Bright Angel to Plateau Point to South Kiabab Trail
Date: April 26, 2017
Elevation Gain: 3,754 ft
Start Time: 8:12 am
Duration: 8:40 hours
We began the day with a 135 mile drive from our hotel in Page AZ. We left while it was still dark so we enjoyed the sunrise as we were just heading into the park and arrived at the Bright Angel Lodge at 7 am. Well, it was 7 am Utah time but 8 am Arizona time so it was definitely more crowded than we like but not as bad as it could have been.
We were staying in the small cabins at Bright Angel Lodge that night so we parked so that we wouldn’t need to move the car after we finished the hike. We started our hike with our new tradition of going down the wrong trail for a short while before turning back.
The Bright Angel trail is one of the main corridor trails in the Grand Canyon so it is wide, well defined and well traveled. We are not big fans of high traffic on the trail but if you are going to hike one of the main corridors in the Grand Canyon then that’s the price you pay. We don’t make the best time going downhill due to my knees so there were about as many groups with young knees making their way past us as the number of hikers we passed. Sporadically we would hike past some backpackers coming up the trail in various states of exhaustion.
There were two separate rest stops with nice outhouses on the way down the cliffs for the four mile section that led to Indian Gardens. Each of these rest stops was generally crowded with hikers who were taking in most of the available shady spots. They were actually kept in very nice condition.
Indian Gardens is an oasis in the truest sense of the word. The transition from a harsh desert environment to a lush green heaven could not be more stark. There were some ranger cabins and several nice campgrounds that we passed on the way through. Each campsite had it’s own table and canopy.
After we made use of the restrooms and filled up our water we continued hiking north onto the Tonto Plateau. From the rim to the river it’s a 5,000 foot decent. The Plateau is at about 3,000 feet down and it relatively wide. As we made our way out via a flat trail into the middle of the plateau we were struck by the amount of cactus flowers that were in bloom. The desert was really lit up. This was also the first chance that we had to truly appreciate the Grand Canyon. On the way down we were too close to the cliffs to get a “grand” view of things. Now as we turned to look back we were awestruck by this view of the canyon that we have never enjoyed before. Another interesting thing were these huge yucca stalks that were randomly jutting up out of the dessert floor. The yucca plants themselves were not very big but some of the stalks must have been pushing 20 feet.
We could see the ground disappear in front of us as we approached Plateau Point. The view down to the Colorado River from the cliff edge was impressive. While the trail down to Indian Gardens was crowded there was only one man with us at the point. It was nice to get out of the crowds but it was also nice to have someone take our picture for us so I didn’t have to try and crop myself into the shot with Sandy later on.
When we arrived back in Indian Garden’s we topped off our water again. There would be no more water available for the remainder of the hike. Once we left the Bright Angel trail and set out on the Tonto Trail we very quickly noticed the difference. We were now on what we would describe as a normal trail rather than a trail the width of a sidewalk and we were again all by ourselves.
After about a mile on the Tonto trail it was clear that this was going to be tough. Whenever I am on a trail where I can see my destination several miles away the whole time it seems to take forever. It was now midday and although it was April and probably only about 75 degrees out it felt much warmer. The trail took us around a deep gorge that gave us a view down to the Colorado. At the mouth of the gorge there was a small stream that created a miniature marshy area where we could hear frogs croaking.
After coming out of the gorge area we were now on about mile seven of the four mile Tonto trail. At least that’s what it felt like. Eventually we crested a hill and could see the outhouse that marked the junction to the South Kiabab trail. That was Sandy’s cue to march on ahead to the outhouse. Just then I noticed a California Condor circling above us. I shouted out to Sandy but she must have been too focused on her current mission to be bothered. Poor Sandy…she was still feeling the affects of a cold that she had been holding on to for several weeks. I tried to edit out her coughing from the video but it should be known that she is a real trooper. The thought of cancelling this week of hiking that we planned for a year was out of the question for Sandy. She already felt bad enough that I altered the hike from going down to the river and back up to just coming down to the plateau.
I was now enjoying a condor that was circling around and flying closer to me with each pass with an incredible view of the cliffs of the Grand Canyon above me. Meanwhile, I noticed that Sandy had found herself in a line at the outhouse behind some backpackers who were travelling up and down the Kiabab trail. Poor Sandy. She made it quite clear over the past umpteen miles across the Tonto trail that she was not a fan of desert hiking. Now we had this one little task left of hiking 3,300 feet straight up the South Kiabab trail.
The trail quickly found the edge of the cliffs in front of us and wound it’s way around them into a steep canyon on the other side. Where the trail was not cut out of rock there were logs embedded into it every three or so feet to prevent erosion. We set a steady pace and started grinding it up. Sandy’s cold notwithstanding, we have hiked enough that if we set a reasonable pace, even uphill, we generally don’t need to stop except for photo ops and bathroom stops. I knew this climb in the afternoon sun would test our conditioning though.
There was definitely more traffic on the trail now but it was no where near as crowded as the Bright Angel Trail. We ran into one gentleman soon after we started the climb who was clearly in stage four knee pain crisis. I know this hiking style from experience. His face was contorted and he was walking very slowly sideways as he inched his way down the trail with stiff legs. He totally gave me flashbacks of coming down from Mount Timpanogos. We gave him our standard happy-go-lucky greeting but he wasn’t having any of it so we moved on. Several switchbacks later we ran into a lady sitting in the shade. She was in good spirits and after talking for a short while we learned that it was her husband who had the knee problems. I shared with her my technique of using wraps to hold up my kneecaps and using hiking poles. The bad news is that it will be several days before his knees recover enough to hike and he was still heading down to the river. Poor guy with bad knees! This is why we are hiking up the steeper trail and not down it.
The trail transitioned from switchbacks to ridge line as we made our way up through the cliffs. We came across a nice outhouse. Looking back the views were getting better with every step. Since the Kiabab trail heads straight up the ridge it offers much better views than Bright Angel which stays inside a side canyon.
The bathroom marked the halfway point. I could see from the look on Sandy’s face that it was going to be a tough finish for her. I did my best to be chipper and point out the glorious world around us but even I was starting to annoy myself at that point. She was clearly in what I call the “death march” mode. This mean’t that she has shut out the entire world with exception to the few feet of trail in front of her. I was in that mode for the last few miles on our 23 mile Berg Lake adventure in Canada two years ago. My feet were completely done and she was just getting her second wind. She was gleefully pointing out how beautiful the world was around us and she knew I was not sufficiently nimble to chase her down and beat her with my hiking poles so she felt safe enough. So for today I put my head down and ground out the final switchbacks while avoiding any nonverbal queues that might indicate that the world was something other than a dark and dreary place. Poor Sandy.
Once arriving at the top I attempted to celebrate the moment with Sandy but it evolved quickly to my giving her a long hug and apologizing. I’m afraid I’ve been doing this too much lately on the trail. A week early at the Subway comes to mind. If she wasn’t sick she would have done fine. What a trooper. The ride back to the Bright Angel trailhead on the shuttle gave her a chance to put her sandals on and get more hydrated.
When we got back to the hotel we hit the bathroom in the lobby. Below is a photo of the toilet. Apparently they have a real problem with toilet drinkers in the park.
Our cabin was small but actually quite nice for the price. We needed to go to sleep early because the plan in the morning was to drive to Havasu Falls trailhead and backpack in 10 miles to the falls. I seriously considered just booking an extra night in Vegas and skipping Havasu. I’m sure glad we didn’t. Sandy is such a trooper!
Here’s a YouTube video of our hike: