Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Plateau Point (Bright Angel Trail)

Colorado River flows through the Grand Canyon's Granite Gorge below Plateau Point, Tower of Set in the distance
12 miles round trip, 3250 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous; uphill on return, possibility of searing temperatures and dehydration
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Grand Canyon National Park entrance fee required

Plateau Point is a hair-raising viewpoint in the heart of the Grand Canyon, situated directly above the Colorado River beneath the towering spires of the canyon's soaring temples and buttes. Reaching Plateau Point involves a hike down the Bright Angel Trail from the canyon's South Rim, an extraordinary hike that delivers the perspective necessary to comprehend the magnitude of the Grand Canyon. This hike is a remarkable way- simultaneously intimate and grand- to experience one of the planet's geological wonders.

Hiking into the Grand Canyon is a strenuous physical activity. If you're not a regular hiker, you should exercise extreme caution in picking your destination in the canyon. The descent into the canyon can be deceptively easy and mask the difficulty of hiking up from the canyon; each year, Grand Canyon National Park mounts hundreds of rescues to bring out hikers who descend too far and struggle to return to the Rim. Choosing to hike deep into the canyon without having a good gauge of one's physical abilities is the height of irresponsibility and can endanger your life. Casual day hikers can consider hiking down and back from the Mile-and-a-half Rest House but the hike to Plateau Point should only be attempted by experienced and fit hikers. If you've never hiked a trail as long as 12 miles round trip with over 3000 feet of elevation gain, this should not be the first place you attempt to do so.

Additionally, the National Park Service emphasizes that the round trip down the Bright Angel Trail to the Colorado River is not a day hike. I didn't attempt to go all the way down to the river, but based on my experience with Plateau Point, I will say that I think it is plausibly doable for very fit hikers; if you have to wonder about whether or not you can do it, you probably shouldn't.

During summer, heat is an extreme hazard at the Grand Canyon. Temperatures are much warmer in the lower elevations of the inner canyon than at the rim and there's very little shade in the canyon itself. During winter, daylight hours are short and ice and snow may often cover the upper portions of the trail, making traction devices such as Yaktrax or microspikes a necessity. Additionally, potable water sources at One-and-a-half Mile Rest House and Three Mile Rest House are turned off for the winter. Check with the National Park Service on conditions before you hike.

As this hike description will mainly describe my hike out to Plateau Point, you can gain an idea of the difficulty of ascents on the return based on descriptions of the grade of descent on the way down. Overall, you should expect constant ascending grades from Indian Garden back to the Rim.

I hiked the Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point during a brief January visit to the Grand Canyon. I parked at the Bright Angel Lodge in Grand Canyon Village and walked slightly west along the rim from the lodge past Lookout and Kolb Studios to reach the trailhead of the Bright Angel Trail, next to a mule pen.

The trail made a short switchback as it began dropping downhill before joining up with a spur trail that led up to Kolb Studio. From here, the trail continued to descend, making a long switchback through the Kaibab Limestone that formed the top layer of the many sedimentary layers of the Grand Canyon. The trail passed through a small tunnel blasted through a fin of Kaibab Limestone as it followed a path blasted out into the rock cliff face. The slopes were almost continuously open, allowing for great views out into the canyon.

Grand Canyon from atop the Bright Angel Trail
The Grand Canyon is a incredible record of geological history. The hike down the Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point starts in limestone laid in the Permian Period, about 250 million years ago, and cuts down to sandstone laid in the Cambrian Period, over 500 million years ago. Each intervening sedimentary layer has been almost perfectly preserved in position during the uplift of the Colorado Plateau. The layers passed along this trail, in descending order, are the thick cliff-forming Kaibab Limestone; the thin, slope-forming Toroweap Formation; the thick, cream-colored cliff-forming Coconino Sandstone, one of the most impressive formations in the canyon; the slope-forming red Hermit Formation; the multi-layered and generally sloping red Supai Group that is topped by a thinner cliff-forming unit, the Esplanade Sandstone; the thick and sheer cliffs of the Redwall Limestone; and the Tonto Group, of which the bottom-most layer is the hard and erosion-resistant Tapeats Sandstone, which forms the flat Tonto Platform in the inner canyon. Below the Tapeats Sandstone is the Great Unconformity, marking an over 1 billion year shift in the geological record to the ancient Vishnu Schist that forms the basement of the Grand Canyon.

