Lost Creek Wilderness {November 2011}

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Backpacking the Grand Canyon {One week later}


That's the best possible word I can think of to explain my encounter with the Grand Canyon. There is simply no way to convey the enveloping silence and stillness within the canyon, or the expanse of space and time in which it exists. Even while I was there, everything seemed like a familiar memory. It's certainly a spiritual and transcendent experience .... one that offers a liberating clarity as well as the ability to make a distinction between trivial, everyday matters and those things that deserve to be valued. Sometimes it feels like I'm describing a sublime dream ... but that's kind of what it was. 

This is my favorite photo from the trip, and it's not even one of the canyon! But it captures the experience perfectly ~ that delicate balance between the human dimension and nature's realm; the innate knowledge of something greater than ourselves. 

Backpacking the Grand Canyon {Day Six}

Day Six
For the last time this trip, we disassembled our tents, organized our gear, cooked instant oatmeal, and filled our waterbottles. Actually, I can't remember if we even took the time to cook oatmeal ...

Sunrise from Indian Garden

The Bright Angel is steep from the outset. I had blisters on my feet in unusual spots and my legs were incredibly sore (despite multiple arnica applications), so I had no desire to hurry through the five-mile climb. Austen and Felix had a different idea, and were always a switchback or two ahead of Justin and I. The trail follows a natural route along the Bright Angel Fault and was first used by the Havasupai to reach the glistening water source at Indian Garden and the inner canyon recesses. Now, Bright Angel is the most popular of the corridor trails, and is equally attractive to first-time canyon hikers and seasoned pros as well as mule trains.

We left Indian Garden around 9:00 am, and reached our destination (Bright Angel trailhead) at exactly 12:00 pm. Three hours. Wow ... I thought we were moving slowly, must have been all in my head, but apparently we made great time (as had been the case throughout the backcountry). There's not much to say about the trek upward; I was in a miserable mood and wanted nothing more than to change my clothes, wash my hair, and eat a chocolate chip cookie (we'd left a box in the car). The most gratifying moment was gazing back towards the plateau and the river beyond from the upper section of Bright Angel, knowing that we'd been way down there hours earlier. It looked so far away.

View of the Tonto from the upper part of Bright Angel

The grueling set of switchbacks known as Jacob's Ladder

The upper part of Bright Angel

The last two or three miles of the trail were snow-packed, but crampons were not necessary (to my relief). Finally, I could see the car, and our two companions, waiting for us at the trailhead when we were sidetracked by a fat woman with a southern accent and way too much makeup sitting at the top of the trail ... as if she were debating whether or not to continue. She pointed at our hiking poles and asked what they were called ... I told her they were called 'poles'. She was the last person in the world I wanted to be talking to; all I could think of was taking off my heavy, heavy pack and getting that margarita ...

A final shot of the four of us in full-on backpacking garb

El Tovar's prickly pear margaritas {much deserved}

We packed ourselves and our backpacks into my car and drove the seven miles to Hermit's Rest, where Austen had parked his car. The Hermit/Tonto/Bright Angel route is a loop, however, it requires two vehicles in the winter since the shuttles don't run. I guess we could have hitch-hiked, but it was much more convenient to have our own transportation between the two trailheads. From there, we basically took off - it was five hours to Durango and a warm shower, cozy hotel room, and the promise of Steamworks pizza and beer were motivation enough to get on the road as quickly as possible.

Steamworks Brewery, Durango

Freshly showered and nicely dressed, we were ecstatic to be in Durango eating more food than we'd had all week. If you ever find yourself in Durango, you must go to Steamworks. They have delicious beer (especially the Backside Stout), and yummy food ... even when you haven't just emerged from five days in the grandest of canyons.

Backpacking the Grand Canyon {Day Five}

Austen, Felix and Justin beginning the early morning walk across the Tonto

Day Five
Ten miles. Ten miles before we'd reach Indian Garden, which is located on the Bright Angel trail (the route that would bring us back to the rim, and reality). The thing about the Grand Canyon is ... the trail that lays ahead never looks as far away as it actually is. The full Tonto is a 95-mile east-west passage along the entire length of the Tonto Platform. Although it is relatively flat with little elevation gain, the trail follows contours and drainage routes while paralleling (for the most part) the river and rim. This means that you end up going a mile in the seemingly wrong direction just to maneuver in and out of gulches and side canyons. For this very reason, it felt like we were hiking forever and making very little progress.

