Since our arrival here at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, my parents and I agreed that hiking the Inner Canyon to Phantom Ranch was a “must do”. Taking into account the 4,500+ foot elevation change, temperature differences, and need to carry provisions for 3 days in our backpacks, we vowed we would train throughout the season. That just didn’t happen. While Mom and I walk about 5 miles a day, we never carry backpacks and do not experience elevation changes with any regularity. And Dad, whose plantar fasciitis acted up, rarely joined us for our outings.
Getting backcountry permits to stay at the Inner Canyon campgrounds turned out to be no easy feat either. They are booked up months in advance. For example, for us to get a permit for September, we had to mail or fax (do people still use faxes???) our formal request by May 1. Since we are here inside the Park, we would have delivered our request in person to the Backcountry Office. But a hand-delivered request for a September date would not be considered until June 1. Then they have a convoluted system for getting wait-listed for a cancellation. You must go two days before your planned hike and get a number. Then you must arrive with your number the day before your planned hike to see if any sites became available. Then you must be a low enough wait-listed number to actually get a cancellation site. If your wait-list number is too high, you can request a new wait-list number for the next day and start the process all over again. With our work schedules and this cumbersome system, it didn’t look very promising for us to achieve our “bucket list” hike.
Grand Canyon Association (GCA) to the rescue! We learned in August that the GCA Field Institute was hosting an educational backpacking trip from September 18-21. Though significantly more costly than if we did the trip ourselves, we decided a small group led by professional guides was the way to go. It also made life easier for our boss when creating the work schedule, because now we could provide definitive dates that we needed off from work. And we were contributing to the organization since GCA used this trek as a fundraiser. A trifecta of wins and best decision ever!
So it was with excitement, exhilaration, and a bit of anxiety from Mom that we arrived for class on September 18. You see, Mom the klutz fell down the stairs inside our rig less than 2 weeks before our trip, and did quite a number on her back. She had a welt the size of my head! Good thing she has lots of extra “padding” to break her fall. But she was walking like an old lady and was quite worried she would not be able to do this hike, carrying a 25 pound backpack, and most importantly, sleeping in a tent, something she did just 2 nights in her life when she was 21 years old.
Her fears were alleviated as class began. Our instructors, Kory and Marin, were terrific. They taught everyone about hiking equipment and how to pack properly. As a result, all our packs became lighter and easier to handle as we pared down items. Additionally, Mom became less fearful of holding up the group once she realized it was just us, the two tour guides, and one other couple (Steve and Molly) doing the trip. We left the classroom about 2 p.m., all pumped up for the trek!
We started down Bright Angel Trail about 8 a.m. on Tuesday. It was a glorious day--sunny, breezy, and comfortable temps.
As geologists, Kory and Marin were great guides, giving us insights to each rock layer, pointing out marine life fossils and tracks.
Marine life fossils
They enlightened us of the petroglyphs (i.e., carvings) and pictographs near the Tunnels.
And they taught us about the few flowers still blooming, like the Navajo flea bane, appropriately named since this plant acts as a natural insect repellent.
These were all interesting tidbits of knowledge we never would have known about if we did this trip ourselves (in fact, we passed all these things when we hiked in April and never knew they existed!).
For trekking into the Inner Canyon, Bright Angel Trail has several advantages over South Kaibab Trail. For example, Bright Angel Trail has water stations at several points, as well as pockets of shade. South Kaibab Trail, though less popular and therefore less people to contend with, is steeper, has no water on the trail, and you bake in the sun all day. So although our original goal was to go down South Kaibab and come up Bright Angel, we were relieved to only be using Bright Angel. Less water to carry means less weight in our backpacks!
We at GCA always stress “Down is Optional, Up is Mandatory”. Most people find the trek down easier than dealing with the elevation change coming up. But for my two old fart parents, going down is much more difficult, particularly the strain on their bad knees. We were really good about drinking ample amounts of water and eating salty snacks as a way to retain water and electrolytes. I didn’t want to be a poster child like “Victor Vomit”, warning against dehydration, hyponatremia, and heat exhaustion.
We encountered several mule trains. A cross between a female horse and a male burro, these hard-working mules have a schedule of carrying people or supplies 3 days on, 2 days off. Ironic how life has advanced so much, but there are still only three ways to get out of the Canyon: mule, foot, or helicopter, the latter of which you never want to experience, because it means you are injured, in a precarious position, or deceased.
