Monday, May 31, 2021

Rim2Rim2Rim Backpack, Day 1, Grand Canyon, May 2021

This posting has nothing to do with Virginia, and is instead my attempt to document details of a Grand Canyon 5 day backpacking trip I took in May, 2021.

This trip is really the culmination of every other trip I have taken to the Grand Canyon during my lifetime, 3 backpacking trips and one dayhike.  They are as follows:

1974 - Traveling as a part of a summer high school class, we camped on the North Rim then backpacked down the North Kaibab Trail for a night, returning by the same route to the North Rim after camping overnight at Roaring Springs.

1982 or 1983 - While in grad school, I returned to the GCNP with a college friend without backcountry reservations.  Instead, we dayhiked down the South Kaibab Trail to a spot known as the Tipoff before returning via the same trail and then driving 170 miles that same day to the Jacob Lake Campground in the Kaibab National Forest.

2008 - Backpacked down the South Kaibab Trail to the Bright Angel Campground, stayed two nights, then ascended back to the South Rim via the Bright Angel Trail.

2010 - Backpacked half way down the South Rim with my ten year old son to Indian Garden Campground, spent the night there, and hiked out to Plateau Point before returning the next day to the South Rim.

This trip connected routes previously taken on these other outings, and brought back many memories of each trip.

Planning the Trip

This trip was completed with my son Will, his longtime friend (and fellow Eagle Scout) Cole, and Cole's grandfather, Mike.  Will and Cole and I had backpacked together in 2016 as part of our Scout Troop's trip to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, over 11 days.

This 2021 trip was originally scheduled to occur in 2020 but was delayed due to the pandemic.  This actually proved to be an advantage for our group.  My original plan was to hike from the South Rim to Cottonwood Campground on Day 1 (halfway up the North Rim) for the first night, then spend 2 nights at Bright Angel Campground on the Colorado River, and one night at Indian Garden Campground, halfway up the South Rim before returning to the South Rim.  This itinerary would not have permitted us to hike to both rims (R2R).  The NPS cancelled our May 2020 trip and did not refund our permit cost - $170.

Instead, the NPS gave us the option to rebook in either 2021 or 2022 for the same number of people and the same number of nights, and allowed us to apply for the permits 6 months in advance of our outing.  Usually, the NPS books only 5 months ahead.

This created several advantages for us.  When booking the normal 5 months ahead, the backpacker needs to be flexible in both dates and locations.  So when applying for a 5 day/4 night outing, the backpacker does not know the exact dates and campgrounds until several weeks later.  Depending on the request, the actual dates issued might be several days away from the original request.

Having a 6 month window instead of the 5 month window meant that I had a much greater chance of getting exactly the dates and locations I desired.  Figuring this would be the case, I could obtain lodge reservations on the South Rim for the night before our hike a year in advance.  And I could obtain Zion and Bryce camping reservations 6 months to the day before I planned to be at those parks - on the days those reservations became available.  

I could also re-think what I really wanted to accomplish in the Grand Canyon.  I increased the length and scope of our backpack so that we asked for a different plan, which would allow for us to hike from the South Rim to the North Rim and then back to the South Rim over 4 nights and 5 days.  The details are shown below.

Travelling to the South Rim

We flew in and out of Las Vegas, and I worried most about obtaining the mid-sized SUV that we had reserved through Costco Travel back in January from Alamo rental.  Multiple news stories talked about a shortage of rental cars after the pandemic.  It turned out not to be an issue.  I signed up through Alamo to "skip the counter" and go straight to the fleet.  A woman there told us they were out of mid-sized vehicles, and gave us instead our choice between three nearly identical Chevy Equinox, a full-sized SUV.  We spent a night in a Vegas casino before driving to GCNP.  

My casino choice was less than optimal.  I chose the Sahara, which is in the middle of the Strip, near the big tower shown in the photos below.  It also isn't near much of anything on the Strip, with the older casino area about a mile to the north, and the current central Strip area, from Treasure Island south to the Luxor, a mile to the south.  The Sahara's casino was pretty dead - not what the younger hikers wanted.

