We get up at 5:30, quickly shower and dress in our room, use the little coffee maker, check out. We meet the group at 6:30 (ish) in the Backcountry parking lot near the Bright Angel hotel. A quick breakfast of bagels and fruit, a last minute gear check, and we’re off.
It’s cold, maybe 40 degrees Fahrenheit. There are small patches of snow in the shade. That’s not surprising. It’s April 3, and we’re at an elevation of 6840 feet. Down in the canyon at 2500 feet, it’s considerably warmer. Also, it’s the beginning of the day. It will get warmer as we get further into the trail, and as the day progresses. Right now, we’re in jackets, hats and gloves.
We cross the railroad tracks, walk through the Bright Angel hotel (making note of where they sell ice cream), reach the Bright Angel trailhead. There are bathrooms here, we use them. There is also a mule pen with riders getting ready to go down our trail by mule power. The mule leaders look comfortable in their western garb, the other riders less so.
The trailhead also features a sign with a man on his knees, puking his guts out. The sign explains that the Grand Canyon is a serious hike, and that no one should attempt to hike to the bottom and back in the same day, especially if it’s hot. We nod sagely and begin.
Our guide Emily points out notable features of the canyon’s geology, some native American petroglyphs, objects in the distance that will be our destinations. They look very far away. She reminds us to eat and drink regularly; this is a calorie-burning hike, even in the downhill direction. The mules eventually catch up and pass us.
The mule train is about 20 animals, single file. That makes them far enough apart that the leader has to shout to be heard in back. Fortunately, he has really good lungs and we can hear him from quite a distance. They certainly didn’t sneak up on us.
The day warms up and we shed our gloves and outer layers. At the canyon’s rim, vegetation features Ponderosa Pines, which grow in cooler, wetter climates. As we go down in elevation, we enter different climates and so different vegetation as well. Our lunch spot, Indian Garden, is at 3800 feet (3000 below where we started), and it features deciduous trees including large cottonwoods. The trees cluster around a stream. Further from reliable water the plants are smaller and scarcer. The Park Service says that Indian Garden is as far as you should attempt on a one-day round trip, if you don’t want to end up like puking man.
After lunch, we come to a steep series of switchbacks that drop us into the deepest part of the canyon, the Vishnu Schist layer. This rock erodes in a much more vertical configuration, so the walls are steeper here. The Vishnu steepness is a lot of the reason why the river can’t be seen from most spots on the rim.
Finally, we get our first view of the Colorado River! “Colorado” means “red”, and the water is a muddy red color. We walk along the side for a while, approaching the Silver Bridge. Our campsite is on the other side at Bright Angel Campground, next to Phantom Ranch. The Ranch is an inn providing actual beds and food, not luxurious. Reservations must be made about a year in advance, by lottery. The mule riders will stay here.
Emily gets our gear from the mule wranglers that have already arrived, and we set up our camp. It’s about 3:00, and we’ve hiked 10 miles, descending 4340 feet. Obviously, that’s the easy direction.
Phantom Ranch has a library of canyon-related books, available for free loan to anyone who hikes or rides down there. There is also a full-time park ranger station. The rangers give two outdoor talks each day, at 4:00 and 7:30 (when we were there). We miss the 4:00 talk, but attend the 7:30 talk by “Ranger Kate”, entitled “Bird Brains” (about how intelligent birds can actually be). It’s already dark at this time, so the talk is given by PowerPoint on a screen. I guess she uses a small battery pack.
Phantom Ranch does have electricity, and the campground has lights at its bathrooms. There are no other lights and it gets very dark at night. The stars are amazing! We get into our tent and sleep well.