“What wonders lie ahead?”
This is how Dave started us off on the trail every day of our six day trip into the Grand Canyon. Our group, (me, Paige, John, Dave (Paige’s Dave), and David (my Dave)), spent an incredible week exploring some remote corners of the Clear Creek canyon, while also enjoying some civilization at the Phantom Ranch down along the Colorado River.
View the extended entry for the trip report and links to pictures. It’s a long one, but I decided to keep everything in a single entry instead of posting a separate entry for each of the six days on the trail.
Day 1: Wednesday, March 26
South Rim to Bright Angel Campground via the South Kaibab Trail
We spent all of Tuesday, March 25 driving from the Bay Area to the Grand Canyon. After a late arrival and night at the Yavapai Lodge, we met for breakfast and last minute shopping at the store nearby. Having been warned about ice along the trail, I picked up a cheap pair of ‘shoe chains’ so I wouldn’t have to carry my bulky and heavy crampons. This ended up being a wise choice – I didn’t even need the chains, but at least they weighed significantly less than the crampons.
After picking up our permit, we left the car at the Bright Angel Trailhead and waited for the shuttle to take us over to the South Kaibab Trail. By late morning we joined the throngs of dayhikers heading down the the South Kaibab. Near Ooh Ah Point it was practically a waiting line. Fortunately, once we got below Cedar Ridge the crowds thinned out to a manageable level, mostly people hiking to and from the bottom as part of multi-day trips.
The last stretch of the SK, from Tipoff Point to the Colorado, is just stunning, zigzagging steeply through the Redwall layer. The trail spits you out onto the Black Bridge, where hikers and mules can safely cross the dangerous Colorado River. Some interesting sites lie on the other side – a grave for one of the builders of the Black Bridge, Ancestral Pueblo ruins, and a fresh sandy beach formed by the controlled flood of a few weeks ago.
A few minutes after crossing the Colorado we arrived at Bright Angel Campground and set up in site 31. From there we walked the ~1/4 mile up to Phantom Ranch where snacks and cold lemonade and ranger program awaited. The descent was really rough, especially on my calves and knees, so this treat was much appreciated. We came back later for a couple of rounds of cold beer and Yahtzee – I was the champ, of course!
Day 2: Thursday, March 27
Bright Angel Campground to Clear Creek
We were in no hurry to take off this day since it would be a long and hot hike regardless of when we hit the trail. After a leisurely breakfast and pack-up of our campsite we went back up to the Phantom Ranch and refilled our water. There is some basic food available at the Ranch so I picked up a bagel and cream cheese for lunch on the trail, and also slammed another lemonade since I wanted to stay as hydrated as possible on the hot hike. There were water line breaks while we were here, so we only could fill our water bottles from the creek or the Ranch’s backup supply faucet. In order to use the ‘flush’ toilets we’d have to fill a big bucket of water from the creek and use that.
We took off heading north along Bright Angel Creek and quickly met the intersection with the Clear Creek Trail. Immediately upon turning onto the trail it begins its climb to the Tonto Plateau level. We hit this trail at just the right time for wildflowers – they lined the way and I kept getting distracted by wanting to photograph them all. Also along the climb are amazing views of the Colorado below, the South Kaibab trail, and the Black and Silver bridges.
Once on the Tonto Plateau the Clear Creek trail snakes in and out of drainages and washes with little to no shade. It circles gradually around Zoroaster Temple, and just when you think it will never end it finally descends (steeply on loose gravel) into Clear Creek.
After the short descent we passed an open air pit toilet (pretty nice view from it, but you have to watch out for people coming down the trail above with their wide open view of you), then several campsites on the same side of the creek we descended to, most of which were occupied. We kept going to a campsite that Paige knew about, better than the selection we passed by initially, and lucky for us it was a bit out of the way and no one was there.
The late afternoon and evening was spent relaxing in camp and doing camp chores. We fell asleep that night to the sounds of the running Clear Creek after being treated to a beautiful clear sky and shooting stars.
