Here we go again. Trying to cram some insanely ridiculous experience into a digital format. This time around, it’s backpacking in the Grand Canyon.
Yeah, you read that right.
I finally had a chance to use my EMS Habitat 65 pack for its intended use. I’d used it all summer for going out on hitch at ACE, but I honestly could have gotten away with a duffel (and did occasionally) as all my projects were front-country. I’ve never been backpacking, and minus a 4 day cycling tour after Bike & Build, I’ve never had to carry every thing I need for survival on me. You can imagine my excitement when my colleague and good friend from ACE, Tony, managed to get a backcountry pass to the Grand Canyon from one of his friends-in-high-places there. Here was my chance to go backpacking, finally go more than a quarter mile into the canyon despite working there two hitches and visiting two other times, and see those of my cronies still left in Flagstaff. Our group was to be Dave (Atlanta, GA), Sam (New Zealand), Tim (Champaign, IL), Tony (Akron, OH) and myself (Schenectady, NY). All of us had or were currently working for ACE.
Planning came in fits and starts until I actually arrived in Arizona, and met up with Dave and Sam to nail down food and supplies. Three 2-person tents for the five of us, two filtration systems, and two stoves. Miscellaneous pots and pans, my insulated measuring cup from Stanley, small bottle of Dr. Bronner’s soap and a whole heck of a lot of dehydrated food. Being on a budget, we opted for PastaSides and RiceSides from Knorr and ramen to be the bulk of our nutrition. I had taken advantage of my employee discount back at EMS and sprang for a few meals from Backpackers’ Pantry.
We leisurely made our way to the Canyon on Friday morning; we couldn’t start hiking until we picked up Tony with the backcountry pass and he didn’t finish being a supervisor for revegetation work until noon. One last meal at Wendy’s (yay!) and we went to go meet Tony at the revegetation office in the park. On our way there we passed some controlled burns of slash piles; between the grey sky, the scattered fires, bare trees and dank snow, it looked like a scene from a war movie. Nope, just the Grand Canyon.
Once at the trailhead, we reorganized a few things, distributed crampons and took dorky pictures of our packs. While it’s no surprise that the only girl on the trip would end up bringing the heaviest pack, it still boggles my mind how I managed to achieve that. I wasn’t carrying stove or filtration, my tent was the lightest (EMS’s rental Star 2 for the win!), and just 5 liters of water. I had indulged and brought two shirts, and had an extra jacket, but I still don’t understand how they would add more weight, especially with one guy having brought two (two!) books and canned food. I really didn’t bring much: sleeping bag, sleeping pad, minimal clothing, tent, dehydrated food, journal and pen, minor toiletries, capacity for 5 liters of water… I didn’t even bring my camera! If you know me that’s saying something. Instead I took advantage of the airplane mode on my new iPhone to conserve battery and used it’s fantastic camera the whole trip. But my pack was the smallest, so points for me for efficient packing.
Our pass was for Grandview Trail, which wholeheartedly deserves its name. The views are epic, stunning, incredible: every synonym for grand would work. But the trail itself is, well, rough. Unmaintained, relentless switchbacks, slick rip rap (think wet cobbles), severe drop-offs. It’s in remarkably great shape considering that last fact, but I think if I were to pick my first-back-packing-trip-ever trail and it had to be at the Grand Canyon, I’d go with South Kaibab or Bright Angel, one of those interstate highways we call trails there. Not to diminish their difficulty, but I can guarantee they’re in better shape. Fit right in with the theme of this past summer: what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.
In my opinion, the worst part of the trail was after it drops off from Horseshoe Mesa en route to the Miners’ Spring (water! year-round! yay!) and down to where it meets up with the Tonto Trail. In fact, it was the worst part of the trip, and I seriously questioned what I had gotten myself into this time: percariously picking and scuttling my way down an unmaintained trail in November in the Grand Canyon, out of shape and unexperienced. But I made it down to the blessedly flat Tonto Trail and soon we were home for the night: Hance Creek (water! year-round! yay!).
