Fifty-six miles in seven days. That was the distance I planned to cover on this Grand Canyon backpack. My original goal was to hike the Escalante Route from Tanner Rapids to Hance Rapids and the eastern portion of the Tonto trail from Hance Rapids to Indian Garden. But the Tuesday before I was scheduled to kick off this little adventure, Dean at the Backcounty Office called to inform me that the Tanner trail was closed due to a rock slide just above Seventyfive Mile Saddle. Over the next 36 hours, I considered my options, emailed my preferred revised itinerary and was given that first preference. The new itinerary included two nights at Hance Rapids (October 29-30), and one night each at Hance Creek, Grapevine Creek, Cremation Creek and Indian Garden. After those first two nights at the river, I would be back on the original schedule. Best of all, I would still be able to hike the Tonto trail from its origination point at Hance Rapids to Indian Garden. All together, the new itinerary would lead me over about 56 miles of trails and routes in Grand Canyon.
I was somewhat nervous about the length of the hike. As a relative newcomer to Grand Canyon backpacking, my longest trip before this had been a hike to Clear Creek with hiking bud, Dennis Foster. We'd covered about 44 miles over six days on that hike. The longest days were hikes between Phantom Ranch and Clear Creek; about 9 miles, each way. The East Tonto itinerary included two 10+ mile days, back-to-back, and one of those nights would be a dry camp. I'd hiked a long 15-mile day during my Hermit-Bright Angel Loop hike, in May, and that gave me some confidence that I could handle the longer days. But on that hike, I was never more than an hour or two away from reliable water. I'd given a lot of thought to planning the night in Cremation Creek Canyon on this hike. Not only would Cremation be a dry camp, it would come at the end of the longest day of the hike.
Dennis Foster had very generously offered to give me a ride to the New Hance trailhead. So, as scheduled, I arrived at his house about 5:30 am on Monday, October 29 and we drove together to Grand Canyon. We stopped at Desert View and Navajo Point to see if we could detect any sign of the recent rock slide on the Tanner trail but were skunked on that effort. Then, we made a short visit to Moran Point to scout my route through Red Canyon on the New Hance trail. It was 8:30 when we pulled over to the side of the road at the "No Parking" sign that marks the trail to the New Hance trailhead. It's a short walk to the trailhead so, within 15 minutes, we were saying our good-bye and I was on my way.
New Hance is immediately steep through the Kaibab and stays that way until you arrive at the Redwall. Descending through the Kaibab, the trail is rocky and rough. Upon reaching the Coconino, you can add crumbly to the character description for this trail. The New Hance takes a generally northerly tack after upon reaching the head of the Red Canyon drainage. It's still steep and rocky, which makes for relatively slow progress through the Supai to the top of the Redwall. Arriving at the Redwall, the views through Red Canyon to the north with Coronado Butte along the western flank are simply stunning. From here, there is a long traverse along the eastern rim of the Redwall to the break that allows descent into Red Canyon. I arrived at that point at 11:45 am or some two hours after leaving the trailhead.
After a 30-minute break for a snack, some Gookinaid and moleskin, I continued the hike. About 40 minutes later while hiking through the Tapeats, I grabbed a patch of ground in the shade for a 20-minute lunch break. Then, it was off on a long, steep descent to the bed of Red Canyon. This section of trail winds through reddish slopes along a narrow but well-defined route into the east arm of Red Canyon. I arrived at the bed of the drainage about 1:30 pm. Here, the trail crosses to the other side and turns northwest for the main drainage. About 20 minutes later, I arrived at the large cairn that marks the descent into the creek bed. From here, I simply followed the drainage downstream to the Colorado River. Solomon Temple peaked into view high above the vertical walls of the inner gorge. I did have to leave the bed for the east bank, briefly, but the departure point is fairly obvious as was the place where the trail rejoined the drainage.
I first heard the Colorado rushing over the boulders at Hance Rapids at 2:20 pm. Thirty minutes later, I caught my first glimpse of the rapids. Looking downstream the angled layers of the Great Uncomformity made their gradual descent to the river. Looking upstream, Hance Rapids frothed and churned with Escalante Butte standing high above the inner gorge in the distance. I followed the trail upstream and found a lovely campsite at the beach just above the rapids. This is an idyllic Grand Canyon campsite. The beach is sheltered from the main current of the river, which makes for shallow and still water along the shore. The dense trees provide shelter from the wind and the sandy ground makes a soft bed for sleeping. Late in the afternoon, a five-person party arrived from the east via the Escalante route. They set up camp near mine and we enjoyed a nice visit after dinner. It was during dinner, by the way, that I realized I'd left my titanium spoon at home. Fortunately, I had brought a small scoop for measuring and mixing my daily Gookinaid ration, and this served well as a spoon substitute throughout the week. By 8:00 pm, I was ready for bed so, I wished my neighbors well and returned to my tent.
