My Tonto Tour: 14 Days Below the Rim, Part 3

Day 3.

River below

Turquoise to Slate!  The day included approximately 9.3 miles of Tonto Platform hiking, at it’s best, with a couple large side canyons to head-out – Sapphire and Agate. They both had steep descents and exits, but nothing too epic.  For the most part, the trail was well established and marked with cairns.  I only had to meander a few times, after losing it in the sage brush.  Before starting out, I decided to switch out my copper Superfeet insoles for the pink Superfeet I had tossed into my pack as an afterthought.  I had started to develop a pinched/blistered spot on the side of my heel and really wanted to nip that problem in the bud.  It worked!  The extra weight of the spare insoles paid off.  From that point on, I didn’t have a SINGLE blister or hotspot issue, for the rest of the trip. A good thing too, as I managed to lose my little roll of ducktape someplace, along the way.  Hopefully, someone really needing a roll of tape stopped in the same shady spot, where I’d lost it.

Rock Shelter

Heading into Sapphire, the trail passes below a fairly large, prehistoric rock shelter complete with a nearby roaster.  Contemporary visitors have utilized it as a campsite.  Usually, you don’t want to camp in/on an archaeological site.  You can cause quite a bit of disturbance to the site.  Oddly enough, GCNP actually has at least one designated campsite, smack in the middle of an agave roaster, in the Salt Creek Camp.  I guess once a campsite has been “established” by backpackers, the park assume it’s better to keep using it, rather than create new impacts?  Anyway, the rock shelter was a very nice, example of the site type: a well-extended drip line, sheltered from sun and wind, overlooked a large water source, extensive charcoal/fire-cracked stone deposits and lots of stone-tool waste flakes.  I snapped some photos and then we made the descent into Sapphire Canyon.

Refreshing Sapphire Creek

A short, steep/loose hike down brings you into the drainage.  Sapphire is a very nice creek, and was flowing big! The creek bottom is formed of bedrock in a lot of the drainage, and there are several small pools and pour-offs.  It made for a very nice brunch spot.  After resting a bit, and letting the feet dry, it was up and out Sapphire and back onto the Tonto, to head out and around to the mouth of Agate.  On the way, we came across a bighorn ram’s skull lying alongside the trail.  That’s the first one of those I’ve ever found.  No sign of any of his skeleton.  It looked like it had been there for a season, maybe two.

Old Man of the Tonto

 

Heading out Agate was a very warm, dry experience.  We found no water there (I didn’t expect to) and the trail heading out of that drainage is, as you might guess, loose and steep.  We stopped for lunch in a shady spot, just west of Scylla Butte and then began rounding the point to head into Slate Canyon, our destination for the night.  You get some nice views of the river as you turn the corner here and, as always, spectacular up/down canyon panoramas.  Dropping into Slate didn’t take too much effort and we were in camp by 4:15.

Room with a view and laundry included

 

That left plenty of time for relaxing, snacks, doing some laundry, a leisurely dinner.  Slate is another beautiful side canyon complete with waterfalls, ferns, very friendly hummingbirds and a huge agave roaster, just uphill from the streambed.  After dining on a meal of Mountain House Biscuits and Gravy (my favorite), and a lovely concert by the local Peeper choir (they seemed to increase in volume at each campsite), I hit my sleeping bag.  I’d need to rest up for the next leg – Hermit Creek!

 

 

 

Day 4.

Slate to Hermit Creek is, according to the NPS, approximately 10.8 miles.  There are several small drainages to head-out and numerous low hills and rises that you ascend and descend.  Again, it was a matter of just accepting that you’d “Get there when you get there” and not obsess over “How much further?”  The scenery along this stretch is pretty spectacular (it is anywhere in the canyon), and at one point you get to look down onto the notorious Crystal Rapid!

