Braving the “Big Ditch”
“The Grand Canyon startled me.”……..
This was the first impression of Harvey Butchart, the NAU Professor of Mathematics who explored more, hiked more, and knew more about the Grand Canyon than perhaps any other non-native American. Written in 1945, it remains a fitting description of what hikers experience when, arriving at the Rim, the get their first look down into one of the worlds greatest desert canyons. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer wildness of the place. The landscape seems ferocious, and trails look like vertical scars on the canyon walls. Distances seem immense, straight line travel is impossible, and, always, the sun bakes every nook and cranny. And yet, the history of the Canyon is a history of fearless exploration, from the Havasupai to John Wesley Powell, Butchart, and Colin Fletcher. Modern hikers wait months for permits just to add their own sweat and toil to those that came before, confident that down in the Canyon waits the experience of a lifetime.
Recently, seven Sedona Westerners visited the Grand Canyon for a Saturday Roughrider hike that descended the Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point. The Bright Angel Trail is the most popular trail off the South Rim. Heavy mule traffic had always made this a rough trail, but recent changes have routed the mules elsewhere and the trail condition has greatly improved. Rest houses, toilets, and water sources are available every 1.5 miles. After 4.6 miles of switch-backing descent, the hikers arrived at Indian Gardens. Initially a Havasupai seasonal farming community, Indian Gardens is now a ranger station and campground, with towering cottonwoods shading Garden Creek. Hike leaders Bill Johnson and Mike Holmes were smart enough to call for a break at this little oasis, because from Indian Gardens the route to Plateau Point traverses the parched, sun-baked, treeless expanse of the Tonto Platform.
Plateau Point, at 6.1 miles and 3500 feet of descent from the Bright Angel trailhead, offers strong day-hikers a spectacular destination. From the cliff-top the Westerners could look straight down to the Colorado River 1200 feet below as it surges through the Upper Granite Gorge. The Granite Gorge, composed of 1.7 billion year old rock, confines the river along much of its length through the Grand Canyon and has always presented a challenging barrier to adventurers trying to reach the river. Powell, on his 1869 expedition through the Canyon, called it “our granite prison”. The Westerners were happy to turn around here and start the slow and steady climb back to the rim.
A twelve mile day-hike on an established trail was a great way for the Westerners to safely experience a portion of the wild and unforgiving wonder that is the Grand Canyon. Tired and dusty back on top, cold beverages in hand, we offered a toast to the countless Native-Americans, explorers, prospectors, and rangers whose courage made it possible for our group to dip our toes into the “Big Ditch”.