Bob's World Travels

Grand Canyon Backpack

April 17, 2017

Grand Canyon Backpack

A CMC trip lead by Tim Musil in 2017

We had a thunder snow on the rim, in the Grand Canyon Village, the night before we were supposed to descend into the Canyon.  We lost power for several hours during the night and awoke to find the ground and trees covered with an inch of snow. In the morning, we made a unanimous decision to proceed with our hike. Late in the morning, we descended from Grandview Point under heavy skies.  There was snow along the trail through the Kaibab layer, immediately below the rim.  As we descended graupel started to fall, which turned into snow.  It was beautiful looking across the canyon through the falling show. By the time we had descended down winding trails through the vertical Coconino Sandstone to the more gentle Hermit Shale layer the snow was gone and we saw our first wildflowers, scarlet red paintbrush. Our views throughout, were over to the towers, buttes and mesas on the north side of the Canyon.

Backpacking the Grand Canyon is all about the wedding cake of geologic layers. The sandstone and limestones  tend to be harder and more vertical, while the shale layers are softer and a bit more gentle.  Most of the layers were deposited under ancient seas between 250 and 550 million years ago. Hiking down the tallest layer, the Supai Layer, we saw many flowers, including white fendlerbush, red beardtongue, and purple milk vetch. At the bottom of the Supai was the hard and vertical Red Wall, famous for being an obstacle to ascent and descent. The climb down the wall was steep, rocky and rugged with loose stones, but at the bottom, we rested on the Bright Angel Shale, on the Tonto Plateau, where we would spend most of our backpack. For the next five days we would be hiking on the rolling Tonto trail, staying on the shale platform through the carpet of prickly blackbrush bushes. Late in the afternoon, we arrived with sunshine at Cottonwood Creek, where we camped among the green Cottonwood trees and Redbud trees, with their purple blossoms.  This first day, we had descended, 3,700 feet, making it a particularly difficult day. From our camp, we had a view of Angels Gate, a mesa with two rock formations on top.

The next day we hiked around a large section of the plateau, sometimes on the edge of the plateau with the vertical Tapeats Sandstone below us and below that the ancient Vishnu Schist, twisted and tortured by the enormous pressure of the past billion and a half years with jagged lines of igneous rock running through it. This rock is the foundation of North American. At times, we could see far down to the Colorado River.  All during the hike, there were beautiful mariposa lilies scattered throughout the blackbrush. As we hiked, we viewed a number of different formations on the north side of the canyon. In places, the shale hillsides were covered with bright yellow, wild sunflowers. We turned south and hiked on the edge of the enormous side-canyon of Grapevine Creek. We camped far up the creek in a very green area.  After setting up camp, four of us bushwhacked through the brush up a side canyon which became increasingly narrow until we could go no further. It was a warm and sunny evening with some rain during the night.

The following morning, I was ready to go before the others and left by myself at 7:30 am. I enjoyed the early morning light, and crossing one dry stream bed, I found a deflated valentines helium balloon. It is my experience that these balloons like to go to great wild areas to die. The views of the formations were constantly changing and at one point, we again looked down at the river. We camped at a spring where there were tadpoles in the pools. In the evening as we watched the sunset, there was a full symphony of frog voices with high and low pitched parts, some continuous and some with a definite beat. It reminded me of contemporary avant-garde music; perhaps like John Luther Adams or Tim Hecker.

Hiking again the next morning on the Tonto Trail, among the mariposas and sunflowers, the Zoroaster and the Brahma Temples with their high, light tan colored, Cocino caps, dominated the scenery to the north. Midday, we had to descend and climb steeply through rugged, dry side-canyons, and then we climbed steadily to meet the Kaibab Trail.  From a distance, we could see people on the Kaibab Trail.  We had rarely seen anyone on the Tonto Trail. On the busy Kaibab Trail, we climbed steeply down into the Vishnu Schist where we could see the river below and the black bridge crossing it. I crossed the bridge ahead of most of the group but with a number of other people and hiked down to the riverside where there were some ancient, native ruins, covered with sunflowers.

We set up camp in a group site in the Bright Angel Campground, where we had our own stone shelter and a couple of us walked up to Phantom Ranch for a beer. When we got back to camp, we heard thunder and it began to pour rain.  Fortunately, we had the shelter where we waited, shivering, for the rain to stop.  It continued to drip and drop for a couple of hours, but stopped just in time for us to go to dinner at Phantom Ranch. We ate dinner in a rustic, historic stone building where there were long tables.  Everyone ate family style passing large bowls of fresh salad, pots of beef stew, and bowls of corn bread.  The staff was happy to bring a new pot of stew, after we finished the first one. There was chocolate cake for desert.  After eating dehydrated food for several days, we loved the real food, carried down to the ranch on mules,. My tent had been out in the heavy rain but was dry inside when I went to bed.  It was a warm night.

We had planned to climb out the next day on the Bright Angel Trail but found out it was closed due to a rock fall.  We had a great breakfast at Phantom Ranch with eggs, bacon, pancakes, canned peaches, fresh-brewed coffee and orange juice. After breakfast, we climbed out on the Kaibab Trail, which we had descended the previous day. We climbed the 1,500 feet back to the intersection with the Tonto Trail.  We hiked an additional section of the Tonto Trail west to the Bright Angel Trail and the Indian Gardens campground.  This was a particularly beautiful section of the Tonto Trail.  I found my friend Heeja eating an apple she had purchased at Phantom Ranch. So I stopped and ate my apple and we hiked the rest of the way together, and when we stopped again for a break, I read her a part of Slaughterhouse Five which we discussed.  It concerned the poor condition of American enlisted men in World War II and America's peculiar notions of social class. It seemed to fit the current national situation. We had great views to the north side and down to the river, and crossed a lovely oasis on Pipe Creek with cottonwood trees and a running stream. Indian Gardens was a beautiful shady campground with a variety of large trees.  Our group site had two shelters with picnic tables. In the evening, the group walked out to Plateau Point where we looked far down to the river and watched two rafts navigate rapids.

Our final morning was bright and cool, perfect for the 3,000 foot climb back to the rim which was in front of us.  Heeja and I set out climbing up through the layers, through a break in the Red Wall, up the tall Supai layer of soft shale and up the beautiful cliff of the Cocino sandstone, constructed from ancient sand dunes. I felt great and enjoyed the climb immensely, my endurance strengthened by six days of hiking.  I enjoyed my final experience of the distant views, the endless variety of shapes and the prehistoric stone. I popped up into startling civilization at about 9:30 am.  The trail head was in the very center of the village.  I immediately went into the lodge and bought a vanilla latte and a pastry and then waited for the others in the bright sunshine in front of the vast expanse of the canyon.