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Wednesday, March 19th 2014
The next morning we woke up to 9°F weather, the tent sheathed in ice and our water bottles frozen solid. We scrambled to pack up our stuff in the biting cold and drove on to Arizona. While on the road we saw some signs for a kitschy store called Chee's, a Navajo owned store established in the 1960's, specializing in tchotchkes made in China, and a good selection of authentic Navajo-made gifts. Some items of interest include hand woven Navajo blankets ranging from $200 for a small washcloth sized one, to over $1000 for an elaborate and large blanket. Each blanket featured a Polaroid photograph of its creator. Certainly worth the price, though a bit expensive for our budget. Behind the register, a nice Navajo woman showed us her selection of Navajo-made jewelry including a wide array of rings, earrings, and belt buckles made of silver, copper and nickel with various turquoise inlays and settings. We weren't necessarily planning on purchasing anything in the store, but the Navajo woman told us that much of the proceeds go back to the local Navajo communities to enable Navajo kids to go to college. Rachel donned one of the Ajax turquoise rings, and we moved on toward Flagstaff with no destination planned as yet.
We had a conundrum, though in hindsight there should have been none. We could take the 80 mile (one way) detour north to the Grand Canyon and risk being without a campsite for the night, or stay at one of the local state parks near Flagstaff, and move westward in the morning. We'd known there would be an entry fee into the Grand Canyon Nat'l Park ($25). However, we didn't really want to pay extra to sleep in one of the flashy, touristy campgrounds, many of which were booked up already, anyway. We decided to go north regardless, and if worst came to worst, we'd just book it back to Flagstaff that night. Luckily, we didn't have to.
Upon first sight of the Little Colorado River section of the canyon outside of the main entrance, we knew there was no turning around. The sheer cliffs down into a seemingly endless abyss was awe inspiring, and it was only the beginning. We continued to the Desert View entrance to the park on the eastern side of the South Rim. When we pulled up to the kiosk to pay, we inquired about dispersed camping in the area. The ranger told us with his extremely relaxed demeanor that we could find free camping in Kaibab National Forest along the Arizona Trail, a scenic back country trail that traverses the state of Arizona from Utah to Mexico, which happens to cut through the Grand Canyon.
We continued on to the main tourist attraction on this side of the South Rim, the Desert View overlook. This was our first real view of the canyon in all of its glory. Here we could see the true expansive nature of this natural phenomenon. All I could think while we gaped at it was, "This was made by wind, water, and a lot of time. Woah." Desert View is home to a 70 foot high watchtower built in 1932 overlooking the canyon. Inside are dedicated murals and exhibits to the native people of the region.
After a good look, we continued down the road toward Grand Canyon Village before which was an access to the Arizona trail, and the Kaibab National Forest... our home for the evening. We found a parking spot outside a ranger outpost in the forest, and walked about a half mile on the trail until we found a nice spot off-trail that had a nice big ready-made fire pit. Along the way was a water cache for folks walking the 817 mile Arizona Trail, a convenience beyond any other on such a hike.
Arizona Trail hikers water cache.
The ponderosa pine trees in the area are experiencing an infection by the parasitic plant, dwarf mistletoe, which the National Park Service is working to control. The dwarf mistletoe siphons food and energy from the ponderosa pines, the only type of tree in the forest susceptible to the parasite, killing the tree from the top down. The mistletoe spreads by shooting its sticky seeds at speeds upwards of 50mph onto surrounding pines. An ugly and sad outcome for the pines, the dwarf mistletoe does have its benefits for the remaining fauna in the area. Also, due to a large quantity of deceased and felled trees, we had plenty of firewood for the night.
The next morning, we got a semi-late start, made coffee, roasted mozzarella cheese, apple and almond butter, and red velvet macaroons. After, we made our way to Grand Canyon Village to begin the most epic hike yet.
We began our hike on the Bright Angel Trail around 12:30 in the afternoon galavanting and hopping our way down the steep switchbacks into the canyon. Every so often we'd pass a pack of huffing and puffing red-faced people who would begrudgingly looked up at us. The views were spectacular as we went down and it got much warmer with the season changing before our eyes from winter to summer.
The first of many "whoas."
Lots of friendly squirrels saying hi along the way.
We had orginally planned on going down to the 3 mile resthouse then turning back because we got such a late start to the day. Our plans changed however when we met a group of young guys who insisted that the hike past the 3 mile mark was awesome and worth it for the amazing views. After some deliberation and studying the map we decided to book it to Plateau Point, probably against our best judgment, but worth it in the end.
That's a serious flower
As our steed decline into the canyon leveled off a bit, we noticed a complete shift in the apparent climate in the area. The top of the canyon boasts expansive ponderosa forests, a mountain climate complete with a distinct chill. The descent showed us an arid, desert climate home to small shrubs, succulants, cacti and the like, the kind of climate you would expect to see in much of Arizona. But here at Indian Gardens we found an abundance of deciduous trees, lush and leafy flora, and wildlife gripping to the precious stream trickling out of the canyon crevices. Indian Gardens is home to one of the campgrounds and pit stops along the Bright Angel trail, and it is not unusual to find humans and deer sharing the same vicinity.
The lush deciduous trees at Indian Gardens
About one and a half more miles down the trail from Indian Gardens we reached our destination. What was once a little speck in our panorama from the top of the canyon turns out to be a huge and epic cliff gazing down upon the Colorado River. This is the first time we were able to see the river at all from this vantage of the canyon. A six mile, relatively leisurely hike down... let's sit a while, then tackle the inevitable crawl back up.
We finally reached our destination: Plateau Point. Now begins the 3000 ft return ascent.
The Pensive Hiker (via binocular)
Back to the top we go!
Our return hike lasted well into darkness. We quickly realized that climbing up was much harder than our relatively quick descent. Round trip: 8 hours. On to Nevada, back to the desert, and more climbing on rocks!