Countouring around the Inferno

The above photo is an example of the necessity of contouring around mesas and tributaries to the inner gorge. This section is called the Inferno, most likely because of the way the sun hits the rock and increases the temperature; this was the only part of the hike that I was uncomfortably warm. Even though the day seemed to drag on, we made excellent time and soon arrived at the Tonto/Bright Angel trail junction.

Indian Garden was just around the corner, about another half-mile. Because it is a part of the Bright Angel trail system, Indian Garden is considered a corridor campground. Essentially, this means that it's more developed and more popular than the other backcountry campsites we'd been to (due to easy access, comparatively, from the rim). We even had our own picnic table, on which we played a few games of Yahtzee after setting up our tent and changing into warmer clothes (we were at a higher elevation now). I had mixed feelings about the next day; I was thankful to hike up rather than down because it's significantly easier on the knees, but I was also somewhat dreading the five mile ascent in snowy and/or icy conditions closer to the rim. Justin and I had forgone our crampons figuring that we wouldn't really need them ... rangers had only recommended them. And this is among the more crowded trails that attracts tourists year-round. So, no crampons ... and sweet, frequently interrupted dreams of the prickly pear margaritas awaiting us at El Tovar and a warm shower in Durango. 

Prickly pear cactus

Backpacking the Grand Canyon {Day Four}

Day Four
US National Parks West (a collaboration between Insight Guides & the Discovery Channel) is a fantastic overview of the wild diversity, pristine environments, and natural sanctuaries offered in the landscapes of the American West. In an effort to describe the Grand Canyon, the authors write, "It takes at least a week. Only after days of looking and listening and reading will patterns begin to emerge. Specific rock layers become familiar. Details of the geologic story become clear. Things once invisible become obvious". It's not that we are trying to make sense of this place; we only strive to appreciate the way in which the canyon aquires a human dimension ... to recognize how we fit in ... and to gain a greater awareness of the complex relationship between past and present.

I became completely absorbed in these thoughts as we ascended back up towards the Tonto. Granite Rapids, and the surrounding areas within the inner gorge, wouldn't make any sense unless you saw them for yourself. This distinct and unique habitat is called the riparian zone, where the presence of water attracts various animals and supports lush oases of vegetation. The Vishnu schist (basement rock) offers evidence that 2 billion years ago the canyon region actually lay beneath an ancient sea! How the Earth Was Made, a documentary series, explains the biological and geological history of the Earth; the episode featuring the Grand Canyon is definitely worth checking out as it explains the carving and formation of the canyon as well as the different processes involved over millions of years. 

Hiking back up the drainage from Granite Rapids

As a general rule, the deeper you go into the canyon, the warmer and drier it becomes. For this reason, I didn't want to leave Granite Rapids. Our trek back to the Tonto went quickly, and soon we were on our way to our next campsite, Cedar Spring. This was our shortest day, so we took our time and stopped often to snack on trail mix, coconut cookies, nutella, and dried pepperoni. 

A yucca-studded Tonto Platform

We made it to Cedar Spring in no time, and set up camp immediately. Our tents appeared so small in comparison with the immense expance of space around us. Unfortunately, campfires are not allowed within the canyon ... so instead we set up our mini iPod speaker, played some bluegrass, cracked a beer, and relaxed ... every now and again stating the obvious, We're totally in the Grand Canyon. At that time, it still seemed entirely surreal. 

Backcountry campsite #3: Cedar Spring

A few hours, multiple music genres, and several beers later we were ready to cook dinner and get to bed. Once the sun sets, the temperature drops dramatically. A lesson learned the hard way, it's best to get into your sleeping bag before you start to get chilly. After an easy day, we were all looking forward to the next day's hike across the Tonto to our final campsite at Indian Garden. 

An Oskar Blues promo ad

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Backpacking the Grand Canyon {Day Three}

Day Three
I've read that the Grand Canyon warrants any hyperbolic language it inspires; I believe it now. My words cannot convey or express the countless images, thoughts and feelings dancing around in my mind: stunning vistas, dazzling colors, the silence and complete stillness of a desert night, nature's dominion, the passing of millions of years ... I can't help but think of the ancient people who once inhabited this place. They've left traces of their existence throughout the canyon, and we follow in their footsteps along trails blazed long ago. All worries and concerns fade, and your entire being seems to be one with this massive chasm.

