Lia and David at the Grand Canyon

Welcome to our Grand Canyon travelogue, from March of 2013!

This version contains pretty much all of the pictures that turned out at all viewable. There is also a shorter version and a gallery of the very best pictures. Click on any picture to see it bigger.

Here are some details about our gear.

This is our proposed route. We planned to start on Thursday at the South Kaibab trailhead at the lower right and hike down to the river and across to Phantom Ranch. There we would spend two nights. Saturday morning we would ascend Bright Angel Trail on the left of the map, including a side trip from Indian Garden out to Plateau Point and back. The descent is about 7.5 miles long and goes down 4780 feet. The ascent is about 10 miles long and climbs 4380 feet. The Plateau Point excursion is 3 miles round trip and mainly flat. So our planned total hike was just over 20 miles.

John Wesley Powell said that the Grand Canyon shows us the Earth's history like the pages of a book. There are distinct layers encompassing billions of years -- some sedimentary from when the area was covered by the sea, others igneous or metamorphic when it wasn't. So some strata are soft and crumbly (geologically speaking) while others are hard and durable.

This gives the canyon a very distinctive topography, which you can see on the map above and in the ubiquitous panorama of the canyon:

At the top are hard layers of limestone and sandstone forming white-yellow cliffs that look completely impassable. Below these are softer red shale and sandstone layers that have eroded to a 45-degree angle. Then we hit another layer of limestone cliffs, called "redwall limestone"; they look red here, but they are just dyed by runnoff from the sandstone above them. Then more soft shale layers that almost flatten out into the Tonto Plateau.

The area on the left of this picture is the Tonto Plateau, which is flat enough that it covers a fair bit of area, sloping gently down until it finally reveals the very hard "basement rock" of Granite Gorge, where there is a steep drop down to the Colorado River. On the Tonto Plateau you can see two important landmarks. The little belt of green is Indian Garden, a campsite and only source of water on the Bright Angel Trail. Heading out from it toward the top of the picture is a faint line roughly parallel to the creek path; this is the trail to Plateau Point. Plateau Point was our lodestone, visible from almost everywhere above it and even recognizable from some places below it!

Here's another shot of Plateau Point and The Battleship, the formation to its left.

Altitude is an issue for Bay Area climbers. The South Rim is at 6800 feet, and even the canyon floor is at 2400 feet. On our first day, to start getting used to the altitude, we took a short hike down on the Bright Angel Trail.

Our destination was "Second Tunnel", 3/4 of a mile away but 450 feet down, about a tenth of the total elevation change to the floor.

Lia rests by showing us her Bruce Campbell imitation.

On the last two pictures you can see the gap between two cliffs that the trail follows; on the big versions you can see people on the trail.

After that we went out to the Geology Museum on Yavapai Point. There we got a fantastic 25-minute lecture on the origins of the canyon.

Yavapai Point also about the only place on the Rim where you can see both Phantom Ranch (the little green patch running up a side canyon) and the Colorado River itself (the smooth muddy brown patch a little to its left). It's easier to see in the zoom version; the big picture even shows the Black Bridge and its shadow on the river. This was such a great shot that I kept it even though my thumb appears in the upper left corner.

Returning, we got a striking view of the top quarter of the Bright Angel Trail. Lots and lots of switchbacks.

We saw some elk on the Rim. Everybody wanted to photograph them.

Lia's cousin Jerry lives in Utah and drove down to spend a day with us.

Jerry calls my attention to the Canyon, in case I missed it.

Jerry took two pictures of us. By this time Lia was getting used to the idea that we were going way down there.

On Thursday, we got up early because we had to vacate our room, have a substantial breakfast, and get in line at 7am for the Phantom Ranch waiting list. I had made reservations a year earlier, but even then all I could get were beds in the men's and women's bunkhouses. Lia got the bright idea of calling them every day for the last month of two, to see if there was a cancellation for a private cabin. She secured one for our second night at the ranch, and when we reported for the waiting list Thursday morning, we got the other night. My wife is a wonder.

Then we caught the 8am shuttle for the trailhead, and by 8:30 were ready to make our start.

Here we are at the South Kaibab trailhead.

Looking down, we can see how we get down the first cliffs: lots of switchbacks carved right into the face. And beyond that, look! Plateau Point!

The tallest of the yellow-white cliffs are the Coconino Formation. Here you can see that we're already getting down to its base.

A good shot of the Redwall Limestone cliffs, dyed red by the red sandstone above it. When you get down into it, the true white color is visible in the places where they have carved the rock away to make room for the path. The red dye is apparently quite superficial.

It gets warmer as the sun gets higher, and warmer the lower you go in the canyon. We had stepped around occasional ice patches at the top, but by this point we were starting to shed some of the layers we wore.

Looking back up the cliffs we just came down.

You start out with switchbacks hugging the side of a ridge, but after a mile (and almost 1000 feet down) you reach Ooh-Ah Point, where the view opens up and you can see in all directions.

You're looking at O'Neill Butte from Ooh-Ah Point. Our future trail actually winds around this side of it.

