Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Pretty Good Canyon

I departed Monument Valley relaxed and rejuvenated, the soreness from Canyonlands gone and eager to take on the highlight of my Southwest trip: the Grand Canyon. This was the most famous park on my itinerary, the most visited, the hardest to secure permits for, and the one around which I'd planned everything else on my trip.

I remained on Navajo land for much of the trip from Monument Valley into the Grand Canyon, approaching it from the east. I think this probably helped my arrival go relatively smoothly, as I believe the southern entrance from Tusayan is much more popular. There's a very long and very scenic drive through the Kaibab National Forest, with numerous scenic overlooks and regular warnings about the entrance fees up ahead. Once inside the park, I immediately stopped at Desert View, which guards the eastern entrance and provides the first dramatic look at the canyon itself.

The centerpiece of Desert View is the watchtower. Like most of the famous buildings in the park, it was design by Mary Colter, an early-20th-century architect. She belonged to a school that tried to integrate buildings into the surrounding landscape, using natural materials from the area and adjusting profiles to be congruous with the topography. This tower is just about a century old now, but was designed to look much older, purposefully weathered and built in a more primitive style, with a facade of rough-hewn blocks jutting in and out, while the underlying frame is safely constructed with solid steel.

The faux-aging is even more pronounced inside, where the walls are liberally covered with drawings that evoke native American artwork. Honestly, this felt a little cheesy to me, an almost Disneyfied interpretation of genuine culture. But I also kind of appreciated the earnestness and passion that went into making it, and of course the actual views from within the tower were incredible.

I made my way towards Grand Canyon Village, stopping at nearly every scenic overlook and historic monument along the way. I would later realize that this is probably a strategic decision on the part of the park: the South Rim is close to being overwhelmed by visitors, and the long and spaced-out highway provides an outlet for people to spend a day in the park without further crowding into the already-stretched facilities around the Visitors Center.

The highlight of this stretch was probably the Tusayan Ruins, an archeological site where a small community of native Americans lived centuries ago. You can see where their homes and granaries and other structures were, along with plentiful interpretive plaques that describe and illustrate what life there would have been like. It was really cool to imagine what that space would have looked like prior to Westerners arriving. I would see other ruins in subsequent parks, and looking back on them now I'm a little curious about the construction. Basically, each ruin has a set of stones, maybe a foot high, that define the footprint of the structure, including any interior walls. Obviously, the actual buildings wouldn't have been a foot tall! So... were there taller walls originally, perhaps with thatched roofs, and the upper part somehow got knocked down? That seems plausible, but it's weird that the remaining part has such a consistent height. Or maybe they were that tall to begin with, and the walls were made out of organic material that has since decayed? Maybe. Or were there no stones to begin with, and have those just been added by archeologists or park staff to help visitors visualize these spaces? Could be, though that makes them a bit less exciting.

I arrived in the village and immediately encountered the dreaded parking shortage. I'd directly bypassed the Visitors Center, expecting it to be full; the subsequent parking lots A and B had signs out proclaiming they were full as well. Further into the park, lots C and D did not have such signs, but every spot there was occupied as well. I continued to drive around in increasingly-wide loops, looking for a place to legally park; the South Rim does have a terrific free shuttle system, so I didn't particularly care where I parked, but I couldn't take advantage of the shuttle until I was out of my car! Finally, after way too long, I found a spot in the sprawling Kachina Lodge; I felt a little weird parking someplace I wasn't staying, but there seemed to be ample spaces here and nothing explicitly forbidding it.

If I were to do it again, I would have at least checked out the Visitors Center. They had signs out saying that the lot was full, but I would later realize that those signs are out 24/7; I saw them later at, like 8PM and 7AM when the lots had barely any cars in them at all. They're huge lots and there's probably a lot of turnover, so I think you might be better off checking that out even mid-day than pressing further into the park where the overflow lots are smaller and more likely to remain full. (Put another way, since the Visitor Center fills up first, it has cars that have been there since 8AM, so by noonish some people are probably ready to leave; since, say, Lot D doesn't typically fill until 2PM, most of the people there have arrived later in the day, and so will remain there until later even if they're spending as much time in the park.)

Once I did park, I had a relatively short walk to the rim. I spent the rest of the day walking along the Rim Trail, a beautiful, long and well-designed trail that hugs the rim, spanning the entire length of the Village and many miles in either direction. I started near the Bright Angel Lodge and headed west. The trail here parallels Hermit Road. For most of the year, Hermit Road is closed to private vehicles, so only the shuttle buses and bicycles can travel on it. My plan was to hike as far as I could with the time I had, then catch the free shuttle to return back to the village, thus maximizing hike time and minimizing trail duplication.

As with every other park I visited, I was kind of shocked at just how quickly the crowds disappear the instant you step on a trail. The village was bustling, and all of the shuttle bus stops along the way had clusters of people huddled around the beautiful scenic overlooks, but just twenty feet on the trail all of that would disappear. There were other walkers on the path, of course, but far fewer than I would have expected, especially given how accessible the trail is (both easy to get to and very gentle and well-graded).

