Saying Good-Bye to the Grand Canyon
Like is the case in the Dolomites of Italy, we find our time in the Grand Canyon to be wondrously tranquil. We savor the grandeur of both regions every day while playing hard on their high trails. In both areas, we apply ourselves daily to find an “auspicious” place for our leisurely picnic lunch to again be in awe of nature.
At the Grand Canyon this year, we developed self-appointed, caretaker chores. Each day that we had a view of the Colorado River, we carefully noted the water color. We cheered if it was its characteristically intense green and lamented when it had turned muddy brown from upstream releases. We'd hold our breath each day after a release, hoping the discoloration would be brief and that the river would quickly return to its calming green. And this year, the many controlled burns on the N Rim held our attention. Some days the canyon filled with smoke, other days the smoke was contained on its side of the Colorado with miles-long, trailing plumes. Two days we hiked with visible ash falling on us. We laughed at the simplicity of our daily surveillance duties which were reported to no one
Ick! Where did it go?
In the Palm Springs area, we volunteered as Trail Ambassadors last winter and this fall we informally extended some of our tasks into the Grand Canyon. Realizing that we had more reserve than most hikers on the difficult, inner canyon trails, we felt we could carry bottles of Gatorade to give away to struggling hikers. Unfortunately, we decided to do so after seeing 2 suffering men, one a very withered trail runner. They declined sharing in our water but likely would have accepted a sealed Gatorade.
We checked-in with overwhelmed hikers, sometimes giving out information, usually to women who were more likely to be receptive. We offered tips, like lowering their boot laces and lengthening their poles, to spare their already aching knees on the severe descents. I walked back a short distance to encourage a female backpacker to use the expensive Phantom Ranch duffle service to off-load her heavy pack for their trip up to the Rim the next day. We saw her 2 days later, without her backpack, after having spent an extra night in the campground.
Unlike the ravens, the elk were innocuous Trailer Village visitors.
Different routines would take over for the upcoming 3 months in Palm Springs, but it wouldn’t be as peaceful. Instead of being parked in a spacious scrub forest near the Rim, we’d be in a cramped urban RV park. Almost all of the club hikes that we led or joined would require driving, of which we did little in the Grand Canyon. There would be too-hot days to contend with and many of the views from the trails would be of golf courses and urban sprawl, not of the colorful and mesmerizing Grand Canyon.
But both in the Dolomites and at the Grand Canyon, our summer and fall pleasures vanish with the changing seasons. Both have very limited ideal windows and staying longer doesn’t perpetuate the joy. Compromises are a necessity and we trade stunning panoramas in the fall for warm, dry hiking weather and the company of other strong hikers in the winter.
With our trailer in tow, we bombed south from the Grand Canyon’s high plateaus in Arizona to the desert valleys of southern California in 3 driving days. We were on an urgent mission to put our precious 6 weeks of altitude acclimation to use one more time before it vanished. It was for our last big event of the year, the approximately 20 mile, 10,600’ gain, Cactus-2-Clouds. We did this epic hike from Palm Springs for the first time in October of 2016 and were looking forward to bettering our time of 15 hours, which we did, trimming it back to just over 13 total hours.
Crossing paths with Diana & Juergen on the first of several times.
He also had us chasing them through the Dolomites in a virtual tour, eager to know which places we knew. Many names he recited were familiar though often they had summited peaks that we had hiked around at their base. Like us, they were spending 3 months in Palm Springs, delighting in what they considered killer-prices for lodging and the Tram annual pass compared to the costs in Switzerland. Our time with them was a fun break in the long day and occurred before the overcast skies and strong winds shortened our time at the peak to a photo op.
We finished the day by walking about an hour and a half by headlamp, arriving back at the Tram by 6:30 pm. That left us 3 hours to spare before the last ride off the mountain for the night. The final challenge was hitching a ride back to town. We’ve hitch-hiked more as gray-hairs than we ever did as young adults but have come to like it. The uncertainty is nerve-wracking and at the Tram, it is a question of how long to wait before paying for a ride, but it has also proved to be surprisingly fun.
Here, like on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon where we last hitched a ride, we giggled for hours after the ‘auto stop' experience. We receive rides in these safe venues from people we’d never encounter otherwise. The exchange of dissimilar stories adds a bit of welcome playfulness to the end of long hiking days. During this ride from the lower Tram station to town, another passenger from the area told of making little lassoes using a drinking straw and cord to remove snoozing rattlesnakes wrapped around the heads of sleeping fellow campers! (And yes, we believed her).
Our minimalist footwear is often a conversation starter on tough routes.
We arrived in Palm Springs on Tuesday afternoon; headed out for our Cactus-2-Clouds hike at 4:30 the next morning; attended the hiking club’s hike leader meeting at 4 pm the following day; and I received a massage the day after that. It was quite the tempo change from being in the Flagstaff-Grand Canyon area for almost 6 weeks but it had all gone well, except for the weather.
It had been scorching hot all summer and into the fall in Palm Springs—they had 119 days over 100 degrees—24 days more than last year. We’d postponed our planned mid-October Cactus-2-Cluds event until November because of it. A storm system had finally knocked the temperatures down into the 80’s when we were there starting the 7th of November but by Thanksgiving, it would be back into the 90’s, 20 degrees above average. It’s all too hot for us, so even though we’d booked for 7 nights at our usual RV park, we left for the mountains after 5 nights. We’d take our chances on freezing nights in a forested RV park at 6,600’ near Idyllwild for 2 weeks. It’s on the cooler west side of the mountain and staying there would get us past the late November hot spell in the desert.
