Plateau Point – Part One
After polishing off a delicious dinner of steaks on the grill, Joe and I were in for a night of relaxation. We were in our spacious Mather Campground site in Grand Canyon National Park. Joe played guitar while I read up on the canyon’s trails. We successfully started a fire and began discussing our plans for the next day over beers. We agreed that we would hike down into the canyon along the Bright Angel Trail; we just weren’t sure how far we wanted to go.
There were a few options to consider. The first stopping point down the trail is the 1.5 mile house. That would only make for a three mile round-trip hike. We quickly threw that option out. Twice the distance is the 3 mile house. That’s what I thought we should choose. This trip was early on in our hiking adventures, and a six mile hike may have actually been our longest to that point. Joe was more ambitious and wanted to go farther. However, he thought we’d be able to make it all the way to the bottom of the canyon at the Colorado River and return all in one day. I burst his bubble when I told him it wasn’t a viable option, with it being nearly 20 miles roundtrip and over 4,000 feet down (and back up). Another choice was taking the trail down to Indian Garden. That is 4.6 miles down the trail and there is a campground, ranger station, and most importantly water.
We deliberated for a while and eventually agreed that we would hike down to Indian Garden. It would be more difficult than any trail we had hiked in the past, but we figured it would be worth the added effort. We agreed to wake up at 7:30 the next morning and get on the trail as early as possible.
I walked back toward our site from the bathroom after brushing my teeth and looked up through the trees. I was astonished by the infinite number of stars that brightly illuminated the black sky above. I felt like I was back at Yellowstone the summer before, when I was walking to my tent under a vast canopy of stars. I had never seen so many stars as I did on that walk. The stars above the Grand Canyon weren’t quite as abundant, but there were far more than I could ever see back home. There was a forest of ponderosa and pinyon pine spread across the campground, but there was a perfect opening in the trees above our site’s picnic table. So, I laid down on one of the side benches of the picnic table for a while. I’ve always been a sucker for a starry night sky. I stared up at the heavens above, and just kind of zoned out for a while. I was completely relaxed, my mind fully relieved of any thoughts and worries. I eventually broke out of my moment of Zen and headed into the tent for bed.
Once in the tent I said, “Now Joe, we can’t attempt to dominate the Grand Canyon tomorrow, we must instead become one with it.” Clearly, my moment of enlightenment under the stars didn’t carry over. We both laughed and drifted off to sleep around 11:30 p.m.
As planned, we awakened the next morning promptly at 7:30 a.m. When I exited the tent I saw a clear, welcoming sky above, but it was a little chilly out. We had a quick breakfast of protein bars and orange juice while loading our packs for the big trek. We each brought a lot of water and an assortment of good energy food to snack on (Sun Chips, apples, granola bars, and pretzels). Food and especially water are stressed as the most important items to bring when hiking any distance into the Grand Canyon. But we wanted to travel as light as possible so besides for food and water we only brought what we deemed essential. That included cameras, extra clothing, and the first-aid kit.
We drove back to Grand Canyon Village, listening to some funky James Brown along the way. We parked my car in the large, crowded parking lot behind the row of lodges and hotels lining the canyon rim. It was still cool outside, but with the sun steadily rising the temperature began to follow suit. So, despite it not being warm yet we decided to change into shorts. That lightened the load in our packs and we knew it would have to warm up soon. I knew that the farther you descend into the canyon the hotter it gets, so we’d be just fine.
The trailhead is just west of Kolb Studio. It was 8:30 a.m. when we stepped onto the Bright Angel Trail. I had a strange feeling when starting the hike. I was both anxious and nervous. But more than anything I felt that no matter what ended up happening on the trail that day it would end up being a hike I would never forget. There have been several trails I’ve hiked by now that I feel I’ll always remember, but there were only a couple where I knew that ahead of time.
The trail was a mix of solid rock and packed dirt, littered with small stones. It was generally between three and four feet wide. And of course there was the constant downward slope. We always had to keep our eyes on the trail to avoid slipping on rocks and tripping over the occasional root, not to mention stay clear of the sizable drop immediately beside us.
