Serious hikers wake up at 4 am, get on the trail by 5 and are often done with their long hike before the sun starts casting strong shadows. Recreational hikers…well, they don’t always have such big goals. Today, we were more on the serious side, as our goal was to get on the trail before sunrise. And let our pace dictate our day. And, hopefully, reach the river and come back to the top before the sun goes down.
We prepared by packing multiple layers of clothing, food and snacks, a ton of water, and a flashlight. Signs like this one pictured below are posted all over Grand Canyon trails. I don’t advise that everyone ignores this sign, especially in time of summer heat. Know yourself. We were about to ignore the sign because we knew our bodies and our hiking pace. We also knew that this November day was going to be hiker-friendly, with temps ranging in the 40s-60s. Our sole limitation was having only 10-11 hours of daylight. Hiking at night is just not as pleasant.
Naturally, I am not a morning person and waking up is often the hardest part of my day. Once I am up early though, I love it. We got on the Bright Angel Trail (a short walk from our cabin) at 7:00 am, with sunrise scheduled for 7:20. The Canyon looks blue and beautiful before the sun colors it. The trail was pristine and quiet, with no mules or other hikers in sight. I loved being there so early.
Our average pace was about 2 miles an hour, including occasional stops for rest and photos. We also had our camcorder with us and started filming a goofy “documentary” about reaching the bottom of the canyon (or failing to do so).
Bright Angel Trail is very well maintained, and is the least steep one out of the three we hiked. After descending switchbacks, the trail flattened out. We reached the Indian Garden Campground (4.5 miles from trailhead) fairly early, when campers were still waking up (and complaining about cold November nights!). Indian Gardens looks like a mirage – it is a sliver of green vegetation in the midst of otherwise barren canyon landscape. The trees and plants are here because of a consistent water supply, flowing form the pipeline and the creek. This is also the only spot on the trail where you can get fresh drinking water during winter months.
Continuing towards the river, the trail stays flat and passes along some impressive sandstone formations, crossing the creek once or twice. Then, half a mile later, more beauty opens up. Wow. All of a sudden, we felt like we were in an Asian painting. This area of the trail is called Devil’s Corkscrew, an abrupt descent to the bottom. The light was hitting the rocks just right, and we kept stopping for more photos.
We came across many hikers walking up after their overnight Phantom Ranch stay, many of whom, I am happy to note, were seniors. The trail then flattened, went on for another mile, and brought us to the Colorado River. Yay! We reached the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and it was only 11 am! The River, 8 miles from the trailhead, is just gorgeous.
I wanted to get in, but its currents are too fast (and the water is probably too cold) for swimming. Looking at the Colorado River, it is amazing to think that most of its shoreline was never touched by human foot. The Grand Canyon Beach (as we called it) gets limited direct sunlight and thus looks surreal. This was a perfect location for our lunch and a half-hour rest. The trail goes on for 2 more miles to Phantom Ranch. I wanted to continue, and SEE IT ALL, but my husband, the rational mind, protested, so back up the canyon we went.
The Devils Corkscrew switchbacks were not as hard to hike up as I imagined. We just weren’t tired yet. Walking back along the creek, we watched a family of deer feeding on leaves and branches. We were doing well on timing, and back in Indian Gardens, decided to do a 3-mile round trip detour to Plateau Point. The walk on the Plateau is well worth it. The trail is flat, surrounded by shrubs and cacti, and at the end there are stunning views of the river. Not for the vertigo-challenged! Here is an aerial indication of where Plateau Point is on the trail:
And this is what you see from Plateau Point:
From there, we started a 6-mile journey back to the top. The hardest part, of course, came at the end. After having walked all day, my legs started to feel like concrete. And that’s when we began our uphill climb. The last 3 miles of switchbacks became a dreaded exercise. Now we walked at the pace of old people, taking frequent breaks. We started dreaming about what we’ll have for dinner. I got a craving for a prickly-pear margarita, my favorite local drink. The thought of that margarita kept me walking uphill until the end. At 5:30 pm, just before the sun disappeared, we were out of the canyon – exhausted, but SO happy. We hiked a total of 19 miles in 10 ½ hours. Our honeymoon goal was complete! After dinner, I passed out at 9 pm.
The following morning we left Grand Canyon National Park via East Entrance. There, we briefly stopped at the medieval-looking Observation Tower, and then headed to Page, AZ.