Up the next morning at 5:10 am, I heated some water for coffee. Breakfast consisted of a bagel with peanut butter and some instant oatmeal. This was my staple morning meal throughout the trip. By 7:45 am, I was ready to go for a short day hike. The plan was to follow the Escalante route as far east as I could get by 12:00, stop for lunch and then return to camp. I hoped to get as far as the Unkar Overlook but, this being my first time on the Escalante, I wasn't quite certain what to expect. The river trail to the east from Hance Rapids is well-defined and easy to follow. If not for the thorny shrubs grabbing at my arms and legs, this would be a truly delightful section of trail.
About 30 minutes into my hike, I encountered an impasse in the trail...a wall of schist that extended into the river. Initially surprised, I soon realized I was standing at the base of the Papago rock slide. I paused to take some photos and then began the scramble up the slide. The lower half of the route, that section leading up to a large boulder that blocks the way on the right, is well-cairned and easy to follow. I got off route at the boulder and ended up climbing to the very top of the slide, about 30 feet farther than necessary. The total climb time was eleven minutes. But the view from the top was impressive. The Colorado curved westward toward my beach front campsite. And the Escalante was clearly visible below and to the right of where I stopped. After some photos, I made my way down to the trail and began the hike to the Papago wall.
I was soon treated to my first view of Papago beach and a river party camped on the opposite shore. Shortly thereafter, I arrived at the first down climb in the descent to Papago beach. More photos were taken before I roped my backpack down about 10 feet in advance of making the easy down climb through a narrow chute. A short walk later and I was standing atop the famed Papago wall. Again, I roped down my backpack and followed by making quick work of the down climb using the many available hand and foot holds. The total time for this descent, including roping the backpack, was 19 minutes. Once down, I headed directly for the mouth of Papago canyon only to be stifled by a 10- to 12-foot vertical pour off. With no route around this obstacle being immediately apparent, I continued upstream along the beach until I found cairns marking the continuation of a trail along the river.
Twenty-five minutes later, I arrived at Seventyfive Mile beach and took a short break. A short hike along the beach led me past Nevills Rapids to the mouth of Seventyfive Mile Canyon. Hiking through narrow-walled Seventyfive Mile Canyon, gives one a sense of isolation and quiet that exemplifies the magic of Grand Canyon hiking. It's just you and the canyon with no distractions. Unfortunately, I became so mesmerized by the experience that I completely missed the Escalante's exit from Seventyfive Mile. It was after rounding a bend and hiking a considerable distance to the southwest that I realized my mistake. I doubled back looking for a cairn that would mark the exit. I again missed the exit but found a route from the creek bed up to the Tonto level. It was during this scramble that I slipped on a rock, getting a nice scrape on the outside of my left leg in the process. I followed the contour of the Tonto back towards the river and at 11:37 am--about an hour after leaving Seventyfive Mile beach--spotted the Escalante route below me. I scrambled down to the route and continued to Escalante beach, arriving there at noon.
I took a leisurely lunch break, during which I attended to the scrapes on my leg and the hot spots on my feet. Although I'd hoped to follow the Escalante route farther toward the Unkar overlook, I decided to return to Hance Rapids after lunch. It had taken about four hours to hike from my campsite to Escalante beach and, although I'd be retracing my steps, I wanted to be back at camp with enough time to relax a bit before dinner. So, I began the return hike at 1:15 pm. Forty-five minutes later, the Escalante route crossed the bed of Seventyfive Mile Canyon at the base of an up climb that I'd made, earlier in the day. I'd been so focussed on finding a route up this obstacle that I'd completely missed the cairned route out of the canyon. I retraced my steps through the narrow confines of Seventyfive Mile, arriving at the beach at 2:28 pm. A brisk 30 minutes of hiking brought me to the base of the Papago wall where I took a short break before tackling the obstacles to come. Continuing the hike at 3:15 pm, I climbed the wall, trekked to the Papago slide and followed the cairned route through the boulders to the river trail. It had taken 35 minutes to get from the base of the Papago wall to the bottom of the rock slide. By 4:15 pm, I was back at camp at Hance Rapids.