Minor tangent: I think Hermit Road would be a lot of fun on a bicycle, and everyone I saw riding it seemed to be having a great time. There are lots of bicycles available for rent at the Rim, the actual road has only a modest grade, and of course the scenery is fantastic. They do request that bicyclists pull over when a shuttle bus overtakes them to let the bus pass; by law buses aren't allowed to pass bikes. But there aren't that many shuttles (I think one every 10-15 minutes or so), and without any other motorized vehicles on the road it seems like a pretty quick and easy thing to pull over for a few minutes. Riding on Desert View Drive seems a lot iffier; I saw a few cyclists doing that, and felt really bad for them, as traffic here is fast, there's no shoulder, and lots of curves with limited visibility.

I decided to hop on the shuttle bus at The Abyss, which I think would be a great candidate for sponsored rebranding to James Cameron's The Abyss. While I love the idea of the Hermit's Rest Shuttle, in practice it wasn't great: the driver was friendly, but was challenged by dealing with the large number of people trying to board an already-nearly-full bus. I got on a westbound bus, figuring it would be less crowded than an eastbound one from the same stop, and it was, but once we reached Hermit's Rest they made everyone offboard, then onboard with the same driver. Of course, nobody was getting off on the eastbound trip, so they weren't able to pick up any passengers at several of the stops. Given the Grand Canyon's push to get people off of their cars and onto the buses, it was a bit disappointing that their capacity didn't seem able to handle the demand, especially on a pre-Memorial Day day. But, I'm sure this stuff is always hard to resource; the existing fleet probably works totally fine for much of the day and much of the year, and it would be very expensive to get the additional equipment and drivers to handle the summer afternoon crush. I do think that would be a good investment, though, as the current experience isn't great.

After finally getting back to the Village, I walked back to my car and drove to my lodging for the night, Yavapai Lodge near the Market Plaza. At the time I'd booked back in January, the famous rim-side hotels were all already booked, but Yavapai was pretty affordable for being right in the park, and I think they still had a good number of vacancies the night I was there. The room I was in was slightly odd... definitely not bad, just a little odd. It felt like an old dormitory or something that had been converted to a motel. The construction was very solid, with thick concrete walls, and I didn't get any noise at all from outside the unit. The room felt oddly dark and stuffy; there are windows at either side, but it's a longish and narrow room, so the natural light can't make it far inside. The actual furnishings were modern, including an enormous television.

I correctly reasoned that the crowds would have died out in the visitor center, so I drove down there and spent some time near Mather Point, probably the single most famous and popular overlook in the park. It was beautiful! I was also stoked to stumble across a ranger talk in the ampitheater. I was kind of surprised at how few people were there; probably just about two dozen or so folks, out of the tens of thousands who had visited the park that day. The ranger gave a great talk; he was a geologist, currently working on his master's degree, and had a lot to say about the natural history of the park, but most of his time was spent answering ad-hoc questions that people lobbed at him on every conceivable topic. He was super-knowledgeable about everything, and I learned a lot. I resolved to take advantage of more ranger talks in the future, and, as I will write, there were a lot more great ones to come.

After the talk, I wandered around the rim some more, watching the sun gradually set and the canyon turn gorgeous. It always looks vast and imposing and almost overwhelming, but it looks especially beautiful once the sun dips low in the horizon and the rocks begin to softly glow. Throughout my trip here I was periodically reminded of just how little of the canyon you can see from any point. Like, the Colorado River is what carved out the canyon, and runs the entire length of the bottom, but you can't even see the river from much of the rim, so when you think you're looking into an incredibly deep gorge, you're only seeing the upper part of that gorge, which is still the hugest thing you've seen. My general mode in nature is to walk around and look at a lot of different stuff, but I was glad to spend some long moments just staring into the canyon and soaking up the vastness of it all, feeling very small in a very good way.

Back at the lodge I swung by the Yavapai Tavern, which is adjacent to the Restaurant (really a cafeteria), but I'd heard online that it had better food. I used to feel awkward about dining solo, which can be especially pronounced when traveling, when I often want to eat a good meal that someone else has prepared but don't have anyone to share a table with. Over the years, though, I've gotten better at navigating this, and at the Tavern I was able to take my preferred approach, dining at the bar. It was great! The bartenders were really pleasant and helpful without being at all overbearing, the space itself looks really nice and has a good vibe, there were some good games to watch on the large TVs, the food (a turkey wrap) was fresh and tasty, and I got to try a new dark beer, Piehole Porter. It was also delicious!

I walked back to my room and finished getting ready: putting everything I would need for the next four days into my pack, and everything else into my car, then watched a little Futurama on the huge TV and went to bed. I woke up early the next day; I had a couple of hours, so I drove back to the Visitors Center and watched the rim again. I'd missed the literal sunrise, but still liked seeing this terrain in yet another light.

I then parked my car in Lot D near the Backcountry Information Center and walked over to Bright Angel Lodge. Which took me a bit longer than it should have; I keep forgetting that the compass on my Pixel 2 is garbage and always points me in the wrong direction. I got back on track, but it was a bit humbling to get lost before I'd even started my hike! I still made it to the lodge in plenty of time to meet up with my transit, the Transcanyon Shuttle. I didn't initially recognize the trip leader / driver, but the number of folks with large packs like mine let me know I was in the right place, so I hung around until they started collecting everyone up.

