South Kaibab-Bright Angel Loop — Page 6

Grand Canyon - Inner Gorge

The Inner Gorge

Steep, deep, and darkly-hued, Grand Canyon's Inner Gorge is an otherworldly landscape carved through metamorphic rock that is between 1.6 and 1.8 billion years old.

At the overlook just beyond Tipoff, the upper canyon's inviting reds, yellows, and oranges abruptly give way to Stygian blacks and garish hot pinks composed of Vishnu Schist and Zoroaster Granite forged deep within the Precambrian-era Earth.

Hiker and Gorge Andy Lewicky in the Inner Gorge Colorado River & Black Bridge River Trail Intersection The Tunnel to Black Bridge Black Bridge & Colorado River

For the uninitiated canyon hiker, the Inner Gorge is yet another of Grand Canyon's seemingly endless surprises.

Not only does the gorge not in the least resemble the rest of the canyon, which is in itself disorienting, here you will find the canyon's hottest, most merciless temperatures, much worsened by the oppressive heat radiating off the Inner Gorge's dark rock.

To those who've spent some time in the mountains, the gorge's sharp vertical faces and spires may recall an Alpine landscape—sans snow.

And, as you'd expect where the land is dominated by sheer granite walls, travel off-trail here demands not merely hiking or even scrambling, but technical rock climbing skills, assuming you're lucky enough to chose a line where a climbing route exists.

Nonetheless, drawn by the sight of the nearby river, hikers in trouble do historically abandon trails here, trying to get to the water faster. Do not follow their example lest you share their fate: stay on the trail.

As I descend into the Inner Gorge, I am unquestionably sweating more than planned. It's ten a.m., still well before the hottest time of the day, and despite my best efforts I'm probably already veering toward dehydration.

The cool Colorado and Phantom Ranch's green Cottonwoods beckon, but first there are many switchbacks to be navigated above. I know I'll get there safely, but as the temperature continues to climb, thoughts of making it back out are starting to weigh upon my mind.

Climbing out of the gorge today won't be easy.

Down, down, down I go. The South Kaibab here follows the remnants of an earlier trail called the Cable Trail, built to access the old cable car system which was used to cross the river before Black Bridge was constructed, in 1928.

The trail's switchbacks continue down a pink granite buttress, stacked seemingly right on top of each other. At last, I reach the bottom of the switchbacks, and the intersection of the South Kaibab and River Trails. I could take the River Trail directly to the Bright Angel from here, bypassing Phantom Ranch, but it is worth it to go the extra distance for several reasons. Most importantly, Phantom Ranch is an excellent place to recharge and rehydrate yourself.

It's easy, with the sun beating down on you, to get into a sort of funk where you don't actually realize how hot, tired, and thirsty you actually are. Forgoing the extra 1/2 mile or so to Phantom might be penny-wise, but the rest you get there could well be invaluable when it comes time to climb back home. If that's not enough to motivate you, they have lemonade on ice at the general store—perfect for cooling your already-overcooked brain.

Phantom Ranch is also a strikingly beautiful place, an unlikely oasis in the midst of the canyon's hostile depths. Technically the river is the official endpoint of a rim to river hike, but I'm not stopping here. I turn right at the River Trail junction, heading into the tunnel that leads to Black Bridge and the Colorado River. I've made it halfway: I'm at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

next: Phantom Ranch

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.

Pray for snow.