“You’re doing what?!” and “You are crazy people” were phrases my husband and I heard as people learned of our backpacking trip at the Grand Canyon. Five months to prepare for a three-day journey to the bottom and back in the (possibility of a) wintery March.
When the day finally arrived, I found myself thinking: “Were all these people right about us? Why are we doing this?” At the crack of dawn, sleep still in our eyes and stomachs fluttering with butterflies, we realized maybe these people were indeed right, this was nuts. Bundled up in every layer packed we shuffled our cold bodies onto the shuttle from the Backcountry Information Center to the South Kaibab trailhead. We headed out along with 30 of our closest friends (apparently all just as nuts as us) ((just kidding they were all more nuts than us as they were smiling and laughing and maybe didn’t notice that it was like 2 degrees and 6 in the morning)).
About 15 minutes and a few stories from veteran Grand Canyon backpackers later we stepped off the shuttle as the crisp morning air slapped us across the cheeks (both sets ifyouknowwhatimsayin). Good morning, am I right?
There it was, the last bathroom break til halfway down the trail. Yet, there we were, adrenaline pumping through our veins. Without a second thought (because it was WAY too early to think straight) we scurried our way toward the trail entrance. Once we had finished snapping pics we placed our (hand me down) hiking (ski) poles one right after the other as we began our descent.
It was quite the challenge trying not to face plant straight into the orange dirt/ice combo below our feet while also attempting to take in every aspect of the purple, green and red skyline above. 0.9 miles down and we were shedding layers as it began to heat up. Then, there it was, “Ooh Aah Point”… we then heard multiple “ooh’s and aah’s” right on cue from those stopped around us. Up until this point we had thought that we had seen some spectacular views of the canyon, however, it was nothing compared to what we were seeing. There were more blues, oranges, magentas and reds revealing themselves as we drew closer to the edge of the cliff. Rocks were sticking out every which way, saturated with various colors, the skyline stretching on for miles. 20-pound backpacks were no longer noticeable with views so breathtaking. A few snapshots and snacks later we were headed back on our path towards the bottom.
*pictured below is ‘Ooh Aah Point'”
Six and a half miles (and a few hours) later I started to hear a rumble and couldn’t pin whether it was coming from CJ’s stomach or mine. As we turned the corner, the brown, murky water from the Colorado River caught my eye; I then realized it wasn’t our stomachs growling, but the majestic river below. Calves aching, sweat droplets falling from our faces, we began moving faster as we knew our campground was only a half mile away. Our last true obstacle was a swaying, hanging bridge positioned directly above the river.
Alas, 300 pictures and four and a half hours later we had arrived at the Bright Angel Campground.
The Bright Angel campground is on a first come first serve basis, and seeing as CJ and I had arrived fairly early in the day, we had the luxury of choosing any site location we desired. We decided on a site that was near the bathroom, but not too close that we heard or smelt what was going on in there. Large boulders and hanging limbs of surrounding trees gave us the shade we had craved in the 80-degree heat. Other site options included locations close to the singing stream, or near the entrance of the campground.
Planned far enough in advance, reservations can be made at the Phantom Ranch Canteen for dinner. Phantom Ranch is a rustic lodge at the bottom of the canyon and around a half mile from Bright Angel campground. Instead, we opted for a quick dinner of backpacker astronaut food and more exploration of the Colorado River.
There was a “beach” not far from the campground with a view of the metal hanging bridge we had crossed earlier, where rafters and kayakers on the Colorado stop for lunchtime breaks on their day trips. CJ and I explored the area sans packs to check out the scenery. Though my husband often finds himself cannonballing into any water he encounters, the Colorado was a bit colder and browner than he was willing to submerge himself into. Instead, we found ourselves walking just far enough that the water reached our ankles, and then hightailed it out once our toes went numb. We continued this process until the water finally reached our knees. At which point we decided we had better eat and rest. Later that evening we moseyed over to Phantom Ranch Canteen for a few nighttime beers and Oreos, we also sent postcards to family that were delivered via mule, post marked “Sent from a Mule at the bottom of the Grand Canyon”.
Lucky for me, my husband spent most of our first night in and out of the tent puking his guts out after washing down his Oreos with one too many beers. Great combo. My night consisted of rubbing CJ’s back and thinking of ways we would be transported to the top if he weren’t able to make a full recovery. While it would have been a thrill to ride in a helicopter, CJ felt much better once the sun said good morning. To this day he calls it “a puke and rally for the record books.” Though feeling better he refused to eat the clumpy, dry milk and blueberry granola backpacking astronaut food mixture, much to my dismay. While he munched on Cliff Bars, I forced down a meal even the squirrels wouldn’t come near. Post breakfast we began our four and a half mile trek to Indian Garden Campground, our second pit stop.
Most of our second day was in the shade, however, there was one particular stretch where the sun beat down into our soul and the zig-zag up the side of the bluff seemed never ending. If it weren’t for that particular stretch our hike would have (joyously) consisted of flat ground, waterfalls, streams… and the best part, shade. Within four hours we arrived at our campground and were feeling pretty good about ourselves.
Indian Garden campground is four and a half miles below the rim, making it much more populated compared to Bright Angel campground. After chowing down on our backpacking astronaut mac n cheese and handfuls of M&M’s we decided we would take an extra ‘side’ hike to Plateau Point for the sunset. Our bonus hike was purely flat land, and less strenuous without our packs.
*above is the trail from Indian Garden to Plateau Point*
As we journeyed onward the patches of purple cacti lining our path mesmerized me, something I had never seen before. There were also many deer along our path; we tried not to spook them as we clumped past them in our heavy-duty boots. Upon our arrival at Plateau Point, we noticed other groups who were also waiting around for the sunset. A few moments later the sky began to turn variations of cotton candy colors while the Colorado River raged on below.
Even though we were worn out from two days of hiking, our bonus hike was just what we needed to get the ol’ legs ready for the final stretch. To say that we slept well that night would be an understatement–thank the good Lord there was no beer for CJ at this campsite.
The final leg of our journey saw ever-changing scenery… from trees and waterfalls to snow slowly melting along each rock edge. Breaks were a necessity for us if we wanted to make it to the top mentally stable (the elevation gain is 3800 feet and man was I huffing and puffing)… though this was where my husband and I differed on viewpoints. At the 1.5 mile marker we met up with Bart, CJ’s dad, and from then on out CJ was total gung-ho. He wanted to speed the rest of the way and finish our hike, and yet, there I was panting at every step. Saying prayers that a pack of mules would walk by so I could strap my limp body and hitch a ride to the top. However, through it all, CJ was my rock. He was my travel buddy that positively reinforced my abilities and pushed me up the mountain both figuratively and literally throughout our three day journey.
Nearing the top Bart scurried off ahead so he could snap pictures of the moment we completed our grand adventure. All I could think about was stepping into a hot shower and then flailing my body onto a comfy bed. FINALLY, after three long, strenuous beautiful days we crossed the ‘finish line’ and Bart captured the moment we conquered the Grand Canyon.
The next few days we found ourselves walking with limps and sore legs, and yet, it was merely a reminder of the journey we had just taken together. There’s nothing quite like a three day isolated backpacking trip to strengthen a relationship. Our final night at the rim of the canyon we watched the sunset and grabbed a juicy steak and heaps of mashed potatoes at El Tovar restaurant with Bart and shared our adventure of conquering the Grand Canyon.