, complete with linens, giving you the freedom to hike in with just a daypack. The lodge is also known for its historic luxury cabins, providing comfort and privacy.
To satisfy your well deserved hunger you can cook your own backpacking grub or sit down to fine dining at the Ranch, which serves breakfast and supper. Box lunches are available. You can also just stop in for a beer, coffee or cold pop.
Prepare yourself. Since all food is delivered by mule or helicopter prices are about as steep as the canyon walls. This spring breakfast was $19.46, the steak dinner $41.33. You could settle for stew at $25.88.
All is tranquil. Pete the great pterodactyl wouldn’t lift. His Made in China plastic skin barely shimmered in the gentle breeze. And there are rangers around. I don’t suppose pterodactyls are legal.
The Bright Angel oasis is deep in the canyon’s basement, rocks of Vishnu Schist, 1,800 million years old. Here quartz colors the rock with pink, salmon and rose, rising vertically in tongues of flame. At sunset they glow, as if lit from within.
Nestled in the sand, protected by cottonwoods, redbuds and mesquite, a great cosmic drama unfolds. Darkness rises from the canyon, pushing the light up the walls, inexorably higher and higher, until, in a moment, like a candle, it is snuffed. The night reigns, holding its cold rule as if for an age. We snuggle into our sleeping bags, colorful silken cocoons within a nylon cocoon.
Before dawn the sky gradually fills with a gentle light. The light increases its strength and begins to push the darkness back down, down along the walls until at last night retreats to hide in the bed of the green rushing Colorado. We emerge into the sun, warming and stretching, hatched from the passing of a great evil.
The day offers pleasant walks around the ranch and to the river, or up the North Kaibab trail or to the overlooks of the steeper Clear Creek trail. Time has slowed as people listen to the birds, watch the nearly tame deer, quietly visit or slide into the pages of a novel. Truly, there is life without electronics.
Hoisting your way out
For the walk out, I recommend the Bright Angel Trail, nine and a half miles and 4,380 vertical feet. Crossing a second suspension bridge, the trail at first follows a sandy path along the river, then turns into the side canyon of Pipe Creek.
This is a new, more intimate view of the Grand Canyon, climbing up the rock layers within the protected alcove. You’ll see the springs where the creek breaks its way out of the rock. This is a heavily used path, shared with mule trains that give it a certain ambience, aroma and erosion.
Leaving the creek the trail ascends the steep Devil’s Corkscrew, a series of switchbacks that leads to the Tonto Platform, then follows a creek to the mid-canyon oasis of Indian Garden.
Here the Havasupai Indians grew corn, beans and squash as recently as the early 1900’s. Do camp here for the night. We love being in mid-canyon, mountains above and defiles below. The sheer redwall cliffs hold their own special kind of radiance.
Campsites here are equipped with picnic tables under a sunscreen patio roof, along with ammo cans to keep your food safe and poles to hang your empty packs on. There is water and composting toilets. Sites are in the shade of cottonwoods and ash trees. It’s heavenly.
But there wasn’t enough open sky here for a pterodactyl to soar, no matter how brightly painted his wings. We did discover that we had assembled his bones incorrectly. With his sternum upside down no wonder he kept crashing. We should have studied paleontology 101.
The final ascent
A little geology makes a canyon hike more interesting. It’s fun to know what strata you’re in and what is next. Measurable progress. This is a steep grind, often busy with day hikers coming cluttering the path. Potent pharmaceuticals help. They may not eliminate the pain but you just may not care about it anymore.
We were hoping for wind but all was still, switch backing through the breaks in the canyon walls, resting each hour for a snack and time for our party to catch up and regroup. Winter came back, sadly, with snow packed trails.
At the final layer, the Kaibab limestone, we felt the wind rushing off the plateau above. On a little promontory Peter was hastily reassembled. Extending the string, holding his streamers, launching the pterodactyl took three of us, to avoid stepping off a precipitous drop or wrapping passing hikers in string.
Five, four, three, two, one. Houston we have liftoff! Peter soared out over the canyon depths, his neon colors brilliant against the blue. He cocked an eye down on the Paleozoic rocks, ancient even in his time.
Some of the passing hikers gave us the evil eye. But their kids loved it. And cheery college students were pleased to be in on the fun and took a picture.
