September 15th – 17th, 2008
As my first season at the Grand Canyon progressed from summer into autumn, I thought it was high time to backpack the classic rim to rim trails. The North Rim would close for the season on October 15th, so I wanted to get there before the closure.
I only had a 2-day weekend to accomplish this. The full moon occurred on “my Friday” that weekend, so I was inspired to stretch the trip to 3 days by night-hiking on the first “day.”
Here’s how the itinerary worked out:
Day 1 – South Kaibab Trail to Bright Angel Campground (at night) 7 miles
Day 2 – Bright Angel Campground to the North Rim Campground 14 miles
Day 3 – North Rim to South Rim (North Kaibab & Bright Angel) 24 miles
Grand Canyon aficionados might be amused to hear that when I got the permit, I made an attempt to get my reservation for the North Rim campground through the backcountry office. The ranger there had to explain to me that the North Rim’s campground was managed through a different channel. As a foot traveler I’d have no trouble getting a spot at the “hiker / biker” site, though.
Day One: Night-Hiking Down the South Kaibab Trail
The trip began with a full-moon-night-hike of the South Kaibab Trail, to the bottom of the Grand Canyon at Bright Angel Campground. It was a Monday night, and a friend drove me to the trailhead after watching my hometown Philadelphia Eagles play the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football.
My first night-hike in the Grand Canyon was in the month of June, of this same year. I hiked to Indian Garden that night under a full moon, but was disappointed to discover that the moonlight did not shine directly on the upper Bright Angel Trail.
So I hoped to experience some direct moonlight on the South Kaibab Trail. I also hoped to see some tarantulas and scorpions – classic desert creatures that had escaped my detection since moving to Arizona.
I experienced plenty of moonlight – my shadow here is my moonshadow – but I failed to spot any scorpions or tarantulas. I wasn’t privy to the method of detecting scorpions with a blacklight.
I began at 10pm. The elk rut season was underway, and I could hear their bugling calls at the trailhead. The dark woods echoed with their sounds.
The moonlight shone on most of the trail below Cedar Ridge, and I was able to leave my headlamp off for the majority of the remaining hike to the bottom
The image above shows the flat straightaway of Mormon Flats, approaching Skeleton Point. What’s interesting here is the dot of light seen on the horizon to the upper left. That’s the light from North Rim Lodge. It can be seen in several of the additional photos below, too.
I’m aware that the images are rather noisy and poor, shot with an old pocket-sized camera. Maybe it’s only because of my familiarity with the terrain depicted, but I think they exude a genuine vibe that mimics a night-hiking experience in the Canyon.
I took a nice long break at the Tipoff before continuing down to the campground. My snacks for this hike included three hot dogs purchased at the Yavapai cafeteria, and two cans of Coke.
Some clouds began to move in some time after midnight.
One of my favorite anecdotes (shared by an interpretive ranger at an evening program) involves a hiker standing on the Black Bridge in the middle of the night. The hiker felt the bridge sway and thought nothing of it, assuming it was the wind. Suddenly a mountain lion brushed past him, just inches away from his legs! I guess mountain lions have to cross the river, too.
I saw some of the resident mule deer on the north side of the River, but these were the only wildlife I saw for the night. There were no elusive, desert critters! Rats.
When I shot this picture, I’m sure that I identified it only as a pretty flower. Little did I know that this is the sacred datura, a flower whose petals only bloom at night (or in deep shade). The petals retract in direct sunlight, so the flowers often go unnoticed at midday.
The white blooms of the sacred datura are a hallmark of the Grand Canyon night-hiking experience, as they shine bright under an LED headlamp. The flower reportedly has a hallucinogenic effect if ingested, but it can (and does) lead to death, as reported in the classic book Death in Grand Canyon.
I’d guess that Bright Angel Campground was fully booked. I had an interesting (but successful) time of trying to locate a vacant campsite at 2am, especially without disturbing anybody.
see more photos from Day One:
Day Two: The North Kaibab Trail & Ribbon Falls
After yesterday’s full-moon-night-hike down the South Kaibab Trail, I finally got moving around 10am.
The campground was deserted – most sensible hikers were long gone. In fact, I woke early this morning around 5am for a nature call, and the area was full of activity. I had to wait in line to use the men’s toilet!
This photo (above) from the chalkboard at Phantom Ranch is one of my favorites. The written numbers are forecast high and low temperatures. As you can see, the temperatures were in the 90s when I started my day at the bottom of the Canyon. But I’d spend the night camping on the North Rim, where the temperature would drop in to the 30s!
Most of the North Kaibab Trail follows Bright Angel Creek, and its corresponding canyon. This lower section is called “the box.” The remarkably well-built trail through here is the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Eventually I’m out of The Box. The canyon widens into a swampy, marsh-like area – something I never expected to find in the Grand Canyon.
I soaked my shirt in the creek and was thoroughly enjoying the day’s hike.
Ribbon Falls was probably the highlight of the trip. I spent at least an hour photographing the falls and climbing behind the thin cascade.
When I first posted this trip log on an older version of my website, I commented that I didn’t know if the waterfall pictured below had a name.
Someone named “Bruce” left a comment stating that it’s called Split Rock Falls, and to this day I cannot help but wonder if this was Bruce Aiken, the longtime resident of the Canyon at Roaring Springs.
This bridge below Roaring Springs marks the location of today’s Manzanita Resthouse. On the day of this hike, however, the location was Bruce Aiken’s private residence, courtesy of the Park Service as he was employed to maintain the water works. He lived here in the Canyon for over 30 years, and raised a family here.
As a naive first-time hiker on this day, I must have picked up the sense that the house was private, as I did not take any pictures of it.
Darkness fell by the time I reached the North Rim. I remember growing especially weary above the Supai Tunnel, where the elevation began to take its toll.
The greatest challenge of the day was not the climb out of the Canyon. No, rather it was the short journey from the North Kaibab Trailhead to the hiker/biker site at the North Rim’s Campground.
Upon reaching the rim at the “top” of the Canyon, I had an additional mile to walk to the campsite.
Darkness fell, and those familiar with our National Parks may recall how dark the nights are, even in the populated areas. This is deliberate to keep light pollution at a minimum.
The temperature dropped significantly (remember the chalkboard photo at Phantom Ranch?), so I was chilled and disoriented in the unfamiliar darkness as I tried to self-register for the campsite.
Eventually I located it and settled in for the night. If memory serves, I believe only one other tent was present at the site. There was a sense that I was near to the rim of the Canyon, but I could not see it in the dark night.
I was very cold. I’d only packed my summer sleeping bag, and was unprepared in the manner of extra clothing.
see more photos from Day Two:
Day Three: Rim to Rim
This was my first of many “rim to rim” Grand Canyon hikes.
My itinerary worked out this way from necessity – since I only had 2 days to get to the North Rim and back – but I’d be lying if I said the opportunity to hike from rim to rim in a single day did not play a role.
I woke a little later at the North Rim Campground than I would have liked. Rather than heading directly back down the North Kaibab Trail, I walked south on the Bridle Path to check out the North Rim Lodge.
The walk to the Lodge (and back) added about 2 miles to an already long day, so I didn’t spend much time exploring the grounds. I have no photos from either side of the Veranda this morning. I think I just stepped in to the lobby, grabbed a couple photos, and turned around.
The walk to the Lodge took longer than anticipated, so I finally caught a sense of urgency to turn around and begin the day’s hike in earnest.
I was stuck behind a mule train almost immediately. So much for making good time in the morning.
They pulled aside here in the shade and let me pass.
It wasn’t long before I was stuck behind a second mule train. Looking back at this, it interests me how these riders are here along the Redwall traverse, below the Supai Tunnel.
Presently the commercial mule rides from the North Rim do not descend below the Tunnel, so this looks like a handful of private riders, or perhaps a few guides on a recreational trip.
I remember looking out at the South Rim from this section of the trail above The Box, and thinking about how far-off it looked. On ensuing hikes I’d often take in the view from this area, day and night, and
take advantage of scoff at the line-of-sight cell phone service that’s found here, too.
I took a nice break at the foot of the Bright Angel Trail, enjoying views of the Colorado River, Zoroaster Temple, and Pipe Creek Rapids. This was my second visit to this location, where the “River Trail” and the Bright Angel Trail meet, and on both occasions I stopped to rest at the shore of the River.
On most future hikes I’d skip the diversion and opt to continue up Bright Angel Trail.
This is the last photo I took on this trip, at the day-use area at Indian Gardens. All of this terrain had been covered before on previous hikes, so I was more focused on the covering distance to the rim than taking photos
If you go on to read my future trip reports, then you’ll probably hear the following many more times – but it makes me sad to see this (now historic) image of Indian Garden. Most of the largest cottonwood trees here have since been removed for safety reasons, altering the area’s character and charm for a lifetime.
The rim to rim hike was a success, and I must admit that it was satisfying to stand at the south rim, look to the other side of the canyon, and think that I had been there this morning.