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Tonto Trail, Nov 2008
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Steven Thompson
(stevet) - M

Locale: Northeast
Tonto Trail, Nov 2008 on 01/10/2009 14:44:36 MST Print View

It has taken me awhile, but I finally completed a trip report for my hike of the Tonto Trail last November.

I started at the South Bass trailhead and exited 9 days and some 120 miles later at the New Hance.

A "full version" in 3 parts with embedded photos is available [URL=!126]here[/URL] in three fairly large files. You'll need MS Word to view.

And if you just want to peruse the photos, they are located [URL=!138]here[/URL].

I'll post the report in text over the next few messages. Steve

Steven Thompson
(stevet) - M

Locale: Northeast
Part 1 on 01/10/2009 14:46:39 MST Print View

Nov 15. Once again I find myself on the trail, alone. Not that I’m surprised, I often hike solo; especially my big hikes. I just don’t know many people that can and want to do backpacks like this, and have a week of vacation to spare in late November. It certainly couldn’t be my congenial personality, eh? Whatever the reason it is what it is and I set off again, alone, to cover both new and familiar trail.

It has been more than two years since my last long backpack and I am way overdue. I am too short tempered with my wife, and much too cynical at work. Lost in the thick of thin things and buried in detail, I need return to the simple rhythm of backpacking, to the quiet solitude of a wild place, and to a physical challenge, a test, something to let me know I am still alive.

The South Bass and West Tonto trails are new to me and I set out not quite knowing what to expect. I am pleasantly surprised. The South Bass Trail is beautiful. It begins its descent through sparse deciduous forest high above the Esplanade Plateau. I missed the peak fall colors, but reds and yellows and browns though muted still remain and pull my gaze from point to point.
The trail is also in very good condition. After the drive to the trail head I expected much worse; little more than a washout, something that would make the Boucher Trail as it drops from Yuma Point look well maintained. The backcountry office ranger “warned” about the road, said to expect a two hour drive from the forest road turnoff, and that some of the rougher sections may be impassible after rain, but that advisory didn’t prepare me in the least.

I enlisted my son, a student at NAU, to shuttle me to the trailhead. He and a friend meet me at 4:30am at Denny’s in Flagstaff. The restaurant is bustling with NAU students. Themselves late night regulars, they engage in some give and take jesting with the waiter as we breakfast. Soon enough we are on the road and reach the entrance gate at 7am to find a short line of vehicles in queue. Leaving my car near the New Hance trail head, we retrace our path out of the park and locate Forest Road #328, and are on way to find the South Bass. The boys plan to return and tourist the park after the drop off.

The first several miles of 328 are well graded dirt road and in just over a half hour we reach the gate into the Havasupai Reservation. There is a $25 entrance fee for the privilege of driving the 3-4 miles to the park boundary. It is immediately obvious that the money is not spent on road maintenance, but it is easily passable and we reach the park boundary in less than 15 minutes. It is also quite clear that the $90 backcountry permit fee is not spent on trailhead access road maintenance. There are several places where the wheel straddle ruts 2-3’ deep. It is very slow going. Five miles and just over one hour of high stress driving later we arrive at the trailhead parking area.

Two vehicles sit parked at the trail head, one a national park service pick-up. I entertain the notion that on this first stretch of trail I might have some company. My son and I talk a bit while I fuss with my pack. Starting out with about 60 lbs, more than 20 of it water; I gripe a bit about the weight then saddle up. He snaps a few pictures, hands me the camera, and reassures me about the return drive. I am thankful he has a friend with him just in case they get stranded. I tell him to expect a call and visit next Sunday on my drive home. We hug, say goodbye, and I’m off. I revisit my concern about the return drive several times over the next few days.

It takes about an hour to reach the Esplanade and the Royal Arch Route trail junction. Dotted with junipers, the Esplanade is reminiscent of Horseshoe Mesa, but it is also interestingly plant/climate zone upside down; the higher elevations at the start of the trail have deciduous trees and lower elevations evergreen. The trail junction makes a nice spot for a short break.

Continuing, the easy to follow trail drops steeply into Bass Canyon then proceeds along the east canyon wall through the Redwall and down to the junction with the Tonto Trail. The ease of passage on the South Bass Trail is just a teaser; the West Tonto proves a bit more perplexing.

It should be nearly impossible to get lost hiking the West Tonto, though I often find myself “not found.” The trail at best is a most subtle depression, or perhaps it is only the shale sitting at the slightest different angle from the untrammeled ground. Either way, with the late morning sun high overhead I follow and frequently misplace a most obscure track. And when misplaced, though not exactly lost, I am not exactly “found” and spend considerable time retracing steps.

The trail is also infrequently marked by small cairns. They offer some comfort; clear signs of being “found.” But the comfort is fleeting or more accurately a deception. The cairns generally signal where the trail makes an abrupt left or right turn change in direction; a little fact I didn’t at first recognize and so seeing a cairn I plowed straight ahead, and repeatedly walked myself into a “not found” situation.

Today’s weather, clear skies and mid 70’s, is perfect for backpacking. It was the prospect of iffy, potentially winter weather conditions that led me here. This Tonto Trail backpack was not Plan A. Plan A had been a JMT thru-hike, but that wouldn’t fit conveniently enough into an all too crowded schedule. There was a window of opportunity in October, but the prospect of a two week solo journey with possible winter conditions is beyond my comfort level. Judging by this day, and the 10 day clear and mild northern Arizona forecast, this Plan B Tonto Trail thru-hike is a good call.

Still, even with temps in the low 70’s hiking the Tonto Platform in the afternoon with full sun exposure is hot work. And from trail beta found on the web and that gathered from conversations with backcountry rangers I planned for no water until Boucher Creek; so I ration it, too much so. 2.5 gallons is a lot, but it is a balance. I can easily drink it all in one day of desert hiking and need to make it last for two. Though well watered to start, my ration is a cup an hour while hiking, and though I greedily knock back a liter with lunch, I am always thirsting and ready for a drink.

Serpentine Canyon has a water filled tinaja at the trail crossing. It is a sign of promise that the first two nights will not be dry camps. I debate whether to recharge, but the critter filled water needs filtering and I am behind schedule, so I pass. In retrospect I should have tanked up, refilled the dromedaries, and been a happy, hydrated hiker. The first lesson of the trip and universal truth: Water is Life. Drinking my fill is the desired state, and rationing, at best, is a sorry compromise.

