I don’t enjoy carrying a heavy pack. And, while I’m not a zealot or fanatic, I do try to reduce the weight and volume of the gear that I carry on multiday backpacking trips. If you’re looking for extreme ultralight, minimalist tips/suggestions this isn’t where to find them. I’m the Ultralight (UL) backpacking version of Rudolph: I’d be banned from the “UL Club,” not invited to join in the UL Games. My backpack has a well-padded hip-belt and stays. I actually carry a (gasp) TENT! I use an isobutane canister stove (gasp, again). I carry and sit in a chair (Heathen!). I don’t cook/drink/eat out of the same cup. I refuse to rely on leaves when compact rolls of TP are easy to make and carry. I reduce weight and increase efficiency whenever I can, but I do like to be comfortable. You know, I like to enjoy the experience.
Even with all of these, what some would decry as unnecessary luxuries, I manage to carry a sub-30 lb pack on multi-day trips (5-7 day), including water and food. It takes a bit of researching and trial and error, but it’s possible to build a lightweight, but very comfortable kit. Ask anyone that knows me, they’ll tell you I spend a lot of time reading up on gear – I love gear! Show me a lightweight, functional, multipurpose toy and my attention is yours. That said, I don’t like the idea of buying/replacing/tossing a piece of gear every season, every time a new variation comes along. I’ll do my homework, compare different models, variations, manufacturers and try to decide how long the item in question will last, and will a significantly more efficient/useful model come out in a year? Can I modify what I already have to be lighter and more usable? Can I make my own version, better for my purposes? Does it make sense to replace an existing, functioning piece of gear, for a “better” one? Sometimes, yes.
A perfect example of this is my new stove. For several years, I’ve been using a very lightweight, titanium stove by Snowpeak – The Litemax. It comes in at under 2 oz, busts out over 11,000 BTU’s, and takes up hardly any space in my pack. That said, I’ve always found it susceptible to the slightest breeze – you have to build elaborate windscreens to protect it – and, it takes almost 3 1/2 minutes to bring a pint of water to a boil. I never put much thought into this, and just accepted it. I would carry a medium (8oz) canister of fuel for it, for a 7-day trip and it would be empty, consistently, at the end of the trip. With the stove, pot, stabilizer, cup/bowl, and lid the whole kitchen weighed in at 15 ounces. Last summer, I participated in a gear-testing outing, organized by my employer. Several of us went out to test prototype tents, packs, shelters, etc. We each had our own cooking equipment, and I was able to witness a variety of stoves and set-ups. Jetboil stoves made up the majority. While those of us using traditional, open burner stoves (my Litemax, an MSR Whisperlight, an MSR Pocket Rocket, etc) were still waiting for our kettles to boil, the Jetboilers were already a couple minutes into actually rehydrating their meals. The system stoves were significantly faster. The other standout feature I noticed was their fuel canisters – the Jetboil devotees all had the tiny, 4 oz canisters and had fuel to spare at the end of the trip. They were significantly more fuel efficient, under 2 minutes to boil a pint of water. I decided to upgrade. I purchased a Jetboil MiniMo. The MiniMo has a regulator and valve that enables effective use in cold weather, something that other canister stoves leave you wanting, and great simmer control. On its inaugural trip, my recent 2-week Grand Canyon trip, I got 10.6 quarts of water boiled with one, 4 oz canister. My old Litemax averaged 4.5 quarts of water boiled with the same size canister. The system weighs just under a pound, and by switching the included lid with a lighter one I already had, I shaved off another ounce. I didn’t have to build a single windscreen. I ditched the lighter I needed with my Litemax (I do carry emergency matches) because the built-in igniter on the Jetboil is reliable. I’m a convert.
Continuing with the cooking theme: anther way I reduce weight and volume and increase efficiency in the “kitchen” is by repackaging all of my food. Friends that I camp with like to joke about my “dinner balls.” I am a freeze-dried food devotee. I find it tastes better than dehydrated, and side by side, usually holds more of its nutritional value than dehydrated. It’s easy to prepare. Most importantly, it’s lighter and more compact. I’ll repackage the meal, tossing the original, bulky packaging, using food safe oven roasting bags or crockpot liners. Just pour the dried meal into one corner of a roaster bag, twist it down into a small ball, tie it off with a twist-tie, trim off the excess and write the water measurement and boil time on the outside with a marker. If I do it right, I can get two meals bagged with one roaster liner, one in each corner. These weigh significantly less, in this form than they do as packaged by their manufacturer, and after I’ve eaten, the empty bag is much smaller to carry out than the empty, heavy foil pouch. No muss, no fuss.
Next, I’ll rant about my camp “furniture” requirements. It has to do with the fact that I will NOT sleep out, under the stars, on a groundsheet. Something about scorpions, spiders, mice, packrats, sudden downpours….