We arrived at Indian Garden Campgrounds a little after noon. Time for lunch, and boy, I was starved! We broke out our pouches of chicken and pita bread and munched on some hearty sandwiches, topped off with some salty pretzels. Then we all set up camp. Mom and I let Dad take the reins—he had everything organized and we learned it is best to let him do things his way.
Mom and I took in our surroundings. The Havasupai Indians once lived and farmed on this land, hence its name Indian Gardens. In fact, a little further along Bright Angel Trail you see the granaries they used to store their goods, built right within the cavities of the Canyon rock walls. The terrain has changed since then, now filled with non-native trees and bushes brought in by prospectors and pioneers.
Molly and Steve took a 40-wink nap, while the rest of us got more acquainted. Before we knew it, it was time to hike the 1.5 miles to Plateau Point to witness sunset. We see the trail to Plateau Point from our Yavapai Geology Museum store. So it was quite cool to look up from the depths of the Canyon rather than look down from the Rim. It gives a completely different perspective.
Plateau Point offers supreme views of Zoroaster Temple.
And you can see several waterfalls that are hidden from view from other points/trails.
At one time, the condors would perch on Plateau Point. Being very sociable birds, they were discouraged from loitering in the area by adding wiring to the fence line. We were rewarded with a lovely sunset and glimpses of wildlife. Yes, we spotted a big horn sheep (unfortunately, just a white butt sheep dot pic to prove it) and had the rare opportunity to view a Grand Canyon pink rattle snake!
A view of Bright Angel Trail down to the River that we will be traversing on Wednesday
The Grand Canyon Pink Rattle Snake
Back at camp, we ate our “astronaut food” dinners (mine was Mac and cheese, of course!) topped off with macadamia nut Cliff Bars. It was a long, fun-filled, educational day! Time to get a good night’s sleep so we are in tip-top shape tomorrow for our descent to Phantom Ranch! But Mom would have none of it. She tossed and turned all night, missing her Sleep Number bed and memory foam pillow! Me, I snuggled down, listening to my paisanos, the pinion mice, scurrying in the leaves.
Rise and shine, it was 6 a.m., and we had a big day ahead of us—hiking down to the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch! Mom was the first geared up to go, despite lack of sleep and suffering through usage of the pit toilets! She was greeted by a family of mule deer foraging for their breakfast among the trees and plants. We enjoyed our own breakfast--apple cinnamon oatmeal. Our stove is low-budget, but it gets the job done.
A low budget Wal-mart purchase, this little stove got the job done for us.
After eating, I brushed my teeth with N-STA-SMILE, a waterless, pre-pasted 4-inch disposable toothbrush, courtesy of samples Mom received from a store customer. While certainly not a water pick, it left me free of food particles and it saved us carrying the additional weight of a tube of toothpaste and 3 toothbrushes. Novel idea! (You can learn more at https://www.N-STA-SMILE.com.)
We traversed down Devil’s Corkscrew, a series of steep switchbacks. Some refer to this as Hell’s Kitchen, for in the summertime, temps can be in excess of 120F degrees. The good news is that once we got through the Corkscrew, we didn’t have much further to get to the River.
Geologist Kory, our Guide
Following hiking etiquette, we yielded the trail to another mule train. This group, carrying supplies, were so synchronized, they even urinated in unison! Yes, the mules provide the solution for dust control in the Inner Canyon!
These mules were well synchronized--they even urinated in unison!
Alas, we come to the glorious sight of the roaring Colorado River at Pipe Creek Resthouse!
We crossed over the Silver Bridge, which carries the water pipeline across from the North Rim. Mom freaked out a bit, since it was an open grate bridge. Me, I focused on the dories and float boats as the embarked on their journeys down the mighty River.
We soon arrived at Phantom Ranch. Created by Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, it is the epitome of rustic architecture. Built of stone found on-site and wood, it offers a natural setting--no TVs, no WI-FI, just you and nature. Phantom Ranch has cabins and male and female dormitories. It can accommodate only about 100 people.
Cabins at Phantom Ranch
We all enjoyed a bite to eat from our backpacks. You see, there are only a few snacks to buy at the Phantom Ranch Canteen. In order to get a real meal, it must be ordered in advance. Furthermore, they only serve hot breakfasts ($22.50/person) and hot dinners (steak $44.72/person or stew at $27.45/person.) All the supplies for Phantom Ranch are brought in by mule. Can you imagine working down here? In order to get back to civilization, you must hike out of the Canyon to the Rim! Employees work 8 days on, 4 days off. They are in phenomenal physical shape, taking less than 4 hours, on average, to hike to the Rim. (To put that in perspective, it took us a similar amount of time to hike just from Phantom Ranch back to Indian Gardens!)
