5 Miles; Havasupai Gardens to Home
We awoke at 6:20 am as the first rays of sun lightened the sky visible from inside the canyon. We got up and started making some hot cocoa. A quick pack and we were ready to go. We climbed up and out of Havasupai Gardens. Only about a mile up from there, I turned to my left and saw a massive male bighorn sheep/ram standing next to us. He quickly turned and raced across the rocky plains/slopes.
Day hikers began downward in a trickle that soon turned to a rush. It was surprising to us because we saw so few people the days before; now, everyone was coming down on a holiday visit. We kept a good upward pace, passing ice falls near the top. By 10:40, we were out and walking back to our place.
14 Miles; Cottonwood Campground to Phantom Ranch to Havasupai Gardens
Feeling charged from doing the North Rim, we woke up earlier after a noticeably warmer night. We packed up camp, and started down the shadowed canyon where sun had not yet crept beyond the rim to bring any warmth. We approached Ribbon Falls which is close to a mile off-route and had a bridge that was out (due to surging water from the creek during a past storm that pummeled it into twisted brokenness). Two day hikers up from Phantom Ranch greeted us and asked if we were going to go check it out. It's like their question spurred us for immediately we said "Yes." We hopped down to the side spur trail. The creek was full of melt and so dry feet weren't in store. We did a creek crossing and started up towards the falls just in view.
From far away, we could see the falls up the narrow side-canyon. But THEY WERE AMAZING when we got up close. Ribbon Falls was an absolutely massive cascade of water falling from high up on a rim edge that fell and looked to have created a giant dome of mineral deposit over time. The dome now played host to a diverse number of water-loving plants like ferns and mosses that coated it in a cascading dress of green. Even in winter, it was spectacular to see. I can't imagine what it would look like in a more verdant growing season.
You could even walk up and around and back behind the falls. From there, rogue splashes of water had cooled to ice forming incredible sights on the back walls. We both agreed that this was one of the coolest things we had ever seen in the Grand Canyon.
Back on the route proper, we headed down the trail back towards Phantom Ranch and the Colorado River. It was super cold in the box canyon this time. Wind rushed up it and the sun never seemed to get enough of a peek into it to make a significant difference with warmth. It seemed to just sit at 35 degrees or so.
At Phantom Ranch, the cottonwoods were still in gorgeous golden yellow gowns. It was Christmas Day and it seemed that few people were there. We stopped to eat at the Colorado River, sit in the sun, make use of the bathrooms, and get some purified easy water from a spout. Then, we began our push back up. Surprisingly, the rest of the day went quick. It seemed super-fast to go back up The Corkscrew. The next thing we knew, we were walking into Havasupai Gardens around 4 pm at a casual pace. It was significantly warmer here (though still below-freezing at night). We managed to grab our same campsite from before and setup. We sat and ate for hours as tomorrow we would be out, and we both didn't want to carry the extra weight.
It was interesting to see everyone head in early. Two campers were asleep and loudly snoring by 4:30 pm. They were still asleep and loudly snoring at 7:30 am the next morning when we left. I find laying down for that long super unpleasant.
14 Miles; Cottonwood Campground to North Rim back to Cottonwood Campground
We slept in late to beat the cold. I was absolutely frigid and didn't want to pull myself out of my quilt. But, after 13 hours of laying down, my bladder could only take so much and I was bursting. As soon as we exited, any condensation instantly froze and the water we dragged out with us from the Triplex immediately began icing up inside our bottles. Janna seemed torn between going to the top and just exploring locally. We decided we would take a leisurely start, poke around, and see how we felt when we got to Manzanita Resthouse. The morning continued to be freezing - Janna was dressed in every layer she owned and I wore only a shirt and shorts.
The trail spilled up a narrowing section of canyon chock full of car and house-sized boulders, through which ran a gauntlet of waterfalls on Bright Angel Creek. We kept talking about how shocked we were that we flew through the entire length (plus some on our 36 mile day!) when we were on the AZT. Faster than we expected, we arrived at Manzanita Resthouse. It seems the Old Bright Angel Trail crosses the creek and then traces upstream before splitting up a side canyon to a separate rim trailhead. We opted to stick on the main North Kaibab Trail. And we made the choice to go to the top.
The trail now began to gain elevation in earnest. A side elevation chart would show that everything from the Colorado River up to this point had been miles and miles of steady but well-graded elevation gain. From this point on the trail would now gain considerable elevation (something like 4,500 feet) over only 6ish miles. We passed by Roaring Springs gushing from a hole in adjacent canyon wall right at the intersection of shale and sandstone. The pipes running from it ran down the canyon to a pumphouse and on across the whole expanse, up to the South Rim, right to the village; it's where all of our water comes from.
The trail wound through, around, and by massive amphitheaters, alcoves, and rock ledges both formed naturally through the processes of erosion and some blasted away to make the trail proper by the CCC back in the early 1900s.
As the steepness increased, so did the materials used to prevent trail erosion and increase its stabilization. Logs, rock-hewn steps, and stakes became omnipresent features as we continued upwards. The trail took us through biome transitions. We started our morning in the oak-chaparral high desert and were now entering pinion-juniper forest. Even this gave way to sub-alpine trees of blue spruce, firs, and aspen as the trail climbed to 8,2000 feet. Deciduous maple some how suspended in forever-fall had large red leaves still stuck on their branches as we rounded corners. Snow lay on the trail in places along with a few sections of ice; but nothing too complicated as to require microspikes.