Woke up and got going as early as I could. My goal was Tanner Beach, and that would be a 10.5-mile hike, across the most rugged terrain of my trip, so far. It would also be the hottest day of my 2-week journey, across the appropriately named Furnace Flats section, below the Unkar Overlook. Yay me. The morning started out, as usual, a quick breakfast, pack up, hit the trail and enjoy the morning shade as long as it would last. The first mile, or so, of trail wound it’s way along the lower end of Escalante Creek (a dry wash) and began to ascend up on to the ridge, immediately north of the drainage just as the sun devoured the last of the shade. Perfect timing. The route is easy enough to see/follow. It is narrow and sloping in many places, so careful footwork is required. I just kept up with my “…get there when you get there.” mantra, and listened to the theme song from “The Great Escape” play itself over, and over again in my head. PLEASE! Someone change the record! I stopped for a quick snack on the crest of the ridge and took in the view. It never gets old, looking around in the canyon. I also found my first tick of the season, and the second tick I’ve ever seen down here. I noticed it scurrying up my pant leg as I stood up to put on my pack. I gave it a good thump and sent it over the edge. Not today, my friend. Not today.
From the crest of the first ridge, the trail contours around the red, shale slope and maneuvers through a steep, boulder covered section. Mercifully, it was slightly shady here, and I made decent time despite having to pick my way around the rocks. It was here, almost exactly halfway between the Tanner and New Hance Trailheads, at 11:30 am, that I encountered four invincible male hominids, aged 19 – 25. They were all gingerly picking their way through the boulders when the one in the lead looked up, quite startled to see a lone hiker on the trail with a backpack. All four were dressed in light running kits – minimalist hydration bladder packs, a couple Gu pouches, running shoes/shorts/t-shirts. Their packs weren’t big enough for any kind of water filtration, extra clothing or substantial food. I just assumed they had come up from a camp at the river. The one bringing up the rear paused to catch his breath, so I said “Hey. Nice day for it.” He asked where I was headed, and I told him my itinerary for the day. I asked where they had spent the night before, and he looked confused. “Did you camp at Tanner or Cardenas?” I asked. “No.” he replied. “We came down the Tanner this morning.” “Wow,” was all I could muster. “We’re running out the ‘New something…?'” “The New Hance?” “Yeah! That one. It’s my first time here. I’m just following my friends.” At this point I decided not to break it to him that he still had 15 miles to go, the easiest 15 miles were actually behind him, and that it would get really warm before they even got to the river, which resembled chocolate milk and was the only water source between themselves and the rim. “Well, I need to get moving so I can get a good campsite. Have a nice run.” I didn’t see any helicopters circling the next day, but they usually wait 24 hours, so…
From that point, I just continued on around and out onto the ridge overlooking the Unkar area. The “hilltop ruin” is located a short way off, and is worth a visit. The views from the structure are amazing. So is the ancient finger of gravel bar it’s perched on! The next leg of my hike was spread out below me – Furnace Flats, Cardenas Creek, and heat waves, visibly radiating up from all of it. I can’t imagine what this place would be like in July. I don’t really want to. I’ll stick to spring. The trail from the Unkar Overlook winds down to the sandy flats by Cardenas. I walked down to the river, ate lunch in the shade, by the beach and found a 1/2 full bottle of sunscreen! Perfect timing, this find, as my little stash was empty and I was starting to pink-up on my shoulders. Thank you, unknown person, for the extra UV protection AND moisturizer, thank you. I checked my water supply and decided I had enough to make it to Tanner. Time to move on, it would only get hotter as the day wore on.
The trail leads away from Cardenas Beach, winds through the sand dunes, past several well camouflaged prehistoric sites, and strikes out across the dark brown/black gravel covered “Furnace Flats.” The ambient temperature was around 80 that afternoon, and it felt about 20 degrees warmer. By the time I crossed out of the Cardenas Use Area and entered the Tanner area, I still had a mile or so to go, and I was sucking air out of my hydration bladder. Mercifully, the distance went by quickly and I got to Tanner between 2:30 and 3:00 without feeling too miserable. I snagged my favorite campsite, at the west end of the area, under some junipers, with a rocky beach.
My first chore was collecting and filtering, and drinking water. This would be my last afternoon/evening at the river (on this trip) and I set up my sunshade, rinsed off in the river and enjoyed being there. By dusk, I realized I had the entire area to myself. I walked up river to the little ledges campsite on the other side of Tanner Creek, and, no one. I was the only human at the mouth of Tanner Canyon. Well, it should be a very quiet night.
The day would turn out to be my last in the canyon, for this trip. My original plan called for tanking up with enough water to hike up to a dry campsite, above the Red Wall. It would mean carrying extra water weight for the day, but I would have a shorter hike today, and a really short hike the next day. I was up and out of Tanner by 8:05 am and had a shady hike for the first 90 minutes. At 9:30 the sun rose above the canyon rim and there was no ducking it. The trek across the Dox is hot, and a bit tedious – it seems to go on forever.
