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My best friend Sherry and I visited the Canyon about six years ago. By the time we boarded the plane to come home we knew we had to visit again. We finally made the trip this year. Our original plan was to hike in via the North Kaibab Trail and, after several days of hiking in the backcountry, hike out the south. The monsoons and resulting damage and closure of the North trail forced us to change our plans.
The next day I got up at first light to watch the sunrise from Bright Angel point. It was my first view of the Canyon in six years. The view over the drainages was as fantastic as I remember. I personally think the views from the North are more beautiful than those from the south. Sherry joined me after a little while and we stayed there for some time enjoying view. As the sun moves, the patterns of light and shadow constantly change in the Canyon. One can just sit all day and watch. We had breakfast in the cafe and got ready for our first hike. The North Kaibab was only closed below Roaring Springs. The upper part of the trail was not damaged by the monsoons. We drove to the North Kaibab trailhead and began our hike down. We took our time, hiking for about 2 and a half hours. We went about a half hour below Supai Tunnel. The view just below the tunnel is particularly nice. The hike up was easy but the weather began to turn. Towards the end of the hike we had rain and it became very cold. It continued to rain for some time but at sunset we had two nice rainbows and some nice sunset views from Bright Angel. Sherry took me to dinner at the restaurant at the North Kaibab Lodge. The food was wonderful.
I got up early again the next day and sat on the porch of the Lodge overlooking the Canyon. I sat for a couple of hours and watched the light change on the temples. I also watched the most aggressive chipmunk I’ve ever seen try to mooch from everyone on the porch. Sherry joined me after awhile. Although we didn’t want to leave we had to get going so we checked out and started the drive to the South Rim. On the drive through the Navaho reservation we stopped at a number of roadside stands and shopped for gifts. After the turnoff to the South Rim we stopped at the canyon carved by the Little Colorado as it winds its way to the Canyon. It’s a small but spectacular canyon with fantastic views and there is a Navaho crafts flea market right near the scenic outlook. We arrived at Mather Campground around 6:30pm. We set up the tent and raced to Hopi Point to watch the sunset. The sunset was nice but not as fabulous as we’ve seen before. During the night we were sung to sleep by coyotes.
The weather stayed quite nice from the rim down to Cedar Ridge then began to threaten. We had lunch after passing O’Neill Butte and just before beginning the descent down to the Tonto Plateau. We then began our race against the rain. When it wasn’t threatening to rain it was raining. We could see lightning and hear thunder in the distance but it was difficult to tell which way the weather was moving at any given time. We were in and out of our rain gear several times. Once, just above the Tonto, we took shelter from the rain in a cave up above the trail with three hikers from Germany. At one point we holed up for awhile at mule/people rest station at the Tipoff just past the Tonto trail.
At this point I’d like to thank Bob Ribokas. I’ve never met or talked to Bob but when I posted a question about the Utah Flats Route on the Grand Canyon e-group he referred me to his web page. On his page were sections of the USGS Topo Maps for that area with his route marked out in red. I captured some of the images and pasted them together to form a map of the area we would be in with Bob’s route to Phantom Canyon. I printed this out on 8 1/2” x 11” ink jet photo paper, had it laminated and brought it with us. This was much more detailed than the Trails Illustrated map we also had. This map was extremely useful. I’d say invaluable. Once you are on Utah Flats there are no cairns for quite awhile and no noticeable trail. The only way to find your way is to have a map and know how to read it. The map from Bob’s web site was clear and easy to read. It was also helpful to have a nice one page-map of the area to refer to when asking folks questions about the current condition of the route. Thanks for your help Bob! With Bob’s permission I’m posting the combo image I used HERE with a link to his Canyon Explorer web page.
I'd also like to thank Eb Eberlein. Eb spent several hours on the phone with Sherry giving her information on the routes to Phantom Canyon and on hiking in the Canyon in general. His information was also very helpful in our decision, early on, to go to Phantom Canyon rather than another backcountry location.
