The Grand-est Canyon

Just to say it’s a grand (meaning big) canyon is not nearly enough exclamation about the size of this amazing abyss in the earth’s surface, north of Flagstaff, AZ. It’s grandiose, or colossal, or humongous, or something like that. Anyway, the first glance at the landscape we will explore is stunning, especially in evening light.

Looking toward the North Rim of the Canyon, one arm of the plateau to which we will descend is visible in lower left corner of the photo. It’s about 3000+ feet lower than the top of the south rim.

After a cold night of sub-freezing temperature on recently unfrozen ground at Mather campground in the park, we packed up our stuff, parked the car in the backcountry lot, and set off down the Bright Angel Trail. It was chilly and windy on the top of the rim that morning, but we soon ditched the coats a mile or so down the trail.

Once on the trail (snow-covered) we got a glimpse of our final destination at Havasupai Gardens (used to be called Indian Gardens), the green trees in the far distance under the arrow. From the trailhead it’s a little under 5 miles to the campsite.

I should probably have titled the blog post something about Traveling Back in Time, because we would be walking through deposits of ancient seas, from 250 million years ago in the Permian period to about 540 million years ago in the Cambrian period, roughly the time at which the incredible Cambrian explosion of animal body types took place in ancient seas.

The formations derive primarily from deposits of mud, silt, and sand from an ancient inland sea that were laid down over hundreds of millions of years and then uplifted during successive collisions of plates over the course of the past 80 million years to form the Colorado Plateau. Erosion and exposure of the layers of rocks by the Colorado River only began about 5-6 million years ago, occurring rapidly at first as the river whittled away the top layers of more recent, softer sediments, and proceeding more slowly now as the river cuts through the oldest, metamorphic rocks at the very bottom of the canyon.

So, let’s take a walk back through time, from the end of the Permian period, when unknown cataclysms caused the extinction of 95% of animal life on land and in the sea, to the beginning of the Cambrian period when life exploded in ancient seas. Below is a guide to the names of the layers we will walk through as we descend.

Image from Roc Doc Travel showing the layers of deposits on the south rim of the Grand Canyon and the their associated geologic time periods.
The first 1.5 miles of the trail through the Kaibab limestone and Toroweap was ice covered and extremely slippery. We used crampons on this part of the trail, but there were plenty of day hikers making their way gingerly down the slope with just tennis shoes. Not recommended!
Here we were almost through the Coconino sandstone layer, the lightest colored layer which you can see in the extreme right side of the photo and also across on the north rim of the canyon. We have already descended about 1000 feet. You can just barely see the bright green spot on the lower plateau (extreme left center) that is our destination.
Further down now in the Supai formation above the steep cliffs of the redwall limestone, we can clearly see the lush valley of the Havasupai Gardens.
The first stop on the trail is midway through the Supai formation at the Mile 1.5 Resthouse, where we could finally remove our crampons. There are bathrooms and telephones here (most used by summer visitors overcome by the heat), but no water at this time of year.
A little further down the trail we can see the winding switchbacks that lead to the Mile 3.0 Resthouse (small structures with green roofs) at the top of the Redwall limestone formation.
Now on the home stretch to the campsite, with the towering expanse of the redwall behind us, we are in the Muav limestone formation dating back to 530 million years ago, and the trail has become much more walkable and less steep.
Another look at the Redwall limestone and the trail down to Havasupai Gardens. This is when you really begin to appreciate just how far down you’ve come (and how far up you’re going to have to go the next day)!
The trail to the campsite is almost level! and there is abundant green vegetation around us on this level of the Bright Angel Shale layers, which dates to approximately the time of the Cambrian explosion of life.
At the campsite, ring-tailed cats and mice are well acquainted with the treats to be found inside packs, so the NPS has constructed nifty pack hangers to remove the temptation. There are also lock boxes on the picnic tables to put away all foods and other aromatic compounds that would attract the pests. The campsite has 16 tent sites, 2 groups sites, pit toilets and creek water available at taps, as well as a ranger station, emergency phone, etc. And the night air is much, much warmer than the previous night at the top of the rim!
Looking back on my evening walk below the campsite, I couldn’t even see the top of the south rim — just the expanse of the giant Redwall limestone.
It’s still another 1.5 miles across the plateau for a view of the river.
The “garden” is the riparian vegetation filled with tall cottonwood trees, lush grasses and willows growing along the spring-fed creek, which runs most of the year.

After a pleasant night, and pretty good sleep, we got up really early (dawn) to start hiking up again. The exposed sections of the trail would be very hot in mid-morning sun, so we wanted to get a good start on the way up.

Farewell, easy part of the trail, now it’s all hard work to the top. I was amazed to meet a couple of early morning hikers on their way down from the top who were fast-walking the trail down in just over 2 hours (it took us 4.5 hours to get down the previous day).
It’s a loooong way up through the Redwall Limestone section, with the Supai formation, Hermit shale, and Coconino Sandstone clearly shown above it. At the very top, we can just barely see the columns of the Kaibab limestone at the top of the south rim. Whew, a long way to go yet.
But his time we didn’t stop at Mile 3.0 Resthouse at the top of the Redwall, but just kept going to get to the 1.5 mile marker where we would stop and put on the crampons again.

Some of us (the older ones) struggled to get to the top in 6 hours — and others arrived earlier, triumphant and happy.

A new thing to add to granddaughter’s bucket list. The other three of us have hiked to the bottom of the Canyon (i.e., the river) in the past, and I think I remember saying — I don’t want to do that again. But here we are…

14 thoughts on “The Grand-est Canyon

      • Sounds like it hasn’t changed much over the years (centuries?) …. nor you all. I did the trail to Phantom when I was 15 … slept for 2 days … No longer, 64 years later. But a great memory. Loved the pix. Thx.

    • thanks, Lynn. Yes, it was a good time to go to the canyon, it was chilly on top but very pleasant down near the bottom. It’s always harder than I remember, but having Alison and her daughter along made it more fun.

  1. Loved reading your account of hiking the Grand Canyon, Sue. Ed & I hiked down the Kaibob trail in a couple of hrs., stayed overnight at at the Phantom Ranch where we met & visited with some lovely people. We hiked up the Bright Angel Trail in 8 hrs.the next day. It was dark, freezing cold & very windy when we reached the top. That was 65 years ago. The scary thing for me was having to stand on the outside of the trail when we were going down to let the donkey riders pass us. It was a beautiful trip & the amazing Grand Canyon a cherished memory!

    • What a great trip you had! That’s a long hike all the way to Phantom Ranch from the top—no way I would have made that distance on this trip!

    • Sounds like it hasn’t changed much over the years (centuries?) …. nor you all. I did the trail to Phantom when I was 15 … slept for 2 days … No longer, 64 years later. But a great memory. Loved the pix. Thx.

  2. I agree that ‘grand’ doesn’t quite describe it. It’s one thing to look at the Grand Canyon in pictures but to go there and see it in person is so awesome!

  3. Thank you so much, Sue, for my tag-along trip down this beautiful world treasure with you.
    And the geologic map was so interesting & helpful with your brilliant photos.

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