Trans-Canyon is a private shuttle that specializes in moving people between the North Rim and the South Rim. As the crow flies this is a distance of about 10 miles; hiking it is about 25 miles of distance (and thousands of feet of elevation); and driving it is about 210 miles. The shuttle is a great resource for people like me who want to through-hike the canyon; otherwise you have to walk back to the other side once you're done or hitchhike, as there isn't any public transit to the North Rim. They recommend that you park at your destination and then take the shuttle to your starting point, but it sounded like a majority of the people taking the shuttle this day had started at the North Rim and were using it to return to their cars.

There was a good-size crew heading over, and they put us into two shuttles. The overall setup is good, with each shuttle towing a small trailer that holds all of our packs. Speaking of packs, they really packed us in - every single seat on my shuttle was filled, including four relatively broad-shouldered guys (including me) squeezed into the back seat. It's a fairly long trip, too, probably around 4-4.5 hours total, including two stops along the way at convenience stores for bio breaks and leg stretches. But the shuttle was clean and comfortable, the scenery is amazing, and everyone was in good spirits, so it went pretty well.

Most of the shuttle was dropped off at the North Kaibab trailhead; most of those were picking up their cars, while some others were starting to hike down. Which is impressive/worrying on its own, as there was a long distance to travel in the time remaining. I was one of just two people going all the way to the Grand Canyon Lodge. I exited and started to explore a little. There are two shuttles each day, and I'd chosen the earlier of the two because I'd wanted to spend as much time as I could on the North Rim; but, as usual, I'd arrived in advance of my check-in time, and I really didn't want to haul around my full pack all day. I walked along the Bridle Trail about halfway between the Lodge and the campground, then found a large fallen tree that I stashed my pack behind, out of sight of the trail. You're really not supposed to do this; I doubt anyone would steal it, but there's a risk that squirrels or other scavengers would chew their way into the pack or otherwise get at any food or scented items inside. Still, I would rather be a rebel just for kicks now than lug all that weight around.

The North Rim felt significantly different from the South Rim. For starters, it was a lot colder, with plenty of snow still on the ground, a strong contrast to the more desert-like conditions across the canyon. It has a more rustic feel to it, in contrast to the more developed Village. Conditions were a bit more primitive; in particular, due to issues with the pipeline that delivers water to the rim, they were conserving water by closing the public bathrooms and had brought out port-a-potties instead. There are fewer visitors to the North Rim, I think something like 10% of the South Rim's numbers; but the space is also a lot more concentrated, so the overall density felt pretty similar to me. The South Rim is very spread out, with tons of viewpoints and facilities for miles and miles in every direction. In contrast, the North Rim (rather, that portion of the park) is a promontory that juts out into the canyon, with all of the activity in a relatively small area.

I was a bit surprised at just how far that promontory goes. The hike out to Bright Angel Point keeps going and going; multiple times I thought I'd reached the tip, only to realize that it was just a boulder and there was still more to go. It's an awesome trail and a fantastic bit of engineering, made all the more impressive by the plunging canyon that surrounds it.

After that I hiked along the Transept Trail up to the campground and wandered through there. I was happy to drop in on yet another ranger program, this one on California Condors. This was a far smaller audience than last night's, I think just about eight people total, and I enjoyed the close discussion. As before there were a lot of random questions that the ranger answered, but the main program was a bit more structured, with some great activities for kids in the audience as he talked about the Condor: its ancient history, biological role, behaviors, and modern role in the conservation movement. As he talked, I was reminded of having heard some of this years before, probably in a Nature program or something, but I'd long forgotten it: zoologists using hand-puppets to rear baby chicks, tagging the birds before releasing them, tracking their movements by listening for radio signals. It's a dramatic story, sad and hopeful, and I really enjoyed hearing it.

I also swung by the general store in the campground, which is extremely well stocked, and was happy to buy a can of the Piehole Porter that I'd enjoyed so much for a mere $1.50. I picked my pack back up on my way back to the lodge and checked in. I asked the clerk about the hiker's shuttle that I'd heard about, and he added me to the clipboard; the 5:30AM departure time was all full already, but there was one more slot for 6AM, which I gladly took (and honestly preferred). All of the other slots were earlier, I think starting at 3:30 or 4, which... yeesh. I've read that in the summer lots of people prefer starting their hike into the canyon before dawn so they can not hike between 10AM-4PM, when the sun is hottest, but... man, I'm on vacation! I don't want to wake up early enough to take a 4AM shuttle anywhere!

Oh! Turning back time a little: By the time I had been approved for my backpacking permit, all of the rooms at the Grand Canyon Lodge and all of the campsites at the campground had been booked for the day before my trip. Which put me in a quandary: where, exactly, was I supposed to sleep? There weren't any other lodgings within walking distance of the trailhead. I consulted some online forums, and heard from a few other folks who had been in similar situations; their recommendations were to keep checking the websites for cancellations, and that something would eventually turn up. Sure enough, after about two weeks of checking twice daily, I finally was able to grab a Frontier Cabin at the Lodge, the cheapest room available (though more expensive than the campground, obviously). I suspect that lots of people will just make speculative reservations, perhaps in advance of their own permit applications or just general vacation plans, and then cancel them once the plans finalize. Which is fine, but also makes it harder for people to get their foot in the door. I kind of wonder if some of these in-high-demand accommodations will shift to more significant cancellation fees in order to discourage speculative bookings.