A mile and a half from the Rim is Cedar Ridge, a nice resting point with a toilet. Like all of the South Kaibab Trail, it's pretty exposed, but Lia found us a tree we could hunker under for a snack.

Downstream and upstream from Cedar Ridge. The Tonto Plateau starts to look noticeably green from here. Despite its rugged contours, I was irresistibly reminded of looking down on the ocean from a plane.

Cedar Ridge marks a point where the trail goes suddenly over the side, but Lia is ready.

Heading for O'Neill Butte, and a bit of the trail beyond it.

Once you get down from O'Neill Butte, the trail levels out a bit. We're still following the ridge-line down, but the trail is going overland and not down a precipice. The end of this stretch is Skeleton Point, three miles from the Rim and 2000 feet down. If you're doing a day hike from the Rim, this is absolutely as far as you're supposed to go. We've still got four miles to go.

Things start to feel different this far down. You feel like you're in the middle of things, seeing the familiar Rim formations in all directions.

A preview of the trail down from Skeleton Point.

Lia kept getting ahead of me as I stopped to take pictures.

Our destination, Phantom Ranch! This is our first sight of it since the Geology Museum. It still looks pretty far away.

I took a ton of pictures of the trail winding ahead of us. They aren't really very evocative, but at the time the prospect could be pretty alarming.

Grabbing a bit of shade as we finally near the Tonto Plateau. This is about where Lia starting talking about "The Emerald City"; we're down past the red sandstone, and the vegetation makes the land take on a dark green -- at least in the distance. It's hard to see here; we wondered if our eyes were just overcompensating for being drowned in red for the last two hours.

At the far edge of the Tonto Plateau is a crossroads called The Tipoff. Here the Kaibab Trail is crossed by the Tonto Trail, an orthogonal trail that mostly follows this countour parallel to the river; we'll cross it again when we come up the Bright Angel Trail. There is civilization of a sort: a toilet and a paddock for the mule trains.

The Tipoff is where we once more give up gradual walking in the open for a precipitous descent. Here we look back up to Skeleton Point, and down to the Colorado River.

We're getting down into the Granite Gorge here, the two-billion-year-old black schist that held the whole layered landscape in place when it was lifted up thousands of feet 70 million years ago. The river carved down this far in pretty short order (geologically speaking) but its progress through the schist is much slower.

Here's the trail winding down to the river, and a distant view of the Black Bridge, where we will cross the river.

The black schist was really striking after all the sandstone and limestone, even up close. Naturally, these pictures don't really capture it.

A couple of pictures showing the canyon for Bright Angel Creek. The campground and Phantom Ranch are up this notch, so it has some nice shelter from the sun.

And here we are at the river! Seven miles and 4800 feet down.

We cross the bridge and walk along the river for maybe a tenth of a mile, to Bright Angel Creek. The River is "too thick to drink and too thin to plow", and flows so swiftly that the signs say "Do Not Enter River: You Will Perish". But Bright Angel Creek is lovely and burbly. We feel we are almost done, but it turns out that there is still a quarter-mile slog past the campground, ranger station, and mule paddock to get to the Ranch. Not that far, and a very gentle climb, but we were ready for it to be over.

We got to the Ranch HQ at 3:40pm, just about seven hours after we left. Lia asked if they had ice cream; I asked if they had Coke. They had Lemmy Lemonade, and we were happy to get it.

Our cabin, home from home for two nights. It has two pair of bunk beds, a small card table and two chairs (all of which were instantly covered with our stuff), a toilet, and a cold-water tap. More importantly, it has electricity and air conditioning. The Ranch is nestled in Bright Angel Valley, surrounded by cottonwood trees, a real haven.

Other cabins in the morning. The cliff goes much higher than it looks; you see the part that's still in shade, and above that is the part that's getting blasted by the direct sun. And the back side of the Canteen, where meals and lemonade happened. The meals are big family-style affairs on long tables; outside of mealtime, the tables are a great place to play cards, write postcards, read, or drink gallons of lemonade.

One thing that made this whole adventure tractable was that we bought the "duffle service": at the Rim we each filled a duffle with stuff we wanted at the bottom, and dropped it off to be carried down by mule, so it was waiting for us when we got there. We met people who were camping, but carried less than we did because they had duffled their tent, sleeping bags, cookstove, etc.

One thing we duffled was "Lost Cities", a two-person card game we play on the road a lot. It got knocked around in the duffle -- I guess I packed it too close to something hard -- but my first thought was that a mule had stepped on it.

A land of contrasts, especially regarding brightness.

There's a helipad at the Ranch, used for emergencies. In this case, they told us it was because a senator had decided to visit. (It's good to be King.)

We had read somewhere that there was a guest laundry at the Ranch, but there wasn't. So Lia took some clothes down to Bright Angel Creek, and let them dry on the bench in front of our cabin.

Later we walked further down the creek so Lia could dandle her feet. (Note close-up of feet.)

Saturday morning we got up at five for the early breakfast and to finish assembling our duffles for their return by mule. The prospect of climbing 4400 feet made us offload everything but the bare essentials into our duffles.

We start by strolling back down the creek to the river.

A few steps down the river and we see Silver Bridge.

