Day 53: The Grand Canyon, Part 1

April 24, 2021

697.8

So. Fucking. Early.

Ghosthiker wanted to head out by 5:15am because the park would only give us a permit for Cottonwood. There are two campgrounds at the bottom of the Grand Canyon: Bright Angel and Cottonwood. Bright Angel is the first and most popular campground and is located right after the suspension bridge that takes you over the Colorado River. Cottonwood is about 7.5 miles after Bright Angel. 

Ghosthiker had been emailing back and forth with the backcountry office for the last several days trying to get us a permit for Bright Angel because we didn’t think we could physically make it to Cottonwood before it got too dark to hike. Not only has Ghosthiker been experiencing a lot of bad leg pain, but I’ve been feeling kind of ill the last few days. We’ll be hiking down into the Canyon and descents should always be taken a little more slowly and carefully anyway, but regardless, the office would not give us a permit for Bright Angel. They said that no AZT thru-hikers were being allowed to stay at Bright Angel Campground but were instead being sent ahead to Cottonwood in order to get them through the Canyon more quickly. That is literally what we were told. 

Um, I’m sorry, but we didn’t hike 650+ miles to be drop-kicked through the Grand Canyon as quickly as possible. This part of the trail is, for lack of a better term, the Grand Finale of the AZT. We didn’t come all this way to rush through it, and we certainly didn’t come to hike through some of North America’s most spectacular scenery in the dark. 

All that being said, when the office told us there was nothing they could do and Cottonwood was our only option (reminding us quite adamantly that there is no dispersed camping allowed within the Canyon), we accepted it and prepared for a very long, hard day of hiking. But then, we learned from some other thru-hikers that they’d had no trouble getting a spot at Bright Angel. They, however, had not told the office they were thru-hikers. They just said they were tourists hiking rim-to-rim. 

Trail Magic!

So, we left our hotel room around 5:45am and hiked the very lovely, paved hiking trail that led us to the permit office, hoping to get there early enough to talk to someone in person about camping at Bright Angel and if not, then we’d grab our permit and hike out and hope we didn’t end up hiking in the dark.  

That was our plan this morning. In their emails to Ghosthiker, the office said our permit would be waiting for us in a box outside the backcountry office building, but we couldn’t find it anywhere. No box. No staff. We were hoping somebody would be able to tell us where to find it because when we first arrived there was a huge group of hikers milling around, but within 5 minutes of our arrival a bus pulled up and all the other hikers climbed on. I guess they’re getting a ride to the Bright Angel Trail, which is another trail that goes down into the canyon. After they departed, Ghosthiker and I were alone and very confused about our permit. We were really anxious to get going because it was looking less and less likely that we’d get to talk to anyone about changing our camping reservation, in which case we really needed to start making miles asap, but we couldn’t find our permit! 

Ghosthiker called the office over and over. We could actually see someone in a back room, way back in the building, but no one was answering the phone. Finally, around 9:30am, someone responded to Ghosthiker’s emails. They said the office doesn’t open until 9:00am (it was 9:30am) and then gave Ghosthiker detailed instructions on how to find the permit box. It was around the back, past a row of outhouses and under a long, covered patio by some “staff only” doors. Eventually, a park staff member came out to help Ghosthiker find the permit, and they got to chatting. She was really friendly and seemed like she really wanted to help us out, but she said her hands were tied. We said that was okay, we totally understood, and that we should probably get moving if we wanted to make it to Cottonwood. She bid us happy hiking and went back inside, but as we were throwing on our packs to head out, the park ranger came back out and said that as a fellow thru-hiker of long trails, she agreed with us that it wasn’t fair that thru-hikers were being discriminated against by the park and she changed our permit for Bright Angel! We couldn’t believe it! We had been resigned to a long day of hiking and very likely having to hike in the dark! We thanked her profusely for her help! She was just so nice! We honestly couldn’t believe it. 

Honestly, it’s such a relief that we don’t have to hike another 18 miles today, especially now that it’s so late in the morning. Shortly after we get our new permit, we grabbed a quick snack at a nearby coffee shop (with super friendly staff and tremendous views of the Canyon), grabbed a few last-minute things at the Grand Canyon Village market (I needed a new fuel can, and maybe a beer to pack out), and then we were on our way! Even though we have fewer miles to do now, it’ll get dark earlier at the bottom of the Canyon so we still need to make good time.

View of the Canyon from the coffee shop!
Snack break time!

So many day-hikers and tourists! The trail was packed! It’s a Saturday, so it’s not all that surprising, but still. We took the South Kaibab Trail, which started going immediately down pretty steeply. I don’t think I’ve ever hiked so many consecutive switchbacks! Unsurprisingly, the views were spectacular pretty much all day. The trail was winding and steep and incredibly windy in some places. I left my buff around my neck so I could cover my nose and mouth where the wind was kicking up a lot of red dust. The further we descended, the fewer people there were until soon it felt like it was just the two of us. 

