This was my first solo, multi-day trip in Grand Canyon and also my first time flirting with the canyon's notoriously hot summer weather. My permit was for one night at Hermit Creek, one night at Granite Rapids and one night at Horn Creek. The weather forcast called for highs in the mid-90's and lows in the upper-50's along the river. I was hoping conditions along the Tonto would be a few degrees cooler, perhaps even in the sub-90 range. I was also a bit nervous about my third day. The hike from Granite Rapids to Horn Creek would be a long one and, beyond Monument Creek, there would be no reliable water along the route. But I did have a plan in mind should I arrive at Horn Creek low on water.
Monday morning, I tumbled from bed at 4:45 am, dressed and was on the road just 15 minutes later. After gassing up and hitting the Starbucks drive-thru for some java, I was finally on my way to the South Rim. Although my permit allowed me to park at the Hermit's Rest trailhead, I decided to leave the Rodeo at the Bright Angel trailhead where I would exit the canyon in a few days. The Hermit's Rest shuttle runs every 15 minutes this time of year and there were 20-25 people waiting at the stop when I arrived. After the scenic drive to Hermit's Rest, I tightened the straps on my Osprey Aether 70 and headed for the trail. It was 8:15 am, a late start for this time of year and I'd be paying the price in a few hours.
According to the Hermit Trail brochure, 7.7 miles lay between me and my destination for the night, the Hermit Creek campsite. The Hermit Trail was used during the mid-11th to mid-12th centuries by ancestral Puebloans who hunted and gathered plants in the area. In the early 1900's, the Federal government granted permission to the Santa Fe Railroad to build a new trail. Construciton of the new Hermit Trail was complete in 1912 and much of the inlaid stone still remains in lengthy upper sections of the trail. The railroad charged $18.25 ($350 in today's dollars) to take tourists to the Hermit Camp. The fee included transportation from El Tovar hotel to the Hermit's Rest trailhead, a mule ride to the Colorado River, an overnight stay at the Tourist Camp and a return trip to the rim the next day.
With the construction of the South Kaibab Trail in 1930, tourists had a more direct route to the river. The new trail's convenient location near Grand Canyon Village and the amenities available at Phantom Ranch combined to draw business away from the Hermit Camp. So, the Santa Fe Railroad decided to close the operation and focus their attention on the corridor areas of Grand Canyon. Today, all that remains of the Hermit Camp are some stone stem walls, overgrown footpaths and rusted equipment. Although most of the improved trail has eroded from decades of use and a lack of maintenance, there are sections on upper Hermit where the cobblestone paving remains. In fact, an hour after leaving Hermit's Rest, I was hiking one such section when I found the well-known dinosaur footprints in the lower Coconino. After a short break to examine and photograph these trace fossils, I was back on the trail.
Signed junctions with the Waldron and Dripping Springs trails were soon passed and I pulled into Santa Maria Spring at 10:15 am. I paused only long enough to chat with another hiker and wet my neckerchief before continuing the Supai traverse toward Cathedral Stairs. There were many points along this stretch where rock slides have erased the trail but these were easily negotiated with some minor scrambling. The many cairns--too many, perhaps--along this section undoubtedly keep all but the least observant hikers on track. At one rock slide, I was disappointed to find that someone has used a black marker to draw an arrow on a boulder to indicate the route over the slide. A perfectly good cairn stood just a few feet from this bit of defacement. And at another spot, "Your doin great," has been scratched onto a rock. Cairns are one thing but this kind of permanent scarring is really unfortunate.
