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Most recently in my quest to see what's around the next corner...
The Inner Canyon: Tanner to Grandview on the Tonto 2/2012
Clyde, Steve P., Sara S. and Wendy
This trip was originally supposed to be one of 3 I’d need to complete the entire 125 mile long Tonto Trail below the Rim of the Grand Canyon. I’ve already completed 14 miles from Toltec Beach to the South Bass trail, 20 from Hermit to Bright Angel and 28 from Grand View to the South Kaibab for a whopping 62 miles of Tonto action. This hike was going to add 41 miles of Tonto trail (and 54 miles total hiking) along the stretch called “The Gems” between Hermit and South Bass. I’d spent a bunch of time finding and arranging a commercial shuttle to take us out to the South Bass Trailhead – which, because it is over 30 miles of dirt road prone to muddy madness – we didn’t trust to be passable multiple times in a month like February. Last time I’d been to that trailhead in the spring, it had taken us over 3 ½ hours to drive that 30 miles back – and when I was done, my poor car looked like this:
No one wanted to deal with that kind of road over 3-4 trips needed to set up a car shuttle for 5 people. The commercial shuttle option, though pricy, was certainly a great option. I’d get my Gems hike in, and no one would need to risk a drop of mud on their tires. Perfect!
The canyon, though, doesn’t reward the complacent. The shuttle company waffled and whiffled, changing dates and availability at the last minute. I rearranged the whole trip (including some a volunteer project I had specially arranged to coincide with it) only to have them once again try to reschedule. I realized I just couldn’t trust them and called off their services. After hours of searching for an alternative, we finally decided that we were just going to have to find another hike. Getting stuck in mud just isn’t the way to start or end a big adventure. Of course, all of this came about over the weekend and the President’s Day holiday, so we had no idea what we would be able to do until we drove up on Tuesday morning. This left us with a window of 6 days in the canyon and no clear idea of what we would actually be able to do once we got there. I’ve never just shown up at the BCO and said ‘what you got’, so this was going to be a first. Fun!
At the Backcountry Office, we discussed a few different options for trip of that length that still made use of only highly accessible trailheads. One of the options was a different portion of the Tonto trail, further east and much easier to access. It also meant a chance to add a section of trail called the Escalante Route to my ‘done’ list – which would bring the total of inner-canyon hiking miles to 134. Awesome! So Escalante it is… we filled up on Mexican food in Tusayan and made our new shuttle plans for the morning.
Day 1: Descend to greatness
After leaving Clyde’s truck at the Grandview trailhead, we drove out to Lipan Point where we’d catch the Tanner. It was an unexpectedly long drive considering that the hiking distance between the two trails was less than 40 miles. The sun was hiding behind a thin haze above, which we hoped would burn off early.
The Tanner Trail turned out to be a delight. Though the top was somewhat icy as it descended the initial switchbacks through the Kaibab and Coconino, it didn’t feel as though it was dangerous at all, as it really is tucked into a nice little drainage most of that way. We got underway a little after 7:30am, and it was still quite cold, and the ice hadn’t really gotten slick yet.
The views from the higher points of the trail, down into the wide-expanse of the western canyon and even across the plateau all the way to Navajo Mountain, were fantastic. The massive wall of the Palisades of the Desert was already looking intimidating, though nowhere near as much so as it would from the river. The view just screamed adventure and excitement and sore feet. Now THAT’s what we’re talking about!
Then the trail headed out onto a long, spiny ridge (Seventy-Five Mile Saddle). This was certainly the high point of this trail, at least figuratively. The steep walls of Tanner Canyon and Seventy-Five Mile canyon drop off on either side into apparent oblivion, and a spine of hodoo-like rocks called Stegosaurus Rocks along the top of the ridge make for a fun alien-world scenario. We kept thinking “this would be the MOST awesome camping spot”. Then we’d get down a little further and think “no, THIS is the MOST awesome camping spot”. It was good we weren’t planning on camping anywhere up there – the options might have rendered us weak in the brain.
The trail contoured relatively gently along the base of a couple of big buttes before dropping precipitously down through the Redwall – always a fun section on Grand Canyon trails. The steep downward grade just kept up until the trail reached the river - not particularly hard hiking, but relentless, and torture for tired feet. At the beach, I kicked off the shoes and rested with my feet in the air. We still had at least a couple of miles to go – it wasn’t time to give in yet!
