It being Christmas and all, I decided to take my first “real” Grand Canyon hike. To me, this implied a rim-to-river-to-rim day hike and since the North Rim is closed in winter, this necessarily meant South Rim to River and back to the South Rim (sadly, the East and West Rims are underwater). So it was that I ended up before daybreak at the South Kaibab trailhead all juiced up on hot chocolate and ready to rumble. What follows is a relatively brief synopsis of the hike, written about a year later and after a longer hike from Hermit to Bright Angel.
Getting to the South Kaibab Trailhead
The South Kaibab trailhead is a few miles east of the Grand Canyon Village and just west of Yaki Point. While technically accessible by car, Yaki Point Road is closed to private traffic much of the year, so shuttle service may be your best bet. Bathrooms and water are available near the trailhead.
Logistics and Gear
The total distance from South Kaibab trailhead to the river at Bright Angel Campground, on to the nearby Phantom Ranch, and back to the top of Bright Angel is about 17.4 miles. The Plateau Point spur adds 2.6 miles roundtrip, for a total of 20 miles. The NPS trail guide offers more details, as well as some amusing typos.
The South Kaibab trailhead is at 7,260′ and the Colorado River at Bright Angel Campground is 2,480′ feet, making for a descent of 4,780′. The ascent to the lower Bright Angel trailhead at 6,860′ requires a slightly lesser climb of 4,380′ on the way back.
I should mention that pretty much every trailhead sign in the park tells you not to do what I’m about to do — a rim-to-rim hike in one day. They say thinks like “hazardous” and “dehydration” and “death”. They have stories about those who have tried and, sadly, died. They reinforce this message with a second sign a few hundred feet down each trail that says, “Getting to the river, optional. Getting back to the rim, mandatory” or something equally snarky. So I felt slightly surreptitious as I over-prepared for the hike. I liked the mystery and danger of it. As we’ll see later, this was all or mostly nonsense.
Lastly, because there was a good deal of fresh snow on the trail, I took some new Kahtoola walking crampons (spikes). I can’t recommend them highly enough — they’re tough, light, easy to put on, and provide great traction on snow and ice.
What the heck is a Kaibab?
According to the Arizona Vacation Planner, the word Kaibab means “mountains lying down” and refers to the Kaibab plateau’s lack of, well, mountains. In the case of the South Kaibab trail, I assume that the name has something to do with the Kaibab Limestone that marks the upper layer of much of the South Rim, but I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that limestone comes from shells and coral, which means that trillions of tiny sea critters died millions of years ago so that I could hop around on their remains amped on cocoa so, you know, thanks for that. Namaste.
South Kaibab Trailhead – 0 miles, 5:45am (7,260′)
It being something like 12 degrees, I was decked out in all manner of warm clothing more appropriate for a ski trip than a canyon hike, but it was keeping me warm. It being dark, I was wearing a Petzl headlite. There being snow on the ground, every step I took toward the trailhead resulted in an incredibly loud crunching sound. Otherwise, there was total silence.
The trail immediately zigzags down the west flank of Yaki point and into the Pipe Creek canyon. As I crunched along on the snowy path, my breath coming out as plumes of fog, I could feel myself settling into the walk. One thing I would find on all hikes here is that if you’re not hiking at a crowded time or place, it takes mere seconds of walking to feel a sense of peace and heightened awareness.
I tried switching the Petzl off a few times as a I walked, but without much moonlight, even the reflective snow didn’t offer quite enough illumination for safe walking. So I spotlighted my way down the trail and into the endless darkness, anticipating but not anxious for for sunrise.
I must have passed the famous “Ooh Ahh Point” in the dark, because I don’t remember seeing or saying it, but I’m sure it’s lovely. It’s the first major viewpoint on the trail and at only 0.9 miles, almost anyone can get there. If summer pictures of the trail are any indication, pretty much everyone does get there. I wouldn’t see another person on the trail until passing O’Niell Butte well after sunrise — and only two people total before reaching Bright Angel Campground and the river.
I also cruised down Cedar Ridge, where there may or may not be any actual cedar trees, as the first light touched the horizon. Crunch, crunch, occasional howl of coyotes, crunch. Light spread warm and red across the sky. I switched off my headlight, took off my coat, and took in the first full views of the canyon that morning. Amazing.
War of the Crowses
Okay, so that’s not the plural of Crows and there was only one of them anyway, but it rhymes with roses and that’s how I role. Anyway, in North to the Night, a book I had received as a gift the night before but not yet read, author Alvah Simon strands himself in the arctic winter in a boat with a cat and, as it turns out, a crow. Okay, the crow wasn’t on the boat but the point is that a freakin’ crow can last outside in the arctic winter. How do those little talony feet not freeze and fall right off? Why do I need umpteen layers of down, fleece and Gore Tex and all he needs is feathers and a bad attitude? What does this have to do with the South Kaibab?
