November 5th-9th; 44.2 miles, 8,400’ of gain
This trip kind of came together at the spur of the moment so I had my concerns of diving into the relative unknown. I needed one more round trip on Southwest for A-List next year and when my plans to visit an old friend in Kansas City fell through I needed to find an inexpensive alternative. I intend to take the family down to the Grand Canyon as soon as the little legs are strong enough to get them out of it so I thought a recon trip would be appropriate. Southwest was nearly giving away flights to Phoenix so the balls were in motion. Unfortunately, my fishing expedition for partners turned up similar results as most of my actual fishing attempts so I’d be alone for this adventure.
The first hurdle was getting a permit. I know the Grand Canyon fills up fast and I had 10 days to put something together. I did a quick search for backpacking loops and come up with a couple of options. The Boucher – Hermit loop was my second choice and permits were available. The ranger office did their best to talk me out of my aggressive plan which only piqued my interest and curiosity even more. But, after a few rounds of gaper checks, I finalized my permit about 48 hours before I was to set off.
I left for DIA on Friday night, after a hibachi dinner with my wife and youngest (oldest was at a birthday party) and the flight to Phoenix was as uneventful as you could hope for. I grabbed my rental car and checked into the Hyatt Place near the airport around 11:30 that night. The 6:10 alarm came fast and I enjoyed the included hot breakfast, eating my weight in egg sandwiches and fruit. The schedule worked out perfectly as I was on the road by 6:30, Safeway in Flagstaff for Gatorade and a sandwich for lunch at 8:45 and was waiting at REI when the doors opened at 9:00 am for a JetBoil fuel canister – maximizing the time available for my long approach. I got to the backcountry office at 10:30, they tried one last time to talk me out of my itinerary, and then I was on the trail by 11:30.
Day 1: Hermit’s Rest to Boucher Rapids Campsite: 10.8 miles, 300’ of gain, 4,540’ of loss, 4,240’ net loss
The descent from Hermit’s Rest is quick and brutal but it’s odd descending when fresh. Even so, the trail is relatively crowded until the turnoff for Dripping Springs. Unfortunately, about 20 minutes in, I realized that my knife fell out of my pack at some point. I didn’t feel I had the time to go back and still get to camp before dark so I was stuck to hoping that no one would find it by the car or that it was in the trunk.
The first lesson of this trip is that the trail system in the Grand Canyon NP is very little like the superhighways that I’ve grown accustomed to in Rocky Mountain NP. The “Corridor” of South Kaibob and Bright Angel is more in line with RMNP, but outside of that you can expect something similar to an obscure wilderness trail (think Ruby Basin approach) for the most part with it deteriorating to little more than a climbers trail in some sections. I was still confident I could pull off my itinerary but doubts began to creep in at spots.
I kept a pretty solid pace until my first rest stop below Yuma Point where I found a nice rock outcropping overlooking Hermit Creek and about 100 yards from two very large vultures looking out for something dead to eat. There are some great, albeit dry, camping opportunities there but I still had half of my mileage in front of me and the day wasn’t going to wait for me so I didn’t stay long.
The one drawback of this trail is that it’s in the helicopter tour corridor. The droning of engines is pretty much a constant and can get irritating. Beyond that, it’s pretty secluded. The roughest trail for the entire trip was encountered on the descent between Yuma Point and the Whites Butte saddle. There is some class 3 stuff but I would compare it to the upper Mt. Morrison trail that I’ve gotten so familiar with this year. Surprisingly, I ran into a group of 5 coming up from Boucher Creek at the saddle. They were camping below Yuma that night and confirmed that the spring at the bottom of the valley was running. Since I knew I would reach a water source that night, I offered to top off their bottles since they were dry camping. The descent from the Whites Butte saddle wasn’t too bad but did require some care in areas. I ran into another group of 2 day tripping the loop in the canyon who warned me of rattlers near the Tonto Trail intersection. They would be the last people I’d see for about 20 hours.
I reached the Boucher Campground around 4:30. It provided a nice option but I had my heart on sleeping along the river. After 40 minutes of following the nearly dry Boucher Creek bed (no trail below the campsites contrary to the map), I found a perfect spot about 100 yards upriver from the confluence. Soft sand for sleeping, smooth rocks for lounging, nice sunset, this site had it all. Honestly, it may have taken over my #1 spot from Sunlight Basin.
