The Grand Canyon – 5 Days Below the Rim (Fall ’19)

What do you say when a friend calls and asks if you’d be interested in hiking the trails of the Grand Canyon? “Why, yes of course,” I said, forgetting to ask about details before agreeing. It didn’t occur to me to inquire about the particulars such as duration, miles per day, or even specific dates. None of that mattered. I am a hiker at heart and haven’t been to the Grand Canyon for more than a decade. My calendar was cleared and I was already mentally putting together an equipment list.

I’m not sure where the tradition came from. Trail hikers, in particular, Appalachian Trail hikers and Pacific Trail hikers all have trail names. Presumably trail names are given to a person by fellow hikers while out in the wild. One-Mile, who earned his trail name on day three, took on the role of guide due to his vast experience and genuine passion for anything and everything that can be learned about the Grand Canyon. He procured our permit, organized an itinerary, and headed up the logistics to ensure all 5 of us in the party were able to convene at the South Rim of Grand Canyon the evening before we set out. Paratus was the only member of the party I’d ever hiked with but knew right away that an outing with One-Mile, Big-Foot, and Chair was going to be epic.

The last hours of daylight warned that if we wanted to reconnoiter and view some of our route from the rim, we’d need to get a move on. My first look at the Grand Canyon was breath taking, awe inspiring, and all the other words one could come up with to cover the mix of emotions one experiences when facing the immensity and scale of so much nature in one view.

The Geologic Museum on the South Rim was the perfect place to gain some orientation. It was still open when we arrived, giving us a chance to trace our route on the enormous raised relief model, which sits in the center of the museum.

Our route had us departing from the Hermit Rest trailhead, down along a ridge to the Colorado Plateau (more of a long accordant terrace), where we would join the Tonto Trail and traverse and wind to the East before looping back up the Bright Angel trail. Our itinerary included a couple of side trips as well.

From the rim that first evening, we were able to see the section of the Bright Angle we’d be hiking on the last of our 5-day outing. The encampment at Indian Garden looked close enough, but the vertical distance was tremendous. Due to the immediate drop at the rim, I couldn’t see the trail leading up from Indian Garden. I couldn’t even imagine how it was possible for a trail to cling anywhere in the vicinity, to the steep walls of the canyon.

As we continued our reconnaissance along the rim, we stopped at a spot just above a place aptly named “the Abyss.” Though it was possible to see portions of the Tonto trail winding along the plateau thousands of feet below, there was no trail going up or down. The Abyss is a sheer wall of sandstone that terminates some 4,000 feet below the rim. Here we watched the sun set and toasted to a successful and enjoyable hike.

The next morning while waiting for the shuttle bus to take us to the Hermit Rest trailhead, I told One-Mile that my 60th summer 2020 was on the near horizon, and I was planning to thru-hike the John Muir Trail (JMT). One-Mile said he’d just come off a section of the JMT the month prior and that we should strategize about equipment, mileage and such. Paratus was standing next to me, his pack resting next to One-Mile’s on the bus stop bench. I’ve known him for almost 30 years. Paratus is a thinker and per his Latin trail name is always prepared. He does everything right and when he is unfamiliar, he defers to the experts. Paratus’s pack is a carbon copy of One-Miles, down to every detail including three one liter “Smart Water” bottles used for storage and filtering.

I bantered with Chair and Big-foot on the 20 minute bus ride to the trailhead. Bigfoot lives in Las Vegas not too far from One-Mile. Together, they’d done a few other trips, but this was Big-foot’s first in the canyon. Chair is Big-Foot’s cousin, his pack is bigger than everyone else’s. Having lead several Boy Scout trips, Chair is used to having to carry extra things and didn’t seem concerned about extra weight.

When we got off the bus, it felt like we were getting a late start at 9:30 am. The chill of the October air had already been replaced with arid warmth. One must stay hydrated when doing anything in an environment like this one. We topped off our water bottles at the top of Hermit’s Rest, hefted our packs, grabbed trekking poles and set off down the trail. Those first easy steps were quickly transformed by terrain that demanded ones attention.