Crystal from the Tonto

Huh, it doesn’t look like much from 1100′ up.  The hike around from Slate was all pretty easy and really felt like it went by quickly, until we began our hike around and into Boucher Creek.  Again, loose and steep descent, and hot – bake-oven hot.  I was truly grateful to find a charging, bubbling creek with shady streamside ledges for sitting, and leafy trees.  A perfect spot for lunch.  The Boucher Trail will take you down to the river, from the rim.  It is on my list of routes to do, in winter.  It was already too hot for me to imagine taking that project on.  The hike out of Boucher to the eastbound Tonto was very steep, loose and directly exposed to all of the Sun’s loving attention.  The route out of the creek is marked by cairns, and you hike up to the split in the trail – left Tonto, right Boucher – which is marked by a large cairn.

Stone cabin remains in Boucher

 

From there the trail contours around Whites Butte to head-out Travertine Canyon.  Travertine is dry and fairly easy to get through.  Another hour or so, and you drop into Hermit Creek.  The creek was flowing so high, I actually had to think about where I was going to cross it without getting soaked.  We got to the campground around 4:30, had our pick of campsites and had time to wash up and rinse socks.  There is a large, steel-pipe pack rack there, to hang your packs on.  It helps keep the critters out.  The NPS has also replaced the old, open to the universe, portable tank toilet with a nice, new, clean, solar composting toilet.  You don’t have to stare at the campers staying in the Group Site when you do your morning business anymore!

Hermit Camp

I’ve heard people talk trash about Hermit, probably because it can be busy, but I love it.  Lots of shade, a nice loud stream that will drown out most of the people noise, and more peepers.  It also makes a nice base to take a stopover day, and hike down to the river, or over to Boucher.  We only had one night here.  After a dinner of Mountain House chicken and noodles (very tasty) and a nice electrolyte beverage, we called it a night.  It would be an earlier start tomorrow – my friend was hiking out the Hermit Trail to return to Colorado, and wanted as much shade as possible for the climb.  My day would be easy – only 3.5 miles.  My next stop would be Monument Creek and the famous “Three Seater” toilet!

 

My Tonto Tour: 14 Days Below the Rim, Part 2.

Day 1.

The South Bass trail is named after William Wallace Bass, an entrepreneurial soul, who moved out west for his health in 1883. He prospected and mined in the canyon, and established tourist camps, stage roads and trails on the rim and below.  The trail that bears his name connects both rims and is one of the more remote, established/maintained trails within the Park.

The trail starts out relatively easy, by Grand Canyon standards.  A few switchbacks through the Kaibab Limestone layer and you move down through the Toroweep and Coconino layers via several sets of recently constructed stone steps.  At the Coconino, look for remnants of Bass’s wire fence.  This area is where you’ll also be able to view prehistoric granaries up, and to the right of the trail.  From there, some steep, rocky switchbacks drop you onto the Esplanade – a gently rolling, pinyon/juniper covered plateau atop the Supai formation.  This plateau contains numerous agave roasters scattered throughout the area, especially near the outer edges of the platform.  After a short hike across the Esplanade, you will arrive at a large cairn, poised above a short ledge.  This marks the junction of the S. Bass and Royal Arch trails.  If you continue straight, descending to below the ledge, you will clearly see the South Bass continuing on towards the break in the Supai that will take you down to the Red Wall.  Heading left, following the smaller cairns, will take you west along the Royal Arch trail.  When we arrived at the junction, it was time for a lunch break.  By then, the wind had picked up and the temperatures were still quite brisk.  With the goal of finding a sunny spot, out of the wind, we did not drop down, below the cairn, instead inadvertently heading left on the Royal Arch trail.  My map for this portion of the trip had been cut off when I copied it, and I wasn’t sure where the junction was.  The detour was serendipitous.  Several very big agave roasters are located along this trail.

Agave Roaster on the Esplanade

I’ve documented numerous roasters in the southern Great Basin and Colorado plateau and these were, by far, the largest roasters I’ve ever seen!  After realizing my mistake, and checking our location with a compass (my friend remembered that she had a small scale, overview map of the trail system) we backtracked to the large cairn, stepped down onto the main trail and hiked the short distance to the edge of the Supai.  A steep, rocky trail then takes you down to a break in the Red Wall formation, in the bottom of Bass Canyon, down to the Tonto junction.