I'd packed six Mountain House Pro-pak singles for dinner on this hike. Chicken teriyaki was my first night choice. Tonight, I had lasagna. My beverage of choice at dinner was hot apple cider and this became something I looked forward to, more and more, as the week progressed. Each night's meal was capped with a small Hershey's chocolate bar with almonds. My after dinner routine included reviewing and adding comments to my daily hiking log followed by some casual star gazing with my 10x20 mini-binoculars. I was in the tent and getting ready for bed, early, usually before 8:00 pm. In the tent, I would apply fresh moleskin to a few hot spots and small blisters and settle into my 40-degree Big Agnes sleeping bag. I often reviewed the days photos, deleting those that didn't turn out as hoped. And then it off to sleep.
My third day's objective was Hance Creek. This would be my first day on the Tonto trail and it began, as all mornings did: up early at 5:00 am, heating water for coffee followed by a breakfast of a bagel with peanut butter and oatmeal. Afterwards, I began striking camp. While using my portable bucket to collect water from the Colorado for filtering, I had a true Bear Gryls moment. I took a step too far into the river and my left leg sank into the mucky river bottom almost up to the knee. I managed to turn myself around to face the beach and leaned forward spread eagle to distribute my weight across as much of the river bottom as possible. After a bit of wriggling, the left leg came free and I crawled to shallower water where the bottom was more solid. It was an unexpected and mildly exciting moment. After cleaning up and finishing my packing, I strapped on the backpack and left the beach campsite at 9:00 am.
I passed a couple on my way to the Hance Rapids wash. They were cleaning some hiking wounds at the River. The lady noticed I was having trouble picking up the cairn marking the beginning of the Tonto trail and she came to my aid, pointing out where the trail climbs from the wash to the beach. The Tonto trail begins with a trek across the sandy beach downstream of Hance Rapids, which makes for slow hiking when carrying a full pack. But the trail eventually makes a steady and sometimes steep ascent from the river through the Tapeats. This initial ascent is fairly rocky and occassionally difficult to identify. There was one section of trail about 150 yards in length where I briefly got off track. After an hour of hiking through the Tapeats, I stopped for a short break just below the Tonto in what I surmised might be the last bit of shade I'd enjoy for some time. It was 10:33 am when I topped out on the Tonto platform amidst a garden of large boulders.
Upon reaching the Tonto level, the trail became well-defined and much easier to follow. And this remained the case through the remainder of my hike. Over the next twenty minutes, I was treated to a spectacular view looking down canyon. One of John Hance's asbestos mines was clearly visible in the downstream Tapeats layer on the north side of the river. Eventually, the Tonto led me to the mouth of Mineral Canyon, where I took another short break to apply new moleskin. Returning to the trail shortly after 11:00 am, I began the traverse along the east side of Mineral Canyon and arrived at the point where the Tonto crosses the drainage at 11:45 am. Looking downstream through the drainage, Rama Shrine and Vishnu Temple dominate the Grand Canyon skyline. After a ten-minute break, I resumed the trail for its meandering westward traverse below Ayer Point. Taking advantage of a rare shady spot, I stopped for lunch below Ayer Point at 12:30 pm.
The first two days, lunch had consisted of a bagel with Swiss Colony cheese spread, cheese crackers and a small Hershey bar. Today and for the remainder of the trip, lunch would feature either Starkist tuna salad or chicken salad with crackers and a Hershey bar. This was supplemented with a handful of trail mix or a few bites of jerky. At some point during this day's hike, I managed to lose my headlamp. Fortunately, I had packed a mini-key chain flashlight which proved to be a serviceable--though not as convenient--replacement. Resuming the trail at 12:50 pm, I entered Hance Canyon at 1:20 pm, followed the Tonto trail on its winding course in-and-out of side drainages along the west slopes of Coronado Butte, and arrived at the treed, shady oasis of Hance Creek at 2:30 pm.
Water was flowing nicely in Hance Creek at this site. After setting up camp, I found a soft creekside boulder and soaked my feet in the chill water. Using my neckerchief to sop up the clear liquid, I wrung it over my head, neck, arms and legs. This was immediately and amazingly refreshing. After washing the trail dust from my person, I grabbed the clothes I'd worn the first two days in the canyon and gave them a rinse in the creek. While resting creekside, I had some planning to do. I'd covered the 6.2 miles from the river to Hance Creek in about 3 hours, 20 minutes. With the next day's itinerary including a 10.5 mile hike from Hance Creek to Grapevine, I knew I'd need to get an earlier start if I wanted to reach camp before the day got too hot. So, before making dinner, I set myself to the task of getting as ready as possible for the next day. I packed and compressed my clothes stuff sack; mixed the next day's ration of Gookinaid; filled my backpack water bladder; and set up everything I'd need for meals and snacks.