Well, the first living creature I ran into on the hike was a crow in a tree by the side of the trail who just stared at me as I got closer. Didn’t move. Didn’t seem to care. He was large, clearly quite comfortable, and totally unperturbed. It was the first time I really thought about how hardy these birds really are, and it occurred to me that with all my gear and food and technology, he was at home there and I was no less alien then Niel Armstrong on the moon. He belonged here (the crow, not Niel Armstrong), while I was just a visitor. Being a typical male, I cawed loudly, he flapped his wings disdainfully, and I snapped a blurry photo.
Accidental Irony Alert! After writing this, I learned that Niel Armstrong and the Apollo crews trained in the Canyon and, in particular, on this trail. I wonder if the crows paid them any more heed. Probably not.
This butte was as far as I’d come down the trail on the prior afternoon’s exploratory hike. The trail takes you onto a saddle where you cross from the west side of Yaki point to the east side of O’Neill Butte and down toward Skeleton Point. The saddle offers gorgeous views east and west. The Butte itself is brooding Esplanade sandstone mounted on blood red Hermit Shale. The fact that I was now standing in red mud probably meant it was time to take off the crampons, fleece and hat. It was already at least 20 degrees warmer than it had been on the riim.
I remember passing a post at the side of the trail and thinking, huh. Later I realized that this was the marker for Skeleton Point and someone had stolen the sign. Apparently, this is quite common and more than being a nuisance, it kills people — they don’t realize they’ve already passed their turn-around points and they keep walking.
I thought this was probably a recent phenomenon, but Harvey Butchart’s Grand Canyon Treks (first published in the 70s) say that, “Mileposts are hard to maintain against the depredations of souvenir hunting vandals, but a few are left, especially along the lower half of the trail. The laziest and weakest hikers seem to be the most eager to record their achievement by tearing down the markers nearest the trails.” Go Harvey.
At the Point, you get a clear view of the switchbacks your about to descend, which is strangely enticing. How can you not want to walk down there?
The Tonto Platform
Two things happened almost immediately upon reaching the Tonto Platform (Plateau). First, I almost literally ran into some sheep. Second, I realized I loved the Tonto. I’m hoping these two things aren’t related, but either way the Tonto is awesome and I knew I would have to come back and see more of it. This was one of the reasons for the 2010 Hermit to Bright Angel hike (one year later to the day), which includes some twelve miles or so of eastbound walking along the Platform.
For reference, the Tonto Platform is an enormous bench along the midriff of of the Canyon’s southern rim, offering a relatively level way to walk the Canyon below the crowds and above the River. At various points, it offers stunning views of the red and yellow cliffs of both rims, and of course the red and gray walls of the Inner Gorge. It’s also the most temperate part of the Canyon in the winter, and a waterless oven of molten death in the summer. Not kidding. Beauty always has a price.
The Tipoff and Below the Plateau
At a point not suprisingly called “The Tipoff”, you dip into the rough and broken layers of Tapeats sandstone and get down into the Grand Canyon Supergroup, which sounds like a local cover band but has something to do with really old rocks. Then there’s a “Great Unconformity” — the lead singer would be my guess — and Vishnu Shist, which is what happens when you spend your time rocking out in rural dive bars in dayglo spandex. Whatever deeper musical and/or geological truths are to be discovered here, the more personally salient point is that the Tipoff marks your dive back into shadow. Brr.
There’s a Tunnel?
Yes, there’s a tunnel. This trail has it all. Just before the bridge over the Colorado, you pass through a dark and spooky tunnel that offers a fantastic view of the walking bridge itself. No bats, which is disappointing, but also no guano, which is nice.
The Black Bridge. Harrrr!!!
Okay, so it’s usually called the Kaibab Bridge, but either way it’s better than swimming.
Anasazi? What about two asazi?
As you walk east from the bridge and along the River Trail, you’ll come across a sign marking Anasazi pueblo ruins just below the trail. It’s a strikingly beautiful setting, but I don’t quite get why it’s there. Before Glen Canyon and other dams upriver, there was presumably a much greater flow of water through the canyon, so it seems like the pueblo would have been at least seasonally submerged, but there it is. Aqua pueblo? Someday I’ll have to ask someone about this.
Bright Angel Campground – 7.1 miles, 9:04am (2,480′)
Gorgeous campground. Nice bathroom and year-around water. Also totally shadow-locked and rather chilly during the winter morning. I hoofed it by the campground proper and up the North Kaibab Trail toward Phantom Ranch.
War of the Doeses
Okay, that’s just silly. The mule dear I found along the trail couldn’t have been less hostile if they had been taxidermied. They chewed and showed their disinterest in me and humanity in general by turning their white booty in my direction. A bit passive-aggressive, maybe, but still adorable.
Phantom Ranch (Not as Scary as it Sounds) – 7.6 miles
I’m sure this ranch and it’s cabins and water and all that is here for a very good reason, but what got me really excited is that you can get hot chocolate here year around. There’s a great little snack shop / restaurant with steamy hot cocoa, hot food, water, sun screen, and pretty much anything you might desperately need.
