Life on the Road – April Part 2: Grand Canyon

Alex and I do a lot of backpacking back home, and from the earliest conception of this van adventure backpacking had been a prioritized activity, influencing our route, and how we laid out and constructed our van. Coming up on a month into our adventure, we hadn’t yet had the opportunity to break out the backpacking gear and spend a night out in our tent. Hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon seemed like the perfect opportunity to get out there!

Overnight backpacking in the Grand Canyon requires a permit, specific to your itinerary in dates and camp locations. We hadn’t had a tight enough plan when we set out to do the online reservations (and I think they book up very quickly as soon as they are opened) so we were stuck trying for a walk-up permit. The walk-up permit process takes a couple days between getting your waitlist number and getting on the trail, and can take longer depending on volume of people and the sites you want to visit. We were fortunate that the spots we wanted were open for us on our first sign-in opportunity, so the process only took 2 days before we could gear up and head out backpacking!

On one of our lay-days, after getting our permit but before we could do our big hike, we explored the canyon rim and gawked at some of the viewpoints. I had only ever seen the canyon in photos; though beautiful, they never managed to capture the scale. The land is massive. From the south rim you’re looking Northwards at the layered deposits of the Colorado Plateau, which looms another 1000 feet above you – though at the distance across the canyon it’s hard to tell that there’s any difference between the North and South rim elevations. Below you, the Colorado River is almost completely concealed in the bottom of the canyon – only visible for short lengths from certain angles due to the many shelves and plateaus occupying the canyon slopes. The whole thing is pretty humbling in scale. After our exploration of the rim, we made camp outside the park and got to packing our bags for the next day’s hike.

Some majestic views from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim

Rising bright and early, we made our way back into the park to the backcountry office, where we did final assembly of our packs, sunscreened up, and hopped on a shuttle bus that took us out to the South Kaibab trailhead. From there, it was an entire day of downhill – unfamiliar for us, used to gaining elevation for any of our backpacking destinations. The Kaibab trail afforded a bit more exposure and views than the other trail option – the Bright Angel Trail – that we’d be hiking out on. It took us about 4 hours to get down to the Bright Angel Campsite down by the Colorado River. We made some lunch, cooled our feet in a creek, and wandered over to Phantom Ranch for some cold afternoon beers – we were backpacking, but I wouldn’t call this backcountry by any stretch! In the evening we caught a Ranger talk on rattlesnakes, then settled into our tent with the sound of the river putting us to sleep.

All smiles on our hike down to the Colorado River, followed by more smiles and a cold beer at the Phantom Ranch Lodge at the bottom!

Our research on Grand Canyon backpacking had recommended that we split the hike out into two days, avoiding climbing the roughly 1400m of elevation in one go, and enjoying the tranquility of the Indian Garden Campsite. We followed the recommendation, and were glad for it. Hiking out the Bright Angel trail is a longer, gentler ascent than going out via Kaibab, and we knocked off about half the distance and a third of the elevation climbing from the bottom of the canyon up to Indian Garden. Unlike Kaibab, which is devoid of water, and quite sparsely vegetated, the climb up Bright Angel follows a ground fault that has a perennial spring flowing down it, and has luscious vegetation for most of its’ length. Indian Garden is in a little hollow along this spring, a little forested oasis in the canyon that was an important agricultural resource for the native Americans that used to call the Grand Canyon home.

Stopped for a few quick shots on our push up to Indian Garden

We reached camp shortly before noon, relaxed, and did some reading from the books in the little library at the campsite. In the evening we made the short hike out to Plateau Point to try for some sunset shots of the canyon. We ate our dinner out on the plateau and watched clouds roll through. Just when it looked like there would be too much cloud cover for photos, they parted, allowing the sunset to make some beautiful colours on the underside of the remaining clouds, and paint the canyon with golden light. Another group came out and joined us on the plateau – a group of three guys that were old university buddies – they were chatty and friendly, and we shot the breeze with them as the sun disappeared and the stars peeked out. It was an excellent evening.

Dinner and sunset views on Plateau Point, before the light gave way to some excellent stargazing!

Overnight the wind picked up something fierce, we had get really lucky with our timing and weather window, hiking out on the day that the next weather system started to roll in. We packed up and got on the move early in the morning, looking to beat the heat and the weather rolling in. We made it the rest of the way out of the canyon in a little under 3 hours, putting our total hike-out time at 5 hours and 15 minutes to do the 15km and 1400m of elevation out of the canyon. We were feeling awesome, victorious, looking forward to some ice cream as a reward for our efforts… that was until we got to the van.

At first glance, everything was good – the bikes were still locked up on the back, doors still locked. This was the first time we had left the van unoccupied for more than a few hours on the trip, so these things were important, but when we opened the van up my eyes zeroed in on a little out of place lump on our counter… a little poop. We hadn’t had any human intruders, but we had a mouse. Funny enough, the Rangers had been pretty adamant about protecting gear from critters in the canyon – squirrels and ravens going after your things, food or not, and wrecking gear if they though it held something interesting. We had been super careful with our backpacking gear and food, but apparently hadn’t been careful enough with the food we though was safe left in the van.

We stripped the van empty. Shaking everything out, scouring every nook and cranny. In the end we found no mouse, only evidence that it had gotten in and chewed into our avocado and a bag of chips. That was still enough to majorly sour our day. We repacked everything, making a bit of an adjustment to our packing to make sure we could get all the food in a lockdown bin that nothing could get into. Then we went straight to the grocery store to pick up mousetraps to catch the little guy if he was still hiding in the van, and to try and prevent any future intrusions. We showered, did some laundry, then went back outside the park to camp for one more night before we got back on the road and resumed our drive to Utah.

Mouse intrusion aside, we had a really good time in the Grand Canyon. We highly recommend making the time to get a backcountry permit (read about the process before going so you know how it works) and spending a night or two in the canyon to get a true appreciation for its’ size. Just make sure that you really secure any food you’re leaving behind in a vehicle in the parking lot, or you’re bound to have unwanted visitors

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