Come late afternoon I am tired, somewhat dehydrated, and a bit grumpy. It is 5pm, the sun is low, and it is still a couple miles to the Ruby Canyon crossing, and for the life of me I cannot locate the trail. The map indicates the trail tending uphill just prior to entering Ruby so I thread an obstacle course up the sloping platform. Looking for trail sign rather than pay attention to footing I slip and fall earning a large patch of road rash below my left knee. I am quite proficient at falling down, especially when tired at the end of a long hiking day.

Recovering from that little stumble I move barely 5 steps before falling again; this time taking a postage stamp chunk of flesh out of my left knee. The blood cascades down my shin and wets the cuff of my sock. I use a bandana to soak up the mess and wrap it around the knee for containment. Despite the indignity the short break is welcome. It is time for some water and a snack, and hurrah, I spy the trail below me.

I angle down towards the trail stepping over and around ankle high cactus with lovely 2” spines. Then the third time is the charm. My left foot gives way and I find myself in turtle mode, head pointing downhill, thrashing about, ass and elbows in cactus, unable to shake the hiking staffs from my wrists. I unleash a string of expletives and God answers my little prayer by loudly implanting the thought, “Get a grip!”

Settling down I am able to free my wrists, position my grip low on the staffs, and push up and out of my predicament. It takes more than a few minutes to remove spines, and restore some sense of dignity. Worn out and with dusk settling in I suffer a moment of weakness. The thought occurs, “Maybe, just maybe, I am in over my head and should have been less dismissive of the warning letter I received after sending the permit application.”

The permit process is straightforward. Go to the BCO web page. Open the permit form. Fill it out, selecting your camping zones. Print, fax, and wait a few days. Except a permit didn’t arrive, rather a letter indicating the trip is reserved followed by an ominous BUT! “Do you really know; do you really understand what you are asking for? Those who ask for trips like this end up camping off itinerary, getting injured and even die.”

Of course I know what I am asking for. I’ve been backpacking for 40 years. I’ve backpacked and hiked extensively from the South Rim. I’ve day hiked rim to rim. My last warm-up hike was 26 mile day hike in the Columbia Gorge. Of course I know what I am asking for. With confidence I provide the requested hiker info, and then speak with a BCO ranger who after reviewing my itinerary and backpacking resume says, “Sounds like a great hike.” Four days later I had the permit in hand. Of course I know.

But maybe I didn’t know. This first stretch of Tonto has physically kicked my butt, I haven’t made it to camp yet, and I have another big day tomorrow. I can’t possibly carry all the water I want and will have to gut out another day and a half of hiking while dehydrated. Maybe I should stop short and camp here tonight. Maybe I’ll have to bail. Maybe I didn’t know.

I sit still pondering my options and in the hastening nightfall find quiet, calm, and peace, and in answer to my musing am in thought given counsel. “Of all canyons along today’s stretch of West Tonto, Ruby is the most likely to have water, and there was the good omen of water at Serpentine. With at most another 30 minutes walking there is most likely water, and tired as I am I can walk another 30 minutes.” And so a 2nd lesson and universal truth: When you think you are spent find your peace and there will find the source of your strength. My strength is in the Lord. So I drank deeply, picked myself up, and made for Ruby Canyon and the promise of water.

At last light, tired and grimy; I reach the trail crossing in Ruby Canyon. The reward: water, glorious water. Several small pools set as a string of pearls along a crack in the slick rock. I drink and drink more. I filter and drink more. In the chill of the early evening I “bathe” and wash the weariness away. And still I drink. At last satiated I prepare and eat dinner. Afterwards a protein powder milk shake makes a rich dessert. And I wash it all down with more water.

I inflate the mattress, fluff the sleeping bag, and am prone by 7:30. What a day! Pushed to the wall and pushed to a moment of self doubt, I found the resolve to “break on through” and in the process gained wisdom and confidence. I lie still watching the stars, and drift away. I take it as success that every hour or so I awaken to pee. Last call comes at 2am and the 2 day old waning moon has risen. Its reflection off the slick rock lights the canyon and casts shadows. I take solace in the quiet. Returning to my cocoon, a chill breeze falling down canyon purges the warm air. I seal it out, my head inside. I dream.

Steven Thompson
(stevet) - M

Locale: Northeast
Part 2 on 01/10/2009 14:47:19 MST Print View

Nov 16. I awaken to daylight. It is a few minutes after 7; didn’t hear the 6am alarm and overslept. I shrug it off, having needed the rest. Besides, when pressed I can break camp in just over 30 minutes and still enjoy a hot breakfast and cup of coffee. And I want to get moving; there is 15 miles between here and Slate Canyon.

I set out before 8am with 2 gallons of water and today plan to drink heartily. Ruby Canyon was flush with water and is by all accounts a seasonal water source. Slate Canyon on the other hand, while considered seasonal by the Park Service, is listed perennial in Angelino’s guide. I may need to search up or down canyon to find it, but do plan on it being there. Worst case scenario is a thirsty 5 mile grunt to Boucher Creek tomorrow morning before breakfast. Heeding yesterday’s lesson today I will stay well hydrated.
The path leads directly into the morning sun, obscuring the trail. I simply follow the path of least resistance, the path with the least thorny overgrowth; and being a committed shorts wearer this is also the path of least pain. Infrequent cairns validate the approach; and I'm seldom more the 15 or 20 feet from the actual trail and generally above it. The Tonto Platform slopes noticeably in this section and instinctively, when missed, I trend uphill.

The views from below LeConte Plateau are expansive; ahead, behind, and across the canyon; a visual feast. I smile, laugh, sing, and walk with a bounce in my step. I love the rhythm of the trail. Backpacking. It is more than an activity or just another thing. Backpacking is my passion and being here is a resounding reminder. Life’s trivialities fade as I escape from the “thin things” that just days ago felt so suffocating. Then there was cynicism, today emerging clarity. Looking ahead I try to count canyons and match the views to the map. I pick out what I think are Turquoise and Sapphire Canyons. I get it right. One day, and water, can make a lot of difference.

