I had the good fortune this Spring to be able to travel to Arizona and backpack for ten days in the Grand Canyon. My original plan was to do a one week North Rim trip with a guiding company, but I decided to add a 3 day solo trip to take in the South Rim as well. This is an account of my solo trip.

Grand Canyon
Sunset on the South Rim

Access to the canyon is typically available through Flagstaff Arizona on Route 66 where a regular shuttle service picks up from the Amtrak station downtown. The drive up to South Rim Village takes just under two hours, and the shuttle drops off at all of the hotels in the village. I chose the Bright Angel Lodge, which is one of the historic hotels on the Rim and, due to the elevation, enjoyed a beautiful cool night before my hike.

The park service runs free shuttle buses all along the South Rim to the various trailheads, the information center, trail store and the ranger station. Several early shuttles run express to the South Kaibab trailhead, which, along with the Bright Angel trail (starting immediately beside the hotels in the Village), is one of the two main access trails from the South Rim in what is called the corridor.

Grand Canyon
The Colorado River from the Redwall

I arrived at the trailhead at 9:00 am and filled up my water bottles and bladders at the pump and added them to my backpack for a total weight of 30 lbs. There is no water available on the South Kaibab, so carrying at least three liters for the 7.5 mile hike (descending 4700’) is essential.

From the South Rim the night before, I had wondered how there could be a trail down what appeared to be near vertical rock walls. Although there was a trail, the near vertical part was still true!  The trail, which first descended down Pipe Creek Canyon through the Kaibab Limestone and Toroweap Formation to the aptly named Ooh-ahh Point, was steep and narrow with wooden logs set into the trail for footing. The trail then rounded Yaki Point, which is visible from the Village, and the views of the eastern canyon opened up. After hiking down through the Coconino Sandstone layer I took a break at Cedar Ridge where shade trees and restrooms are available.

Grand Canyon
Cedar Ridge

Canyon hiking is, at first, difficult to understand because, unlike typical mountain hiking, you effectively begin at the top of the mountain where it is cool and you hike to the bottom where it is warm.  As the signs say along the trail, “Down is optional but up is mandatory.”  What the temperature change meant to me was that I began the morning in the low fifties with a light layer on and, by early afternoon as I neared the bottom, the temperatures had gone up to the mid-nineties.  This is where sunblock, sunglasses, a broad brimmed hat and lots of water made sense. I spoke to a ranger at Cedar Ridge and he told me of a rescue made necessary when an exhausted hiker made it to the river after seven miles downhill only to realize that the hard part, the ascent, still had to be done.

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South Kaibab Mule Train

The Hermit Shale, Supai Supergroup and the steep Redwall layers (as well as two ascending mule trains) remained before the Colorado river footbridge after about 4 hours of hiking.

Grand Canyon
Upper Footbridge – South Kaibab Trail

Two foot bridges cross the river, one at the end of the South Kaibab, and the other downriver at the start of the Bright Angel Trail.

The Bright Angel Campground (2400’) and the Phantom Ranch (2460’) are on the other side of the river, and the North Kaibab Trail continues past the ranch and onward up to the North Rim.  A popular hike is Rim to Rim via the South and North Kaibab Trails with a shuttle available for the five hour drive back to the South Rim. That hike is typically divided by either a stay at the Phantom Ranch in the bunkhouses or at the Bright Angel Campground where I had reserved a site.

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Switchbacks on the Bright Angel Trail

The Park Service controls camping in the canyon through a permit system for campsites.  All sites open up on the first day of the month, three months ahead of when you want to camp.  It’s a lottery system, and demand usually runs about 10:1 for requests against available sites.  I was able to get sites at Bright Angel and Indian Garden, which is on the 9.3 mile Bright Angel Trail at roughly the half-way point to the rim.

Bright Angel campground— on Bright Angel Creek, which flows into the Colorado— is a green oasis downstream from the Phantom Ranch.  The Ranch has a canteen, which serves cold drinks and snacks as well as meals, which must be booked well in advance. While relaxing in the canteen with a few cold Amber Ales from the Grand Canyon Brewing Company and writing postcards for mule delivery, I couldn’t think of a better ending for a long, hot day out.

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Phantom Ranch

That evening, I went to a ranger talk on early canyon photographers and then went back to my tent as the wind picked up— as it does when the sun goes down in the canyon. The loose talcum powder red sandstone flew about and I experienced my first gritty teeth of the trip (the novelty wore off after a week or so!) and then later, a gritty dinner and a slightly gritty sleeping bag. The next morning I was talking to two hikers who had slept out and had woken up completely covered with sand. My decision to pack a small tent turned out to be a good one.

Early the next morning I set out down river to the Bright Angel Bridge.  The trail in the morning was, fortunately, in the shade, and so my 1400’ hike up to Indian Garden (3875’) was cool and comfortable. Indian Garden, like the Phantom Ranch, is located on a year round water supply, which produces lush greenery and giant cottonwood trees. The Garden is visible from the South Rim as a green teardrop shape down both sides of the creek that runs through the campground. Massive rock walls surround the campground on three sides with the fourth side looking down canyon towards the Colorado River. A worthwhile evening hike from the campground is out and back to Plateau Point (3 miles round trip) where a large boulder formation ends the point from which you can look down 1300’ to a double bend in the river. If you are hiking down from the rim and back, this is one of the first places where you can see the beautiful aquamarine Colorado River without going all the way to the bottom.

After fighting off the rock squirrels who hang around the campground, I zipped up my tent for a cooler night than I had spent at Bright Angel lower down.

Grand Canyon
Along the Plateau Point Trail

The trail out to the rim in the morning became steeper and steeper as I climbed higher, ending in a series of switchbacks to the Village, one of which was a short tunnel through an outcropping.

I arrived back on top just before lunch and had that satisfactory feeling among the tourists of having actually descended below the rim and slept overnight.  It turns out that despite the near 5 million visitors to the Grand Canyon, less than one percent get down to the Colorado River and of that, only 35,000 sleep out.

Overall I think I carried the right gear, packed enough camera batteries and prepared well by training hard before the trip.  My total hiking time was roughly 5+ hours the first day, 8 the second, including the hike out to Plateau Point, and 3 the last day. Overall, not long days; however, without the training, I think that my times and enjoyment levels would have been quite different.  The short solo trip certainly set me up well for the canyoneering week that followed off the North Rim.

With extra time, I would have spent an additional day at the bottom either at Bright Angel or part way up the North Kaibab at Cottonwood Camp before returning up the Bright Angel.  Booking dinner in advance at the Ranch or even accommodation would also have been something to plan for.  I will be going back in the future to try the Rim to Rim hike.

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