As noon approached, I was arriving at Breezy Point where I met four backpackers. Chatting with Robert, I learned they were also headed to Hermit Creek. Soon after my arrival, Robert and his companions moved on, and it was then that I made two mistakes. First, despite the fact that Breezy Point offers very little shade, I decided to stop there for lunch. Second, I didn't rest after eating. I was anxious to get to Hermit Creek and select a good site before it got too crowded. So, I pushed on with a full stomach and the full heat of the day coming on. I soon arrived at Cathedral Stairs and began the descent. I reached the bottom in good shape, but continued pressing the pace and, by the time I had arrived at the Tonto trail junction, was nearly wasted. I was only a mile from Hermit Creek but that last mile proved grueling. I stumbled into camp exhausted and overheated, and made a bee-line for a shady spot along the creek.
It was here that I met a group of hikers from Wisconsin--my old stomping grounds--and Minnesota. I also met a back country ranger named Betsy. Betsy immediately recommended a soak in the creek as the quickest way to cool off. Immediately acting on her suggestion, I walked down to the creek and dunked my head in the crisp, clear stream. This was incredibly refreshing and I was soon well on my way to recovery. A little while later, a desert collared lizard decided to visit my campsite. He seemed interested in me or my gear; it was hard to decide which. Hermit Creek's best feature was the waterfall below the campsites. The fall empties into a pool, perhaps 20-feet across and 5-feet deep, and is rimmed on one side by boulders that were perfect for stashing personal items while soaking in the cool water. And the boulders shaping the falls made a great platform from which to execute the perfect cannonball. After dinner, I explored the falls and pools upstream of my campsite. Later after crawling into my tent, canyon tree frogs lulled me to sleep with their deep, throaty serenade. The night was cool and clear, and the Summer Triangle hung high overhead when I awoke the next morning.
Tuesday was relatively easy. I left Hermit Creek at 7:00 am to begin the 5-mile hike to Granite Rapids. However, I didn't get very far before leaving the trail to explore the old Hermit Tourist Camp. The stone stem walls of two large buildings were visible from the trail. But many more ruins lay upslope just beyond view. What began as a brief photo stop turned into a 30-minute detour among the site's extensive ruins. Among the more interesting relics, were the rusting remains of the aerial tram that was once used to convey supplies between Pima Point and the Hermit Camp. The was even used to deliver a Model T Ford, piece-by-piece, to the camp.
It was 7:30 am when I rejoined the hike the Granite Rapids via the Tonto Trail. Nearly an hour later and about 1/4 mile past the junction with the Hermit Trail, I was treated to my first view of the Colorado River for the day. Hiking below Cope Butte, I could see the rapids where Ninety-four Mile Creek empties into the river. Twenty minutes later from a new vantage point, Hermit Rapids came into view to the west. Behind me and coming around a corner on the Tonto, were the same four hikers I'd met at Breezy Point on Monday. Beyond this point, the Tonto began a gradual descent towards the Monument Creek drainage and I soon caught my first glimpse of the stone column hoodoo that is the namesake for this area. The Tonto took me to the base of the stone Monument and, from there, the trail to Granite Rapids made a brief but steep descent through the Vishnu Schist to the creek bed. It was bone dry in Monument Creek and the trail was paved by countless smooth, rounded stones bleached white by years of exposure to the desert sun.
The hike to Granite Rapids took about half-an-hour. Much of the route was still in shadow, shielded from the Sun by the black & pink walls of Vishnu Schist lining Monument Creek. In several places, meandering veins of migmatite were evident in the Schist. Upon reaching the river, a sandy trail meandered east through the tall grasses and trees to a soft, sandy beach. There were several shaded campsites along the beach, one of which was already occupied by a three guys from Colorado. Later, Robert and his hiking party arrived to take a riverfront campsite to the downstream side. I chose a site further upstream, set up camp and had a quick dip in the clear, green Colorado. Refreshed by the chilly water of the great river, I decided to explore downstream around the rapids.
One of my goals for this day was to photograph river trips shooting Granite Rapids and I soon found a great spot for exactly that. It was a small tree offering cooling shade along the rapids. This made a perfect place to eat lunch, take a nap, and watch the river parties come and go. Throughout the afternoon, six different groups floated through the area. Some stopped at our beach for lunch or to scout the rapids. Most were large river rafts holding as many as 16 passengers. But one party floated through in two four-person rafts and two one-person kayaks. Watching the kayakers take on Granite Rapids was something I'll not soon forget.
