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!

 


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Exploring Archaeological Sites in the Desert Southwest

Who Passed This Way?  Any archaeological site needs to be treated with care. They are fragile and irreplaceable. They represent our nation’s past, our heritage. And, for many, are the main reason to travel to the Four Corners region. Many of the sites in the southwest are maintained by the National Park Service (NPS). Others are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or US Forest Service. The rules for visiting archaeological sites located on public lands are the same: take as many pictures as you want; do not take any artifacts or relics from public land; do not make rubbings of rock art or make any marks of any kind on a rock art panel; if a site is barricaded, view it from outside the barricade; if there are signs asking you to Keep Out, respect the sign; when visiting habitation sites, do not walk on the midden.

Common sense also goes a long way when visiting an archaeological site. If the ledge holding that granary looks like it could come down at any second, it probably will – just stay on the ground and enjoy the view from there. You don’t have to climb/jump down into the kiva to get a feel for it’s history. Do not make little “Museum Rocks” at a site. Piling up the pottery, flakes, corn cobs, etc. doesn’t help anybody. By collecting and piling artifacts, you take materials out of their context, expose them to the elements more than they would be if left where they are and, very likely, you had to trample across the midden to get them in the first place. As you explore a site, the sense of discovery and exploration is going to be much better if you can find the artifacts hidden about on your own, not bunched together on a slab, where they wouldn’t normally be. And, yes, it will matter if you take just one potsherd. If every visitor to a site takes just one potsherd or flake or corn cob, there will be none of those materials left for others to see, or for archaeologists to use in interpreting the site. Besides, taking artifacts from public lands – even that “arrowhead” you found on a hike – is violation of Federal Law (Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979).

Domestic dogs and archaeological sites generally don’t mix. In the heat of the summer, and often just because they can’t help it, dogs will dig down into the soil to make a nice, cool spot to lay down. This can be disastrous inside an alcove or rock shelter site, not to mention the impact Fido has when he lifts his leg on a granary wall or room-block corner.  I have witnessed both. If you bring your dog, secure him to a tree or rock in a nice shady spot, with a bowl of water, outside of the archaeological site.

Any water-source you encounter in the desert is a matter of life or death to the birds and animals living within miles of it. Whether it’s a spring, pothole full of water or running stream, please treat it with care. Don’t bathe in it, wash dishes in it, answer the call of nature, cook or camp within 200 feet of it. And, please, under no circumstances allow your pets or stock animals to walk/play in it. Secure your llama, horse or dog, away from the pool or spring, and bring them a bowl of water. Human and domestic animal waste will ward off wildlife from, what may possibly be, the only water source within miles, as will sun-block, bug repellent, soap or other detergents – even the “bio-degradable” ones.

One last note: if you plan to explore archaeological sites in the Four Corners area, observe where you put your feet. Stay on slick rock or established trails. The crusty, black soil you will see there is alive. Composed of living organisms, “cryptobiotic soil” is the thing that keeps this region from blowing/eroding away. It fixes atmospheric nitrogen, helps retain moisture for the plants around it and stabilizes the soil/sand. One crushing boot print or tire track will take years to re-establish.

Why so much information regarding what you should not do? Simply put, the desert, and all that live in it, is incredibly fragile. The rules are there to protect it. If a few careless visitors violate the rules, or cause unnecessary damage, stricter guidelines will be made and enforced or, even worse, areas will be closed to access entirely. Take the approach that you are a guest in someone else’s house. You wouldn’t steal, leave a mess or be disrespectful. Look at all that you get to see and do during your visit.

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