Dinner was beef stroganoff with salt and vinegar Pringles while I piped some Lumineers and Pink Floyd through my iSpeaker and I learned my second lesson of the trip – I overpacked. I brought a bear canister for my food since I was warned of rodent issues at some of the campsites. I saw one squirrel at Hermit Camp during my lunch stop on Day 2. There isn’t a need for any food storage as long as you keep the place clean. Second, I had a down sweater, gloves and a hat. No need for them either. I was fine well after dark lounging in just a long-sleeve shirt. Lastly, tents are essentially optional. I didn’t even put the fly on until I needed some privacy at the busy Hermit Camp on night 3 and I never encountered a bug issue. Regardless of all that, I had one of the more enjoyable evenings I’ve ever had in the backcountry listening to music while lounging on the beach, watching the moon rise and stars come out.
Day 2: Tonto Trail to Granite Rapids – 11.7 miles, 1,400’ of gain, 1,330’ of loss, 70’ net gain.
First of all, I didn’t notice this until after the trip, but Granite Rapids is 30’ higher than Boucher Rapids but is about 3 miles upriver so the Colorado actually flows uphill through parts of the canyon. No need for an alarm and I was in no hurry to get going, so I slept in until 6:45 (11 hours of sleep) and drank as much water as possible before I got going to go along with my Mountain House Breakfast Skillet for breakfast. While packing, I snapped a tent pole when I picked it up to shake the sand out of it – so the trip had a few hiccups.
I was on the trail around 8:30 and made my way up to the Tonto Trail intersection. I’d learn to really love the Tonto. It’s relatively flat, circumnavigating as many of the small bumps as possible along the way, which keeps you very close to the lower rim edge, thus limiting the need for wandering off trail for overlooks. As a matter of fact, of the ~20 miles of the Tonto I did on this trip, I may have only left the trail 4 or 5 times for pictures – of which I took nearly 450.
The best part of this hike was getting away from the helicopters – the “no fly zone” starts between Travertine and Hermit Basins. I hit Hermit Camp around 12:30 where I saw my first (and last) people on the day – the construction crew building the new bathroom there and two guys running the loop in a day. I stopped here and refilled my water supply and had lunch – whipped Jiff chocolate peanut butter with banana chips for dipping which will become a staple in my arsenal. I also used my solar panel to recharge my phone and iSpeaker.
After about an hour of relaxing, I was back on the trail and made my way over to Monument Creek which turned out to be the highlight of the trip (besides camp #1). I dropped into the canyon around 2:45 and admired the towers (which surprisingly don’t have LOJ entries) and meandered down the mostly dry creek bed (again, no trail but easy walking with an occasional boulder to work around) arriving at Granite Rapids at 3:30. I was surprised to see one other group (2 people) also camped down there. There was lots of space so we chose spots ~200’ apart and after some brief conversation never saw each other again. The tent pole that snapped was working just fine with the collar provided for such an occasion, but I will try and replace it when I get home – which may prove difficult since they discontinued it a few years ago. It’s a shame too, the Easton MP Kilo 3P is a great tent. Anyways, I took the extra time to rinse off at the beach where the sediment was great at exfoliating all the grime and sunscreen off of me and then filtered water from Monument Creek (since the same sediment would have likely destroyed my filter). Dinner this night was Mountain House chicken and dumplings (my new favorite) and Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason and Dark Side of the Moon were my choices in music before calling it a night around 6:30.
Day 3: Monument Creek/Salt Creek/Hermit Rapids Side Trips & Hermit Camp -15 miles, 2,700’ of gain, 2,130’ of loss, 570’ net gain.
There wasn’t any availability at sites within striking distance of the Bright Angel TH so I couldn’t make this a true loop hike. So, I had some extra time to explore since it was only 4.6 miles back to Hermit Camp.
I woke at 6:00 am and watched the sunrise from the tent. The canyon is a little more open here than Boucher so the light came a little sooner. I packed up and was on the trail by 8:00 am. Up at the Tonto Trail intersection, you hit a little subway-like path around the Monument campsites. Here I lost the trail in some thick brush and found myself in the creek bed. In no rush to really get anywhere, I figured I’d venture up the creek to the top of the basin to see what there was to see.
After the gentle side trip, I looked to see if there was a high path I could take back down to the Tonto but to no avail. I simply retraced my steps back to the campsites and found the Tonto Trail headed east out of the creek bed just a little downstream from where I missed it, marked by 3 cairns. Back on the trail, I climbed out of Monument Creek and made my way over to Salt Creek, passing the Cedar Spring campsite en route. Cedar Spring offered incredible views but it is a dry site. I enjoyed the views from the Tonto Trail and meandered back into Salt Creek. That site is really tucked back there. It had a slight trickle of a stream left, but that’s irrelevant. The water there is radioactive from a naturally occurring deposit of high quality uranium higher in the valley. The site was supposed to have mescal pits used for cooking by the natives but I didn’t find anything. The description said the campsites were right on top of them so my guess is that the sites were built literally on top of them and the pits are buried. At the site, I found someone had left their new sandals so I thought I’d try and find the owners back at Hermit. So I threw those on the back of my pack, hoping that maybe that would provide a little good karma for my knife. I started retracing my steps west towards Hermit but soon stopped where I found some shade from a rock next to the sunny trail to have lunch (more bananas/Jiff) and recharge my phone and iSpeaker again.
