Like sandpaper, the gritty details of daily life grind down our memories’ sharpest edges. How else to explain the surprise and wonder we feel when repeating a momentous event that we thought we recalled vividly?
Kath and I have backpacked in the Grand Canyon more than a half dozen times. We’ve rafted the Colorado River through the Grand.* Its been just two years since we last hiked in the Grand (North Rim to Thunder River). And still we were startled to once again peer into this great gash in the Earth.
Hiking there last week was as grand and deep an experience for us as it was the first time decades ago. Perhaps more so. Our ability to notice and appreciate detail seems to be growing. (A sign of maturity?) But it’s also the canyon itself. The more scenic wonderlands we witness, the more we marvel at this one.
Kath believes ingesting the beauty of this mile-deep canyon by hiking it, she contracted the emotional equivalent of giardiasis. The bug lives on inside her, she says. The symptoms disappear, but not forever. Eventually they recur, nagging her until she comes back for treatment: another Grand Canyon sojourn.
What neither of us can comprehend are North American hikers—particularly those living in the West, within a couple days’ drive of northern Arizona—who assume the more distant a hiking destination is, the more compelling it must be. We know such people. They’ve trekked in Ladakh, summitted Kilimanjaro, but express no interest in the Grand Canyon. Overawed by the exotic, they ignore the nearby.
Despite the noise (see our previous post regarding scenic overflights), the backpack trip we completed last week in the Grand topped any we’ve ever done—anywhere. It was a mere three days, two nights, but every step was captivating. From Hermit’s Rest, we descended the Hermit trail to the Tonto trail. The first night we pitched our tent at Monument Creek. Next day, we followed the Tonto back across Hermit Creek and continued west to our second night’s camp at Boucher Creek (pronounced Boo-SHAY). Finally we ascended the Boucher trail up and out of the canyon, back to Hermit’s Rest. (See distance and elevation details below.)
Camping at Hermit Creek is vastly more popular than camping at Monument Creek. But we find Monument a more impressive setting: a broader drainage where the canyon’s soaring walls are visible.
Most people who carry backpacks down the Hermit trail also ascend the same way. But looping back via Boucher, as we did, makes the journey a little more adventurous and a lot more scenic.
The Tonto trail, which runs much of the canyon’s length, contours along the Tonto Plateau, just above where the Colorado River—architect of the Grand Canyon—surges through the sheer-walled, inner gorge. The most exciting section of the Tonto is between Hermit and Boucher creeks, where the trail hugs the edge of the precipice, grants frequent views of the river directly below, and affords constant vistas up and down the canyon.
It’s actually surprising the National Park Service (whose concern about visitor safety is, to put it mildly, extreme) keeps this airy section of the Tonto trail open to the public. We found it thrilling, but there’s little room for a misstep. As for the Boucher trail, the NPS describes it using the words “climb” and “exposure.” They exaggerate to dissuade the inept. Much of the trail is a steep, rough route requiring strength, endurance, and confidence born of experience. But there’s no climbing required and no exposure. A few sections qualify as scrambling, but they’re easy and short. We enjoyed the Boucher trail immensely. In comparison, the broad, dusty, Bright Angel trail, which accommodates tourist-laden mules, is dull.
Ascending the Boucher trail (much easier and more fun than descending it), the way forward is not always obvious, which makes it intriguing. The terrain changes rapidly and abruptly, from constricted gullies, to broad benches, to narrow ledges on nearly-vertical walls. Ultimately the trail provides a startling, aerial perspective of the Hermit Creek drainage and much of the trail we hiked on days one and two.
An adrenaline rush at a walker’s pace? Yes. Certainly in the Grand Canyon. Definitely on the Boucher trail. The misconception that “hiking is boring” is perpetuated by the lazy and incurious who’ve waddled into a soporific forest, seen nothing of note, and haven’t ventured beyond pavement since. Granted, some trails are boring. And some hikers are bored even amid stimulating scenery, so they either zone out or chat nonstop with companions. But the Boucher trail has the power to grab most hikers by their sternum straps, bringing their distracted minds to heel in the here and now.
Hikers who reside in Canada and the northern U.S. will appreciate that the optimal time to backpack in the Grand Canyon is late fall / early winter (November) and spring (March through mid-April), when the weather at home is no longer, or not yet, conducive to hiking. Last week, the nights were chilly (near freezing) on the 6900-ft (2104-m) canyon rim. But the daytime highs ranged between 70° and 80° F in the canyon at 3000 ft (915 m). It was even warmer, of course, on the canyon’s 2300-ft (701-m) floor, near the river. Perfect for hikers. By late spring (May), it’s too hot for most of us to comfortably backpack in the Grand Canyon.
A cautionary tale… Two years ago, while we were backpacking off the Grand Canyon’s North Rim en route to Thunder River, I (Craig) stupidly ignored my own symptoms and succumbed to heat exhaustion. By doing so, I ruined our trip and risked my life. It was mid-May. The temperature was 100° F at 6 p.m. on the slickrock Esplanade within the canyon.
By 7 p.m. we’d completed about three-quarters of the 4800-ft (1463-m) descent. Suddenly, nausea and dizziness forced me to slow, stop, sit. Minutes before, I’d been hiking briskly. Now I was prostrate on the trail, vomiting. What motivated me to continue, and what saved my life, was that we were within 30 minutes of where the Thunder River originates, blasting out of the canyon wall.
I staggered and stumbled the final distance. Kath pitched our tent on a ledge beside the torrent. She doused me with frigid water late into the night. The vomiting continued till morning. I spent the next day alternately dozing in the shade and shivering beneath a small cascade, letting the icy water lower my core temperature. I ate nothing, because I couldn’t, but I sipped electrolyte-rich Emergen-C.