Descending into the Grand Canyon is a difficult proposition because of the many cliff-forming sedimentary layers in the canyon walls. The Bright Angel Trail tackles the three major cliff-forming units- the Kaibab, the Coconino, and the Redwall- by taking advantages of layer mismatches resulting from a small fault. The trail is thus able to minimize the amount of time traversing blasted cliff faces by constantly switching sides of the fault to maximize time spent in slope-forming layers.

After switchbacking through the Kaibab and the Toroweap Formations, the trail descended into the Coconino Formation. For a brief stretch, the trail was cut directly into a cliff of Coconino Sandstone and included a section in which a tunnel had been blasted through this towering sandstone.

Tunnel on the Bright Angel Trail blasted through Coconino Sandstone
From the rim, it is difficult to appreciate the true magnitude of the Grand Canyon. Hiking through the Coconino Sandstone with its five hundred-foot tall cliffs finally makes clear the canyon's extraordinary size. Rim views are deceiving: our brains are unable to process sights such as the Grand Canyon and viewing the canyon from above may give the whole scene a surreal and almost toy-like feel. Yet being in the canyon and seeing the Coconino Sandstone tower hundreds of feet overhead, dwarfing other hikers, one starts to comprehend the size of it all. I felt the same wonder that Coronado's men must have felt when they became the first Europeans to descend into the canyon and realized that large rocks they had thought to be the size of men were actually as tall as the greatest towers and domes of Europe.

The Coconino Sandstone of the Grand Canyon
After cutting through the Coconino Sandstone, the trail began to head north as it descended into the Hermit Formation. Here, I came to the Mile-and-a-half Rest House, a small shelter with a nearby restroom. As the name suggested, this shelter was a mile and a half down the Bright Angel Trail from the rim, marking one quarter of the way out to Plateau Point. In summer, there is potable water at the resthouse; in winter, the water is turned off to prevent pipes from freezing. For most dayhikers, this is an excellent point at which to turn around and return to the rim; it's already 1000 feet lower in elevation from the canyon rim.

Mile-and-a-half Rest House
Past the Mile-and-a-half Rest House, the trail continued its steady descent, soon entering into the Supai Group, a set of largely slope-forming layers that are a beautiful red color, one of the principal sources of the canyon's broad palette. While hiking through the Supai Group, I encountered a mule team descending the trail towards Phantom Ranch. Mules have been one of the most reliable ways to move people and supplies up and down through the canyon.

Mules descending into the canyon
The Bright Angel Trail is today built atop former Havasupai paths into the canyon, which were widened by Ralph Henry Cameron, a European American prospector who staked a land claim at the canyon rim. While Cameron was initially interested in the canyon as a source of mineral wealth, he soon came to see tourism as a lucrative endeavor. Cameron widened the Bright Angel Trail and began charging early visitors tolls to hike down into the canyon. Cameron vigorously opposed the establishment of a national park at the Grand Canyon due to the potential revenue it could generate in private hands through tourism and resource extraction. The opposition of Cameron and other local settlers delayed the passage of a national park bill on the Grand Canyon in Congress; although the park was first proposed by Benjamin Harrison in 1882, it was not until 1919 that Congress finally established Grand Canyon National Park. The backbone of park opposition was only finally weakened when Theodore Roosevelt established Grand Canyon National Monument using the Antiquities Act at the end of this second term. Without the strong executive power granted by the act that allowed Roosevelt to unilaterally move to protect the Grand Canyon, it's unclear whether the Grand Canyon would be preserved in the condition we see today.

The Supai layers were thick and took most of 1.5 miles to hike through. After the trail had cut down through most of the Supai Group by switchbacks, it came to the Three Mile Rest House, which was 3 miles down from the rim as the name suggests. Here, there was once again a shelter and a restroom; a thermometer at the rest house allows summer visitors to gauge the heat in the canyon. Three Mile Rest House is just over 2000 feet downhill from the rim; only fit hikers should continue past this point.

Three Mile Rest House
Past Three Mile Rest House, the trail descended into the Redwall Limestone, a towering, dark red cliff-forming formation. The trail negotiated this descent with a set of extremely tight switchbacks, packed onto the narrow slopes of the canyon. Whereas most hikers on the upper portions of the trail had been day hikers, most of the hikers I encountered from here on were backpackers coming up from the river.

Switchbacks on the Bright Angel Trail in the Redwall Limestone
At the bottom of the Redwall Limestone, the trail reached the gentler slopes of the Tonto Group. With the steepest part of the descent behind me, I continued gently downhill through the slopes of Muav Limestone. At this point, trailside vegetation had changed completely from what it had been at the rim. While the hike started amongst ponderosa pine and junipers, here I hiked alongside catclaw, prickly pear, and Mormon Tea, plants more common to the low elevations of the Sonoran Desert than to the highlands of the Colorado Plateau.

