A day of logistics
Sunday, April 4
(The previous evening saw us pick up Cathy and Mike at the Las Vegas airport, completing our backpacking team)
Now with our full compliment of six eager hikers, we met early Easter Sunday morning (April 4) at Cocos - a simple little 24-hour restaurant right next to our Motel 6. With remarkable agility, we were served a decent standard-fare breakfast in very short order. We discussed our plan for the day: head eastwards over the Hoover Dam and across northern Arizona towards Grand Canyon National Park. Along the way, we would stop at a medium-sized town's grocery store to pick up whatever remaining backpacking foodstuffs were needed. Bagels, Cheese, snacks, etc. That sort of thing.
Cathy and Mike
I myself also wanted to get to the park well enough before the closing time of the Backcountry Office. I wanted to drop in and verify the conditions of the road that led to our trailhead, the upcoming weather, any critter-food problems and so on. This meant that we needed to arrive at the park a reasonable amount of time before the office's 5pm closing time. Arriving during the afternoon also meant that we would all have plenty of daylight time to prepare our gear for the upcoming 5-day backpack. Getting things done on or ahead of time goes a long way to ensuring a smooth trip!
Soon we were headed out of Las Vegas, heading southeast on the Boulder Highway (actually, on the I-515 bypass of the boulder highway, to be precise), headed to the Hoover Dam. It's the most direct route to northern Arizona, but is not without its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, the Hoover Dam is a scenic wonder of 1930s engineering and Art Deco design, and is always interesting to drive over. On the minus side, it is a narrow choke point along the highway system, with lots of slow moving tourist traffic. Additionally, the extra security measures after September 11, 2001 mean that one has to inch through a security checkpoint in each direction.
The new bridge
Help with this situation will soon arrive, though, with the near-completion of the Hoover Dam Bypass bridge and related 4-lane highway, this situation will soon be a thing of the past. Scheduled for completion in November of 2010, the bridge will allow through traffic (i.e. traffic not destined for the Hoover Dam itself) to move along a modern 4-lane divided highway that spans the Colorado river downstream of the Dam on a huge 1,900 foot long concrete-and-steel arch bridge. Strictly from a 'arrive-in-Las-Vegas-and-drive-to-the-Grand Canyon' perspective, this new bypass and bridge will likely shave nearly thirty minutes of time off the drive.
Bridge and Drought
The final item of note about the Hoover Dam is the ever-continuing downward spiral of the water level in Lake Mead. I was again surprised by how much lower it was than the last time we crossed through here. A large upper section of the intake towers for the dam now stand dry, and there is a dramatic 'bathtub-ring' showing the high-point of the Lake Level that extends far up the walls of the canyon on either side upstream of the dam.
Now past the Hoover Dam, we continued south at a now-decent clip down US-93, headed towards the major east-west corridor highway of Interstate 40. In Kingman, where US-93 meets I-40, we made our grocery store stop. Being Easter Sunday, the store had some sort of charity promotion going on that involved donations from customers. With each donation came a distorted announcement over the P.A. system: 'so-and-so has contributed five dollars! Woo-hoo!'. Again, and again, and again. Fortunately, we did not stay long.
With our grocery stop behind us and a clear and uncongested high-speed (75mph) Interstate ahead of us, we now had no major obstacles preventing us from getting to the national park entrance by around 3pm, which would give us lots of relaxed time to complete the day's chores. The temperatures cooled as we slowly climbed onto the Colorado Plateau. By now it was a sunny but windy and cool (only around mid-teens, or 50s F) day.
East on I-40
At Williams, Arizona, we got off the Interstate and turned north, heading along Arizona highway 64 and across the wide, flat expanse of the Kaibab Plateau towards the South Entrance of Grand Canyon National Park. It's always interesting to drive across this large, mostly level plain, and know that somewhere not far ahead in the distance a massive and intricate canyon system -- a wonder of the world -- crosses your path. There is no indication whatsoever at this point.
North on AZ 64
As we approached the South Entrance to the park, we entered the mostly pine and fir forest that is characterstic of the flat terrain that borders the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Again, being in a thick pine forest on mostly level ground is not what one mostly thinks of when one thinks Grand Canyon, but that is what you are treated with as you approach. At the south entrance, we stopped for some obligatory photos at the entrance sign. Obviously a popular activity -- there is a metal post specifically for camera self portraits placed in front of the sign. I was half surprised that there wasn't a camera mount inset into it!
Entrance Sign Shot
First stop was Mather Campground -- the principle campground on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, and quite large. However, unlike our earlier 'gravel parking lot' campground in Death Valley, Mather Campground is rather scenically set amidst the towering pines and firs of the South Rim's forest, and has nice spacious sites. We had no problem fitting our three tents, two vehicles and six people into our spot.