Water was the biggest concern in planning this hike. I spent hours searching the web, reading Grand Canyon trail books, asking on message boards, and talking to various rangers. No one had current water beta. The only guarantee is that there is no guarantee of finding it between the South Bass trailhead and Boucher Creek, but when the temps drop evaporation slows and water does appear, and it appears in predictable locations. I carry a log of these and am taking notes to provide the BCO a water report. Serpentine and Ruby Canyons, check, and now I expect to find it upon entering Turquoise Canyon. The BCO ranger said “It most often appears downstream of the trail crossing” and there it is; a large pool at the base of a ~20’ pour off about a hundred feet below where the trail crosses the canyon. Confidence grows that I’ll find water in Slate Canyon tonight.

Canyon by canyon, there is a repeating pattern; a certain familiarity. From the South Bass to the Boucher they are situated at convenient 2-3 hour intervals and named after gems, an appropriate labeling. As the Tonto enters each it hugs the very edge of the gently sloping platform, set atop vertical walls of Tapeats sandstone, and sometimes several hundred feet above the canyon bottom. The trail then winds a mile or two into each, crossing where the sandstone is less worn and the canyon walls are replete with ledges. Many show camp sign; small windbreaks and stone stools. The slick rock canyon bottoms have sculpted bowls, some of them life sustaining water filled tinajas, the rock darkened where tiny creeks flow during the wet season. And today, at the onset of the wet season they reveal an austere beauty, only a hint of the grandeur awaiting the early spring sojourner.

Near the end of today’s journey I lose the trail in the shadow cast by Scylla Butte and head up a ridge to scout from a better vantage point. At the top I come face to face with a bighorn sheep; a 2nd stands 10 feet away. We freeze for a moment, startled, and then the sheep bolt away; ahead stand the sheer cliff walls of Slate Canyon. A quick study of the map indicates the trail should enter Slate Canyon above me; sometime earlier I should have turned right. But sometimes mistakes pay off. I’ve been backpacking Grand Canyon for 25 years and these are my first bighorns.

Now tracking in the correct general direction I locate the trail and proceed an easy 30 minutes to the trail crossing, home to a large protein filled tinaja, but water is water and it is a welcome sight. “Better” water should be available up canyon, but I make a less than half-hearted effort to find it. After 5 minutes I am lured back to the easy cache and put the filter to work.
Sunset is 4:30pm; with it comes a 20 degree drop in temperature and the noticeable chill to the breeze flowing down canyon. I don fleece and set about exploring the ledges below. Aside from scrambling up trail there would little escape from a flashflood, a near pointless observation as there is no sign of a flash flood recent or otherwise. The more likely scenario is a trickle in the canyon bottom. A trip here in March would be to visit paradise.

I return and set up camp on a broad sandstone ledge about 6 feet above the canyon bottom, prepare dinner, and as stars appear reflect on the day; less anxiety, more energy, and more confidence. The presence of water fed my body and mind. The main challenge is over. Tomorrow’s pack sheds 12 pounds. With water intervals at most 2-3 hours apart a 2 liter load will be plenty.

Sleep comes quickly and lasts until moonrise when mice come to investigate. The sound made as they race across my ground cloth is loud and awakens me. I imagine a mountain lion is creeping toward me through the brush, except there is no brush. Heart racing I flash a headlight beam and am face to face with a 3” critter. Light off, and relax. They scamper through my open pack and over my sleeping bag. I let them play.

Nov 17. The alarm sounds at 6:30 and I arise stiffly; legs complaining. I breakfast, pack, and examine the mouse damage. The Ziploc baggies containing my 1st Aid and essentials kits were perused and need minor repair. All set I shoulder the pack, glad to be rid of the water load, and resume my adventure on the West Tonto. It takes a few minutes to shake off the morning stiffness and start making good time. The hiking is delightful as the Tonto exits Slate, rounds Marsh Butte, and enters Topaz Canyon.
I reach Boucher Creek in less than 2 hours and take an extended celebratory break. 34 miles ago I walked into my unknown. Along the way I mastered self-doubt and understand better the source of my strength. I can now look forward to water sources at convenient intervals. I’ve been sustained and chastised and encouraged. And at peace, I give thanks. My thoughts turn to my son and his driving adventure. Nothing I can do, but again give thanks that his journey was also successful.

The trail heads up creek for 20 minutes before climbing steeply to the Boucher Trail junction. The Boucher Trail is my favorite Grand Canyon trail; a near perfect combination of exposure – along the Dripping Springs segment, views – as it hugs the ledge of Hermit Shale while rounding Yuma Point, challenge – as it drops wickedly steep through the Supai and Redwall, and destination – a lovely beach on the Colorado River. And I’ll never forget arriving at this trail junction the first time; well past need of a rest stop, legs trembling with fatigue. It is etched in memory in vivid detail. I reminisce and then notice for the first time this trip, footprints. Footprints, usually, are not that remarkable, but other than the trucks at the trailhead and the vestiges of campsites in the Gems, I’ve seen sign of no one until this point; and though a solo hiker, I am not an anti-social one and am eager for some company.

I arrive midday at Hermit Creek camp and break for lunch. It is warm day, the sun is hot, and I seek the shade of a mesquite tree to rest and eat. I find Hermit Creek camp particularly unattractive, worn out, the victim of too much use, and am thankful for choosing the more hospitable confines of Monument Creek for tonight’s camp. Not every patch of Grand Canyon is heaven.

I leave Hermit Creek and proceed toward tonight’s destination. The trail climbs to a spot noted on the map as “Breezy Point”, there is indeed a breeze, and then drops to a junction with the trail to Hermit Rapids. It has been several years, but on my one trip down to the rapids I surprised a couple of women bathing nude just above the point where Hermit Creek enters the Colorado. There will be no such side trip today; I am anticipating an early arrival to Monument Creek and time for my own bath. In short order I reach the Hermit Trail junction and minutes later meet Catherine and Sarah. They are hiking Boucher – Bright Angel and like me are headed to Monument for the night. Catherine details their hike and describes this, their first visit to Grand Canyon in eloquent prose. Is it the shared experience that makes people I meet on the trail seem so interesting or just the simple fact that I take the time to listen?

I take leave and continue; just a couple miles to go. Rounding Cope Butte I wander in and out of cliff shadow and catch occasional glimpses of The Monument, a jagged rock spire best viewed from near the spur trail to the group campground.

