Winter in Grand Canyon NP Trip Report

Prologue

Originally this trip to Grand Canyon NP was suppose to happen during the Thanksgiving break. I even had the permits. However, due to some school requirements we went to Sonoma County instead. So the trip was postponed till the Christmas dead week. The permits were easy to get – I just called the park and asked them to reschedule my old permits. At least it was easy that far in advance (September). That was rather surprising. The main purpose was to do the main ‘corridor’ trails – Bright Angel and South Kaibab. I figured that with the current crew it would be good to take those trails. They have lots of support and people. Easy to get help. My wife wasn’t really in the top shape. But my sister, especially, was very worried about her son – my nephew. So taking the ‘corridor’ trails was a safe thing to do. Besides, if I were to go to Grand Canyon by myself or with some similarly crazy crowd we would most likely avoid these trails.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Drive, very simple. The main goal of this day is to get to the park at some reasonable time. Grand Canyon, as well as other wild places in its immediate area in Arizona, Utah, and Nevada, is located in this weird no man’s land where driving was already too long, but flying was a bit too short. Since in this trip I was also planning to visit LA, driving was a good option.

Driving itself wasn’t so bad – the weather was good, passengers were sleeping, vehicle working fine. We actually made pretty good progress and made it to the town of Williams at about 8PM.

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It was getting late (Arizona has one hour time difference) and all the places in the park were closing. Plus we still had about an hour drive from Williams into the park. So we decided to stop by for dinner at some Yelp recommended restaurant called The Singing Pig. They had meaty BBQ and stuff. The BBQ was pretty good. The potato fries were way over-fried to my taste. Good thing I just ordered one family meal for all of us. If we ordered separate there would be enough food to feed a small army.

At about 9PM we made it to the park. There was no one at the gate so I didn’t use my brand-new National Park Pass (sad). However, it was a whole ordeal to find that damn Yavapai lodge. The signs in the Grand Canyon village were not clear. Google maps, for some reason, said that the lodge was permanently closed. Plus it was dark and very cold. We made several rounds, asked several people for directions, eventually made it to the place. Everything frozen. The temperature was way below 0°C. I was kind of glad that I booked this lodge, as opposed to a campground.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The plan for today was to get up and go, all the way down, and before it gets dark. There were too many people taking too long showers, so we barely made it to the Yavapai cafeteria by 8AM or something. It was a nice crisp cold sunny morning. Perfect weather. After some hearty backpacking breakfast (oatmeal, pancakes, and coffee) we went on figuring out how to organize the carpool. It turned out that the only place the cars could be left at was next to the backcountry office. I was fine with that. Rienk, on the other hand, was afraid that the cars there could be broken into. I didn’t really want to argue with this case of paranoia so we left the cars ‘parked’ next to the Yavapai lodge.

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We took a shuttle to the South Kaibab trailhead. There were surprisingly many people in the park and on the bus. All seem to be battling cold (with some very interesting effects). There weren’t many backpackers, but that was expected.

After a long repacking, toilet, sunscreen application, talking, and other miscellaneous stuff we eventually started going down. The trail did have some snow so the freshly purchased Yak Trax were in order. To be honest I’ve skipped that. The trail looked fine. It wasn’t very steep. Yes, there was snow and even ice, but nothing really major to worry about. There was enough sand on it for good traction. The actual white snow ended pretty soon (soon in space, it was long it time due to all the picture taking). However, after that in many places the trail was just pure ice with some sand on it. This was especially present in shady spots. Yak Traxes actually worked fine, surprisingly. I suppose if the conditions are just right they do fine, perhaps if it was muddy the results would have been different. We passed just a couple of mule trains that were going up. One was carrying people (bunch of wussies), the other some stuff. I really wish that they have just used one of the corridor trails, otherwise this trail was all mined, if you know what I mean. The air was very “fresh” too.

We were making good progress. It was downhill after all (this, however, have proven to be not as easy as it sounds). All the dayhikers (at least the smart ones) were pretty much gone by lunch time. Who had remained were the backpackers and the people just staying at the Phantom Ranch lodge. The difference between the two groups was that the later was carrying just small backpacks. In reality, these people didn’t have it so easy. The reservation time for Phantom Ranch around this holiday period was about 14 months. Crazy. I suppose it is easier to do for off-season. But it sure more difficult than my three months. There were actually quite a number of the tourists, of both types. It seems that I wasn’t the only one who had the same idea.