As I neared the Cedar Spring campsite, I stopped suddenly. I nearly stepped right on top of a 12-15” rattler. They are amazingly camouflaged so even though he was stretched out across the trail I didn’t see him until I was right on top of him. I stepped within about 3 inches of his head when I jumped back and he readied for an attack. Now, a safe distance from him, I shooed him off the trail with my poles and he gave me an annoyed rattle as he crept beneath a rock.
Right before I hit Hermit Camp, I came across the split for Hermit Rapids and had a couple hours of daylight left so I figured I’d add another 3 miles/600’ to my day. Hermit Canyon was the most picturesque of the three I visited (Boucher was by far the best camp and Monument was my favorite all-around though). There is a trail down to Hermit Rapids as this was the focal point for tourism below the rim in the early 1900s before South Kaibob linked the north and south rims. The campsites that I saw at the rapids weren’t that appealing so I thought I had made the right decision by staying at the camp. I was wrong.
I got up to Hermit Camp around 4:30 and put my tent up on the hardest dirt you can imagine and I was the last one there so there was only one available spot, within 30’ of 3 other groups and right next to the bathroom being constructed. Trying to make the best of it, I rinsed off in the creek and ate dinner trying to ignore the hammers and saws. On the plus side, the workers informed me that the bathroom was open for business, but only for pee. They needed to “season” the wood chips with 20 gallons of urine before they would allow the heavy stuff. I can now claim to be the first ever user of the new bathroom at Hermit Creek. I ate some mac and cheese for dinner and called it a night around 7:30. My body was starting to wear down and this was a pretty stout day. Problem was, I now had about 4,000 feet to climb out of there in the morning.
Day 4: Hermit Camp to Hermit’s Rest – 8.2 miles, 4,000’ of gain, 260’ of loss, 3,740 net gain
The group next to me left camp at 6:00 so I had no hope of sleeping beyond that. I left my remaining fuel and the new sandals with the workers as hopefully they could get some use out of them and was on the trail at 7:00 – happy to be able to get most of the hike done before the sun would hit the western side of Pima Point. I got to the top of the Cathedral Stairs at 8:30 and found the early risers having breakfast and coffee near Breezy Point. If you’ve climbed Angel’s Landing in Zion, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect on the “Stairs”. The trail flattens out for the next few miles with slight ups and downs as it traverses back into the valley. I got to Santa Ana Spring at 10:30 where I took my only break and finished off any remaining food and water. I had a 1,700’ climb in 2.5 miles to the trailhead and there aren’t bonus points for carrying any of that out with you. This was also where I hit the sun for the first time all day. 45 minutes later, I was back at my car – completely beat from the climb. One item to remember is that you don’t coast home like you do here. If you go to the canyon, you have to save your “A” game for the last day. Unfortunately though, no knife was to be found at the trailhead.
Before I checked in with the family, I swung by the Hopi Point Overlook above Salt Creek and was able to look back on my previous four days. I have to admit, I kind of felt like part of the final fountain scene in Oceans Eleven as I leaned against the guardrail back among the tourists gaping at the abyss, completely ignorant of the hidden secrets below them – just as I was on my only previous visit to the canyon in 1999. After a series of texts to tell everyone I was ok, I made a pit stop at Wendy’s in the newly created tourist trap of Tusayan, AZ and headed back to Tempe where I enjoyed the hot tub and a shower at Lifetime Fitness. Once cleaned up, I hit up YC’s Mongolian (highly recommended) for dinner. I had plenty of time before my 9:30 flight home so I was able to take my time returning the car and checking in for my flight. The good news though was as I pulled my bag out of the trunk, a small object caught my eye – my knife!
This trip was truly an eye opener for me. Not only the fact that going somewhere completely new and different from the Colorado norm definitely renewed my passion for the outdoors and backpacking in general, but the conditions in Northern Arizona are incredibly ideal in November. I didn’t miss the cutting winds or slippery coat of new fall snow that is found stumbling around the hills here this time of year. In fact, I never even used a jacket. The canyon will now be on my list every few years for a great change of pace to my normal outings and just relax in a beautiful environment. That and, as stated at the beginning, this was my second choice for a route. My first option is still out there to be had. So, I’ll start fishing for partners in November 2018 or ’19 now. Who’s in?
Thanks for reading!