At least that is how I felt as we hiked further down into the canyon, through layers of rock correlating to years of geologic change, diverse ecosystems, and specific natural processes. The rim of the canyon is vastly different from the bottom, near the Colorado River. We began our third day near the fourth or fifth layer of rock (Redwall limestone, one of the canyon's most prominent features) before reaching the Tonto Platform (comprised of Bright Angel shale/Tapeats sandstone, and marking the 'only break in a long jumble of cliffs and ledges'). This part of the trail is more or less flat, and extremely welcoming after the 'Cathedral Stairs', a series of steep switchbacks leading to the plateau. Here, we got our first view of the mighty Colorado.

Granite Rapids, a backcountry beach campsite along the river, was our goal for the day. The environment in the inner gorge is unique, and quite a change from the desert-like feel of the Tonto. In my mind, I compared it to Avatar world ...

Justin, Austen and Felix en route to Granite Rapids
We hiked for two miles down the drainage to reach our campsite. Along the way, we found a fossilized fern and a few other geologic features that the guys got pretty excited about (a conglomerate?) as well as an up-close look at some of the oldest exposed rock on the Earth's surface. The bottommost layer, Vishnu schist, is dark and contains intruding bands of pinkish Zoroaster granite - both formed approximately 2 billion years ago! Crazy, almost unbelievable unless you actually see it and experience the depth at which it resides.

This campsite was easily my favorite of the four, and I would definitely recommend it as a part of any itinerary along this route. Below are a few photos from the general site.

Visnu schist & Zoroaster granite

Granite Rapids {one of the larger rapids on the Colorado}

Tamarisk leading to our sandy, beachy campsite

A placid Colorado just after sunrise

Backpacking the Grand Canyon {Day Two}

One of our first, and most striking, views of the canyon {from Hermit's Rest}
Day Two
At this point, less than four hours lay between us and Grand Canyon National Park. Because we were so anxious to get on the road, we didn't even bother to cook a decent breakfast before leaving Sand Island. Within minutes, we were driving through Monument Valley -- if you've seen Forrest Gump, or Disney/Pixar's Cars, the photo below will be quite familiar to you --
The classic road photo of Monument Valley, Utah
Monument Valley is a region of the Colorado Plateau that stretches across the state lines of Utah and Arizona and lies within the range of the Navajo Nation Reservation. It is characterized by stratified sandstone buttes and red mesas, some of which have crumbled into bizarre and absolutely awesome formations. Even upon a first viewing, the place seems strangely familiar - most likely because it's image appears in all possible forms of media (from films and aged photographs to holiday brochures and postcards) as an iconic and enduring vision of the American West.

From here, we crossed the border into Arizona ... The Grand Canyon State Welcomes You ... and followed signs to the South Rim. Last year, I visited nine National Parks (several of them more than once) and two National Monuments. The typical fee to get into a park is $25, and an annual parks pass costs $80 ... so ... I'd say that I got my money's worth by investing in the pass. Unfortunately, you only get one calendar year out of it (unlike my dad, who paid ten dollars for a senior pass that is good for the rest of his life). The Grand Canyon marked the beginning of a new year of exploration for me, so I bought a new pass. Anyway, the point is: it's well worth the money if you know you'll use it. And why wouldn't you?

The photo at the top of this post is one of our first views of the canyon. It's unreal; it looks more like a representative pastel painting of something that exists in this world rather than something that really does exist. I wanted to look out at the vast landscape, the curvaceous canyons within the massive gorge itself, for hours. But, we were about to embark on something even more amazing - essentially a journey through time on an impossibly incomprehensible scale. 

It was past 1:00 by the time we found our way to the backcountry office. The ranger was impressed with our proposed plan (four nights starting at Hermit Creek campground and ending at Indian Garden campground) as well as our knowledge of the Hermit/Tonto/Bright Angel trail system. He was concerned that we wouldn't make it to Hermit Creek by dark (8.2 miles down from the rim), and gave us permission to camp anywhere we felt appropriate along the way. Wow. So, we chose Lookout Point (about halfway down to the Tonto Platform) and watched a beautiful sunset while toasting to an unforgettable experience with a Dale's Pale Ale. Shortly after, we cooked dinner, hung our food on a nearby tree - to deter rodents - and fell asleep. Kind of. At least for Justin and I, it was a cold, miserable, shivery, uncomfortable night. Lesson learned: Never, ever decide to leave your sleeping pads in the car at the trailhead; Never!