At 59 years old, my joints don’t handle impact very well. I don’t think I could hike Hermit’s Rest trail or any like it without my trekking poles. Within the first mile, we were spread out along the trail, each at his own pace. I found myself comfortably stair stepping down the steep terrain at the back of the line and nearly stepped on what looked like a fake Halloween spider. Only it wasn’t. This one was big, black, fuzzy and moving ever so slightly on an exposed rock in the middle of the trail. I hailed everyone back so they could look at the spider. Not because I thought they’d find it interesting, rather for my own sake, “you should have seen the huge spider I nearly stepped on…!”

For most of the morning, the switchback trail was sheltered from direct sun exposure by walls of the South rim. Half way down Hermit trail, there is a fresh water spring draining into a trough. There wouldn’t be another water source until we reached Monument Creek, so we filtered and topped off our water bottles.

After a long descent, we arrived at the junction of the Hermit and Tonto trails, where we found ourselves hiking beneath a blazing sun without any cover. Though temperature of the October air doesn’t come close to what it would be in July, all of us felt the additional toll it took on our energy reserves, slowing our pace for the later half of the first day’s hike. I carry an ultra-light hiking umbrella for such occasions, but we found ourselves hiking in a rather stiff fall wind, so the umbrella was of no use.

The Tonto trail snakes its way along the contours of the canyon. A couple hours on the Tonto and our party was stretched out, each of us meditatively solo hiking. We all reconstituted at the top of a short steep descent named the Cathedral Staircase, reminiscent of the kind of steep spiral staircase one might encounter in the bell tower of a medieval European cathedral. By the time we reached the bottom, we were at the base of the Abyss, the wall we’d looked down over the evening before.

The final miles lead us around the corner of a landform that shaded us from the early evening sun. I was surprised to see so many other groups of hikers at the designated camp area of Monument Creek. All of us had exhausted the contents of our water bottles, so once we located a passable camp spot (there were only a few left), we filtered water for rehydrating both ourselves, and our freeze-dried dinners.

I could tell Chair and Big-foot were happy to shed their packs. Chair got his name after we discovered that he’d carried a folding camp chair along with his essentials, which explained why his pack was heavier than everyone else’s. Chair places high value on camp comfort, so we teased him relentlessly over the knowledge that eventually he’ll be lugging it up the Bright Angle.

Each of us located flat sandy spots big enough for tents/shelters. The evening air was dry and warm, so I elected to cowboy camp atop a Gortex bivy bag. I had to admit I felt weary from the day’s exertion. I didn’t anticipate how difficult hiking in the Grand Canyon could be. My weariness was remedied once we’d pitched camp and One-Mile prepared guacamole and chips for all of us to share while boiling up water for dinners.

When you are deep in the Grand Canyon, down in a ravine with a semi-dry creek running through it, and the sun dips below the rim, darkness comes in stages. The final stage feels like a light switch is suddenly flipped off. Stars twinkle and within a quarter of an hour the sky is painted with astral dust. The only sources of light in camp are the glow from cooking stoves and the occasional red beam from someone’s headlamp.

With the exception of Chair, who sat in his chair, the rest of us sat on flat rocks in a circle around someone’s camp stove. I was so tired from the hike and my knees cried out for me to get up from the low rock and stretch out flat on my bivy. It felt heavenly to lay there looking up at the dark sky speckled with stars.

Moments later I heard voices and a rustling of critters followed shortly by Paratus and One-Mile shuffling their way toward my location. One-Mile was chuckling and said something to Paratus, I thought it might have had to do with my meager sleep system. Moments later I find out what they were talking about was the skunk they’d chased out of our camp area. One-Mile was torn between the humor of the situation and concern over what might happen if the thing had sprayed someone.

Paratus settled into his tent and before either of us fell asleep, we heard sounds of critters everywhere, including a rustling near our packs. We both got up, re-assessed what we had in our Ursaks and went through everything else, to include trash, Luna Bar wrappers, empty zip locks that held trail mix, etc. All of this we added to our Ursaks. With that chore complete, the sounds of nature settled into a rhythm permitting a restful sleep. That is until I awoke in the dim light of early dawn. When I looked up into the low tree branches above me I saw several little mice running through the branches the way squirrels usually do.

As the morning light flooded the camp, the mice disappeared. By the time we were all up and about finishing breakfast, the other hikers camped nearby had since left. We immediately relocated to the best site in Monument Creek. With everything in order, we stuffed water bottles and lunch snacks into our daypacks and headed down to Granite Rapids. The 3-mile hike out and back followed the creek bed down to the Colorado River.

