Friday, July 10, 2015

Backpacking the Grand Canyon's North Kaibab Trail

We first backpacked down from the South Rim to Phantom Ranch in 1985, and we loved it so much we returned in 1989 and hiked round-trip, South Rim to North Rim and back to South Rim.

Here we are in 1989 backpacking up North Kaibab Trail after hiking down from the South Rim. This is the least traveled and most difficult of the three main corridor trails. It is 9.4 miles from Phantom Ranch up to the trailhead on the North Rim.  It's then another 2 mile hike from the trailhead to the Grand Lodge/North Rim Village area.

The trail traverses Bright Angel Canyon as you follow the namesake creek uphill, until it intersects with Roaring Springs Canyon which takes you to the rim.

About 5.5 miles out of Phantom Ranch you reach a side trail to Ribbon Falls which is a half-mile or so side trip off the North Kaibab Trail. It's a wonderful place to cool off and replenish your water supply, well worth the short detour. 

It's slippery, but you can carefully walk behind the falls and take a picture looking out through the falling water.  Notice the hikers on the right in the photo below. The lower "apron" of green is moss covered travertine, a rock formed of calcium carbonate (lime) dissolved from the limestone layers above.

1.6 miles beyond these falls is Cottonwood, which is halfway between Phantom Ranch and the North Rim. This area was first settled by Anasazi Indians over 800 years ago. They hunted game and foraged for edible wild plants, but also eventually farmed, growing corn, beans, and squash.  Cottonwood Camp was established in the 1920s as a layover for mule tours originating on the North Rim. The Civilian Conservation Corps further developed it during the 1930s.  It offers water, restrooms, a campground, and a ranger station. We camped here both on our hike up to the North Rim and on the return trip back to the South Rim.

Bright Angel Creek's riparian habitat fosters the growth of Fremont cottonwood trees, giving the area its name of Cottonwood. These trees are fast growing and water-dependent and provide welcome shade in the summer. They regulate their own temperature by transpiring copious amounts of water into the air -- up to 50 gallons daily! We used the creek for our water source after treating the water, and also stored our water bottles in the creek so our drinking water would be cooler.

A rainstorm higher up the mountain made the Bright Angel Creek "run red" as the NPS Ranger called it, as soil from the redrock area above was carried past us (and then all the way down to the Colorado River.)  "Colorado" is Spanish for "red river," and the Colorado used to be a red river.  But Glen Canyon Dam traps the red soil, preventing the soil from making the trip down the Colorado, although red water from tributaries within the Grand Canyon often temporarily turn it red again.

Two miles beyond Cottonwood is Roaring Springs, which is the headwaters for Bright Angel Creek. Ninety percent of the Grand Canyon's moisture falls on the North Rim and all that rainfall and snowmelt percolates into the ground. Then 3400 feet down the water hits an impermeable layer of rock called Mauv Limestone and gushes out of the cliff at aptly named Roaring Springs, five trail miles below the North Rim. A pump house located here pumps some of the water back to the North Rim for use at the facilities located there. Each day, 500,000 gallons of water are piped 10 miles down to the Colorado River where the piping crosses under the silver bridge and flows up to Indian Gardens un-pumped (the force of gravity and reduced diameter pipes allow this.) A pump house then sends the water up to large storage tanks on the South Rim. Below is a photo of just one little segment of the Roaring Springs water output.

Here's a photo of the water gushing from many areas of the cliff above the trail...

Before being named a national park in 1919, the trail traversed Bright Angel Canyon all the way to the North Rim and was viewed as a continuation of the Bright Angel Trail that starts on the South Rim. However, the trail required 94 crossings of the Bright Angel Creek! In 1926, the National Park Service reconstructed the upper section, re-routing it instead through Roaring Springs Canyon to the west. This required much blasting, including Supai Tunnel through the Supai Formation rock. You can see it just ahead of the hiker where the trail makes a left turn.  A closeup photo follows below. 

Supai Tunnel is 3 miles above Roaring Springs, and from here it is only 1.7 miles to the North Rim Trailhead. A pit toilet and water are available here on the other side of the tunnel.

In the far right of this photo below you see a hiker circled and your eyes can follow the trail blasted from the cliff towards the center of the photo and far beyond in the greener area. This entire section was blasted during construction and in many places the trail resembles a half-tunnel clinging to a ledge

This is a view of the Redwall Bridge, looking down from the North Kaibab Trail. The bridge is dead center in the photo below and crosses a deep depression, eliminating an otherwise troublesome loss and regaining of altitude. It was built after a major flood in 1966 wiped out much of the North Kaibab Trail due to 15 inches of rain in 36 hours on the North Rim. You may notice that I was standing in a section of switchbacks as I took this photo.

This next photo was taken near the top of the North Kaibab Trail looking back down through the narrow canyon opening we just hiked through and from where I had taken the prior picture (the Redwall Bridge is no longer in sight.)  Look closely and you'll see the red dirt trail switchbacking and snaking all the way down (just right of center.) As you approach the North Rim, the vegetation turns into lush conifer forest, quite a contrast from the pinyon pine and juniper dominating the terrain we just hiked through lower down and which predominates on the South Rim.

Once at the top, it's still a two mile trek to the lodge and main canyon rim area.  It is a nice trail through lush forest, and eventually you are hiking alongside the cabins that are for rent.  The North Rim offers a campground and several types of cabins.  There are various hiking trails, a wonderful deluxe restaurant with amazing views of the canyon, a gift shop, coffee shop, saloon, and sandwich/salad shop.  It is far less commercial and populated than the Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim.

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