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.