After spending 30 days exploring Southern Utah, we arrived at the Grand Canyon on May 3rd for 8 days of backpacking. With an incoming storm we had to shorten the trip and I had the honor of backpacking for 5 days/46 miles in the Grand Canyon with my son and my youngest brother. We hiked from the South Rim to the River via the Bright Angel Trail. This itinerary included a side trip from Indian Gardens to Monument Creek via Tonto Trail, short hike out to Plateau Point, and a short loop hike between Silver Bridge and Black Bridge.
This was quite the adventure for us being that it was our first time backpacking into the Grand Canyon. Everything was new and on such a larger scale than the previous canyons we had hiked through. However, I was just so ecstatic that I was taking in one of the great wonders of the natural world with my son. I will never forget the look of joy and bewilderment when we rounded the corner and he was staring at the wide and fast moving Colorado River.
Day 1: South Rim to Indian Gardens
By the time we loaded up the car, headed up to the GC, found a parking spot and completed last minute adjustments to our backpacks, we (my son, my brother and I) stepped on to the Bright Angel Trail at 12:30 pm. It was literally the hottest part of the day and because it was day 1, our packs were at their heaviest. We were overly prepared in the hydration department, though. I was carrying 4 liters of water, J-Hawk had 1.5 liters and Shaun had 2 liters. As we made our way down the steepest part of the Bright Angel trail, we passed many miserable hikers trying to make it back to the rim. We made a quick stop at the Resthouse 1.5. It was here that we witnessed so many exhausted people hiding in the shade and they looked miserable. It was almost concerning how bad so many people looked. How would we fare? Will we be this miserable on the ascent? What can we do to aide ourselves when this time comes around? Before we left the rest area, we passed a guy with a full overnight backpack on. He was sitting on a rock and just looked whipped. He offered his thoughts, “I’m going to die, this is the hardest hike I have ever done, this is so exhausting and I still have so far to go.” This did not sound comforting or encouraging at all. We listened, empathized and continued our descent into the canyon.
We quickly arrived at the 3 Mile Resthouse and decided to hide from the sun for a good 30 minutes. I had put on thick hiking socks and my feet were dying between the downhill friction and the heat (85 degrees F.). J-Hawk made use of the time by exploring the views and the restroom and I taped up feet and switched out socks. We all relaxed for the sake of relaxing for a half hour. It was 2 o’clock and we only had 1.5 miles left to get camp….We had ALL day! After rest in the shade, some snacks and water, we headed down the trail toward Indian Gardens for the night.
The trail from the Rim to 3 Mile Resthouse was so amazing and beautiful. Sure it was steep and narrow, but so beautifully carved. Every twist and bend around each layer of the canyon was so unique and bold. When you don’t live in an canyon area, every aspect of the Grand Canyon is just so new and amazing.
From 3 Mile Resthouse to Indian Garden the canyon was just beautiful. The geography began to change from downclimbing the canyon to entering a plateau and walking across it. As you approach Indian Gardens, it is like this small little oasis in the middle of the hot desert. You could identify Indian Gardens from the trail above due to the lush green trees all condensed around a creek….a little piece of heaven.
When we arrived at IG we took one of the last remaining camp spots. We quickly set up camp and began to explore the area. This style of backcountry camping was new to me. We had a covered picnic table in our private campsite. IG had 6 clean composting toilets for all 20 sites to share. These were real toilets with toilet paper and there were 6. Furthermore, I discovered that it is someone’s job to hike from campground to campground maintaining/cleaning these toilets. I just felt too privileged to call this backpacking. We had running water. Water was piped in from the creek and made available. Wow! This also meant I did not need to carry more than a liter of water per person with water so prevalent this time of year. (The water situation changes frequently so you have to do your research to know when water is available throughout the Canyon).
Indian Garden also had a bunkhouse for all the NPS staff and a small ranger station. The ranger station had a little library inside and those camped at IG could grab books and read them at their campsites. We read about three books that evening. This place was amazing.
After taking in all the awesome amenities, we cooked up some dinner and watched the sun start to set. It was just and incredible feeling to be out backpacking in this area.
