An interesting thing occurs when sleeping in a remote area of a canyon, especially when a heavily used trail runs right by your campsite — one is able to hear voices from miles away. There is an amplification of sound that finds its way up the canyon walls and into your ear. This very thing occurred somewhere around 1 AM when I first heard a distant sound of hikers coming up the North Kaibab trail. Over the next 50 minutes, their voices got louder as this group made their way up the switchbacks in the cold, midnight darkness of the north canyon. Even when it felt like they were no more than a few yards away from me and I could make out every word they were saying, it still took another ten minutes before they passed within a couple yards of the tent and stopped for a water refill and bathroom break. This group must have been one of those speed hikers that go from one rim to another within a 24 hour span with only a Camelbak and some protein bars to keep their loads as light as possible.
Around 4:30 in the morning, more hikers began to come down the North Kaibab trail, including a few runners. We decided this was a good time to get up as we didn’t want to be caught in the early morning rush of hikers making their way to Cottonwood Camp, or wherever their destination was to take them on this day. So after packing up our sleeping gear and tent, brushing our teeth at the water fountain, and getting our bags back on, we pushed ahead to a pretty long day of hiking ahead of us – in fact, it would be the longest of our entire trip through the canyon.
Almost immediately, we came upon the Supai Tunnel, which is really no more than a man made tunnel blasted out of the canyon rock. Beyond that was the real prize: a look down the steep ravine of the Bright Angel Canyon, which we would be following all the way out to the Colorado River on the other side of Phantom Ranch. Standing here, we could also just make out the sounds of Roaring Springs as it gushed out of a large hole 1580 feet below us. We got started just after 5:30 in the morning, and despite the fact that the sun’s rays were still skimming the canyon rims, we quickly began to get warm. But despite the weights of our bags, we were making pretty good progress down the trail to a lower elevation. We stopped around 7 for a quick breakfast of bars and electrolytes, as well as several other brief stops for photo opportunities.
And speaking of pictures, I lugged my rather heavy Nikon D90 DSLR camera on this trek. I was debating with myself at home whether a large camera body, a wide angle lens, and a zoom lens would be worthwhile to take with me, adding another six pounds of weight, or just pack a small point and shoot. At the end of this debate, I figured I would drag the extra weight around since I probably wouldn’t have a chance at doing this again. Besides, after using my DSLR for some time now, a point-and-shoot doesn’t even seem like a real camera to me anymore.
So with my camera hanging from my neck, we continued our way over the next couple of hours until we reached a fork in the trail. The right trail continued on down to Cottonwood Campground, our destination for this morning, whereas left trail took a side trip to the Roaring Springs. By this time, the sunlight had clearly made its way down into the canyon and it was starting to heat up. So, as nice as a side trip may have been to see this deluge of water that feeds the Bright Angel Creek tributary as it makes its way to the Colorado River, we decided to stick to the main trail and continue to the campground. But, I did snap a few pictures of it, as you can see below.
About three-quarters of a mile past the Roaring Springs turnoff, there a small house called the Pumphouse Residence. This was a private home where a Grand Canyon park employee and artist named Bruce Aiken lived with his family and painted there for many decades. Passing it, I couldn’t tell if anyone lived there now, but it does seem to be in pretty good repair. By this point on the trail, most of the steep downhill terrain had leveled off, and there were now a series of some rolling hills for the final 1.4 miles to Cottonwood Camp. Along the way, and even further up the trail, we had crossed the Bright Angel Creek several times over the constructed foot-bridges, which are also nice areas to stop at for photo opportunities.
We arrived at Cottonwood Campground just after 9 AM – a total of 5.1 miles of hiking in about three and a half hours. By this time, the sun was blazing down into the canyon and the temperature was in the mid 90s and extremely dry. We found a campsite here with some shade and dropped our bags. After resting for about 30 minutes, I pulled out the cooking gear and stove and made some huevo rancheros from our Backcountry Pantry selection of food that we brought with us. As is usual with eating in the wild, the food was actually quite good, and despite the heat of the day, a hot meal did help to energize us. We decided to stay here for a while before pushing on to Bright Angel Campground.