Day 3: Friday, March 28
Day trip to the Colorado River via Clear Creek Canyon
Clear Creek would be our base camp for three nights. The first day trip out of here was down the canyon to the Colorado River. About ten miles round trip of off-trail scrambling and creek walking, it was an all-day outing. While easy to navigate (just follow Clear Creek until it meets the Colorado!) there were other kinds of challenges along the way.
Clear Creek Canyon is relatively wide in the area we camped, and we started off following use trails down the canyon. There were places where the trail would get walled out and we’d have to hop across the creek to pick it up on the other side, and we all started the day off carefully hopping the creek to keep our feet dry. It didn’t take long to realize that this was futile, and soon we just waded across. The creek was ankle to knee deep and felt nice in the hot sun, so I preferred this approach. My lightweight trail runners/hikers drained and dried quickly, so I had no worries.
Further down the canyon it got narrower and we finally reached Clear Creek Falls. These falls, about 10-12 feet tall, present the only real technical challenge of the day. To get down, one must scramble along and down the slippery rock wall to the right (as heading down canyon). Some choose to rope up here, some don’t. We didn’t. The guys were able to spot and help out us shorter ladies (ahem) and we all got down and up just fine. The route, rock, and holds themselves are easy – it’s the fact that it is wet, slimy, and slick that makes it a challenge.
At the base of the falls we goofed around and relaxed a little bit, then continued down the canyon for the last short stretch. This section was beautiful – narrow walls, slick rock, and creek walking. About 1/2 mile down from the falls we met the Colorado as well as a soft and new sandy dune (again from the controlled flood of a few weeks ago).
A long lunch and relaxing wade later, it was time to head back up the canyon. We made much quicker time heading back to camp, knowing the route and not carefully rock-hopping like we had for part of the way down. Still, we only rolled into camp as the sun was just ready to dip behind the canyon walls around us.
Day 4: Saturday, March 29
Day trip to Cheyava Falls and Anasazi Ruins in Clear Creek Canyon
The second day trip out of our Clear Creek basecamp took us to Cheyava Falls and some Anasazi (Ancestral Pueblo) ruins. Cheyava, which means ‘Intermittent’, only flows for a couple of weeks a year. Since backcountry permits have to be booked months in advance, it is, as the ranger who issued our permit stated, “a roll of the dice” whether you can get to the falls at the right time or not. He told us that the falls weren’t running, but we had run into a hiker coming out of Clear Creek the previous day who had said they were going.
So, we started up the canyon with high hopes. Fortunately, there were also other destinations within the canyon in case the falls weren’t putting on their show. Our first stop, about a mile up the canyon from the Clear Creek camp, was a set of Ancestral Pueblo ruins. These ruins run along the foot of a large red wall cliff, and have lots of artifacts: metates, petrified corn, arrow shaft molds, flint, arrowheads, bones, fire pits, and pottery shards.
It is an incredible collection of artifacts and they are likely preserved only due to their inaccessibility. There is a visitor log book stored in an ammo can at the site and it reveals only a handful of visitors a year. Still, there are certain steps that NPS requests visitors take to help preserve the site. Don’t create use trails (take a random route to the ruins and rock-hop when possible), don’t gather artifacts together (keep pottery shards, bones, etc dispersed), and don’t walk around the ruins in ways that will contribute to the erosion and eventual collapse of the walls.
After exploring the ruins for a while we continued up the canyon for a few miles, again rock-hopping and stream crossing like the day before. Clear Creek Canyon is wider up here so there was some bush-crashing as well. We got to a bend in the creek and up ahead got our first view of Cheyava Falls. Sure enough, it was flowing. Cheyava Falls emerges from a cave in the rock wall, fed by snow melt. The water that is visibly flowing from the falls is actually the snow melt from a couple of years back. The current snow melt filters into the ground below and displaces the old water, which is then pushed out in the form of Cheyava Falls.
Soon after this distant view of the falls we lost trail. I think that many people get to this initial view and do not continue closer to the falls, either because they are rarely flowing and it’s not worth getting closer, or it’s as close as they need/want to get for the view. This wasn’t close enough for us, of course, so we bush crashed for another mile to get a good view of the falls.
Another treat met us just before we reached the falls. High up on a cliff wall we saw several ~1000 year old pueblo granaries, very well preserved, still with logs arranged carefully in the crumbled buildings. These were inaccessible (ladders were used by the Pueblo) to us, but we were able to get positioned well for photos from below.
