Grand Canyon, Phantom Ranch

Over many many years of playing and working in the outdoors I’ve done some amazing hikes in the National Parks: Paintbrush Divide in the Tetons, Longs Peak in the Rocky Mountains, Half Dome in Yosemite and Chimney Tops in the Smokies. Cadillac Mountain in Acadia and Isle Royal’s Island Traverse. I’ve also had all kinds of high adventure and sufferfests in the Parks, but these classic treks are doable by anyone with proper planning and grit.

Evening on the South Rim Grand Canyon. Leica M, Zeiss 28mm Biogon

The trek to the bottom of the Grand Canyon is one I’d never done though, even having been to the park a half dozen times. Vera and I finally got our Phantom Ranch permits this spring and we ended up with a perfect weather window for the trek last week.

Vera a couple miles down the South Kaibab Trail in the morning. Leica M, Zeiss 28mm Biogon
Vera a tiny speck on the South Kaibab Trail on the right, with the Colorado River in sight, just a couple trail miles from the bottom.
Vera a less tiny speck on the North Kaibab Trail, through a beautiful narrow canyon from Phantom Ranch. Leica M, Zeiss 28mm Biogon

You have not experienced the Grand Canyon unless you’ve been to the bottom and back on foot. Full stop. It’s a hard hike, with spectacular views. It’s a long, profound trip through time and space. If you can, spend a day or more at the bottom and explore the amazing trails from there. Soak your feet in a crystalline stream at Bright Angel Campground and suck down cold beers with great company at the Phantom Ranch canteen. Great food too. It’s heaven. On your way out you’ll look up at the Bright Angel Trail and think, “no fucking way!” and marvel at the CCC workers who built the trail long ago.

Leica M Typ 262 (left) with Zeiss 28mm lens, and Nikon D850 (right) with Sigma 24mm lens

Camera-wise, I had some decisions. I needed to go light, but I didn’t want to compromise on quality by just bringing a point and shoot or relying on my iPhone. My Leica M Typ 262 is significantly smaller and lighter than my workhorse Nikon D850, with no compromise in quality. But the lenses are manual focus, and the M being a true optical rangefinder (and the 262 with no Live View), the Leica is not the best camera for landscape work, since you can’t reliably use polarizers or graduated filters or evaluate flare through the lens. But in the end, size and weight ruled, so here was my kit: Leica M, Zeiss 28mm f/2.8 Biogon, Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 Sonnar, and my Grandfather’s old Leica 90mm f/4 Elmar screw-mount. Maybe 3 lbs total.

The whole kit
On the RRS micro tripod setup

I brought along the sweetest little tripod, the Really Right Stuff TFC-14 tripod and BC-18 Micro Ball Clamp. That little thing is ridiculous! This tripod setup weighs about 2.5 lbs. On my Leica is the RRS plate specifically for the digital M, which gives you an Arca style plate for the bottom and side of the camera and replaces the factory bottom plate of the camera. Its very well machined, as is everything RRS makes.

View from around Powell Point. Leica M, Leica 35mm Summicron (panoramic)
Sunrise on the South Rim Grand Canyon. Leica M, Leica 35mm Summicron

The RRS tripod comes about chest level at highest, so there was some extra quad work involved with using it but overall it was perfect. It was so light with the Leica I could keep it out and over my shoulder all day on the trail (without annoying everyone else). The eventual fatigue of carrying a camera connected to the tripod like that is probably the biggest factor in how many locked down shots I end up taking, because once the thing goes back onto the bag, it’s too much of a hassle to take off again. So for once, the majority of the shots I took were on sticks, even while hiking.

Mule train coming into Phantom Ranch, Grand Canyon. Leica M, Zeiss 28mm Biogon
Bright Angel Creek near Phantom Ranch. Leica M, Zeiss 28mm Biogon (panoramic)
Schools of native Flannelmouth Suckers spawning in the Bright Angel Creek near Phantom Ranch. Leica M, Zeiss 50mm Sonnar

The Leica is rugged, all-metal, and I’m never worried about it taking a beating. The single battery lasted 3 days straight with no problem. Managing flare for sunrise and sunset shots was a challenge. I could probably have used say a Sony A7 series with an M Mount adapter. They have electronic viewfinders with that allow you to see through the lens while still being as compact as the Leica. The Leica M Typ 240 also has live view. But 1) I hate live view and the battery drain that comes with it and 2) Electronic viewfinders are not quite there as far as dynamic range and response time… yet, and 3) The Sony operates like a computer, and the Leica like a camera.

Colorado River at sunrise on the Bright Angel Trail. Leica M, Zeiss 28mm Biogon

The 28mm Biogon was nice. I had rented it from Lensrentals but I wish they had included a hood that seems mandatory for this focal length. Still deciding on which wide angle to get eventually. My Zeiss 50 Sonnar is fantastic, but heavy. I left my Leica 35mm f2 Summicron in the car, just didn’t need th 35. Grandpa’s 90mm Leitz Elmar is from 1950. It has a little fungus and all the “character” of lenses from that time. It’s awkward looking, has a huge butter smooth focus throw, and it’s tiny. I’m glad I brought it.

Colorado River and Vishnu Schist at dusk, near Phantom Ranch. Leica M, Leica 90mm Elmar
Moonlit Grand Canyon with the Bright Angel Trail and Indian Gardens below. Leica M, Zeiss 28mm Biogon
Pre-coffee, after dawn on the South Rim. Photo by a nice tourist from London.

Published on Apr 01, 2019
Filed under: Behind the Scenes,Gear Reviews,Outdoors,Photography
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