With our campsite secured and everyone well on their way to setting everything up, I bid goodbye so that I could make my way over to the backcountry office and possibly also check out the condition of the road that led to our trailhead. Pu indicated that he'd like to tag along, so we both hopped into the Jeep and told everyone we'd be back in an hour or so.
At the info center, I talked with Michael, a friendly park ranger who gave me the lowdown on our chosen trailhead (known as the Waldron Trailhead). He said the road conditions out to it were actually pretty good. He also mentioned that even though there is some parking space at the trailhead, some sort of informal agreement with a local native-american tribe meant that we weren't supposed to park there overnight. Hmm.... I don't recall this important bit of info being mentioned anywhere online or in my permit literature.
I mused momentarily about what we were going to do. I'd always had a backup plan in mind, which was to switch to the Hermit Trailhead if we couldn't get to the Waldron Trailhead, but it wasn't my first choice - I had chosen the Waldron because it was out-of-the-way, secluded (and I'd never hiked on it before). I felt it would be nice to introduce newcomers to the Grand Canyon with a private first viewing of the Grandness of it, and not along with hundreds of semi-interested passers-by on an overly-eroded mega trail.
As I was thinking these thoughts, ranger Mike piped up and said "but hey, if you really want to start at the Waldron Trailhead, I can drive a few of you there tomorrow morning. It just so happens that I'm heading out there for a dayhike myself". How fortuitous was that, I thought? I graciously accepted his offer. This would mean a slight change in plans, but to our advantage. We could now leave both rental vehicles at the ending point of our backpack, which would inobviate the need for a time-consuming vehicle shuttle at the end of the five days.
Mike also answered my questions about animals getting into hiker food at the backcountry sites. He recommended a chain-mail food bag that was offered for rental at the general store at the Grand Canyon village.
And as a final item, we had a look at the forecast for the next few days. I had been closely monitoring the area's weather during the week up to our trip, and was concerned about a slight rough patch of weather that seemed forecast for the first part of our backpack. Things hadn't changed much since I'd last looked at a forecast. Our first day had a 30% chance of precipitation (even the possibility of flurries), was to be mostly cloudy, and quite breezy - even windy. And cool, too. After that, the second through fifth days of our trip were clear sailing - clear, calm, and with gradually increasing temperatures.
Waldron TH Access Road
As a final comfort point, I wanted to drive out to the Waldron trailhead myself this very afternoon. Even though Mike had reassured us that the road was in good shape, I wanted to drive it myself now in daylight. The drive involves several side roads and turnoffs, and the descriptions online were not 100% clear. In the morning I would need to drive everyone but myself and Jenn to the trailhead ahead of us driving the vehicles back to get our ride from the ranger. I didn't want to screw up and be late for that.
I'm glad we did this test drive. Just finding the right road to access the route out of the Grand Canyon village complex is not at all obvious or well-marked. But soon we were heading south on it: the dirt Rowe Well road. After a few kilomteres of this, we were to turn right onto a smaller access road leading west towards the Waldron trailhead. This also was not marked, but we did spot a Ramada structure (a roofed open-air shelter) at an important intersection along the way -- a landmark that was usefully described in my instructions.
Waldron TH Access Road
The well-graded and packed dirt road leads west through thick pine and fir forest. Occasionally there was a light bit of blowdown, which Pu and I easily removed from the road's path. There were also a number of side roads, all of which we ignored as we drove along. It's actually quite a pleasant little forest drive.
Soon we came to a closed gate and five or six crudely-laid out parking spots on either side. A narrow brown flat metal post stated 'Waldron 0.7' in vertical white letters. Definitely the right spot. Now with a good mental picture (and a good GPS tracklog) of the way to the Waldron Trailhead, we turned around and headed back. We had one last stop to make: the Grand Canyon Village's general store and the rental of those chain-mail mesh bags.
Once at the general store (quite a large place with a fully stocked grocery store, gift shop, fast-food corner, and outdoor gear section), I talked to the rental guy about these mesh bags the ranger had been talking about. They were made with a very fine interlocking metal mesh and a wide big strip of velcro along the top. Simple and reasonable enough, I thought -- until he told me the rental price: $7.00 per day per bag. !! Pretty steep, I thought.
I briefly thought about just buying the bags outright, but they are fairly expensive - $45.00 apiece, and we needed two. After a bit of reluctance, I agreed to rent two bags (just barely enough to store everyone's food). I really didn't want rodents chewing all of our stuff to heck. In the end, the overall rental cost was more than our entire six-person backcountry permit cost. crazy!
Returning to our campsite, we met up with everyone else, who were well along the way to organizing their stuff for tomorrow. Pu and I joined in.
After that, it was time for a tasty camp dinner (mostly of Mountain House dehydrated meals), and a bit of pre-backpack alcholic beverages. The weather continued cool but clear - Secretly, I was hoping we'd escape any precipitation nastiness from tomorrow's 30% chance of snow or rain. In any case, we were pretty much ready for our adventure!
Video clips from the second day of our backpack (click to play)