The view was awe-inspiring from the start. The canyon appeared utterly endless. It went on as far as I could see, and from where I stood I couldn’t even see halfway to the bottom. The rock wall beside us was a dusty tan. The colors of the canyon before us were stunning. It looked like stripes were painted across the canyon walls. On top were streaks of tan and brown. Then there was a large section of orange followed by light green and a rusty red. The rock was bathed in a soft glow thanks to the early morning light.
The hike started out easy. However, the Grand Canyon is a complicated animal. It’s the opposite of a mountain, with the sizable descent coming first followed by a grueling, uphill climb to finish the hike. Not to say a long hike downhill is that easy either, because it’ll certainly put a lot of pressure on your feet and knees. It’s important to keep a fairly steady pace on the way down and not hurry down or else it’ll amplify the pounding on your joints. But the dreadful ascent is what will deliver a true beating. It is normal for the hike up to take twice as long as the one down.
We soon passed through a short tunnel in the trail. After ducking through that, we sat down at a wider part of the trail near a turn for a quick break. We wanted to stop and shed our long-sleeved shirts. Despite some shade from the canyon wall, we were already hot from the steady increase in temperature combined with the hike itself. Considering we weren’t even a half-mile into the trail it’s safe to say we would have been better off saving the weight and leaving the shirts in the car. We had a quick drink of water and threw our shirts in our backpacks.
A minute later, we were about to start moving again when a woman sat down next to us. We did the polite thing and waited to leave. The woman looked like she was probably in her fifties. She was a little hefty and looked pretty fatigued already. Within a couple of minutes of talking to her she told us she had very serious cancer. We learned that her husband was also very sick and wasn’t healthy enough to hike into the canyon. She wanted to hike partway down anyway, with her husband waiting atop the rim. Neither of us knew how to respond. We talked with her for a few more minutes before moving on, but it was certainly an interesting meeting on the trail. It showed us how powerful the allure of the Grand Canyon can be. So many people feel they need to experience it before they die.
It didn’t take us long, or much energy, to reach the first stop. We were at the one and a half mile resthouse. It was a simple shelter built of large rocks with two benches under a green roof. During the summer months water is offered, but it was May so water wasn’t yet available. There were a few people resting inside, taking cover from the sun. We stopped for a quick water break before returning to the never-ending switchbacks.
Back on the trail, we had to step to the side and practically hug the wall to let a mule train pass. There were ten mule riders in each pack we saw. We ended up seeing several mule packs throughout the day. Mule trains always have the right-of-way on the trail. In addition to stirring up a bunch of dust, the mules left quite a mess on the trail in their wake. What’s one more thing to watch out for on the trail, right? Well, Joe didn’t want to worry about it all day, so he promptly stepped in a big pile of mule dung to get it out of the way.
Meanwhile, the colors of the canyon morphed before our eyes. As we descended the trail, the sun rose higher in the sky, constantly changing the look of our surroundings. The increasing height of the sun forced the shade to slowly peel away from the canyon walls, making it nearly impossible to escape the growing heat. I had gone down to a cut-off shirt by then which helped with the heat, but I could feel the sun burning my arms and the back of my legs. Thankfully, I had my wide-brimmed hiking hat to protect my face and neck from the red-hot rays.
We continued, rather leisurely, down the dusty dirt trail. We walked at a quick, yet comfortable pace, as we were able to keep up a conversation as we hiked. I’ve read that if you are hiking with someone and are too winded to comfortably talk, you should slow down. That wasn’t a problem for us, at least not yet.
It seemed like we had just left the last resthouse when we caught our first glimpse of the three-mile house. A few more switchbacks and we’d be there. Being able to see our destination helped us pick up our pace. We decided to take a break just before reaching the shelter. We rested for a few minutes, had a snack and a good amount of water before starting up again. Within a few minutes we reached the resthouse. There was a trail junction with a path leading to the shelter and some pit toilets. It looked a lot like the first shelter. Since we had just taken a break, we trekked on without stopping.