Monument Creek Camp is everything Hermit Creek isn’t. Monument Canyon is narrow and therefore cooler than the wide, open, Hermit, and more heavily vegetated; each campsite isolated from the next. I choose a sheltered site away from the trail, set camp, then take advantage of the perennial creek for a long awaited clean up. The mix of cold water and warm sun are perfect in every way.

It is dinner time before Catherine and Sarah arrive. They look around and ultimately choose the group campsite with its views over the more isolated, secluded sites near the creek. We visit after supping and Catherine I learn is an LA native, just out of school, and taking time to chill after moving to Flagstaff to work as an organizer for the Obama campaign. Sarah recently moved here from Chicago and discloses little more. They are headed to Joshua Tree after this.

I return to camp thinking about, “Moved to Flagstaff for the Obama campaign,” she moved for a cause; an idealist. I reflect on my path. I went to work right after school and then and now live a seriousness that mostly excludes idealism. Apart from work I never grabbed a passion and followed it. No one would have funded it, yet I’d grant the opportunity to my kids. Do I make it too easy for them? Am I too tolerant of their frivolous pursuits? Or do I live my dreams vicariously as I oblige theirs?

Steven Thompson
(stevet) - M

Locale: Northeast
Part 3 on 01/10/2009 14:47:58 MST Print View

Nov 18. Today the objective is to reach Phantom Ranch by 4pm and enjoy a beer before they close shop and prepare for dinner. I need to make good time since I am going the long way, Monument to the South Kaibab junction, where I’ll leave a water cache, and then down to Phantom Ranch; a tidy 17.6 miles. This is my first walk along this section of Tonto Trail.

The hike to Indian Gardens was a breeze. Much of the trail was shaded, and that keeping temps low, allowed for a fast pace with hardly a sweat. There are three established campsites on this stretch, in order west to east – Cedar Spring, Salt Creek, and Horn Creek, each very nice, though sheltered from the sun by high cliffs they are probably better suited to early fall or late spring camping. No one is camping today. And as elsewhere along the Tonto the views were expansive.

Indian Gardens is a welcome stop with shade – today under a brilliant yellow canopy, unlimited water, and a variety of people. I meet two business partners from the east coast capping their business trip to Las Vegas with a first hike into the Grand Canyon. They are eating bagels spread with Dark Chocolate Dreams from the Peanut Butter Company; chocolate peanut butter looks really good. There are the myriad folk who arrived here on mule and yes, still view backpackers with a strange curiosity. How else do you explain questions like “Did you carry that pack yourself?” And how do refrain from answering such questions without a smart-ass remark? But by far the most eccentric person I meet is an acid flashback to the 1970’s. He is wearing waffle stompers, blue jeans, and a tie dye t-shirt, and is sporting an antique red Kelty backpack; “Got it as a Christmas gift in 1968.” We discuss the various signs of wear, each a memorial to earlier hikes. I later imagine him shopping for replacement gear; where does one buy waffle stompers and tie dye t-shirts?

I could easily spend the day visiting with folk and making the stroll out to Plateau Point, but its half past noon and I’ve 7 miles to go; and water to collect and cache.

The four miles or so to the South Kaibab junction are quite pleasant and would make an excellent alternate to the standard South Kaibab – Bright Angel hike. I find the stretch of River Trail between Phantom Ranch and the last resthouse particularly objectionable; it is a 2 mile long slog through the sand, at times with full sun exposure. Do it once or twice just for the joy of tackling the Devil’s Corkscrew on route to Indian Gardens, but then spice up the corridor route with this variant. I pull water from Pipe Creek, stash it at the South Kaibab outhouse, and start the descent. My traverse of the West Tonto Trail is complete.

The South Kaibab Trail; I need to cover 2.8 miles in an hour fifteen minutes. Except for a brief picture stop at Panorama Point I latch into the tractor beam and let the beer pull me in. I arrive just in time for last call and am told as I order a cold Tecate, “You need to finish that in 5 minutes.” No problem! On a whim I ask if there are dorm vacancies and $35 later have scored a hot shower and a bed for the night. I easily beat the 5 minute deadline.

The dorm idea turns out a great idea. A group of older men had booked 7 of the 8 beds, but two from their party bailed at the last minute. One of them, Ken, says they are family and friends, 15 in all, and some hike and some mule it down to Phantom Ranch and stay a couple days every year. Ken is a most gracious dorm host and offers me one of their available steak dinners and morning breakfasts, free; an act of kindness unlooked for and most welcome, a bit of grace that inspires me to pass it forward.

The steak dinner at Phantom Ranch is a real treat. We are seated at a table for 20, joining Ken’s group are me, a young man from France starting his tour of US National Parks here at Grand Canyon, and two young women, cousins, one on her first hike ever. Each has a story to tell. We dig into large perfectly grilled New York strip steaks, baked potatoes, all you can eat veggies and rolls, and chocolate cake for dessert; a kingly meal compared with my trail fare.

Following dinner I call home and let my wife know all is well, tell her of my good fortune, get caught up on affairs back home, and to my relief learn that my son did indeed make it back from the South Bass trailhead. Later it is the ranger program, and aside from his play by play of a scorpion sting, he shared a few interesting bits on Grand Canyon geology. Then bed; 9pm makes it a late night. Never mind the snores, I soon join the cacophony; a bed never felt so good.

Nov 19. Today is a rest day. That is, rest in a relative sense; it is only 9.5 miles from Phantom Ranch to Clear Creek, tonight’s destination. It begins auspiciously with eggs and bacon and pancakes, a breakfast every bit as good as last night’s dinner, and a final splurge, two cups of real coffee. I express my deep gratitude to Ken, say farewell to my new acquaintances, and strike a somewhat leisurely pace toward Clear Creek. Only a few people would maintain that 9.5 miles backpacking is rest, but of course it isn’t today’s hike, rather the fact that it will all be done by noon leaving the entire afternoon for leisure.

The Clear Creek trail was built by the CCC during the Great Depression. It climbs 1400 feet and follows the north rim’s equivalent of a Tonto Platform before dropping down to Clear Creek. As with the Tonto, once atop the views are great and the elevation changes minor. The big difference: there is no shade; it is 100% southern exposure and sunlight.

