Backpacking the Grand Canyon    
  
May 6-10, 2002
  
by Wayne Norman
  
(Click on photos to enlarge)
  
                       
My first time backpacking The Grand Canyon was one of the most incredible weeks of my life.
 
   
This hike idea wasn't mine.  About six months earlier, WILI VP Colin Rice was talking about backpacking The Canyon with my eventual hike leader Charlie Bender of Lebanon, Ct.  Colin wanted to do it, but couldn't, but suggested Charlie ask me to go.  A few months later (March 2002) Charlie asked me.  I didn't know Colin was the "matchmaker" until much later.
   
While the other four hikers were approximately my age (53), they had all done the canyon several times, and are experienced hikers.  I spent most of April attempting to get in condition, and worked pretty hard at it--including some rugged 2-mile hikes with a 45 pound backpack (I had about a 25-30 pounder in the Canyon), also some serious stair climbs (including the UConn Football Stadium), and just some brisk 2-mile walks around the neighborhood.
   
But there is absolutely NOTHING you can do around here to prepare for the rigors of hiking The Canyon.   Besides the steep trails and rugged terrain, the altitude (7400' at the rim) is a significant factor.  In retrospect, I would probably condition with more brisk DOWNHILL walks--preferably steep--including stairs.
   
Our quintet flew very early Saturday morning 5/4/02 and were in Phoenix by 9:30am MST.  We took the scenic route north thru beautiful Sedona (red rocks) and gorgeous Oak Creek Canyon in Central Arizona.  We stopped in Flagstaff to buy groceries for the hike, and still made it to the rim to watch sunset over The Canyon from Mather Point.
 
I have traveled to 20 countries and 43 USA states--including a quick stop at the South Rim in 1991, and I still maintain that The Grand Canyon is the single most stunning site I have seen in the continental USA.   Seeing it again from the South Rim in 2002 did nothing to change that opinion.  I would be about to view it from an area many dream of visiting, but few actually do.
   
Sunday--partly as pre-hike conditioning and partly for sightseeing--we did most of the rim view points.  They are all about the same, but all distinctly different.  And as I looked down from places like Grandview Point (where our trail would begin) to Horseshoe Mesa and on to the Colorado River beyond, I got significantly spooked.  It looked just TOO FAR!
   
One of the best rim moments was Sunday lunch.  Jim knew a little-used level 1-mile dirt road to Shoshone Point (east of the Village).  We ate lunch on the picnic tables overlooking the rim, then stood on the rocks that constitute the point.   The aspect which made this location special was its unique vantage point just west of the exact areas we would be hiking--Grandview Trail, Horseshoe Mesa, Cottonwood Creek, & Grapevine Creek.   Again, I was spooked to see the vast area and elevation we would be covering (and at that point we were still planning to hike to the Colorado, but we later learned the access via lower Grapevine was reserved only for Spiderman due to mudslides).
 
  
The hikers were my softball buddies Charlie and Jim--brothers who would show amazing agility, and their hiking expertise was incredible--and John and Dawn Drum (also from Lebanon, Ct), who also were in good shape and experienced Canyon hikers.   That left me as the rookie--a challenge they seemed to relish.
 
We departed Grandview (10 miles east of the village) at 8:09am Monday 5/6/02.   The rim had been sub-freezing at sunrise.  The Grandview Trail was very steep--much more than I imagined--and we kept moving at a pretty good clip (in retrospect I would have elected to take that first leg slower--less muscle stress).  I wanted to take more looks at the magnificent views, but on this trail you had to watch your footing. 
 
When we got to Horseshoe Mesa (which really DOES resemble a north-facing horseshoe!) three miles later and 2400' lower, I was pretty tired and a little sore.  So after lunch (canned tuna in pita pockets), I rested under a tree while the others went cave/mine exploring on the mesa. Knowing we had farther to go, I didn't want to leave it all on the mesa.   I've since seen their photos and now wish I had made the packless cave trip.

 

Still, my rest was a good idea, since what I didn't know was the hardest was yet to come.   The 1.5 mile switchback-laden trail west to Cottonwood Creek was not only steeper than Grandview, but littered with "scree"--loose rocks--which is particularly hard on downhill hikers, as you can't get a good plant foot down. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Halfway down the side of the mesa, the guys found another good cave (more stalgmites/stalactites) off the trail, took their packs off and "scrambled"  (bushwacked it up the side of the mesa with no trail) about 100 yards, and later returned giddy over their find.  Again, as the 90 degree heat and sun took over, I sat that round out.  I struggled for the last half mile over fairly level trail before we staked our campground next to the creek.  I have no memory of that day's last mile.