A little sliver of paradise in the midst of such a rocky and cactus-y place: Hance Creek. A flat area underneath a majestic cottonwood tree next to the gurgling kill was our campsite of choice. I did an embarrassingly poor job setting up my tent while the boys got water into the pots immediately and set up stoves to get dinner going. After an endless rotation of lasagna for the 2.5 months of Bike & Build, I am happy to report I actually looked forward to eating its re-hydrated cousin from Backpackers’ Pantry. Post dinner journaling, a tiny sip of whisky each from Tim’s nearly empty flask and some quiet conversation to wind down the day.
I slept terribly; too many snorers in too small of a vicinity. I forgot to steal a packet of ear pro when we were at the ACE office to borrow crampons, and paid for it dearly. That and I didn’t put enough tension on the tent so my 5’10″ self was hitting both ends. But being up for sunrise into our little side canyon may have been worth it, and having a chance to explore a bit on my own was welcomed. Gradually those who did have a good night of sleep groggily poked their heads out of the their tents when it got too bright and we made breakfast. To arise with the sun and to go to sleep with the darkness, without a clock, is the best way to spend a vacation.
Our little babbling brook went around a corner a bit down from our campsite; the allure of the unknown got the better of us and we decided to explore the kill through its canyon as a morning trail-less hike. The sun was beating down, and I was too warm in pants and boots… shorts and five-fingers would have been perfect. Hindsight is 20/20! We made our way through the willows, cattails and the occasional tamarisk (die!), exploring a little side canyon of the side canyon along the way, until we hit what looked a bowl of rock. I haven’t experienced that since Washington Pass in the North Cascades on Bike & Build: being completely surrounded by mountains/canyon walls. Obviously the creek came from somewhere and it went all the way to the Colorado River, but for this moment, I couldn’t see it. Just amazing!
It was after lunch time by the time the last of our little band hiked back to camp. Our nutrition plan dictated three hot meals a day (genius, all days should be like this), so we fixed ourselves some ramen or noodles for lunch. After lunch, we broke down camp and reluctantly shouldered our packs to start hiking back up. Our goal was to make it to Horseshoe Mesa and make camp there. To do this, we had to go up yesterday’s scary bits of trail. While still compellingly difficult, it wasn’t nearly as bad as going down it. You have a lot more control going this way. I actually lifted my head and looked around! My strategy for getting through long climbs on the bicycle/trail is to sing one of my sorority’s recruitment songs over and over again; after a while it’s the auditory version of wallpaper and I stop thinking about how hard I’m working. “With a D and an E and L-T-A, G-A-M-M-A, oh Delta Gamma, that’s what I am-a…” I can only recall a handful of songs to mind, else I would have picked something with more verses.
The cloudless sky of the morning was slowly being covered by clouds, and the wind was picking up by the time we got to Horseshoe Mesa. We discovered the ruins of an old stone mining house and were preparing to set up camp in there when we realized there’s an establishing camping area down a path. Probably for the best; while the four low walls of the structure would have provided the best protection from the wind, I felt bad about staying in a historic site and plus it threatened to rain. No roof on it anymore! After checking to see if Santa was in the chimney – no dice, bummer – we set up our real camp behind a crappy windbreak of piled rocks under a juniper. It cleared up a bit as the sun went down and we enjoyed some stargazing after dinner before turning in. Today the tent was set up much better, and foiled properly to the wind. With a single Tylenol PM in my system I drifted off to a sleep filled with unexplainably bizarre dreams. Good thing I didn’t take two.
