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Hey Siri–is it possible to hike down into the Grand Canyon barefoot in winter?

January 27, 2019
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Barefoot in winter down in Grand Canyon: not only feasible, but fabulous. So much for the suspense factor. You’re welcome.

I just googled (sorry Siri . . . I don’t have a smart phone) the question in the title of this post. Doin’ my research, ya know.

It’s just as well I didn’t think to ask this BEFORE I attempted to trek down Bright Angel Trail to Phantom Ranch two days ago; there’s just not a heck-of-a-lot of info about hiking Grand Canyon barefoot any time of year, let alone shoe-less-ly in winter, when temps at the rim are in the teens (F) at night, and barely get to 40 at noon.  And I’m the kind of heat-seeking softie who doesn’t like to go trail running here in So Cal if it’s below 60 F. Brrr.

 

However, by using my past experience hiking in the Canyon as well as some plain old common sense, I figured I should be able to successfully navigate Bright Angel Trail in time for the 6:30 pm seating at the Phantom Ranch Canteen’s stew dinner. Mmmm. Stew. And chocolate cake for dessert . . . a legendary Phantom Ranch dessert that tastes ridiculously delicious (unlike Lucky Charms, which are magically delicious).

That I even had a spot to stay, and a place at the table, was nothing short of miraculous–I’d been taking a class all week at the South Rim to become an NAI CIG Certified Interpretive Guide  to open up outdoor education teaching opportunities later this year.

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As the week wore on, days of sitting in a classroom (OK, we played a lot of games as well) compelled me to plot a reward for the end of my week: after my final presentation Friday morning, I’d stroll down to Phantom Ranch for the night before strolling back up to my car for the eight hour sit-fest/drive back to So Cal.

Here’s where the miracle comes into play: with the new reservation system in place, people have to cancel their Phantom Ranch lodging so far in advance (45 days, I think), that there are few opportunities any more to pick up a last-minute cancellation.

Since I was here for the class anyway, though, I prayed and gave it a try. (The process involves calling the day before at exactly 6 am to get on the wait list, then showing up at exactly 7 am the next day at Bright Angel Lodge to be there if any rooms are unclaimed for the coming night.) Voila! One bunk was available in the one of the women’s dorms.

(Too bad they didn’t warn me that one of my dorm-mates would be a world class snorer.)

Dorm reservations made (dinner too. What the heck)  I set off late Friday morning and hustled my way down the first couple of miles of frozen snow and slick ice. (I guess there’s a difference? The trail just seemed really slippery.)

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With ten-year-old YakTrax strangling my feet through my flexible Sockwas–which offered very little in the way of insulation from the frozen trail–I was super motivated to pretty much jog the first miles, using my poles for balance and rarely even slipping, much less sliding to my death off the icy trail. Thank you, YakTrax.

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But my toes were getting strangled and going numb and I kept thinking, “One more switchback and the ice will be done.”

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The thing about the South Rim of the Grand Canyon is, it faces north so it gets no sun this time of year; thus the snow has no incentive to melt and turn the trail to mushy red mud except that one spot not too far below the first tunnel that does get sun and wow what a mucky muddy mess that was . . .

Past the ice-rink switchbacks finally, I gave the shady, snowless trail a tentative pat with my hand. Nice trail. But still too cold for my unacclimated soles.

 

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Eventually, though, about a quarter mile before Indian Garden, the trail wound its way into the sun and then unspooled as a cactus-lined promenade straight toward the cluster of cottonwoods that shine so vivid green in the summer but in winter stand ghostly gray against the red cliffs.

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Time to stow my shoes. Let the barefoot fun commence (after picking up a bit of micro trash).

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Below Indian Garden the trail crosses the cheerfully singing Garden Creek and then Pipe Creek . . . springfed, not snow melt, soothing in sound and sensation. And guess who doesn’t have to worry about wet shoes?

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Summer or winter, the mules are as dependable a sight on the trail as . . . mule poop.

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The following photo is to remind us all how ridiculous YouTube is for “censoring” (age-restricting) one of my videos for what I can only guess is their censor’s personal horse poop phobia.

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So much fun to be had on the undulating, fascinating, geologicating nine miles of Bright Angel Trail:

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Shale, yeah!

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People with shoes complain along this section of trail  because sand might be making its itchy-scratchy way into their footwear.

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Balancing shenanigans above the mighty Colorado River; the Silver Bridge in foreground, the Black Bridge (S. Kaibab Trail) spans the river upstream a ways  . . . 

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The Silver Bridge: not engineered for barefoot comfort . . . 

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The view from the middle of the Silver Bridge.

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Progress: The new critter-proof food boxes in Bright Angel campground instead of the former plain old ammo boxes.

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Ranger station at Phantom Ranch during “The Big Gov Shutdown of 2019”

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The Phantom Ranch Canteen before the hungry hordes arrive for dinner . . . 

. . . and where THE CHOCOLATE CAKE had been replaced with spice cake. This is NOT OK!

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Chilly morning temps as I made my way past the campground and back to the Bright Angel Trail.

 

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These little packets made all the difference in my gloves and socks.

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Not an official super moon, but still pretty super . . . 

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Sitting on the icy trail contemplating shoe choices for the last couple of slidy miles.

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This is the composting toilet 1.5 miles from the trailhead at the South Rim, meaning . . . only 1.5 miles to go till the hike is over . . . a bittersweet feeling. 

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Everyone’s friend Victor Vomit serves as an example for all of us. (Yikes)

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Once at the top, the only thing left to do is ask a nearby tourist to take a photo. Yay wandering tourists . . . 

And here I am: back at home, back at my computer, having a bit of trouble walking down the stairs today which I blame on 18 miles of trail with about two miles of vertical in two days, followed by an eight-hour drive.

To re-cap: yes, it’s not only possible but pleasurable to hike below the rim at Grand Canyon in the winter with the following adaptive caveats: footwear and traction devices (Sockwas and YakTrax for me) for the higher elevation icy trails, and some kind of bottom-of-foot insulation (my Merrell Pipidae Wrap sandals worked fine) for the lower elevation early morning trails.

Anywhere the sun is shining on the trail is fantastic, the opposite of summer when a sunny trail surface can fry eggs AND your feet for brunch.

Happy Barefoot Winter Trails! This month marks the 9th anniversary of losing my shoes on the trail . . . feeling much gratitude!

 

 

 

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 29, 2019 4:21 pm

    Sorry about the spice cake. I know how much chocolate means to you. Glad there were no trips or slips on the icy trail. Also, cool picture of the deer jumping the fence (you didn’t caption that one.)

  2. Bob G. permalink
    January 28, 2019 6:03 am

    Hi Thea…..looks like another great time, and during a different season. Good job with the NAI CIG class. A deeper connection for those willing to stop and listen. Love the shot of Old Glory with all that lit-up Big America behind it….Washington DC seems a million miles away.
    Your photos always start Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite playing in my head…..
    Best….Bob G.

    • January 29, 2019 6:04 am

      Thanks, Bob . . . I always appreciate your responses . . . and a big “Yes” to all of the above that you mentioned 🙂

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