Once you’ve ascended above this, the trail steepens and you get fewer flat sections to catch your breath on. There are a few little places, here and there, to rest in patches of shade, and I took advantage whenever I could. Before I knew it, I was at the break in the Red Wall and could see my destination for the day – just up there. I topped out on the Red Wall at 12:30, ate a handful of cashews and then started down the trail to my intended campsite.
I’ve camped up here before, and I like a particular site, between two big, cube-shaped boulders below the trail. It is situated directly below the Desert Watchtower, and if the wind is right, you can hear the tourist chatter on the tower. It was another hot afternoon, so I pitched up my poncho/tarp against the large boulder, for some shade and ate lunch and rehydrated. I was just relaxing, enjoying the shade and the nice, cool breeze when it occurred to me: “Why is there a cool breeze?”
I looked out from my tarp, just as a gust of wind whipped up a dust devil. Large, dark clouds had started building up on three sides. By this point, I had no idea what the weather forecast was. The bulletin board at Indian Garden had a 4-day forecast posted there, but that was 7 days ago. What was blowing in, and would it impede my hike out, up the friction slabs at the top of the trail? It was about 2 pm, so I decided to give it an hour, and see what happened. By 3:00 the clouds were beginning to consolidate and the wind was increasing. It was decided: Take enough water to hike out, put on the dry socks and head for the top. It would make for a long, steep day, but I wouldn’t have to navigate potentially wet slick rock slabs at the top.
Besides, a beer and cheeseburger suddenly sounded pretty good. The only potential issue, aside from how tiring I knew it would be, was finding a place to stay that night. I had a campsite at Mather CG reserved for the next night and had nothing planned for an early exit. I also wanted to try and get out and to the Village by 8:00 – a hot shower would really be a treat, and they close at 8:00. I drank a liter of water, ate the last of my chocolate and cashews, laced up my boots and started out.
I got up to Stegosaurus Rocks and met a couple resting after their hike down. He said the weather forecast didn’t look bad, but the buildup and wind hadn’t been predicted. I bid them farewell and kept hiking. From that point, the hike out isn’t too terrible. There are a couple of loose, steep sections (where have I heard that before) and, where the trail crosses through the drainage, large sandstone steps that trail crews have constructed. After ascending the Coconino formation, you start a series of switchbacks that wind through the trees. At the bottom of the Kaibab formation, you’re in the forest and the temperatures are significantly lower that what you’ve been used to. I zipped my pant legs back on and kept going.
At 6:00 pm, 2.5 hours after leaving my little site below the Tower, I came to a set of stone steps that climb up, and abruptly end at the edge of the paved road leading to Lipan Point Overlook. And, with that, I was done. I walked the short distance down to my truck, found a note from my wife on the dash, and thanked the canyon gods when the engine turned over without any hesitation.
I drove into the Village, and immediately found the campgrounds booked up for the night, “NO VACANCY!” I then headed to the rim and went into the lobby of the El Tovar – the rim’s fanciest accommodation. They also have access to any available rooms at the other hotels. As it turns out, the only room available, on the South Rim, that night, was in the El Tovar and they offered me a ridiculous deal on it, despite how I looked and smelled. The receptionist was actually quite excited to hear about my trip, and when I told him how long I’d been out, he took another $50 off the price of the room. Nice people, those folks at Xanterra.
I took the longest hot shower I’ve ever taken, well, not too long. It is the desert, after all. You don’t appreciate hot water and soap until you have been rinsing off in 50 degree, silty, chocolate water for days. It was at this point that I noticed my tan. I’d spent time at the beach in my climbing bra, burned through my long sleeved shirt on the trail, had pinked up around my pack straps, had worn my pant legs rolled up, or zipped off, been barefoot, worn my boots with my shorts. It all made for some interesting “topo lines” on my skin. Think “pink zebra.” After my shower, I found a cheeseburger, salad, ice-cold IPA and phoned home.
Usually, I find myself feeling down at the end of a backpacking trip. I put time into planning them and anticipating them, and then they’re done and behind me and I feel somehow disappointed, for lack of a better word. I haven’t experienced that this time, yet. I put more planning and effort into this trip, than usual. It’s the longest solo hike I’ve ever done, the longest number of days I’ve put in on a backpacking trip – period. I wasn’t afraid at any time, leading up to or during, that I wouldn’t be able to do it. My only real concern was how I’d do being along with my head for ten days. I’ve never done that before. Prior to the trip, that sounded like a lot. Looking back, it wasn’t much. I was in shape for it. I had prepared materially for it. The only equipment failure I had was a blown tent zipper (no biggie). I had worried about what it would feel like when I would catch site of the Tanner Trailhead, my endpoint. Would it be sad, would I feel disappointed that it was over? As the signboard at the top of the Tanner came into view, I didn’t experience any of that. I understood there, that I had taken this on for my own reason, to do the thing. Not how many miles I would cover in total, how fast I would do it, how “burly” it would be, what would my time be when I set my trekking pole tips at the trails’ end? My goal/reward/project was to go through the experience of the whole thing. That was it. All along, I’d been telling myself that I would get there when I get there. Well, I was here. Getting here was just part of the package. I had been rewarding myself the entire way, by just “doing the thing,” by just getting to know myself in this remote, rugged, potentially lethal, spectacularly beautiful place. It’s wasn’t the PCT, AT, or someone else’s “epic” journey. It was my journey, that I planned and executed and thoroughly enjoyed from start to finish. I think I’ll be able to ride the high for awhile, then I’ll head out on the next one.
