Sunday, April 27, 2008

Grand Canyon

Sunday afternoon, April 6, we arrived at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Before setting up camp, we went directly to the backcountry office to inquire about permits for backpacking into the canyon. There are two ways to get backcountry permits – applying four months in advance or showing up and getting on a waiting list. There are 30,000 people a year who apply for permits and only about 8000 people get them. Since we hadn’t planned far enough in advance to get a reservation, we thought we’d hang out for a few days until we got to the top of the permit waiting list.

As it turns out, we were fortunate and there was no waiting list when we arrived. They offered to let us start our hike that same day or the next day. We already had campground reservations for the next two nights, though, and they could only issue permits one day in advance, so we let them give us the first waitlist number for the next morning.

Excited that we’d be able to get a permit so easily, we went off to set up our site at Mather Campground. Being in the Grand Canyon isn’t like being at one of the smaller national parks. The campground at the Grand Canyon has over 300 sites. There’s also a separate trailer “campground,” which was really a very large parking lot. Four million people a year visit the park and there aren’t a lot of accommodations unless you want to drive to Flagstaff, which is 75 miles away.

Anyway, we set up camp and spent a couple hours just hanging out. After the fiasco finding lodging the night before, we were glad to have a spot to set our tent well before dark.

After dinner, we took the shuttle to Hopi Point for sunset. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, the best of the sunlight on the canyon had already passed. There were still some pretty views to be had, though.

Watching the sunset at the Grand Canyon isn’t a relaxing, solitary experience; it’s an experience you share with hundreds of other people.

Given all the people, it’s actually amazing how few people take the “12-second tour” to the bottom of the canyon. There were people stepping very close the edge and little kids running around. Yikes!

The sunset had a nice glow to it, even though there weren’t many clouds to catch the colors.

Once the sun had set, we piled back into a shuttle bus to get back to our car. As we were walking to our car, there were about a dozen deer grazing at the side of the parking lot. There were also about a dozen tourists standing around them, snapping photos with flash. Poor, harassed deer.

The ranger program that evening was a set of tales about Phantom Ranch. Phantom Ranch is at the bottom of the canyon, near where Bright Angel Creek flows into the Colorado River. Since we were staying in the campground right across from Phantom Ranch for our two nights in the canyon, this was a particularly interesting topic.

When the ranch was first built, guest were rowed across the river at the bottom of the canyon. This was problematic because guests typically rode mules to the bottom of the canyon, and apparently, ferrying mules across the river in a rowboat didn’t work (surprise, surprise). So they came up with an elaborate scheme to handle people who traveled from the South Rim of the canyon to the North Rim. The outfitter on the South Rim would use bonfires to signal to someone on the North Rim how many mules should be sent to the bottom of the canyon the next day. Empty mules would be sent down from the North Rim, and travelers from the South Rim would be rowed across to find their new mules waiting. Their vacated mules on the south side of the river would be sent back up to the South Rim.

After a while, this scheme got old and they built a cable car across the river that could hold a mule. It looked like a wild ride! Eventually, they built a suspension bridge across the river, and then the two suspension bridges that are still in use today. The photos showing them moving the cables for the bridges down the switchbacked trail of the canyon were pretty wild.

By the end of the ranger program, Brian was falling asleep and Sarah was pretty tired, too. Back we went to our campsite to curl up for a night’s rest. The only problem was that the yahoos at the campsite next to us were not into sleeping. When we’d seen them in the early afternoon, they had already started drinking. They were incredibly loud and woke us up at 1:30 AM and then again at 3:00 AM. Finally, Sarah dragged herself out of her sleeping bag and walked over to remind them that they were not the only people in the campground. When we got up in the morning, they had finally gone to bed, but they left their fire, which had been about 4 feet high at 3:00 in the morning, burning and smoking like crazy. Ugh!

Monday morning, we went and got our backpacking permit, then went back to the campground to cook breakfast. After that, we decided to walk along the Rim Trail for a while. We started at Mather Point and walked towards the Bright Angel Lodge. It was a pretty, paved stroll along the rim, with plenty of viewpoints. Unfortunately, the low air quality made for poor visibility, but there were still some pretty vistas of the canyon.

The South Kaibab trail, which we were taking into the canyon the next day, runs along the saddle.

Here’s a close-up:

You can see the trail to Plateau Point in this photo.

In the canyon, Phantom Ranch sits on the right of Bright Angel Creek and the Bright Angel Campground sits to the left.

Brian poses at an overlook:

Here’s the Bright Angel trail, which is the trail we were going to take back out of the canyon. Check out the switchbacks!

After our walk, we spent the rest of the afternoon packing for our trip into the canyon and resting at the campsite. Sarah also took out the Coleman Campstove that her Dad had given her. It is an interesting metal box contraption that you put on top of a Coleman stove so that you can bake. It’s quite difficult to control the temperature precisely, but it did just fine making a pan of chocolate chip cookie bars. Yum!

We went to bed early so we’d be ready for our big hike the next day.

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