In my enthusiasm for having everything as ready to go as possible, I broke a cardinal rule of Grand Canyon backpacking: no food in the tent. And I paid for that mistake, later that night. It was Halloween, which proved to be an omen of things to come at Hance Creek. After settling into my sleeping bag for the night, I was suddenly awakened by something jumping on my head. It was dark and I didn't know what that something was. What I did know, was that it was real and inside the tent with me. I quickly grabbed the mini-flashlight and shined it at the head of the tent. There with his beady little eyes, was a Grand Canyon mouse. I don't know who was more scared, the mouse or me. The first thought that entered my mind was, "Hantavirus!" While the mouse was franticly trying to find safe haven, I grabbed my fleece cap, used it to grab the mouse, opened my tent and tossed the little rodent outside. With the intruder safely outside, I searched the tent for his secret portal, finding a small hole the mouse had chewed in the mesh to gain access to the inside storage pocket. I used some duct tape to effect a quick repair of the hole then checked the contents of the pocket. The ziplock baggy holding my next day's ration of trail mix had a hole in one corner and only two peanut halves remaining from the original contents. That mouse had pilfered my trail mix!
Notwithstanding my midnight encounter with "Danger Mouse," I slept well and awoke the next morning at 5:00 am. I stowed my air mattress, pillow and sleeping bag. Then, I took down and packed the tent before heating water for my morning coffee. While waiting for the water to boil, I grabbed the mini-binocs and checked out some celestial treasures. These included a comet in the constellation, Perseus, that had unexpectedly brightened about ten days ago. The comet had been discovered in 1892 by British amateur astronomer, Edwin Holmes. Intrinsically faint, the comet was in the midst of an outburst when Holmes made the discovery. In late October 2007, the comet experienced another outburst, brightening from 17th magnitude to 2nd magnitude in less than two days time. That represents an increase in brightness of 500,000 to 1 million, the most dramatic know outburst of a comet in recorded history. Comet Holmes was visible as a naked eye object from my driveway in Flagstaff with a full Moon in the sky. Now, under the pristine skies blanketing Grand Canyon, the comet appeared obviously non-stellar to the naked eye and presented as a bright, circular glow about one-half the size of the Moon in the 10x20 binoculars.
My organizational effort of the previous day did pay off. After breakfast, I was packed and on the trail at 7:33 am. Thirty minutes later, I arrived at a section of the Tonto trail Dennis Foster and I had traveled during a July hike to the Sockdolager overlook below Horseshoe Mesa. This piece of the Tonto hugs the west rim of Hance Creek Canyon just below the east arm of Horseshoe Mesa. After an hour of steady-paced hiking, I had rounded the east arm and was treated to an awesome vista featuring Wotans Throne, Angels Gate, Zoroaster Temple and more. Far in the distance, smoke from a north rim fire that had settled into Bright Angel Canyon stained the sky with a noticeable haze. At 9:23 am, I pulled into the treed, main drainage on the front side of the mesa between the east and west arms. I stopped for a 20-minute break to enjoy some Gookinaid, and have a snack of trail mix and jerky. Just a few minutes after leaving the shaded confines of this drainage, I passed the junction with the ascent route through the west arm of the mesa. In July, Dennis and I had taken this route to the top of Horseshoe Mesa. On this trip, I continued on the Tonto and was, again, hiking virgin trail. From here to the junction with the South Kaibab trail, every mile on the Tonto would be new territory for me in Grand Canyon.
At 10:00 am, I rounded the west arm of Horseshoe Mesa and entered Cottonwood Creek Canyon. This section of the Tonto Trail passes through a dense beavertail cactus field. I was more cautious on this section of trail than on any other during my hike. The heights, isolation and exposure didn't bother me nearly as much as the thought of a needle-sharp spike puncturing my leg. Thirty minutes later, the trail made an easy descent into the Cottonwood Creek campsite where I took a 25-minute break. While at Cottonwood Creek, I scouted a bit upstream and downstream to check the water flow. I also enjoyed reading the one mileage sign encountered on this hike. It indicated 24 miles of trail lay between the campsite and the South Kaibab trailhead. Leaving Cottonwood Creek at 10:55 am, I headed for the west arm of Cottonwood. I noticed some soreness in the left knee during this stretch, a condition that would prove mildly annoying through the remainder of this trip.