In Zoroaster Canyon I meet a hiker returning from Clear Creek; a jovial fellow, laughing when we meet. We exchange rough itineraries. I learn he is hiking Grandview to Clear Creek to Bright Angel, that I’ll share camp tonight with Darrin, of their attempt to reach the Colorado by hiking down Clear Creek stopped by a pour off that he wasn’t comfortable climbing due to his leg; then he describes in detail his near calamity in Cremation Canyon where a boulder he step on rolled and pinned it, showing me a large bruise on the shin and calf. He shrugs it off as part of the adventure, not a deterrent. He is already thinking about his next Grand Canyon hike and new places he wants to explore, coming here as often as work and money allow. His enthusiasm is infectious and I listen for 30 minutes or more. When it comes time to part I ask and he provides a detailed accounting of water availability along the East Tonto confirming that I’ll have water tomorrow night if I make Lonetree Canyon. Another chance meeting, another interesting character, and an answer, the third lesson of this trip: all people are interesting and have a story to tell if I take the time to listen; yet neither exists without the other. If there is a break down in this truth it is me failing to do my part.

Leaving Zoroaster Canyon the trail climbs and surmounts a ridge at it pushes deep into Clear Creek Canyon. Clear Creek Canyon extends nearly 9 miles from the Colorado to the North Rim, the work of a perennial creek. My destination is about halfway back and is visible 500 feet below; a smattering of Cottonwood trees and a trail outlined with stones. The descent is a steep ½ mile.

The Clear Creek Camp sits just below the point the junction of two canyons. End to end it extends maybe an eighth of a mile with several visitor built campsites shaded by old Cottonwood trees; each tree bearing flash flood scars. The creek itself hugs the east canyon wall in a channel 20-30’ across and 8’ below the “developed” area. The creek is larger than Garden Creek through Indian Gardens and sports several pools, one the size and depth of a large hot tub. During spring snowmelt the flow would likely be too much for a swim, and watch out if compounded by heavy rainfall.

I locate Darrin’s camp then choose a spot upstream away from his, set camp and lunch, relaxing in the noon time sun. To fill the afternoon I go for a short soak in the cold tub, sit still and absorb the surroundings, and then spend a couple hours in prayer. It seems quite appropriate to re-center here, at the midpoint of my trip.

With perfect timing Darrin walks up, returning from an attempt to reach Angel Falls; he notes it is smaller than Cheyava, but reportedly runs year round. He couldn’t reach it by his predetermined turnaround time; it is a slow going bushwhack; had he been with a partner he might have pushed on. This is Darrin’s third hike to Clear Creek. Since his first he’s come each year to this favorite spot, and he figures to make a few more visits to finish his intended explorations.

Darrin excuses himself, “to clean up and get a bite to eat,” and I wile away the rest of the afternoon looking over the map and laying out my plan for tomorrow; Lonetree Canyon is a bit over 18 miles from here. My basic plan for big mile days was lifted from Jardine’s Beyond Backpacking: travel light, start early, and finish late. I plan a predawn start, make the South Kaibab – Tonto junction by lunch, and leave just 6 afternoon miles to Lonetree; hit it right and I’ll still have couple hours of daylight left.

Nov 20. I wake to the alarm totally refreshed. I’ve been sleeping well, the Big Agnes Air Core mattress is the real deal; I am getting uninterrupted sleep between the midnight potty breaks and morning alarm. But this morning is different, the rest day really paid off. I eat and pack, wait a few minutes for the darkness to lift, and then begin hiking.

The grunt up from Clear Creek is tempered by the morning chill while the daylight increases in measure with each step. Upon reaching the platform I move with the ease and speed granted by rest and my ever diminishing load. The canyon is glorious in its rosy veil, which soon gives way to the golden light of sunrise. All is right at this moment; I am in the zone and flying.

I reach Phantom Ranch at quarter to ten, much earlier than expected, and so I indulge in a lengthy break and enjoy a couple Lemmys. There is not much action here this time of day. The store minder is busy digging through a care package from a friend and not interested in conversation, so to bide the time I browse the library. The most worn book? Death in the Canyon. I make note of the sign warning against hiking Rim to River to Rim in one day, complete with picture of a buff young man in distress. I’ve ignored it now several times, maybe old guys are immune and then maybe I’ve gotten a little too cocky since my doubts a few days ago. In any event, I piddle long enough; at 10:30 it is time to move on.

Slow and steady goes the 1500’ climb up the South Kaibab. I stop twice, once called on by a couple from England also beginning a tour of US National Parks, and once to water and take some more pictures from the Panorama Point overlook. From there I just power up to the trail junction, pass a young man with a tiny pack and a shopping bag leaning against the hitching post, find my water cache untouched, and sit down to lunch just before noon.

The trail junction is a busy place. The day hikers arrive and leave quickly, while the backpackers linger, most of them like me, taking lunch. A couple of guys are in from Chicago, one is quite experienced, his younger partner a first-timer, “I’m doing quite better than I expected,” he says. The older identifies my stool as a bear canister and proceeds to describe the Roads End to Mt. Whitney SEKI hike he completed this summer, “Canisters are required there,” he adds. He mentions camping at Colby Lake and his route over Colby Pass and along the Kern-Kaweah River. I share of my own adventure over much of the same trail two years earlier. We part kinsmen.

An older guy arrives lugging a pack that must weigh a ton; the thing is huge and unruly. He is the father of the young man. He parks on the steps of the outhouse, pulls off his cowboy boots, cowboy boots!?! and exhales. His son, disinterested, wanders over and produces some giant sandwiches from the shopping bag. They eat without speaking a word and the son is off. Dad is toast and rests. I ask how he’s doing and where they are headed. “Ugh.” and “Phantom Ranch tonight, Cottonwood tomorrow.” He asks about the difficulty of the trail from here and expresses some anxiety about the wispy clouds moving overhead. I try to be reassuring; my size up says this is a brutal first time experience. He looks so beat it’s worrying, and if he lives to do this again; well from his looks I’d say he’ll never do this again.

