Grand Canyon: From Rim to River to Rim in a day. Great Trails: Bright Angel Trail

13th February 2016


What do you do when a rock squirrel steals half your food?

Some people have dreams that become fixations. For whatever reason, mine became getting to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and touching the Colorado River. I had blown an opportunity to do so two years prior to this trip. Never before has a failed adventure plan bothered me so much that I stewed over it. I live approximately 2700 miles away from the Grand Canyon so its not like I can just go back anytime. Then, I had my long battle with a back injury and sciatica, and hiking normally ever again looked questionable. In April 2015, I had the opportunity to travel out West again, but I had not yet fully healed and I had not yet completed a mountainous hike over 10 miles in length with a real pack yet. I entered this trip to the Grand Canyon with no expectations or plan to actually get to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, since the easiest way to do so is about an 18 mile hike and you need permits to backpack (overnight camp) in the canyon.

On my last day at the Grand Canyon I somehow ended up fulfilling my Canyon dreams, but I had no idea as I started that day!

The night before the hike I camped at the rim of the Grand Canyon. It was cold that night, about 27 degrees and windy. Not much sleep!

Thinking I had no hope of reaching the river, I decided to spend my last day at the Grand Canyon by just dayhiking the well-traveled Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point, a 12 mile round trip hike with 3000 feet of elevation gain. Plateau Point sticks out of the Tonto Platform and offers a stunning perch 1500 feet over the Colorado River. If I wasn't going to touch the river, at least I could see it up close and from a backcountry location.

A look down into the side canyon that the Bright Angel Trail uses to descend into the Grand Canyon:

Sunset views down to the trail to Plateau Point:

The morning was still cold in the upper 20's with a bit of a wind. There was actually some ice in the runoff and some icicles alongside the trail.

The upper switchbacks of the Bright Angel Trail (photo taken a few afternoons prior)

The trail passes through a tunnel.

I encountered a deer.

I was feeling great. No pain. Then a thought occurred to me. Was there a point on the Bright Angel Trail that reached the Colorado River without going all the way to Phantom Ranch (which would be nearly 20 miles round trip)? I didn't want to assume so, since there could have been a cliff face impossible to get down where it looked like the trail got close to river on the map before Phantom Ranch.

I asked a passing hiker, and his answer was unclear. would have to see how it went.

The trail actually passed along the distinct boundary between the different geologic layers:

When I got to the first rest house and realized that this day was the first day they turned on the water! That was great news for my chances to try a rim to river and back hike.

Another benefit, it was still cold, even at this lower elevation.

View from near the 1.5 mile rest house (shot 2 days prior late afternoon)

A view down to the 3 mile resthouse:

I started to think that this was the day. One problem: I had relatively little food. I had underpacked since I was low on provisions and only planning to go to Plateau Point. Also, would my back and legs hold up?

I continued to mull it over as I finished descending all of the switchbacks and reached the spot where the trail becomes a more level sandy cruise down to Indian Garden.

Looking back up to the rim from which I came, (3000 vertical feet overhead):

Right before reaching that hybrid natural and man made oasis (Indian Garden), I encountered a female trail runner who had just come back from the river and confirmed that there was indeed access to the river before Phantom Ranch and that there was a beach and a little stone hut there.

At Indian Garden, the temperature was still only 48. This was the day to do it. I decided then to give it a go!

At Indian Gardens, I took a break by the water fountain. I set my bag down on a bench, took a bite of cookie, and started filling my water bottles. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a rock squirell dart up onto the bench and stick his face in my still unzipped backpack. Nooo!! I instinctively darted back to my bag, but to my horror, the squirrel picked up the whole ziplock bag of cookies and ran off leaving only a half (bitten) cookie behind.

It was a big loss. The bag of cookies was easily half of my calories for the day. Cookies as hiking food? I confess, when I hike, I like to eat things that are tasty and quickly eaten. So yes, half of my food supply was in fact 5 Pepperidge Farm brownie cookies. Now they were gone. I had only 600 calories, to make it down to the river over 3 miles, and then back up nearly 9 miles and 4800 vertical feet of climbing. That is about taking the stairs of the 1200 foot high empire state building. Was this the end of the dream of touching the river again?