At noon, I rounded the long arm of an unnamed canyon butte to reach a vista from which the Colorado River could be seen. Looking upstream, Newberry Butte, the Palisades of the Desert and Mary Colter's Desert View Watchtower decorated the horizon. After stopping to take some photos, I resumed the trek into Grapevine Canyon. Finding a bit of shade on the trail, I decided to stop at 12:30 pm for a 25-minute lunch break. Grapevine is huge, among the largest arteries in Grand Canyon. While hiking the Tonto above the east rim of expansive Grapevine, my attention was drawn to a vertical column of rock on the opposite rim. In the afternoon light and shadow, this feature gave the distinct appearance of a man standing guard. And this is how I came to christen this the "Guardian" of Grapevine Canyon. I wonder if the Indians who lived here centuries ago had a similar name for that spire?
It was 1:33 pm when I passed through the spring in the east drainage of Grapevine. Though not flowing as vigorously as Hance Creek or Cottonwood Creek, the water was clear and enticing. But my mind was set on continuing farther up Grapevine to the campsite where the Tonto trail crosses the east arm of Grapevine Creek. Less than ten minutes from the spring, I entered a smaller drainage where the Tonto was dampened by flow from a weak seep. Soon after exiting this smaller drainage, the trail turned due south, serving up fine views deep into Grapevine Canyon. Shortly, I caught my first glimpse into the east arm of the creek where I planned to camp for the night. From the Tonto, there were obvious wet areas in the creek downstream of a tall Cottonwood and this bolstered my confidence that fresh water awaited at the campsite. I arrived at Grapevine Creek at 2:06 pm. I'd hiked 10.5 miles in 6 1/2 hours and was ready for a break. I leaned my Osprey Aether 70 against a tall Cottonwood, and sat down to finish a bottle of Gookinaid and have a small snack. I then scouted upstream and downstream for water. Although I found several fine campsites upstream, there was no flowing water. Looking downstream, I found several potholes filled with stagnant, brackish water that did not look at all appetizing.
After weighing my options, I decided to leave most of my gear at Grapevine Creek and return to the east drainage spring to get more water. I began the return hike at 3:19 pm. Twenty-five minutes later, I arrived back at the spring in the east drainage and immediately scouted downstream for a place to filter water. I filled both 24 oz. (.75 liter) water bottles with a Gookinaid mixture. Then, I filled the insulated 100 oz. (3 liter) Camelback bladder I'd packed. This would be my water supply for tomorrow's dry camp in Cremation Canyon. Finally, I refilled the 100 oz. bladder that would serve as my main water supply for the next 24 hours. The filtering and filling took about 30 minutes. That task completed, I immediately headed back to Grapevine Creek, arriving at the campsite at 4:43 pm. Dinner was late this night but afterward, the sky was clear and dark, which made for some excellent star gazing with the mini-binoculars. I stored all food and garbage in my Ratsack, before going to bed, and was not bothered by mice or any other Grand Canyon critters.
I awoke early Friday morning at 4:30 am. Today, would be the longest day of my trip. The itinerary called for an 11.7 mile hike from Grapevine Creek to Cremation Creek Canyon. Cremation is dry, year-round, so that would be a dry camp. Also, there is no reliable perennial water on the Tonto between Grapevine and Cremation. The water I had would need to last until I reached Pipe Spring the next day. Knowing this, I wanted to get an early start so I could cover as many miles during the coolest part of the day as possible. I would also need to be somewhat conservative with this water. Today, was going to be a test.
I was on the trail at 7:15 am, enjoying the view of the early morning sun kissing Lyell Butte as I made the short hike to the west arm of Grapevine. Here, I stopped to check out the names chiseled into a sandstone enclave. The enclave was downstream to my right, about 30 yards from where the Tonto crosses the creek bed and on the opposite side. The first signature to capture my attention was, "Hotel De Willow Creek." The next was, "P.D. Berry," the signature of one of Grand Canyon's best known miners and tourist guides, Peter Berry. It was 7:40 am when I resumed the trail to hike the drainages along the west side of Grapevine Creek. It was 8:20 when I walked into the sunlight for the first time. Half-an-hour later, the Tonto rounded the north end of Lyell Butte and I was delivered to more wide open vistas in Grand Canyon. The view to the west of Newton Butte, Pattie Butte and beyond was particularly impressive.
The Tonto led me into Boulder Canyon at 9:34 am. At 10:04 am, I arrived at the first of two seasonal springs. This was the spring at Boulder Creek. The ground was bone dry at the crossing and I saw no evidence of water downstream while making the descent to the drainage. According to my map, the seasonal spring is located upstream of the crossing in the east arm of Boulder Creek. So, I had a decision to make: do I scout for water or continue hiking to Lonetree? I'd been more conservative with my water intake, this morning, and felt fine. I decided to move on, foregoing the possibility of finding water for the certainty that continuing the hike would allow me to cover more distance during the cooler part of the day. I did take a 20-minute break to have a snack and update my trip log and, at 10:28 am, left Boulder Creek and continued my trek toward Cremation.
