Hiking the Grand Canyon – Sweat Equity
With my free left hand, I grab at scraggly weeds protruding from the towering red cliffs behind me. With my other hand I clutch my trusty walking stick for support as a mule team blusters its way around us on the trail. Bored and burdened, these mules feel a strong sense of entitlement when it comes to trail sharing.
Hiking the Grand Canyon seemed like the right answer to lift my spirits. My husband Glen had just set off for a month long International Red Cross disaster volunteer assignment to Sierra Leone. I was in need of that magical feeling I get when totally immersed in Nature. A super-fit hiking friend, whose name is also Julie, was up for adventure and we were off.
Peering down from the South Rim the evening before our hike was a bit intimidating. Our hiking plan was to hike down 9.9 miles to Phantom Ranch the first day, descending 4,500 vertical feet in elevation. The second day we would use Phantom Ranch as our base and explore some short, inner canyon trails so our muscles wouldn’t seize up and because, well, ….how often do you get to have a day to explore the very heart of the Grand Canyon.
Now, what you see peering over the Rim is awesome. But make no mistake: the views, scenery and emotion that opens up as you descend to the Colorado River are unmatched. Julie and I stop at Indian Gardens half-way rest stop to soak our feet in the stream and snack on trail mix. This mid canyon perspective – when you’re deep into the colorful strata of erosion, but can still see the massive canyon sprawling above and below and to the sides – is the highlight of a rim-to-river trek. Julie and I took turns listening to each other’s awestruck exclamations as we turned corners and saw new wonders. But nothing can prepare you for a totally different kind of wonder; the amazing place called Phantom Ranch.
Rustic as it may be, at the end of a hot and long hike, Phantom Ranch looms more luxurious than the finest hotel. After more than six hot and dusty hours on the trail, Julie and I claimed bottom bunks in the dorm and jettisoned our backpacks on the wall pegs. Amazed by the flush toilet, shower and mirror (yikes!) I had to learn more about how this enclave called Phantom Ranch came to be.
Phantom Ranch lies beside Bright Angel Creek, a ways past the Colorado River. When Grand Canyon National Park was designated in 1919, its concessionaire was the Fred Harvey Co., who appointed Mary Jane Colter to design permanent buildings for tourists at the Canyon’s bottom. She designed cabins and lodges using smooth river rocks and simple wood trim. Her style blended with the surroundings and became a national park standard.
Through the ’20s, the ranch’s guest book saw the names of America’s brave and wealthy. When the Great Depression hit, the land across Bright Angel Creek became a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp. Workers planted more trees and trails throughout the Canyon were improved.
Forward to 2012. In the 100 degree heat of August, Julie and I and about 100 other trail-weary hikers and campers found cool refuge in the massive cottonwood and sycamore trees that now sprawl between creek and cliffs. At one end of an open area, park rangers offer interpretive talks.
At the other end stands the Canteen. Meals are served family style, and we enjoyed Hiker Stew with salad, and chocolate cake. Calories don’t count after a hike like that. In the morning, pancakes, bacon and scrambled eggs are a bit heavy but irresistible for our bonus day of inner canyon exploring. When the sun is high the canteen tables are full with hikers from all over the world who drink beer in the cool and share tales of their trips. After dinner, the dining room transforms into a sort of hikers’, canyon-bottom club with games of cribbage and checkers.
But the best show at night is looking up. We sit on the benches built in the 1930s by Depression era workers who enjoyed the very same show with the same original night soundtrack; moonlit canyon walls, crickets and bats chirping, mules braying and Bright Angel Creek gurgling by. The climb out WILL be tough. But the last night there was nothing better than to sit and enjoy our hard earned sweat equity!