Weekly Photo Challenge: In the Background

Early morning South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon

Early morning South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon

I took this photo while hiking down the South Kaibab Trail into the Grand Canyon as one of my buddies stood in awe.  Part of the irresistible draw of the Grand Canyon is that you fade into the background and become insignificant and small in the face of incomprehensible beauty.

Seeking Something Grand

View at dusk the evening we arrived at the South Rim.

View at dusk the evening we arrived at the South Rim.

The perfect antidote…

Need a remedy for that lethargic feeling you get during the winter months?  Here’s an antidote that works for me.  The plan?  Assemble a group of good friends and hike one of the natural wonders of the world:  The Grand Canyon. 

The Grand Canyon Crew

The Grand Canyon Crew

Our crew included father/son duo, Scott and Boone Hardy, Bob Cable, Steve Cattaneo, and Dale Fudge.  We came from a variety of career backgrounds but were united in our love for the beauty of the outdoors.  We’d backpacked the Ozark Mountains together but this would be a more involved outing.  A trip of this type is only as good as each participant.   By the time you’ve spent a few days backpacking with someone, you know if there are major character flaws.   I could vouch for each of these guys and knew they would work well together.

Directions for getting to the canyon are easy; drive west to Williams, Arizona then north.   Directions for being ready to enter the Grand Canyon are a little more complicated.  We completed training hikes and runs for conditioning.  We requested backcountry permits four months in advance and waited nervously until approved.  We combed through piles of backpacking gear in repeated attempts to eliminate all but the most essential items.  I felt a great sense of accomplishment after packing four days of food, clothing, and shelter in under thirty pounds.

Weighing packs at the Back Country Office

Weighing packs at the Back Country Office

Too much weight could be a trip-ender while attempting to hike up the nearly 5,000-foot elevation gain from river to rim, the equivalent of climbing more than 500 office building floors while covering miles of uneven terrain and ever-changing conditions in winter.  As Bob said, “There’s no such thing as bad weather… just the wrong clothes.  Pack wisely.”  A small percentage of the nearly five million visitors who see the Grand Canyon each year hike below the rim and several hundred of those are rescued inside the canyon.   Lack of preparation is commonly cited in trips that end badly.

South Kaibab Trail

South Kaibab Trail

We entered the Grand Canyon on December 28, 2012, on the South Kaibab Trail.  Temperatures ranged from the teens on the rim to the forties at the bottom of the canyon. We spent two nights at the Bright Angel Camp Ground, allowing time to explore the Clear Creek Trail on the north side of the Colorado River. Then came a strenuous climb up to Indian Gardens Camp Ground.  At the top of a series of brutal switchbacks called “Devil’s Corkscrew,” Boone said, “That section of trail definitely lived up to its name!”  The final day would include about 3,500 feet of elevation gain during the hike up to the South Rim.

Devil's Corkscrew on Bright Angel Trail

Devil’s Corkscrew on Bright Angel Trail

A visual feast…

Having dined on holiday food during the previous weeks, we were now enjoying a wide menu of visual feasts.  That first night Scott was full of energy and wanted to explore the silver bridge since we’d crossed the more historic black bridge earlier on our hike into the campground.   This turned into three miles of night hiking but was well worth the effort.  While standing at the Colorado River, we watched a full moon rise over the canyon rim.  Reflections of moonlight softly painted inner canyon walls and reflected on the churning river’s surface.

Moon rise from the Colorado River

Moon rise from the Colorado River

On day two we hiked Clear Creek Trail, filled with remarkable rock formations every step of the way.  The trail seemed to pull us along sweeping views of the river and inner canyon.  Scenes continuously opened up and changed with the steady passing of the sun.  While pausing at one overlook, Dale, who was visiting Grand Canyon for the first time, said, “I’m so thankful that I got to do this trip.  I’ve never seen anything like this.  It’s just amazing!”

Clear Creek Trail 1

Along side of Clear Creek Trail

View of the Colorado River from the Clear Creek Trail.