Lonetree Canyon offered the next possibility of water. There's a seasonal spring near where the Tonto trail crosses the creek bed. During the hike from Boulder to Lonetree, I stopped to admire an old agave stalk, to take photos of some back lit beavertail cactus and to admire the impressive profile of Newton Butte. I also found a mule deer antler while traversing the Tonto below Newton Butte. It was 11:34 am when the trail turned a corner and headed to the southwest into Lonetree Canyon. The high Redwall of Pattie Butte dominated the cross canyon view. At 12:06 pm, I pulled into the Lonetree Canyon campsite. As at Boulder, there was no water at the trail crossing. The only indication that water could be found in the area was a message left by a hiker who'd passed through some unknown time in the past. His message read, "water -->" but did not indicate how far downstream the water was or when it had last been available. Again, weighing the option of investing valuable time in searching for some unknown, uncertain water supply and the option of continuing to Cremation with my existing water supply, I decided to bet on the resources immediately at hand.
After a 45-minute lunch break in Lonetree, I began the final leg of my hike for this day, the three-mile trek to Cremation Canyon. Much of this section involves an undulating traverse of the Tonto plateau below Pattie Butte. It was 1:18 pm when I made the westward turn out of Lonetree Canyon to enter this section of trail, which rolls into and out of minor drainages en route to Cremation Creek Canyon. The view across the Colorado to the north side Tonto includes a deep look into Clear Creek Canyon. While hiking this portion of the Tonto, I wonder how many--if any--fellow hikers were making the trek between Phantom Ranch and Clear Creek.
At 1:38 pm, I encountered one of the most interesting "cairns" I've found in Grand Canyon. It was a circle of stones approximately ten feet in diameter with a squared stone at the center and several larger stones dispersed within the outer ring. I wasn't sure if this ring of stones was supposed to represent a clock, a compass, an ancient design or something else. But it did have a palpable effect on me. While standing there pondering the ring, I had the distinct feeling that I was about to enter a special place in Grand Canyon. It is said that the Puebloan Indians who lived in Grand Canyon would scatter the ashen remains of their dead, here. Walking past the circle of rocks, I had an overwhelming sense of entering into a sacred place. I said the Lord's prayer and asked for guidance that I might not do anything to desecrate this holy place. It was a genuinely spiritual moment for me.
With Cedar Ridge visible in the distance, the Tonto trail began a direct descent into Cremation Creek at 2:10 pm. En route to the first of three major drainages, I spied a small herd of mule deer grazing in the late afternoon sun. Once they detected my presence, the deer trotted over a ridge to the relative safety of an unseen ravine. The GCNP trail guide for this part of the Tonto describes the hike through Cremation Creek Canyon as, "tough." While the Tonto generally prefers to stay at the same elevation, the descents into and climbs from the major drainages involve significant elevation gained and lost. The descent into the first drainage was steep and rocky, but not terribly long. I arrived at the campsite at 2:25 pm and took a short, ten-minute break. Then, it was back on the trail. My goal was to camp at the last of the three established campsites in Cremation Creek. I passed through the second of the three major drainages at 2:49 pm. The climb out on the west side was--again--steep and rocky, but not terribly long. By comparison, I found the drainages along the Tonto between the Hermit trail and Horn Creek to be much more challenging.
I did lose the Tonto trail while climbing up from the middle Cremation campsite. This was the first and only time I totally lost track of the trail. By the time I topped out on the ridge overlooking the drainage, there was no trail and no visible cairns. Eventually, I decided to hike cross country in a direction that would probably lead me to intersect the established trail. And sure enough, after just a few minutes of bush whacking, I found the Tonto. Shortly thereafter, I got a view across the third drainage of the campsite that was my goal. Unfortunately, I saw a tent set up in the site. It was 3:05 pm on Friday afternoon and I hadn't seen another person since Wednesday morning. Part of me looked forward to some human companionship and that part wanted to continue hiking in the hope that there would be more than one campsite, over there. But the larger part of me knew that the hikers who belonged to that tent were probably enjoying their own bit of isolation. And, frankly, another night of solo hiking was pretty appealing to me, as well. So, I turned around and headed back to the campsite in the middle drainage.
