While a majority of the SMU community was slowly slipping into a food-induced coma, arguing with relatives or braving the riots at the shopping malls, a few adventurous SMU students were braving something a little different: The SMU Outdoor Adventures Grand Canyon Backpacking Trip.
I, along with fellow trip supervisors Reagan and David Chambers, led 6 SMU students on a 5-day backpacking trip through one of the seven natural wonders and biggest canyons in the world.
Before the fun was to begin, we had to get there – which wasn’t so fun. On Saturday morning, we departed SMU at 8:30 am. 14 hours of driving through west Texas and the New Mexico desert will make any person stir crazy. Like Kansas, the best view of west Texas is in your rear-view mirror.
Thankfully, good conversation and our friend the 21-inch flat-screen TV made the drive a little easier to cope with. A stop at the famous “Cadillac Ranch” in Amarillo gave us some time to stretch our legs and ponder why somebody would want to bury multiple Cadillacs in a field. What was next, the world’s biggest ball of yarn?
Our drive down Interstate 40 hit just about every town on Route 66 – Wichita Falls, Amarillo, Albuquerque and then Gallup, NM, where we stopped for the night to help break up the drive. The next morning, we rose bright and early and headed out for the last few hours of our drive to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. We were making good time – enjoying the views, marveling at the “authentic” Native American trading posts – and then a person who will remain nameless realized he had left all the topographic maps, permits and papers in a bag at the hotel in Gallup … Screeeech, u-turn, 80 miles back to the hotel …
A few extra hours later, we finally arrived at the Grand Canyon – maps in hand. The initial view was enough for all of us to forget the map fiasco and marvel at the splendor of the sweeping canyon views. Your first view of the Grand Canyon is something you will never forget. It is so vast and well … grand. At times you think you are looking at a giant mural. With plenty of touristy pictures on our memory cards, we camped for the night at one of the park’s main campsites, handed out gear, taught all the essential cooking and packing skills and made last-minute preparations for the next morning’s hike.
On Monday morning, we set out down the Grandview Trail for a relatively short 3-mile hike to an area known as Horseshoe Mesa, where we would camp for the night. This short 3 miles slapped us all in the face and made us realize maybe we should have worked out a little more before we left. With narrow switchbacks and 2000 feet of elevation loss, our quads were feeling a bit like grandma’s Thanksgiving Jell-O mold. Nevertheless, we admired the panoramic views and enjoyed the almost perfect weather. Passing by old mine sites and stone ruins, we arrived at our camp and rested our tired legs.
The next day, we made a short hop down another 1000 feet in elevation to Cottonwood Creek. Named for the cottonwood trees that grow along its banks, this creek provided us with the vital water that we needed. Since fall was wrapping up, we were also able to enjoy the yellow leaves of the cottonwoods against the big blue sky and red canyon.
On day 3, we left Cottonwood creek to join up with the Tonto Trail, which runs along a plateau parallel to the Colorado River. This portion of the trail arguably provided some of the best views of the entire trip. Just a few yards from the trail was a 1500-foot drop down to the Colorado River. Combine this with the panoramic views of the buttes and mesas, and you have yourself a picture. 5.5 miles later, we were at our destination for the night – Grapevine Creek. This slick rock canyon once again gave us a beautiful area to camp in for the night and gave us the opportunity to explore a slot canyon.
The next morning, Thanksgiving morning, we all woke up at 5:30 am to the most amazing star-filled sky most of us have ever seen. From horizon to horizon, all you could see were stars. Framed by the canyon, this view was something to remember. The stars got us pumped up for what would be one of the longest and hardest days of the trip – 12 miles. We all tried NOT to remind ourselves that we were hiking a half-marathon with 40 pounds on our back. We also tried not to remember that 99.9 percent of America was gorging on turkey and lounging around the house watching football.
Despite the long hike, the tired muscles and the painful feet, everyone in the group made it to our next campsite – Cremation Canyon. We enjoyed the best Thanksgiving dinner you could possible have in the wilderness. By that, I mean instant stuffing and packaged chicken. Believe me, it was a taste of heaven after the day’s hike.
On our final day, we had another daunting task – 5.5 miles of hiking with over 3000 feet of elevation gain back to the rim. This is never easy, but many of us were still a bit wiped out from the day before. After a 2-mile hike across the final section of the Tonto Trail, we started up the South Kaibab Trail. From here, it was nothing but uphill switchbacks all the way to the top.
One step at a time, we chugged up the dusty trail and passing tourists who gave us funny looks and probably wondered why we smelled so bad. Their looks were usually accompanied by questions (“You’ve been hiking since WHEN?” “You stayed HOW LONG in the Canyon?” … “Wow, those packs look heavy – It’s a looong way to the top!”). Gee, thanks for the encouragement. One of our backpackers even broke wind as a young co-ed passed – we were too tired and focused to comment.
But, as hard as the hike was, the group once again amazed us and made great time to the top. We all collapsed to the ground for a break, loaded up the van, got some souvenir shopping done and then stuffed ourselves at the cafeteria. We then headed to Flagstaff for the night.
On the final day, we woke up at 4:30 am to drive 17 hours back to Dallas from Flagstaff, AZ. This time, the drive was made a little less boring by the fact that 2 inches of snow had fallen across New Mexico and west Texas. Snowball fights ensued and we eventually made it back to Dallas around 10:30 pm.
There is a quote by Edward Abbey that goes: “May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” I can speak for myself and the rest of the group when I say our trails were all of the above. However, the views, memories and experience that we got from those trails made every blister, aching muscle and long mile worth it.