Looking up, the cliff-forming layers of the canyon walls towered one above the other. The Kaibab and Coconino Formations, which had appeared so majestic when I had descended through them, were now far enough away that I no longer had a good sense of their size; it amazed me that this canyon could make even the mightiest cliffs seem diminished.

Kaibab, Coconino, and Redwall Formations viewed from the inner canyon
4.5 miles from the trailhead, I came to Indian Garden, an oasis in this desert canyon. At Indian Garden, the nonporous underlying Bright Angel Shale forces groundwater to the surface. Surface water supports a grove of cottonwoods, a lush patch in an otherwise dry landscape. The Indian Garden area was actually quite developed, with water pumping stations, a ranger station, restrooms, year-round potable water, and a backpackers' campground. The cottonwood trees at Indian Garden still clung onto a few autumn leaves, allowing me to see desert fall foliage in January.

Cottonwoods of Indian Garden
Indian Garden marked the end of significant descent into the canyon; the remainder of the trail to Plateau Point was mostly flat, with only slight ascents and descents. At the far end of the Indian Garden area, just past the restrooms and water fountains, the Bright Angel Trail came to an intersection with the Tonto Trail West. Here, I left the Bright Angel Trail, instead taking the left fork towards the Tonto Trail and Plateau Point. While the Bright Angel Trail continued descending towards Phantom Ranch, the Plateau Point route instead stayed on the Tonto Platform.

The Tonto Trail crossed a stream and then entered the desert slopes of the Tonto Platform. Ahead, views of the inner canyon opened up as I finally hiked out of the side canyon to which the Bright Angel Trail had been confined. After hiking all morning in the shadows of the canyon, I now finally entered the sun.

Leaving Indian Garden on the Tonto Trail
About three-quarters of a mile out from Indian Garden, the Tonto Trail split from the Plateau Point Trail; I stayed to the right at this junction to continue out towards Plateau Point. Plateau Point's name comes from its position on a particularly flat section of the Tonto Platform in the inner canyon. This plateau is formed due to erosion-resistant nature of the underlying Tapeats Sandstone, which forms the base layer of the Colorado Plateau's many sedimentary layers.

Agave and desert vegetation populate the inner canyon on the Tonto Platform
Out on the Tonto Platform, the trail was flat and dry, surrounded by catclaw, prickly pear, and agave. Great cliffs rose on all sides: the Battleship, the Tower of Set, Cheops Pyramid, Isis Temple, Buddha Temple, Brahma Temple, and Zoroaster Temple were just some of the soaring buttes that filled the view. Looking back towards the South Rim, I could now spot the distinct promontories of Hopi Point, Yavapai Point, and Yaki Point. Indian Garden was also visible, a lone clump of trees at the bottom of a wash.

Looking back from the Tonto Platform towards Indian Garden
A mile and a half past Indian Garden- six miles from the trailhead- I found myself at the edge of a cliff, high above the Colorado River. Above me soared the grandest buttes and temples, shaped into spires by five million years of erosion. Below, the Colorado River- mighty, raging, and ever-patient- continued to cut though Granite Gorge, eating away at the Earth's crust as it eagerly charged towards its final resting place in the Sea of Cortez. The raw cut of the Vishnu Schist below Plateau Point was a stark contrast with the clean layers of sedimentary rock that composed the upper reaches of the canyon. The power of the Colorado River, the magnitude of what water can do given time, was sublime and terrifying.

The Colorado River flows though Granite Gorge beneath Buddha, Brahma, and Zoroaster Temples
As I gazed out into the abyss from Plateau Point, I saw a number of rafts make their way through churning rapids on the Colorado in Granite Gorge.

Rafts in Granite Gorge on the Colorado River
I arrived at Plateau Point in the middle of the day; although I initially saw few other hikers, by the time I left a steady stream of hikers was arriving. Still, the crowds here were thin compared to those at the rim or higher up on the trail. Squirrels at the point were remarkably bold, making repeated raids into the backpacks of many hikers; don't leave your gear alone when you're here.

Standing 1500 feet above the Colorado River, deep in the heart of the Grand Canyon raised some complex emotions for me. The scene was undeniably beautiful, but also inspired some feeling of fear and awe at the magnitude and rawness of the canyon. You'll have to make it out to Plateau Point to experience it for yourself.

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