As we neared the top of this part of the climb we saw two helicopters land at Phantom Ranch. It was very strange looking down at aircraft flying in the Canyon. We made it to the top of the lower drainage and looked out across a boulder field at the base of piano alley. Piano Alley is a steep slope going the rest of the way up the drainage to Utah flats. This part of the drainage is filled with huge boulders, many of which, for some odd reason, are shaped like the tops of grand pianos. I know this sounds odd and unlikely (it did to me when I first read descriptions of this area) but many of these huge rocks really do look like pianos. Very very weird. A somewhat confusing instruction on the official route description to “stay to the right at the base of the cliff” caused us to go right too soon but we quickly realized we were heading the wrong way and corrected our path. We got into Piano Alley and started boulder hopping up towards the flats. I lost my bandanna somewhere in there and couldn’t find it on the return trip. If anyone finds a Harley Davidson Bandanna in the area, I’m the guilty party. Near the top of Piano Alley we could see across the drainage the desiccated body of a buck mule deer. We weren’t close enough to it to get a real good look but I think it’s been there for quite a while. If anyone knows how long it’s been there I’d be interested to know. A bit more climbing and clambering and we were out of Piano Alley and onto Utah Flats.
Utah Flats is an area of rolling hills covered with cacti, banana yucca (which I called stiletto plants), creosote bushes and other stuff which will scratch, cut and stab the unwary hiker. The view from Utah Flats is quite beautiful and different from any other view in the Canyon. You can look both up at the cliffs and temples and down into canyons. One of the most amazing things about the view is the amount of green. We were in a desert and the landscape was far greener than in drought plagued New Jersey. At this point we had to refer to our maps. For the first 2/3 of the trek across the Flats the route is not at all noticeable and there are no cairns that we could find. Thanks to our maps we quickly figured out where we should be headed and only made two brief detours neither of which costs us more than a few minutes. The cacti, etc. are so thick you just have to wind your way as best you can in the direction you want to go. Both Sherry and I got slashed and scratched up pretty badly and at one point both of us had blood literally running down our legs. As of this writing we both still have visible scars. Of course this sounds far worse that it was. The scratches and stabs were annoying as hell but none were serious. Bumping into a cactus was real annoying because it meant stopping to remove the spines which sometimes required removing footwear. Near a pair of shed deer antlers we saw the sandstone mound that some trip reports had mentioned confirming that we were on the right track.
After and hour or so of heat and vicious vegetation we came to a point just past the eastern corner of Cheops Pyramid where the route became noticeable.
With a clear route to follow it was easier, although still necessary, to dodge cacti and possible to make better time. The route went in and out of small drainages as it headed in a northwest direction parallel to the northeast face of Cheops. It was fascinating to actually hike past one of these huge temples you can see from the rim. We lost count of the drainages we crossed (Sherry tried counting both ways) but there were quite a few. The route became less noticeable as it turned north and then east northeast to go around a bend in Phantom Canyon and then down into the canyon to Phantom Creek. However, as the route began to fade we did begin to find rock cairns. We’d like to thank all those who went before us and left cairns for others to follow. They were really helpful in finding the way at a few confusing spots. We left a few cairns ourselves and built up some we thought were hard to spot.
After turning east the path began to descend into the canyon toward Phantom Creek. The descent was tricky at best. We couldn’t trust even the largest most immobile looking rocks to hold our weight. The descent was slow and hot but below us we could see the creek looking cool and beautiful. Following the cairns when we could find them and also knowing that at this point “down was good”, we made our way to the bottom of the canyon. We finally reached the creek at a beautiful area where a small drainage ran down to it. The rock bed there was worn smooth into a sort of rock beach with the creek rushing through the bottom. Within a minute of arriving I was flat on my stomach with cool refreshing water rushing over my head.
After cooling off a bit we headed upstream. After hiking about fifteen minutes along the west side of the creek we could see an overhang on the other side where the bank was quite a bit above the creek. We knew we needed to be on high ground in case of flash floods and we were both tired, so after a bit more hiking we decided to double back cross over and check out the spot as a possible campsite. We were both glad we did. The overhang turned out to be a fabulous campsite. The area had been used by many campers before and was well laid out for camping. The ground was fairly flat, and very well protected by the overhang. There were large stones well positioned to sit on and lay out gear, small trees between us and the drop to the creek and a large boulder with a flat top that was perfect for lying on in the sun or to watch the stars. The site was well above the creek but within a few minutes of a real easy access point to get water. Near the point where we had access to the creek to pump drinking water we found what appeared to be the top part of the skull and vertebrae of a goat. We couldn’t find any other bones in the area. We set up camp, pumped fresh drinking water and relaxed. The evening brought a few insects and many bats. The stars came out and the moon set. It was nice to just sit and look out at the sky after the long hike.
