The Rough Riders Were Not On The Mules
The meeting place was behind the Outlet Mall in the Village of Oak Creek at 5.50 a.m. and it was still dark as we assembled on a clear morning. We joined up in Flagstaff with the group coming from Posse Ground and set off for the drive to the South Kaibab Trail. In the country north of Flagstaff there was heavy snow on the ground and we saw a pack of coyotes just standing by the road side admiring the magic in the first light, just as we were. On arrival at the Park we caught a bus off to the trail head full of hikers and the immediate thought was that it would be a fairly crowded hike, a bit different from Sedona where we normally have the trails virtually to ourselves. In the first two minutes they disappeared - a bit of a mystery as there is really one way to go - that is down and further down.
The first part of the South Kaibab Trail was easy but as we turned the second corner we hit snow and compacted ice. There was a consultation as to whether to put on crampons, the metal fittings to the bottom of one’s boots, to stop sliding. Most decided to do so but two hardy souls decided to battle on without and their decision was probably justified as on this trail the snow and ice petered out in about three hundred yards, leaving us free to see the views. The South Kaibab Trail descends a ridge jutting out into the Canyon and the views to the Tonto formation most of the way to the bottom of the Canyon and to the snow covered North Rim are truly spectacular. No need for an American Sublime painting, we had the real thing.
On the way down we came across various flat spaces where mules can be tethered. There was a large amount of maintenance being carried out by groups of volunteers, whose supplies were provided by the animals. It struck us that the mule drivers had the better part of the deal as they get to ride the mules, the volunteers having to climb from their camp ground at Skeleton Point.
On the Tonto platform we turned on to the Tonto trail, which meanders along for seventy to ninety miles, depending on definition. The Tonto is a relatively flat platform that extends sometimes over a mile before the final drop into the steep Inner Canyon and the Colorado River. We walked over four miles of the Trail to connect with the Bright Angel Trail. The Tonto Trail at times gave us tantalizing glimpses of Phantom Ranch and the river far below, before the next turn would block them from our sight. Among the dry surrounds of the Tonto Trail we came across an oasis of a creek with flowing water and trees already in bloom and had our well earned lunch. Most boots came off!
Then the buzz of Indian Gardens, which received its name as Indians farmed there sustained by its all year round water. Now it gets its water piped from the North Rim. The fun was over and it was time to hike back up. Above us we could see the rim and occasionally the trail which seemed to climb forever. We began to climb, passing the water stations that only open in summer, tempting but unavailable. About one and a half miles from the top we hit the snow and ice again and this time were only too glad to put our crampons back on. By the time we got to the top the ice was over two feet thick. As we struggled up we passed a climber with an impossible load, several sleeping bags, cooking utensils, even a sieve, and taking tiny paces, but he was near the top and the worst for him was over so we did not intervene. At last, and seemingly after many more miles on the way up than on the way down we were at the top. We had covered over sixteen miles and well deserved our stop for a meal in Flagstaff on the way home.
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