From the beach at Tanner, we hopped onto the Beamer trail headed further East. The plan was for some of us to dayhike out to the Little Colorado River confluence the next day. The way my dogs were barking, I knew it wasn’t going to be me. We made it about 2 miles farther up before we called it quits on a lovely piece of beach at the mouth of Comanche Creek. A few small mesquites and tammies that might have provided shade if we’d needed it, and the nice quiet rapid was just enough to sing me to sleep. The impassible wall of the Palisades of the Desert was like a frame to an excellent little sunset. The clouds finally retreated and left us with an amazing star-studded sky, which in this wider portion of the canyon made an amazing show.
Really, only 10 miles today? How come my feet feel as though it were 20?
Day 2: Ravens delight
When the days are so short, I always feel a little guilty about ‘sleeping in’ when I choose to not get up before the sun. However, considering the lower temperatures and the shorter hiking days we had on this trip, there was no need for me to be beating the sun. I cuddled in my orange down haven perhaps a little longer than I should have, but it was pure bliss after my fitful night of sleep the day before.
Steve and Sara left early for their own attempts at reaching the Little Colorado. I hung around at camp for a while, dealing with a leaky water container and my tired feet. Finally, Clyde and I hit the trail, hoping to get at least as far as Palisades Creek (about 2 miles). We figured that was enough to give us a stretch, but short enough to give our feet some time to recover.
The hike out to Palisades was easy and fun without a pack. When we reached the creek, Clyde turned around and I kept climbing, wanting to get an idea of how high above the river the route would be further on. The descriptions warned of precipitous 300’ drops – and I could certainly see those coming. I stopped about a mile past Palisades in a tiny drainage with a nice flat napping rock and great views. I enjoyed a bit of goat cheese and dates for lunch and watched the canyon’s glory go by.
The solitude of this part of the canyon in the winter is staggering. I did see a boat trip earlier in the day, but so far we’d seen no one else on the trails – even at the top. Very few birds were about, and even the lizards were scarce. I felt entirely alone in the stony embrace of the canyon walls, and I felt very safe. It was like my presence and adoration were an acceptable offering to the canyon, who was herself feeling a little lonely and ready for spring.
Upon returning to camp, I went to get myself a snack and discovered that my food- which I had carefully tucked into a metal mesh ‘rat-sack’ - had been invaded. My best guess (and I think it’s a good one) is ravens – as they’re active during the day and the only creatures that I can see being strong enough to break through the metal mesh of the bag. They ripped a 3” hole in the sack and removed a startling amount of food. They completely consumed 5 medium tortillas, 4 complete home-made dehydrated dinners and a bag of Sports Beans. They even broke the foil on the salmon cup and fished out every morsel in there. There were bits of plastic bags and dustings of soup powder everywhere. They were so untidy in their orgy that I couldn’t even begin to collect all the little bits and pieces that were flung out in their joy.
I really hoped that the little food they’d left me would be enough that I wouldn’t have to turn around and hike out early.
As Steve and Sara returned to camp, we took further inventory of the group’s stores. It seemed that I’d be able to make due with some creative meal planning and perhaps a little calorie deficit. Even as I tried to clean up, though, the ravens were returning to see if we’d left them any more treats. Those blinking birds.
Steve reported that he’d made it to the LCR, though he’d chosen not to descend all of the way down to the river level at the confluence. Instead he enjoyed the view and turned right back around. I was glad I hadn’t tried to keep up – for Steve 8 hours of fast hiking would have meant 10-12 hours for me, and with as little food as I might have to live on the next 4 days, it was better for me to keep the exertion reasonable.
Another night under the gorgeous stars. Clyde shared his soup and tortillas with me, and I made myself some hot coco. Life certainly is good!
Day 3: Straightforward, generally speaking
The next morning was a delightful day for hiking: sunny, blue sky, a cool breeze to keep things light. We made good time on the first few miles back to the Tanner Beach where we’d pick up the Escalante Route. We were just a short ways above Tanner when we saw a small metal boat heading right for us. My first thought was that they were NPS looking to check our permit. Turned out that they were USGS and were servicing the cameras along the river which are recording soil movement in the inner canyon. They were nice guys, and we talked for a bit. When I asked if they had any extra food, one guy reached into his lunch sack and gave me his hamburger and a handful of chocolates. I wanted to tell him I wasn’t desperate enough to steal someone’s lunch, but I wasn’t sure that was the truth at that point. Instead, I accepted graciously (I hope) and they headed off down the river. Their ‘barge’ was already half way to Phantom – where they’d be sleeping tonight.
