Monday, September 29, 2014

Day 46: Grand Canyon... here I come!

Sunrise in the morning!
May 28: The Arizona Trail passes near the small tourist town of Tusayan, but I skipped it completely in my eagerness to reach the Grand Canyon. The trail entered the park just west of the road entrance--in a kind of a secret entrance for people on foot or mountain bikes. As far as I know, the park service doesn't really promote it and most people don't even know it exists, but if you enter the park through it, you miss the entrance gates and don't have to pay any fees.

The catch, however, is that you're still several miles away from the populated areas of the Grand Canyon and even further away from the actual views. I might have gotten into the park for free, but I had to earn my way to the viewpoints by hiking there.

Before the views, though, I had an important task that I really needed to take care of: permits. I needed a permit to camp in the Grand Canyon. The Arizona Trail approached to within about a quarter-mile of Mather Campground, so I got off the trail where I thought it would be. The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is well-connected with shuttles and I knew that there was supposed to be a shuttle stop at the campground. My intention was to jump on the free shuttle to get to the backcountry office where I could get a permit, then jump on the shuttle and return to where I left the trail. Any shuttle stop would do, but the one at Mather Campground was the one that seemed closest to the trail.

That was the plan. Unfortunately, I had trouble figuring out where the bus stop was located. My topo maps didn't really show that information. I started following a street in vaguely the right direction--the street signs said it led to the Market Plaza. I didn't want to walk all that way, but if push came to shove, eventually I'd reach a bus stop.

Along the way, I picked up more plastic bags that had gotten caught on trees and brush. That was the only kind of trash I saw, and once again I decided that plastic bag bans were a good idea. The Grand Canyon shouldn't be littered with plastic bags.

I was about to cross a street when I took another look at my map, trying to figure out if I was headed in the best direction, when I saw a ranger pull up at the intersection and he asked if he could help me.

"Do I look that lost?" I asked him, a little amused.

I saw this beautiful elk on the outskirts of Tusayan when I skirted
around the town in the morning. He didn't seem at all people shy!
"Well, it seemed like you were looking at that map a lot."

Good point.

So I told him I had hiked in on the Arizona Trail and wanted to get to the backcountry office to get a permit.

"Wow--you're totally in the wrong area for that!"

"I know that...." I said, mockingly shaking my finger in frustration, "but I'm trying to find a shuttle stop that would take me there. Any shuttle stop would do! But there doesn't appear to be any around here."

The ranger went on about that being a good idea--everyone should be using the shuttles because they're so much faster and easier than trying to find parking places around the park.

"So where's the nearest bus stop?" I asked.

"Hop on in--I'll drive you over to the backcountry information center."

Sweet! I jumped into the passenger side of the truck and off we went.

It didn't take more than about 5 minutes to get there, and I thanked the ranger (Thanks, Ranger Pat!) for the ride and hopped on out.

Inside, the place was deserted of tourists with a lone ranger (not The Lone Ranger--just A lone ranger) at a window waiting to help people like me. =)

So I asked him if I could get a permit to camp at the Cottonwood Campground--about 14 miles from the South Rim and I figured a good place to stop for a very short day where I could thoroughly enjoy hiking through the inner gorge. I wanted to camp there the next night, but he told me that campground was full, but that he had one site available at the Bright Angel Campground.

I was a little torn... The Bright Angel Campground was a mere 7 miles from the South Rim--it would be an incredibly short day of hiking for me if I stopped there. I had little doubt that I probably could push to the North Rim in a single day and camp at the top of the North Rim somewhere, but I also wanted some "quality time" in the inner gorge as well. These thoughts raced through my head in mere seconds--probably faster than the time it took you to read this paragraph--but I decided to take the last campsite at the Bright Angel Campground. I could spend the morning tomorrow hiking along the rim on some off-AZT trails. It wouldn't be a bad way to spend the morning.....

Coming out from the Bright Angel Campground, I wasn't sure if I'd make it out of the national park by the end of the next day--it was about 24 miles to the northern border from the campground and almost all uphill from the very bottom of the canyon, so I added a second night of camping in section NB9.

"Just get a few miles past the top of the North Rim and you can pretty much set up camp anywhere you want after that," the ranger told me. "That whole area is in NB9 all the way to the north boundary." Hey, works for me! I really liked the fact that I wouldn't be stuck in a campground crowded in with perhaps hundreds of other people. There wasn't any way to avoid that in the canyon itself--camping was only allowed in designated campsites in the canyon--but outside of the gorge and away from the immediate rim had open-ended and much more flexible camping options.