"Campground" in The Canyon means not much more than level dirt ground--usually near a water supply.  It does not mean bunkhouses, cable TV, porta-potties, or vending machines.   We filtered all drinking/cooking water from the creeks.  We all used sleeping bags and various brands of cushioned sleeping rolls to protect from rocks and uneven ground. 

 
My experienced hiker friends strongly suggested walking sticks.   Mine was a sturdy six foot branch, 2" in diameter, with duct tape added to the top and bottom to prevent fraying and splinters.  I didn't understand how important that stick would be, and probably didn't use the stick enough on the first day.  But the stick became a trusted ally as the week wore on--so much so that I brought it home with me and later used it in the 2002 July Fourth WILI "Boom Box Parade," where I also wore my Canyon backpack. My wise acre hiking partners emerged from the sidewalk midway through with a stretcher and a sign that said "Wayne's Rescue Crew" and followed me down the rest of the parade route.  Funny stuff.
  
Back in The Canyon, Monday night I was in BIG TROUBLE.  Besides the obvious fatigue, my calves and thighs were extremely sore.  While I knew there was no way to do it, I was contemplating an airlift out (Charlie never would have allowed that!).  Besides being expensive ($2500), airlifts are reserved for things more serious than muscle aches--like broken legs. But besides being excellent hikers and campers, my associates--each in their own supportive way--told me my pain wasn't uncommon, and it would abate as the week progressed.  They were right.  I think they, too, were achy--each in their own way--but from past experience they expected it, and didn't let on to me that they, too were hurting.
   
ALL WEEK I was paranoid about the trip back up.  If DOWNHILL was that bad, what horrors would UPHILL hold?  They each assured me that uphill is actually easier (less painful).  Still, I often obsessed about the ordeal that Friday could present (turned out they were right on the money), based on my downhill woes.
   
My primary campsite assignment each day was to gather firewood--cutting small branches into 3" pieces--for our small "stove."  I got pretty good at it while the others cooked.  Breakfast was always instant oatmeal and decaf coffee.  Dinner was various one-pot pasta/rice/noodle mixes with some other stuff (i.e..pepperoni) thrown in.  Not gourmet, but effective and tasty.  And lunches on the trail were that same efficient pita pocket w/canned tuna or chicken.  All trash gets brought out, so things like tuna cans were flattened and stowed.
   
It took me two attempts to stand up Tuesday morning, but despite the aching calves/thighs, once we got hiking I hung in there--even leading the way for awhile.  Tue-Wed-Thurs were mostly level hiking, but EVERY downhill step Tuesday hurt the thighs. 
 
As we hiked 5.5 miles from Cottonwood to Grapevine via the Tonto Trail, we got our closest glimpse of the Colorado River from about 1000 feet above, with some rapids and even a raft.  
 
 
 
 
 
Some of the Tonto came close to sheer cliffs and rapid dropoffs where one false step could be your last.
 
   
   
 
   
Grapevine campground was similar to Cottonwood--woodsy with a small creek which resonated with frogs in the evening. The creek water ran over flat, exposed rocks which occasionally made small waterfalls and pools.  Again, the other four went off exploring the creek that afternoon, while I rested my still-aching muscles.  As I was away from camp soaking my feet in the cool creek, two ravens attacked our lunch remains.  One seemed to enjoy holding the empty tuna can in its beak.  We think those same two ravens (we called them Heckyl & Jeckyl) followed us all week.
  
For those who wonder about "roughing it" I present these anecdotes:
  • Arriving at Grapevine Tuesday, Dawn went away from the campground behind a large rock to pee.  As she began to squat, she looked down by her foot to see a coiled rattlesnake.  She quickly left ("everything squeezed up") and peed later.  It was the only rattlesnake we encountered, but they said rattlers are more common around Grapevine.
  • Early Wednesday morning, Jim was awakened to mice running over his sleeping bag and face.  Then he noticed a king snake (lethal only to mice) and the mice never returned.   I had no such personal experiences--at least not while awake!  But our first night in Cottonwood, my toilet kit was eaten at by some "varmints"--minor damage.
After Tuesday's hike I wasn't as sore as Monday (rarely have I hurt THAT much) but I could still feel every step.
  
