I thought I understood strength, but the rushing current of the Colorado River and the breath-catching depth of the Grand Canyon made me appreciate the powerful outmaneuvering and outmuscling power of the river.
Illusions of control? Don’t even think of it. In the face of the forces of nature, I’ve never felt smaller.
In mid April, two separate groups from Pagosa made the pilgrimage down to the bottom of Grand Canyon from the north rim following the Bill Hall Trail onto the Esplanade.
My traveling companions, in addition to my husband, included Al and Stephanie, Emily and Robbie. These are all friends, willing and eager to introduce us (my husband and me) — who have never done anything like backpacking and who didn’t imbue people who did with any special power — to a multi-day backpacking experience. Our destination was nothing short of splendid. It was the Grand Canyon.
Al and Stephanie are a couple obsessive about backpacking into remote areas and canoeing wild and wooly rivers. Emily and Robbie are, well, obsessive about anything athletic and have competitiveness seeping out of them in a kind of pheromonal wave. Tom and I were in good company for our maiden trek.
Al knew everything there was to know about the canyon, including some spine-chilling accounts of running the rapids along the Colorado. He had a penchant for long, scary tales — though not for exaggeration — and seemed to believe that not to talk about these dangers was to detract from everyone’s experience of the trip. Just before we pushed off from the rim on the morning of our descent, Al gave a “these are all the things that might go wrong” talk that was comprehensive, but not overly alarmist. Or I would have gone for the bushes to hide.
Our route began at the Monument Point Trailhead on the north rim and followed the Bill Hall trail onto the Esplanade. The descent was steep and loose. Thanks to Al’s experienced leadership, we set out early to take advantage of cooler temperature for the first 5.4-mile leg of the descent.
Since our first camp was in Upper Tapeats, the first day was the most strenuous — 9.5 miles fully loaded and almost 5,000 feet of a tricky descent in full sunlight with multi-day gear, food and water. Since we were making camp on the Esplanade the last night back up, where more than likely there would be no water available, we had to carry enough water for the first day’s hike and then enough to cache for that last camp. Two gallons of water and that’s 16 whopping pounds!
The view from the southern slopes of the point, looking south, embraced Bridgers Knoll, the Colorado River and the Esplanade. Rock formations of the Esplanade showcased a stunning expanse of slickrock, large smatterings of hoodoos and an ample display of weather-cut canyons.
After traversing to the west for a half-mile, we began another steep descent. We hit a section that required removing our packs and lowering them down. Once we stepped onto the Esplanade, it was a hike across rocks for the next three miles heading for the next descent into Surprise Valley. Cairns marked our route across this beautiful and easy-hiking stretch.
Hiking from the Esplanade to Thunder Spring is, for most people, a day’s hike in itself. By this point, as we braced ourselves for the next steep descend on an eyebrow of trail that clung hopefully to the cliff’s sheer face, the mercury had spiked. The tread was loose and a stumble could end in a long tumble to the bottom.
Thunder Springs is a total surprise — the rush of water cascading hundreds of feet through the rugged limestone. The springs have created its own micro climate that supports lush vegetation. This is Shangri-La, a magical oasis that water can create in a desert.
Our first night’s camp was alongside Tapeats Creek in a designated site no more than 15 yards from the cold rushing water. After making camp and cleaning up, we ate and went to bed.
Tom and I made a decision to keep our packs from getting too heavy by carefully planning meals that required no cooking. It was muesli for breakfast and dinner and nuts with dried fruits for lunch. Meal prep was a snap.
Nights two and three found us camped in Deer Creek. To reach Deer Creek we hiked down Tapeats Canyon and along a stretch of the Colorado River, saw several rafts and took a dip in the river. Our sense of self-importance was further diminished by big slabs of Vishnu schist forming the inner canyon walls that rose almost vertically out of the riverbank. We were hot in the bottom even though we could see snow on the upper rim — and to think this same route is hiked all summer long! By this point, we had hiked half of the 25-mile round-trip this adventure entailed and had dropped 5,280 feet from the start.
Two nights at the Deer Creek location allowed us a day to rest, explore or read, or do all the above. My entertainment was watching Emily put dinner together. It involved an elaborate process of adding the contents from many different tiny containers in the jet-boil. Al and Stephanie dine on Mountain Man cuisine, replete with MM Raspberry Cobbler for dessert.
We had been amply warned of thieving and ravenous ringtail cats, and so we spent time each night putting creative energy into stashing the food off the ground and out of the reach of these infamous critters. It was added entertainment, this battle of wits, but alas we saw none and were therefore not able to evaluate the efficacy of our various (ingenious) engineering designs, complete with alarm systems.
Do I regret having skimped on food? Not at all. In fact, I’m convinced of the suitability of muesli as an ideal backpacking food. I’ll even share my recipe with you. Fill a gallon size zip-lock bag two thirds full of instant oatmeal. Add craisins, raisins, dried apples, chopped nuts, flax meal, soy powder, milk powder and brown sugar. Proportions are to taste and to eat simply add water. Let sit for ten to fifteen minutes before eating. Does it get any easier? It’s so yummy that I eat it even when I’m not miles away from a kitchen.
The good Samaritans of the trip were Robbie and Al who voluntarily went back on the trail two separate times to help a Canadian couple from Saskatchewan. They had definitely over packed; she wasn’t physically ready and was suffering heat exhaustion. His 68-pound pack included a wash basin, several good size books, a note pad and whatever else he must have figured they needed to have. Robbie carried her pack for her. What sweet knights!
On the last morning of the trip, we woke up early to hike the remaining miles to the top of the rim, where our cars waited for us. We passed and high-fived the other Pagosa group who were beginning their initial descent — both envying and sympathizing with them for their trip ahead. I felt good about my first backpack trip and was in equal measure both happy and sad to see the trip end. Perhaps this is only the beginning of more backpacking adventures.