January 2010

It has become a pattern of behavior for me to avoid National Parks during peak seasons. They are so crowded now, and people in large numbers are so vexing when a wilderness experience is desired. Portland can be a bit of a dreary place in January, so I made a few calls to ascertain whether there was room for me at Phantom Ranch. There was not, so permits for camping were obtained, and off I went. There were a fair number of people on the trails, and at the bottom, but it was definitely not crowded. In three days of hiking from my camp on Bright Angel Creek, I saw only a handful of others. It was certainly a peaceful and solitary adventure.

Lots of work, though, too. It's ten miles down the Bright Angel trail, and the last two are flat along the river. That equates to almost 1000' of elevation loss per mile.  My quads were feeling it.  The first couple miles were icy and treacherous, and after that, just steep. Most of this route is inside a deep bowl, and views of the surrounding terrain are cropped by its depth.  When I came out several days later, I used the South Kaibab trail .. shorter by almost four miles, way more steep, but also on top of the ridges the entire route up.  The views were mind-boggling.

From the South Rim the canyon is enormous; I think they say it's about six air miles across, maybe ten at the widest point.  For some reason, seeing its vastness from the top had an effect on me that was not so huge as walking its vertical walls.  Likewise, experiencing it from river-level as I did several years ago was not nearly as moving as the placing of my feet on each of the layers of sandstone, shale, limestone and schist.  This was like walking into the bowels of the earth, seeing its geologic history laid at my feet, one layer at a time. In this area of the Canyon, the exposed Vishnu schist at the bottom is among the oldest exposed rock on earth, nearly half as old as the earth itself.  The first layer of sediments, the Tapeats Sandstone, is roughly 1.5 billion years younger.  That interface represents a billion and a half years of missing geology !  On and on it goes: bands of purple, pink, yellow, orange, and blue.  Of course, the huge void that is the Canyon itself represents material that has been ground up and carried to the ocean by the river, where it is making new layers of rock as we speak.  I have read that the Colorado carries away nearly 400,000 TONS of silt every DAY !

This was a cold journey, made all the more so because I forgot to take a hat.  Do not forget your hat.  In January, of course, the sun is low on the southern horizon, and the big ditch is 5000 feet deep, so there was never any sunlight except near the top.  One of the rangers told me that the California Condors, who I had encountered on my trip down the river, have been leaving the Canyon in winter to go hang out near Zion.  Seems they have discovered the flocks of sheep in the area, and of course, not all lambs survive their first winter.  I had only one day for Zion this trip, and chose a trail that was new to me: up to Hidden Canyon and most of the way up to Observation Point.  My start was late, so I have to return to see this perspective from the top.  I saw enough to motivate me to do that.