Here we were, a mere 1.6 miles from our destination and still going strong. I admit I wasn’t feeling as good as when I started, but I was better than expected. My knees were sore and my calves were starting to ache, but that was understandable. That is expected when hiking downhill for a long time. I know it had only been three miles so far, but this was the Grand freakin’ Canyon. We were just over 2,000 feet below the rim, yet we were still 2,500 feet and over six miles from the Colorado River at the base of the monstrous canyon. I couldn’t imagine going all the way to the bottom, but I was excited to keep going for another mile and a half.
The trail had been particularly steep for the last mile or so. It carried on that way after the resthouse as well. We walked down switchback after steep switchback. Frankly, walking down this winding trail was starting to get a little old. The view was still great, though it was mostly the same the whole way. That’s because the trail winds down a side canyon in steep switchbacks instead of following a ridge. The thing that did change was the perspective; the farther down I went, more of the lower canyon opened up to me.
By this point we had seen quite a few hikers coming back up the trail from the inner canyon. These people looked considerably different from us and those we walked with so far. We were still bounding down the path with smiles on our faces. Meanwhile, those slowly climbing up the trail toward us looked miserable. They had huge backpacks with sleeping bags and pads strapped to them. They were covered in dust and dirt and looked beaten and battered. We followed the rule of the canyon and moved over; giving them the right of way. I noticed something in many of their eyes. Their exhaustion was obvious, but I swear I could see a proud sense of accomplishment in most of those tired eyes.
After another mile or so, the path and its surroundings leveled off considerably. That was a welcome sight. We entered onto a wide flat area, finally devoid of the steep cliff we were used to. The dirt trail was softened by a thin layer of sand. It appeared as if we had stumbled into a desert. There was sagebrush on the ground, more sand, and our first cacti of the hike. We referred to them as “Dr. Seuss Cacti,” because they looked nothing like any cactus we had seen before. The first one towered over us at more than eight feet tall, was very skinny, and bent into the strangest formation. It shot straight up from the ground and then formed right angles every couple feet. It reminded me of a bunch of bendy straws tied together. Unlike the stereotypical cactus, there were no “arms” sticking out, it was just the trunk that bent repeatedly. We saw several more cacti in similar formations as we walked along the flat sandy trail.
We strolled across the level ground to Indian Garden. We dropped down from the desert setting and entered into a lush gallery of trees. The reason for the abundant plant life is that Garden Creek flows through the area. It provides cool, spring-fed water that gives life to cottonwood trees and other greenery. We literally entered a small desert oasis. There was grass, bushes, and a crowd of cottonwoods. Beneath the trees was the Indian Garden Campground, meaning we had made it to our destination. We walked under the shady trees with broad smiles plastered across our faces.
There were picnic tables on one side for campers and benches on the opposite side for day hikers like us. There were pit toilets and finally drinking water. So far I hadn’t had to drink too much water, but I knew the return-trip would be twice as hard. We would need to guzzle water on our climb up to avoid dehydration. The temperature had risen considerably, too. It had to be about 90 degrees inside the canyon with the sun shining violently and little shade on the trail.
I walked over to the water spout and before getting anything to drink, took my hat off and held it under the water stream. I fully rinsed it out and then put it back on my head with it still overflowing with water. It felt amazing. My head was totally saturated, instantly cooling me. Then we plopped down on a bench for a breather. We ate some Sun Chips and drank a lot of water while resting our legs and feet. A squirrel weaved between our legs, nibbling on our crumbs.
After talking to some other hikers we learned there is a short spur trail from Indian Garden to a place called Plateau Point. We heard that the hike leads to a vista that rewards hikers with absolutely astonishing views, unlike anything you can see from the rim or the trail so far. You can actually see Plateau Point from the south rim, over 3,000 feet above it, but the view down from the point is blocked from above.
We weren’t too tired yet, but we had already gone farther than originally planned and we were certain the return trip would be tremendously taxing. But we figured we should at least consider the hike. I approached a nearby park ranger to ask about the hike and how difficult it was. He looked at me and said for someone young and in shape it would be easy and definitely worthwhile. That settled it; we weren’t heading up just yet.
To be continued…
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