Indian Garden is where the riders who are overnighting at Phantom Ranch separate from the day riders and embark on their own private adventure. Although they have now come half the distance from the South Rim to Phantom Ranch, a quick look back up at the rim will verify that they have descended two thirds of the total altitude change from the mule corral to the canyon bottom. Most of them will take more than a quick look, however, because from Indian Garden it is difficult to see how that canyon wall could possibly be traveled. But they did it, and they will all feel some degree of pride in their accomplishment. The hard part is over.
The gently sloping trail now follows Garden Creek as it wanders down its narrow channel toward the canyon bottom. It is picture postcard beautiful. The cottonwood and willow trees, the lush riparian vegetation, and the peaceful sound of crystal clear flowing water give them the feeling that a new world has been entered. Considering themselves advanced beyond novice rider status by now, they are secure and comfortable in the saddle and most of them will truly relax and enjoy the ride. Whereas it is common to see bighorn sheep at the top of the trail in the morning, deer are what they are likely to see down here. Being unaccustomed to any threat from humans, the animals in the canyon will simply glance up and then go on about their business. This will be a photo opp for those riders who have never before seen a deer in the wild.
They will all be looking to the left as Garden Creek separates itself from the trail, tumbling rapidly downward and disappearing quickly into a small rocky gorge. As they pass, their attention will again focus forward and it will be mere seconds before they realize that there is nothing but open air in front of them. Hello Devil’s Corkscrew! As they round a sharp bend they will find themselves on the side of a canyon wall, on a narrow ledge, staring down a near vertical drop-off to the valley floor. A valley floor which every one of them will say is at least a thousand feet below, in a canyon large enough be impressive in its own right anywhere but here. A degree of anxiety will return and some will later recall this as the most frightening part of the entire trail. Even Garden Creek had the good sense to detour before it came to this.
At the bottom of Devil’s Corkscrew they will find friendlier ground, again following along the creek as it gently slopes toward its final approach to the river. The wrangler will probably verify that the Colorado River is not far ahead and comfort them with the assurance that the trail plans no more devilish surprises. A few general comments will be heard and they will relax again, now the hard part is over.
The Bright Angel Trail breaks through a small gorge and affords its first view of the Colorado River only when they are literally at the river. There it is, right in front of them. Most of the riders will think it is bigger than it looked in the pictures. All of them will be awed at the energy and power it emanates, and this will be the high point in some memories. As they turn to amble along the comfortable River Trail at the water’s edge, if they hadn’t realized it before, they will now, this is the ride of their life.
Suddenly, exclamations will be heard from the riders in front as they round a knoll in the trail. The Silver Bridge across the river can be seen in the distance, stretching from canyon wall to canyon wall. It is a long, high suspension bridge, and some will probably wonder how they could ever build it in such a remote location. They know this isn’t their route, but they can’t help but say something when they first see it. As they approach the bridge, it is even longer and taller than it first looked, and the large steel mesh floor allows the river torrent to be seen clearly beneath one’s feet. Wow ! A long ways beneath one’s feet! As they file by the end of the bridge, most will be glad they are not crossing the river here, but now the more forward thinking riders will be wondering what the next bridge has to offer, and may even ask their wrangler as much.
As they continue to follow the River Trail to the bridge on the Kaibab Trail, they will begin to realize that they are climbing back up, and that once again the trail has become a narrow ledge on the side of a solid rock canyon wall with a vertical drop that is difficult to ignore. While it may be only a few hundred feet to the bottom this time, the sights and sounds of the powerful Colorado River directly below them add yet another sensation to be remembered.
As they approach the dark entrance to the tunnel, it more resembles a cave than a passage through the rock. Like a giant tube, it curves around just enough to obscure visible light from the other end. Somebody will probably make scary noises in the dim tunnel. The other end of the tunnel is a vertical rock wall with the Kaibab Bridge connected directly to it. One step on the solid rock tunnel floor, the next step on the suspended bridge, with the river directly below them. A long way below them. Is there no end to this adventure? At least this bridge has solid matting on the floor, which comforts mules and riders alike.
Now the hard part really is over. Historic and rustic Phantom Ranch awaits them just up the trail in yet another cozy, cottonwood shaded oasis. After dismounting, the cantina will be the first place the riders hobble to. The cantina is comfortable and inviting and, after they check in, they will sip on cold drinks and begin to share their impressive recollections. These will be private exchanges and they will be quite certain that no outsider could fully appreciate their descriptions. But no matter the beauty they have seen or the magnitude of their adventure, they will be happy to get out of the saddle. Some will probably already be concerned about the probability of discomfort in the morning, on the long ride out of the canyon. It won’t be as bad as they may fear.
Phantom Ranch is nestled in a small draw on the North side of the Colorado River, where the Bright Angel Creek has decided to join the big river . The people are friendly, the food is excellent, and the beds are conducive to deep sleep. The wake up call will come too early for most, but their excitement will begin to rekindle as they step out into the cool morning air. If they can resist overeating the five star breakfast provided to them in the cantina, they will be cheerful and ready for whatever comes. The nervous exuberance of yesterday will be absent today, they are old hands now. When they arrive at the mule corral, few of them will realize that the wrangler has been at work since before daylight rounding up, feeding, and saddling the mules. There will be a few comments as their backsides hit the saddle, but their enthusiasm is again high .
Back across the Kaibab Bridge, back through the tunnel, past the River Trail cutoff, and out of the secluded lower canyon river gorge they climb. Riding uphill is different than riding downhill and most of the riders will find it easier. The red clay trail spirals up steeply in the shade of the early morning, as if to escape the perils of the river as soon as possible. Even so, as the riders will now trust their equestrian skills, it will be a quiet ride up this section of the trail to the rest stop on the edge of the first plateau. From here on, however, the Kaibab Trail will offer a completely unique and superior viewing experience. They are entering camera country.
With the trail now traveling along ridge tops most of the way, the views available to the riders will make them feel that they are on top of the world. Every day, even every hour of the day, the hues and tints across the vast canyon can change. The distant earthtones and pastel colors will transform as they climb, always masking the true rugged nature of the canyon. Each time the trail brings them to a higher plateau, the panoramic vistas are almost indescribable. Each time the river comes into view, it will be farther down and once more begin to resemble a painting rather than reality. The magnitude of the canyon will come back into focus and they will marvel aloud that, only a few hours ago, they were a part of that painting.
It is a near certainty that some of the hikers they pass will be physically stressed. The Kaibab Trail is shorter than the Bright Angel Trail and has more elevation gain. Being steeper, having no fresh water sources, and having precious few shaded rest areas usually catches the uneducated by surprise. They have found that the canyon caters to no one. By now, the riders will be taking for granted the strength, endurance, and trustworthiness of the animals they are riding. The sight of struggling hikers may remind them of their good fortune and prompt a few friendly expressions of gratitude to the mule that has become their friend. A friend who will be indelible in their memories.
As they approach the South Rim near Yaki Point, they will again be tired and somewhat subdued. Overall, the ride today has been quieter and more serene than yesterday. Then, one last time, the canyon will remind them of its superiority, just before it releases them. Near the top, the trail will again force them through a series of switchbacks, climbing steeply up the seemingly vertical rock wall. Once again displaying the characteristics of height and distance which make this a recognized wonder of the world and which caused them so much anxiety yesterday.
One final reminder to them that this is The Grand Canyon. One final verification, as if they needed it, that they have experienced the ride of their life.
by Danny Smith