Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Weekend at the Grand Canyon: Day 2

Saturday, April 25, 2015
Hiking the Grand Canyon!
Bright Angel and South Kaibab Trails

Sleep did not come easy the night before our hike. I couldn't stop thinking about the canyon and what we were about to do. Once I did drift off, I had a dream that we were hiking it, and everything went smoothly and we had a great time. Then I woke up, and for a few blissful seconds I thought it really happened and I was waking up the next day, but after thinking it through I realized it was a dream and we still had to hike 20 miles. Haha.

We had breakfast in our hotel room, packed our backpacks, and bundled up in warm layers in preparation for the 20 degree weather in which we had to hike. Being from Iowa, we know a little something about walking into bitter cold and having cold, harsh winds hit your face, so as I stepped outside I braced for it... but nothing did hit me. It was perfectly comfortable 40 degree weather at 5:30am! The air was fresh and cool, there was a nice cloud cover, and the morning light was just starting to light up the sky. I knew right then that this was going to be the perfect day for hiking.

We drove to the Canyon and parked near the Bright Angel trailhead. It stayed right around 40 degrees the whole way there. I felt less concerned that I only had on a t-shirt and a jacket. I told Curtis that I didn't care what the weather did later in the day, because God gave us the perfect weather to start our hike!

Our official start time on the Bright Angel Trail was 6:15am. The parking lot was quite full, and we passed several groups in the first couple miles. One of the couples that we talked to said that their large group was hiking down to the Colorado to begin an 8 day long rafting trip. 

The sun was beginning to rise, and as it rose above the horizon, the colors of the canyon changed from shades of blue and purple to red. The clouds hung low over the canyon, making it look like the canyon went on and on past the North rim. 

Before today, we had been asking ourselves why we couldn't go on the weekend before or the weekend after, because the forecast for both of those days were predicted to be sunny and in the 70's. But as we were hiking down the canyon, we decided there was no better day to do this. I started wishing that we were able to come here much more often so that we could see the canyon in all different seasons. I know the world is huge and there is much more out there to be explored, but today was all about the Grand Canyon, and I would be totally content if I had to stay here for the rest of my life.

Our happy hiking group! :)

Hiking down the canyon was easy. Curtis and I didn't have any trouble or pain and never felt tired or hungry. But there is an important truth you must remember when hiking the Grand Canyon: What goes down must come up! There are lots of signs showing an exhausted looking stick figure man who is obviously regretting his choice to hike the canyon, and they are warning visitors to not attempt to hike down and up in a day. If you read the recommendations in the visitor's center for what to do if you have a day or several days to spend at the canyon, you won't see "Hike to the Colorado River and back!" as a suggestion. So what made us so sure we could do it? 

Our number one reason was because we had been training for over a year. We've done many strenuous hikes and have hiked over 20 miles in a day. We know our limits and we know how to prepare for such an adventure. While hiking the Grand Canyon wasn't the hardest hike we've ever done, it isn't an easy hike by any means.

So I'm not telling you to ignore the signs and do what we did. If you have the proper training and supplies for the hike, it can be done and it is truly an amazing experience. 

The Bright Angel Trail is 8 miles from the rim to the Colorado river, and another 2 to Phantom Ranch. The park really does a lot to make sure your hiking experience as safe as possible. The trail is well maintained, and about every 1.5 miles there are water refill stations, restrooms, and emergency phones. Curtis and I normally carry about 6 liters of water between the two of us - with 2 liters each in our Camelbacks, and Curtis has another 2 in a recycled pop bottle. On longer hikes like today, we'll also have a Gatorade each. However, because of the frequent water stations, we didn't worry about bringing the extra water because it would only make his pack heavier. I don't think we even finished what water we had, because the weather was cooler than what we'd normally hike in.

The canyon is basically a vertical mile from the rim to the Colorado river. While we knew that we would have to hike up 5000 feet later, we chose to not think about that and instead focus on the here and now: we were having a great hike down the deepest canyon in the world, and God had given us the perfect weather!

Another important thing to remember is that the bottom of the canyon is usually around 20 degrees warmer than the top. We've heard before that for every 1000 feet less of elevation, it will be about 5 degrees warmer. While it may be chilly on the rim, we stopped to remove layers after less than a mile on the trail.

After passing mile 3, we stopped passing people heading down the canyon, and assumed that we may now be in the lead for the day hikers. We began seeing some people heading up the canyon, presumably coming from the Indian Garden campsite.