Sunrise from Lookout Point {campsite #1}

Backpacking the Grand Canyon {Day One}

Day One
A few minutes past 6:00 am on Sunday, January 9th, following a coffee and bagel run, the four of us were on I-70 heading west through a snowstorm [en route to the GRAND CANYON!]. We took separate cars and agreed to meet in Grand Junction to pick up needed provisions {tortillas, peanut butter, apples, whiskey...} From there, we drove through Moab, debated whether we should stop at Arches National Park, and eventually arrived at Sand Island, Utah. Justin had researched the area beforehand and decided it would be a perfect place to set up camp for the evening (and to divide up our drive, being we weren't in any rush). Of course, he was right. It probably took us 7 hours to get from Denver to Sand Island, near Monticello. Actually, we made excellent time considering our stop in Grand Junction as well as the slower speeds on snow and ice-covered highways. As soon as we arrived, we hopped out of the car, cracked a homebrew (vanilla porter), and began to explore. Located along the San Juan river, Sand Island features a large panel of petroglyphs (anywhere from 800 to 2500 years old!!) on gorgeous reddish/orange sandstone cliffs. After sharing stories, our excitement about the trip, and a few more beers, we grilled some brats and went to sleep early ... probably dreaming of the next day's adventure. Below are photos of our campsite and the San Juan at sunset.  

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Inspiration for the dawning ...

                                                                                     Kebler Pass, near Crested Butte

Friday, January 7, 2011

'See the man with the lonely eyes / Oh take his hand, you'll be surprised'

Give a Little Bit (Supertramp)

This song can make me smile every time I listen to it, as it did this morning on my drive to work :)

Well, I depart at 5am on Sunday for the grandest of canyons with my wonderful boyfriend Justin and our friends Austen and Felix (all three of whom are geology nerds, so I couldn't be in better company).  The word 'excited' does not even begin to express what I am feeling! Although I've tried not to compare my National Park trips (nothing will ever top Yellowstone in October ... ), I have high expectations for this particular outing. It's one thing to take a driving tour of the South Rim only to stretch your legs on the occasional road-side overlook (who does that?), but it is quite another to hike into the backcountry - in this case, a mile-deep gorge - and spend four nights of your life in the midst of it all. According to the Lonely Planet guide on the Grand Canyon, 'It goes without saying that the best way to see the staggeringly magnificent landscapes within the canyon is to hike right into them ... If you like challenging terrain, gape-worthy scenery and absolute serenity, plan an overnight hike into the canyon. There's simply no substitute for experiencing the Grand Canyon in the heart of its vast backcountry'. Check.

In the meantime, below are several photos taken during recent trips (each as amazing as the next!) ...

                                                          Grand Tetons, Wyoming in early October, 2009

                                                                                       Bryce Canyon, Utah in mid-January, 2010

                                                                              White Sands, New Mexico in mid-March, 2010

                                                                                       Glacier, Montana in late June, 2010

Thursday, January 6, 2011

One month spent sleeping in a tent {2010}

                                                      Base of Mount Elbert (highest point in CO) with Zahra

A cold beer, blazing campfire, and the serenity of the great outdoors ... I couldn't imagine a better way to spend my time. Whether climbing one of Colorado's 54 fourteeners, viewing the spectacular autumn colors, or simply enjoying the solitude offered by the vast expanses of wilderness created by the Rockies, I have loved every minute of camping this past year. To quote John Fielder, a nationally renowned nature photographer, 'I think I am correct when I say that there is no place like Colorado. Our mountains are neither the oldest nor the youngest ... What is remarkable is that they have weathered and crumbled to exactly the right degree to make them the most beautiful mountains in the world'. Of course, I agree one hundred percent :)

Colorado aside, I have been blessed to set up my tent in the neighboring states of Utah {Zion & Bryce}, New Mexico {near White Sands & Carlsbad Caverns}, and Nebraska {Lake McConaughy} as well as Montana {Glacier} and Canada {Waterton}. -- I am only including those places that I have camped since January 1, 2010, thus excluding the three weeks camped on the Serengeti in Tanzania during the summer of 2009 :) -- Twenty-eight days spent sleeping in a tent within the framework of one year is rather impressive, but I have no doubt that I can surpass that number in 2011. I think I'll begin with a backpacking trip through one of the greatest natural wonders of the world: the Grand Canyon. Now that's an awesomely appropriate way to ring in a new year of traveling and exploring the secrets of this place we all call home! Until then ...