After a morning of driving, we caught our first good views of the Grand Canyon after pulling into the Desert View viewpoint. Without a doubt, even with the haze shrouding the canyon, the landscape before our eyes was remarkable. 5 millions of years of erosion, preceded by 2 billion years of rock deposition, had created a work of art, using the finest pigments and most captivating of brush strokes.
As we continued on our preliminary car-tour of the rim, we marveled at the reds, yellows, oranges, and purples. As the sun set, we made our way to Grand Canyon Village to find a room for the night. Expecting there would be no-one here, we were in for a surprise. The guidebook assured us that the winter season brought with it a lull in visitors. Seemingly, we had not taken the holiday weekend into account. The rooms were few and the rates steep, but we wanted to be well rested for what was to come.
Being assured by a ranger at the Backcountry Information Center that the North Rim would only have a couple more inches of snow than the South, we left our snowshoes in the Jeep, strapped on our packs and proceeded towards the Bright Angel Trailhead. Shortly after dipping below the rim, we strapped on our Microspikes to help in negotiating the snow packed and icy trail. Despite plenty of warnings from staff, signs, and the availability of traction devices in every gift shop, some visitors opted to descend with nothing more than their tennis shoes. Those that did, slid rather then walked and risked plummeting hundreds of feet should the slip.
South Rim to Indian Gardens Campground to Cottonwood Campground
We made short work of the descent to Indian Gardens Campground where we set up our tent and set out for a hike to Plateau Point, a short 1.5 miles. Early as it was, we had plenty of time to watch as a group of rafters prepared to continue on their course down the Colorado 160 stories below us.
With morning light, we started our way down to the banks of the Colorado and through Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Campground. Complete with a full service restaurant and a laundry facility, Phantom Ranch was the destination for most visitors to the inner canyon. For us, however, this was less than half way. Hikers can stash food behind the Ranger Station.
Though the clouds dulled the brilliant colors of The Box, this portion of Bright Angel Canyon still had a certain charm.
Cottonwood Campground to The North Rim Yurt
In the morning, we found our tent to be frozen. As the temperature was still low, there was no chance of thawing any time soon, but our plan was to stash the tent anyways as our destination for the day was the North Rim Yurt, about 7 miles away and 4100 feet higher.
As we climbed the rim, the trail became steep, with sheer cliffs to one side, and imposing rock walls to the other. Even though the trail was broken by the snowshoer, we soon found ourselves postholing, for sections with every step. The last 1.5 miles to the rim took over 4 hours.
Exhausted and under cover of darkness, we were much relieved discovering that the road leading 0.2 miles from the North Kaibab Trailhead to the yurt was “plowed”.
The yurt, a round building with vinyl walls and a wood-burning stove was clean. We were the second visitors of the season, the first having stayed there before the snows fell two weeks before.
The yurt provided a warm shelter from the brutal cold outside and we slept like babies. Tired babies. Babies wearing layers of very smelly clothing and bundled in burly sleeping bags.
The North Rim Yurt to Bright Angel Campground
Though we wanted an early start, we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave the yurt until after the sun peeked above the horizon. Though we were still postholing through the deep snow, going downhill and the footprints we left the previous night made the descent much easier. After stopping at Cottonwood to collect our tent and eat a relaxed lunch, we continued to Bright Angel Campground to spend the night on the banks of the Colorado.
The South Kaibab Trail up to the South Rim
Our return to South Rim was via the South Kaibab Trail. Unlike the Bright Angel Trail which descended through a canyon, the South Kaibab ascended along a ridgeline. The South Kaibab was also much steeper. The elevation gained was all through steep switchbacks, interspersed with segments of lesser grade. Tons of hikers were on their way down to Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Campground. We heard along the way that both of these had been booked full. So much for trusting a guidebook 🙂
It was also interesting, that while so many people did make the trek down to the Colorado River, so few ventured past the creature comforts of Phantom Ranch. From reading the guestbook in the yurt, it appeared that fewer than 10 groups stayed in it each winter.
The North Kaibab Trail provided the best views of the entire trip and was worth every quad-burning step through the waist deep snow.
Hiking along the South Rim
As we walked the Rim Trail towards Maricopa Point, we witnessed first hand why the Grand Canyon is so “dangerous”. Despite signs everywhere stating that rangers treat 7 to 10 visitors daily for squirrel bites and that the critters carry the plagues, we saw a couple trying to entice one with a nut and were sticking their fingers through a fence towards it. Despite warnings and guard rails, individuals still found it necessary to walk right up to the icy, snow covered rim, wearing nothing but their city shoes. “Death in the Grand Canyon”, a very popular book, describes visitors simply backing off the rim and falling hundreds of feet while backing up to get the perfect perspective for a picture.
The Rim to Rim trail is known as one of the most dangerous trails in the country. While it was steep and strenuous, neither Sharon nor I felt this was the most difficult trail we had ever been on, and we know there are more difficult ones out there. So what gives. Besides the visitors that leave the park with the plague, there are those that choose to hike on ice without traction devices on their feet. There were those hiking down in jeans and cotton t-shirts despite the cold temperatures and the ever-present risk of snow or rain. At Bright Angel we saw those with tents which should never be pitched far away from real shelter and though the temperature at the bottom usually stays above freezing, the night we left the canyon it was supposed to drop into the negatives Fahrenheit. I agree with the author of “Death in the Grand Canyon” in that maybe people are just too used to the “safety” of cities so as not to realize that the wilderness, is a place to be respected and not taken lightly.
Check out our tour of the Northern Arizona Pueblos!
For more national park adventures, visit our National Park Service Guide.