Club Hiking From Afar
One of the draws for staying near Idyllwild instead of driving hundreds of miles to other hiking venues was that we’d immediately begin our hiking season with the club we joined a year ago. Many members happily make the hour or more drive from the Coachella Valley to hiking trails on the west side of the San Jacinto Mountains to escape the heat. Our drive time to those same trailheads ranged from 10 to 40 minutes and made it compelling for us to explore a host of new trails on our own and with the club.
The friendly volunteer staffing the non-electrified lookout.
Interestingly, this lookout would be closing for the winter in about 10 days, just before Thanksgiving. Fire season ended there with the seasonal passing of the Santa Ana winds, which are typically in October. Only a few weeks later, during the first week in December, the Santa Ana’s returned with a vengeance. This was the Thomas fire and others that threatened the Getty Museum complex and closed major LA freeways.
A Lesson Learned The Easy Way
Unlike a number of adventurous Coachella Valley Hiking Club (CVHC) members, we’ve never spent an unplanned night on the trail but nonetheless, we are sponges for basic survival tips. One of the counterintuitive notions we retain is that it can be colder at lower elevations than at higher ones. Getting down from peaks to dodge fierce winds for an emergency bivouac is wise but going down into a hollow or a valley can actually be colder.
We had a dramatic illustration of this sometimes inverse relationship between temperature and elevation from the coziness of our warm truck while at Idyllwild. The overnight low of 36 degrees was holding when we left our 6,600’ elevation campground at first light for a roadside Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) junction. We were enjoying the mountain scenery in the early light when we noticed that the temperature displayed on the truck’s instrument panel began to plummet with our descent.
Probably over the course of 10 minutes, the temperature dove from 36 to 21 degrees F. It was dropping so fast that we wondered if perhaps it was actually 15 degrees or colder out but that the gauge couldn’t keep up. It held steady at 21 while we drove through the valley floor pasture that was coated in a heavy frost, the grasses as well as the surrounding trees. With the first slight rise in the road, the temperature slowly drifted to 22, 23, and then 24 degrees.
It was a stunning lesson to see that our mid-mountain campground on a steep slope was 15 degrees warmer than the valley floor 2,000’ lower. The old, counterintuitive wisdom instantly became deeply etched with the strong visual image of the frost and the plummeting displayed temperature. In addition, we had a new regard for the amazingly rapid response our truck's temperature gauge had to the environment changes, a temperature shift we’d never before witnessed.
PCT Mile Post 145
Seven miles into what began as a very cold start in the deep shade on that same frosty morning, I encountered a little sign on a piece of notebook paper pointing off trail to “Walden.” This was a speed hike day: we were hoping to hold a 3 mph or better pace to our turnaround point at 10 miles but we are also clear that engaging with the world is more important than stats. Bill was out of sight a bit behind me. I shut-off my timer, followed the arrow, and shouted to Bill when he cruised by above me.
Trail Angel Mary’s Walden.
Many of the PCT hikers travel from the Canadian to the Mexican border and this was surely the "145 miles to Mexico” spot. (Earlier, we’d seen “150” scribed with stones along the trail.) I thought of what a memory Mary’s oasis must etch in the minds of the through-hikers that had walked about 2,500 miles to reach this point. And I thought of the other touching Trail Angel stories we’d heard, from locals who pack in bottled water to leave for unseen hikers to the women who pick-up cash strapped wannabe’s from nearby airports and drive them to the nearest PCT trailhead. I felt honored to have a silent glimpse another aspect of this hiking subculture, one that we aren’t a part of, though we occasionally walk in their footsteps.
On our return, we delighted in anticipating a stop at Mary’s Walden for our afternoon break. And we were in luck, the picnic table was partially shaded with a nice view of the centerpiece display. Later, we cashed-in on our visit and having paid attention. After a brief chat with a horsewoman our age on the trail, I asked “Are you Mary?”. Indeed, it was Trail Angel Mary on self-appointed trail duty with Gracie. We had a long chat with her about PCT’ers, her Walden, and rattlesnakes. Only later did we think to make a cash donation to her water fund—maybe next time.
Trail Angel Mary & Gracie.
A bit of good luck mixed with a touch of obsessive-compulsive forecast checking made our extended, 19 day stay at Pine Cove near Idyllwild exquisite. We hiked to the San Jacinto Peak for the first time from the west side in 70 degree weather while it was over 90 in Palm Springs a week before our departure. And in a week, snow was in the forecast for Pine Cove. The timing couldn’t have been better!
We’d covered 150 miles in 10 hikes, about 2/3’s of the hikes being done with club members while on the mountain. We’d reconnected with these desert hiking buddies while enjoying new mountain landscapes and vistas. In addition, on our last few days, we repeated the PCT trail with the Walden respite doing two 20 mile days in a row while maintaining a 3 mph pace for the entire 40 miles. That was a first for both speed and endurance and a training event we’d planned to do before doing the Grand Canyon Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim hike the previous month, not after. Better yet, near Idyllwild, we’d found a 3rd place to enjoy our own version of John Denver’s Rocky Mountain high. Predictably, we were reluctant to leave for our December first reservations in Palm Springs.