It was 3:19 pm when I trundled into my last camp on the Tonto trail. I set up camp, draped my still-wet clothes (those rinsed in Hance Creek) over a large boulder to dry in the sun and consolidated my water supply. I'd done a good job of conserving water on this day's hike. When it was all said and done, I arrived at the Cremation campsite with about three liters of water remaining. I'd use 20 ounces for tonight's dinner and 16 ounces for breakfast in the morning. That would leave about two liters for my hike to Indian Garden with the option of resupplying at Pipe Spring, en route. To simplify things, I decided to consolidate the drinking water in my backpack bladder. Dinner on this night was a second round of Mountain House chicken teriyaki. The other meals I'd packed were lasagna (two servings), spaghetti and pasta primavera. Of these, the lasagna and pasta primavera were my favorites. The others were a little bland for my taste; bland but still highly edible.
Saturday morning, I awoke at 5:00 am as was my custom on this hike. Emerging from the tent to go find a bush to water, I glanced up at the waning crescent Moon and realized I'd just missed seeing Regulus, the brightest star in Leo, emerge from occultation. Leo is one of the zodiacal constellations, which means it lies close to the ecliptic, the apparent path the Sun follows through the course of the year. Because of this, the Moon regularly passes between the Earth and Regulus. These events are referred to as occultations and observing the emergence of a bright star from behind the Moon is a pretty cool thing. Sometimes, you even see the star wink in-and-out of view while passing behind lunar mountains. I'd missed the emergence by 15 minutes, at most. Oh well, there was plenty to enjoy. I grabbed the 10x20's and checked out the Pleiades, the Orion Nebula, the Double Cluster and comet Holmes.
After breakfast, striking camp and packing, I was on the trail at 7:45 am. It was a gorgeous and clear day. When I reached the ridge between my drainage and the one to the west, the tent I'd seen the previous afternoon was gone. I passed through that campsite at 8:18 am and, oh my, is it a thing of beauty. There's a large flat area for a tent but the star attraction of this campsite is the dining area that's been assembled beneath a rock overhang. Somebody or some group of bodies has taken the time to assemble a stone table and four benches. It's a genuine Wilma Flintstone designer kitchenette in the style known as early, classic Bedrock. From now on, I'll think of this site as "Wilma's Place."
I passed several large cairns on the hike out of Cremation Creek Canyon. The first was a single, large cairn at the western edge of the canyon. Then after topping out on the climb from Cremation, I passed a pair of large cairns that seemed to mimic nearby geographical features. It was 8:50 am and, using my binoculars, I could see hikers along the South Kaibab trail. Arriving at the solar toilet at the junction of the Tonto and South Kaibab trails, my first words to a gentleman waiting in line for the facilities were, "So, this is what people look like." It had been three days since my last conversation with another human when departing Hance Rapids. I relished the moment and cheerily chatted with the day hikers and backpackers gathered at this crossroads.
At 9:20 am, I set boot to one last section of the Tonto trail, a 4.5-mile stretch between the South Kaibab trail and Indian Garden. The first half of this stretch arcs west around O'Neill Butte before turning south and hugging the east rim of Pipe Creek Canyon. It was a gorgeous morning and, for the first time on this trip, I would meet other hikers on the trail. I met a young German couple who were doing the Bright Angel-Tonto-South Kaibab loop hike. We exchanged a brief, "Good morning," and continued on our respective journeys. Soon after this encounter, I caught my first glimpse of Burro Spring. I usually don't associate this desert environment with fall color but the blazing gold of the trees at Burro Spring were simply stunning. It wasn't the rich variety of color one sees in the northeastern US but the brilliance of those leaves was unsurpassed by anything I'd ever seen. I passed through the tall reeds of Burro Spring at 10:13 am and, just 11 minutes later, arrived at one of my favorite places in Grand Canyon, Pipe Spring.
I've only been to Pipe Spring on two occassions but it has been as welcome an oasis as I've ever met. I hiked upstream until I found a perfect boulder in the shade to sit, soak my feet and run a damp cloth through my hair. It was a welcome 40-minute break that left me refreshed and energized for the last section of trail to Indian Garden. Leaving Pipe Spring just after 11:00 am, I almost immediately met a father & son tandem resting by the trail. I asked why they weren't sitting in the shade at Pipe Spring and the older gentleman explained that they wanted to enjoy the wide open vistas offered along the Tonto. Not wanting to intrude on their hike too long, I excused myself and continued the trek to Indian Garden.
It was 12:02 pm when I arrived at the junction of the Tonto and Bright Angel trails. I paused to take a photo of the East Tonto trail sign and to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment that washed over me. This wasn't the longest hike ever undertaken in Grand Canyon--not by a long stretch--but it was the longest hike I'd undertaken and following the Tonto trail from its head at Hance Rapids to Indian Garden seemed an accomplishment worth noting. After waiting for a mule party to pass, I continued onward to Indian Garden, taking a seat at the base of a tall Cottonwood at the benches and water fountains.