By 2 pm, we arrived at the top of the North Kaibab Trailhead on the North Rim. A good layer of snow lay at the top along with warnings by the Park Service about the remote, unplowed, and backcountry winter conditions should someone need help. We felt great though and thought about how when we reached this point on the AZT, we were exhausted and still had an additional 10 miles to hike out from the park - right into a winter blizzard when there was a good 6 feet of snowpack on the ground.
We took a few photos, ate some snacks, enjoyed the silence and solitude before heading back down. We ran into a guy from New Jersey who was planning to camp at the top that night. Considering how cold it was in the canyon, he was going to be sleeping in 10 degrees or colder conditions on top.
12 Miles; Havasupai Gardens to Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood Campground
After a night of endless wind, we awoke to a cold that had settled throughout the region, and especially sunk into the canyon. We got up, immediately starting making some hot water for tea, and then heard someone yell, "Howdy Neighbor!" I turned around as my neighbor Jesse and his girlfriend Kelli beckoned to us from the site directly next to ours. We laughed realizing that we had spent the night camped exactly next to each other without realizing it. We packed up and headed off down the canyon past the numerous deer that fill up Havasupai Gardens.
After traveling down a shallow box canyon, we exited around a curve that brought us within eyesight of The Corkscrew. We continued down as the morning light finally hit us and brought some momentary warmth. A mule train passed us heading upwards when we reached the bottom. Janna and I quickly made our way over to the Colorado River with its gorgeous sand beach. From there, a kayaker heading downstream from Lee's Ferry paddled over to talk for a bit. He was part of a larger flotilla of whitewater rafters who came spilling around the turn in the river. As Janna and I walked up the trail section parallel to the river, we caught sight a raft that had somehow gotten lodged on top of a boulder submerged in the middle of the river. We watched from an overlooking cliff as the team used their bodies and ropes to sway the boat by redistributing weight.
From there, we entered Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Campground. It was super quiet with few campers yet checked in for the night. But every cottonwood along Bright Angel Creek was flaming yellow with the last vestiges of fall that had finally caught the desert trees sunk in the ever-summer canyon bottom.
Making a move up the North Kaibab Trail, we passed through miles and miles of box canyon. Here, Bright Angel Canyon is relatively narrow with shear surrounding walls and a narrow valley through which Bright Angel Creek flows. The trail has been blasted and carved away into the banks and walls of the dense granite hallway. By mid-afternoon the box canyon opened up into a wider sprawling valley. Yuccas, prickly pears, and other desert-typical plants grew across the slanted sandy floor. We passed a crew of fish biologists who were using electrofishing to check the population status of endangered native Humpback Chubs living in the creek. They excitedly reported that populations far upstream had been found. Additionally, beaver were doing well, in fact so well in Bright Angel Creek, that they've had to put chicken wire around the bottoms of the largest cottonwood trees because the beavers were chewing them all down.
As early winter evening crept in at 4 pm, we arrived at Cottonwood Campground. We setup our shelter and walked around a bit to see the lay of the area. We ran into a woman who was down here for her 50th birthday, and a rare bit of geographical coincidence, it turns out she lives in Alliance, Ohio (which meant she knew where Louisville is). At this point, Janna and I had not made plans to walk up to the North Rim; we presumed it lay under feet of winter snow. Our plans were to explore the old and rarely used Old Bright Angel Trail that shoots out from Manzanita Resthouse just a few miles up. However the woman reported that with our La Nina winter, that little snow and barely any ice resided on the trail up on top.
Cold sank hard into the campground as the sun went behind the canyon walls. Janna and I climbed into our Triplex quickly for warmth as temperatures sank into the 20s if not the teens.
5 Miles; Home to Bright Angel Trailhead to Havasupai Gardens
Given the surge in COVID cases that really took off mid-November (and were helped along by those traveling and socializing during the holidays), we decided to cancel our months-ago-booked flights to Ohio. We would keep the holidays local, spending Christmas and New Years at the Canyon. In the few weeks leading up to Winter Break, I reached out to the Backcountry Office at the Grand Canyon. We were able to subsequently score 4 nights and 5 days down in.
The nice thing about the itinerary we got was that we could walk from our house into the canyon down to Havasupai Gardens Campground in like 3 hours. On December 22, we drove to Williams to drop off Blaze at the kennel, we swung by Flag to drop my bike off for a little barrel adjuster work, and then we headed back to the Canyon to eat lunch. At 2:30 pm, we left and headed down in. The weather was a cooperative and somewhat unseasonal 50 degrees on top. Shorts were surprisingly worn in comfort. Soon after heading down the many switchbacks, the sun took that early afternoon slant that cooked the light yolk-orange awash across the rocks.
We rolled into camp which had many spots still available for this early evening hour. We found a good one and started hammering down stakes for the Triplex as strong winds were ripping through Garden Canyon. The winds were so strong that the autumn-leafed cottonwoods were shedding branches with each blow. A ranger came and urged everyone to check where they were placing their shelters to avoid windfall. Bucks and does wandered closely throughout, all habituated to humans and looking for some warmth in the dead winter grasses.
As far as dinner, Janna and I had grabbed some breakfast burritos from Martanne's in Flagstaff. We had thrown them in some gallon plastic bags which we retrieved to eat as hearty food in the gathering cold. Honestly, I still felt like it was unseasonably nice, and we sat out until 8 pm reading by headlamps as the winter skies opened up overhead. We climbed into our shelter which billowed and shook all night from the blasting winds; I slept well.