As we descended further, we noticed that the area became greener. This shocked both Curtis and I - while neither of us had been in the canyon and didn't know what to expect, we certainly didn't think we would use the word "lush" to describe it! There were trees, bushes, and wildflowers all over. Once again, we were thankful to be here today. While we loved hiking along the Havasu Creek in the fall and enjoyed the fall colors, hiking the Grand Canyon in the spring is equally as beautiful because of how bright and fresh everything is!

A small waterfall along the trail

We reached Indian Gardens around 8. There is a campsite here, and plenty of shade and benches for hikers needing a rest. It's 5 miles on down the Bright Angel Trail, the halfway point for our hike down this morning. We stopped here for a quick snack break under a huge cottonwood tree.

Around this area, the trail is mostly flat and is a nice break from the constant switchbacking down the canyon for the first 4 miles. I can imagine it'd feel even better when you're hiking up the canyon.

Facing East

Here, about 6 miles in, we reached the end of the gorge we had been hiking through, and were greeted by beautiful, expansive views on either side. This was my favorite part of the Bright Angel Trail. After hiking through the smaller canyon and having walls on either side, I needed this reminder of how vast the canyon really is. These were the type of views that I had been looking forward to seeing! We stopped here a bit for lots of pictures:

Facing East

Facing East

Facing West

Facing West

More tiny waterfalls

These switchbacks are called the Devil's Corkscrew.

The next part of the trail descended steeply into the bottom of the canyon. There were a few parts where water from the rain yesterday was trickling down the canyon across our trail, but it wasn't too hard to avoid. This area was a lot more congested and had a lot of hikers - people heading down from the rim or Indian Garden Campsite, and people heading up from Phantom Ranch or having just finished rafting for 6 days on the Colorado River.

We came across only one mule train today. We felt like we were in a race against them to be able to reach the lowest switchback possible before having to stop and wait for them to pass.

Curtis checking out a small cave.

Once we reached the bottom of the Devil's Corkscrew switchbacks, the trail stayed relatively flat as it weaved its way through the canyon, in the last stretch before the Colorado River. I was just as anxious as I was the day we hiked to the Colorado River from Supai - with every bend, I wondered if this would be the one where we could finally see it. We were following a small stream and crossed it several times - it was never an issue because there were always enough rocks to help get across.

We came around one last corner and there it was! The beautiful green waters of the Colorado River! We walked over to the shores and took some time to enjoy this moment. We were at the river around 9:30am.

Looking back at the trail.

A couple rafts waiting for the next group of people to hop on!

We made it!!

Our second time at the Colorado after hiking through the Grand Canyon to see it!

After having some snacks, we got back on the Bright Angel Trail and followed along the river to the Suspension bridge. It was around this point where it rained on us for the first time, but only for a minute. It was rather humid at the bottom, so we were thankful for the rain which helped cool us off.

See the bridges in the distance?

Our original intention had been to hike the Bright Angel Trail down to Phantom Ranch, then back up again. It was around this point when we found out the the South Kaibab Trail was actually shorter than the Bright Angel at this point. We started wondering if we could manage to make this hike into a loop trail and take the Kaibab trail up.

Getting ready to cross!

Facing West

Taken on the middle of the bridge, on top of the Colorado River. I'll admit, I was a tiny bit nervous going over the shaky bridge with the rushing Colorado beneath my feet!

Curtis GoProing his way across :)

Facing East

Victory picture!

Walking. :)

Now standing on the North side of the Canyon! Only a tad bit more impressive than the day we hiked across the Navajo Bridge. ;)

Can you see Mitch & Julianna on the bridge? :)

The real reason Curtis and I wanted to hike 2 extra miles to make it to Phantom Ranch? For the stamp at the ranger's station, of course! Since it's illegal to plant letterboxes in the canyon, these national park stamps are what we collect to show what we've done and where we've been. This is definitely the one we worked the hardest for!

Mitch & Julianna :)

After that, we enjoyed lunch in Phantom Ranch. It was around 10:30am at this point.

Curtis eating. ;)

Between the four of us, we had a ton of food! Sandwiches, tortillas and peanut butter, dehydrated fruit, honey roasted peanuts, cookies, bars, jelly beans, chocolate covered raisins...the list goes on! We didn't eat anywhere near all of it over the course of the day, but it's always better to be safe than sorry. Besides, who doesn't love a good hiking snack? I deserved every one of those cookies I ate. (Trust me, it was a lot.)

I loved seeing this creek lined with bright green trees.

We left Phantom Ranch at 11:20am. We discussed our options for going back up the canyon - Bright Angel or South Kaibab. We had heard that the Kaibab trail was steeper, climbed more elevation, and was more exposed to the sun, but Curtis and I live by one rule when it comes to adventures: New is Always Better! (Yes, this may be taken from How I Met Your Mother, but if you ignore the reason why Barney says this, it really is an important life lesson!) And so we made the decision to part ways here: Mitch and Julianna would go back up Bright Angel, and Curtis and I would take the South Kaibab. We agreed to meet at the visitor's center at the top. This would be easily done for us thanks to the free shuttle service that runs in the park. We took our own trails, and said a prayer that we'd safely meet each other back at the top.

Before crossing back over the river, Curtis and I came across these beautiful blooming prickly pears. I hadn't ever seen the beautiful pink flowers before! If nothing else, this would have made our hike back up worth it. :)

We also enjoyed crossing the other bridge on the way to our trail!

We crossed back over the Colorado River at 11:30am. Goodbye North Rim, perhaps one day we'll get to spend more time hiking you!

The South Kaibab trail wasted no time with gaining elevation. We managed to push through the steep hike until we made it to a great overlook, and stopped for pictures. While it was steep and we were already out of breath and our hearts were pounding, we were already reaping the benefits of this new trail. Unlike Bright Angel, where the first time you see the Colorado is when you come around the corner at its level, on the South Kaibab trail, you get gorgeous views looking down on both the canyon and the river.

See our bridge way down there?

The steep, steep trail we just climbed...with still so much more to go!

We continued to hike, and stopped a little more frequently for pictures and to catch our breath. We passed a couple hikers, and only one was able to keep up with us. Even though it was steep and strenuous, I loved every step and there was no place I'd rather be. It was on this trail that I decided this national park was my favorite out of all that I've been to. The vast, expansive views, all the different layers of rock, the colors that change throughout the day - all of these make this canyon so incredibly awesome. Then you have to remember that we are really only hiking such a small part of this massive canyon. I remember the colors and waterfalls of Supai, and think about the beauty of Horseshoe Bend, and it reminds me that every part of this canyon is so unique and gorgeous. I hope that I will be able to return to this canyon many more times in my life.

As I mentioned before, the South Kaibab trail is more exposed than Bright Angel. If today had been sunny, we probably wouldn't have considered this an option, but God gave us the perfect cloud cover to be able to enjoy this trail. We are very glad we were able to hike both trails - both have so much beauty, yet are so different from each other. After enjoying the lush gardens of Bright Angel and the expansive views of the South Kaibab, we are content with all that we were able to see of the canyon (for now!). Now, if we were to ever do a trip like this again, we would start by going down Kaibab and up Bright Angel. I feel like that would be the best way, but I can't exactly recommend it until I've done it myself. Tune in later... :)

As we hiked higher and higher, the views only continued to get better. We were able to see the Colorado River as high as over halfway up the trail. I still couldn't get over how green it looked! Maybe someday we'll be able to take a raft tour so that we can grow to appreciate it even more. :)

The clouds were becoming thicker, but with every passing minute they made the canyon look different than the minute before. It always seemed to rain on us just when we needed to cool down, and never for too long. We were prepared with ponchos and an umbrella, but we never needed those while hiking.

The most "annoying" thing about this trail are these steps. They're placed just far enough apart that it's always the same foot that's stepping up. I would try to take awkwardly small or big steps to try to avoid it, but the steps just made my legs want to scream! They are also well warn by many hikers, and not as well maintained as those on the Bright Angel trail.

We also noticed that this trail had less water refill areas or restrooms. We were fine without them, but it's something to be aware of. 

There were a few flat sections in the trail, and I was very thankful whenever we came across them. We were doing great though, and managed to always hold out until an especially scenic spot before stopping.

But who am I kidding. The entire canyon is especially scenic! And I'm really trying to narrow down my pictures, I promise. ;)

As we were hiking up, the signs would face the other way so I tried to guess where we were before reading them. We were both shocked to find that we were already at Skeleton Point - 5 miles down, and only 3 to go! It was only 1:15pm at this point. We were doing great on time, considering we had planned to meet Mitch and Julianna at 5.

Skeleton Point!

A beautiful flat section of trail. :)

I remembered coming here with my family in the fall of 2012. When we visited, we walked along the rim trail, and then down a different trail into the canyon just a ways. I'm fairly certain that we took this trail down. I remember being here last time, and being completely out of breath, even on the way down. I didn't even try to compete with my siblings for "who can go the furthest down the canyon." It felt so amazing to be able to be at this point again and think about how far I've come - both today, and since 2012. I can hike!! What a wonderful blessing! :)

(By the way, to my dear siblings, if you're reading this...I win!) ;)

All too soon, we were in the final stretch to the top of the canyon. It was hard to believe we were almost done - I still hadn't wrapped my mind around the fact that we were actually doing this. I didn't need to stop for a break, but I wanted to, just to take it all in.