"You're lucky you got that site at the Bright Angel Campground," the ranger told me. "It's usually full."

Well, awesome for me. =)

For tonight, the ranger suggested that I camp at Mather Campground--they had a section for hikers and bikers that pretty much always had space available, but he only handled the backcountry permits and that didn't include Mather Campground. I'd have to go to the campground and check-in there.

I told him I'd do that, but I didn't. I had no intention of doing that. I'd already had other plans for tonight....

I did take the shuttle bus back to Mather Campground, though, since that's where I got off the Arizona Trail. Before getting back onto the trail, however, I stopped at the campground long enough to do laundry and take a shower since both were available there. I also found a bank of payphones and made some calls to update everyone on my progress. "I've made it to the Grand Canyon!" I shouted into the phone. "And tomorrow night, I'll be camping at the bottom of it!"

I also filled up with water, then walked through to the back of the campground, hiked cross-country to the road I had found myself on earlier, then reconnected with the trail where I had left it a couple of hours earlier. By now, I had figured out why I had so much trouble finding the bus stop--I had to walk cross-country to reach it and had assumed that there was a trail or road that led to it.

Once I was back on the Arizona Trail, I continued hiking on to the canyon's rim. I wanted to get as far as I could today before I stopped, and that was right up to the rim.

The trail ducks under Highway 64--the main road to the South Rim
of the Grand Canyon--here by Tusayan.

The Arizona Trail reaches the rim near the South Kaibab Trail, then overlaps that trail all the way to the bottom of the canyon. I could hike out as far as the South Kaibab trailhead, then catch a shuttle bus from there back into the populated places of the park, which is exactly what I did.

Then I changed to the purple line which is the shuttle bus that takes me out of the park to Tusayan--the trail town I passed up earlier in the morning. I got on that bus, and soon learned that the man driving it was driving it for the first time. He drove other shuttle buses in the park, but this was his first time running the purple line and he was quite entertaining to talk with. He asked the previous driver that was just getting off if she had any suggestions. "Keep the rubber-side down," she told me, "And don't crash into any other vehicles."

Good advice, if you ask me. *nodding*

Before the bus got going, the new driver found a stamp and asked if anyone needed their hand stamped.

I wasn't entirely sure how these bus systems worked, but I was a little concerned about leaving the park on one. Could I get back in? It made sense that I should be able to get back in, but I couldn't imagine the bus pulling over for everyone on it to pay an entrance fee every time it entered the park either. And anyhow, I really didn't want to pay an entrance fee. Arizona Trail thru-hikers aren't supposed to pay an entrance fee! So when he pulled out that stamp asking if anyone needed it, I figured *I* needed it.

"I need this to get back into the park?" I asked. "Stamp me up!" He stamped the back of my hand with a red stamp, but I couldn't really make out what the image on it.

I talked with the driver for the 20 minute drive into Tusayan, telling him where the Arizona Trail crossed the road in two different places. (In one case, where it went under the road through a culvert.) He seemed excited to be driving at 40 miles per hour because it was double the fastest speed that any of the other buses could travel on the roads throughout the Grand Canyon. "Look at how fast we're moving!" he'd call out with glee. I had agree--I was used to moving at 3 miles per hour. This 40 mile-per-hour stuff was indeed quite fast! The bus covered the same distance in 20 minutes that took me hours to hike earlier in the day!

We finally arrived in Tusayan and I got off the bus. My first stop was Wendy's, which was practically right next door to where he dropped me off and I felt like some fast food. Greasy and filled with calories. Lots of calories.

Then I walked the length of the town, which took all of about 10 minutes. It really wasn't a very big town at all. Eventually, I wandered over to the IMAX theater and purchased a ticket for Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets. Because, why not? What else did I have to do? I'd heard it was pretty good too. =)

The movie had some very dramatic videos of the Grand Canyon, but as all things do, it too came to an end and I wandered outside as sunset was fast approaching. It was time to find somewhere to camp for the night. I had looked into getting a hotel room for the night in Tusayan, but the very cheapest rooms I could find cost over $150/night--far outside of my budget! No, not when I could camp for free. Anyhow, I already got a shower and laundered my clothes. There wasn't much I needed with a hotel room anymore.

I walked about a half-mile east of town, hooking up with the Arizona Trail and setting up camp alongside of it. I knew that I could probably have stealth camped illegally in the Grand Canyon somewhere--up until the Arizona Trail reached the rim, the trail veered largely around the populated areas of the park and in the woods. It would have been easy to set up camp illegally along it and no one would have been none the wiser, but it was just as easy to jump on the free bus out of the park and camp legally outside of Tusayan, so that's what I did.

