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Day 48: Phantom Ranch to Grand Canyon North Rim

Geologic Layers of the Grand Canyon

I slept better last night than I’ve slept in a long time, and that includes the motel stay in Tusayan which was quite comfortable. I was going to need the rest too. I underestimated the climb out of the canyon (the Grand Canyon, no less), and got completely lost once on top about permits and where to camp.

With my pad now successfully patched, I was sound asleep by 9pm and didn’t wake up until about 6:30am, when most of the campground had clearly already been up for a while. The low overnight couldn’t have been below 50, so I never even zipped up my sleeping bag, and I don’t think I woke up disturbed more than once, possibly a new personal camping record. But eventually, I needed to get moving.

I took my time getting everything together and eating breakfast. The man I had met last night, who I learned was named Henry, came by and chatted for a bit, mostly wondering how I managed to keep my batteries charged. Once we finished chatting and wished each other well, I began to get things packed up so I could get on my way.

I began heading up toward the North Rim at about 7:30am and once I had gotten past Phantom Ranch, was completely blown away by the scenery along the trail. This would only continue the entire 14 miles up.

Ancient solidified molten rocks squeezed in around the trail, vertical striations climbing the height of the cliffs hundreds of feet high. Every bend around the rushing Bright Angel Creek displayed a brand new pattern of jaw dropping geology that rose up to amazing heights.

Vishnu Basement Rocks

Of course the farther up I went, the more the walls inevitably began to shrink. Soon the tight canyon opened up into something resembling more of a desert valley, lined by giant desert peaks and familiar vegetation from earlier on the trail. It was in here that I met Aaron from Victor, Idaho. He had been talking to One Gallon who told him that someone from Jackson Hole was behind him. We had a good conversation and agreed to try to connect once we’re both back in the area.

Ribbon Falls is slightly off the trail by about a quarter of a mile. I was told I should definitely check it out, so it was on my agenda for the day. A bridge-less trail veered from the main trail, but given the state of the creeks, I opted for the bridge. The main trail then made an unexpectedly steep climb up a small hill, where I began to question my decision, thinking I might have to climb up the hill again coming from the falls. A short way up and Ribbon Falls was visible to the west. It looked pretty, but nothing spectacular. Nevertheless, I still wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt. Of course I began to think that if I had to climb this hill again on the way back, I might just skip it. At the top of the hill, it made a steep descent back down where the bridge trail forked off. To Ribbon Falls then.

The short trail rounded around a ridge, scrambled up and over some rocky outcroppings, pushed through some riparian vegetation, passed a couple of pools, and then emerged below the spectacular Ribbon Falls, a large waterfall pouring onto a massive algae covered boulder, coated in a glossy green color from the consistent moisture. The green boulder rose dozens of feet up, the waterfall doubling that. Around the boulder on the left side was a small cascade wrapping around the curvature of the rock and into the large pool below. This was worth every step out of the way. I could have easily stayed for hours just watching the light change on the waterfall and exploring all the vantage points and all the different nooks and crannies. After getting what I could, I remembered I still had the Grand Canyon to climb out of, so I reluctantly got moving again.

Ribbon Falls

I reached Cottonwood Campground a short while later where I stopped to rehydrate and eat lunch. Beyond the campground, the canyon began to change immensely. The easy walking was now a thing of the past and was replaced with a mostly steep and steady ascent into the higher reaches of the canyon. Well hydrated, I made great time as the canyon’s walls once again began to close in around me. I topped off on water when I reached the Manzanita station, then began the even more challenging climb out.

The top of the North Rim was now coming into view, though still thousands of feet above, the different colors revealing a different time in earth’s history. I soon passed by Roaring Springs which lived up to its name as a huge waterfall emerging right out of a break between two different layers of the canyon. It almost looked like a small slice of Hawaii dropped into a desert canyon.

The trail forked off into a side canyon and continued to climb at a brutal rate. I was still hydrated and still feeling good though, so I was happy with my progress, but eventually the steepness would catch up with me.

The canyon began to narrow some more and at the back of the canyon were enormous sandstone cliffs. The trail headed straight for them and as I got closer, it seemed like I was headed more and more toward a dead end of a box canyon. But it kept going, through switchbacks and relatively tiny cracks in the mountainous rocks, a way had been built through.

Rocky Section of North Kaibab Trail

Height was being overcome at a rapid rate. I was soon overlooking parts of the trail that gave me minor vertigo when trying to see just how high up I had gotten. And it still kept going, past incomprehensibly tall spires of rock and cliffs whose tops disappeared somewhere above.

I passed over a bridge that spanned a gorge that overlooked miles of canyon lands and then began one of the harder parts of the climb, which is where the exertion caught up with me thanks to the relentless climb up. In just a few short moments the bridge was now far below, but the top of the Grand Canyon was now beginning to appear closer than ever, though still far off.

With the bridge shrinking much farther below, I arrived at the Supai Tunnel station where I stopped for a short rest. It was now less than two miles to the top. As much as I wanted to get up there, it was still slow going. A few rain showers started to come down, so while I wasn’t able to get any more photos, it at least kept me moving.

North Kaibab Trail

Exhausted and ready for camp, I finally reached the top as the light rain showers transitioned to a wet snow, then a more consistent snow. Though late in the day now, I wasn’t done yet. A ranger at Phantom Ranch had informed me that if I wanted to camp on the North Rim, I needed a backcountry permit, something that wasn’t mentioned when I was getting the Phantom Ranch permit. Likewise, signs posted at the North Kaibab Trailhead also displayed blatant warnings about reservations. I started off toward the campground a mile away, but once there, couldn’t find any information, despite another sign at the trailhead directing winter campers with permits to go behind the camping store. I didn’t see anywhere that looked right, so I found a dry spot and had dinner.

Still lost and confused, I went back to the road to try to hitchhike to national forest land, but had apparently missed all the cars out. I was now back at the trailhead and managed to flag down a car heading back the other way. I told them my situation, wanting to go the legal route, but since it was getting dark, they said just hunker down in the trees and don’t even worry about a permit. He added that this was coming from the assistant to the superintendent. Good enough for me. I got my camp setup nearby and was happy to call it a day now that I was drying off and warming up.

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