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Bright Angel Trail – Grand Canyon

Descending hike on the Bright Angel Trail view from the Upper Tunnel - Grand
Descending hike on the Bright Angel Trail view from the Upper Tunnel area – Grand Canyon, Arizona

I started the descent on the Bright Angel Trail about seven hours from sunset. I calculated that I would do an average twenty-five minutes per mile on the descending hike, but would probably double that time on the ascending hike. If I hiked down to the three miles point I would need approximately four hours to complete my round trip; that would not account for rest stops and stopping for pictures. Based on the Hiking and Camping Destinations pamphlet listing the trails, with the time I had for a day hike I could reach the 3-Mile Resthouse. The Resthouse, located three miles on the descent sitting at the 2120 feet elevation change from the top, has a round trip of six miles with an estimated time of four to six hours.

On the descent at Bright Angel Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
On the descent at Bright Angel Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona
View from the Bright Angel Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
View from the Bright Angel Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona

The Bright Angel Campground elevation change from the trailhead is 4340 feet with a nineteen miles round trip. The minimum time recommended for the round trip is two days. Warning signs highlight that people who have attempted the round trip in one day have experienced health related accidents or have died. As it was early Spring, the average temperatures at the top were in the low 30 F degrees, rising at lower altitudes toward the river. Temperatures at the river level average about twenty degrees higher than at the top. About two miles into my hike it became very windy which made it feel colder than the actual 40 F degrees at that point. One of the brochures notes that the Bright Angel Trail is the “easiest” trail, “but still incredibly steep.” The sudden drop in altitude is felt at each step taken, which makes for a faster hike down with high impact on the joints. Hiking poles are essential here! Hiking out will take twice as long or longer as the gain in altitude makes it steadily steep.

Bright Angel Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
Bright Angel Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona

Captivating views, a relatively ease and surely fast descent mislead those who are not exactly what would be called experienced hikers, but tourists turned into accidental hikers who go too far down in the hike not realizing how much physical preparedness is required on the way out. ‘Far’ in this case is an absolute relative concept! Five hundred feet can be treacherous and challenging to too many people I passed on my way down. Posted warning signs and advises on pamphlets are not to be taken lightly nor ignored. In a jokingly way, the challenge of the trails in the Grand Canyon is well summarized on a t-shirt for sale at the gift shop which reads “Going In Is Optional; Coming Out is Mandatory”, or something along those lines. As I continued to descend I saw pain stamped on some faces and at the same time I saw guilt written on the faces of those who brought their elderly parents and grandparents down for a stroll. That’s what the viewpoints are for!

About half a mile down the trail became at least half crowded and by the time I reached the one mile mark I had the trail almost entirely to myself. It was also at that point that the wind was blasting against the cliff walls. Blowing gusts forced me to make some stops and exercise added caution as the wind was blowing and pushing against my back. I went an extra mile down from the 3-Mile Resthouse as I averaged about twenty minutes per mile taking one hour and twenty minutes on the four miles descent. Rested, I turned around to ascend as the sun was still high at three o’clock. I could comfortably reach the top in four hours or so enjoying the sunset and the landscape changing colors as a rosy sun lit the rocky formations in different angles.

Sunset at the Bright Angel Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
Sunset at the Bright Angel Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona

The point where I decided to turn around was more or less between the 3-Mile Resthouse and the Indian Garden Campground and with calm winds it felt comfortable at 45 F degrees. By the time I climbed about two miles, the temperature continued to drop every hundred feet; or so it felt! As the sun continued to set by the time I reached the Lower Tunnel it was 27 F degrees, about five degrees below the low averages for season. Because of the low temperatures even as I got closer to the trailhead at the top, I still had the trail almost exclusively to myself. There was not more than a dozen people watching the sunset. The Spring and Fall provide the most comfortable hiking experience, as I learned from talking to the Grand Canyon National Park Service rangers and other hikers, although the temperature can vary dramatically. However, after some of them described how beautiful the canyon is in the Winter, I convinced myself to plan hiking to the Bright Angel Campground by the Colorado River in the Winter time. And I can’t wait ’til I hit the trail again!

