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Day 47: Grand Canyon South Rim to Phantom Ranch

O'Neill Butte

Though putting last night’s plan into action this morning was technically successful, there were a few glitches. First, the only reason getting up at 4am was a better option than sleeping in was because the hole(s) in my sleeping pad are still eluding me. As a result, getting up seemed like it’d be better than waking up on a hard ground again. Second, while I caught the first shuttle to the Visitor Center, the second shuttle took its time making the connection, and thus, getting me to the trailhead. Third, there wasn’t really much of a sunrise anyway. Just like last night’s sunset, it was all completely socked in, so it didn’t really matter that I was on the trail about 20 minutes after sunrise.

There were some snow flurries falling as I got up, and once I had gotten about a liter and a half of water at the trailhead for the seven miles down, it was snowing much more consistently. Though there wasn’t any dramatic morning light, it was still an incredibly memorable and exciting morning. The first quarter-mile or so on the trail felt surreal. A labyrinth of canyons twisting and turning a full vertical mile below was the only landscape visible in 180 degrees. It’s a canyon so vast and so deep that the physics of modern optics can’t accurately capture its scale. Many try, but even the best fail. And somewhere at the bottom of it all was my destination for the day. It seemed bigger than seven quick downhill miles. It seemed like I should need more food and water. It seemed like this was an entire expedition that overshadowed the Arizona Trail itself. But it wasn’t. It was just a morning hike down a vertical mile over the course of seven miles.

As that began to settle in, the surreal feeling that made the top of the trail feel slightly out of my comfort zone now turned to excitement. This was new. I’ve seen all these views from above over a dozen times, but now I was gradually sinking into them, looking back up at the familiar views the same way I did in the Mazatzals. Leave it to a natural wonder of the world to reignite the inspiration and wonder I had felt early along the Arizona Trail. This was how it was supposed to feel beginning the final week of such a transformative and indescribable adventure!

Hikers on South Kaibab Trail

I hadn’t even gotten a mile into the trail before processing all of the aforementioned thoughts when I remembered I still needed to eat breakfast. The original plan was to eat breakfast with sunrise, but with no sunrise, a standard dramatic view would have to do. This came at just shy of one mile where I stopped and began to chug some of the water I had gotten at the trailhead with my meal. As I was eating, the clouds finally began to break up ever so slightly, revealing a warm glow on distant ridges that were otherwise surrounded by dark, cold shadows.

Following a steady descent into the deepest depths of the Grand Canyon, past eons of evolution, the clouds slowly began to break up even more, slowly and very gradually revealing more sunlight until a tipping point was reached and clouds took their cue to begin to dissipate at a more rapid rate. Every sharp and steep switchback of the trail opened up an entirely new scene that wasn’t there before, partly because of the nature of the trail itself, partly because of the rapidly changing morning light. There were no quick miles made today. It was a slow descent as I took advantage of every opportunity presented while most other hikers rushed past to their destination quicker. I welcomed a couple of breaks at the more dramatic overlooks if only to examine the sheer scale of the canyon that I was roughly halfway down now.

Once I began to drop below Skeleton Point, the freezing temperatures of the rim were now far behind. Though a strong wind kept things cool, it was still time to shed a layer, the next layer coming off not far beyond at all.

The final overlook came quickly and suddenly. Below uninviting sharp and jagged cliffs was the Colorado River, altered to an unnatural green color thanks to the outdated Glen Canyon Dam, assuming this solar energy fad takes off at some point.

Hikers on South Kaibab Trail

I crossed the bridge spanning the gorge, the strong winds causing it to sway a bit in the middle, and was soon at the confluence of the river and Bright Angel Creek. It wasn’t even noon yet, so my mission was to setup camp and immediately relax once and for all.

Before I got too comfortable with camp now ready to go, I pulled out my mattress pad to see about plugging those holes. I went into my tent to get out of the wind only to find sand accumulating on the floor inside. At this point, I would just have to go, actually and legitimately, relax for the afternoon. I suppose there are worse places to be forced to relax than at the bottom of the Grand Canyon on a partly cloudy day with temps in the 60s and 70s under cottonwood trees lining a healthy and softly rushing creek. Another win for my feet, this one much less painful.

The wind finally died down after I finished up dinner, and so I took the opportunity to patch the hole. Or it’s also possible I keep repatching the wrong hole. I suppose the answer will come tomorrow. I was able to do this outside, and with the wind not blowing sand into my tent anymore, even unhooked the tent from the stakes and shook it out as best as I could to get rid of some of the sand.

While taking my afternoon rest, I made a short walk around the campground just to move a bit and see how the light was reacting in the main canyon. After sorting through after-dinner activities, I took another walk and this time went over to the Bright Angel Bridge, where late afternoon light was adding another dimension and splendor to the Colorado River and the striated Vishnu Basement Layer cliffs plummeting to its surface from hundreds of feet up.

Bright Angel Campground

I returned again to camp, feet happily relaxing, and waited till a few minutes after sunset to head back out to the river again. Atmospheric glow was subtly and softly lighting up one side of the rough cliffs above the river, exactly as I was hoping it would. While climbing onto the Bright Angel Bridge again, I was joined by an elderly man who began a pleasant conversation with me. He was excited about my trip, was surprised I had lugged all the camera gear along, and then began telling me about his adventure. He was spending eight days at Phantom Ranch to do some off-trail hiking in the area. He had some incredibly fun routes planned and we each relished in the other’s adventures. As he left to head back to camp, I noticed it had gotten a bit dark, so I began on my way too, but not before taking the slightly longer way back to my site to get a shot I had seen earlier in the day – Bright Angel Creek flowing toward the massive walls along the Colorado River with campers’ headlamps lighting their individual campsites, as a cool dusk sky emanates a soft blue light in the sky above. Now I could go to sleep. …Unless I wanted to do some night photography.

To see more images from the South Kaibab Trail, check out my South Kaibab Trail Gallery here.

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All content © Copyright Mike Cavaroc, Free Roaming Hiker & Free Roaming Photography