South Kaibab to Bright Angel:

Looping past the site of Cameron's Tent Cabins near Indian Garden

Saturday, November 26, 2011

by Dennis Foster

John & Bill near Indian Garden along the Tonto Trail.

Click on any picture to see a larger image.

          I posted this up on my regular blog site intending to add to it for the Hiking Grand Canyon section.  While it's only been six months so far, it is time to post it up anyway.  Any additions will appear at the bottom...

A couple of days after Thanksgiving, I did a day hike in the Grand Canyon with hiking buddies John Eastwood and Bill Ferris.  I decided to ask the editor of the Daily Sun if he'd be interested in a story for his weekly Outdoors column, which runs each Tuesday.  He was enthusiastic and I penned something quite quickly.  He said it would run the next week (so, a bit less than two weeks after Turkey Day).  But, we got a big snowstorm that weekend and he couldn't resist writing up some cross-country skiing story.  And, I got bumped the next week as well.  Finally, the story ran on Tuesday, December 20.  Here is my version, which is slightly different than the one he ran, but with his title:

Walking off the holiday meal
Dennis Foster

It is a couple of days after Thanksgiving and time to do some serious work to counteract the effects of all that turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and, yes, the pumpkin pie.  Living in Flagstaff, there is no better way to do that than to take a day hike in the Grand Canyon.  Especially when the weather is terrific – clear blue skies and balmy inner canyon temperatures.

So, along with two hiking buddies, we headed out of town at 7 a.m.  Our plan was to hike down the South Kaibab trail to the Tonto trail, then over to Indian Garden and hike back up to the rim on the Bright Angel trail.  The total distance is about 13.5 miles and each trail segment – South Kaibab, Tonto and Bright Angel – is about 4.5 miles.

The temperature was right about freezing when we started down the trail at nine o’clock.  We were in the shade and it stayed cold until we reached Cedar Ridge 1.5 miles down the trail.  The trail was busy with hikers but not crowded like at other times of the year.

As we continued down we got to see some of the work that has been done on this trail over the last couple of years.  The improvement on the section through the Redwall is especially noticeable, as the rocky stretches have now been replaced by well formed steps.

At eleven o’clock we reached the junction with the Tonto trail.  We headed west and began to contour our way through Pipe Creek canyon.  This trail gets a lot less use and is in a much more primitive state.  Not surprisingly, over the next three hours, until we reached Indian Garden, we only saw two other groups of hikers.

Pipe Creek is perennial which makes it a great attraction at any time of the year.  We pulled in here a little after noon and ate our lunch.  The low lying winter sun quickly set behind the South Rim above us, encouraging us to move on.  From here we hiked in the shade of the towering façade of the South Rim nearly all the way to the Bright Angel trail.

Just before reaching Indian Garden, the trail passes by the site where Ralph Cameron once had some tent cabins for rent.  I brought along a copy of a photo of these tents that was published in National Geographic in 1914.  We found the little terrace where these tents once stood, along with a few pieces of metal.

At Indian Garden there was construction going on at the restrooms along the trail and the day use area was closed.  So, we rested in the campground area, snacking and filling up our water containers.  During the winter, the water faucets along the trail above Indian Garden are turned off, so you need to have all you’ll need when you leave here.

We started out of Indian Garden at 2:30 p.m. and within fifteen minutes were back into the shade, permanently.  As we climbed up the trail, it got colder and colder.  By the time I reached the rock with the ancient pictographs, about two miles from the rim, I was back to wearing my fleece jacket and a headband around my ears.

I was the last of the group to reach the rim, topping out at just before 5:30 p.m., as the setting sun was casting a dim light that had turned the very top of the north rim purple, signaling the end of a perfect hiking day in the Grand Canyon.  Perhaps a reward is in order.  I wonder if there is still pumpkin pie at home?

Dennis Foster lives in Flagstaff and has been an avid hiker in Grand Canyon since 1977.

For More Information:

Bright Angel, Tonto and Hermit Trails:  For information on these, and other inner canyon trails, there are many trail guides available. Among the most readily available is Scott Thybony's "Official Guide to Hiking Grand Canyon."  You can find this at area bookstores, or online, at the Grand Canyon Association website.

