Backpacking the Grand Canyon in Winter

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Always feel a sense of accomplishment after packing 4-days of food, clothing, and housing. Our group of six had mostly clear sailing on I-40 past Oklahoma City and on to the Grand Canyon in spite of recent snow. We were ready to burn some Christmas calories!

My pack weighed in at 27 lbs. without water.  Anything below 30 pounds is where I like it.  I was afraid my Equinox backpack wouldn’t hold up when I purchased it five years ago but it is still going strong which pleases me given its light weight.

Dale pack

This is Dale’s pack which came in at 29 lbs. without water.

We began our hike into the Grand Canyon on the South Kaibab Trail on Dec. 28th.  We spent two nights at Bright Angel Camp Ground which allowed some time to explore Clear Creek Trail.  Then we hiked to Indian Gardens and camped one night before hiking up Bright Angel Trail on our final day.

Roads were mostly clear from Alma to Gallup, New Mexico.  The first falling snow we saw was in Gallup.  A highlight of the day was our dinner at WOW Diner in Grants, NM.  It had lots of character, good service, and an interesting location sandwiched between a truck stop and federal prison.   Our appreciation goes out to Scott for the amazing marathon driving and arranging hotel rooms for us.

The WOW Diner

The WOW Diner

Backcountry Office scale

Backcountry Office scale

After a night at Maswik Lodge on the South Rim, we caught the hiker express shuttle to the South Kaibab Trailhead.  We were pleased that all packs came in at about thirty pounds including food for four days and water to get us down South Kaibab Trail.

South Kaibab Trail

South Kaibab Trail

The hike down was beautiful.  Beginning temps were in the low teens warming up into the 40s by the river.

View toward inner canyon from the South Kaibab Trail

View toward inner canyon from the South Kaibab Trail

Black bridge tunnel

Black bridge tunnel

Moon rise from the Colorado River

Moon rise from the Colorado River

It was a thrill to watch the moon rise and reflections of moonlight on the canyon walls.  The only picture I could get was this one just prior to the moon peaking over the walls.  My tripod was the black bridge.   Probably about a 6-8 second exposure.

Along side of Clear Creek Trail

Along side of Clear Creek Trail

The dayhike on Clear Creek Trail was a joy.  Interesting rock formations every step of the way and sweeping views of the river and inner canyon.  I hope to return and camp in the Clear Creek area in the future.

The Colorado River and South Rim as viewed from the Clear Creek Trail

The Colorado River and South Rim as viewed from the Clear Creek Trail

Bright Angel Creek

Bright Angel Creek

Our constant companion while camping at the bottom of the canyon was the soothing sound from Bright Angel Creek, named by John Wesley Powell.  It is clean, clear, and cold.

Wayne Ranney with Scott at Phantom Ranch

Wayne Ranney with Scott at Phantom Ranch

Scott was reading a book from the Phantom Ranch lending library when he discovered that the author, Wayne Ranney, was present.  Wayne, geology professor in Flagstaff, and his wife were hiking the canyon.  Carving the Canyon is a great book for those wanting to better understand how the canyon came into its present form.   The writing style is entertaining and makes difficult concepts more easily understood by non-scientists like me.

The hike up Bright Angel Trail was quite a climb.  Devil’s Corkscrew was an appropriate name for this series of switchbacks.  The overall vertical gain in elevation from the river to the rim of the canyon is over 5,000 feet which we covered in two days of hiking.

Devil's Corkscrew on Bright Angel Trail

Devil’s Corkscrew on Bright Angel Trail

The Grand Canyon is massive and literally overwhelms the eyes, but you’ll find unexpected beauty and interest as you narrow your focus to take in smaller scenes.  There were several locations where ice crystals formed over gently flowing water.  I like to call them ice puddles.

Ice puddle along the trail.

Ice puddle along the trail

Clear water shimmered over rocks in a small portion of Pipe Creek.

Pipe Creek

Pipe Creek

From Indian Gardens Campground we hiked out to Plateau point where a condor seemed to enjoy putting on a show for us.  A park employee named Shores had told us we might see a condor here but we never imagined we’d get such a performance.  His tag number was L4.  The introduction of condors into the park seems to be having some success.

Condor at Plateau Point

Condor at Plateau Point

Condor at Plateau Point

Condor at Plateau Point

Several deer were grazing close to the trail as we passed on our way back to the Indian Gardens Camp Ground.

Mule Deer

Mule Deer

Dusk at Indian Gardens

Dusk at Indian Gardens

After dinner I roamed the area and took some relaxing photographs as darkness came over the canyon.  Our last night in the canyon we had 1-2 inches of snow.

Bright Angel Trail

Bright Angel Trail

Our last morning we hiked up Bright Angel Trail in a winter wonderland.  In fact, we sang this tune softly as we came out of our tents.

View while hiking up Bright Angel Trail

View while hiking up Bright Angel Trail

I found myself walking slower and slower, not from the climb,  from a desire to make the experience last longer;  I didn’t want it to end.  Every few minutes I’d stop and stare as the clouds and light changed our view back into the canyon.  For a few minutes the canyon appeared through a “cloud frame.”

View from close to the top of Bright Angel Trail

View from close to the top of Bright Angel Trail

We topped out on the South Rim sooner than I’d expected at the end of day four.  The hike out didn’t seem as difficult as in the past.  Pictures and words fail in the presence of the Grand Canyon.  As one day hiker said, “I ran out of adjectives a long time ago.”  The sun sparkled as it reached the edges of stone bluffs while clouds seemed to dance and bend gracefully as they roamed freely around the upper canyon.  As soon as I reached the Kolb Studio on the rim I began to mentally plan a future trip into the Grand Canyon.

A word about our crew.  Couldn’t be a better group to backpack with.  We represent a variety of career backgrounds, skills, and I suspect, a variety of political and philosophical views, but we’re united in our love for the outdoors and appreciation of our beautiful planet.   I can also provide character references for any of these gentlemen because backpacking tends to reveal character flaws that may not be obvious in day-to-day activities.  I can recommend each of these guys without hesitation!

The Grand Canyon Crew

The Grand Canyon Crew

Video and slideshow which includes an amusing summary of things not to pack.

7 thoughts on “Backpacking the Grand Canyon in Winter

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