Rabbit on the trail! But this one would not get into the
sunlight so I could get a good photo of it!
The secret entrance to the Grand Canyon--for hikers and bikers only!
And note: There's nobody around to collect entrance fees. Sweet! =)

The second time I crossed Highway 64--but this time, on its surface.
There wasn't any culvert or drainage ditch to go under here.
This looks like a warning of some sort....?
The Arizona Trail runs for nearly 7 miles from the Grand Canyon's
south boundary until we get our first views of the canyon itself. Most
of it is just trees and forest like this.
I heard that Northern Arizona has the largest ponderosa pine forest in the country.
I assume that's true, but I'll tell you what--they've also got
some remarkably tall trees too!
Elk! Now that I'm in a protected park, none of the wildlife seems
scared of me anymore. This fellow just trotted on by like I wasn't even there.
And finally--I've reached the South Rim of the Grand Canyon!

Goofing around in Tusayan. =)

Friday, September 26, 2014

Day 45: They don't call it "Grandview" for nothing!

May 27: You can probably guess--it was yet another relatively easy, flat  and uneventful day of hiking on the Arizona Trail. Throughout the day, air traffic overhead increased dramatically--just small planes and helicopters which I had little doubt were people paying for an aerial tour of the Grand Canyon. According to my maps, the trail would approach within a mile or so of the Grand Canyon's rim. I expected the touring planes (and helicopters) buzzing thickly overhead, and I wasn't disappointed!

The trail followed along the edge of Coconino Rim--the edge of a plateau for much of the day. The trail was forested here so I didn't see many views from such a lofty perch, but occasionally there would be a break in the trees where a large plateau spread out below and finally, I got my first view of the Grand Canyon itself. Nobody would have to look at a map to figure out what they were seeing--the Grand Canyon speaks for itself! But I was probably still two or three miles away from it when I first identified it. Two or three miles as the crow flies--as the duck walks, I was closer to 30 miles away! I wouldn't be reaching the Grand Canyon until tomorrow, but I'd get these peeks of it today.

They were very uplifting peeks too! It was the Grand Canyon! After nearly 700 miles of hiking, I was now on the verge of plunging into it! One of the most spectacular geological wonders of the world!

Early in the afternoon, I reached the Grandview Lookout Tower, a fire lookout tower located about a mile from the rim of the Grand Canyon. If there was a fire tower with a view, that was going to be it! I set my pack down and climbed up where I got a magnificent view of the Grand Canyon--certainly the best of the entire day since I was well above all of the trees that would otherwise obstruct my views.

But from here, I could see a huge column of smoke rising into the sky from the north rim of the Grand Canyon. That wasn't something I wanted to see.... The Slide Fire south of me didn't worry me much because it was well behind me, but the fire I saw ahead I knew nothing about--and even worse, it appeared to be north of me. Perhaps burning on the Arizona Trail itself. I'd need to learn more about exactly where that fire was burning and if it was going to affect my hike. More wildfires...

The "Russell" Tank was empty of water....

I've always known that wildfires happen in Arizona--I've seen them on the news, but I have to admit being a little surprised at how often they seemed to occur. It seemed like the whole state has burned or was currently in the process of burning! It was like Florida all over again. (Except that it's a dry heat!)

At the lookout tower, I found yet another full gallon of drinking water, and I was happy to grab it. Since leaving Flagstaff, I've lived purely on bottled water found along the trail except for that first night on the trail when I used a stock tank. About a gallon per day has covered me well.

I took something of a risk by not hiking 0.4 miles off trail to get water at a wildlife tank a half mile before, but my water notes said that water would be available at the lookout tower "in season." I wasn't exactly sure what "season" they were talking about nor if we were in it (tourist season? fire season? Something else entirely?), but since Memorial Day was yesterday, I figured it was safe to assume we were in tourist season now and based on all of the fires I've seen along the trail, I felt pretty certain that fire season had already arrived.

If I was wrong about water being available at the fire lookout tower, I'd have had to backtrack nearly a mile to get water at a wildlife trick tank. But no, there was water. Plenty of it, in fact!

I could also throw out my trash which was kind of bulky since it now included two empty one-gallon containers of water. I had crushed them as much as I could so they wouldn't take up as much room, but they don't crush into very compact shapes.