A few miles from the top, a hiker came hurrying up the trail and asked me if I had any sort of emergency supplies for a severely dehydrated hiker or any way to contact the main park office, which I thought was really odd until he gave me a look and asked, “Oh, are you not a park ranger?” I almost laughed a little. I can’t imagine why he thought I looked like a park ranger! Regardless, Ghosthiker and I asked for a description of his hiker friend who was struggling and said we’d watch for him and stay with him if need be. The hiker said he’d been in a group of three, so his struggling friend wasn’t alone, but yes, if we could watch for him and just check to make sure they’re doing okay, that’d be great. Then he hurried on up the trail. We didn’t see his other two friends for another couple of miles, where they were taking a break in the shade. They assured us he was doing alright, just taking it slow, and he said another hiker had given him a pack of electrolyte gummies and some extra water – they were the same gummies I gave to Bass just yesterday evening when I was trying to shed some extra snacks! Good job, Bass! Seeing that the distressed hiker was in good hands, we carried on. 

By the time we reached the suspension bridge at the bottom of the Canyon, my legs were shaking with fatigue. I wouldn’t trade today’s hike for the world, but steep descents are hard. I’m so glad it worked out for us to stay at Bright Angel. If my legs are hurting this bad, I can’t even imagine how much pain Ghosthiker must be in. She said it’s pretty bad. 

We found Bass and Cameron already at the campground. A permit allows multiple people to stay in a single designated camp spot, so we put the boys on our permit so they’d have a place to stay. That had been the plan for a while, and they were also pretty thankful to not have to keep going to Cottonwood for the night. We came upon them as they were heading to the river for a quick swim, so I shed my pack at our campsite and hurried to join them (they waited for me, like a couple of gentlemen). 

On our way to the river, we ended up stopping to chat with a pair of girls who were hiking rim-to-rim. Cameron seemed to know them, and everything was not well with them. One of the girls had twisted her ankle on the way down the Kaibab Trail. They had a permit to camp at Cottonwood but had had to stop at Bright Angel because her ankle was terribly swollen, and they couldn’t carry on. Apparently, a park ranger stopped by and gave them a hard time about it. According to the uninjured hiker, this park ranger gave zero shits that one of the girls was injured and could barely walk and basically said, “Well, you already set up your tents, so I guess you can stay. But just be grateful I’m not giving you both a citation.” Seriously?

The injured girl kept quietly suggesting they just pack up and try to get to Cottonwood, but the other girl insisted they stay and that it wasn’t worth risking a possible emergency evacuation just to please some random park ranger with a god complex. This girl was seriously mad. She said the park ranger talked to them like they were a couple of idiots. Bass, Cameron, and I did our best to reassure them that everything would be fine, that no self-respecting or responsible park ranger would really make them keep hiking in their condition, and that maybe the ranger has been dealing with a lot of hikers trying to camp without permits recently? Who knows? It did seem silly to make such a big deal out of it, though, considering the campground was only maybe at 25% capacity. We even invited them to come join us at the river, but they declined. Poor things. I hope that ankle is better by tomorrow.

We walked on to the river and each took a quick plunge. The water was freezing but I’m not sorry! It’s actually warmer down here in the Canyon than I expected it to be. Even the breeze is fairly warm. It’s just the river that’s cold! 

Just playing in the river like a couple of hooligans.

After that, we scurried back to camp and I started to set up my tent because it was getting dark. While I was doing that, a park ranger came by and asked if she could speak with Ghosthiker privately. I didn’t think much of it, since Ghosthiker’s name is on our permit and I just assumed she wanted to verify the permit or something. But after she left, Ghosthiker came back looking kind of stunned. The ranger gave her a citation! Not just one, but several! She said she received a call from the backcountry office saying that Ghosthiker had harassed and threatened park rangers in order to get a permit for Bright Angel Campground! Um, what!? Now we were both shocked! Remember how I said we’d accepted our permit for Cottonwood and it was the park ranger’s idea to change it for us? That is exactly how it happened. We didn’t push or harass her at all. We actually felt better about camping at Cottonwood after talking to an actual person. The ranger up at the rim had just been so friendly, neither Ghosthiker nor I knew what to think about this new turn of events. 

Oh well, there’s nothing we can do about it from here. Ghosthiker said it’s something she’ll have to deal with when she gets home. I felt really bad that it was her name and not mine on the permit, leaving her to deal with this instead of me, but she said that was silly. She’s a retired police officer and is very familiar with how citations work, far more so than I am (I used to be a paralegal, but that doesn’t mean I’ve actually had to appear in court for anything). 

The four of us (Ghosthiker, the boys, and me) decided not to be bothered by it for now and spent the rest of the evening being thankful that we got to camp at Bright Angel anyway, cooking our meals together at a picnic table and generally having a pleasant evening. 

Day 54: The Grand Canyon, Part 2

Published by rogerssj23

I'm a long-distance hiker, an audiobook producer, and an amateur writer. I live in the woods in a renovated 1972 Airstream with my Golden Retriever Zoe. Read more about my hiking adventures at sarahhikes.com.

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