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Beautiful day – sunny. The trail was good – not too steep, easy to find. Great views. What can go wrong? Well, by the time we got to about 70% of the way the difficulties started to show up – going down, after all, is not as easy as it seems, especially if we are talking about Grand Canyon size down. The trail was so long that at some point your calf muscles start giving out, especially if they weren’t used much. If the muscles are not used the knees would give out, which is much worse. People started to disperse by their physical abilities and tolerance to pain. Most of my the group went ahead and I stayed back with Rita. We were making about the same progress as a quite large family staying at the Ranch. Their plan was to celebrate the Dad’s 50th birthday there. But there was still time – sun didn’t set yet. It was getting a bit cold already. Rienk and others went ahead to secure a good campsite. Rita and I were still stumbling down (well, Rita was stumbling, I was just there as the leader to make sure no one is left behind). Eventually we’ve made to to the Bright Angel Campground.

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Busy place. The campground itself is on a fairly small flat riverbank sandwiched between a creek and canyon wall. There wasn’t a whole lot room there. Enough for three rows of camsites, trails, and some amenities – toilets and water sources. The sites were packed like sardines. Each has a table, small concrete slab for a stove, and old ammunition boxes for food storage. Very nice. It felt like a small village. The more developed luxurious lodge was far enough not to agitate people. There were dears walking around. I suppose all the predators that were supposed to keep them in check were killed off.

Now, since we stopped walking and the temperature was dropping fast, it became very cold very fast. Even though the temperature was probably not below zero we were freezing (well, at least I was). It was getting dark fast also. After a good dinner we waited till the canteen in Phantom Ranch opens and went there. The canteen, which is used as the dining hall for the guests at the ranch, wasn’t very large. It had tables, lots of games and books (some of a very dubious nature), and shop to buy stuff like cheap wine, coffee, and candy. We played some games and Rienk and I had some wine. I have admit that that cheap wine wasn’t so bad. I don’t really remember the games well because I was passing out after two days of little sleep.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The plan for this day was just to explore the bottom of the canyon. I was trying not to think about that slog out the next day. When I was planning this trip I figured that since we made it all the way down, might as well spend a day and enjoy it. This turned out to be a wise choice, for a different reason. There were many people, including some from our group who could barely walk. All that downhill the day before worked magic on the rarely used calf muscles. So having one break day for recovery wasn’t a bad idea.

After regular backpacking breakfast we left Rita in the camp and headed to the Clear Creek trail. The plan was to just walk till lunch, then come back. The trail started a bit further up Bright Angel Canyon.
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Beautiful trail. After a bit of climb it goes parallel to Colorado. One can see great views of the (main) canyon. This type of hike is what actually makes Grand Canyon such an outstanding hiking destination. Well, I probably wouldn’t want to hike there in Summer, and we still had to come out of there the next day. But at the moment it was great.

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Photos can’t really describe all the beauty (I may also be a not such a good photographer).

We walked, without really pushing it, till 1PM. Had lunch in some place that looked like an amphitheatre. It believe it was Zoroaster Temple. There were some guys that went all the way to the dry clear creek. But it required another hour (at least) so we skipped that.

Came back to camp without any incident before dark.  Rita was there. She spent her time feeding mules and watching them fight. Before it got dark I just wanted to go and sit in silence on the shore of Colorado. The sun was already a bot low and it was getting cold, but there was still time. It was interesting to see how the densely populated campground was preparing for the evening. Like an ant colony.

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People were going about preparing water, doing washing, cooking, (some group was even praying. I really wanted to ask them who they were, but it was a bit awkward). The campsites were so close that it was impossible not to see it. I even had this idea to invite our neighbours (our neighbours were this middle aged Chinese couple. It seemed that the husband there was leading his wife into backpacking) to have a common dinner.

We had dinner. Talked about Joseph’s future education. I got yelled at for eating the can of fish in oil that Rita was saving for herself. Since it was the last dinner I pretty much cleaned up most of the food, which in retrospect wasn’t very wise. After the ranch’s guests were done with their dinner we went to the canteen. This night it was white wine and I wasn’t as sleepy as the day before. However, we didn’t stay there long because the next day was early.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

This day would live in … memories of everyone.