Wednesday was my favorite day.  Not only  was I feeling better, but exploring Grapevine Creek was delightful.  It was designed to be an easy (packless) day.  It was beautiful walking down that fairly flat, yet often sheer stone walled canyon.  The plan was to get to the Colorado that way, but a high waterfall a mile or so from the mouth made it impassible.  Still, this hike was a treat.  It involved some "scrambling" but I klutzed thru--sometimes with help!
  
  
Later that day, Charlie, Jim & Wayne hiked UP a fork of the Grapevine, which was fascinating in different ways--you could see the results of recent gullywashers, different layers of terrain, and beautiful rock formations.   The fact that I took that second hike was testimony to my lessened aches AND my appreciation for this small canyon. 
 
 
 
Then we broke camp and backtracked about a mile on the Tonto to Grapevine Springs--my favorite campsite of the week.  It was at the top of a very steep canyon (a near-dry waterfall) which led precipitously down 1000' to the creek bed we had hiked earlier in the day.  We slept on several large flat sheet rocks.  We arrived near dusk.  Camp setup and dinner were finished by flashlight.
  
Winds were bizarre all week.  It often would gust to 50mph UP canyon, then 10 minutes later would blow just as hard DOWN canyon, as if it had bounced off the headwall.  This night was the only calm one, and the morning low was a cool 54F.  Most nights were in the mid 60s, with daytime highs around 90.  Winds were often gusty in the daytime too.  I commend my fellow hikers for choosing early May--much better than the excessive heat of summer, yet mornings were pleasant.   Some of the trails we hiked were closed in the summer due to fire danger.
 
I expected to see a night sky filled with a dazzling array of small stars.  Yet it wasn't all that different from rural Connecticut on a clear, dry night.   However this was the week with five planets lined up in the western sky, so that was a treat.  And the rotation of the Big Dipper around the North Star provided a natural timepiece.
 
You can get pretty ripe in The Canyon, but bathing in the small creek pools can be a challenge because they are pretty cold.  Some of our heartier souls occasionally did the Polar Bear Club thing.  But for me, toweling off downstream at the creek with a washcloth seemed sufficient.   Ditto for laundry.  And clothing dries pretty fast on those hot rocks in the bright sunshine.  And the more you wash, the less you have to pack in.
   
Daybreak each day was about 5am and most were awake by then. We broke camp Thursday and began the return to Cottonwood Creek via the Tonto Trail at 7:20am.  Most pack hiking was done before the heat of the day. On several occasions we could again look down cliffs and see the creek we hiked Wednesday, and later the same views of the Colorado--this time in the early morning.  With the Canyon having its driest year in recorded history, the Colorado is as clear as ever because no tributaries (like the "little Colorado") bring silt and dirt into it.  The Colorado looked green.
   
We took a rest stop on the shady side of a large rock at Cottonwood Springs--about a mile from Cottonwood Creek camp. 
The mountain goats (Jim/Charlie) saw a 1000' mesa up canyon they wanted to explore.  And off they went.  No packs, no
trail.  Pure scrambling.  I was stunned an hour later to see them as specks standing near the top of that mesa looking for caves and mines.  John and Dawn followed them for awhile.  I was still paranoid about Friday's hike out of the canyon and wasn't going to use up my remaining strength tailing them.   
 
  
But resting packless and alone by that rock for awhile was one of those special moments.  I had the sensation that "I'm the only one in this canyon."  For long stretches of time, it was absolutely silent.  The only "artificial" sounds most of the week were the frequent passages of commercial jets (no "flightseeing" copters/planes allowed in this part of The Canyon).  And several times after dusk I saw the contrails (vapor trails) of jets illuminated by the setting sun--I had never seen that before.
  
Our Thursday Cottonwood campsite was better than the Monday one.  More spread out.  Next to a cliff.  But still quite windy, blowing dust around.   This day we explored down Cottonwood Creek until we couldn't go any further.  Dawn's ledger/journal got blown off a rock directly into a pool of water, but she salvaged most of it.  An easy, relaxed afternoon--when you could really appreciate The Canyon's grandeur.
 
Dinner was half by design and half leftovers, affectionately called "Barnyard Stew!"
 
 
Trying not to get too sentimental, the day-to-day scenery was SO spectacular that it was easy to take for granted. 
   
I still couldn't shake my fear of ascending Grandview Friday, despite the assurances of the others.  They knew I was worried even though I kept it inside more (they'll see this and say "THAT was keeping it inside.....?").  Besides the impending next morning departure, looking up the side of Cottonwood Canyon was a constant stark reminder of what the next day's hike held.  It was impossible to ignore the steep canyon leading up to the vertical cliffs of the west side of Horseshoe Mesa.  That summit was a 1.5 mile hike away--an elevation change of 1400 feet.  You couldn't see Grandview Point from Cottonwood (another 2400'/3 mile hike), so the mesa became the immediate concern.
 