Back to real time: I got the key to my cabin. It was wonderful, I don't think I could have found a better one if I'd gotten to choose. It was at the edge of the lodge campus, with its window directly overlooking the Transept Canyon, the side canyon along one edge of the North Rim. The room itself looked cool; these cabins are about a hundred years old, made out of large logs joined together with mortar. Unlike the South Rim, there are no television sets here! Just beds, a desk, and a bathroom. That's all you need, really. Very few electrical sockets, though. I found a single two-plug outlet in the entire room. The desk lamp was plugged into it, as was the alarm clock, while a coffee maker's cord forlornly hung to the side. It's as if the cabin was saying, "Well, if you want to live without light or time, then go ahead, make some coffee."

I continued to walk around the lodge area and adjacent trails. The lodge building itself is really cool, with an enormous, impressive sun room and a very fancy-looking dining room. I picked up supper from the Deli in the Pines, a much-less-fancy but still tasty kitchen in the main lodge building. Specifically, I got a pulled pork sandwich, which I devoured in my cabin along with that delicious beer and a piece of fresh fruit. I watched the sun set and got an early bedtime, with both the alarm clock and my phone alarm set in time for me to catch the shuttle.

Time for another tangent! The North Rim was one of the few places I visited on this trip where I didn't think, "I wish I had another day or two here." I definitely enjoyed it! But I really don't know what I would have done with more time there, especially without a car. Like, if I'd spent a week at the South Rim, I could have spent multiple days walking the Rim Trail, and visited the museums, and attended more ranger programs, and lingered more at spots along Desert View, etc. At the North Rim... I guess that if I did have a car I could maybe have done a few other trails; but maybe not, since some of the roads were still closed while I was there. And while I'm sure those trails are great, none of them go into or even have much of a view of the canyon. Anyways, this isn't at all to say "The North Rim is bad" or anything, I really liked its chill atmosphere and great views, but I also feel like I spent the exact right amount of time there.

The one piece of somewhat modern tech in my Frontier Cabin was a space heater, and it was chilly enough that night that I was glad to have it, drifting off to sleep as the wind howled outside. I woke up before sunrise, freezing in bed, blinking at the blank alarm clock. After a few minutes I determined that, yes, I had lost power. I felt very glad that I had showered the night before; I don't think I could have managed a cold shower! Fortunately I had prepared everything already so I could easily pull my gear together in the dark, but it was a little disappointing to forego my planned coffee.

Each Frontier Cabin is really two rooms, end to end, with a double-locked door in between; I think it's a nice setup, since a family could rent out both halves and get a good four-bed unit. But they definitely aren't soundproof. Without any TVs it wasn't really a problem, but I did hear the guy on the other hand murmuring as I was getting stuff together, it sounded like he was praying or dictating a memo, something like "It's dark and I feel scared and I don't know what to do." I felt sorry for the guy. Personally, I thought that it was dark, I felt tired but excited, and I knew exactly what I was going to do: walk to the lodge and hope that my shuttle was still running!

The scene inside the lodge was odd. Power was out throughout the entire complex; apparently a storm had knocked it out during the night, and the backup generator wasn't working. The staff had still showed up and were valiantly preparing breakfast, but were limited in what they could do without any power. The coffee bar was also shuttered. A small group of people were full-on camping in the middle of the lobby, with sleeping bags and everything; I never heard the story there, I'm not sure if they just crashed the place because they didn't have anywhere else to stay or what.

My supposedly-full shuttle turned out to just be me and three other folks, a married couple and a male friend of theirs, with all the other passengers having canceled at the last minute. The drive to the trailhead was very short; I think it's just about three miles to walk it along the Bridle Trail, and I'd been prepared to do that, but with 14+ miles to go I was happy to shave the introduction off of my itinerary. We chatted briefly on the way and at the trailhead, then I cinched up and started to descend.

I moved at maybe a slightly faster pace than I ought to have, but I had adrenaline and gravity on my side. I was also using another new piece of gear for me, a set of trekking poles. I never use these out here in California, and am not totally used to them. I'd used a single pole during my trip to Kauai, where it came in very helpful for testing sections of trail for stability. I'd read many many times that such poles were useful in the Grand Canyon, though, and I was glad I'd brought them. In this first phase, they were nice to sort of help ease the steep descent: I could move at a more-or-less normal walking pace, but have my arms help absorb the shock of each step, rather than taking it all in my knees.

I passed a few more folks relatively early on, who I suspect were part of that earlier 5:30 start, or perhaps just solo hikers who were good about hitting the trail early. The day was cloudy and cool, but visibility was still fair for the most part, and the canyon continued to look dramatic as I descended further into it. Before long I reached the first major milestone: Supai Tunnel, a man-made tunnel through the rock just a few miles down the North Kaibab. There was a water fountain here, but it was out of service: due to the same issues causing the water rationing on the North Rim, the water at Supai Tunnel on the North Kaibab and the mile-and-a-half resthouse on the Bright Angel trail were still turned off. Which was fine - I was carrying less water than I had in Canyonland, just enough to get me down to the canyon bottom, and I knew that I would have additional chances at water refills along the way if needed.