Between Tanner and Cardenas was indeed straightforward. The trail through the long, flat beach area was well marked and easy to follow, though the sand did give us enough of a challenge to make it interesting. On a hot day, this stretch would be torture – without a stitch of shade and all that white sand reflecting the sun back at you. As it was, we were comfortable enough to take our time across the sands and over the small hills to the floor of Cardenas Creek. From there it is just a short walk to the beach.
When we at Cardenas arrived, the pretty beach was deserted. We didn’t count out the fact that another river group might come by, as we’d seen more on the water than we expected for the time of year. We settled in for lunch (1/2 a pound of cold ground beef on an English Muffin with no condiments…yum!) and generally just enjoyed a long afternoon lounging on the sand.
Just before the sun began to set, we got company. The boat group was very friendly and willing to work around us. They offered beer and other treats (including a dark chocolate with chili – yum!) and were more polite and well behaved than many of the private trips I’ve seen. They were on night 7 of 21…I was pretty jealous. Then I saw them unloading tons of stuff from their boats and felt a little better. I like the basic simplicity of backpacking – all that stuff would make me feel overwhelmed.
I slept out under the stars in the shelter of a mesquite’s branches. It was just like heaven – if only I’d had my hammock ;)
Day 4: At the Unkar Delta tonight: It’s the Supergroup, with special guests, Random Unnamed Drainage!
The route out of Cardenas immediately begins climbing up and over another Dox hill. It was a recurring theme throughout the day. Up and over an obstruction, back down to the river. Up, down, up down. If we’d been moving faster, we’d have been at risk for seasickness.
Our goal was to camp along the Neville Rapids and save the climb out of Pueblo Creek for the next morning. It looked doable on the map, but once we got in sight of the massive walls of the shoulders of Escalante Butte I started to doubt myself. It simply didn’t look like terrain you could hike on, let alone follow a trail through. The ragged spine of Tapeats atop the long ridgeline was a very formidable boundary, and below it was an insanely steep slope of soft sandstone and shale. I kept looking ahead and saying ‘How on earth do we do this?’.
Turns out, you just go up. And up. And up. We climbed all of the way to the base of the Tapeats to a high saddle. This involved a lot of sideslope walking that from even just a few yards away seemed impossibly precarious. However, the tread of the route was always reasonable when you were on it. It was amazing. The saddle is 800’ above the river according to my GPS. Although it did feel good to climb for a change, there was a bittersweet feeling to that victory as we knew we’d be back at the river before very long. As the trail began to descend into the arms of Escalante Creek, we were faced with much of the same kind of hiking that had gotten us up there in the first place, with some fun creek bed action thrown in at intervals to keep things interesting.
At the small rapids at the mouth of Escalante Creek, we watched a boat trip run through. One of the members of the group was in an inflatable kayak, and he liked the action so well he portaged back upstream and ran the whole thing a second time. It was fun to talk with him in his post-rapid enthusiasm. Made me really want to try some of those smaller, quieter whitewater sections in a ‘yak.
We weren’t on the river more than about 200 yards when we began climbing. Again. This time we were ascending a sloping layer of Shimuno sandstone into Seventy-Five Mile Creek. Yes, the same Seventy-Five Mile creek we’d been at the top of at Stegosaurus Rocks days before. Only here, it’s a narrow slot. We made it to the back of the canyon, where the creek cuts through the Shimuno to make a shelf. We paused for a break and pictures, then began looking for the trail on the other side. It seemed to be just a bunch of dead ends. Any veteran of Tonto hiking knows that pattern, though – you hike up a little (or down) until you get to a spot to cross the drainage, then you skip to the other side and ‘Tontour’ out again. It just wasn’t adding up here, though (which should have sunk in a little more since we weren’t ON the Tonto). Finally, I dug out the route description and was amazed that the trail actually was at the base of the creek. Though the initial drop into the creekbed seemed unlikely, it was actually quite easy. We lowered our packs, but in retrospect probably did not need to. The rock is nice and sticky, with lots of hand and foot holds and the slope is less severe than it appears (I think because it is polished white).
I was quite tired when we reached the top of Seventy-Five Mile’s slot canyon, but the descent and the fun canyon action below it revived me considerably. I love walkable slot canyons on any day, and surprise trips in walkable slot canyons are rare indeed. Though I’ve been in narrower, taller and more scenic slots, this one has a special place in my heart for being such an unexpected delight.
Once at the mouth of the creek we continued hiking down canyon until we found a beautiful, long stretch of beach along Neville Rapids. Unlike at Cardenas, we had the place all to ourselves, and the sand was sugar sweet. We took special pains to enjoy ourselves at our final river camp – tomorrow we’d be up on the Tonto Plateau and the Colorado would be a distant memory.