View of the Colorado River from the Clear Creek Trail.

A constant companion while camping at the bottom of the canyon was the soothing sound of Bright Angel Creek, named by John Wesley Powell during his exploration of the area in 1869.  It is clean, clear, and cold!  I took an hour to explore the creek with my camera, wishing for a longer day as the sunlight faded.

Bright Angel Creek flowing through the campground.

Bright Angel Creek flowing through the campground.

On our third evening in the canyon, a short hike from Indian Gardens Campground turned into a wildlife outing on Plateau Point.  A California condor enjoyed showing off his aerial finesse, swooping so close that I heard a deep whoosh from his wings slicing through the air.  The introduction of condors into the park appears to have had some success and this condor exemplified confidence in his new canyon home.  Several mule deer were grazing close to the trail.  They gave me a dismissive glance as if stoically accepting my visitor status in the canyon.

Condor at Plateau Point

Condor at Plateau Point

Mule Deer

Mule Deer

A winter wonderland…

After a dinner of homemade dehydrated pasta at Indian Gardens, a light snow began to fall as darkness came over the canyon. All sounds were muted except the gentle crackle of icy snow against the roof of my tent.  The next morning we woke up to a winter wonderland.  Several of us softy sang the song by that name as Steve, the early riser, fired up his stove for coffee and oatmeal.   Then it was time for the final push up Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim.  This would be a personal test for me physically and I felt some nagging anxiety about the severe elevation gain on a snowy route.

Breaking camp at Indian Gardens for the for the hike up the Bright Angel Trail.

Breaking camp at Indian Gardens for the for the hike up the Bright Angel Trail.

As we progressed up the trail I found myself walking slower and slower, not from the climb, but 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 sky and light changed our view back into the canyon.  One minute the canyon appeared dimly through a frame of clouds.   Moments later, clouds would dance gracefully as they roamed freely through the upper canyon, sunlight slicing through and settling along the face of fire-red walls trimmed with snow.

View while hiking up Bright Angel Trail

View while hiking up Bright Angel Trail

One elderly dayhiker said in passing, “I ran out of adjectives a long time ago!”  Pictures and words fail in the presence of the Grand Canyon.   Reaching the rim I continued to gaze into the chasm for a few last visual morsels from the beauty below.  I paused and bowed slightly toward the canyon whispering, “Thank you.”  Then I turned to walk away from the edge, carrying images that will nourish my spirit and fill my memories for years to come.

View from close to the top of Bright Angel Trail

View from close to the top of Bright Angel Trail

To learn more:

Grand Canyon National Park web site: nps.gov/grca

Ozarkmountainhiker.wordpress.com

Published in the February, 2013 issue of Urban Magazine, Fort Smith, Arkansas

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.

The Irresistible Pull of The Grand Canyon

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I’ve done multi-day hikes in the Grand Canyon on five or six different occasions.  The first trip in June of 2002 was memorable for the heat.  We went from the north rim to the south camping at Cottonwood and Bright Angel.  I learned many lessons on that outing, especially related to packing light, dealing with heat, and estimating distances to cover each day.

A few years later I teamed up with some good guys and hiked The Canyon in December.  What a treat that was!  We hiked down the South Kaibab Trail on a cloud of fog which gradually gave way to crisp canyon walls as we walked along the Tonto trail and viewed the soft clouds against the South Rim.

The very next winter another trip to The Canyon and then another.  I realized this was looking like an addiction but in fact, it was more like a natural magnetic pull I felt toward those majestic walls and their infinite variety of light, texture, and air…THE AIR! It is like visiting a beautiful cathedral without ceilings, as spiritual as physical…as worshipful as it is beautiful.

There have been trips to Colorado and New Mexico along the way and I look forward to returning to those locations for more adventures but there’s nothing like the positive addiction I feel toward the Grand Canyon.  I’m looking forward to getting my “Canyon fix” again this winter with a great group of hiking buddies!

Here’s a link to our packing list.  Backpacking List Grand Canyon