After a while, a light rain started to fall. I'd come prepared and already had my shell ready to go. I later learned that I had been lucky to descend as early and as quickly as I had: those who started hiking down later than me had to deal with hail and snow at the rim, but I'd fallen far enough to reach a warmer zone that only consisted of rain. That's good! That said, the rain was also pretty challenging. It continued off and on, but mostly on, for the remainder of my hike, and I spent much of the time chilly and uncomfortable.

I continued to descend: pass Roaring Spring, an impressive series of waterfalls bursting from the rock that provide every drop of drinking water on the North and South Rims of the canyon. Further on I encountered a surprisingly-well-kept outhouse. Eventually I made my way into Cottonwood Camp. The backcountry office had originally encouraged me to spend a night here rather than hike all the way to the bottom in one day, and I was kind of glad that I had turned that down; the campground probably looks better in sunlight than it did in the rain, but it didn't strike me as a particularly good-looking or peaceful place, especially with the North Kaibab trail running directly through it. Still, it is situated nicely by a wide stream, and I paused here for an early lunch.

One theme of the day seemed to be "Everything Is Broken." In addition to the limited drinking water, I'd also been alerted in advance that the bridge to Ribbon Falls had been shut down. Supposedly there are social trails that lead to alternate potential crossings of the river, but with all the snow and rainfall, every river was swollen higher than normal, so crossing was a non-starter. Which is probably just as well; I was mostly motivated to make good time to the bottom.

The swollen creeks and streams also made me extremely happy to be carrying my trekking poles; there was one crossing in particular that I don't think I could have made without it. With the poles, you can effectively transform yourself from a biped into a quadruped, and it becomes possible to cross water by sticking your poles under the surface while your feet find more limited dry spots above. The poles were worth carrying for the one crossing alone, let alone the rest of the journey.

The rain started to clear up a little as I arrived at The Box, a more gentle descent closer to the bottom that's surrounded by tall and dark cliff walls. However, I was feeling particularly ill by this point and had to stop for several short breaks. My guts were roiling, and nothing seemed to bring them relief. I think now that this was probably due to the very abrupt change in elevation: the steepest part of the North Kaibab is the first part, so I had descended most of the 6000 feet in a very short time. The physical extertion, the weight of my pack, the lack of caffeine, and the dampness and chill from the rain probably all contributed to my misery. The worse I felt, though, the more motivated I felt to reach my destination so I could just stop walking for the day.

At long last I reached a sign announcing that Phantom Ranch was 3/4 of a mile ahead, and I staggered forward with a fresh burst of energy. Phantom Ranch is a campus of cabins and dormitories that make up the most popular and exclusive lodging within the canyon. My destination was just beyond it: Bright Angel Campground. (And, yes, there are officially way too many places in the Grand Canyon named Bright Angel.) I stumbled into camp... hm, I think maybe just before 2PM. meaning I'd taken around 8 hours to hike down 14 miles and 6000 feet.

You need a permit to camp in Bright Angel, but choosing a specific site is first-come-first-served. I was pleased to see that I had a lot of options, with fewer than half of the sites occupied. Honestly, I think every single site in the campground is good. I was drawn towards the ones by the river, which have wonderful white noise and really pleasant views; but the ones on the other side seem to be a little larger, more private, and varied, with different rocks or trees scattered around. I quickly claimed site 5, which was my favorite: next to the river, a few spots down from the access bridge, and a fairly level surface to pitch my tent. 5 is also my favorite number, which was an extra-nice bonus.

I put my permit into the box outside the campsite, but didn't start setting up my tent yet: the rain was still falling, and I wanted to wait for a break to begin. I sat at the picnic table and zoned out, watching the mules across the river from me. Eventually things cleared up and I quickly set to work, getting everything secure and in place before the next set of rain came. I noticed some more activity in the camp: some more people arriving, which I expected, but also a few people departing, which surprised me a little. I later speculated that they might have elected to wait out the rain in their tents, and, as the day ended up clearing up later in the afternoon, they were able to hike out in relatively dry conditions.

With my camp site established I headed over to the Phantom Ranch Canteen. This feels a lot like a classic Swiss Alp skiing lodge: a big greatroom where people gather after or during their day of exertion, with big communal tables and a low-key festive atmosphere. People were chatting, playing card games, eating snacks, drinking beer, sharing photos, making friends. A single counter serves as a bar, snack station and store. After a wait I bought a couple of postcards and, at long last, a cup of coffee. I found an open seat in the back, sat down, and started writing my missives.

I gradually but thoroughly rejuvenated: the hot liquid warmed my body, my stiff fingers loosened as I wrote, the hubbub of conversation around me cheered me, and it felt so so so good to sit without a heavy pack weighing me down. After I had finished writing I dropped the postcards into a saddlebag hung on the wall; the next day, a mule would carry it all the way back up to the rim and send the mail on its way.

