Backpack, Day One
Monday, April 5
I poked my head out of our tent at 5am to a view of a clear sky and a 3rd-quarter moon. Quickly making the rounds to the other tents, I got everyone started on their journey to readiness. We had a fixed schedule this morning. I had told the park ranger that Jenn and I would be at the doors to the backcountry office at 8am sharp, after having delivered everyone else with all of their packed packs to the Waldron trailhead. Given that it takes about 20 minutes to drive from the south rim village to the trailhead (one way), that meant we had to be breakfasted, packed, in the vehicles, and rolling towards the trailhead by 7 am. Two hours of time is generally enough even for campers who are on the slower side of the scale.
Breakfast, Day 1
On time, we started our two-vehicle convoy at 7am, driving along the mostly quiet roads of the South Rim village over to the dirt track of Rowe Well Road. It was a generally sunny morning, although breezy and cool. Everyone had windshells and fleece on.
By 7:30am, Jenn and I dropped everyone else off at the gate at the Waldron trailhead and were on our way back to the backcountry office, where we parked our two rental vehicles and waited for a cool and breezy few minutes before the office's 8am opening time.
Ranger Mike (seems a little stilted to call someone Ranger Mike... but I fear if I call him just 'Mike', you'll confuse him with the Mike in our group!) was right on time, coffee mug in hand, at 8am. He went out back to fetch a Government-issue Jeep, and returned a few minutes later. In the meantime we checked the latest forecast (which was unchanged - blustery today, clear sailing tomorrow and afterwards).
Getting a lift
The drive to the trailhead with Ranger Mike was quite pleasant. We got to know a little about him (he's married and has kids, and he's not allowed to do any overnight backpacking until his kids grow up a little, he knows a lot about Grand Canyon's history, and is sometimes frustrated by the inconsistencies of the park service's bureaucracy).
In what seemed like no time at all, we were at the trailhead again (at about 8:25am, to be more precise).
Ranger Mike sipped his coffee and watched us as we hoisted our packs, took a few departure shots, and headed off down the road past the barricade, headed towards the Waldron trail (and thanked him profusely, once again, for the ride). It used to be possible to drive all the way to the Waldron trailhead itself, but at some point in the recent past the park service erected a barricade 0.7 miles (about 1km) before that point. The walking is easy and mostly downhill, so it wasn't a big deal.
It was nicely bright and clear as we walked along the old forest service road, and it was good to get the blood flowing on such a cool April Morning. It was a perfect opportunity for people to make various adjustments to their gear and clothing, making everything just right for the most comfortable possible backpacking.
Soon the forest road turned right and headed more steeply downhill, and soon we were at the Waldron Trailhead proper, where we veered off and starting following a proper footpath through the woods. Here and there were patches of snow from 2010's fairly substantial snowfalls. The trail at this point leads across flat terrain.
The Waldron Trail begins to follow beside a shallow dry creekbed. Soon the skirted the edge of an open, grassy bowl. This was Horsethief Tank, a depression with a man-made earthen dam at one end to trap water. It was dry (as you can see) at this point in time. From this point on the creekbed became more pronounced and started to descend, signalling that we were nearing the rim of the Grand Canyon (or, to be more precise, the rim of the Hermit Basin -- a basin perched on a side canyon of the Grand Canyon). The objective of approaching and seeing the canyon for the first time 'in private', so to speak, was well on its way to being achieved.
The trail contoured above the ever-deepening creek-bed, and we soon had limited views of the edges of the mesa tops that marked the south rim of the Grand Canyon, and beyond that, the higher and hazier mesa tops of the North Rim (and it was at this point that Ranger Mike caught up and passed us on his way to investigating various points of interest in the Hermit Basin).
From here, the trail made a short, steep descent and crossed the creek bed, then climbed back up the other side to the rim of the Hermit Basin. This was not a cliff-edge dropoff, and the rim here was forested, but there were still limited views into Hermit Basin and Hermit Canyon. A few glimpses of magnificence only whetted everyone's appetite for more.
First Good Look
This point, on the forested rim of the Hermit Basin, is where the Waldron Trail makes its principle descent. A very pleasant switchbacking path makes its way down, first through forests of fir and pine, and then soon out into the open on more arid slopes populated with agave, yucca, and other desert plants. With evermore expansive views opening up at every switchback, we made slow progress through here (due to much picture taking).
This point was also my first good opportunity to visually explain what it was we were going to do for the first half of our first day's backpack, for from here I could trace much of our route for the day: down the remaining part of the Waldron Trail, briefly along the Hermit Trail, then along the head of Hermit Gorge on the Dripping Springs Trail, and finally along the middle part of the Boucher Trail. From this angle, the line that the Boucher Trail took looked especially alarming, seemingly clinging to the edge of an insubstantial slope above and below precipitous cliffs for miles and miles along the western side of the Hermit Gorge. I assured and re-assured everyone that not all is as it first appears in the Grand Canyon.
Down steeply through woods