I begin the home stretch; 6 miles to Lonetree. I hiked this section once, several years ago, on a South Kaibab – Grandview hike, in the pounding rain and don’t have much recollection; only that Cremation has 3 branches, and Grapevine is more than 5 miles one side to the other. Grapevine will wait until tomorrow, but Cremation is just around the corner. Cremation I find a tough stretch of trail; tough enough that I should have remembered. The trail drops and climbs steeply on loose footing through the first two legs. I slip and fall backward entering #2, and huff and puff climbing out. Cremation is now entered into the database. I won’t quickly forget and it is easy to understand the nearly crushed leg. Leaving Cremation I consider the fractal nature of these water eroded side canyons. Each is unique, yet so much the same. Cremation to Lonetree is easy hiking.

Lonetree has flowing water, just a trickle, somewhat reminiscent of Ruby. And also like the gems there is a ledge with a somewhat developed campsite that I claim for the night. I think about fractals again.

Water is wonderful, especially near camp, and above all at the end of a long day hiking. It is so much easier to sleep when clean and much more pleasant to don clean and soft rather stiff and grungy clothes to start the day. We tell scouts, “a hydrated camper is a happy camper,” but I’ll add to that and say, “a hydrated and clean camper is a happy camper.” And aside from that first day, I’ve been rather happy.

Lacking company tonight I am without entertainment when the lights go out at 6pm. I was really tired the first two nights out and lying down for bed early was a welcome necessity. Tonight I’m thinking I should have brought a book, or a planisphere, or at least a tablet to journal in, but no. So I just sit and stare at the heavens, try to separate planets from stars, airplanes from satellites, then burn a few more minutes singing a couple songs. It fills the time for a little while, but I throw in the towel and crawl in bed at 7pm. Though “I’m not tired,” I fall asleep in minutes.

Steven Thompson
(stevet) - M

Locale: Northeast
Part 4 on 01/10/2009 14:48:30 MST Print View

Nov 21. I feel a bit melancholy. Lonetree Canyon is beautiful and most hospitable, and I don’t care to leave. But attraction to this place isn’t the problem. I sense the end. And though I always enjoy the return home, I bemoan leaving the trail. Odd to feel this today, I have just hit stride and have 2 more nights and many miles of yet to go. I push off quietly and let the mind rest.

I have little trail memory of the South Kaibab – Grandview hike; just specific details and the climb through snow from Cottonwood. Rain dominated that trip. I remember hiking in the rain in a not too breathable Gore-Tex jacket and being wet inside and out. I remember the smell of baking bread and how eating it, piping hot, calmed the chill. I remember the quiet at 6am when the rain stopped and the sky broke; the snow line 20 feet away. And I remember stopping at small creek on the 2nd day; laying out gear to dry in the sun and bathing under a pour off. But every step, every view along the trail is new.

At length I arrive at Grapevine Canyon. It will take 3 hours to cross its ¾ mile mouth. Grapevine has perennial water and I plan an early lunch at the trail crossing next to a tiny rippling stream. To my surprise both canyon forks are dry at the trail crossing; post trip reading says the water is off trail, a fact I hadn’t made note of. I don’t care to be bothered with hunting for it and continue walking; lunch will wait till noon. The map shows springs along Grapevine’s east wall, if these are dry it’ll be a long thirsty walk to Cottonwood. The first spring is but a seep down a steep wall and certainly won’t quench my thirst. The 2nd however is flowing and a makes a small creek where the trail crosses; had there been nothing here I’d have scrambled up the side canyon a few hundred feet to the Cottonwood trees that undoubtedly mark the source, but no need. I lie out on a rock outcrop and enjoy lunch.

I reach Cottonwood Creek mid-afternoon and have lots of time to kill after completing my camp setup chores. Again I wish I had brought a book, there is only so much pondering one can do yet ponder I do; that, and try to ignore the mosquitoes. I didn’t expect mosquitoes and they are annoying. But there is plenty of daylight left so I pack up and move on to camp somewhere near the heel of Horseshoe Mesa. A mile or so later I pick an isolated overlook and park. Here in the open, the sun will set later and rise earlier, and tonight I’ll have a big sky. For entertainment I take pictures until the sun sets.

Again I am early to bed, though tonight sleep waits. I reflect on the last week, thinking about people I’ve met, and what I’ve learned and whether I’ve discipline to act. A nontrivial question with a simple, yet challenging answer; I commit to yes.

Nov 22. What a beautiful morning! Today makes 8 in a row. Never on a week or longer hike have I enjoyed such good weather; there always being a day too hot or too cold, a rainy day or a windy day, or one just overcast and gloomy, but not this week. I’ve been blessed with high temps in the low 70’s, low temps in the upper 30’s, and clear skies with a few wispy clouds in the afternoons. The perfect weather allows me to apply mindshare on the views, on each twist, turn, up, down of the trail, on the stories people tell. Today I exercise each.

The Tonto Trail around Horseshoe Mesa runs along the Bright Angel shale-Muav limestone interface nearly a mile from the lip of the Granite Gorge; instead of walking atop a cliff you walk at the base of one. This adds no difficulty to the traverse, but offers a different perspective. To my left I see a square mile of possible campsites, to my right the 1200’ cliffs that fall from Horseshoe Mesa. For most of this hike the Tonto Trail followed the very edge of the platform and from there the Muav and Redwall cliffs seemed less imposing. But I don’t fear the cliffs today, I climb out tomorrow.

At mid-morning I reach the trail crossing in Hance Canyon. There is a lone camper at this point. He is hiking Tanner-Grandview, completing the Escalante Route on Thursday. I’m impressed. I’ve hiked the Escalante a couple times, always with a partner, and am still intimidated enough to not go it solo. This guy, spoke with him for an hour and never exchanged names, says wouldn’t have ventured it alone if he had known beforehand how challenging it is; though having done it he’d discourage most, but not all from a solo passage. Our conversation ventures far from backpacking to his recent divorce, starting a new business, not having enough time with the kids, and all the way back to needing time apart from all the expectations that can burden life. We are interrupted briefly by three people flying by on a Grandview-New Hance day hike, and then return to our conversation. I understand him implicitly.

Daylight burning, he finishes breaking camp and I move on. It is 6.5 miles to Hance Rapids, I want to get there by lunch time, and if possible I want to catch the day hikers. I’ve done rim to rim hikes, rim to river to rim hikes, but never a “loop” and am curious about their experience. So I blast out of Hance Canyon at the fastest pace I can manage.