Backcountry Permits:  Find information on permits and trip planning at

Grand Canyon:  To learn more about visiting the Grand Canyon go to  Or, you can find information at

Click on any picture (except granary closeup) to see a larger image. 

I knew this was wrong!

On the improved Redwall stretch.

Group photo at Pipe Creek.

John silhouetted against Isis Temple. 

Zoroaster looms over Pipe Creek ...

... and the small granary within!

The paper ran two photos - the group shot and the view of Indian Garden that appear above.  I have added a few others of interest.  Some notes:

The thermometer at Cedar Ridge.  The photo shows that the "reading" was some 58 degrees.  Funny, since that is higher than the forecast high on the rim.  And, it was still early in the morning (9:30 am) and everyone was bundled up.  I'd say it was in the mid to upper 30s, making this 25 degrees too high.  I have often noticed this during the summer, when it will read 90 degrees plus, or even one hundred, when it is clearly not that hot.  So, this must be part of the Park Service's deception plan to discourage hiking in the canyon!  Seems like the Department of Justice has been trying to emulate them!

The granary in Pipe Creek.  The photos above show the view looking back across Pipe Creek, with Zoroaster (and Brahma) in the background.  Quite impressive, especially when you note that there is a tiny granary tucked away under a ledge at the base of the Tapeats.  The close up version is a bit fuzzy, but you can see the dark hole in the middle where the opening is.  In the thumbnail of the bigger picture you can kind of tell where it is, but if you click on it and get the full image, you should be able to see the opening better.  I have hiked by this before, but it was back in the 1980s.  I'll have to look up those old photos some day!

Editor's literary license.  In the published story, the editor inserted, "after taking the shuttle bus to the trailhead," after my comment about starting down the trail at 9 a.m.  That wasn't true, but I can see his interest in describing to the general public how to access the trailhead.  What really happened is that we parked at the nearby picnic area and walked to the trailhead.  That worked out for us as John's wife, Kathy, came along but didn't want to do the whole hike.  She only went down to the top of the Redwall (which is still 4-5 miles round trip) and then drove over to the Bright Angel lodge, where she picked us up.  Sweet deal for us, otherwise we'd have had to budget in another hour, or so, for transit.  Ugh!

More editorial additions.  In the paper version, there are some additional comments from the editor on the icy conditions of the upper couple of miles on these trails.  [Funny, that didn't make it into the web version, nor did my "For More Information" section.  Hmm...]  That was a key attraction to us - absolutely no snow or ice on these trails for our hike even though it was right after Thanksgiving.  We did have some snow fall weeks earlier, but it was all gone for our hike.  I did, however, bring along my Kahtoola micro spikes just in case!

The Cameron tent cabins.  I mentioned these in my story on the backpacking trip from Indian Garden to Hermit published almost exactly a year ago (Back in the saddle).  But, I didn't have room for photos.  So, when we neared the Bright Angel trail, we matched up the old photo I had copied out of the National Geographic Magazine from 1914 (that the Kolbs had taken which was part of their long story in this issue) and scouted out the site...  

     1/2012 update:  The photo I used from this hike didn't really match up perfectly with the old Kolb photo.  So, on a later trip (BA Wash ruins) I spent some time trying to better line up the view.  That is shown above, where I have indicated corresponding physical features with the arrows (blue for the rim and yellow for the big rocks).  The short salmon arrows show where the Plateau Point Trail is today versus back in the early 1900s.  I've used the other salmon arrows to show where Cameron's tent cabins would be today, as well as where the Kolb's photo studio was located.  I have scouted around for any sign of the Kolb residence, but haven't found anything.  You can see another structure in the new photo, which I believe is part of the old power plant.  It could be that the Kolb residence was completely removed with any usable material going into the power plant buildings.  [Click on the photo above to see a bigger image.]

     Another obvious change is that there are now lots of big trees in the Garden Creek drainage.  It used to be that this area flooded rather often, which is why Cameron's facility was well up above the bed.  Indeed, if you wander around the campground here you will notice a number of retaining walls whose purpose is to divert water away from this area.

     I imagine that Indian Garden was a pretty hot place back in the day!  In fact, the tent cabin site now lies alongside the Tonto trail.  It used to be part of the old Bright Angel trail, which went east out of Indian Garden and then followed a ravine down into Pipe Creek.  Along this old trail there are a few old Indian ruins that I keep meaning to visit.

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