I couldn't go into the very top of the fire lookout tower--the trap door leading into the room at the top was closed and a sign said it was off limits, so I descended and found a place in the shade to lay down and relax for an hour or two. It was a good place to stop for a long lunch break.
Several minutes later, the guy manning the lookout tower came down as well--which actually surprised me because I didn't even realize that anyone was actually in the room at the top when I climbed the tower. I couldn't remember the last time I'd actually seen a fire lookout tower being used to lookout for fires! Seems like that's done mostly by airplanes nowadays.

The Arizona Trail is not for the weak!

He stopped to talk with me a bit asking me how far I had traveled that day (about 17 miles). I asked him if he had seen any other thru-hikers pass by recently, but he hadn't. I didn't really think he had, but I was still curious if there were any other Arizona Trail thru-hikers nearby on the trail. The last ones he saw passed by about a week earlier.

I also asked him about the fire I could see on the north rim--where, exactly, was it in relation to the Arizona Trail? He said the fire was well to the west of the trail and that it shouldn't be an issue for me. Whew! Dodged another bullet!

Eventually, I continued the hiking and set up camp after pulling in 24.2 miles. Ever since leaving Flagstaff, my miles had picked up dramatically. I'd been averaging about 25 miles per day and was about to arrive at the Grand Canyon an entire day earlier than I had originally expected.

My legs were also surprisingly sore. My thighs were burning like they'd had a strenuous workout that they weren't used to, but the trail was so flat and easy it seemed weird for them to be sore at all, and I knew it was due to climbing the fire tower. Even without my pack on, that 80-foot climb used different muscles than all my walking did and it left my thighs feeling sore. How ridiculous is that? I can hike 25 miles in a day and not really feel sore at all, but oh, yeah, climbing up an 80-foot fire tower does me in! It wasn't a crippling kind of pain, though--just that soreness from exercising muscles that aren't used to it.

I went to sleep thinking about the Grand Canyon and more than a little concerned about my chances of getting a permit. It was the only place on the entire Arizona Trail where I needed a permit. I was able to walk completely through Saguaro NP without a permit since I didn't camp there, but from border to border, the Grand Canyon was about 40 miles. There was no way I was going to finish 40 miles in a day, which meant I had to camp in the park for at least one night. Which meant I needed a permit. And it's the Grand Canyon--competition for permits, I had a hunch, would not necessarily be easy to come by.

At the the same time, though, I was really excited by the Grand Canyon. It's the GRAND CANYON! How could I not be excited?! =)

Elk in the distance!
The trail today was largely forested like this. Not a thick forest, but
definitely a forest!
And a few times during the day, through gaps in the trees, I could see
the Grand Canyon from my perch at the top of the Coconico Rim.
Another gap in the trees, with another view of the Grand Canyon.
The Grand Canyon!!!!

Lots of little planes (and helicopters) flew overhead all day long.
I think it's safe to guess that these are tourists wanting an aerial tour of the Grand Canyon.

They don't call it "Grandview" for nothing!
The ultimate tool for a "grandview." =)
Just don't look down! Ahh... man... you looked down!
I told you not to look down!
This would be my closest approach to the Grand Canyon for the day.
From Grandview, the Grand Canyon rim was about 1 mile away.
My biggest concern from the fire tower, however, was this
large column of smoke rising from the north rim. But the fellow
manning the lookout tower assured me that the fire was
well to the west of the Arizona Trail and should not affect my hike.

My camp for the night!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Day 44: Watering Woes

Sunrise in the morning! And the skies today would be a lot
clearer than before--temperatures would also be hotter as a result!
May 26: Today continued with a lot more walking on gravel roads, and it stayed pretty much flat all day long. This time it wasn't a long, continuous barely perceptible downhill, but an actual flatness that didn't vary much up or down. Still easy to walk, though, even if I didn't get that slight assist from gravity helping out.

Temperatures were also warmer, probably due to both the fact that the elevation had dropped by a few thousand feet the day before (I was now hovering at about 6,000 feet above sea level) and that the rain clouds that shaded the trail for much of the day had left. A handful of cumulus clouds tried to fill in that roll, but there weren't enough of them to make much of a difference.

Although I was long out of the low desert and temperatures had cooled dramatically, water was still something of a challenge because reliable water sources were spread far apart--as in 20+ miles apart. Then you'd get to a dirt stock tank and the water would be incredibly muddy. That was part of the reason I set a goal of doing 25 miles the day before--to reach the next reliable water source. It was only a happy coincidence that I found a gallon of water to take with me. I pushed on for another hour after that, however, because from there it was another 20+ miles to the next reliable water source at Lockwood Tank. I figured getting in a few extra miles at the end the day before meant I'd get to this next water source an hour sooner today.