Get up early, around 6:30AM, if I remember right. It wasn’t as cold as the night before. Actually it wasn’t as cold as I expected during this trip. Despite that I wisely forgot my bag liner, I didn’t feel very cold in my flimsy sleeping bag. Not sure if me wearing lots of closes had to do anything with it. So after quick breakfast we started up. Rita went ahead while I was packing. She was still walking funny from 2 days before.

The initial portion was all in the shade. For a couple of miles the trail follows the river. It was still cold, but bearable. Plus with all that heat generated it was fine. I was planning on hitting some sun fairly soon. After the initial section along the Colorado river the trail turned South into Garden creek towards Indian Garden and started climbing, not too much. It was actually very nice – interesting creek, a bit of a slot canyon in one spot, on the shaded sides water or even some waterfalls froze. Perhaps it was more physiological – I knew we had a long way to go, I didn’t see the finish line, so I just enjoyed the climb. It would have been even better if those mule trains didn’t spoil everything. People were abusing mules to carry them. One dude was even filming his so-called Grand Canyon experience. Probably would end up on YouTube or something like that.

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Surprisingly we caught up with Rita quite a bit way, almost at the Indian Garden. I didn’t expect her to do that well. We were at the Indian Garden by lunch time. Right on schedule.

After some food, water, and rest we started the final chapter on this trip. By this time we started seeing dayhikers from the rim. It was possible, I suppose, to go down to Indian Garden and back in a day. Perhaps in warmer season spend the afternoon down and then come back in the evening. Well, that can be done some other time. We had the goal to make it out, preferably before dark. Since there were no junctions any more I let the guys to just go. Shafi, Rienk, Lily, and Joseph sprinted ahead. I sort of stayed behind to make sure that Rita was fine.

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She was OK, just walking very slowly. Eventually we reached that sort of chiselled in the rock switchback section. It was possible to see the end, to some extent. The trail was just going up and up back and forth, as expected. It was covered by snow, but it was still fine to walk. I wasn’t rushing anyway. I saw a group of thinly dressed teenage boys going down, they were wearing city shoes and had a couple of water bottles. I hope they knew what they were doing, otherwise they had a long cold way up. There was also a family – two ladies and three kids – going up. It seemed that they stayed at the Indian Garden because they just had daypacks. They would pass me, but then I would pass them when the were resting. Then the cycle would repeat. Maintaining a steady pace is the most efficient way to go.

I made it to the top at bout 4PM. Rienk and Lily went to get their car. Shafi and Joseph were freezing and hungry (I ran out of food. All I had was half of salami). Rita was still struggling up. I went to wait for the shuttle, but then Rienk showed up. He gave me a ride to my car saying that it would take about 40 minutes in that shuttle (good thing I ran into him). By the time I drove back Rita had already finished. That was good. I really wasn’t looking forward to going back after her. We said some goodbyes and parted.

My job now was to drive to Las Vegas, NV. Nothing special, just driving. Interestingly we saw three biking biking right on the highway, on the shoulder of course. At night? They were a bit pushing it, I think. We made it to Las Vegas by 8 or 9PM. Lily was recommending that $40 buffet in Bellagio. Well, I was a bit hungry, but $40 buffet was an overkill. So we settled to some Korean cook yourself place. It was quite good enough. While driving, Rita booked the cheapest hotel she could find – Circus Circus. It was indeed cheap. It took maybe an hour to check in. Everything was slow. The place, especially where we were, had this old dusty rundown feel to it. No wonder it was so cheap.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Coming out from Las Vegas at a very slow pace. It was a long night. Shafi had to get up at like 3AM or something to catch his flight. Then these guys slept till almost check out time. Good thing it was possible to check out using a machine, otherwise the checkout line at the lobby was as long as the line to mausoleum.

After that we went to … looking for something not entirely clear. There were some ideas of massage, some ideas of food. Eventually I made an executive decision and we went to eat at some strange American place. Then had massage next door and headed straight to Los Angeles.


The track is located here.


My photos are here.

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One Response to Winter in Grand Canyon NP Trip Report

  1. Pingback: Rogue River Trail Trip Report | Ilya's Life Weblog

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