Feeling rather cheery after my first hot chocolate and some early lunch, I let it slip to the very mellow kid working the counter that I was — wait for it — hiking rim-to-rim. He stared at me. I raised my eyebrows. He stared some more. I wondered if he was related to the crow. At length, he said, “Oh.” That was it.
Turns out walking rim-to-rim in one day is only slightly less common than red rocks in the Canyon. People do it all the time. Some run it in less than four hours. There are tour groups that drop herds of rimmers at the North Kaibab trailhead so they can walk 22 miles to the top of Bright Angel on the South Rim and get complementary t-shirts proclaiming their accomplishment. Bah, I say. Bah!
The Way Up
On the return, passed Bright Angel Campground and back on the River Trail heading west, I walked by a helicopter pad and a very shiny helicopter thereupon. After crossing the lower, Silver Bridge and continuing west on the south side of the river, I heard the chopper fire up. The canyon was soon filled with a deafening thack-thack-thack as it rose out of the inner gorge and disappeared over the south rim of the Tonto. Slackers.
Vishnu! Zoroaster! Oh My?
The walk down the River Trail to the Bright Angel Trail junction, and then up Garden Creek and the Tapeats Narrows to the Tonto takes you through some very old rocks and, apparently further from both India and enlightenment. Rock and stone canyon layers less than a billion years old bear Native American names like “Kaibab” while layers older than a billion years are named after Indian Gods like “Vishnu”.
I stopped briefly on a granite rockfall by the river, then turned onto Bright Angel trail and headed up Garden Creek canyon. The walk from here to the Tonto plateau is pretty easy except for a set of switchbacks known as The Devils Corkscrew. Not as bad as it sounds. You then walk through narrow canyons where there are, apparently Pueblo granaries from the 1100s. I missed these entirely, but fortunately I had already made a sandwich for lunch sans mortar and pestle.
Plateau Point – 13.8 miles, 12:30pm
I had my second food break at Plateau Point, an outcropping of rock at the tip of the Tonto Platform below Bright Angel Creek canyon that offers phenomenal views of the Colorado in both directions. I had stopped here on a quick Bright Angel hike a few days earlier, and vowed to come back as often as possible. It’s touristy, but well worth it.
War of the Squirrelses
Okay, that’s even worse than the “crowses”, but the rock squirrels on the Plateau are not messing around. They run up vertical cliff faces. They grab your lunch bag in their teeth and haul off across the rocks at a blistering pace while you chase behind and try not to stumble 2,000 feet into the abyss. They distract you so the other squirrel can try to drag your entire day pack, probably about 20 pounds, in the other direction. They do this while you bring your face about six inches from theirs and ask, quite sincerely, what the hell are you thinking? Now that I think about it, I’m lucky I didn’t lose an eye. Fully 40% of all Grand Canyon fatalities are caused by squirrels. Okay, that’s totally made up, but it could be true. I swear.
Indian Garden – 15.1 miles, 1:15pm
I had done everything from Plateau Point, through Indian Garden, to the Bright Angel trailhead a few days earlier, so I’ll skip through this part pretty quickly. Get water an Indian Garden, say goodbye to the sun, and keep movin’.
The Traditional Bright Angel Bonk (TBAB)
In what is rapidly becoming a tradition for me, I totally bonked about 1.5 miles from the trailhead (just passed the Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse), almost exactly as I had days earlier. At some point, I need to figure out what that’s all about, but sufficed to say the last part of the climb was darker, colder and slower. I vowed to return and run up the last 4.6 miles and 3,000 feet of climbing. Someday…
Bright Angel Trailhead – 20 miles, 4:30pm (6,860′)
Well, hi there. Good to be back.
You finish the climb at the famous Kolb Studio building, a testament to people far tougher than myself, and then take a rew more steps to the rim proper. From there, it’s a short walk to the Bright Angel Lodge, bathrooms, and beer. You also experience a rather odd bit of culture shock, as pretty much 90% of people in the canyon below the rim are, well, anglo. About 70% of the people at the rim are Asian in one way or another. I had never realized that people were divided by elevation. Odd. And that was about the last semi-intelligent thought I had for the day.
Bright Angel Lodge Bar
I came. I ordered. I ate. If it was fried, sugary or alcoholic, odds are it passed my lips at the speed of light and formed a black hole of inescapable goodness in the chasm of my stomach. We’re talking beer, hot chocolate, multiple orders of wings, chicken tenders, onion rings, fries, more beer, more hot chocolate, some limp green vegetable thing my mom insisted on, half a hamburger and then, well, I felt strangely tired. What do you mean I have to walk back out in the cold to the car? Brrr.
Notes for Next Time
Figure out the bonking thing. Learn more about geology. See the Pueblo granaries. Walk the Tonto a bit. More electrolytes. Less clothing. Research the hike before going. And, as always, find someone to share it all with…