I was feeling infinitely better, and still had some time before dinner, so I went for a loop hike around the River Trail. So: basically, the South Kaibab and the Bright Angel trails both descend from different points on the South Rim, and meet up on the north side of the Colorado River, in the Phantom Ranch / Bright Angel Campground area. The Bright Angel Trail crosses the river on the Silver Bridge to the west, while the South Kaibab trail crosses the Black Bridge to the east. On the south side of the river, the River Trail connects the Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails, so you can string them all together for a short loop across along along the river.

It was a good hike, with more climbing than I expected on the River Trail itself, but really good climbing, as it led to some fantastic views of the river, the two bridges, and a really cool boat beach. I always feel like I'm floating after I put down my full pack, so the elevation didn't bother me in the slightest.

I'd pre-purchased a few meals at the Canteen: a steak dinner the first night and breakfast the next two mornings. This had allowed me to slim down my pack, and I ended up not bringing my stove, fuel canister, pot, or any freeze-dried meals. The meals are expensive, but I think there's a totally reasonable explanation for that: you're really paying for the mules to bring your food all the way down into the canyon, not for the food itself, and labor is expensive! They're also making use of limited space and people; the canteen closes to prepare for meal service, then re-opens after it's done. Meals are served family-style and the seatings are very punctual. I was impressed at how quickly they could move this many people through, while still providing good service: there's just a single employee acting as a waiter/waitress for the entire canteen!

The steak dinner was utterly delicious. Granted, everything is delicious after a full day of backpacking, but this was even better than most. Everyone gets one steak and one potato, and there are infinite refills on everything else, including bowls of salad, plates of cornbread, green beans, carrots, and finishing off with a huge and delicious piece of chocolate cake. I'd wondered earlier in the day if I'd be able to eat anything at all with my body in revolt, but I needn't have feared, and I inhaled everything around me.

I'd been in the earlier of the two seatings, and still had several hours of daylight after dinner was done, so I continued to walk and wander and explore the area around the camp. There's another set of ruins down there, similar to the Tusayan ruins I'd seen in the North Rim, and various interpretive plaques commemorating milestones in the park's creation and its earlier history. I also got a closer view of the boat beach and enjoyed watching the colors on the cliffs change. Sunset within the canyon is a lot less dramatic than on the rim, as it moves beyond sight long before it actually sets, so you don't get to see the spectacular plays of light on the horizon; but it's a nice gentle transition into dusk, and you can easily look at everything around you without getting blinded by the light.

It finally got dark enough for me to turn in, and I instantly fell asleep. Exhaustion was a huge part of that, but being right next to the river helped a lot, too. Even though the camp sites here feel relatively close together, I never overheard any conversations or anything thanks to the welcome burbling and rushing of water outside.

I had a gentle start to the next day, with a later breakfast seating. I might have enjoyed breakfast even more than the steak dinner: scrambled eggs, big plump juicy sausages, flavorful bacon strips, buttermilk pancakes, cut fruit, and delicious coffee, with plenty of refills on everything. Conversations from the previous day continued and new ones started. I'm an introvert, and in my normal daily life very rarely initiate conversations, but in settings like this where I'm surrounded by people who've had similar experiences or share a passion, it's really easy and fun to strike up a rapport with people and pass the time.

On my way out the canteen I picked up my sack lunch from a box near the door. This was another thing I'd pre-ordered in advance; like the meals, it's pricey compared to food on the surface, but I was very happy to pay for someone else to perform the labor of bringing fresh and delicious food all the way down instead of adding it to my heavy pack. There were seriously like nearly a dozen things in there: bagel and cream cheese and summer sausage and a huge fresh apple and sport-drink powder and sport bar and babybel cheese and... yeah, it was good.

I'd mulled two possible routes for the day. One would be a bigger loop trip: up the South Kaibab, across the little-used Tonto Trail partway up the canyon, then back down the Bright Angel. I generally prefer loops, it would take me over new trails, and open up the possibility of visiting Plateau Point. And the loop would be upward-then-downward, my absolute favorite time. It would be a long distance, though, and I'd be committed to seeing it through. Late in the day I decided on my other option, hiking along the Clear Creek Trail. This wasn't a loop, but I'd hike as much as I could / wanted to, then turn around and come back. I liked this because it would take me out of the main corridor and show me some different areas of the Canyon.

The trail starts just north of Phantom Ranch with a very steep but fun climb. Early on you're taken to a great overview of Phantom Ranch, and can marvel at just how you've come in so short a time. A little ways past this is a cool old stone bench carved into the cliff, and just pass that is a short spur trail of, like, ten steps that takes you around a corner and to a stunning view of the Colorado River.

The main Clear Creek Trail stretches on and on and on. It uses cairns generally but not extensively. I did get mildly lost at one point: I was unsure whether the trail went straight or left, and followed the left part, which was notably wider. It took me longer than it should have to acknowledge that I had entered a dry drainage. In my defense, it looked a lot like a trail, and everything was very walkable and climbable, up until when I was staring into a sheer cliff face and thinking "Hm... maybe I'm not supposed to be up here." Then I went back to the start, looked, and was like, "Oh, of course that's the trail!"