 

Our little side trip out the Royal Arch trail probably added six miles to our day.  Heading down to the Tonto junction my main concern was whether or not we’d have time (daylight) to drop our packs, hike down to the water pools/tanks on the South Bass trail, hike back up to the junction and get to Serpentine before dark.  Based on feedback/information I had received on the water quality at Serpentine, I had decided we would tank up at the S. Bass pool before heading on.  The water in Serpentine can be highly mineralized, if the flows are low, and can cause cramping/diarrhea.  However, a few minutes before arriving at the Tonto junction, we met a group coming out of Serpentine.  They informed me that she was running at several gallons per minute, and they had filtered water there the day before with no ill effects.  I decided to skip the long process of unpacking, hiking down and filtering.  We’d just throw the dice and drink the water at Serpentine.  The gamble paid off.  We arrived at Serpentine with enough daylight left to find a campsite, get set up and filter water.  The creek was flowing beautifully, just like the guy said it was.  No ill effects.  After a meal of freeze dried beef stew with a packet of Tobasco sauce thrown in for good measure, I crawled into my tent and fell asleep to the song of a peeper, trilling from the edge of the creek. I woke up the next morning with absolutely no screaming.

Day 2.

The destination for Day 2 was Turquoise Canyon.  A short, 10.6-mile jaunt from Serpentine.   Heading out Serpentine Creek canyon, we began hiking east, along the Tonto.  I love the Tonto Platform.  The views you get are truly vast.  You are, for the most part, contouring around the large plateau that lies atop the Tapeats sandstone formation, at around 3100′ in elevation.  As you hike along, you’ll get occasional glimpses of the River, around 1000′ below you.  The Tonto Platform is relatively green, for the desert, home to agaves, bur sage, black brush, Chamisa, ephedra, paintbrush and assorted cacti.  Also, make note of the numerous fossil trackways along the trail.  Millions of years ago, when the area was covered by shallow seas, small creatures passed through leaving their footprints.  You’re not the first to pass by here…

Fossil tracks

One of the Tonto’s more endearing characteristics is that it isn’t always there.  Sometimes you’ll be hiking along and realize you aren’t on a trail, and there have been no cairns for several minutes.  It isn’t a maintained trail, it’s more of a “route.”  It should follow the line that makes the most sense, but not always.  If you keep one rule in mind, you really can’t get “lost”: if heading up-river, if the South Rim is to your right and the river is to your left, you’re going the right way.  Just meander a bit and you’ll find the trail again.  The Tonto is more or less flat to gently rolling, with the exception of the side canyons.  These you “head out,” hiking up one side to where the trail crosses the drainage at the most reasonable place, then hiking back out the other side.  Some are just quick little detours off of the main plateau, some go on and on, seemingly, forever.  The trail will contour along the side, descend steeply/loosely into the drainage, then climb steeply and loosely back up. Your best strategy is to repeat over and over again, “I’ll get there when I get there.” Taking the map out and looking at how much further it is to the head of the side canyon will only make it seem longer – think sitting in the back seat of the car, asking your parents “How much further?!?”

Roughly halfway between Serpentine and Turquoise, we headed into Ruby Canyon.  It was running nicely and seemed like a good place for lunch.  It’s a great place to take off the boots and dry your socks, soak your feet in the creek and relax a bit.  I need to find a rough trail/multi-day worthy backpacking boot that doesn’t have a waterproof “breathable” liner.  They aren’t breathable, not even slightly.  I’ve tried trail runners and light hikers and for this place, I need a little more boot.  We’ll leave it at that.  After cooling off, we headed back out the other side of Ruby – not too bad a crossing.  The hike up and out, and back onto the main Tonto is a bit loose and steep, but short.  Very soon after striking the Tonto, I found a perfect chert projectile point, lying in the center of the trail.  It would have fallen/eroded down from upslope.  I was pleased/surprised that it hadn’t been stepped on.  I took a couple photos of it and set it just below the trail, under a Chamisa plant.  Take only pictures… 

We dropped into Turquoise Canyon around 5 pm.  There are a couple of seeping springs above the trail crossing, with a few pools.  The water was clear and cold.  Dinner was a nice Pasta Bolognese, and some herbed olives washed down with a nice rehydration/electrolyte beverage.  In bed by dark (7:00) and a few more peepers.  The next morning was clear and calm – perfect conditions for hiking.