After a bit of backtracking we got to the top of Piano Alley and broke for lunch. We made it a quick lunch because we could see clouds moving in and wanted to get down off the rocks before any weather moved in. Racing the storm, we started down as fast as we could. The descent down Piano Alley was pretty easy and we made it down to the top of our final descent to Bright Angel before any rain came. About ten minutes after starting the last leg rain did move in but luckily we were near an overhang when it arrived. We hunkered down on our packs under the overhang (but not touching the rock) and waited out the storm. The rain wasn’t very hard and didn’t last long. After about fifteen minutes the sun was out again and we continued on our way down. This descent was particularly hard on Sherry’s toes. She got a major case of toe jam and one of her big toe nails is still rather purple. The rain that passed over did nothing to improve the footing and the final climb/slide down this talus was extremely dicey. Slipping sliding and creeping we finally made it down to Bright Angel Campground. It was only mid afternoon and we had plenty of time to set up camp, wash up and relax before sunset. Oddly enough, even though my toes (and knees) had taken a real beating on the South Kaibab, unlike Sherry I didn’t fair too poorly on that last descent. We went to the canteen and thanked the fellow there for his information and advice on the route. We also downed several glassed of very cold very good lemonade. The Rangers who had advised us before our trip to Phantom Creek were no longer at Phantom Ranch but we left our message of thanks with a Ranger who was on duty. That evening we attended the Ranger talk, walked around and relaxed. I also bought a new bandanna!
Despite the fact that we were hiking in the Canyon in August we had so far been fairly lucky as far as weather was concerned. Although we had to dodge a few brief cloud bursts we weren’t caught in any major storms nor did we have to endure the extreme temperatures one might expect for that time of year (120 degrees is not uncommon). Our luck held for the hike up Bright Angel but the hike up was long, hot (by non-Arizona standards) and even having eaten all of our food did not seem to lighten the packs much.
Even with the promise of heat the day was beautiful. The scenery on the hike up Bright Angel was fabulous but by now I had come to expect fabulous scenery. We crossed a lot more running water than I had expected and saw a rather pretty waterfall about a mile above the river. The heat mounted quickly and after a bit over four and after half miles of hiking we were happy to get to Indian Gardens. This is a very large rest area and was full of very hot very thirsty hikers. We had lunch, rested and cooled off. We chatted briefly with Ranger Chuck Sypher. He’s a very nice guy and we watched him working at the rest house. He was giving safety advice to hikers on how to handle the heat and as we watched him he seemed to be checking the face of each person there. I believe he was checking to make sure no one was in or about to be in trouble from the heat. The Canyon is perhaps the most beautiful place on earth but it’s also very dangerous. A lot of folks underestimate the Canyon and overestimate themselves. One of the things they forget is that unlike taking a day hike up a mountain, in the Canyon you have to do the uphill part last when you’re already starting to get tired. I can’t say enough about what a great job the Rangers do. I hate to think how many people would end up dead of their own stupidity if the Rangers weren’t there. I might also point out that the Rangers assigned to the rest houses and Inner Gorge don’t ride mules down or take helicopters. They hike in and out like everybody else. After relaxing a bit, drinking lots of water, refilling our water bottles and dumping quite a bit of water over our heads we headed out.
At this point the hike out was a series of short hikes from rest house to rest house. We hiked about one and a half miles up and came to Three Mile rest house. This is smaller than Indian Gardens but, like all the rest houses, had shade and water and was full of weary hikers. We took a break here then headed on up. A mile and a half further along we came to One and a Half Mile rest house. After resting here we began the final trek to the rim as storm clouds moved in. The higher we climbed the angrier the clouds became. As we neared the top the sounds of tourists along the rim walkways was mixed with the sounds of ever nearing thunder. Reaching the rim we took the obligatory triumphant trailhead photos then walked along the rim to the ice cream parlor. As we left the ice cream shop, cones in hand and not more than fifteen minutes from getting off the trail, the South Rim was hit with a fierce thunderstorm. This was a major downpour dwarfing every little rain storm we’d seen before. We waited in a hotel lobby for about an hour hoping for the rain to lessen then made a dash for the shuttle to take us back to where we’d parked the car. We then had a two and a half hour drive through spectacular lightning and intense rain to the Grand Canyon Caverns Inn. This was to be our jumping off point for the next part of our trip, Havasu Canyon.