Friday may have been our warmest morning in the canyon--65F--and the only time with partial cloud cover.  We departed at 7:15am.  My goal was to take shorter steps to "protect" the thigh/calf muscles, and to take frequent short breaks.  It seemed to work.  And all their supportive words about "up being easier" seemed to ring true.  The "scree" on the very steep trail was annoying, but your lead foot stayed planted--unlike downhill.

    All our packs were lighter now, as we carried very little food out.   But the pots and dishes--my load for the first four days--were given to someone else.
 
 
  
  
We arrived at the Mesa (4937') about 9:30am.  And after a packless break--which allowed me to explore (and enjoy) the Mesa much more than I did the first day--up the Grandview Trail we went.  Seeing that I wasn't exactly a jackrabbit, Jim took my inflatable sleeping pad (about 3 pounds)--he is a real workhorse.  Besides lightening my load, it also helped to slow him down!  When I worried mid week about not making it to the top, he suggested if I were hurting, he could go to the rim, dump his pack, and come back down to bring my pack up (leaving me to hoof it packless).  That option REALLY didn't interest me.  It would be like getting an unwanted asterisk next to your name upon completion.  I felt the bedroll was just enough of a concession to the trail and to The Canyon.
 
Meanwhile, I was feeling surprisingly spry, and while wandering packless on Horsehoe Mesa, I was able to appreciate the views I missed on the way down.  But while standing and talking with Charlie, I momentarily lost my balance and nearly got skewered by falling on an agave plant.  Charlie was already picturing me being airlifted out.  But in a moment of incredible agility, I recovered just in time and remained upright.
 
  
 Ascending Grandview Trail, I had forgotten how much of the trail included long parallel cobblestone-like rocks on the many steep switchbacks.  I don't know if a normal dirt trail would have make it easier, but those rocks seemed to make it worse.   Again--I tried taking short steps.  And as the rim got closer, the air got thinner.  But what amazed me was my calves/thighs WEREN'T hurting.  Yes I was extremely fatigued and breathing hard.  But all of that Monday pain never resurfaced.  So I took frequent rest stops--usually in areas where the view was spectacular.  This let me appreciate the view MUCH more than I could on the way down, while also using the view to distract me from the fatigue.  That worked quite well.
 
 
  
  
  
My fellow hikers have several traditions, including picnicing about 5 minutes below the rim on a large, flat 20' by 20' rock which extends out from the trail and hangs over the canyon.  We had lunch on that rock, as some of the tourists from the rim passed by.  We passed 47 (downhill) hikers on the way up from Horseshoe Mesa (none lower).  While I had attempted to make my pack as light as possible, all week Jim toted 1.75 liters (~4 pounds) of homemade cider--we called it "hootch", and we had small toasts each night.  On this penultimate picnic rock, we passed around the bottle and had larger and longer swigs.  I'm not much of a drinker, but I have to admit, it tasted pretty good.    
 
  
Refreshed from that last rest, we finished the final steep steps to the rim at 1:45pm.   I felt remarkably good.  And all my paranoia of the prior four days was for naught.
 
  
  
  
It's impossible to portray the feeling of exhilaration and accomplishment I felt at that moment.  I was proud of what I had done, and grateful for my experienced partners who helped the newby through it all.  I can't remember a moment in my life that could compare with that instant.  Elation.  Jubilation.  Satisfaction.  Pride.
 
My nature is to do things I like again.  Knowing this, I repeatedly told myself while struggling in that final mile, "DON'T DO THIS AGAIN."  But literally within minutes of reaching the rim, I had already put those negative vibes behind me and was contemplating a return visit.  The sensation was that powerful. 
   
Partly because we couldn't check in to the hotel until later, and partly for a love of The Canyon, we didn't leave Grandview Point.  We literally sat at the Rim viewpoint for an hour.  I spent most of the time looking down on the areas we hiked with a newfound appreciation for The Grand Canyon.
   
I took about a 20 minute hot shower, then we went out for a big steak dinner (another of their traditions).  I picked up the tab.  It was the least I could do for these people who were my support system for the last 5 days.
   
