Friday, May 13, 2011

Hike from South Rim of Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail Down to Indian Garden and Back to the Rim

Last week I had the privilege of being in Grand Canyon National Park in northern Arizona. Certainly as an outdoor enthusiast, I had to walk more than the Canyon’s Rim Trail.  My friend JK recommended a hike into the Canyon to Indian Garden via the Bright Angel Trail. The estimated hiking book time was 6 to 9 hours for this 9.2 mile hike down and back to the south rim.

My enthusiasm for hiking into the Canyon was cautioned by my fears of:

1. My fear of height. The south rim of the Grand Canyon is nearly 7,000 feet above sea level. The thought of looking over a drop-off of thousands of feet was admittedly something I was not sure I could face.

2. Meeting Mules on the Bright Angel Trail. There are frequent mule trips passing hikers on Bright Angel Trail. Could I squeeze close enough to the mountain side to let mule riders pass me on the Trail?

3. Width of the Bright Angel Trail. Would the Trail down into the Canyon be so narrow as to force me to hug the mountain?

On Thursday morning at 6:40 am I began my hike on the south rim at the Bright Angel Trailhead. Two and a half hours and 4.6 miles later I reached Indian Garden. The hike down was fabulous, and I stopped frequently in awe of this incredible landscape and to take pictures and “smell the roses” of my America’s beautiful country.

The four ½ hour return trip from Indian Garden to the rim was quite the challenge. The only thing that kept me going was I knew I had a six-pack sitting on ice in my cooler!

I believe the main reason for my exhaustion on the return trip from Indian Garden to the south rim was because I had not trained at 7,000 feet above sea level. My daily Bedford, New Hampshire training runs were at an elevation of 275 feet.

Lessons learned from my six plus hour hike from the south rim on Bright Angel trail to Indian Garden were:

• Height. My fears were for naught. The width of the trail was four to six feet, and most often the cliffside of the trail had trees and rocks that eliminated any fear of falling hundreds or thousands of feet

• The width of the trail was more than enough to accommodate mules passing. I had three groups of mule riders pass me on the way up. As they passed I simply sat on the mountain side with plenty of room to relax, drink water, and take pictures, as you will see in the video.

• The three rest areas (Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse, Three-Mile Resthouse, and Indian Garden) all had water sources for refills of my water bottles.

• The dust from the limestone was choking and blinding. Following another hiker up the trail put me in a dust cloud and I had wait until the hiker was way ahead before I continued my trek. The mules passing generated even more dust. Certainly a person with dust issues needs to be very aware of this situation.

• Shade was plentiful in my morning trek down. However, my journey back to the rim started around 10 am and shade was less prominent and the bright sun was hot resulting in sweat mixed with suntan lotion (a mandatory item) burning in my eyes.

• There were four-foot timbers every three to four feet on the trail to prevent trail wash away. This meant on the return to the rim I had to constantly lift my feet six to twelve inches with every step. My thighs began aching before I reached the Three-Mile Resthouse.
• My approach to the hike back was to divide my trek into three phases: (1) Hike from Indian Garden to the Three-Mile Resthouse, (2) Hike from the Three-Mile Resthouse to the One-and-a-Half-Mile Resthouse, and (3) Hike from the One-and-a-Half-Mile Resthouse to the Canyon’s rim.

Sign at Three-Mile Resthouse: Down is Optional – Up is Mandatory

Hmm, I trust the picture of Down is Optional, Up is Mandatory, caused you to ask yourself, “What does Down is Optional – Up is Mandatory mean?” Well, as noted, hiking down the Canyon is essentially an easy stroll. Your main concern is to lift your feet so not to trip over the log sections and rocks. Thus “Down is Optional” means go down the canyon knowing you must be able to climb back up – thus “Up is Mandatory” means you are responsible for getting yourself back up to the canyon rim. There are over 200 heat-related rescues in Grand Canyon National Park each year, and most of them on the Bright Angel Trail. So, a word to the wise.

The need to replenish water is a live saving concern in a desert country. Water replacement in May is no issue as my 4.6 miles descent of the Bright Angel Fault to Indian Garden had three springs. Only Indian Garden has water year-round.

The steep decent is made easy through switchbacks curling down the mountain. You will also be returning up the same trail – and that is where the rub lies. Because the climb is to the 7,000 above sea level rim, the dust from the path, the constant lifting of your legs and hurt of your thighs, minimal shade, and your level of cardio fitness, this can be a life-threatening and injury decision. So, “Up is Mandatory” means overcoming all these barriers that can prevent you from returning to the rim.

Memorable Moments

• As I hiked I began thinking this trail would be runnable, similar to my winter wild experience described here in an earlier blog post. Then, just before the One-and-a-Half-Mile Resthouse, I was passed by a person running. A few minutes later I met him at the Resthouse. We introduced ourselves, and he said he was 63 years and “out for an early morning run”. He turned around at this point and ran upward toward the rim.

• As I neared Indian Garden the Trail leveled off, and I would run a bit – both to reduce the time to Indian Garden as well as to change my gait and vary use of different leg muscles.

• On my return to the rim, I could see a woman walking very slowly in front of me. She was stumbling and stopped frequently to grasp the wall. She appeared to me to be in trouble. I caught up with her, and we spoke as we rested against the wall. I asked her if she needed any assistance, and she replied “No”. We both were near finishing, and I waited for her near the Bright Angel Trailhead. We did a high-five. Certainly she was close to not understanding, “Down is Optional – Up is Mandatory

• Because of my early morning start, almost all my down hike was in the shade. However, my return hike was mostly in the sun - and it was very hot.

• Going down I did not touch the wall. On my trek back, I frequently would use the wall to support my upward momentum - and the wall was cool. I kept thinking a hiking stick would be nice about now.

Enjoy my video and hike into the Grand Canyon to Indian Garden and my return to the south rim.

I never have to say, “I wish I had hiked Bright Angel Trail into the Grand Canyon”

"Everyone must do something.  I believe I will go outdoors with family and friends"
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    References to the Bright Angel Trail

    America's 10 Most Dangerous Hikes - Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon, AZ