Day 5: Easier and harder than you thought
When we started out for the fifth day, some of us were a bit apprehensive. Though the route description repeatedly reassured us that the scramble/climb out of Pueblo Creek was ‘doable’, it was still an actual climb (rather than a scramble or hike) and was often given as the one reason people didn’t even attempt this route. As someone who has struggled with acrophobia my whole life, any time there’s a description of climbing, I get agitated. Not that I don’t press on – I’m just stubborn enough for that – but I get a bit edgy.
We reached the mouth of Pueblo Creek very early. The hike between the beach at Neville and the confluence was short and sweet, with some fun slab walking directly above the water. It was very clear from the 20’ dryfall at the very base of Pueblo Creek that there was no getting around the climbing on the far side. Clyde had been nervous about it as well, and his solution was simply to tackle it straight on and get it over with while the rest of the group was still taking pictures and psyching up.
Once we saw how quickly and easily Clyde made the platform above the falls, we all breathed a bit easier. Okay, I breathed a bit easier. It looked so much less challenging and scary than my mind had anticipated. I was concerned about my camera, which was hanging loose for the whole hike. I turned my fleece vest around and zipped it behind me, trapping the camera in a protective wrap against my tummy. I called it my ‘camera baby’, and found that it was a surprisingly effective method of climbing with the big boy. Easily enough, we climbed and scrambled up to the top of the cliff and enjoyed the downriver views for the 50 or so yards before we caught sight of our next challenge.
The hike description I had says that a "talus filled runnel” allows passage back to the river, and that it’s “steep, with lots of big boulders in precarious balance”. What it fails to mention is that the “Pueblo Slide” is out-of-your-mind scary, and damn near vertical. As recommended in the guide, we went down one at a time, waiting until the first man had cleared the path of any falling rocks before the next proceeded. I hate steep descents on loose rock under the best circumstances, and this was definitely not that. Though it wasn’t terribly exposed, a small slip would mean a long, uncomfortable and potentially fatal fall. I dug my poles in, hung on for my life, and s l o w l y descended the slope of the rockfall.
In what seemed to be an impossible feat of stubbornness over logic, stubbornness won. Again.
Honestly, if I never have to do that again, it’ll be years too soon.
But, like so many other miserable bits of hiking – it was over soon and I was happily waiting on a nice, flat piece of dirt about 30’ above the river while Steve and Sara took their turns coming down (I might add that they were substantially faster than me, and that I was glad to not have such a long wait as they had).
From there, it was a cakewalk to Hance Rapids and we knew that the very worst of what we could expect from this hike was behind us. We knew it – but then, we’d been wrong before.
While we were hiking across the river level, we spotted the boat trip that we’d spent the night with at Cardenas coming toward Hance Rapids. They all pulled off on the north side of the river and climbed up to a low bench where they could scout the rapids. I’m no river person, but even I could tell that Hance is a BIG piece of water. We waited on the large rocks near the shore while they debated (it felt like FOREVER), and then finally – one at a time – put in down the rapids. One of the more energetic boaters was running up and down the trail between the top and bottom of the rapids, I assume giving advice as each boat came through. It was fun to watch and a nice way to spend the late-morning (sitting on a rock watching other people work).
Finally, with the boaters back on their journey downriver, it was time for us to hit the Tonto. Given that this was supposed to be an all-Tonto-all-the-time kind of hike to start with, it sure took us enough time to get there! The first mile or so of the Tonto Trail as it left Hance was amazingly like the Escalante Route: same color, same texture, same mixture of beach walking and side-slope climbing. I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever get to see the chalky beige dirt that is indicative of the Tonto I know and love.
As the trail climbs up, the walls of the canyon begin to close in and the familiar igneous ‘Granite Gorge’ begins to appear. It’s quite interesting to watch the Great Unconformity appear in this area as the Supergroup pinches into nothing and the Tapeats becomes more massive. Enjoying the geology is a great way to keep your mind off the steady incline. We could see the tunnel openings and tailings from Hance Mine across the river, too.
The trail here was still looking very much like the Escalante Route doing an imitation of the Tonto Trail as we climbed out of Mineral Canyon. Then we began into an unnamed canyon which was pinching off the last of those deep red layers. At the back of this little drainage, like magic, the Supergroup disappeared almost entirely and the dusty, chalky Tonto Trail appeared. I’m not sure many people would have understood my little dance of elation, but for me it was a victory. I love this trail, so it was quite the reunion! Although there would still be climbing and rockfall dodging, it seemed like the unknown and unexpected would be over.