My Tonto Tour: 14 Days Below the Rim, Part 1.

For the better part of three years, I’d been toying around with the idea of a backpacking trip – one that would be my longest, so far, and include the most time I’ve been out solo.  From the vantage point, up on the viewing platform of  Mary Coulter’s Desert Watchtower, on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, you have a view of the Tanner Trail snaking along below.  It contours past the head of 75 Mile Creek, passes below Escalante and Cardenas Buttes, then drops, steeply, through a break in the Red Wall formation – a sheer, 500-800 foot thick limestone layer forming one of the major obstacles to anyone trying to walk into or out of the canyon.  From there, it winds it’s way for another four miles, or so, to the Colorado River.  From the Watchtower, you can see Tanner Beach and the start of the Escalante Route.  Beginning in 2011, I’d been venturing below The Rim, spending 5 – 7 days each time, exploring different portions of the Canyon: dropping in on the Grandview Trail and heading out the New Hance; Hermit to Indian Garden and out the Bright Angel; S. Kaibab to Grandview, etc..  Each trip spending time with friends, cutting the canyon into 25-30 mile segments, spending some days on the Tonto Platform, occasionally dropping all the way down to The River.  In 2015, after finishing an “easy” trip that took me from the South Kaibab trailhead, down to Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch, then back up the Bright Angel Trail, I was standing on the platform at the Watchtower and it occurred to me: I should do the Tonto, from its junction with the S. Bass trail, in one push, and throw in the Escalante and Tanner trails for good measure.  It’s not the PCT, AT or the Hayduke.  In fact, by NPS mileages, it’s only 100 miles (various individual hikers state anywhere from 99 miles to 130 miles).  I’m splitting the difference and am calling it 115.  It’s not a “through-hike.”  The entire route, as planned, lies well within the confines of the canyon.  There are numerous points where you could exit, relatively easily, if needed.  The real trans-canyon thru-hike involves hundreds of miles, mostly trail-less, and has only been completed, in a single push, by a few hearty souls.  My intended itinerary would be relatively easy in comparison.

The Tonto Trail begins at Garnet Creek or ends there depending on your direction of travel, just west of its junction with the South Bass trail and ends at The River, at Hance Rapid.  I chose to go up-river, dropping in on the South Bass trail to hike out the Tanner.  Technically, my planned route would not include ALL of the Tonto trail – at the S. Bass/Tonto junction, I chose to head east on the Tonto, without backtracking to the official beginning/end of the Tonto, in Garnet Canyon.  It’s an 18 mile out and back, and I didn’t want to insert it into my “loop” hike.  I guess I’ll have to go back and explore that section next time.

For this particular journey, I would be spending a total of fourteen days below the rim (fewer than 15% of the Park’s visitors go below the rim, less than 1% actually walk all the way to the river).  For the first four days of my trip, a friend from Colorado would be joining me for the “Gems” section, then would hike out the Hermit Trail the morning of day five.  From that point on, I would be a solo hiker.  The start date would be March 6, 2017.  Really, it started on November 3, 2016, when I got the email from Ranger Wells telling me I had a permit, reserved in my name, awaiting my confirmation.  Ranger Wells also informed me that I would need to submit a Hiker Information form – basically, a hiking resume, outlining my canyon backcountry experience.  The Park will ask for this if you’ve chosen, by their definition, a particularly “aggressive” or challenging itinerary.  That means any solo hiking outside of the corridor trails, or mileages exceeding 10 miles per day.  After filling out the appropriate paperwork, I had my permits and the fun started.