I think this might have been my single favorite day of my entire vacation. It felt so serene and looked so beautiful. The trail was steep enough to be interesting but no so steep as to be punishing; in particular, with just my day pack I still felt like I was floating, and my boots ate up the miles as the hours flew. The grand canyon was immense and immensely varied, revealing different aspects to me as I journeyed deeper into it. It felt incredibly remote, and I didn't meet a single other person in my entire out-and-back time on the trail, but I did hear a lot of birdsong and see lots of canyon life around me.

One thing I'd been particularly struck by the previous day and even more so today was a particular desert plant. It looks like a small shrubby bush, with pointed green leaves, but has an enormous stalk growing straight up from the center. I think they're seriously seven feet or more tall, sometimes with golden feathery leaves on the side, and they were incredibly striking. Later in the day I would visit the ranger station and learn that these are called "Century Plants." Each plant grows quietly and unobtrusively for 25-30 years; then, when conditions are right, it will abruptly send up this tall shoot, send its seeds, and then die. I think that's beautiful and sad.

Much of my walk was conducted under the watchful gaze of huge stone structures to my left. These have cool Hindi-sounding names like "Brahma Temple" and "Vishnu Temple." They feel enormous and imposing, and along with the surrounding rocks made me feel like I was very deep under ground. But... over and over, throughout today and the entire trip, I would look around, thinking that I was so deep, and then realize, "I can't even see the rim from here!" The canyon that felt so huge was just my immediate surrounding: I was really inside a canyon, inside a canyon, inside a canyon, and my mind boggled trying to take it all in.

After maybe 4 hours of hiking I came back into view of the Colorado River, which had remained concealed from the trail for most of the hike even as it continued to define the bottom of the canyon. This area also brought a new side canyon into view. I'm pretty sure that this was the titular Clear Creek Canyon; part of me wanted to reach the edge of this main trail, which apparently includes an outhouse near the creek; but a bigger part of me wasn't a fan of a steep descent that I'd have to climb right back up. So instead I found a comfy rock off the trail and enjoyed a leisurely lunch, staring into the new side canyon and all my surroundings. Then I turned around and came back.

The weather was much more cooperative today than previously. There were some periods of clouds, but not a single drop of rain the whole time, and plenty of blue skies and sun. While this was an out-and-back, the lighting changed enough to help my return feel fresh, and of course I was focusing on different things since I was facing in the opposite direction. I made great time on my way back, and still had a good amount of water when I returned to camp.

I made one more visit to the Canteen where I picked up a can of beer, an on-brand Trail Hike IPA from the Grand Canyon Brewing Company, and also a cold Snickers bar. There hadn't been any openings for the Canteen dinner service this night, so I'd packed some flavored "tuna creations" in foil for a cold supper, and the beer helped it feel like more of a complete, special meal. This particular can cost $7.50, a big increase from the $1.50 in the campground - but, once again, you're really paying for the mule.

There hadn't been any ranger programs the previous day; I'm not sure why, they may have had the day off for Memorial Day, or might have been busy dealing with the ongoing water infrastructure problems. (There are actual flush toilets at Bright Angel and Phantom Ranch, which is really cool, but on the days I was there we had to bucket-flush the commodes with water from the river, no doubt due to the aforementioned issues with the Roaring Springs pipeline.) A ranger dropped by my campsite right before supper to say "Hi," go over the rules of the camp, suggest that I hide my Snickers bar (apparently, even if you're right next to food, squirrels will still try to get it, so they recommend keeping all recognizable food items out of sight), and invite me to the program that night, on rattlesnakes.

I spent much of my evening reading "A Movable Feast," the other book I'd picked up from Back of Beyond, then walked over to the Phantom Ranch amphitheater just in time for the talk. This was actually probably the largest turnout I'd seen for any ranger program, which is interesting given how few people stay overnight in the canyon compared to the surface; it seemed like everyone at the Ranch and a few folks from the campground had shown up, and almost every seat was occupied.

The woman gave a fantastic talk, more personal than the others programs I'd attended before. One minor thing I noticed is just how many rangers at major parks have moved from other parks: whenever anyone did talk about their history, it would be something like "I was a ranger in Yosemite for X years, then at Bryce Canyon for Y years, then at Yellowstone for Z years, and now I've been at the Grand Canyon for 2 years." I'm very curious why they move around so much: does the Park Service intentionally rotate people, or is there a sort of seniority pecking order among the parks that more experienced rangers can follow, or are they just naturally restless and curious? It seemed like the opposite of my experience with the wardens in New Zealand who will care for a particular spot for decades.

As with many other ranger talks, we talked about the thing itself, but also spent a lot of time talking about how humans affect the thing. I learned a lot of interesting stuff about rattlesnakes, including a visceral description of how squirrels and rattlesnakes fight (squirrels have developed a fighting technique to combat a rattlesnake's heat-vision!) and a profile of the victims of rattlesnake bites (exclusively male, overwhelmingly men in their 20s who have been drinking and decide to pick up a rattlesnake). The ranger was really friendly and animated, acting out her personal encounters with snakes and emotionally describing her breakthrough in ceasing to be terrified by them.