As I considered my predicament, I picked up a half squirrel eaten cookie off the bench so as not to litter. A lifetime of backcountry leave no trace ethics instilled this reflective action into my brain. Spitty cookie in hand, my eyes settled on a sign with a picture or a rock squirrel and a human hand with stitches. Warning: squirrels carry the hanta virus and plague. Transmited through saliva. Ahhh!!! Backcountry ethics be damned I chucked that cookie into the desert. A wave of anxiety settled in and hijacked my mind for the next couple of months, the potential incubation period for those two diseases. Both have near zero survival rates.

Figuring I was probably a dead man walking, I decided I would definitely head down to the river. What did I have to lose? The route had plenty of hikers, so I figured I could just bum food off people as I went to solve that problem. Had it been hotter, I would definitely had not gone for it.

After Indian Garden, the trail passes through a surprisingly lush, wet area that was filled with reed, grasses, and cottonwood trees. Quite the contrast to the usual desert!

The trail then narrowed into a side canyon, staying just above a watercourse of Garden Creek:

A hiker dwarfed by a blooming agave plant in the narrow side canyon:

I was still feeling good, but a voice in the back of my mind told me to be sure to leave enough in the tank to make it back up. When I saw the Devil's Corkscrew I considered turning around thinking of the reclimb in full sun, but decided to press on.

The switchbacks of the Devil's Corkscrew:

After the switchbacks were over, the grade was not that bad, but it seemed like it was still taking forever to get to the river. I actually reached a point where I stopped. I sat down on the side of the trail and told my self I would just hike to the next bend to see if the river was near. If not, I should turn around.

After making that resolution. I lifted my head up while still seated, and guess what I saw? The stone hut the trail runner told me about! It was partially obscured and at the furthest point on trail, but my heart soared! It hit me. The dream that was almost gone so many times was finally going to happen.

I might have actually shed a tear of gratitude, but as soon as I got near the hut I saw three women backpackers in their twenties. I didn't hold back tears out of macho-ness, but realized this was my chance to mooch for food, and I didn't want to look crazy! I explained my rock squirrel induced predicament and that I had to hike back up to the rim that day. They gladly shared a bag of jelly beans and almonds. When I opened the almond can I thought the were covered in tons of salt. Perfect! But it turned out to be a sugar coating. Not bad, but not going to help with potential hypernatremia
(not enough salt vs water content in the blood). I did have a bag of table salt in my kit so I could use that in a pinch so I figured I'd be ok either way on that front. At least I could keep my blood sugar up for the hike out now!

Food in hand I finally made my way to the river. A sandy beach appeared with the emerald greenish Colorado behind it. I walked to the river, dipped my hands in, and said a prayer of thanks. It was more meaningful than any summit I have touched in my life, even though the hike was a common one. There were a few people hanging around so it wasn't a totally private moment.

Finally touched the river here!

A hiker enjoys the Colorado River.

It was tempting to hang around and enjoy the beach and the moment, but I only spent about 10 minutes at the river. I had made it down fast, completing the nearly 9 mile descent in 3 hours and 30 minutes, but I knew the hard part was yet to come. And I still had to beg for some more food. A sense of urgency settled in and I realized I had better not lolligag and see how the 4800' 8.7 mile climb would go.

I started to play leap frog with a couple who was completing the same itinerary as me. It was nice to talk to them.

Those hikers barely visible in the granite gorge section of the Grand Canyon:

Despite the sense of urgency I tried to take time to smell the roses (well whatever the wildflowers were that were in bloom):

How many days of my life would be spent going rim to river to rim in the Grand Canyon?

In the upper switchbacks, I shared a few miles chatting with a couple from England who were wonderful company and a morale boost.

I made it up in about 4 hours including all breaks.

Me at the end of the hike, happy and humbled

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