I am familiar with this section of Tonto having done it in February, though in the opposite direction. West to east is the easier way as it is almost entirely downhill. This section also offers a variety of interesting terrain. Exiting Hance Canyon the trails nears a 600’ cliff with incredible overlooks west, there is a talus scramble as it passes beneath Ayer Point, followed by the glorious red clay of Mineral Canyon with its Colorado River views, the boulder wilderness maze, and at last the sand dune passage that leads to Hance Rapids at the mouth of Red Canyon. I catch the day hikers in the dunes, some 90 minutes after leaving Hance Canyon.

Tina, Lauren, and Blaine have a goal to day hike challenging routes in the Grand Canyon. Experienced rim to rim hikers they are looking for something different. Today’s Grandview-Hance is the first of an intended many. They ask about Boucher-Hermit, the Escalante, and Thunder River. I’ve thought about doing these routes as day hikes, but “hats off” they are actually doing it. I must take the challenge. Blaine asks about extended solo backpacks, and is most curious with the mental/emotional aspects of being alone, especially at night. I share the experience of this trip, of being alone 5 of 7 nights; for me this is not too much alone time, but each of us is different. They finish a 30 minute rest stop, say goodbye and head out the New Hance Trail. I enjoyed the visit with these 3 very nice young adults.

I may have company tonight. A friend said he may be able to swing time to hike down for the night and then out with me in the morning, and knows to meet me at Hance Rapids if he does. He wasn’t fully committed when I left Phoenix to start this trip and figure 50/50 that he shows. It will be great if he does, and just fine if he doesn’t. I spread out on a boulder at rivers edge, eat lunch, and pump water, and wait. I debate whether, if he doesn’t show, to camp here or hike and camp a couple miles up the creek bed. A rafting tour puts in just above Hance Rapids. The folk that pass by my rock seem nice enough, but there are more than 20 of them. Decision taken, if he doesn’t show I’m moving up stream. It is 1pm, I’ll wait until 2.

At 2pm there is no friend so I pack up and head up canyon. The first time I hiked up the New Hance Trail was on a 3 day Escalante Route trip affectionately called “The Death March” by the friend who invited me. We hiked it the 21st, 22nd, and 23rd of December, the 3 shortest days of the year, and finished each night after dark. We reached Hance Rapids at last light nearly exhausted and after dinner talked ourselves into hiking up canyon to camp on the slick rock shelf where the New Hance Trail starts its climb. Hiking by headlamps with about 5 feet of range we hiked into a cactus thicket while hiking around a pour off. I, leading, was covered in thorns. We eventually arrived at our goal and I spent what seemed hours picking thorns from body and clothes. Lesson learned. If I’m going to hike at night, get a real light. Just another minor misadventure lodged in the memory book.

The afternoon sun turns Red Canyon into a reflector oven; I’d swear it is 90 degrees or more. It takes just 45 minutes to my destination and on arriving I find shade and use some of the water I carried here for a shower. I stay huddled in the shade until 4:30 when the sun drops behind the canyon wall, then emerge to make camp and take a look around. There was water flowing here in February, but today all is dry. I walk up canyon toward the spring and in ten minutes reach flowing water, the stream disappearing where it runs off the sandstone pavement into a gravel section of creek bed. A few hundred feet further water flows regardless of creek bed composition. If I had been this industrious at Slate or Grapevine Canyons I likely would have found water as well.

As night arrives, as I am finishing dinner, I think I hear voices. I sit still to make sure, and look around, there is only silence. Then a few minutes later I hear them again, this time unmistakable and up canyon. There are several people hiking down the trail. I greet them when they arrive, “Hi, you have 15 minutes of daylight and 2 miles to the beach.” And got the reply, “Do you mind company tonight?” “Why not.” I tell them where they can find water; they head down into the creek bed to find spots to camp while I finish dinner.

My neighbors are a group of 7 guys, all Northwest Missouri State alum, plus 2 guides. This group of seven has gathered for an annual get together since graduating, nine years ago. This is the first backpacking trip for any of them. “We figured it was now or never, before we get old and fat,” one says. To wit another adds, “But we didn’t think about the problems of being young and fat.” I can’t image the New Hance Trail being a first ever backpacking experience, nor the Hance-Grandview route, but it is. They’ve been on the trail since 10am; 6 miles in 8 hours. Tomorrow they make for Horseshoe Mesa; it is a good thing they have guides. It is quiet by 8 and a symphony of snores by 8:05.

Nov 23. What’s left to say? Just a 6 mile, 4100 foot climb remains. I arise at first light and quietly set about breakfast and breaking camp, my neighbors still sound asleep; they’ve a long way to go today and an early start would do them well, but to each their own hike. My hike, as noted, starts early, and my tradition when climbing out of the canyon is to go as fast as I can.

I set out about a quarter to eight at a fair clip. At this point I could go faster, but with 2 maybe 2.5 hours to the rim I need to pace myself. I regulate my speed by breathing through my nose; as soon as I need to breathe through the mouth I ease off. The trail climbs steadily with few switchbacks up the east canyon wall, and then ascends a mile long ridge that formed during some massive landslide. If I didn’t know better I’d think it were tailings; just a crumbly mass of soil and rock. At the top of the ridge, roughly halfway up, it is time for short break.

The next half mile is a godsend; the trail mostly contours along the base of the Coconino before its final butt-kicking climb out. The first section of this climb is marked with cairns and mostly follows a draw, but here and there folk have woven paths to either side. The side paths are a bit distracting so I simply head straight up until some obstacle blocks the draw, and only then look for a side path to get around it. The final climb would be a standard set of switchbacks except they are set at a 20-25 percent grade. I break my breathing rule for the last couple feet and reach the trailhead, gasping, completing the 2 hour aerobic workout; one mile to go.

There is no parking at the New Hance trailhead, in fact the trailhead itself sits a quarter mile walk from the East Rim Drive. Parking is either one mile east at Moran Point, or one mile west at the Buggeln pullout; my next stop. I drive into the village, shower at the campground, and head toward home. The shower is $2 for 8 minutes; the hot water feels so good I run it twice. A shower makes for the finishing touch; I complete another backpacking trip and start dreaming of the next.

Flagstaff is 90 minutes away. There I have a happy reunion with my son and lunch. And then the final 2 hour drive down I-17. Home at last, I kiss my wife, sit, and tell the story.