We took a nice long rest near the falls while Dave scrambled up a scree slope to get a closer view. Eventually we worked out way back to camp where we had time to do some laundry and relax in the sun.
Day 5: Sunday, March 30
Back to the Bright Angel Campground from Clear Creek
Today’s task was to get back to Bright Angel campground as early as possible. We awoke and packed up, hitting the trail before other people camping in the area were out of their sleeping bags. Why such a hurry? Stew dinner, of course! Phantom Ranch offers two dinners every night – a steak seating at 5 pm and a stew dinner at 6:30 pm. Seats for these dinners are booked months in advance, but sometimes you can squeeze in on the waiting list. We had put our names on the waiting list for this night’s dinner on our first night through Phantom Ranch, but we had to get back to confirm our spot as early as possible.
The hike back along the Clear Creek Trail was much nicer than the hike in – it was cooler and it wasn’t in the heat of midday. We saw a family of mule deer and several cacti had blossomed during our days at Clear Creek. By 11:30 am we were back at Phantom Ranch, sucking down lemonade and bagels. Paige and Dave had gotten back a bit earlier and confirmed our spots for dinner, so we had until 6:30 to sit around, relax, and prepare for the next day’s hike out of the canyon.
This was the only afternoon that we had rain, and it fell as a light sprinkle most of the time. The cold Tecate at the Ranch beckoned us again and we spent some time there. We also took the weather opportunity to watch the clouds clearing over Zoroaster from the Silver Bridge and got in some great photography. It was fun to explore the area a little bit since we would be heading across it early next morning by headlamp.
The stew dinner was everything promised and more. Delicious stew, fresh salad (one of my big cravings after days in the backcountry), cornbread, and chocolate cake. Everything a hiker needs.
It was early to bed after dinner – we had a big day in front of us!
Day 6: Monday, March 31
Back to the South Rim via the Bright Angel Trail
Our last day on the trail started dark and early. Rising at 5 am, we packed our stuff up without cooking breakfast (Jolt gum is not my favorite substitute for coffee, but sometimes it has to do) and were on the trail before 6 am. Our plan today was to hike back to the South Rim via the Bright Angel Trail. About 10 miles and 5000 feet of climbing, it was a big day. On top of that, we planned to drive to Las Vegas for the night.
I knew I would be fine on the hike up – the weather was mild, I was healthy and well-hydrated, and had been on the trail for five days and was well into my hiking groove. But my goal was not just to make it back to the Rim – it was to make it back with a smile on my face. I took my time, enjoying the sun rise and views along the way, and before I knew it we were back.
Since we knew we would likely spread out along the trail, our plan was to meet at the Bright Angel Lodge for a celebratory beer when we topped out. But we made it up too early – we all topped out between 10 am and 10:45 am and the bar didn’t even open until 11 am. We could have slept a bit longer! I did meet my goal – I can definitely say I enjoyed the climb. I even had a mule packer point out to his riders that I was a rare sight – a backpacker, going up the trail, with a SMILE on my face. Apparently we’re rare.
After a toast to our successful trip and a great lunch at the Lodge we hit the road. The long drive back to the Bay Area was broken up by a night in Vegas. What a culture shock after days of relative solitude in the Canyon! I definitely prefer the wilderness.
So, how was my first backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon? Incredible! It was different than backpacking in the Sierra in many ways. First, the nights don’t get as cold. I was prepared for cold nights and warm days, not warm nights and warmer days. Second, the water is chewy. Lots of dust and sand in the water, so pre-filtering is important, even though it doesn’t even come close to taking the red out of the water. Third, I eat a lot more. I was really hungry on this hike – I forget that my appetite on the trail in the Sierra is usually affected by altitude, so I don’t eat as much up there. I packed for what I know my appetite to be on a Sierra trip – luckily I always pack too much food anyways and I had enough to accommodate my increased appetite.
I also want to thank Paige for organizing the trip and finally getting me backpacking in the Grand Canyon. This trip definitely qualifies as one of the best backpacking hikes I’ve done!