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The Grand Canyon

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Our “highlights” tour of Arizona would not be complete without a visit to the main attraction – the Grand Canyon.  Grand Canyon National Park is the 2nd most visited national park with over 6 million visitors per year.  It has two distinct areas to visit – the North Rim & the South Rim.  The South Rim is the most popular, has more amenities and is open all year long, while the North Rim is more remote, sees far less traffic and is only open from mid-May through mid-October.  Which one should you visit?  More info on the differences between the North Rim vs. South Rim can be found here.

Since we were visiting in April, the choice as far as which one to visit was made for us as only the South Rim was open. Reserving a campsite at such a popular park is difficult, so we knew finding one over Spring Break would be next to impossible. Instead, we opted to dry camp on BLM land just 15 minutes outside of the park. We found a spot off of Forest Road 688 that was quiet, woodsy and had a fire pit already setup from the previous campers. One nice thing about dry camping so close to the National Park is that if you need to use a dump/fill station, you can drive to the park campground and use theirs for free.

Our Grand Canyon BLM Site
Our Grand Canyon BLM Site

After getting setup at our campsite, we drove to the South Rim Visitor Center where we caught our first glimpse of the Canyon.  It was Kalie’s first time seeing the Grand Canyon and she was amazed by how grand it really is. We spent the rest of the evening walking along the rim trail until it got too dark to see anything.

Desert View Overlook
Desert View Overlook

The next day, our plan was to do a day hike into the Grand Canyon as far as our legs would take us.  After researching a few trails, we chose to take the South Kaibab Trail down into the canyon. Several signs at the beginning of the trail warned to bring plenty of drinking water and not to go to the bottom of the canyon (Phantom Ranch) and back up in the same day because of the intense heat and elevation gain.  With that warning in mind, we planned to hike three miles into the canyon to Skeleton Point, where we would re-assess our final turnaround point.

The trail was dusty and dry with lots of switchbacks along the way, but it had some spectacular views of the Grand Canyon. The first mile was crowded with people, but the farther down we hiked the number of people lessened until it was just us and the occasional backpacker ascending from Phantom Ranch. Hiking into the canyon seemed fairly easy for all three of us, however we had been warned that hiking up the canyon is 3-4x harder than hiking down.  In other words, make sure to turn around when you still have 75% of your energy (and water) left!

Horses on South Kaibab Trail
Horses on South Kaibab Trail

We made it to Skeleton Point faster than anticipated and agreed we still had energy to hike to the next viewpoint another 1.5 miles away.  As we got closer to Tip-Off Point, we could start to see the blue waters of the Colorado River. The river looked so inviting on the hot, dusty trail, but with it being 2 more miles down to the canyon floor it would have added 4 miles to our already 9 mile roundtrip hike.  We thought better of it and made the decision to turn around at Tip-Off Point.

South Kaibab Trail
South Kaibab Trail

It was a good thing we did, because the hike back up kicked my butt!  Hiking up 3,300 feet of elevation gain in just 4.5 miles is no walk in the park. Kalie and Max were trailblazers that almost never stopped to rest, but with the sun being so intense I preferred to stop for quick water breaks whenever I could find a sliver of shade. In retrospect, we should have started the hike much earlier than 11 am to avoid the mid-day sun.

After a grueling but rewarding hike, we were ready to plan the next day’s adventure. Max found a little known trail called Comanche Point Trail that promised an incredible 9 mile view of the Colorado River within the Grand Canyon.  The hike report said it would be 6 miles to the viewpoint (12 miles roundtrip) and roughly a 1,000ft elevation gain.  I said my preference would be a shorter, slightly less intense hike, but ultimately lost in the popular vote.

We started the day’s adventure by driving our truck as far as we could down an old four wheel drive road. Once the trail became too rutted and rocky we began our hike. There were no signs for the trail, so we just followed the washed out road for several miles. The views along the trail weren’t anything special, but we were excited to see what lay in store for us ahead.

Five miles into the hike the washed out road ended leaving us to bushwack our way through the desert brush. With no trail or signs to go off of, we used Gaia GPS as our best guide for where to hike from there. Without any views of the canyon up to this point, we were starting to feel the monotony of the trail. We needed to get to the viewpoint soon to give us the mental fuel to keep going. Finally, after another mile of hiking off trail through the desert, we started to see the ridge where Comanche Point would be.

It wasn’t until we had hiked 500 vertical feet towards the top of the ridge that we realized it was a false peak.  I felt totally defeated. We’d hiked 6 miles in and we still hadn’t seen anything spectacular…oh and by the way we weren’t even 100% sure where Comanche Point actually was!?! Argh, I knew I had been right to vote for a shorter, less intense hike.  Or at least a visually pleasing hike to make it feel like it was shorter!

We then had the pleasure of going down the 500 vertical feet we just came up in addition to hiking up the next ridge which we still weren’t 100% sure was correct.  While hiking towards this second ridge, the winds were so intense that we had to get on all fours in order to get close to the edge. From this vantage point, we could finally see a segment of the Colorado River!   With winds gusting 45-50 mph, Kalie decided to park it at this spot and not continue on to Comanche Point. I was on the fence for a while until Max convinced me that I’d regret it if I didn’t go.  In retrospect, he probably knew the only way to get me back to the car was to give me the mental boost I needed by seeing the viewpoint.

Hiking to Comanche Point
Hiking to Comanche Point

Max and I continued on slowly for another half mile bracing against the wind and trying to stay as far from the edge as possible.  Taking a few last steps toward the top, we finally saw what we had come for – the most beautiful stretch of the Colorado River running through the Grand Canyon we had ever seen! We took a few pictures to capture the view, but with the wind being so fierce it made it a bit difficult to get crisp photos.  After taking in the beauty for roughly 30 minutes, we had to start heading back in order to reach the car before dark.

Comanche Point View

Comanche Point
Comanche Point

There’s really no other way to put it…the hike back was a SLOG.  Not because it was more physically draining than other hikes, but rather because it was mentally draining.  There’s not much to look at other than desert brush and a washed out dirt road on the way back. I was so glad I got to experience the beauty of Comanche Point as it gave me just enough mental fuel to keep going.  This hike, more than any other I have been on, made me realize how important visual stimulation from the views, flora and fauna are to fueling your journey.  When all was said and done, we ended up hiking a total of 14 miles with 2,300 feet of elevation gain and made it back to the car just before dark.

So, would I recommend this hike?  My first instinct would be to say “Hell No.”  Not because the view wasn’t worth it, but rather because of the monotony of hiking 14 miles with only 1 mile of it being visually pleasing.  However, after thinking about it more I’ve come to the conclusion that I would do it again, if and only if, we could get backcountry permits to camp near Comanche Point for a night or two.  This way, you’d only have to hike 7 miles in a day and you could spend both sunrise and sunset at Comanche Point.  Just make sure to check the weather forecast before you hike or camp out there.  We weren’t kidding about the 50 mph winds as somewhere along the hike back Max’s sunglasses blew off his head never to be seen again!