Planet   Backpacker
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier

Backpacking the North Rim & Bright Angel Trail

   Hiking the Grand Canyon is one of the world's great backpacking adventures. But which is the best route? The long trail from the North Rim, or the shorter, but steeper route from the South?  We chose the Bright Angel Trail for the memory of a lifetime... 

By Robert Downes

Author: Planet Backpacker

   The last person I expected to see on the Bright Angel Trail heading down into the heart of the Grand Canyon was my wife, Jeannette.

   But such are the wanderings of fate when you plan a reunion hike with your middle-aged high school chums who you haven't seen in decades.

  Everyone was happy to sign on, but when it was time to commit, the plan collapsed like a stack of crackers.  One old friend complained that he couldn't possibly rendezvous in such a sleazy, plastic place as Las Vegas (the most obvious fly-in point for a Grand Canyon hike), and when pressed, another weaseled that he'd done the canyon before and it was dreadfully hot and difficult. And so on. So there it stood: a guys-only reunion of the old high school buccaneers was dithered out of existence.  It was like trying to organize a nursing home picnic for some fussy old men. 

   There was only one person I knew who was tough enough to make the trip:

   "Would you like to go with me?" I asked Jeannette.  Sure.

   So it was that we found ourselves hiking the 14.5-mile Bright Angel Trail into the Grand Canyon on a glorious day in early September.

     The trail from the North Rim is half again as long as the more traveled South Rim trail, but has the advantage of being much more scenic, with a gradual slope into the canyon from an elevation of 8,000 feet. The trail wanders down through a pine forest and then along a cheerful waterway that is well served by the name, Bright Angel. By contrast, the South Rim trail from the canyon's main visitor center plunges steeply down a 10-mile stretch of stark rock on a path that is heavily traveled by mules and laden with their dung.

Grand Canyon, North Rim, Bright Angel Trail, Planet Backpacker
The trail runs more than 14 miles.

  And if you've ever breathed in the dust of mule shit for hours on end under a flaming sun with temps in the 100s, you can appreciate the aesthetics of the longer trail.

   Once down from the heights of the North Rim, the trail follows Bright Angel Creek -- a sparkling rivulet that lifts your heart, clothed in cottonwood foliage along its banks to break up the eerie monotony of the silent craigs and mysterious canyons yawning all around you.

   Fourteen and a half miles is halfway to being strenuous, even if it is all downhill.  I had stupidly accepted the park's recommendation that warm clothes might be needed in the canyon, and had also brought along our tent.  As it turned out, neither was necessary, so the hike was a literal exercise in lugging extra weight.

   At the bottom of the canyon lies the Phantom Ranch and a campground at the junction of Bright Angel Creek and the Colorado River.  Here you find an oasis on par with the Garden of Eden and must resist the urge to toss off your clothes and wander around naked like Adam and Eve.

   Though I must confess, Paradise was made even more pleasant by the discovery of beer in the camp store, which had been hauled into the canyon on the back of a mule.

   There's not a lot to do at the bottom of the canyon but walk some local trails, soak in the creek, and watch gigantic rubber rafts full of drenched passengers slough down the Colorado.

   A day later, with temperatures hitting 115 F., Jeannette and I hit the trail for the uphill climb out.  Quixotically, the park expects you to cover the entire 14.5 miles uphill in a single day if you're unable to reserve a campsite along the way.

   The campsites were all booked, of course, but there was no way we'd make it the entire distance in this heat, so I resolved to 'bandit' camp along the way.  Fortunately, we found a 'closed' site at the Cottonwood campground halfway along the route and pitched our tent surreptitiously.  For all I know, the site had been closed to accommodate a rattlesnake nest (a big pink diamond back was spotted just across the way).

   Our illegal camping made me nervous, and I was unable to sleep at the thought of getting busted by a park ranger.  Along about 3 a.m., I noticed that several campers were hitting the trail.  As luck would have it, there was a full moon shining rampant over the canyon, giving the sandstone cliff the look of -- well, the blue surface of the moon itself.

   Let's go.  We struck our tent and were on the trail by 4 a.m., me repressing the irrational fear that we could get jumped by a mountain lion.  (They go for your neck, the guidebook said.  Protect your jugular and fight like hell!  Okay...)

   Anyway, it was a good call, because by 11 a.m. the sun was rising at our footsteps up the canyon wall and I had the sensation that we were about to get microwaved.  The last mile is the toughest on the North Rim, since it climbs straight up.  We saw a woman crying in frustration, trying to drag herself along.  On the other hand, we also saw an extremely fit woman who was apparently running the 25-mile length of the trail from rim-to-rim with the aid of hiking poles and a Camelback water harness.

   Trudge, trudge, trudge... the last bit is the realm of a series of mule tours, so you're slogging through drifts of powdered mule shit.  It stinks and it's hot, and the treeline at the top of the canyon never seems to get any closer.

   But eventually, of course, it does, and I arrived at the plateau with my legs feeling as if they'd just completed an ultramarathon -- totally hammered, but exultant over one of the best hiking experiences we'd ever had.

   Getting there: it's a no-brainer. Catch a discount flight to Vegas, rent a car and head north to St. George, Utah. From there you head east to the North Rim visitors center past the isolated communities of the outlaw Morman polygamists written about by Jan Krakauer in "Under the Bannner of Heaven."

   Must Do's: Be sure to reserve your campsites with the Grand Canyon park service months in advance of your hike.  See 

   Also, take their advice to carry lots of water seriously.  More than 250 people have to be rescued from the canyon each year.  We packed a gallon jug along with our neoprene bottles.  A number of people die in the canyon each year because they get dehydrated, suffer heat stroke, and wander off the trail to their doom or simply collapse.

   We found that many people don't bother with tent; they simply take along a ground cloth and a ThermaRest and stretch out under the stars.

   Count on your feet aching, no matter how comfortable your hiking boots.  You may wish to pack a pair of sandals to give your dogs a break now and then.  Definitely bring moleskin, or wrap your heels with duct tape before blisters can develop.  It comes off easily enough if you soak your feet  in water.

   Cool side trip: Zion National Park.  This is an added advantage to hiking the North Rim, since Zion is spectacular beyond words.  An on-and-off bus system takes you into the park to various trails and attractions.  Early Mormon explorers named the features of Zion after aspects of heaven (ie: Angels Landing), and it's easy to see why once you experience this wonder.  In fact, two years after hiking the Grand Canyon, I returned to Zion for a solo hike from the north end of the park.

Signed copies of the expanded second edition, featuring more than 40 routes and 1,400 miles of cycling.


Travels With My Wife


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