As we were hanging out, the Park Ranger on duty came by to check on us. She was pretty cool and told me that she had spent some Park Ranger time up in WA. She asked us our itinerary and I confessed with the incoming storm, we would have to leave early and not be able to hike to the North Rim. She let me know that we could amend our plans if we still wanted to stay in the Canyon longer and asked us to come up with another plan and she would see what she could do to help us out. A few hours later, she came by our camp and we discussed a new possible itinerary and she gave us her NPS blessing. She was awesome and it was so cool to get this opportunity to continue to explore without losing out completely.
Day 2: Plateau Point and Monument Creek
With a new itinerary, we set out to visit Plateau Point on our way to Monument Creek. We packed up camp after breakfast and began our trek. It was nice to get an early start. We enjoyed the lowered sun and seeing big horn sheep running across one of the plateaus. We hiked out to Plateau Point and were teased with our first views of the Colorado River. The River seemed so down in the canyon still. While viewing the river, my son asked if there would be a point that we could jump in the river and try to cross it. I said no citing the currents, water temperature and width of the river. He didn’t believe me but moved on to other conversation. After a half hour, we headed out to Monument Creek for the night. Hiking on the Tonto Trail is so incredibly different than the Bright Angel. It was so remote and desolate. The only person we saw was on of the camp maintenance guys. We spent the day crossing many plateaus and mini deserts getting different perspectives of the vastness of the GC. Ten miles later, we set up camp, ate dinner and watched the sun go down. The Grand Canyon is so massive and can make you feel small and alone. For a small moment in time, that feeling was very welcome.
Day 3: Monument Creek to Indian Gardens
The thought heading back to Indian Gardens was exciting to me. I loved the shaded trees, the small backpacking community and the nice amenities. We took our time eating breakfast and packing up. A storm was making its way toward the GC and the temperatures were a lot cooler than two days ago, when we started. We left the small and remote camping area of Monument Creek heading toward Indian Gardens. By 2 o’clock, we arrived and ended up setting up camp in our original camp spot. As we walked down “main street” of the campground, we noticed the Ranger left a note stating that the campground was in overflow by three sets of campers. Knowing that we were one of the amended groups, we joined up with a few other campers in the main group area in order to leave some open camp spots for late arrivals. This was the least we could do after getting our permits changed. Plus, we made some friends in “group camp.” They told me all about Climbing Mt. Washington and I talked about climbing cascade volcanoes.
J-Hawk and my brother spent the evening playing catch with the frisbee my brother brought with him. I just thought it was pretty cool to have a frisbee all the way down in the Grand Canyon. I mean, someday, my son will talk of playing frisbee inside the Grand Canyon. By 9 o’clock, like most evenings, we were tired and simply went to bed.
Day 4: Indian Gardens to Bright Angel Campground
With the amended itinerary, we had a super easy day ahead of us. We only needed to hike 5 miles and descend 1200 feet and we would be seeing the Colorado River, crossing giant bridges and sipping on cold beverages. We were packed up, breakfast eaten and dishes washed by 9:30. With backpacks on, we headed out. The first part of the descent wasn’t nearly as exciting but still very beautiful. After an hour and a short break, we came around a bend at 7.5 mile Resthouse and saw the Colorado River. We had made it to the river bottom….the bottom of the Grand Canyon…..of course we still had at least 1.5 miles to camp, but we were still pretty excited. From that moment on, we had the river in site the entire time.
Remember how J-Hawk wanted to jump in the river and cross it. When he saw it level with him, he said, “Oh, Man, it is SO HUGE! I could never cross it!” It was this pretty incredible experience for him to look at the wide river and look up and see how tall the canyon walls became. We were definitely small people in a large area. We continued on, traversing another section of the canyon that followed the river. We could see the Silver Bridge far in the distance and knew we were close to camp. After a half hour of rolling trail in dirt and sand that rose a couple hundred feet above the river, we finally arrived at the Silver Bridge. This is a huge sturdy bridge that only hikers use. I found out the mules stick to the sturdier Black bridge. We were so excited to cross over the Colorado and stand in the middle of the bridge taking in all of our surroundings. Amazing! My son was smiling from ear to ear. My brother, on the other hand, did not enjoy the shaky bridge and wanted to quickly cross. After crossing, we quickly made our way over to Bright Angel Campground and grabbed on of the last two creek side spots.