The hike from Hance Creek down to the river, and Hance Rapid (the mouth of Red Canyon) is about 6.5 miles. Heading-out Hance Creek is pretty easy, not too steep or loose. I left my campsite at Hance Creek around 7:30, and had good hiking weather – not hot, nice breeze, etc.
Even in mid-March, as you drop lower into the canyon it can feel hot. The reflected heat always feels about 15-20 degrees warmer than the ambient temperature. The hike down to Hance Rapid is also dry. Along the way, you hike through Mineral Canyon, a very interesting section of the Tonto. You pass through layers of petrified water ripples – shallow lake or sea shore deposits. These sit directly atop a huge, cemented cobble bed, resembling a frozen river bottom. It’s pretty cool.
As I was heading out this canyon, I passed two small, separate groups that were hiking out the Grandview. They’d come down the Tanner a few days before and were enjoying their last couple of days on the trail.
After you leave Mineral Canyon behind, you arrive at the top of a sloping rock garden. The trail winds it’s way through the large boulders, often marked by cairns. There are a lot of good places to duck into the shade here if you’re overheating. You can see Hance Rapid, and you can hear it!
About 45 minutes or so, the trail unceremoniously dumps you out at the edge of the beach, and when you pass between the two cairns, you’ve come to the end of the Tonto Trail. You’re now on the Escalante Route, that will carry you east to the Tanner Trail. The trail goes along the beach for a short distance, past a couple of larger boaters campsites and then ascends up slightly, into the sand dunes. This little bit doesn’t make for pleasant hiking, with a pack on, but the dunes are quite scenic and, when I went through, covered with Sand Verbena flowers.
My destination for this afternoon was a campsite, by the river, at the top of Hance Rapid. There is a very nice site situated under a small grove of large mesquite trees, and I usually stay there. It is really set up for multiple tents/people, so I opted for a small, single site in the willows below. The big site is for sharing with friends and, again, I didn’t want to take up more room than I needed, in case a larger group showed up. As it was, I didn’t see another human soul all day or that evening. I had the entire area to myself! I took advantage of the shallow, sandy bottomed river by my campsite and cleaned up, rinsed clothes and just relaxed and enjoyed the roar – Hance Rapid is a loud one.
After a light dinner of Mountain House Lasagna (one of my favorites) and some chocolate, I crawled into my tent and fell asleep to the roar and vibration of the rapid. I wanted to get an early start tomorrow, and would be looking out for my friends that had put in on a raft trip, seven days prior. I knew they’d be floating through this section (15 – 20 miles) and hoped to at least catch a glimpse of them. I know, total long shot… I also had the infamous “Papago Slide” to deal with in the morning, and wanted to put it behind me before it started to warm up.
Papago was waiting for me. I woke up early, even though I knew I only had around four miles to hike, today. My plan was to hike up to the mouth of Escalante Creek, and if the beach was dry and available, camp there. First, I had to maneuver up the Papago – a 20-minute crawl up a large, cone-shaped talus slope. The trail ascends this thing because the river cuts it off at the cliff edge below. It’s about a 45 degree slope, completely covered with assorted rubble/boulders/rocks in various stages of “stability” or, instability depending on where you put your feet. The trick is to keep an eye out for the “trail” (the obvious route previous hikers have taken), check the slabs you’re going to step on and make sure they’re solid, and move quickly. If you’re going up, I find the right side to be preferable. About half-way up, small stones began tumbling down past me, and I looked up to see a family of “Bumblies” trying to descend, in mass, down the upper left side. I asked them to please wait until I was up and clear of them, and they seemed quite surprised to see me. I’m not actually sure how they got to where they were, but when I suggested going down one at a time, and following the cairns, they agreed that it sounded like a good idea.
At the top, I stopped to take a photo and yelled “Hi!” to a kayaker floating past, below. He told me there was a large group of boaters camped about 1/4 mile up-river, and I might find my friends there. I’d been really lucky on my trip, so far. Maybe it would be Kat and Joe!
After you get through the “Slide” you have to down-climb the Papago Ledges. It’s a short, easy, class V section of slabby ledges. A section of rope or cord comes in handy here for lowering packs. Being solo, I chose to use caution and lowered my pack down all three short, down-climbs. Reshouldering the beast, I hit the edge of the beach and walked over to the rafter’s camp. They were just finishing rigging their rafts for the day when I caught sight of my friend Joe – I’d know those striped boardie shorts anywhere. I casually strolled up to him (he didn’t know I was in the canyon) and smiled. He looked a bit shocked, let out a few endearing expletives and gave me, and my pack, a giant bear-hug. “What the #$&* are you doing down here?!?” After recovering, he told me where Kat was, and I went over and startled her. She knew I would be in the canyon but, like I had also assumed, didn’t think we would actually intersect on our trips. It was really fun running into them. Just like I was, they were having a fantastic trip! After catching up for a few minutes, it was time for them to get going, and I needed to start my hike up as well. Kat gave me a much battered can of beer, that I would “put in the fridge” once I made camp. I waved them all on their way, and started out, on my way.
