PCT Shakedown #2: Solo in the Grand Canyon (2/2)
(Start with Part 1/2 here)
I wake up early at Cedar Spring and pack up. My cold fingers struggle to get my new bear cannister open. As guides, we like to joke about the difficulty of designing campground garbage bins because of the overlap between the smartest bears and the dumbest humans, but I’ve never pictured myself in the middle of that Venn diagram.
“I am smarter than a bear,” I insist out loud to the Grand Canyon. Eventually, I get the can open and sort out the food needed for the morning. I start hiking at 6:30 on an empty stomach, hoping to get some miles under my feet while the trail is in the shade. My legs aren’t sore from yesterday’s descent, so I allow myself to hike faster today. I stop frequently to take photos as each stage of the sunrise lights up the inner gorge in still more dramatic colors.
I cross into the sunshine at 8:30 a.m. and look at my phone. Strava says I’ve come 5.1 miles. Five miles in two hours! I love my job, but 2.5 mph on a Superstitions trip with guests is unthinkable. Hiking alone on this gentle, rolling trail feels luxurious.
I shed layers and pull out my stove to make breakfast just off trail. It’s a blissful temperature right now, which means it’ll be hot later.
Soon, I’m back on trail.
I climb in and out of deep washes at Salt Creek and Horn Creek, but otherwise the elevation is mild. It’s eleven when I reach Indian Garden. I take a full hour to eat lunch and rest before starting down the Bright Angel trail. My headphones are working today, so I listen to podcasts until I cross the Colorado river and roll into Phantom Ranch around 3:30.
I pay $5.50 for an iced coffee at the ranch. It’s weak, but a cold drink tastes like heaven. I still have 2.3 miles to hike to my campsite for the night, but the Clear Creek Trail is a steep uphill climb on the sun-baked, south-facing side of the gorge. It will be hot if I go right now. Instead, I find a place in the shade, take off my shoes, and pull out my journal.
On a whim, I ask the Phantom employee if there are any spaces available for tomorrow’s breakfast. I don’t need the food, but it will be good motivation to wake up early and get myself down from Clear Creek. He says yes, and after a moment of sticker shock, I pay $35 for a seven a.m. reservation. Expensive for a simple pancake breakfast, I think, anywhere except the bottom of a 5,000-foot canyon only accessible by mule.
At five p.m., I hoist my pack onto my shoulders and start up the North Kaibab trail. I’m alert for wildlife—this is where we saw the bobcat during my training back in January—but I encounter nothing besides a few small lizards as I hang a right at the intersection with Clear Creek Trail.
This trail is steeper than I remember.
My permit allows me to dispersed camp anywhere past Sumner Wash at the two-mile mark, designated by a pair of large cairns. I check my phone frequently. I’ve done 16 miles today already, but these final two feel impossibly slow. Finally, up ahead, I see the two stone pillars that designate the camping boundary.
Once I pass between the cairns, the ground flattens out to my right. Six beautiful campsites are scattered across a plateau stretching south from the trail, 1,200 feet above a curve in the river. No one else is here.
I’ve been in a better headspace today than yesterday afternoon. Last night I ached for the company of my AT tramily, but now I relish the solitude. While a pot of water boils on my stove, I sit cross-legged on my sleeping pad and watch the sky turn warm, pastel colors. I feel unbelievably lucky to be here.
Hours later, I’m tucked into my sleeping bag when I hear footsteps and male voices. It’s after 9pm. Hikers have just arrived. I poke my head out of my tent to make sure they have enough space—I left my bear cannister sitting in one of the other campsites—but the night sky distracts me.
Now, I’ve seen the stars before.
Joshua Tree is an International Dark Sky Park, and I guide there all the time. The Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine was also remarkably free of light pollution. I’ve even camped overnight in the Sahara desert in Morocco. But in hundreds and hundreds of nights in the wilderness, I’ve never witnessed a night sky like this. It takes me several seconds to even find the Big Dipper to orient myself because there are thousands of stars as bright as Ursa Major. The moon hasn’t risen yet, so there is no light anywhere to drown out the stars or the faint swirl of the Milky Way stretching across the sky.
When my neck starts to hurt, I retreat back into my tent and go to sleep.
It’s still dark at 5:40, and I pack up by the light of my headlamp. After a brief conversation with the hikers who arrived late last night—they intend to summit Zoroaster Temple today, a popular climbing route nearby—I start hiking back down to Phantom. Dawn is approaching, so I switch off my headlamp and let my eyes adjust to the dim purple-gray light.
When I turn onto the North Kaibab Trail, I see a couple of runners heading north. They’re clearly attempting a Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, or R3, where you start on one side of the Grand Canyon and run to the opposite rim and back again, all in a single day. It’s 44 miles and 11,000 feet of elevation gain. I used to think ultrarunners were crazy, but lately the idea of attempting these long runs strikes me as tempting rather than insane. Maybe someday.
Then, in the quarter mile remaining to Phantom, I see another fifteen runners. When I get my breakfast from the ranch, I ask the employee if there’s some kind of event. He tells me this is just a normal Friday, provided the weather is nice.
After my pancakes, I start my watch and begin the hike out of the Canyon.
The first two miles between Phantom and River Rest House are mostly flat. Then, it’s time to climb. I use my headphones today. By now, I do feel some soreness in my legs from the previous 30 miles, but it’s still nothing like the last time I completed this ascent.
At Indian Garden, I pause for a bathroom break and a snack, then top off my water bottles and keep moving. I don’t stop again until I’m approaching 1 ½ Mile Rest House, where a ranger is blocking the trail.
“I need you to wait here for a minute,” she says. She explains that a helicopter is dropping off some materials for a renovation project. The pilot has to get close to the trail, and it’s windy today. “She’s a very experienced pilot,” the ranger says, “but we still have to keep visitors away for safety.” I pull out another snack and watch as the chopper approaches with a huge wooden crate dangling beneath it. Seeing this tricky maneuver reminds me how much skill, hard work, and money is required to maintain a park like the Grand Canyon.
When I reach the rim, my watch reads 4 hours and 46 minutes from Phantom Ranch. It’s much faster than back in January. I feel tired, but not exhausted as I walk back to the backcountry office and find my car. Overall, it’s been an encouraging three days. I have one more Joshua Tree trip for work, and then the next time I go backpacking will be the Pacific Crest Trail.
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