GCA funds the Junior Ranger program here at Grand Canyon. Although I am a deputized Junior Ranger at the South Rim already, it was important for me to complete the special Phantom Ranch activity book. I worked on it quickly and frantically, multi-tasking by penning a note on a post card for Aunt Laurie, which will be delivered to the Rim via mule. I blew my whole cheese allowance, but also bought a T-shirt, hat, and pin. Not many people actually get down to Phantom Ranch, so I wanted some remembrances and badges of honor for making the trek.
The "mail pouch", via which my postcard to Aunt Laurie will be delivered to the Rim via mule
Visiting the ancient Puebloan Ruins was next on our itinerary. Steve and Molly, having just visited Mesa Verde, opted not to do this part of the hike, so they stayed behind with Marin at Phantom Ranch. The ruins offered us a glimpse of the lifestyle of the ancient peoples who inhabited these lands. Truly amazing stuff.
Kory and my family also visited the Black Bridge, and hiked across it to the tunnel where the Bright Angel Trail meets the South Kaibab Trail.
I thought remorsefully about a 38-year old experienced hiker and emergency room doctor who just weeks ago suffered from heat exhaustion/dehydration, got disoriented, and separated from the children with which she was traveling. Thankfully, the children were unharmed and brought to safety. Unfortunately, the doctor perished, her body found nearby. A sad but realistic example of how quickly things can go wrong. Like my man, Clint Eastwood, always says: “A man’s got to know his limitations.”
We stopped at the Ranger Station to take our "oath of office" as Junior Rangers and Mom took a quick photo of me and Dad with the Ranger as she presented us with our badges and patches.
We learned from friends and co-workers Gary and Brenda that there is a virtual geocache down here in the gorge! Known as Rees’ Tragedy, it is where Rees B. Griffiths, a foreman during the building of South Kaibab Trail, was struck fatally by a boulder during a blast excavation.
We went back to Phantom Ranch to collect Steve, Molly, and Marin. Time to hike back up to Indian Gardens. I took a few more moments to stop and admire the flowers. But I was sure to just look, not touch, the sacred Datura—contact with this plant can cause fatal hallucinations! We spotted a crimson monkeyflower along Pipe Creek, too.
Sacred Datura--Do not come in contact with this flower. One guy who did thought he could swim in the Colorado. Needless to say, his hallucinations were fatal.
A tiring but truly wonderful day! We arrived at camp right before sunset, so didn’t need to eat dinner in the dark like last night. Between propping herself up so she was not flat and getting on her correct side of the tent, even Mom had a fitful night’s sleep.
We were set to emerge from the Canyon between 7 and 7:30 a.m. on Thursday. Since Steve and Molly were still breaking down camp at that time, Kory suggested my family and Marin begin our trek to avoid hiking in the heat of the day. Mom was also trying to avoid all the “tourists” near The Tunnels who do not follow proper hiking etiquette. We all agreed to meet again at the Community House at noon.
Despite my family being pooped, we kept a respectable pace, making it to the top of Bright Angel Trail with Marin by 11:25 a.m.
We had time to walk home, take showers, have a bite to eat, and return to the Community House at 1 p.m., just in time for Kory, Steve, and Molly’s arrival. We did a quick recap, evaluation, and, of course, wrapped up with a group photo.
What an amazing, magical trek! My family hiked a total of 23 miles over 3 days! We had two exceptionally knowledgeable guides, another fun couple to hike with, magnificent weather, and we left with beautiful, vibrant memories of the Inner Canyon. We are blessed to have had this opportunity! Thank you Grand Canyon Association Field Institute for putting together such a wonderful trip!
If you or your family ever visit the Grand Canyon and want a tour worthy of a coveted Rambling RV Rat 5-cheese rating, contact the GCA Field Institute https://www.grandcanyon.org/classes-tours/.
They may have a program already scheduled or a guide available to customize a tour to your needs. We can attest to the professionalism and knowledge base of the guides, plus you would be helping GCA raise some much needed funds for preservation of the Canyon and its resources.
We capped our trip by rustling up a hearty steak dinner in celebration of our feat. It was so good to have a meal where no water was required to turn it into an edible substance!