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.