Usually when I drive between California and Minnesota, I am on a tight schedule and don’t have any time for sightseeing. I normally make the trip in two long days, with an overnight stop in Denver to see my son. However this time I had about 10 days to make the trip from Minnesota to Los Angeles. After spending a few days in Colorado Springs, I headed south and then was planning on going to the Grand Canyon via US Highway 160. I wanted to enjoy the back roads instead of taking the freeway, but when I checked on road conditions with the sheriff’s department, they said the road was icy, along with blowing snow. The head wind was also so strong I couldn’t even go 50 mph in high gear!
I ended up going further south and still had some snow and poor roads going to Taos, New Mexico, but made it OK. I was expecting that camping might be more expensive there being it was a tourist area, and was driving through town looking for some place to spend the night when I saw a Wal-Mart store. I went in to get some milk for breakfast and when I came out I noticed some motor homes that looked like they were spending the night in the parking lot. I knocked on the door of one of them and asked about parking for the night there. They told me that almost all Wal-Marts allow you to “camp” free in their parking lots over night. As I was planning on sleeping in my car anyway, a Honda CRV, it worked out great.
In the morning I had to detour south again to get to the Grand Canyon because the direct route was closed due to snow. By the time I got back up to the main route it appeared to be open. I arrived at the Canyon about 7:30 at night and the east entrance was open, but the pay booth was closed – so I didn’t have to pay the $20 entrance fee! I spent the night at the campgrounds and was planning on being at the trailhead at sunrise but overslept, I didn’t wake up until 7:30!
The last time I had been at the Grand Canyon, was about eight or nine years before, on my first backpacking trip. A group from the singles class at my church had gone there on a three-day hike down to Phantom Ranch and back. We were all carrying way too much food and lots of clothes, expecting it to be cold. There had been an early heat wave, and we were cooking on the way back up. After really getting into hiking after that, I had always wanted to go back and do the same hike as a day hike, but hadn’t had the chance until now.
I checked at the information center and the ranger said the trails were very icy, and not to try them without crampons. When I said I wanted to go to the river and come back up the same day, he said it was too far. Not wanting to spend $10 for the cheap crampons, as I had good ones waiting for me in Minnesota, I was glad when the store said they were out of them. Of course, I still wanted to do the hike, so decided to check out the Bright Angel trail and see how bad it was. Another ranger saw me heading towards the trailhead and told me I needed crampons. I thought he might be right at first, because the sidewalk there was very icy from hard packed snow. However when I got on the actual trail, it was just firm snow, not even packed that hard, and was no problem with trekking poles. I saw many hikers who were doing it in running shoes and no poles.
I started down the trail at 9:45 am, and shortly passed a mule train heading down as well. I figured if it was safe enough to take tourists down on mules, it couldn’t be too bad. It was very beautiful with the fresh snow on the red rocks. On our backpacking trip, we had gone down the Kaibab Trail, and come up the Bright Angel Trail, because of the different direction, and after all the years, it all seemed new to me. Besides doing the hike for fun, I was training for my Pacific Crest Trail hike that was coming up in about 45 days. I also had my new backpack and other new gear that I was trying out for the hike. I always like to hike fast, and not knowing how long it would take to do the round trip, I set off at a good pace and must have passed over 50 day hikers on the way down.
I got to the ranger station at Phantom Ranch at 12:50, and went in to check on conditions of the Kaibab Trail. There I met two young female rangers who said they had just come down the Kaibab trail, with crampons, and they said I should have them to go up, as it was slippery. I stopped and ate lunch and tried to decide what to do. If I went up the Kaibab and encountered icy conditions once I got the snow near the top, it would be too late to go back down to the river and go back up the Bright Angel Trail. I really didn’t think the trail would be any worse than the one I had just come down, so decided to give it a try, and started up at 1:25 pm. After crossing the Black Bridge, I soon met a young couple that was coming down so I asked them how the trail was; they said it was no problem, even without crampons or trekking poles.
My pack was light and I had done some training hikes while in Minnesota, as well as on Pike’s Peak, so I was feeling good, and again set a fast pace going up, using my trekking poles to help pull myself up the trail. The weather was great for a hard workout, just cool enough that I didn’t get too hot going up. The trail was great until the last few miles, when it turned muddy and slushy, but the sun had melted the snow enough that I didn’t have to worry about any icy spots. Keeping an eye on my watch and the rim at the top of the canyon, I began to think I could make it up in about the same time it took going down, so I kept pushing. I was delighted when I reached the top and saw that I had made it up in 2:55, 10 minutes quicker than going down the Bright Angel Trail, which is a mile shorter.
Knowing that I would need all the conditioning I could get before the PCT hike, I decided to walk back to my car, which was near the Bright Angel Trailhead. I was very happy with this choice as I followed the trail along the rim on the way back, the views were beautiful with the fresh snow, and I was able to get some nice pictures.
I had never been to Hoover Dam, so even though it was quite a bit longer going that way, I headed back up north to see that, rather than taking the direct route to Los Angeles. I also found a nice place to camp near there and got some more hiking in around there, so it was an enjoyable finish to the trip.
Source: Vic Hanson