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October 26, 2006

Southwest Odyssey: Day 6

I open my eyes at 6:20 AM, just about ten minutes before sunrise. At first, I'm not sure where I am (a hazard of the road trip). Then I remember that we're staying in a hotel on the rim of the Grand Canyon. Right, then! We need to go watch the sunrise. I poke Doc Dregs to wake him up, and we both quickly pull on some clothes and head outside.

It's a very cold morning (about 19 degrees), but all of yesterday's clouds are gone, and the sky is completely clear. There are a few other people out and about, but everyone's pretty quiet because of the early hour. We walk a short distance east until we find a spot that satisfies us, then we settle in to watch the early morning sunlight play across the formations in the Canyon.

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It is beautiful, but we are both freezing. After a while, we decide we've had enough and go in search of coffee and a quick breakfast. Back in our room, we shower, dress, and pack as quickly as we can. We are planning to make the hike today that the weather deprived us of yesterday (partway down the South Kaibab Trail), and we want to get started as soon as possible. Once we've checked out of the hotel, we need to catch a shuttle bus to the visitor center, where we'll have to catch another shuttle bus to the trailhead. It's a pretty tedious way to travel a relatively short distance, but the crowds are so large here that the shuttle buses are an absolute necessity. Even today, when the park is relatively uncrowded, parking spaces in many lots are few and far between. A mass-transit system for Grand Canyon is in the works, but won't be complete any time soon. For about the tenth time since arriving here less than 24 hours ago, we vow never to visit here in the summer.

I'm very excited and a little apprehensive about the hike we're about to undertake. The National Park Service works very hard to inform prospective hikers into the Canyon about what they're getting themselves into. They want you to know that "hiking in Grand Canyon is not like hiking anywhere else," and to remember that "what goes down, must come up." Scary warning signs are posted prominently at the trailheads to ensure that hikers carry adequate water and food, and that they know just how exorbitant the costs are in the unhappy event that they should have to be Medevac-ed out of the Canyon. I'm not really expecting anything we can't handle on a 3-mile hike in sunny, 45-degree weather, but all the warnings do give one pause.

We venture down the trail. It is steep -- very steep. Going downhill is easy, in a way, but it's hard on the knees and leg muscles, and the steepness means that we have to work hard to control our descent. The South Kaibab Trail is one of the "corridor trails" into the Canyon (like the more famous and more heavily-traveled Bright Angel Trail) that people have used for centuries to travel from the rim to the floor of the Canyon. The South Kaibab is shorter than the Bright Angel, reaching the bottom (a descent of over 5000 feet) in only 6 miles. But because of the shorter distance, the trail is also steeper. The initial descent follows a series of steep switchbacks, which look pretty impressive from below:

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We have chosen this trail over the Bright Angel despite the fact that it's likely to be a bit more strenuous because of the supposedly excellent views, and we are not disappointed. Our goal is Cedar Ridge, 1.5 miles in (and 1140 feet down), which is the recommended turn-around point for day hikers. An earlier turn-around point is almost a mile in, and we plan to go that far before deciding for certain whether to continue to Cedar Ridge or not. On the way down, there are plenty of gorgeous views to enjoy; the Canyon looks very different "from the inside," even this near the rim.

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At the first stopping point, we meet a group of older women who, we learn, are from Minnesota. They are the first fellow Minnesotans we have met on the trip, and they are friendly, chatty, and in very high spirits. They are planning to turn back, but once they have determined that we are carrying water and food, they encourage us to go on. After a break and a snack, we decided we're up for it, and continue downward. It's not long before Cedar Ridge is in sight, but it still seems like a long way down there:

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When we finally make it Cedar Ridge, we find a comfy rock to sit on, and we have something to eat and drink while we try to take in the unbelievable scenery. We see a number of small parties of backpackers on their way in or out of the Canyon, and Doc Dregs decides that we should come back someday and backpack here. I encourage him to wait until we've made it back to the rim before declaring that we're ready for that.

The hike out of the Canyon is difficult and strenuous, and we stop frequently to enjoy the views and catch our breath. Although the ascent is challenging, it isn't as bad as I expected it to be; it's actually easier on my knees and feet than was going down. The weather helps: it is cool and sunny, which means that we're neither overheated nor cold. Doc Dregs looks awfully perky as we get close to the rim:

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We are tired when we emerge from the Canyon, but we feel pretty good otherwise, and we are pleased to find that the return journey took us only an hour and a half when we expected it to take two hours.

There is one more area we want to explore before we leave Grand Canyon, and that is the road and viewpoints to the west toward Hermit's Rest, another historic building on the rim. It is from these western viewpoints that we will get our first glimpses of the Colorado River as it flows through the Canyon. We take a shuttle bus as far as Pima Point, and we hike the mile west from there to Hermit's Rest, stopping to appreciate the views of the river along the way.

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After stopping for a few moments at Hermit's Rest to, well, rest, we board a shuttle bus for Grand Canyon Village to retrieve our trusty little car. The daylight is fading fast, and we have 220 miles to drive to Phoenix tonight. This is sadly the end of the vacation portion of the trip for me, since I'll be attending the OLAC conference in Phoenix for the next couple of days. Doc Dregs, however, will still be on holiday, and has plans to keep himself entertained while I am busy.

On our drive southward, we can't stop talking about the amazing things we've seen. This trip has already changed us in some ways. We're much more eager to spend time outdoors and spend time in places of natural beauty. After our time at Canyonlands, we were determined to return there someday, and we feel the same way about the Grand Canyon. The crowds and the hassle can't ruin the experience of the Canyon; it's too beautiful and too overwhelming. We will go back someday - possibly on Doc Dregs's backpacking trip (but never in the summer!)

Unfortunately, because darkness falls so early this time of the year, we don't get to see much of anything on our drive southward, but we amuse ourselves by watching the car's outdoor temperature indicator gradually increase. When we leave Grand Canyon, the temperature is 46 degrees. A few hours later, when we arrive at our hotel in Phoenix, it is 70 degrees. It feels good to be in the warm weather after the chilly air at the Grand Canyon, but I feel as if I've just reluctantly returned to earth after a sojourn on a high, lovely cloud. We know that Phoenix has its charms as well, and we look forward to discovering a few of them over the next couple of days.

Posted by at October 26, 2006 11:52 PM