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Deep dive into the Grand Canyon yields amazing scenery, if not solitude

David Roknic, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Travel News

A few essentials I'd recommend that backpackers bring with them: freeze-dried food, bug spray, sleeping bag and pad, flashlight and first-aid kit. In spring and fall, some seasoned canyon hikers count on the temperate weather and skip the tent. We weren't that brave. The most vital thing you'll need to carry with you is water. On a hot day, you might guzzle a gallon.

HIKING DOWN THE GRAND CANYON

Because the area is so scenic, it's also in high demand. Campsites are stacked like spawning salmon. Be prepared for an experience more like car camping with chatty predawn neighbors and plenty of light pollution from today's high-lumen headlamps. Despite such drawbacks, the once-in-a-lifetime trip to the depths of the canyon is well worth it. Eventually, though, you have to head back up.

We chose the 9.5-mile Bright Angel Trail for our ascent. One of the nation's most heavily traveled backcountry trails, it's better maintained and generally gentler than its neighboring South Kaibab Trail.

After crossing the Silver Bridge over the Colorado, we followed the river to Pipe Creek Beach before turning south (and up) toward Indian Garden Campground, our home for the night. Just as on the South Kaibab, the trail has composting toilets along the way -- an almost unheard of backcountry luxury.

Hardy hikers can climb back to the rim in one day, but bucolic Indian Garden is a welcome way station and a bit less hectic than the canyon bottom. It's worth dropping by the ranger station to enjoy the view from an easy chair on the front porch. If you're lucky, Ranger Betsy may have some snacks or fresh fruit to share.

The gradual ascent out of Indian Garden eased us into the next day, but steep climbs loomed ahead on the way to the rim 3,040 feet above. By the time we reached Three-Mile Resthouse, we'd started to share the trail with day hikers who'd hit the trail early with lofty goals.

Farther up, the trail got distinctly steeper. Even so, we started to pass hordes of casual hikers in less-than-sensible shoes carrying coffee cups and smelling of exotic soaps and shampoos. We were a bit of an anomaly, attracting wide-eyed questions about our hike, unsolicited congratulations and even a sense of awe of the "you must be crazy" variety.

At the top, we were belched into the throng of everyday visitors. We'd returned to the land of souvenir shops, ice cream stands, traffic, tour buses and trains.

If you've ever done true wilderness camping, you may miss that solitude on a trip to the canyon. But you'll have seen one of the world's most stunning natural features -- right down to its guts.

Some people come to conquer the canyon with rim-to-rim runs or multiday backpacking challenges. But when we passed Rawlings, the frequent canyon hiker, as he rested on a rock along the trail, he summed up the key to a visit: "I'm just taking in the view."

(David Roknic is a freelance writer.)

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