As we got deeper into the drainage, it was clear that there was still a considerable amount of snow on the north facing ledges of the South Rim. It was such a surprise considering how hot we’d been much of the hike. As we continued around Ayer’s Point for over an hour before we saw the worn maze of trails that was the camp and Hance Creek below us. I spotted a hiker in the campsite, and mistakenly thinking it was Steve, whooped and hollered in celebration. It wasn’t Steve, and I’m sure I looked like a fool – but considering that they were only the second group of hikers we’d seen in 5 days, I suppose I had a good excuse.
The pair turned out to be a couple of young people who worked for an outfitter in Flag and lead regular hikes with tourists down in the Canyon. This trip was just for them, though, and she’d been hiking in canyon for 28 (!) days, and he for 14. They were on their last couple of days, resting up and trying to eat their extra stores of food. They gave me a generous Mountain House breakfast to round out my light food pack. We swapped a few stories then went down the creek a little to camp under the giant cottonwood and give the couple the privacy they deserved.
Hance Creek had a pleasant flow, and our evening was a delightful one. The winds had picked up most of the day, and with some high clouds blowing over right at sunset there was some concern that weather might blow in overnight. I put the rainfly on my tent for the first time on the trip, so of course there was not rain at all and the sky was full of bright stars. I think, though, that the 4 nights I did have that view were better, since this time we were deep in a narrow canyon with only a sliver of sky available to us. I certainly didn’t lose any sleep over it!
Day 6: The unexpected luge
Definition: A luge is an object that is designed to be used for racing downhill over snow or ice - English Collins Dictionary
Hiking the next morning, we came to the junction with the Miner’s Trail up to Page Spring came faster than we were expecting. We’d left camp just a little after 8am, and by 9:45 we were up on the mesa. Steve had never visited the Horseshoe Mesa before, so he had lots of fun checking out the old mines on the way up and the relics and ruins on the mesa top. The hike up to that point was as steep as I remembered, though with most all of the food and water out of my pack, it did seem like things were finally getting a little easier.
At first the climb was easy, as it was in an area that got lots of sunshine. However, the trail soon traveled onto the east-facing slope of the break, and we began to encounter long stretches of slick, packed ice.
Steve, Sara and Clyde were a good bit ahead of me, but I think the ice slowed us all down. I put on my traction, which helped a lot, but certainly didn’t prevent slipping and some feelings of dangerous instability. Sara, unfortunately, had only the instep cleats – which are not only much less effective on hard ice than most other devices, but also make walking across areas without ice nearly impossible. She ended up having to stop repeatedly to apply and remove the cleats as we hiked up, which was not only time consuming but obviously frustrating. In some places, the ice was as hard and slick as a luge track, and we found ourselves occasionally demonstrating poor luge technique with our poles and backpacks. I was glad to be going up rather than down this slick little nightmare.
It was almost 1:30 by the time we hit the top of the rim. Not surprisingly given the icy conditions, we’d only encountered a couple of day hikers on the final stretch out. However the Grandview Point was quite busy, and there were many ooh’s and aaah’s about how amazing Sara and I were for hiking down in there. One particularly funny and impressed older gentleman was going on about how the miner’s got in and out of there. When I explained to him the route and how I’d hiked in there the last 6 days, his response was simply ‘Are you crazy?’.
Well, clearly, I am. But I hope I don’t get cured from this crazy!
Clyde and Steve chivalrously drove the truck right up to us and loaded us in. After picking up the shuttle car, it was a quick drive straight to We Cook Pizza for some serious post-hike pig out time. Their salad bar is one of the best things I can imagine after 6 days of dried, packaged food scavenged from ravens. We languished over the pizza and already began inflating our accomplishments into the stuff of legend.
While the rest of the crew headed back for their homes, I went to check in to my lodging for the volunteer project. I got to stay at the Albright Training Center, which are delightful rooms complete with little kitchenettes and huge soft beds. I ran to the General Store and bought myself some beer and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s (which I’d promised myself two days before), and sat down for the next 5 hours to read, review maps, check email and pig out on Banana Split. I fell asleep with the light on and awoke at 6am to find over a foot of snow had fallen in the night.
Talk about timing!
The canyon giveth, and the canyon taketh away. But on this trip, I think I came out an big winner!
If you are a hiker and would like an even more detailed account of this hike, visit my trip report at hikearizona.com.
If you are a hiker and would like an even more detailed account of this hike, visit my trip report at hikearizona.com.