But the tank looked awful. A tiny puddle of muddy water that had clearly been heavily used (and abused) by cattle. But water was water and beggars can't be choosers! When I approached the water's edge, though, my feet started sinking into the mud. I was having trouble just reaching the water without falling into a deep quicksand!

I found a couple of small boulders nearby--small enough that I could pick them up and move them, but barely--and threw them out to the water's edge hoping it would provide a base for me to stand on without sinking deep into the mud. The boulders sank a couple of inches into the mud, then I stepped up on them--prepared to jump off quickly if they sank much further--but they settled about halfway down into the mud before stopping.

It was a precarious place to filter water, though, balanced carefully on a couple of small, unstable boulders. It would be easier just to fill up my 3-liter bottle with untreated water and treat it later. And, I hoped, maybe further up the trail I'd find an unexpected water cache and be able to throw out this water before I had to drink any of it at all. It was nasty water....

And 1.8 miles further up the trail, at the Kaibab National Forest boundary, I found such a water cache. Several gallons of water were sitting there in the sun, and some of them were fresh, unopened, gallon-sized containers. I was so pleased with the gallon of water I took the day before, I decided to do the same thing all over again. An entire, unopened gallon of water! Again! Score!

I opened up the 3-liter container of muddy water and poured it out with glee, then stuffed a gallon of water into my pack. I was ready! I didn't have to waste time treating the water either which propelled me 25.1 miles for the day.

After I poured out all of the muddy water, I looked around and realized that if anyone arrived in the immediate future and saw all of the wet ground around the water cache, they might think someone had been pouring out the clean water. How annoying would that be, to walk up to an empty water cache to see all sorts of water poured out around it soaking into the ground? But the chances of anyone walking up before it dried was slim--I hadn't seen anyone the entire day. And anyhow, the water cache wasn't even dry--there were still a few gallons of water still available.

I actually stopped early--I was expecting to do about 20 miles per day and had already done over 27 yesterday and over 25 today. I was zooming! Even though I could have done a few more miles, there didn't seem like any need to.

This tank wasn't shown in my data book, but I went over to check it out
just to see if there was water in it--and there was. (Lots of algae growing in it, though.)
It's nice to know that there are water sources sometimes available even
when I don't know about it ahead of time! But why wasn't this
included in my data book? Seems like it should have been!
The only hiccup for the day was that I was zooming so fast, I apparently missed where the trail turned off the gravel road and back onto a real trail. I didn't even realize I had missed a turn until I saw the Arizona Trail crossing the road I was walking on. That quickly led to me pulling out my maps and figuring what the heck had happened. It's not normally possible to intersect a trail that you were already supposed to be on!

But it seems as if I missed a turnoff somewhere near that water cache and had actually been hiking off-trail for about an hour--completely oblivious to the fact. Fortunately, the trail ran parallel to the gravel road I was following and eventually intersected it so I wasn't hiking in the wrong direction--just on the wrong path. I veered off the road and followed the trail into the woods where I was supposed to be after that.

I stopped to set up camp several miles later. The flies and flying beetles that came out that evening were awful! The constant buzzing and getting into my stuff was driving me crazy, but at least they weren't biting. Just annoying as sin until after sunset when the bugs seemed to go to sleep as well.

I liked the small cliff that formed between these two plateaus, but
this picture doesn't really show it well. *sigh*
Lots of grasslands! Punctuated with an occasional tree. =)
Shhh. Be vewy vewy quiet, I'm hunting wabbits!
My! What big ears you have!
The San Francisco Peaks continue to fade off in the distance.

Even though I was out of the sizzling low deserts of Arizona,
water was still quite scarce!
And even when you did find water, it wasn't always good!
Beggars can't be choosers, though! You still have to take whatever
water you can get!
Fortunately for me, 1.8 miles after I picked up the muddy water,
I found this unexpected water cache. I dumped out the muddy water and
replaced it with a gallon of the clean stuff!
If this was supposed to be a waterbar, I think they did it wrong....
An anthill. They're industrious little workers!
Relaxing at the end of a long day. I even stopped early since
I had been making such good time and had already completed
over 25 miles for the day!

This little dust devil just kept on going. I first noticed it about 20 seconds before I started the video and it kept going and going--even after I stopped the video!