At the end of January 2017, Dan and I went on a three day backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon. It was as grand as promised!
I have applied for Grand Canyon backcountry permits twice but have been denied. I faxed my requests on the first day possible but still got a prompt email two weeks later saying NO. If you don’t know this already, the Grand Canyon NPS only accepts faxed or mailed requests. I’m sure [not sure] there’s a really good reason to continue with the same system from decades past, but it’s moderately infuriating. Many other US AND O-Canada’s National Park reservation systems are on a kewl thing called the computer and it’s a pleasure to use. Getting off my soapbox now.
In my research for this winter trip, I saw that they [recently?] changed the system to a random lottery. But my last request was sent in November so I was before that change.
Welp, a way to get around obtaining peak-season permits is to go in the non-peak-season. I.e., January! I compulsively watched the weather for a month leading up to our trip. A week or two before would have been too cold and snowy. But fortune smiled on us (we’re that important!) and the weather was predicted to be in the high 50s, low 30s at the river. I knew this was our chance!!
We drove 11 hours from Denver to Grand Canyon’s South Rim on Monday. While trip planning I read that there is free camping in the nearby Kaibib National Forest. We drove along route 64 in the dark and found the turnoff…and it was closed. ARG. More like it just wasn’t maintained and was full of snow, but we decided to not risk getting stuck in unknown depths of snow. We were tired and done with driving so we gave in and went to Mather Campground. A steep $15 later and we pulled into a snowy spot, threw everything from the back of the truck up front, and burrowed into our sleeping bags in the back. It was 17 degrees at night!
The next morning we wound our way through the labyrinth that is the South Rim visitor area to the Backcountry Information Center. Although my previous permit requests were for the Hermit – Tonto – South Kaibib loop, the park ranger said that we would be breaking trail through hip-deep snow on the Hermit trail. So the well-trodden South Kaibib – Bright Angel loop it was!
As a side note, this is a pretty expensive [short] backpacking trip. We paid $30 for a 7 day pass (our annual pass just expired), plus $10 for the backcountry permit, plus $8 per person per night = $72. Since almost all of the backpacking we do is free, this seemed steep. But I like supporting the National Parks, and the Grand Canyon is a high use area so we chalked it up to a donation and patted ourselves on the back.
The recommended direction of the loop is to descend the South Kaibib trail given its unobstructed views the entire way down. The Bright Angel trail winds through a canyon most of the way, so the views aren’t as grand for the bottom 2/3 of the trail.
We parked at the visitor center and took a short 10 minute shuttle bus ride to the South Kaibib trailhead. In retrospect we could have parked at the Backcountry Information Office and taken the two shuttles to the trailhead, getting it out of the way upfront. We would have then avoided waiting for the bus when we were hungry and tired at the end.
Anyways, down we go!
South Kaibib Trail to Bright Angel Campground
- One way distance: 7 miles
- Start elevation: 7,260 feet
- End elevation: 2,480 feet
- Elevation loss: 4,780 feet
- Trailhead: South Kaibib
There was still snow and ice on the first half of the trail to Bright Angel Campground. We were glad to have the Microspikes. Otherwise it would have been difficult with heavy packs trying to negotiate the steep icy parts of the trail.
As a side note, in 2014 half a million dollars was spent on 324 search and rescue operations at Grand Canyon National Park. There were multiple signs warning people to not hike to the bottom and back in a day. They also illustrate how you lose dignity when you vomit on all fours.
After reaching Ooh Aah Point (0.9 miles), we had the trail mostly to ourselves down to the river.
We saw several mule trains going up and down the canyon. They are hardworking, dependable, and deserve a raise.
We descended nearly 5,000 feet, and the temperature was ~20 degrees warmer toward the bottom.
Eventually my feet were screaming at me and the downhill never seemed to end. But alas we made it to the bridge and could call it a day.
We found a camp spot at the half-full Bright Angel Campground. We set up our tent, made an unsatisfying dinner of freeze-dried beans and rice, and read for about 4 hours until I passed out at 8 PM.
I woke up multiple times throughout the night with leg cramps.
Part II to follow.