The sun had set during the talk, and I made my way back to the camp in the dark, slept soundly, then woke up very early the next day for my first-seating breakfast. I loaded my body with all the delicious food, said "Goodbye" to the various families and other folks I'd gotten to know during my stay, then packed up my tent. I could tell that it was picking up a lot of sand as I was rolling it up, and I tried to knock off as much as I could, but since this would be my very last time on this trip in the tent I was also happy to wait until I got back home to properly clean it. I hit the trail relatively early while other folks were just starting to stir.

In contrast with my North Kaibab descent, there was a little cluster of folks who all started hiking out around the same time, so we saw each other multiple times on the way out as we passed and re-passed each other. I think I'm a bit faster while hiking uphill than most, but I also took more breaks for photos or to munch on food, while others kept up a steadier pace; I felt a bit like the tortoise while one older woman in particular was the hare.

I was glad for all those stops, though, because the view back down Bright Angel was absolutely breathtaking. I enjoyed getting an excuse to catch my breath and capture a scene of beauty at the same time.

I felt way better on the way up than I had on the way down: it was physically a bit more tiring, but not painfully so, and I didn't feel any of the intestinal distress of my descent. Again, I imagine the fine weather was a help here, as was my start to the day (good cheer over a hot meal).

Right around 9AM I rolled into Indian Garden, another campground that's about halfway down from the rim. Unlike Cottonwood, I really really liked the look of this camp: it's nestled in cool trees next to a burbling creek, which must feel especially nice on hot days, and had good facilities. I paused for a mid-morning meal in the day-use area by the creek, resting up for the second half of the trail.

I was kind of surprised by how few people I'd seen going down; I would have thought that lots of folks would be going into the canyon from Cottonwood, or getting an early start on the trail, but there was almost nobody headed that direction. I now suspect that the Cottonwooders can probably get by with a more leisurely departure since they only have a few miles to go, and I think the South Kaibab is a more popular descent for serious hikers from the rim.

Once I reached the Three Mile Resthouse, I started seeing a lot more hikers - it definitely didn't feel crowded, but it became more normal to see another person somewhere in my field of view than to not see anybody. Most people were day-hikers going down a short way and then back, which is very hard! There are a ton of signs around the South Rim warning about exactly this stuff: the most catchy and succinct says "Down is optional. Up is mandatory." There are some signs that I loved which show a guy on his hands and knees vomiting, which I think is fantastic: like, most parks would probably show a skull and crossbones to warn that something is dangerous, but that just makes it seem sexier and cooler. But there's nothing remotely cool about vomiting, so I think it's kind of a better threat than death, at least for the sorts of people who want to hike down a mile and back up again in one day.

Along the way up, I passed a uniformed ranger who was chatting with two older ladies. The part of their conversation that I heard as I went by sounded like this:
  • "Well, I'm in what we call 'pre-emptive search and rescue'. My job is to find people who look like they might get into trouble, and try to keep them from needing rescue in the first place."
  • "So, when you see a couple of older-looking women who look like they aren't in great shape..."
  • [She gives a resigned chuckle and shrugs.] "Unfortunately, a big part of my job is judging people, and..."
I remembered that I had seen a male ranger stationed near the Bright Angel trailhead several days before, and imagined that he probably had a similar role, scanning the many many many people heading down and offering helpful-but-firm advice where warranted.

I finally started to feel tired after I passed the mile-and-a-half resthouse, but by this point I could practically taste the destination. I stepped aside to let a mule train pass, carrying many happy-but-worried-looking passengers, then continued trudging upward. My pack felt increasingly heavy. I started taking advantage of the right-of-way traditionally offered to uphill hikers, trying to maintain my momentum and cadence, and tried not to get too annoyed when a large school group swarmed the width of the trail. Breathing heavily, I pulled myself further and further, pausing to smile at the older woman who'd been keeping pace with me since we left Phantom Ranch that morning.

And then: it was done! I blinked in surprise. The final approach is close to the cliffs, and I hadn't realized just how close I was until I was finished. I was back on the Rim Trail, and I had successfully through-hiked the Grand Canyon.

With an extra spring in my step now that I was on level ground again, I walked east towards the Bright Angel Lodge. I dropped off my pack near a tree in the plaza, then went into the Fountain and ordered an ice cream cone. (In case you haven't already noticed, I really really enjoy food while I'm backpacking, and ice cream is an especially nice treat after something this long.) I sat outside and struck up a conversation with a group of three young women who had also just finished their own backpacking trip through the canyon, swapping stories about our routes and weather and experiences on the trail. They had started a day earlier than me and had also spent two nights at Bright Angel, but had then spent a night at Indian Creek, which sounds really nice; they were able to get in a hike to Plateau Point that way, and had had a much easier climb up the Bright Angel, arriving early enough for a breakfast at the lodge. I devoured my cone as we chatted, we congratulated each other and then parted ways. I really enjoy the easy camaraderie that you can find with other people who have been through the backcountry; it's not the main reason I do this, but is a lot of fun.

I walked back to my car, loaded up my pack, and set the GPS for my next destination. I had originally planned to through-hike the Narrows next, but the very wet May had swollen the Virgin River and so I had canceled that permit and the associated lodging. Instead, I would be moving on to my fallback Plan B destination, which proved to be the prettiest park of my entire trip: Bryce Canyon.

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