It was much colder up here at Horseshoe Mesa: the higher elevation, wind and no protection from canyon walls made for a chilly Sunday morning. Sam and Dave were up early; they needed to be back to Flagstaff by midday to get ready to head out on hitches in New Mexico as supervisors on Monday. After some tea and good-byes, the two strongest hikers of the group headed up. Tony, Tim and I took our sweet time getting ready. Finally we had to suck it up and head out, back to society and reality and the slushy trail at the top. I was definitely tired from two nights of weird sleep and all this exercise at high elevations and whatnot, so I was happy to plod slowly up. We leap-frogged with a few other hiking groups on the trail, and I stopped to drink in the view many times. I had many of those “oh-em-gee-I’m-hiking-in-the-seventh-natural-wonder-of-the-world” moments, gazing over the rocky landscape. The last half mile was tough mentally: I was hating the rip rap at this point, and craving Nerds candy. A cloud was covering the top bit of the canyon, so after a while you couldn’t see out into the canyon. It was just a grey featureless abyss. But knowing the steep drop-offs were there made for an unnerving hike. I guess I’d rather know what I could potentially fall into. Of course my crampons weren’t cooperating and I kept having to fix them. And arriving at the trailhead hungry, thirsty, filthy and tired only to look behind me and realize I couldn’t see what I’d just hiked up – what I’d just accomplished – was a weird experience. Strangely enough there were still a lot of tourists there. For what? A grey picture? I admire their fortitude, and hope some of them were there for more than one day so that they could actually see it.
Ensconsed in the Toyota Tundra with the heat on full blast, we made a beeline for the Market. As much as I go on about industrial tourism, this palace of commercial glory was exactly what the doctor ordered: endless shelves of fatty, salty, sugary junk food. I’m sure there’s health food in there somewhere, probably even organic green things that are good for you, but I’ve never arrived at this place in a state to look for things like that. So, armed with a raspberry canned ice tea, a box of glazed donuts, a package of Nerds (finally!), packet of Dorito’s and two hot dogs, I tucked into the spread while Tony and Tim indulged their junk food desires as well. It remains one of the top 10 junk food binges of my life.
We toddled our way back out to the truck and headed over to the labor cabins, where they are putting up the ACE reveg crews these days. We enjoyed some bluegrass, Tiger Balm and the space heater before it was time to head back to Flagstaff. More on that later! This whole trip was an amazing experience, but there’s so much more of the canyon to see. For a place I was so underwhelmed with the first time I laid eyes upon it, I am now overwhelmed with how much there’s left to see. Heck, I didn’t even see the Colorado on this trip! Of course, this how I feel with Zion, Glacier, North Cascades, Teddy Roosevelt, Yosemite, Coconino National Forest, Adirondacks, America…
Major Lessons Learned About Backpacking/Hiking in the Grand Canyon During Shoulder Season:
- Set up tent before going on trip. I checked to make sure it had enough stakes, etc., but I didn’t realize the amount of space the vestibules would take up or how much tension a hoop tent actually needs. The first night, my home-away-from-home was a sad wrinkly looking affair, with only one entrance accessible. I wised up by the second night, enlisted a friend, and such a good job was done setting up the tent that it hardly moved in the winds that scour Horseshoe Mesa.
- Backpacking meals are actually two servings. Not “two servings is one for a hungry backpacker” but actually “two servings is two servings for hungry backpackers, plural.” It made so much that I ate it for breakfast, too.
- Bring candy. My tastes run a mix of savoury and sweet, and with such heavy emphasis on salty foods for nutrition, I need a lot of sugar to make my taste buds happy. I did pack some SnakPaks, but as someone whose sweet tooth trends towards the fruit side of the sweet spectrum, chocolate puddings just didn’t cut it.
- Filtered water tastes better than tap. Well, duh, but I’d never had it before.
- Microspikes really are the way to go. And you support a local Flagstaff company, Kahtoola! Our traction systems were these little four point crampons that strapped on your boots under the ball of your foot. Best case scenario, you adjusted it every few switchbacks. Oy. But no one fell!
- Poles are a smart thing to have. We were literally the only ones on the trail sans poles. I get it now. It’s steep and unforgiving terrain, with terrifying drop-offs. Other than stability, poles help bear the weight of your pack. I felt fine without them but I think I’d bring them on future endeavors of this kind.
- It’s really the best way to see the canyon. Don’t take my word for it, sign up now for your stay at Phantom Ranch, or get your backcountry pass.
Only you can prevent forest fires,