Several hours later, we began seeing several of the hikers and backpackers who were shuttled to the North Rim with us the day before. These folks had started the trail that morning and would be staying here at Cottonwood for the night. One group of six backpackers from Texas walked into the campground we were in and asked if they could hang with us. Since we were not going to be staying here for the night anyway, we were happy to have them come in. We spent some time hanging out and talking to them and found out that they would be hiking out on Tuesday, or a day after us.
Around 2 PM, we cooked another meal of Pad Thai, filled up our water reservoirs, dunked our hats and bandannas in cold water to keep us cool (at least as much as possible), and headed out. In addition to the 7.2 miles we had to hike to reach Bright Angel Campground, we also wanted to take another detour to the much lauded Ribbon Falls. It only took us about 45 minutes to travel the 1.6 miles from Cottonwood camp to reach the trail head for the falls. Unlike Roaring Springs, there is no way to see Ribbon Falls from this point, and one has to go down the trial, over the bridge crossing the Bright Angel Creek, and around a few hills to see the falls. This adds over a mile to the overall length of the journey, but it is very well worthwhile to see the waterfall. It really is quite striking and an excellent respite from the heat of the canyon. One can actually climb the natural stairs and walk behind the ribbon falls for a pretty awesome view of this part of the canyon from this unique point of view as the wall of water crashes down onto a moss covered rock just yards in front of you.
Moving on from this point, we got back onto the main trail again and found that we actually had to go uphill for several hundred yards on a pretty steep trail. This was pretty annoying considering that the Bright Angel Campground is 1400 feet below Cottonwood Camp, and so we were hoping for a smooth, easy walk over the course of this trail. Oh well – such is life, I suppose. But fortunately, it levels off quickly and the trail gets back to rolling hills with each successive hill lower than the last.
For a while, the terrain here is quite nice. Lots of vegetation, cacti, flowers, trees, and other desert flora. The canyon walls are also pretty far apart for the first couple of miles. But then, there is THE BOX! What’s the BOX? This is the last part of the North Kaibab trail that ends at Phantom Ranch. It is the inner gorge of the Bright Angel Canyon – a narrow canyon within the canyon that is no more than a couple of hundreds yards wide that hugs the 1.7 billion year old Vishnu Schist and tends to go on and on. The issue here with the Box is not physical exertion, as the terrain is fairly flat and slightly downhill as you head towards the Colorado River. Instead, there is the very real danger of hitting this area at the wrong time of the day. The closeness of the sheer canyon walls and low elevation makes this the hottest part of the trail. The ranger we met at Cottonwood Camp told us that it can get up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit during the mid day from June through August. Rescue missions have to be made on foot, and usually the victim is just put into the adjoining Bright Angel Creek that runs next to the trail until the sun begins to set and moving a person becomes much easier. The second issue with this area is the slight claustrophobia, in that it doesn’t ever seem to end. With enough twists and turns and bridges to cross over the creek a half a dozen times, the Box seems to go on and on. However, this is a beautiful hike, and if done in the early morning hours, it is a very nice walk. Not to beat a dead horse, but our enthrallment with this area quickly ended as the weight of our bags started getting to us, and we had already hiked 10 miles over since the early morning when we began our journey. As a result of this, I didn’t take as many pictures of this area as I should have. The setting sun really did bring out a lot of the colors in the rock and would have come out pretty good.
But we did eventually make our destination, and just past 8:45 PM we entered Phantom Ranch. It was a great relief to walk into this small oasis. A short quarter of a mile past the canteen brought us to Bright Angel Campground which was our stopping point for the night. We actually stopped off at the very first campsite just past the bridge and set up our tent, had some protein bars, and fell asleep by 10 PM.
The total distance for today was roughly 13.5 miles, including the detour to Ribbon Falls. In terms of elevation, this would be the lowest point of our rim to rim hike at 2480 feet above sea level. From here on, we would be heading uphill to the South Rim at 6860 feet and another 9.6 miles up the Bright Angel Trail.