Wednesday was the most challenging of the four-day trip. I was permitted to camp at Horn Creek, a 10 mile hike from Granite Rapids. Unfortunately, the water at Horn Creek has been contaminated by spill-off from the Lost Orphan Mine, which means the last reliable water on this day would come from Monument Creek. Planning this day, I had weighed two options. One, was to bring an extra Camelbak bladder and pack all the water I would need for a dry camp at Horn Creek. But the additional weight of the bladder and water convinced me to go with a second option. My plan was to hike to Horn Creek, setup camp, cache my gear and then hike the 2.5 miles to Indian Garden. There, I would tank up on water before returning to Horn Creek for the night. While this second option added a 5-mile round trip to my day, it also avoided the burden of carrying 7 extra pounds (or more) on the 10-mile hike to Horn.
I got an early (for me) start, leaving Granite Rapids beach at 5:40 am. It took about an hour to reach the base of the Monument and, after a 15 minute water & snack break, I began the trek east along the Tonto. I saw one tent at Monument campsite and, at 7:30 am, stepped out of the shadows and into the first direct sunlight of the day. Starting early enough to get two hours of hiking in before direct exposure to the sun would pay off as I continued the hike to Horn Creek. I passed through Cedar Spring shortly before 8:00 am, and stopped in a shady spot to hydrate. It was mostly sunny with just a touch of wind and temperatures were already in the 70's. The climb out of this drainage revealed several exposed, shadeless campsites at Cedar Spring.
An overlook below the eastern arm of The Alligator offered expansive views upstream along the Colorado. Just a few minutes later at 8:30 am, the Salt Creek Rapids came into view and the Tonto turned to the south beginning a long traverse along the west rim of the Salt Creek drainage. It was almost 9:00 am when I passed through the Salt Creek campsite with an eye toward finding a place to stop for a break. A check of my trip map showed the next stopping point to be on a treeless overlook below Dana Butte. So, I ate a fistful of trail mix, sucked down some Gookinaid, laid back and stretched my legs. After a short power nap, I was back on the trail refreshed and energized for the next leg.
The hike from Salt Creek to Horn Creek is just shy of 5 miles in length so, I was halfway to my primary destination. I enjoyed some fine views looking downstream along the Colorado--including toward Granite Rapids--while making the initial travese below Dana Butte's western flank. Eventually, the Tonto worked its way around the northern arm of Dana, changing direction to the east in the process. A bit more than an hour had passed since my break at Salt Creek when the trail led me over a saddle about 2 miles from Horn Creek. From here, the trail began a gradual descent towards Horn Creek. But I was tired and thirsty so, I decided to double-back to a large boulder offering shade just off the trail. It was an application of the lesson I had learned Monday atop the Cathedral Stairs. And it paid off; this short break left me refreshed for the remaining hike to Horn Creek.
The Tonto Trail dipped into an unnamed drainage off Dana Butte before beginning its southward descent into Horn Creek. The trail was populated by numerous cactus in bloom. Their pink and yellow flowers were spectacular. Maricopa and Hopi points dominated the south skyline and a family of turkey vultures soared overhead as I entered Horn Creek's western drainage. About a quarter mile from the campsite, I noticed a lot of scat on the trail. This must be mountain lion country, which made sense given the large big horn sheep population in the area. It was about 11:30 am when I arrived at the Horn Creek campsite. I rested a few minutes before setting up camp. Once my tent and gear were squared away, I again hit the trail. It was 2.5 miles to Indian Garden and the time was 12:15 pm.