We spent the day dowsing ourselves in the river and lounging on a beach by a calm stretch of water. This late in the season, there was very little river traffic. We saw one group of kayaker’s supported by a team of rafts. Big-Foot earned his trail name when we discovered he was keeping his blisters to himself. We heard no complaints from happy go lucky Big-Foot. One-Mile came to the rescue to assist Big-Foot with some preventative treatment.

We arrived back at camp in the shady light of early evening. Big-Foot provided each of us with two “minis” of our choice for a happy hour. We decided we’d do a happy hour with one of them at Monument Creek, and save the other for Indian Garden.

With a nice buzz going, by the time we were finished with our respective dinners, the sky was dark and the stars were popping with a brightness only found in the remotest places humans travel. We spent the next hour or so star gazing and spotting satellites before the cold of the night drove us into the warmth of our sleeping bags.

The Monument Creek campsite is situated about 400 vertical feet below a ledge with a set of steep switchbacks leading up to the Colorado Plateau and the Tonto trail. Anticipating the high temperatures of the day, we headed out at first light to cover as much distance on the Tonto as possible before the relentless sun could do its work.

The Tonto twists and turns its way in and out of the various landforms making up the intermediate depths of the Grand Canyon. There are no safe water sources between us, and Indian Garden, so each of us was weighed down with at least 3 liters. There is majesty to the canyon. The way natural light casts contrasting hues of color against the blue sky of an Arizona morning can only happen in such a place. I overheard Paratus and One-Mile conversing in a low tone. “Desperation,” said Paratus. That is what he told One-Mile he was feeling amidst the formidable terrain of the inner canyon.

There is enough lore regarding the unforgiving nature of the landscape in Grand Canyon to fill thick books. In fact there is a book titled, “Death in the Canyon,” that catalogues nearly all the canyon’s fatalities to date.

One-Mile related several of the stories of hikers and runners who’d over estimated their capabilities and underestimated the environment. Some fell, some simply lost their way and died of dehydration. The moment harkened back to the pre-departure safety briefing that One-Mile gave us before setting off on the Hermit trail. “There is no easy way to obtain assistance while in the canyon,” he said. Paraphrased, he told us there would be places we’ll be traveling where, even with rescue underway, an injured person may land in grave danger and become a danger to the entire party.

One-Mile is a self-reliant hiker. Having solo hiked the canyon on occasion, One-Mile is familiar with and manages risk with a cool head. Though I personally enjoy being completely unplugged while out in nature, I recognize the value of incorporating technology where it makes sense. One-Mile carries a Garmin In Reach and solar charger. It has a capability of sending status reports, lat/longs, and other data via satellite. It serves as a piece of mind, not just for the members of the party but for the loved ones back home to know that all is well at the end of each day’s hiking.

In the later hours of the morning, the inescapable sun began to do its work. I was very glad I had the portable shade of my umbrella. I tried strapping it to my pack so that I might be able to use my trekking poles, but the trail wound around and around resulting in changing sun angles while I hiked. The trail on the plateau was smooth enough that I stowed the trekking poles in favor of shade. It was a good decision. I was in my own world at my own pace hiking the remaining miles into Indian Garden.

Indian Garden sits in an oasis at the junction of the Tonto and Bright Angel trails. It is a busy place, overwhelmingly busy after hiking the Tonto. Even though our permit guaranteed us a site, I discovered there were only two left. Since I was the first to arrive, I staked out the better one for our group. The others arrived a little while later. All of us were exhausted from the trek in the sun. After pitching camp, One-Mile suggested a swimming/bathing spot nearby, “maybe a mile,” he said. Reflecting on the reconnoitering I did on the way into camp, I couldn’t imagine a spot on the creek big enough to immerse in, so I elected to clean up in the shallow stream near our camp and remain behind. The truth is, I was exhausted and had no desire to put my boots back on.

One-Mile got his trail name because after the hot dusty trek, the others lusted for the opportunity to immerse in the swimming hole that One-Mile spoke of. I didn’t see the four of them until the sun began to set and that wasn’t because everyone enjoyed bathing for an extended period. The short out and back one-mile hike wasn’t quite the case either.

This scenario reminded me of my surfing days. Surfers standing on the shore assessing a set of large waves peeling over a reef, will often state the wave height as follows: “looks like maybe 5-6 feet,” when in reality the wave heights are in the teens. So long as one doesn’t have to paddle out to experience their power, it is a way to sound cool. However, One-Mile isn’t that kind of guy. He just wanted to share with his friends, every aspect of the canyon that he loves.