I ate lunch at the benches, chatting with a couple from Houston who were hiking out after two nights at Phantom Ranch. Then, it was off to the camping area to select a site and put up the tent. My camp set, I walked down the Bright Angel trail to find my favorite waterfall in Garden Creek. When I arrived, I was disappointed to see two kids already there but they were leaving so, I ended up having the falls to myself. I'd brought my collapseable bucket and used it pour gallons of crisp, clear Garden Creek water over my head. Feeling refreshed and clean, I settled on a boulder to check my blisters and apply fresh moleskin. After drying in the sun a bit, I returned to camp to collect my maps, snacks and notebook and returned to the benches. For the next hour, I updated my notes from the hike and chatted with a group of women who were about the tackle the last leg of their South Kaibab-Tonto-Bright Angel loop hike.
As the afternoon shadows grew longer, I decided to return to my campsite to load dinner into the waist pack and set off for Plateau Point to enjoy the sunset in Grand Canyon. Plateau Point is 1.5 mile from Indian Garden, which works out to a 30-minute hike along the relatively flat trail. I arrived about 4:30 pm, took a few photos and set up my camp stove to heat some water. Over the next 90 minutes, I enjoyed a fine feast of Mountain House lasagna, hot apple cider and a Hershey bar. Between bites and sips, I would take an ocassional photo. But for the most part, I simply sat and enjoyed the golden hour at the south rim of Granite Gorge. I left Plateau Point at 6:00 pm, arriving back at Indian Garden 30 minutes later.
I slept in on Sunday, getting up at 6:00 am rather than my usual 4:30 or 5:00. The hikers in a nearby campsite had stayed up late, talking, the night before and that had made it difficult to get to sleep. Still, I was among the first people awake in my area. I used my last bagel to scrape the last remants of peanut butter from its container, drank the last cup of coffee and ate the last packet of oatmeal. After breakfast, I refilled my Camelbak bladder and mixed in the remaining Gookinaid. Then, it was time to take down the tent. Packed and ready to go, I left Indian Garden at 8:00 am to begin the hike to the South Rim. I stopped briefly at the trail to the helipad to check out smoke-filled Bright Angel Canyon. I felt sorry for anybody staying at Phantom Ranch.
Feeling strong and excited about the prospect of getting home, I set a good pace on the first leg of the hike. The 1.5 mile stretch to 3 Mile Rest House includes Jacobs Ladder, the steep switchbacking route through the Redwall. I passed several hikers before arriving at the rest house at 8:45 am. Still feeling strong, I rested only 5 minutes before continuing the hike up the Bright Angel. My next objective was Mile and a Half Rest House. This 1.5-mile stretch went quickly and I pulled in at the upper rest area at 9:35 am. It was time for a break so, I removed my backpack and settled on a soft boulder for a snack and some water.
While I was resting, an older gentleman approached with his GPS. He appeared to be looking for something so I asked if he needed any help. This led to a very pleasant conversation with Mel Hockwitt, who was in Grand Canyon on a geocacheing hunt. It had been so long since I'd had an adult conversation that I happily delayed my departure from the rest house to spend some time with Mel. Eventually, however, we both decided it was time to move on. As Mel headed back up the trail, I turned to put on my backpack. While adjusting the waist belt and shoulder straps, I heard Mel say, "Well, would you look at this?" Turning to see what he was talking about, I was greeted by a most unexpected sight: a bighorn sheep was casually walking down Bright Angel trail. The ram walked right past Mel and then right past me. I could have reached out and stroked his fur but I was too busy trying to get some photos of this amazing animal.
This encounter was the crowning moment of this hike. I'd been hoping to see bighorn while hiking the Tonto. To have one pass within an arm's length on the Bright Angel trail less than an hour before the end of my trip was genuinely unexpected. I couldn't have asked for a better ending to this trip.
Of course, that wasn't quite the end of the hike. I still had 1.5 mile to walk to reach the South Rim. Still feeling a buzz of energy from the encounter with the bighorn, I left the rest house at 10:00 am to hike the last stretch to the rim. Every hiker I passed was treated to a warm, "Hello." And anyone who asked how my hike was going to the same response, "Great!" About 40 minutes after leaving Mile and a Half Rest House, I walked into direct sunlight for the first time that day. And at 10:50 am, I cleared the last step to the trailhead parking lot and made a bee-line for my Isuzu Rodeo. Including the roundtrip to Plateau Point the previous evening, I'd hiked about 60 miles in seven days in Grand Canyon. I was tired, hungry and ready to sleep in my own bed. The 75-mile drive home would take less than two hours.