Looking back over Silver Bridge to Black Bridge. You can still see a bit of the cottonwoods, but they will soon disappear.

Along the river we followed a stretch of very sandy trail, almost like walking on a beach. Lia really appreciated her pink "Dirty Girl" gaiters here -- and everywhere else, really, since where there wasn't sand there was gravel. Lots of people saw them and liked them.

The gorge is very stark here -- straight down to the riverbed.

The map said there were rapids next to the River Resthouse, so I guessed we were close. Sure enough around the next bend there it was, along with our first waterfall (a couple of feet high). The waterfall is Pipe Creek, and this is the point where we turn away from the river and start climbing up next to Pipe Creek.

Climbing next to Pipe Creek. This is vastly different from the South Kaibab Trail, more enclosed and always with some greenery.

Little waterfall and oasis.

Working our way up a narrow gorge. The trail is starting to get a little steeper.

Here we are at the base of the Devil's Corkscrew. We've left Pipe Creek by this time, and are about to make a steep climb up to the Tonto Plateau.

After we get to the top of the Devil's Corkscrew, the trail winds north a bit to Six-Mile Overlook. Look carefully in the second picture and you can see the trail coming up from below and heading out above, with people on each. The hike was plenty secluded, but we were seldom out of sight of other people for long.

Looking back down Pipe Creek Canyon.

Still winding along the side of the canyon.

From the Six-Mile Overlook you get a great view of Devil's Corkscrew. Good thing you can't see it that well from the bottom!

Still working our way up to the Tonto Plateau. We can once again see our destination, the South Rim, on the left.

We join Garden Creek, which feeds into Pipe Creek lower down, so things start getting lush again.

Suddenly a new color appears! This is a redbud tree, just beautiful.

What can I say; we really liked the redbud tree.

Greener and greener.

The passage gets narrow again as we climb up through the base rock of the Tonto Plateau.

We arrive at Indian Garden Campground. Fresh water, many benches, lots of cottonwood and redbud trees. We saw this from the Rim, and it was every bit as nice as it looked.

It's 11:30, and we've walked about three hours and traversed half the trail. Our original plan here was to make the excursion out to Plateau Point. That's about three miles round trip, but it's comparatively flat. Since we took seven exhausting hours just for the descent, I'd been assuming we would skip Plateau Point, but Lia was game. We had a quick lunch and set out.

Looking back at Indian Garden.

Heading toward Plateau Point, we can see the narrow canyon we climbed to get up here.

Giant agave and, um, some kind of cactus.

Lia was really taken with the purple paddles on these cacti.

Here's one that's budding out.

Final approach to Plateau Point. Lots of people had the same idea we had.

The views from Plateau Point were just spectacular. Looking down the Colorado River in a gorge with no room to spare, and looking upstream including the very earliest part of Bright Angel Trail; the River Resthouse is the other side of the pointy peak in the foreground.

Another retrospective of Devil's Corkscrew and Indian Garden.

It becomes clearer and clearer that at some point we will have to climb those cliffs just under the Rim! In the zoom picture on the right you can see the switchbacks leading up to the cliffs, through the little gap where they change orientation, and even above them up to the Rim.

Looking eastward to the ridge we walked down on the Kaibab. Skeleton Point is just right of the notch, and O'Neill Butte sticks up just in front of the Rim.

Heading back to Indian Garden.

We're starting to get some clouds now, and can see rain on the North Rim, but didn't get any ourselves.

Back at Indian Garden, we had another lunch and topped up our water supply. Lia heard someone note that while we had covered half the trail we had climbed only a third of the elevation, and she was briefly daunted. The fact that we started climbing away from the creek, in early afternoon sun, didn't help. But we were both still really glad we'd been out to the Point.

Looking back down the canyon to Indian Garden.

We come now to another steep stretch called "Jacob's Ladder". Above the switchbacks you see here, the trail rounds a bend into another whole set of switchbacks, and so on for about 3/4 of a mile. As Lia nears the top of it, you can make out the Three-Mile Resthouse.

Looking back done from the resthouse, you can see the circuitous switchbacks of Jacob's Ladder. We rested in the shade here for quite a while, sharing conversation with others, including one fellow and his wife who had been down South Kaibab that same day and were now slogging their way to the top.

We've been a mile and a half from Indian Garden and only have three miles to go, but it includes some of the steepest sections on the trail. Looking back at the resthouse, we still see rain on the South Rim.

We're still doing well, but afternoon shadows are starting to cover Indian Garden.

A little farther up and we are nearing the base of the white Coconino cliffs, and the Mile-And-A-Half Resthouse. The top is actually 1.7 miles from here, but who's counting?

Here you can easily see the narrow cleft between the Coconino cliffs, with the trail winding its way up.

Indian Garden is in twilight now.

We're well into the Coconino now. Just ahead is Second Tunnel! We hiked this far down on our first day. Our memory is that the top is very close, but they seem to have stretched the trail out considerably since Tuesday.

We're above the Coconino now, and we can see individual trees on the Rim. The afternoon shadows are very dramatic across the canyon.

Here's First Tunnel. One more back-and-forth and we're done!

Proof that we made it to the top. Now let's head for the Best Western and crash!