Saturday morning we again visited Grandview Point where we ogled The Canyon for about 20 more minutes (I could have stayed all day!) then went farther east to Moran Point for another angle.  On the way to Phoenix, we stopped at the interesting ruins of the Wupatki Indians, and the fascinating Sunset Crater--a volcano which blew in 1064AD.  Black lava all over the place.  Then to Flagstaff for lunch at a nice brew pub then to Phoenix, and we flew home Sunday.
   
I'm still stunned how few aches I had Saturday and Sunday.  They were right!
 
For a map of the trails we hiked, click on this image:

 

Other notes:

  • I bought a topographical map for myself. It rates trails as 1)easy, 2)moderate, 3)difficult, and 4)expert. And while reading this on the drive back to Phoenix, I noticed that most Canyon trails from the rim are rated difficult. But that scree-laden Cottonwood trail below Horseshoe Mesa was "expert." No wonder I was a hurtin' hiker! The Tonto stuff (Tue-Wed-Thu) was mostly level, and rated moderate.
  • I brought my mini-disc (audio) recorder along and had done 33 minutes of terrific interviews with my fellow hikers, until the unit broke on Wednesday. It was a risk I took and I'm out $450. But the disc survived with the terrific interviews intact--including Dawn's graphic rattlesnake story.  To hear the interview, click here and scroll to May 6, 2015.
  • I brought a small transistor radio. As expected, absolutely NO FM radio came in below the rim. No AM came in daytime, but lots of skip and drift came in at night. The most consistent (listenable) station I got was KOMA-Oklahoma City (1520-AM) which played oldies. Most nights I listened before it got dark on the West Coast, so I didn't get much from there. I thought I could get some ball games but never found any (in English). Disappointed in the reception, I lost interest in searching for stations as the week went on--settling instead for watching planetary conjuntions and shooting stars.....
  • We had a cell phone, but left it at the summit, because--like FM--cells don't work below the rim.
  • I had a sleeping bag rated to 40F with sweat pants and hooded sweatshirt. I was too warm in the bag most nights, and I wore the sweatshirt only two mornings. Never needed the sweat pants.
  • It amazed me that in this moonless canyon with NO artificial light sources for miles, you could still make out shapes at night. I never gave it much thought before, but it must have been from starlight!
  • The trails and campsites had lots of obstacles--some sharp. My lower legs are all scratched up. Then there was that time on day five when I nearly fell onto an agave plant--pointy prickers and all--on Horseshoe Mesa. That may have required an airlift!
  • Once we got below Horseshoe Mesa we may have seen a total of ten hikers/campers. It was as if the whole Canyon was our private property. I liked that. As Dawn and John repeatedly said, "It's a magical place."
  • I was encouraged by the others to drink about a gallon of liquid a day--mostly diluted gatorade. Filtered water wasn't bad tasting at all.
  • My hiking boots were about a month old, but I had worn them a lot to break them in. I was proactive and put moleskin on each right toe and some left toes that showed some hot spots. Other than tired feet, I had no problems with blisters at all.
  • I applied sunburn lotion to arms and legs each morning, and had no sunburn problem (nice tan now however).
  • I took 9 rolls of photos. But like all Canyon photos--they don't do the place justice......you've got to be there.
  • I hiked about 25 miles. Charlie and Jim may have approached 50. And I would estimate John/Dawn did around 40. Of course as time goes on, we'll each be adding about five miles to that total each year......
  • As for wildlife--not much. On the rim we saw the cave nesting place for Condors--thru a telescope. On the rim we saw 2 mule deer and a coyote. IN the canyon we saw several falcons. Lotsa lizards. Bats (kept the insects in check). Squirrels. Frogs. Tadpoles. No fish. An Oriole. And Heckyl and Jeckyl. Or their cousins.
  • We didn't shave in The Canyon. They did when they returned to civilization Friday. I didn't. I kept the Grizzly Adams look for about another week. Lotsa grey hairs below the lips!
  • I couldn't have gone with four better people. They really made it as good as possible for me. And their experience was critical. They knew trails, landmarks, exactly what groceries to buy, how to register and make reservations with the park service (permits) and the rim hotels. And they even knew enough to leave a 6-pack of beer in a cooler in the car for our return. The rim approached freezing that morning, thus the beer was still cold at 2pm!
  • Literally hundreds of people have asked me about this hike since I returned, and some have been inspired to try it. I caution them to take conditioning seriously, and to do this ONLY with experienced hikers like I did. This is serious hiking--not to be done for a lark. Yet I wouldn't trade this experience for anything I have done in my life.
  • Will I do it again? Probably not. But it's very tempting! 

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