South Kaibab-Bright Angel Loop — Page 5

Switchbacks Below Skeleton Point

Tonto Plateau

The genesis of the South Kaibab Trail, interestingly enough, is closely tied to its neighbor to the north, the legendary Bright Angel Trail, which was once owned by Ralph Cameron.

In the early 1900's Cameron had the ingenuity to employ a mining claim to turn the trail into his own personal toll road. Cameron fought a pitched legal battle over several decades to keep ownership (and visiting tourists' dollars), during which time the South Kaibab and Hermit trails were built to provide park visitors with a free alternative.

Exposure Descending Through Redwall Nearing the Tonto Plateau The Tipoff Redwall Limestone Formation Emergency Phone

In this way, a Grand Canyon park brochure wryly notes, "Cameron inadvertently contributed much to the greater network of trails currently available for use by canyon visitors."

Below Skeleton Point, the South Kaibab reaches perhaps its most dramatic section, descending precipitously via a series of sharp switchbacks blasted directly out of the canyon's sheer Redwall Limestone cliffs.

We get a nice peek at the Colorado River here, plus a glimpse of Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Campground, all of which lie some 1500 vertical feet below—so close and yet so far!

To the north, sharp eyes will also be able to see a sliver of the Bright Angel Trail winding up out of Pipe Creek Canyon and the Inner Gorge.

I've been feeling strong and fast thus far, but as I begin working my way down the steep switchbacks through the Redwall, I'm suddenly aware the day is getting hot.

Sweat is starting to get into my eyes, and I feel a touch of a headache developing.

It's a sign that I need to take a break and eat and drink more.

It's also kind of alarming, as after all I'm going down, not up. One would hope not to overheat during what is supposed to be the easiest part of the hike.

But remember: muscles work hard going down as well as up. The constant negative contraction of my quad muscles is generating a lot of heat, which my body must work to dissipate in an ever-increasingly hot ambient environment.

There are things we can do to compensate. Slowing down is the easiest and most practical option. Stopping and resting in a shady place (if you can find one!) is a fine idea as well.

In fact, hiding in the shade is your very best weapon.

If all goes to hell, drink a little water, pour a little water on your head, and curl up in the shade behind a boulder until the sun goes down. It might just keep you alive. After Skeleton Point's switchbacks I am at last on the Tonto Plateau, one of the Grand Canyon's most prominent features. The Tonto extends across much of the length of the canyon, a broad desert plain above the Inner Gorge.

If there was any question earlier about the time of year it is gone now. Here on the parched, windless Tonto, the day feels every bit like a sunny August morning with the broiler turned up high. The south rim's cool breezes and Ponderosa Pines are a distant memory now. Just ahead now is the 'Tipoff', which features a pit toilet and—appropriately—an emergency phone. I eye the isolated white clouds drifting across the bright blue sky overhead, still hoping some sort of shade will appear as the day develops. But the odds aren't looking favorable.

Here at the Tipoff, the South Kaibab Trail intersects with the east-west Tonto Trail. It's possible to cut the loop short here and avoid the Inner Gorge entirely by taking the Tonto Trail west to Indian Garden (and water) and the Bright Angel trail. Be aware, however, that the route from here to Indian Garden is a long, hot, and dry four miles, and you'll likely be alone for the whole of it. Whichever way you go, you're a long way down now. Finding water—and staying cool—are the priorities.

next: The Inner Gorge

About SierraDescents

When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.

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