But the views out the room window were pretty great, and changed based on the time of day.

We were on the road the next morning before 7AM local time, picked up fast food breakfast in Hendersonville, and crossed into Arizona by about 7:40AM.  Stopped for a bathroom break in Kingman, then took Old US 66 to Seligman before stopping for groceries at a Safeway in Williams, Arizona that I stopped at with Will on the way to our 2010 Grand Canyon trip.

We headed north to the Grand Canyon's South Rim Entrance, which took us a half hour in line to get through.  

We had a park pass, but it didn't really help us get into the park faster.  There is a separate lane for vehicles with passes, but the lane doesn't appear until relatively close to the toll booths.  

We were early enough that we could make our reservation for an early dinner at the Fred Harvey Tavern, located in the Bright Angel Lodge and containing a bar I had visited at the end of my 2008 hike.  After that, we pulled out all of our packs, divided up the food, and had everything ready for a 4:30 AM meeting time.

I slept hardly at all that night, thinking about all the details.  I was up by 4 and had everyone ready by 4:30.  We drove to the Backcountry Information Center, where we stored our vehicle for the trip and got in line for the 5 AM bus.  We ended up the first group not to make the first bus, but were loaded on a second bus that arrived shortly after the first bus left.  It took us to the South Kaibab Trailhead just as it was starting to get light out.

Day 1: South Kaibab Trail to Bright Angel Campground

The trailhead was surprisingly crowded.  The only way to get there is via shuttle busses or walking - no private vehicles are allowed to drive to the trailhead.  We took some obligatory pre-hike group photos, then dropped off of the Rim.

It was pretty chilly to start - about 32 degrees when we got up.  We each had several layers, which were shed fairly quickly as we descended.  We let the younger hikers go at their own pace, instructing them to stop at pre-determined landmarks to re-group.  As a result, I was able to take multiple action shots of the younger hikers as they sped down the trail.

We first stopped at Cedar Ridge, which included restrooms and a mule corral.  I had stopped here in 2008 and took a similar photo on this outing.  2008 is on the left, below.

The trail continues to descend, with expansive views in every direction. 

At the 2.5 mile mark, just under 90 minutes into our hike, we reached a series of switchbacks that I have photographed every time I've hiked this trail.

First in 1982 or 83.

Then in 2008.

And a better recreation in 2021, this time showing my son.

We descend 500 feet over the next 0.6 miles via a series of switchbacks before leveling off and coming into view of the privies and shade shelter at the South Kaibab's intersection with the Tonto Trail.

You can see two structures in the distance in the photo above.  There is only one in the photo from 2008, along with several mules.  The second structure is a shade shack, built a couple of years ago using materials dropped by helicopter.  We spent 15 minutes in the shade, stretching and hydrating.  The new structure is much appreciated!

Just past the shade shack is a spot called The Tipoff, where the Colorado River is clearly visible.  In 1982/3, we hiked to this point, took some photos, and turned around to ascend back to the South Rim. My recollection in 2008 was that the hike after this became much more difficult - surprisingly so for a relatively short hike that is almost all downhill.  But the mules really dig up the trail, and consequently a hiker has to step up over the wooden ties in place to prevent trail erosion.  It has an effect after a while that is greater than the short distance would indicate.

We let the young guns hike ahead at this point, giving them the backcountry permit and instructing them to hike to Bright Angel Campground and select the best campsite with shade that they could find. In the first photo below, you can see them hking well ahead and below our position.

We reached the campsite just after 11:30 AM, and spent much of the afternoon recuperating, before heading to Phantom Ranch at 6 for a steak dinner - purchased several months earlier before we learned that we would not be eating in the building, but would receive bagged meals to eat outside on picnic tables.  Definitely disappointing, and we would not have bought them if we had known.  

Day 2 description: Link.

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