Though I was terribly weak, we knew I’d soon be too weak to hike out, so we packed and began slowly ascending at 7 p.m. We continued into the dark. We made it to the Esplanade at 10:30 p.m. By then I could nibble on a PowerBar.
That night, our second in the canyon, was gorgeous—clear and still—but difficult to appreciate. I seemed to be recovering but now Kath was feeling weak. She vomited. We were both unnerved knowing this was a medical emergency and our self rescue required another day’s effort we were unsure either of us could muster.
We packed and were hiking before our enemy, the sun, pounced on us again. The water we’d cached on the way down was now more vital than we’d imagined possible. What we didn’t drink we poured over our heads and down our backs. We ascended at a plodding pace unfamiliar to us. For me, it was “the march of repentance.”
Upon arriving at our car on the North Rim, we were exhausted, grateful, wiser. We’d written about heat exhaustion, warning others to avoid it, but now we fully understood how stealthy and overwhelming it can be. Kath—who never sleeps while I drive because she’s constantly studying maps and guidebooks—slept for most of the six-hour drive to my parents’ home in Scottsdale, Arizona. I continued feeling strangely, deeply fatigued for several days, which suggests I’d been dangerously close to heat stroke.
So this year, we hiked into the Grand Canyon much earlier: the end of March. It was ideal timing. True, the upper reaches of the South-Rim trails can still be snow-covered in March (requiring hikers to use traction devices on their boots for the initial descent), but the Hermit and Boucher trails gave us a snow-free welcome.
Spring hiking in the Grand Canyon is not only more comfortable and safer, it’s the optimal time to appreciate the desert’s botanical diversity, which far outstrips that of mountain environs. From a distance, a green hue washes across the Tonto Plateau. Leafy, blossoming trees give the drainages an oasis appearance. Flowers—purple, lavender, white, yellow, red—add bursts of vivid colour to the infinite canyon-rock palette of reds, browns, oranges, mauves, tans, mustards, maroons…
Many trails plunge below the Grand Canyon’s soaring-beyond-comprehension cliffs. We’ve hiked most of them: Bright Angel (from the North and South rims), South Kaibab, Hermit, Tonto West, Tonto East, Boucher, Grandview, and Tanner. We’ve also hiked into Havasupai Canyon—a tributary of the Grand, far to the west. All are marvelous, inducing a constant “how can this be?” state of mind. Yet some are even more engaging than others. Here are our recommendations:
(1) From Hermit’s Rest, at 6650 ft (2027 m) on the South Rim, descend the Hermit trail. Intersect the Tonto trail and follow it around to Monument Creek. Next day, retrace your steps on the Tonto, then continue past Hermit Creek and along the Tonto Plateau to Boucher Creek. On day three, hike the Boucher trail back up to Hermit’s Rest. Circuit: 26.7 mi (43 km). Descent and ascent: 4500 ft (1372 m).
(2) From Monument Point, at 7200 ft (2196 m) on the North Rim (west of Jacob’s Lake), descend to the Esplanade. Cross it, then continue down to Thunder River. Camp in Upper Tapeats Gorge, at 2400 ft (732 m). Return the same way. Round trip: 18.4-mi (29.6-km). Descent and ascent: 4800 ft (1464 m). From camp, it’s 2.2 mi (3.5 km) farther to the Colorado River at 1950 ft (595 m).
(1) From Grandview Point, at 7399 ft (2256 m) on the South Rim, descend the Grandview trail to Horseshoe Mesa. Continue to the end of the mesa’s left (west) arm, at 4923 ft (1501 m). Return the same way. Round trip: 8.4 mi (13.5 km). Descent and ascent: 2476 ft (755 m).
(2) From the South Rim, at 7240 ft (2207 m), descend the South Kaibab trail to the Tonto trail. Go west, contouring to intersect the Bright Angel trail near Indian Gardens. Ascend the Bright Angel to the rim at 6860 ft (2091 m). Ride the Park shuttle bus between trailheads. One-way trip: 13.6 mi (22 km). Descent: 3440 ft (1049 m). Ascent: 3060 ft (933 m).
(3) From Hermit’s Rest, at 6650 ft (2027 m) on the South Rim, descend the Hermit trail. Turn west onto the Dripping Springs trail, then hike the Boucher trail generally north to 5429 ft (1655 m) on Yuma Point. Round trip: 8.2 mi (13.2 km). Descent and ascent: 1579 ft (481 m).
(4) From Hopi Point, at 6095 ft (1858 m) on the South Rim, hike the Rim trail generally west, past Mohave Point and The Abyss, to Monument Creek Vista. Ride the Park shuttle bus between trailheads. One-way trip: 2.8 mi (4.5 km). Elevation change: negligible.
Visit the national park website (www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/overnight-hiking.htm) to read more about the trails, view a map showing backcountry campsites and trail distances, and download a backcountry-permit request.
If you intend to camp on the canyon rim before or after your backpack trip, stay in Mather Point Campground. Generators are prohibited on the Pine Loop, so campsites there are quieter. Reserving a site is necessary in summer but not during spring or fall.
*Rafting the Colorado River is a thrilling adventure. Kath has done it three times, Craig once. We urge you to do it, too. Sure, it’s expensive. It’s also priceless. If you’re a hiker, choose a company offering a trip catering to hikers. It will afford numerous opportunities for two- to four-hour dayhikes into fascinating, tributary canyons that you’d never otherwise see.