In moments we were back on the rim in the hustle of the real world. But we had tasted summer and knew with confidence that it come, sooner or later. And Peter flew.
Getting the Permits and Making the Reservations
I’ve hesitated to write about these trips. It’s been said that the only thing harder than hiking the Grand Canyon is getting the permit. That isn’t entirely true. Bagging it isn’t really so hard. It just takes advance planning.
Phantom Ranch and Indian Gardens Camping
The secret is to download an application http://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry.htm about six months before you plan to go, fill it out and fax it to the Park Service five months early. So if you are thinking about spring break, April 4, 2011, fax it in on December 1, 2010. They’re not expensive, at $10 per group plus $5 per person per night spent below the rim. If life interferes and you can’t go you’re not out much. And you’ll get a cancellation credit toward a future trip.
While the permits are a hassle at such a popular place they’re essential. With one you’re guaranteed a campsite without a crowd.
Cabins or Bunkhouse
Phantom Ranch is managed by Xanterra Parks and Resorts. Reservations are made by calling (888) 297-2757 or onthe web at www.grandcanyonlodges.com.
Xanterra also provides the mule rides and has a duffle service to carry gear for hikers. Two words of advice: advance planning.
On the rim
Mather Campground, in Grand Canyon Village, is right at hand. The coin operated showers are a hoot. Call (877) 444-6777 for reservations.
Too cold? Many hikers, not terribly concerned with creature comforts, are looking for the cheapest. That’s the Seven Mile Lodge in Tusayan, just a few miles south of Grand Canyon Village. The rooms are fine. The just don’t take reservations. First come, first served.
In the Village itself, Maswik Lodge is the least expensive. Reservations at (877) 297-2757.
Extra trip tips
Hiking within the Grand Canyon is very strenuous. Really, don’t even think about this hike in summer. Summer temps are often above 100 degrees. Rocks hold the heat and radiate it up. There is no shade. It’s an oven.
Even in the spring and fall bring a hat, sunscreen and lot’s of water, probably three quarts per day. You’ll need a fourth quart at days end.
Hiking out is tough. At the end of the trip, when you are most tired, the air is the thinnest and the trail the most steep. Eat once an hour whether hungry or not and drink every half hour. This will prevent “bonking”, that painful collapse of function and thought that can occur with the drop of blood sugar in endurance endeavors.
May 30, 2010
Nice post. I learned a lost about the Grand Canyon. The last time I visited the Grand Canyon, I wasn’t very prepared. This information will definitely help.
Sep 1, 2010
Grand Canyon is one of my favorite camping sites for my family. There are so much activities being enjoyed in the area for kids, adults and old. Thank You for the wonderful tips I would help a lot on our next visit to the area.
Nov 9, 2015
Ohhhh, beautiful!! I rellay REALLY want to do a Bryce Canyon, Monument Valley, Arches, etc. trip someday soon. Been trying to convince Norma to do a Thelma & Louise kind of trip (minus the ending and all the illegal stuff- just the fun girl-trip thing). Give me some Don’t Miss items!
Dec 20, 2015
Come on Norma, what are you waiting for!
With the Grand Canyon in mind (try to make a sunrise on the south rim), plus Bryce, Monument Valley and Arches, I’d add a couple of days in Zion if you can fit it in. My “Don’t Miss” items would be some places to eat: In Moab, The Jail House Cafe (you can’t miss it, on the main drag through town), at the East entrance to the Grand Canyon, Cameron Trading Post (best place to shop for all the souvenir stuff, too.) And possibly on the way to Moab, at Mexican Hat, the San Juan Inn. (Good comfort food, great view and a decent place to stay in true road trip style!)
Have a great time! Roger
Aug 26, 2017
Thank you, Roger. What a helpful and entertaining article! I am planning a R2R2R in mid May next year, and have been wondering whether to expect to find winter up top or not. What month/time of month do you do these awesome trips?
Aug 27, 2017
Dear Terafirma –
These are “spring break” trips, usually the last two weeks of March and the first week of April. Of course winter may still hang around the north rim much later, as it is 1,000 feet higher. May sounds wonderful, but of course check the weather, as I’m sure you will, in the two weeks before you go. Have fun!
Aug 27, 2017
Thanks, Roger! One more question. It is my understanding that backcountry permits are avail from mid May through October. Am I mistaken, or does your group get a special permit, or something? I appreciate your input.