Hiking up, into the mouth of 75 Mile Canyon is one of the best sections of trail, anyplace. It’s a gravel wash that leads into a very lovely slot canyon. You wind your way along the bottom to where the slot canyon ends at a pour-off/bowl. An easy scramble up and you’re back on the main trail again. The entry into the slot reminds me of the Paths of the Dead in The Lord of The Rings – “The way is shut.”
A quick hike around from the top of the slot canyon, and you descend down to the river along a route of mixed dirt path and stone ledges. Here, I found the beach I was hoping would be dry and empty, dry and empty. It was all mine. I set up my camp at one end of it, put my beer in “the fridge” and enjoyed a long afternoon at the beach: wading, drawing, filtering water, snacking and relaxing.
There was a breeze blowing that evening, so after dinner (Chili-Mac washed down with a cold beer) and cleaning up, I put the fly on the tent. It helps keep sand dunes from forming inside. Tomorrow would be a long, hot, mostly dry day with a lot of narrow, up-hill trail to cover.
I hung my watch directly over my face, in the tent, so there would be no chance of not hearing the alarm. I was up at first light, had my kit packed and chose one of my quicker breakfasts: Alpineaire makes an instant smoothie that mixes with cold water. I brought a few of them to try out on this trip. They’re fast, taste good and are actually good for you. Moving as quietly as I could, I packed up and started hiking at 7:30 – I did not want to wake the Bullroarer or her group and planned on staying ahead of them for the day. They were just beginning to move around their camp, when I hiked out the ledges above them, leaving Lonetree.
The early start wasn’t a bad thing, the hike over to Grapevine Creek is almost 9 miles, a lot of it shade-free. Hiking past Boulder Creek, nice water there this year, I passed a small group heading to Lonetree. They had camped at Grapevine the previous night and were hiking out the S. Kaibab tomorrow. Soon after, I passed a second group of five, also heading into Lonetree. Lonetree would be a jumping place this evening. Glad I was on my way up-canyon.
I had perfect hiking weather – a few wispy clouds and a slight breeze. I pushed on at a pretty good pace and arrived at Grapevine in time for an early lunch/brunch. I love Grapevine Creek. Once you finish heading it out, it goes on FOREVER, you can find nice shade, slick-rock pour-offs, and pools.
The campsite arrangement can leave a bit to be desired. There are three larger established tent areas, with a few smaller ones located close by, upstream. This would be perfect if you were friends with everyone camping there, and you don’t mind potentially noisy groups. I had walked downstream from the trail crossing to find a nice pool to go wading in, and then returned to my pack by the trail to eat and relax in the shade. Looking around, I realized that if I stayed here, Bullroarer and her attendees would be right on top of me – the campsites are separated by about 5′ – 10′ of open air and dirt. I really don’t mind sharing camping areas, with people that understand the idea of peace and quiet, and I understand the NPS’ desire to minimize human impacts in sensitive areas – riparian zones in the canyon are rare and delicate. Keeping campsites from expanding all over the place is a necessity. However, after listening to Bullroarer bragging at Lonetree (for my benefit) about how she didn’t care who else was there, I decided to tank up on water, and hike out.
I’ve never managed to spend a night on the Tonto, out on the plateau. But, I’ve wanted to. It means carrying extra water for a dry camp, in exchange you have complete solitude and expansive views of the canyon. I hung out at Grapevine for a couple hours, just enjoying the creek and the shade, then loaded up and hiked another two miles, or so. I found a fantastic location below a series of ledges, close to the edge of the Tapeats, complete with nice flat boulders for my kitchen. It was perfect. I had a flat slab for my tent, so when I broke camp the next morning there would be no trace that I’d been there. The clouds completely disappeared by dusk, and there wasn’t a trace of wind so I didn’t bother with the rainfly. It was completely silent, with a brilliant star show. I even caught sight of a few meteors. I did have to pull my buff over my eyes when the moon rose. You can read by the moon down there.
Up at first light again, out on the plateau first light happens earlier than usual. Not a problem. I was awake anyway. Funny how early I’ll wake up when I go to bed at nightfall… By adding the extra miles yesterday, out to my site on the plateau, I had fewer than 8 miles to cover to Hance Creek – my destination for this evening. Along the way, I hiked through Cottonwood Creek, another lovely spot – flowing water, ferns, cottonwood trees and some nice campsites. This trip, I would only stop long enough for a quick snack and to dip my toes in the creek. I’ve camped here before, and I’ll be back. From there, the trail winds out onto the Tonto plateau and passes below Horseshoe Mesa and the climb up to the Grandview Trail. This would be the easiest route out, at this point, if I needed one. I didn’t. I kept hiking and made it to Hance Creek around noon, and hiked down to the large campsite under the cottonwood trees.
