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Down into the Grand Canyon; Old Rocks Rock! Brachiopods; Mules and Husbands; Phantom Ranch; BUNKBEDS???

One of my all-time “bucket list” items was hiking down into the Grand Canyon, spending a night or two at the bottom, and hiking back up to the rim. I was able to check this item off recently when Robert Hunter, a retired US Air Force colonel, and I flew out west from The Villages for a week. 

On the way to the Grand Canyon, we stopped and had dinner with our great friends Jerry and Karen Facciani in Las Vegas. Jerry had selected Table 34, where we enjoyed a delicious meal of Colorado lamb chops and some excellent wine.

Then on to the Canyon! Back in March, I had made reservations at the El Tovar Hotel (regular rooms preceding and following our two-day hike) and the iconic Phantom Ranch (dorm-type bunk houses for two nights near the Colorado River – dorms because all of the private cabins had been booked for over a year). Originally, Jessica and Suzanne were supposed to go, but nighttime temps in the teens discouraged their participation.  I called the reservation desk and spoke to a 20-something woman about cancelling the girls’ dorm reservation. She really surprised me when she said, “Oh, don’t do that! Those reservations are so hard to get that you could go into the bar at the Yavapai Inn and pick up a couple of girls who would die to make that trip with you!” I replied that Our Lovely Brides might not be so understanding, and she just snickered… sigh…

We spent a day doing some short hikes around the South Rim and Grand Canyon Village, reconnoitering the area, especially the South Kaibab Trail (our route down) and the Bright Angel Trail (our trail back up). These two corridor trails are the principal access routes from the South Rim. (The North Kaibab Trail is the access route from the North Rim, but it’s about 100 miles away by car.)

The South Rim averages about 7,300 ft. elevation, while the Colorado River is at 2,500 ft. I have been to the Canyon at least six times, but its stunning beauty and grandeur always leaves me breathless.

During our day hike, we saw a group of ten desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) on this outcropping of rock a few hundred feet below the rim. I still can’t figure out how they got there – there is no apparent trail or ledge wider than a foot or so, but they are among the most sure-footed critters on earth. I asked Robert if he wanted to try that route, but he wisely declined.

The vistas are truly amazing, and the constantly-changing colors due to shadows and passing clouds make every scene unique. The canyon is about 277 river miles long by about 18 miles wide and a mile deep.

I could sit for hours just looking down into the void, thinking how insignificant mankind is compared to the creation and carving of these layers of rock over past eons. The oldest rocks which comprise the Grand Canyon are up to 1.8 billion years old. (That’s even older than My Good Friend Bob who gives me such a hard time when I return fishless from fishing; but I digress.)

The day before our hike down, we attended a Fossil Walk with Ranger Tish. She gave an excellent talk on fossils of Grand Canyon, and showed us several splendid examples of brachiopods found in Kaibab limestone, which is from the Permian Period, about 250 million years old. Brachiopods are similar to bivalves, but unlike their distant relatives, process most of their food, sneeze some waste out, and have no anus. (They also don’t taste as good as oysters and clams… perhaps there is a lesson there for Darwinian-oriented folks.)

We started our hike down on the South Kaibab Trail, which winds down steep switchbacks for 7 plus miles to the Colorado River. The drop-offs are significant, and even impressive. Going over the edge here would result in a big splat

Just a mile down, we met two muleskinners riding their trusty steeds up from the river. This was evidently a training evolution for the mules (which is the sterile hybrid offspring of a male donkey {jack} and a female horse {mare}). Mules are alleged to be less obstinate and smarter than donkeys and more patient, longer-lived, and easier-riding than horses. (For those who were about to make snide remarks about mules being like some husbands, please don’t go there!) 

Our hike continued down and down. We took a break once an hour for about 5 minutes to drink water and have a snack (mostly GORP, Good Old Raisins and Peanuts, the backpackers’ classic snack). The weather was still chilly, but warming up about 4 degrees for every 1,000 feet we hiked down in elevation.

Flora was pretty sparse once you dropped below the South Rim. This area gets very little rain, and the soil isn’t exactly rich. This skinny little extension of a cactus is about as good as it gets, unless there is a seasonal stream within a few yards…

A moment’s reflection at lunch… the Grand Canyon has to be one of the best places in the world to meditate. It’s hard to comprehend how much rock was cut away by the Colorado River, wind and rain over the past 5 million years.

Down and down some more! Here we see another 12 or so switchbacks, and teenie-tiny dots way down there that are actually humans…

As you descend, you look north and up at the soaring Sumner Butte and Zoroaster Temple. The latter is climbable, but has at least one 5.9 pitch near the end of the climb. (The scale only goes to 6.0). “Darn, I forgot my rope and pitons…”

Finally, the Colorado River comes into view, still about 1,000 feet below; and yes, that tiny ribbon is indeed a bridge across the river…

Wildlife! Not a blonde female hiker, but a desert bighorn sheep, just 20 feet above us off the trail. There are also cougars, bobcats and coyotes here, but this was the only large mammal (other than mule deer) that we saw during our hike.

The Kaibab Black Suspension Bridge was built in 1928, and the 122 tons of equipment and cables were transported by mules and humans all the way down from the South Rim. 42 Havasupai Indians carried the one ton, 550-foot long cables in single file every foot of the way for over 7 miles, snaking down the switchbacks we had just hiked.

Phantom Ranch isn’t exactly the luxurious dude ranch you might expect. While the greeting signboard was friendly enough….

… the bunkbeds left a lot to be desired. Since our bunkhouse mates had arrived the day before, Robert and I got both top bunks. Oh Boy!!!

Meals were simple, but pretty satisfying. Breakfast was especially hearty, with all the eggs, bacon, sausage and pancakes you can eat.

We spent two nights “at the bottom”, with a day hike of the Clear Creek Trail, which runs along the Tonto Platform below the North Rim. This trail offers unique views of the gorge cut by the Colorado River. Totally impassable on foot, it can only be run by… 

… river rafts and kayaks like these. This boats were on a 25-day adventure through the Canyon. (As much as I like boats, I would not want to be in a stinky wet suit for over three weeks!

That’s all for today… Come back in a few days for the finish of our Grand Canyon Adventure!!!


  • Anonymous
    Posted December 15, 2017 at 6:55 pm

    Looks like a great trip! Riding mules on that route is on our bucket list. I happen to ride a mule named Mo. My wife tells me I have a nice ass (equine, get you mind out of the gutter)!

  • S/V Magnolia
    Posted December 15, 2017 at 9:46 pm

    Looks like a heck of an adventure!!!!!


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