Bitterly cold sunset at the Bright Angel Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
Bitterly cold sunset at the Bright Angel Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona
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Hiking the White Sands in New Mexico

White Sands National Monument - New Mexico
White Sands National Monument – New Mexico

I walked in at the White Sands National Monument‘s visitor center with many questions and high expectations about hiking the dunes. But, just how white is the White Sands when everything else around has a terracotta color? Just to make sure, I implied that I knew that camping is not available at the monument in a inquiring manner. It’s one of those comments that I make when deep inside I’m hopeful that I’m wrong. Not this time! All I had read about the monument was right. No camping! Hiking! Oh, yes!

I knew that this was a one day visit and I wanted to hike the longest trail in the park. The park ranger I spoke with couldn’t have been friendlier and more helpful. Perhaps, however, my appearance suggested that I should or could  not go hiking the longest trail. She first tried to tell me that there are nice, short trails. But after I told her about my trip and my goals she agreed that the longest trail would be more enjoyable and suitable to my purposes.  “There will be less people in that hiking trail and the dunes are much higher” – she noted.

Alkali Flat Trail - White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
Alkali Flat Trail – White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

As I drove the two miles to the trailhead, I overshot it because I was looking for the promised quieter area with not many people and dogs around. Enchanted by the surroundings I just kept on driving until I realized that I had arrived at the end of the road. I turned around, this time paying attention to the hiking trails signage along the way.

On the Alkali Flat Trail at the White Sands National Monument - Alamogordo, New Mexico
On the Alkali Flat Trail at the White Sands National Monument – Alamogordo, New Mexico

Frankly, I was discouraged when I found the location because I could barely find a spot to park the car. A larger crowd than I expected covered the sand surrounding the first 100 yards from the trailhead. It looked like a playground where dogs were having a great time. But, as it is the case with most hiking trails, after half a mile into the hike the number of hikers drop drastically.

Alkali Flat Trail at White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
Alkali Flat Trail at White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

I was also a little intrigued when she told me that the dunes would be much higher on this trail, reaching 60 or 70 feet high. Lots of ups and downs, but the name of the trail was Alkali Flat Trail. Just to be sure, know that the only thing flat in this trail is the word “flat” on its name. Be prepared for a great hiking!

As I hiked the first quarter of a mile and went up and down a few dunes, suddenly I was all by myself! I almost broke down in tears overwhelmed by the beauty around. I had not felt that way in a long, long time. Not at least while hiking. What I like about hiking dunes, especially when they are white dunes, is that you can look at or take several pictures of the same frame and they will always look different. Shades and shadows continuously changing the landscape around can be mesmerizing. Depending on how the clouds cover the sun, and the density and speed of the clouds, the scenery scintillates and flashes before your eyes creating a spectacular light show. No, it’s not boring! Someone asked me once if I didn’t get bored by “walking on sand” for miles and miles. No, I do not get bored!

White Sands National Monument - Alamogordo, New Mexico
White Sands National Monument – Alamogordo, New Mexico

There was a chance of rain for that afternoon. I made sure I had the appropriate hiking gear which included a water proof hiking jacket. I particularly like having my hiking poles with me at all time, and this is a trail that requires hiking poles if you set yourself up to hike the five miles loop.

Except for a few moments during which the clouds got a little thicker and darker, the weather was excellent and the rain never came. For at least four and a half miles I hiked in complete solitude, only seeing a few people when I was close to finishing the five miles loop.

Alkali Flat Trail loop - White Sands National Monument - Alamogordo, New Mexico
Alkali Flat Trail loop – White Sands National Monument – Alamogordo, New Mexico

The White Sands National Monument offers other activities which include guided full moon walk, among other events. If you plan a visit I would recommend checking their website for scheduled events. Most likely I will plan a return trip to coincide with a full moon cycle. Many years ago I did a similar hike in the company of a small group guided by a ranger at midnight in a rain forest at the Iguazu Falls in Argentina and it was a spectacular experience. I imagine that the White Sands is equally, Although in a completely different environment and ecosystem, I imagine that the White Sands is an extraordinary location for hiking under a full moon light.

 

The Questioning!

 

Destination: From Texas to New Mexico