Planning menus, researching water sources, following weather patterns and laying out and presorting equipment took up a lot of my time.  With my layover day at Indian Garden, my mid-point, I’d be looking at 9 mile days, on average.  I began preparing.  I wanted to pare down as much unnecessary weight as possible – you do carry everything you need to live on, on your back.  I bought a luggage scale and weighed everything that was too big for my kitchen scale.  I’d already cut the handle off my toothbrush; removed any extra webbing/material from my pack; I bought a Jetboil stove to increase fuel efficiency then swapped out the large lid it came with, for a lighter one, from an old mess kit; I eliminated anything redundant from my gear, paring down my repair kit, first aid kit, and kitchen. I repackaged all of my food, making “dinner balls” with the corners of oven roasting bags, eliminating the bulky, heavier foil pouches that freeze-dried meals come packaged in.  With a re-supply arranged, with friends, at Indian Garden, my pack would weigh around 30 pounds to start out each trip segment.  I usually pack just under a pound of food per day, so it does get lighter as you go.  I was also able to carry less water each day, as the South Rim had a really good winter.  Every side drainage, seep, spring and pothole had water.  I was able to get by carrying just a couple liters a day, and filtered out of streams as I hiked.  I had also begun preparing myself, physically.

After a two week long bout of laryngitis/bronchitis in December, I began “training” for the trip.  I put that in quotes because, as experienced canyon hikers like to say, “the only way to train for the Grand Canyon is to hike the Grand Canyon.” Living in Santa Fe, that isn’t really an option for me, so I put together a workout schedule and posted it on the wall, by a countdown calendar, in our home gym: 1 day of arms/shoulders; 1 day of core; 2 days cardio; 2 days leg focused strength training; any local hiking I could get in, weather permitting.  Sticking to this routine was not an option, but a requirement.

In the past, I’ve hiked down from the Rim to whichever campsite was planned.  I’d feel fine, tired but fine.  The next morning, however…  It’s difficult to describe what 8 – 9 miles of unrelenting, steep, loose, downhill hiking will do to your quad and calf muscles, especially bearing a full, multi-day backpack.  I’ve seen the Grand Canyon compared to an “inverted” mountain, and that is not inaccurate.  Each step-down, on slabby or loose footing, requires a lot of resistance and control – a fall here could mean a flight out in a helicopter.  I call it the “screaming quads.” You wake up, try to stretch your legs in your sleeping bag, and they scream, almost audibly.  Hmm, maybe that was me screaming.  In all seriousness, it hurts.  The lactic acid thing is very real, and it will last for 2-3 days.  You try to walk it off, but that just pokes the bear.  The first time you try to answer nature’s call is always entertaining.  Who knew how difficult squatting could be?  So, for this trip, I was not going to succumb to the “screamers.”  I bought a weighted training vest for my gym workouts, it was easier to work out in than my loaded backpack.  I even wore it walking the dog.  I did step-downs, step-ups, elevated lunges, jump-squats, Joel-jumps, burpees (I hate burpees) and too many pushups to count – core fitness helps with actually carrying/supporting the backpack.  I guess it all paid off.  On day two, after a long hike into Serpentine Canyon the previous day, my legs did not scream, and neither did I.

One of the most important steps, for me, was finding someone to run a shuttle out to the South Bass trailhead (bless you, Tim!!). I needed my truck to be waiting for me at Lipan Point, so leaving it out at the S. Bass wouldn’t work.  A shuttle was imperative.  It takes a couple of hours to drive to the S. Bass from Grand Canyon Village, on unimproved dirt roads.  The last few miles, the road is deeply rutted.  If it has just rained, or snowed, forget it.  It becomes impassible.  After passing through a corner of the Havasupai reservation (pay $25 per car, if they have someone there), you pass the Pasture Wash Ranger Cabin, wind through the trees, and arrive at the edge.  After unloading the packs, thanking the driver, stretching and snapping a quick photo of the trailhead sign, it began.