Having removed most of the gear from my pack, the weight was down to between 10 and 15 pounds. This weight reduction allowed me to make good time along the Tonto and I rolled into Indian Garden just 45 minutes after leaving my Horn Creek campsite. It was 1:00 pm and Indian Garden was bustling with activity. A mule train was arriving from Plateau Point, hikers were lunching at the benches by the water, and others were milling about. I dropped my pack next to a bench and took a seat. Removing my hat and shirt, I turned on the spigot and let the water gush over my head. It was immediately refreshing. I soaked my neckerchief, shirt and hat before returning to the bench to eat lunch. The Indian Garden squirrels were all over place. When not begging for food, they were trying to steal it.
After lunch, I refilled both my water bottles and the Camelbak bladder. Departing the bench area, I hiked about a quarter mile down the Bright Angel trail until I found a foot path down to Garden Creek. There along the banks of the creek in the shade, I again removed my shirt and hat. Off came the hiking boots and on went my Tevas. Pulling a collapsible bucket from my Osprey, I repeatedly filled it with water and poured the cool liquid over my head. I again soaked my shirt, neckerchief and hat. Afterwards, I lay beside the creek and catnapped through the midafternoon heat. It was a great way to spend an afternoon in Grand Canyon. But all too soon, it was time to begin the return hike to Horn Creek.
I arrived back at the campsite at 4:30 pm. About thirty minutes later, I heard two hikers approaching from the east. They stopped to visit and I learned they were from Colorado. They had driven 37 hours straight to arrive at the South Rim, late last night. Exhausted, they had slept through most of the morning and didn't depart Bright Angel trailhead until after noon. Their permit was for one night at Salt Creek, one night at Hermit Rapid and then out along the Hermit trail. By one's estimate, they were carrying 80-pound packs for the three-day trip. We exchanged backpacking stories and commiserated about the heat before they strapped on their packs for the final 5 miles to Salt Creek.
Thursday, was my last day in the canyon. I was packed and on the trail by 7:00 am. Reaching Indian Garden an hour later, I stopped at the benches to eat the extra lunch I'd packed for the trip and to prepare Gookinaid mixtures in my water bottles. While there, I met some guys who were finishing a rim-to-rim hike. They had gone down the North Kaibab Trail to Cottonwood on Tuesday, continued to Phantom Ranch on Wednesday and, this morning, were headed out the Bright Angel. They left about 8:15 am and I hit the trail about 15 minutes later.
Just outside Indian Garden, I saw Dennis Foster's familiar face coming down the trail. I knew he was planning a day hike to see the benchmark on Plateau Point and we had talked about possibly teaming up for that. After exchanging greetings, I explained that I'd had enough canyon heat for the week, and was going to continue to the rim. Besides, I was hearing the call of the Bright Angel Lodge's Wrangler's Chili. Dennis just smiled and said he had a surprise for me. We found some shade beneath a tree just off trail and, from his daypack, Dennis pulled an insulated lunch bag. Inside, were dry ice and--drum roll, please--individual sized containers of Häagen-Dazs and ice cold sodas. So there we were, sitting in the shade beside the Bright Angel trail enjoying ice cream and frosty cold beverages. Had I died and gone to heaven? We ate, drank and planned to meet at the rim after Dennis finished his day hike. We finished our treats and were soon back on the trail fueled by the energy kick of a major sugar buzz. While Dennis continued on to Indian Garden, I turned my gaze toward the rim and began the ascent of Jacob's Ladder.
Three hours later, I arrived at the Bright Angel Trailhead. I must have seen 500 people along the way. There were at least three mule trains; a trail maintenance crew staffed mostly by university students from Sweden, France and Germany; a British lady and her 13 month old daughter toddling around at Three-Mile Resthouse; the school group from Prescott, Arizona snacking at Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse; Japanese tourists at the first switchback and many, many others. There may have been a time when I would have recoiled at the mass of humanity on this trail, but not today. Today, I was enjoying the pulse of life on Bright Angel almost as much as I was looking forward to the chili and beer waiting for me at the Bright Angel Lodge. Well, not that much.