There I met Bob and his daughter, from Salt Lake City. They were on a New Hance to Grandview trip, testing new Hyperlight Mountain Gear backpacks. They invited me to share the shade, and we chatted about our respective trips, work, future trip plans, etc. They were only there for a rest stop and would be tanking up then heading out to find a plateau campsite, as I had done the previous night. I bid them “Happy Trails” and decided to set my camp up in one of the small, single tent sites a bit upstream. I didn’t want to hog the only large site, in case a group did happen to come in. A couple of guys hiked in from the east and settled into a small site well downstream from me. With the trees for cover and the creek noise, I felt like I had the place to myself.
Hance Creek is another of my favorite places in the canyon. There are cottonwood trees, year round water, and the ever-present, nightly peeper chorus. There is a panel of historic inscriptions, just up from where the main trail passes through the drainage, including one from the creeks’ namesake – John Hance. I spent the afternoon relaxing, did some exploring and a little light housekeeping.
I try to rinse the dirt and sweat out of my socks every afternoon. My big collapsable bucket comes in handy for this. I have a spare pair to put on, while the ones I wash dry out. It reduces blisters, for one thing. If there is enough water available, I’ll do the same for my hiking shirt. You can avoid (or at least alleviate) heat rash, pack sores, and other problems by practicing a little basic hygiene. Biodegradable, no rinse soaps are a great way to go, keeping in mind to use them AWAY from the water source. I see no problem wading in creeks or rivers, just don’t rinse soaps, detergents or any other chemicals off in the water source, not even the biodegradable ones.
After cleaning up, and dealing with the “warm spot” I’d developed on my big toe, during my speed hike out of Grapevine, I spent a little time drawing in my journal, then was ready for “Happy Hour” consisting of a batch of citrus flavored Cytomax and some spicy snack mix. Dinner soon followed – freeze-dried chicken teriyaki and some dark chocolate squares.
I put away the kitchen, hung the Ratsack and waited for the Hance Creek Male Peeper Chorus to begin their concert. The peepers in Hance are the loudest anywhere. It could just be the proximity of the cliff to the creek. It makes for a great echo chamber. Needless to say, I don’t actually fall asleep quickly in Hance. The concert usually doesn’t end until around midnight.
Rest Day! I managed to score two nights at Indian Garden, the midpoint of my trip. After staying up late, catching up with Mike and eating prehydrated, heavy things I snapped of couple photos of the moon rise, illuminating the Red Wall above the campground. I listened to a few chapters of my audio book and fell asleep to the rustlings of a very large packrat, I named “Spartacus,” and the resident peepers. Day 7 started early, Mike wanted to get going up the Bright Angel before the sun warmed things up too much. Thanks again, for the food, Mike!
After a leisurely breakfast, I took advantage of the facilities and actually washed my dishes (one spork and a cup), caught up on laundry and rinsed my head under the ice-water tap. It felt good to just lounge in the shade, listen to my book, foregoing the boots, backpack, and sunblock for a day. At 11:30 my wife and her friends walked into the campground. They’d day-hiked down the Bright Angel, from the S. Rim, bearing a new fuel canister, clean pants, a new roll of ducktape and a SALAD! There was also a cupcake in her pack, as well. Lyn had been to Indian Garden with me before, but her friends were dropping below the rim for the first time. It’s always fun to watch people’s reactions to the place, the first time they really see it. They were able to hang out for a couple hours, ate lunch with me, and had to start back up. It takes around 3-3.5 hours to hike out if you’re in shape for it. I walked with them up towards where the trail crosses Garden Creek, and bid them farewell – “This is where I leave you, my good Hobbits. Thanks for the salad!”
Back in the campground, I went down to the little “Visitor Center” (it’s never staffed) and borrowed a book from the lending library. You can borrow a book or table game there and when you’re done with it, just put it in the rocket box, in the campground. Pretty cool amenity. I “checked out” the Kolb Brother’s “Down the Colorado,” of course I skipped ahead and just read the section where they boated the Grand Canyon. Seemed like the appropriate thing, given I only had one afternoon to read it.
There was a young family that occupied the space next to mine. Mom, dad and three kids, age 6 – 10, maybe? I really enjoyed their presence. No screaming, no crying or complaining. The kids were genuinely excited about being in the Grand Canyon. Not a single screen or device: no iPad, iPhone, Gameboy, none. They borrowed table games from the “library,” happily hiked out to Plateau Point for sunset and then went to sleep, after mom read them a chapter from Little House on the Prairie, and dad a chapter from The Hobbit (he even did the voices). There still may be hope for the future…
Postscript for Day 7: the small, 100 gram fuel canister I started this trip with finally died, during breakfast. It ran out as soon as my water came to a boil. I boiled 11 liters of water with it, using a Jetboil MiniMo stove. This trip was the inaugural trip for my new stove, and I am quite pleased with it.
