June 25, 2006

Bright Angel Canyon

Yesterday saw four of us hiking down into the Grand Canyon for the first time. Our destination was Plateau Point, an overlook 2,100 feet above the Colorado River on the rim of the Inner Gorge. Our route was the most popular day-hike trail in the park, Bright Angel Trail. Twelve miles round trip, 2,800 feet down then back up, on one of the hottest and longest days of the year....doesn't sound too difficult, right?

We left bright and early at 5 am, just after sunrise. Our goal was to make it to the overlook at Plateau Point and then back to a little oasis called Indian Garden before 10am, where we could wait out the heat of the day in the shade of centuries-old cottonwoods. Well, the hike down was magnificent. The changing colors of the rock and the play of the shadows off of the canyon walls was spectacular.

The trail was pretty steep, with 36 switchbacks to get down to Indian Garden 4.5 miles and 2,700 feet below the trailhead. Since the main waterline from the North Rim of the canyon follows this trail, and considering the popularity and general unpreparedness of the average park visitor, the park installed rest houses and water faucets every 1.5 miles. This meant it's possible to refill your water and drench yourself every hour or so...a lifesaver for many people on the hike back up.

My hiking companions included Ted, an interpretive ranger from Indepenence National Park (location of the Liberty Bell). This was Ted's first "real" hiking experience, having never done much more than a couple hours wandering the wooded parks of eastern Pennsylvania. Quite the initiation into the world of hiking. The green arrow is pointing to our destination, Plateau Point.

When we finally got there, around 10am, it was hot. Very, very hot. And there wasn't any shade to be found. This cistern made my day. I was totally not expecting it, and rather dreading the mile and a half hike back to Indian Garden.

But drenching myself and refilling my water not only lowered my body temperature back within the limits of normal human function but renewed my spirits and enabled me to enjoy the twenty minutes we spent out there enjoying the view.

Here it is, the Colorado River. Because it is pumped from the bottom of Lake Powell, the water is bright green and cold as icewater. It's sad to think how much damage that monstrous dam has inflicted to the natural cycles of the river and the canyon. It must have been amazing to be able to experience the Colorado as the muddy, warm river it was meant to be.

After another drenching, we headed back to the garden (red arrow). From here it was possible to see the trailhead at the canyon's rim, as well (yellow arrow), but even the thought of trying to hike back while the sun was high in the sky made me cringe. Because...

It was hot. Very, very hot. This is the reason why every ranger you talk to strongly recommends hanging out at Indian Gardens from 10am until at least 4pm, when the sun dips below the cliffs and plunges the steepest parts of the trail back into shadow. I have never seen a themometer show anything near this type of temperature. Even if it wasn't actually 130 degrees, it sure as hell felt like it. So we waited.

But we didn't have to wait alone. In addition to a lot of hikers, some who waited it out the entire time with us (the intelligent bunch), and others who stopped for only a few minutes to refill their water before climbing back to the trailhead during the hottest part of the day with no shade the entire hike (this is what they call "natural selection" at work), there were also lizards, mule deer, and birds. Lots and lots of birds.

My life list grew by six in the five and a half hours we rested at Indian Garden: Yellow-breasted Chat, Scott's Oriole, Summer Tanager, Bushtit, Lucy's Warbler, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow. We also saw others which weren't lifers for me but were still much appreciated for their presence: Western Scrub Jay, White-throated Swift, Spotted Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, Common Raven, Violet-Green Swallow, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, California Condor, Mountain Chickadee, Juniper Titmouse, and Ash-throated Flycatcher.

When we finally made it back to the trailhead, it was almost completely dark. It took us three and a half hours to hike up 4.5 miles and 2,700 feet. Not bad, considering how much I was dragging the last two miles. It was a really cool hike. And the extreme heat made it that much more exciting. It was even worth all the pain I'm in right now... I think.


big sister janine said...

WOW! AWESOME hike Paul! The things you have seen this week are great!! My favorite bird you saw today was the Violet-green swallow. It is cool you are posting so many beautiful photos for those of us who don't have the opportunities to go the places you do,THANKS!!! Did you bring trail mix to eat on your 5 hour wait or was there a Mcdonald's down there?? :o) just wonderin' ,I would have gotten pretty hungry after all that walking!! When is your trip over & when do you get back to Seward? We are getting ready for a few weeks @ Carlos State Park in July. Once at the group camp for the annual family reunion thing & then back up a week later in the camp ground with the girls & our tent!! Not quite as adventurous as the Grand Canyon, but better then Big Lake!! Have a safe trip home, call me when you get there & get settled back in. Hugs, Janine

Sonja said...

I am so jealous... it looks so beautiful! Can't wait to see the rest of your pics when you get home! Love, S