It was during part of the final stretch that it started hailing on us just a bit! At least that's what I think it was. It was such a peculiar form of precipitation, and it gave us a real adrenaline rush to push to the end. I fought the urge to stop to put on my jacket - we were going to make it!

Everyone say it with me: Ooh! Aah! :)

At 2:43, we reached the rim of the canyon! Almost exactly 8 and a half hours of hiking. We were thrilled...and we realized that we were freezing! It was a strange, bittersweet moment - I was ecstatic with all that we'd accomplished, yet crushed that it was already over. I wanted to do it again. Right then. I didn't care that I had just finished, I wasn't done enjoying it. This is honestly the first time that I've ever stood at the end of the hike and wished it wasn't over. Usually, I'm excited to drive home, relax, and unwind, but today I didn't feel like we should be done. Even now, I'm sitting here recalling this story, but all I want to do is go back. I'm thinking of ways I can get away with doing this again soon. Grand Canyon...I'll be back!!

We stopped to enjoy this sign telling of how the Kaibab Trail was built. In the early 1900's when the Grand Canyon became national land, the Bright Angel trail had been used by the Supai people and was then private land owned by a man. He charged people $1 each to hike down the trail. The National Park built the Kaibab trail to compete with the Bright Angel trail, until a few years later when they were able to legally own it as well.

Here are our official "end of hike" pictures. :)

We did it!! 18 miles in 8.5 hours!!

After this, we took the shuttle back to the main visitor's center. We collected our National Park stamps, then sat down inside to rest and eat cookies. We looked at a map of the park, and realized that there were 3 visitor's centers between us and the Bright Angel trail, and started to be concerned that meeting with Mitch and Julianna would be more difficult than we thought. Also, we had planned to meet at 5, and it was only 3:30 around this point. The visitor's center would close at 5. And so we decided to take the shuttle back to the Bright Angel Trailhead, and once again brave the cold and rain that was now falling outside.

This ended up to be a great decision though, because we got to see the canyon fill up with clouds! It was incredible! I stood at the trailhead waiting for them, while Curtis checked the car and the nearest visitor's center to make sure they weren't waiting for us. We left a note on the windshield just in case, then sat together at the trailhead.

The clouds moved at such a fast pace, that every minute the canyon looked a little different! It was incredible to see, and we literally watched it for an hour. This is what I mean when I say I want to see the canyon in all seasons and all different kinds of weather - while it'd be a real bummer to only see the canyon when it's filled with clouds, it's still an incredible sight and something I am so thankful I got to experience. It may have been cold and raining at the moment, but now it is worth it because of these pictures and memories I have. :)

Mitch and Julianna made it up to the top around 5. Somehow, even after seeing them a ways down the trail, we missed seeing them take a different trail to the lodge, and so Curtis went running after them while I waited at the trailhead with our things.

 It was then that the funniest moment of the day happened to me. There was a large tour group of Asians, and a guide who was speaking a different language. They were all standing by the rim listening to him, then once he finished they all began to hike down the trail a ways. However, all of them wanted a picture right at the beginning, and since I was just standing there, they all asked me to take it. I then spent the next couple minutes taking pictures of at least 20 different couples, all on their own cameras. They were all very thankful, and I really didn't mind since I was just standing there anyway. Then to say "thank you," several of them snapped pictures of me just standing there. So, if you ever happen to come across a picture of me standing awkwardly at the top of the canyon, you'll know how and why that was taken. ;)

Finally, Curtis found Mitch & Julianna, and we went back to his car and loaded up, turning on the heat. We went back to the hotel to clean up and get warm. We had planned on going to a buffet for dinner, but after showers and getting in comfy clothes we decided we weren't up for that tonight. Instead, Curtis and I went out in Tusayan to check out a pizza place and see if we could bring something back. When we went outside, it was sleeting! Praise God for holding back this weather until we were all safe and done with our hike!!

We went to We Cook Pizza and Pasta, which is just off of the main road, and discovered it was decently priced and they do carry out. We ordered a large pizza and were shocked when the cashier said it'd only be 10 minutes. We ran next door to the General Store for drinks, and came back just in time for our pizza to be ready. We ordered the Barbecue Chicken pizza with Aflredo sauce, and it was absolutely delicious! If you're in Tusayan and looking for a good restaurant, we highly recommend We Cook Pizza and Pasta. :)

And with that, our Grand Canyon adventure was over. It was such an amazing day, I wish I could relive it over and over again. 

Come back tomorrow to read about the last day of our adventure! :)

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