Steven Thompson
(stevet) - M

Locale: Northeast
Itinerary on 01/10/2009 14:49:26 MST Print View

Tonto Trail, South Bass to New Hance 122.3 miles

Nov 15: South Bass Trailhead to Ruby Canyon, 13.6 miles
Nov 16: Ruby Canyon to Slate Canyon, 15.1 miles
Nov 17: Slate Canyon to Monument Creek, 14.6 miles
Nov 18: Monument Creek to Phantom Ranch, 17.6 miles
Nov 19: Phantom Ranch to Clear Creek, 9.5 miles
Nov 20: Clear Creek to Lonetree Canyon, 18.3 miles
Nov 21: Lonetree Canyon to Cottonwood, 15.2 miles
Nov 22: Cottonwood to Red Canyon Spring, 12.4 miles
Nov 23: Red Canyon Spring to New Hance Trailhead, 6.0 miles

Steven Thompson
(stevet) - M

Locale: Northeast
Gear List on 01/10/2009 14:50:05 MST Print View

McHale Sarc-chasm Backpack
Western Mountaineering Apache S-Dry loft Sleeping bag
Big Agnes Air Core mattress
3 Silnylon stuff sacks
Gatewood Cape
7 Ti Stakes
Ground cloth
2 REI UL carbon trekking poles
Swiss Army Knife Classic
2-4 liter MSR dromedary
1-2 liter MSR dromedary
1-shaker cup (used as primary water bottle on trail and for protein shakes)
60 Katadyn Micropur tablets
MSR Miniworks filter w/Sweetwater silt remover as pre-filter
Princeton-tec Scout Headlamp, no strap
1 Bearikade weekender
1L Ti Pot
Ti Spoon w/long handle
Ti Mug
1 shaker cup
Alcohol Stove
Flint sparker
Fuel, denatured alcohol 27 oz in a 1L Playtpus with nozzle cap
1/4 cup size measuring cup
2 One gallon freezer weight Ziplock bags

clothes worn
REI Sahara zip-offs
Smartwool long sleeve t-shirt
Montrail Continental Divide trail runners
Smartwool Outdoor Light Mini socks
Tilley Hat

clothes in pack
Patagonia UL Windbreaker
REI Gossamer Vest
100 wt fleece gloves
100 wt fleece beanie
100 wt fleece pullover
Smartwool long sleeve t-shirt
Smartwool Outdoor Light Mini socks

first aid
1 roll breathable tape
½ oz tube Polysporin
Spyroflex, various sizes
2 sheets 2nd skin
1 oz Sunblock

emergency (used none of these items)
40 gallon Trash bag
Signal mirror
Flint sparker
6 pieces fire starter

cleanup kit
½ oz Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Soap
Fingertip Toothbrush
SS Wire Toothpick
Mini Pack Towel
Toilet paper, 45 sheets – used blue shop towels quartered
Poop stake
1 oz Hand gel

Timex Ironman Watch
Canon S70 Digital Camera, 2 batteries
Trails Illustrated Grand Canyon map

Steven Thompson
(stevet) - M

Locale: Northeast
Menu on 01/10/2009 14:59:13 MST Print View

Calories Carbs Protein Fat
1/2 cup Quaker Oats 150 27 5 3
1/2 cup Granola 230 34 6 10
1/6 cup Nido powder 75 5 4 4
1/4 cup Fruit bits 120 29 1 0
1/4 cup Almonds 165 6 6 15
2 bags Coffee 0 0 0 0
740 101 22 32

1 bar Probar 390 50 8 19
1/4 cup Peanut Butter 380 14 16 32
1 Multigrn Tortilla 160 23 3 7
1/4 cup Fruit Bits 120 29 1 0
1050 116 28 58

1 dinner Mtn House 400 45 18 5
2 scoop Protein Powder 200 4 44 0
1/2 cup Nido powder 220 16 12 12
1 Multigrn Tortilla 160 23 3 7
980 88 77 24

1 cup Trail Mix 800 75 22 46
3 pcs Jolly Ranchers 120 29 0 0
920 104 22 46

Total 3690 409 149 160

Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: Tonto Trail, Nov 2008 on 01/10/2009 19:45:43 MST Print View

Nice report Steve. We overlapped there but I don't think we crossed paths.

The links are not happy - not found.
I'd sure like to see the photos.

And thanks for including the gear, food and mileage summaries.

Joe Westing
(pedro87) - F
Re: Re: Tonto Trail, Nov 2008 on 01/10/2009 19:55:29 MST Print View

Great pictures! It looked like an awesome trip.

Greg -

link for the full report:!126

link for the pictures:!138

scott mitchell
(scottmitch) - F

Locale: arizona
Re: Tonto Trail, Nov 2008 on 01/10/2009 20:37:57 MST Print View

awesome trip sounds like you had a blast --

pics are decent it is hard to get good shots in the canyon the pics just dont do being there justice

question: what did you think about taking the bearikade after the trip? i would think a wire mesh bag would suffice and save you the space issues and weight

Steven Thompson
(stevet) - M

Locale: Northeast
Tonto Trail on 01/10/2009 20:42:36 MST Print View

Thanks for fixing the links.

It was an excellent trip. Previous canyon treks were 2,3 days or dayhikes so it was nice to spend time and really get a feel for it. The tonto is unlike any other hiking I've done.

I've heard from folk that it is monotonous but I found otherwise. The views constantly change in space and in light. And as always, once you get near the corridor there any plenty of interesting folk to spice things up.

Steven Thompson
(stevet) - M

Locale: Northeast
Tonto Trail on 01/10/2009 20:50:24 MST Print View

Pics really are hard. I haven't mastered the shade/sunlight contrast thing. In photos the shaded areas always show blacked out, whereas the eye can see all.

I've been carrying the bearikade for several years. There are lighter ways to go, the wire mess sacks and ursacks for example, but I like the bearikade for two reasons. First it provides a very compact container for 7-8 days food that drops perfectly into my pack. Keeps the load very small and tight. Second, no matter where I am I always have a stool to sit on.

The real killer this trip was water. Adding 20+ lbs on top on 9 days of food at the start was crushing. Ironic to write about a 60 lb load on backpackinglight, but such as it is.