Woke at first light and packed up. On the trail by 8:15, I would have a mostly dry, primarily shadeless, 10-mile hike.
My destination for the afternoon would be Lonetree Canyon. On the way, I would hike past Pipe Spring, the Tip Off on the South Kaibab trail (last enclosed, sit-down toilet on the trip) and head-out the three arms of Cremation Canyon. The first couple of miles to Pipe were mostly in the shade. It’s a true oasis, complete with dense reeds, a bog and dozens of butterflies. I stopped there to drink a quick liter (I use a Life Straw for trail-side sipping) and then headed on around to the S. Kaibab trail crossing.
I could hear the South Kaibab Tip Off before I could actually see it. A group of backpackers was clustered in the shade, under the composting toilet (Sounds appealing, no?) and their “leader” was the loudest woman I’ve ever heard. I dubbed her “Bullroarer,” and as she was dropping her extensive, exclusive knowledge of all things Grand Canyon, as loudly as she could to anyone withing shouting distance, I decided I would NOT be eating lunch there. I would just take advantage of the facilities then move on. I have a preference for peace and quiet. Before I left, I asked a young woman if they were heading down to Phantom for the night. She replied that she was, and I took that to mean “all of them.” Boy, was I ever mistaken.
I continued on from the Tip Off, hiking past the large cairns that mark the entrance into the Cremation backcountry area, and found a shaded spot for lunch. Looking around, I noticed it was actually part of an archaeological site including a rock shelter, extensive lithic scatter, and small agave roaster. Again, there is a well-established campsite in the center of it. The hike from the Tip Off to Lonetree has a more arid feel to it than other portions of the Tonto. Cremation Canyon splits into three distinct arms or branches and you hike down and out of each one. There is little shade, no water, and the trail is easier to stray off of if you don’t pay attention. Again, a quick meander and it is easy enough to relocate the path.
I passed another solo hiker, heading the opposite direction. He was going out the S Kaibab and had come down the Grandview. He had good news for me regarding water – lots of it!
By 2:30 I was dropping into Lonetree Canyon, home for the night. I was pretty excited to see I had the place to myself and, as soon as I said that, a group of three dads and their teenaged sons arrived. They noisily set up a large tarp, ate lunch, spread out, dug cat holes and took care of business next to the creek. I tucked myself into a small site, upstream from them and took care of my camp chores. By 4 pm, they packed up and moved on. I guess they were just waiting for cooler hiking. I congratulated myself on scoring Lonetree Canyon to myself, again, just in time to hear Bullroarer coming down the trail…
Just as before, you could hear her before you could see her. She was leading a group of three other hikers. Apparently, the woman I’d spoken with at the Tip Off wasn’t part of Bullroarer’s group, she’d just gotten caught in the turbulence. They set up camp after she loudly announced that it didn’t matter if anyone else was coming in, they would take up two campsites for the night. I ate dinner with my earbuds in, listening to my audio book on the collapse of the Bronze Age, and waited for the peepers to begin their warm up. They do a pretty good job drowning out loud talkers. I determined I’d get another early start the next day, leaving BR and her attendees behind.
After saying “Happy Trails” to my friend, I turned left at the Hermit Trail/Tonto Trail junction and began the short, easy hike around to Monument Creek. This is another of my favorite Tonto trail sections. Great scenery and the first half is shaded if you get up and leave Hermit early enough in the day. We had a relatively timely start, later than I’d wanted, but not too bad. The night before, I had been awakened around midnight by a small noise and looked up to see a mouse, spread-eagled above my face. He had crawled up the mesh wall of my tent and was peering down at me. I said “Hello” and gave him a gentle thump. After falling back to sleep, I managed to sleep through the alarm I’d set on my watch, and didn’t wake up until the sun was starting to light up the sides of Hermit Canyon – so much for the early start.
From the junction, it’s a straightforward contour around to Monument. You have one low ridge to ascend about half way that affords you a great up/down canyon view. After heading out a small, unnamed side drainage you see “The Monument.”
It’s a 130′, free-standing spire of Tapeats sandstone that gives the location its name. A few short, steep switchbacks bring you into the Monument Creek drainage, past the large group site under the trailside ledges and then past the famous Three-Seater toilet. It’s one of the most scenic, and sociable toilets in the world. Open to the air, with three seats divided by low privacy walls, it looks up on the Red Wall and is perfectly visible (binoculars help) from The Abyss Overlook, up on the South Rim.
I walked into the campground early enough that I had my choice of sites. I chose the last, small site overlooking the creek. It was sheltered in the trees, mostly invisible from the main trail and had its own access trail to the water. After a quick snack, I hung my food up in my Ratsack and headed downstream to the bedrock pour-offs and pools. The creek was running high and cold. After a quick dunking of your head, you can sprawl on the sun-warmed granite and relax. Monument is another of my favorite places in the canyon, although the last time I was here I was with a group of friends, so was feeling a bit nostalgic/lonely. There is great exploring to be done downstream, lots of birds, lots of shade.