At the trailhead we learned from folks gathered there that there had been flash floods the night before (the storms we drove through). People staying at the lodge had been helicoptered out and campers at the campgrounds had been evacuated to the village. We were also told that all the recent rain had muddied the water from its normal blue green (I believe Havasupai means “People of the Blue Green Water”). We also discovered that the trail had been damaged by the rains but was passable. As we started down, a Havasupai man noticed the sandals Sherry was wearing and warned us that “the trail is pretty rough”. He had no way of knowing that she usually hikes in sandals and that after the final descent from Utah Flats to Bright Angel Campground nothing short of a gun to the head could get Sherry back into her hiking boots.
The trail down was pretty beat up but was passable. It didn’t take long to get most of the descent done and get into beginnings of the gorge. The trail runs through a narrow canyon which is quite beautiful but after awhile becomes monotonous. We trudged along past redrock along a stream bed which sloped very gently downhill. At times it was like walking along a gravel road.
After a couple more hours we came to the village of Supai. It’s hard to tell how big the village is because the canyon at that point widens out and is heavily wooded with small trees. There are horses and dogs everywhere. The folks there were very friendly. We checked in at the tourist office and walked over to the village cafe. The cafe is in a sort of town square across from the post office and store. It’s right next to the field where the helicopters land. After relaxing a bit we started out on the last leg to the campground. When we neared the camp ground we picked up another companion. A horse decided we might have something good to eat and followed us for awhile. Deciding he wasn’t going to get a free snack, he headed into the brush for some grass. On our way to the campground we passed Havasu Falls and stopped to take a quick look. The rains had turned the water murky but the falls were still beautiful. Because of the danger of flash floods we had been warned to find a campsite on high ground. We could see the signs of recent flooding but the campgrounds were not in too bad shape. We found a site on elevated ground not far from the fresh water spring. We were about a half mile from Havasu Falls and about a mile and a half from Mooney Falls. All the sites at the campground are fairly close to Havasu Creek. Wherever you are you are near a small waterfall. The sound of water is everywhere. We set up camp and relaxed. As we were sitting in our campsite we saw quite a few hikers arriving and passing by to find there own sites. Many of them had dogs with them and the animals were all very well behaved. Our site had several trees, a nice nearby waterfall and no close neighbors. The weather was perfect and we had a nice relaxing evening.
It’s much cooler at the bottom than the top and there is a constant spray blowing off the falls. It’s really quite beautiful looking up and seeing the water rushing over the cliff and down. The water is fairly shallow with natural dams making pools and small falls. You can try to walk right up to the falls. I say try because as you get closer and closer to the falls the wind and water rushing off it makes it like walking into a hurricane and there is a constant outward surge in the chest deep water. It’s lots of fun to try though!
We played in the water for awhile, laid around in the sun and had lunch at a picnic table which was half submerged in the water. The water was not the blue green of the postcards, rather a milky green but the scene was still breathtaking. It’s well worth the climb.
Havasu Falls is very easy to get to. The trail down to the water is wide and fairly gentle. The dams are a bit tricky to cross but if you do (or just swim across) you reach a very nice grass beach. We played in the water a bit and chilled on the beach. This falls was harder to walk to because the water was deeper but it was fun to try. That night “our” dog joined us for dinner. He liked the hummus but wouldn’t touch the taboule.
After nice long showers and equipment cleanup we drove into Seligman for dinner. We had a leisurely dinner at a Route 66 diner, looked for something else to do in Seligman, found nothing (perhaps because the town is only a block or two long), drove back to the inn, had a pillow fight and crashed.
In the second book of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings “The Two Towers”, the Elf Legolas is warned not to go to the sea or he would lose his heart to it:
“...Beware the Sea!
If thou hearest the cry of the gull on the shore,
Thy heart shall then rest in the forest no more.”
Some see the Canyon and are awed but not moved. They check “Grand Canyon” off their list of “fabulous things to see” and move on. The rest of us see the Canyon once and a part of our soul is forever captured in, as Page Martin called it “The House of Stone and Light”, lost in twisting corridors and among soaring temples ancient almost beyond comprehension. It calls to us wherever we are and again and again we must answer the call. It’s not a question of if I’ll go back, only when.
“I will not rest till I lay down my head
In the house of stone and light
I make my way O gonna be such a beautiful day
In the house of stone and light.”
Till next time.
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Last updated 10/20/99