The evening at Indian Garden began with a happy hour. Each of us consumed our second “mini,” which Big-Foot” so graciously provided (though we carried our own). Before turning in, One-Mile produced a miniature deck of cards and we let him slaughter us in a few hands of Hearts.

There is nothing quite as wonderful as a restful sleep after a day of exertion. I cowboy camped atop the picnic table beneath the open shelter and looked forward to waking refreshed the following morning. What I didn’t know was just how quiet mule deer can be. Our packs were hung well out of reach of critters and our Ursaks were stowed in the metal bear box provided by the park service. What could go wrong? It might have been the heavy breathing coming from deer nostrils that stirred my sleep. I woke startled by the face of a juvenile buck slurping its tongue inches from my face. Fearless and almost domesticated, we saw an entire family of these animals living in Indian Garden.

Regardless, I was well rested and so was everyone else. I can’t quite remember how far One-Mile said our hike down to Phantom Ranch and back was going to be, but actual distance had to have added up to a bit more. We hiked down the “Devil’s Cork Screw.” At the bottom Paratus struck up a conversation with a man picking up trash off the trail. He was wearing a “Retired Air Force” hat. Generally, the trails and campsites in the Canyon are free of signs that people had been there. However the Bright Angel is the most traveled in the canyon. The final stretch at the bottom clung to a sheer rock wall on the southern bank of the Colorado. Soon there were two bridges leading across to the settlement at Phantom Ranch.

With a little luck and reasonable fee, you can make a reservation, ride a mule down, and stay at Phantom Ranch. There are several small cabins and a communal dinning room with a small convenience shop with postal service included. Unless you’re staying at the ranch, full meals aren’t available. We were, able to procure a beer, some snacks, a fresh apple, and postcards. I wrote/sent one to my wife which was stamped on the back, “Delivered by mule from the bottom of the Grand Canyon.” The label on the IPA beer that I drank had a map of the rim-to-rim trail drawn on it.

Rested and having consumed one beer, some salami and apple for sustenance, we filled our water bottles and headed back up to Indian Garden. Paratus and I hiked up the Devil’s Cork Screw together. Paratus peeled off at the one-mile swimming hole, which is more like two miles from Indian Garden, and waited for the others.

Hiker midnight comes at around 9 pm. Our little camp was asleep by mid-night. Our final day in the canyon consisted of 4.5 miles of elevation gain back up to the South Rim. Big-Foot and Chair hit the trail just prior to sunrise. Chair wanted some additional leeway to catch an early flight back to his working world. The rest of us followed about a half hour later. We all wanted to be at the top before the sun could do its work.

The stretch of trail between Indian Garden and the rim is divided into mile-and-a-half sections with rest shelters, vault toilets, and water at Three-mile House, Mile-and-a-half House, and Indian Garden at the bottom. On the way up, we blew by the first stop. Halfway up I was feeling every switchback. The trail itself was surprisingly smooth. Just before reaching Mile-and-a-half House, we ran into a pack train of people riding mules. On the way up, we also saw evidence of some trail maintenance.

One-Mile and I were feeling a bit smug about completing our adventure without returning with any uneaten food. Paratus chimed in and admitted he still had a couple sealed packs of tuna and a fresh zip lock full of trail mix. From the bushes below the shelter came a voice, “I’ll take it if you don’t need it,” he said. Within moments, a young guy with long hair and a quirky tick vaulted up the steep stairs leading to the stone hut. The young man was seasonally employed by Mercy Corps and headed a trail work party made up of at risk youth.

Less than an hour later we were standing on the top of the South Rim and within minutes were greeted by Chair and Big-Foot, who had enough time to retrieve their vehicle and stow their packs. Both of them already looked refreshed and ready for anything. One-Mile then offered to buy everyone a celebratory ice cream before we went our separate ways. In all, we had a successful and fulfilling adventure.

The author, (Professor), Scott H. (One-Mile), and Mike C. (Paratus), are former USAF colleagues. Chuck S. (Big-Foot), Scott and Mike are pilots for Southwest Airlines and John M. (Chair) is an Attorney from Ohio. The author still isn’t sure how he got his trail-name.

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