This was a pretty cool spot. We were camped just above the creek with views of Phantom Ranch. We would be falling asleep to the sound of running creek water. After setting up camp, we made our way over to Phantom Ranch. We found the Canteen/Eatery and purchased stamps to mail postcards and ice cold lemonade. The lemonade was so deserved and earned. I was so proud of my son. After a month of hiking and backpacking, he still had energy and excitement to hike through the Grand Canyon with me and we had arrived at one of the main destinations.
J-Hawk wrote a quick message to his dad on the postcard and placed it in the mail pouch (Pony Express) and stamped “carried by mule out of Phantom Ranch.” We hung out a little longer before moving on to explore some good bouldering areas and hike across the Black bridge. We spend the next hour hiking over to the Black bridge, hiking on a little of the South Kaibab trail and returning toward camp for a few hours of bouldering. The bouldering was easy but the rock was fragile.
Like every other night, we were in bed by 9. It was a stormy night down in the canyon. The winds were a sustained 30mph and the rain picked up throughout the night, however the temperature never dropped below 55. It was so warm but we couldn’t open up the tent due to the rain.
Day 5: Bright Angel Campground to South Rim
I woke everyone up at 6. It was a little rainy outside so we packed up what we could from the inside. This morning’s focus was all about packing up quick to move out of the rain. I told my son we would just eat breakfast bars until we hiked up to 7.5 Mile Resthouse. We quickly packed up and headed out. We were on the trail by 7:15. It was bittersweet to be leaving the river bottom. It was so unique and remote; I felt like we just should have stayed for another day. On our way out of camp, we topped off water bottles and began our hike out by crossing the Silver bridge. We were taking the same route out that we had taken in. We made our way across the canyon following the River. When we arrived at 7.5 Mile Resthouse, we stopped in the shelter and made oatmeal. It was nice to just sit and eat a warm meal without getting rained on. After 2nd breakfast, J-Hawk and I decided to walk over to the Colorado and feel the water. I mean, does it count if you only walk by it and over it….we needed to feel it. J-Hawk needed to explain the coldness of the Colorado. After a few minutes, we left the river for good and headed up to our backpacks. With packs on, we continued up the canyon, it was time to start gaining back all that altitude.
We easily climbed our first 1000 feet, took a ten minute break and moved on the next two miles of minimal ascent to Indian Gardens. We arrived at Indian Gardens by 11:00. We had options some options being that it was so early in the day. We could either spend the night at IG according to our permits or we could take an hour long break and hike out of the GC and sleep in a hotel bed tonight. After a long break while eating lunch, we decided to hike out. This entailed 4.5 mile hike with 3000 ft. of elevation gain. Rangers tell you it should take 6-8 hours. I approximated 6 hours at worst. Knowing we had to Resthouses along the way, we dumped our water to lighten our packs. We all went down to 1 liter. The judgement call was based on needed consumption for every 1.5 miles to more verified running water and the temperatures (with incoming storm) were only getting colder the higher we climbed.
We started our day at 60 degrees F at the bottom of the Canyon and it was 36 and had snowed the night before at the top of the South Rim. This allowed us to keep cooler and not requiring as much water. At 12:30, we began hiking out of IG. We were going at a great pace all the way to the top. We averaged 1.5 miles and 1000 gain per hour and were standing on top of the South Rim by 3:30. The toughest part was the last mile. With so many people stopping you to ask you questions about your journey, it was difficult to maintain good core temperature. We were sweating from being on the move but we didn’t have jackets on so we could breathe. When we stopped, the higher cooler air would freeze us. By the time we made it to top, I was so cold. I had to drop my pack and throw on my coat before I could celebrate or take pictures.
This was an incredible backpacking trip with my son. I highly recommend this trip with little ones, especially when they are old enough to appreciate the geography, history, beauty and remoteness.