After I’d eaten dinner, and put away the kitchen, I heard a noise down in the creekbed – a short gurgling sound, and the crunching of gravel. I looked over and my trail tired, overfed brain shouted “Oh my god! A condor!” I quickly came to my senses and registered a large wild turkey, picking his way down the creek. Which, at the time made about as much sense as the condor theory. I snapped a couple photos of him. They look alot like the classic “Bigfoot” photos you see online. He did not stand still for me, and the light was terrible but you can make him out. Apparently, it’s not too unusual. Turkeys do come down below the rim, and sometimes they’ll even winter over at Phantom Ranch. The ranger I ran into the next day was really excited to hear about him. Weird.
Despite the two largish groups that came in later in the day, it was pretty quiet in Monument. The creek drowns out most human-caused noises and at dusk, the ever-increasing peeper population began their chorus. Peepers, if I didn’t mention earlier, are the amorous little frogs that inhabit the Grand Canyon, wherever there is enough water to lay their eggs. They sing a variety of tunes – telephones ringing, goats bleating, doors creaking, small tubas, etc., occasionally a large belching call will emanate from the shadows. When they all join in, it makes for quite a concert.
I managed to wake up early the next morning. I had a 10.7-mile trek around to Indian Garden ahead of me, where my friend Mike would bring down my resupply bag, and my wife and a couple friends would come down the next day with a pair of clean pants (and a salad)!! I had two nights at Indian Garden campground, to rest, resupply and rehydrate/calorie up for the next half of my trip. I was looking forward to drinking straight from a faucet, with no filtering/treating required. I Left Monument at 8:10 sharp. The trick to a pleasant exit from Monument is to start hiking out before the sun has hit the east wall of the canyon. There is a steep set of switchbacks that will take you up and out, and they can be miserable if they’re in full sun. I managed to get through them in 15 minutes, well before the sun hit and was cruising along the Tonto towards Salt Creek.
The Tonto contours along, winding through the sage and wild flowers. Again, I meandered off the route a few times, but it was easy enough to regain it. Cedar Spring had water flowing, very lightly, and there was a group camped there. I was really surprised to see Salt Creek flowing, a few gallons a minute. A Backcountry Ranger was hiking out, towards me as I was descending into Salt. She’d spent the night there and was heading for Hermit, with a quick stop at Monument to check some wildlife monitoring equipment. She was very interested in my turkey encounter. After turning down her generous offer for some chocolate, we parted ways and I continued on to Horn Creek.
Horn Creek is a nice, shady spot with a lovely little stream that you can’t drink from. It’s contaminated by radiation from the abandoned Lost Orphan Mine directly above, on the rim. A shame, since it is a reliable water source and a really pretty spot. It’s a designated campsite, but really it’s a “dry” camp. Although, I’ve seen people tank up there, not knowing what was in the water. I moved on through and found a shady spot back out on the Tonto. I continued along, whistling the theme song to The Great Escape – it had been stuck in my head for 4 days. It still tries to worm its’ way in there. Not sure what to do about that…
I rounded the corner into Indian Garden at 2 pm, not a bad pace if you add in my lunch stop and other quick rests. You pass the junction for the trail out to Plateau Point, and then you start to see the cottonwood trees that fill the bottom of Garden Creek canyon. After trudging past the herd of tourists that had walked down from the rim, taking in the array of assorted footwear (some improper), inadequate water containers and watching them try to avoid getting bit by squirrels, while feeding them, in full view of the “Do Not Feed The Squirrels” sign, I turned up the path into the campground. I found Mike sitting at one of the campsite picnic tables, he’d arrived about an hour before. I think he was surprised to see me. I’d originally expected to get into IG around 4 pm. I guess I’d moved faster than I’d thought I would. I owe him a beer (or several). He drove in from Kingman, hiked my 10 lb food bag down, spent the night and turned around a headed back out the next day. His wife was planning on joining him but had to cancel, so he came alone. Mike and Gale were the ones responsible for this whole thing – they invited me on a Grandview/New Hance trip in 2011, and with that introduction, I was hooked. I’ve been back every year, since.
Mike didn’t just have my pre-packed food cache with him. Gale sent chocolate, and my wife sent an orange, and some Pringles!! Yay, salt! I devoured this stuff right away. I had packed a Hostess fruit pie in my bag – it made it down, uncrushed and full of fatty, junky, sugary goodness! Perfect dessert after my gourmet meal of Mt House Spaghetti, herbed olives and spicy snack mix. I stayed up past my bedtime, catching up with Mike and playing with the timer setting on my camera. There was a huge packrat running around the perimeter of our campsite, so we made sure to lock up everything in the NPS provided rocket boxes. The packs were hung on the steel pack rack, and after my long hike, I crashed. Tomorrow, I would relax, do laundry, lounge and my wife would drop in for lunch (day hiking from the rim).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.