As an avid hiker, the occasional glance over a frosty Grand Canyon from a cozy office is akin to a hibernating bear raising a groggy eye to gauge spring’s progress. After months of watching the snows come and go on the canyon’s temples and terraces—and storing my fair share of insulation—I seized my chance to herald in the hiking season with a Grand Canyon Field Institute introductory backpack to Indian Garden Campground, led by Denise Traver.
Though El Niño did its best to thwart the commute of the nine fearless participants, in the end, quality interpretation of the canyon’s human and natural history could not be denied. An orientation day, which included a pack check and hiking tips, was spiced up with tales of sliding 18-wheelers and near-zero visibility encountered along the roads from the Phoenix airport. The diverse group hailed from New York, Chicago, Florida, Australia, England, Arizona, Minnesota, and North Carolina. Their common bond during day two’s descent down the Bright Angel Trail was not a universal grasp of the English language or even a love of the outdoors; the golden thread in this group was tricky footing. Lingering snows at an elevation of 7000 feet made the use of instep crampons—tiny steel teeth affixed to one’s soles—a true necessity. Once the group warmed up to their metallic friends it was another banner day on the South Rim’s most popular rim-to-river route. We gawked at dramatic illustrations of faulting, cross bedding, slab failure, freeze/thaw, and other assorted geologic processes. We encountered Douglas-fir thousands of feet below their typical range, ancient Indian rock art, alternating cliffs and slopes, as well as the occasional mule train—all begging explanation of how they came to be, and what their presence indicated about the canyon.
After two miles—halfway to our destination—we examined the finer points of molting, shedding one layer of clothing after another as our surroundings warmed. The snow petered out, giving way to isolated patches of frozen muck, then a mile or two of dry land that wended its way through the breezy desert foliage oblivious to the winter drama being played out above. The group pitched their tents, donned shorts, and moved onto one the more important topics in any GCFI course—relaxation. I was unable to sit still, having been a guide to the inner canyon for four sedentary months. I left early for Plateau Point, perched a thousand feet directly above the Colorado River, and the locale for the evening’s “rock talk.” A dozen mule deer lined the spur trail to the point, noticeably indifferent to my presence. With no natural predators, and a seemingly unlimited food source in the dense foliage along Garden Creek, they hadn’t a care in the world. The class was a week or two early to catch what promised to be the last best desert wildflower bloom of the millennium—but the sweeping views were no less stunning. The group caught up to me, just as the unfolding majesty began weaving its spell on the newcomers. I winked at Denise. She and I had already agreed that one of the joys of sharing the canyon with the uninitiated was the impossibility of overselling its serenity and grandeur.
Denise wasted no time employing the world’s best classroom for a brief geologic history of our planet from its molten core to the bed of 500 million-year-old trace fossils at our feet. Using the drag folds, Precambrian islands, and the winding river as props, Denise got the bulbs of the most geologically-impaired lighting up. A chilly night at Indian Garden had me rethinking my tent-free existence. Unable to devote more than one night’s stay, I crept out of camp at the crack of dawn to a chorus of snores. Those I was leaving behind would join Denise in a hike to Phantom Ranch, spend another night at Indian Garden, then follow in my footsteps out the Bright Angel Trail. The BA, as locals refer to this oft-maligned trail, is considered over-crowded and noisy by some canyon vets. Personally, I’ve found this steep but forgiving thoroughfare a joy to hike under any circumstances—the occasional adolescent yodeler and mule train aside. But it’s days like this when one realizes why the pioneers chose this site as the major tourist center at Grand Canyon. A family of desert bighorn sheep greeted me at one turn, a blooming cactus at another, a friendly German couple at a third. It wasn’t until I was a mile from the top that I needed a second hand to count the trail mates I’d encountered. Crampons came on again as the ice was still present, here and there. Just short of the top I overheard a few backpackers ahead of me celebrating their accomplishment with much ado, and I found myself howling along with them. With my previous four trips being on the much more precarious trails of the North Rim, I didn’t think I had a war cry in me for the ol’ BA Trail, but after a long dry spell as a rim dweller I felt like I was topping out for the first time all over again.
Park Trail Description
- Bright Angel Trail Description (38kb – PDF)