Recently, I set a goal for myself. I decided that I wanted to have hiked all of the Tonto Trail in the GC by the end of 2012. I've done some considerable chunks at this point, but there is still much work left to do. Next on my list: the segment between Cottonwood Creek below Horseshoe Mesa and the South Kaibab trail.
I had a total of 7 backpackers from the ABC and one HAZer along for this adventure. I'd only ever done a 'long trip' with one of them - and I knew
he was usually a pain in the pumpkin (in a good way). As it turned out, it was a fun group, and the only problem was that we had to stop hiking too soon
We started inauspiciously, in my opinion. I couldn't get the whole crew together until breakfast the day of the hike, in spite of repeated communications and efforts to gather the night before. So-and-so was early and fell asleep, so-and-so wasn't even AT the GC yet, etc. At least I knew where the girls were - Cindy and I shared a lovely BA Lodge cabin. I could tell we'd be bonding before the trip was out.
The morning of the hike, I'm finishing packing my gear and I can't find my camera. Now, for those of you who've hiked with me before, you likely know right where said camera is. Yup. The dining room table at home. I spent the whole of breakfast cringing at the ways that Angela was going to berate me, and how I'd berate myself for not getting good photos of this hike.
I didn't feel like I could 'check off' this segment in my book if I didn't have any photos of it... What proof would there be except some isolated bits of DNA and some heresay evidence? So, after the breakfast team meeting and introduction bazaar, I headed off to the General Store where I purchased the only digital camera they had in stock. I'm sure I overpaid dramatically for the Kodak easyshare C1530 - but the price was smaller than my shame. Besides, I haven't had a 'back-up little camera' in quite some time. So, $175 later, I'm the proud owner of a superbly average point-and-shoot, a new 4g SD card and a couple sets of fancy AA batteries. It could be worse...I could be like self-employed and living on a meager income or something (eek).
After doing some car shuttle magic, we arrived at the Grandview Trailhead at around 10am to start our descent. We made it to the mesa fairly quickly and stopped for a quick snack at the miner's cabin. We bantered with a few hikers we saw there - most of them dayhikers who'd come down to the mesa just to head back up. What a waste!
Finding the Cave of the Domes was pretty straight forward after reading the trip reports and hike descriptions on HAZ. We thought
we'd missed it, but is wasn't long before we were taking our packs off at the large alcove at the cave's main entrance. Each person going into the cave made a comment about a dog - which I thought was a joke I'd missed while taking photos. However, once I entered the first room, I too saw the dog. She was a little timid (wouldn't you be if your leash was tied to a stalactite?), but friendly enough. Word was coming forward that her owners were just ahead of us, exploring the cave. I put away my 'junior park ranger' sense of duty this time. It just wasn't worth my effort to make a big stink when the dog was already all the way down here.
Turns out Flower (dog) is a trained and certified SAR dog. I honestly don't know if that means she was allowed to be where she was, but it did comfort me a little.
The cave is fun - though not really what I expected. It was very dusty, and though there was humidity and water droplets in the rooms further to the rear, overall it was quite dry. The formations, as many have mentioned, are largely broken and damaged - with the exception of the cool 'domes' in the ceiling, which are something I'd never seen before. We spent about an hour playing around in the cave. With the strings on the floor and the number of folks wandering about with bright lights on, it didn't feel dangerous at all. (I have to give Alan a plug here because he gave me fresh batteries for my headlamp, without which I would have been unable to explore much at all. Such a boy scout!
We ate a late-ish lunch at the cave entrance, happy to be sheltered from the winds that we blasting the mesa. Then we packed back up and headed back up to the mesa top. We'd decided to hike off the end of the Grandview Trail rather than doubling back to the Cottonwood trail. The wind howled and gusted, but we were all able to keep our feet through the steep and rocky descent.
Now that I've been off of all three trails on that mesa, I have to say that none of them are really a 'better' option. It all depends where you're going and what you've done. The Grandview descent (off the northern tip of the western arm of the mesa) is indeed quite steep and almost entirely over loose, fist-sized rocks that like to slip. But, so is the Cottonwood trail. The views off of the Grandview descent are better, but if you're camping at Cottonwood, you've still got another 1.5 miles to hike once you hit the Tonto. The miner's trail is steeper, but has less of the loose rock. I guess you pick your poison on this one.
We made it around the base of the mesa and I noticed the group all stopped at a spot just above the Creek just downstream of the crossing. There was a very nice campsite tucked down there, near running water and sporting some nice ledge spaces. We debated for a bit, then dove in and descended down to the lovely spot. I've camped at Cottonwood before, and this space was far better than the one I stayed at upstream where the trail off the mesa first crosses the creek. Definitely a sweet spot.
The problem with hiking in mid-November is that the days are painfully short. By the time we got our gear set up and our dinners warmed up, it was dark. By the time the stories were all told and the meals all eaten, it was getting cold. But it was only 6:30pm. We weren't nearly tired enough for bed already, were we?
After over 12 hours in my bivy, the sun was just getting ready to rise again at 7:30am. Yup - lets get moving! We broke camp and were on the trail before 9am. Not an early start, but there isn't much use when it's as cool and beautiful as it was this weekend!
Second day we had originally planned on camping in Grapevine, but we decided to push it a little longer to make day 3 shorter. We passed the spring on the east wall of Grapevine, then stopped to fill up on water at the main arm. There was less water here than at Cottonwood, but still plenty to fill our bottles. We were heading for Boulder, where reports had said there was water recently. Not sure, we added a bit of extra water to our bags and headed off again.
This section was classic Tonto action - contouring along the walls of the side canyon until we could cross the creeks, ducking in and out of smaller drainages. The entrance to Grapevine was a bit hairy, it felt more exposed than it really was, but feeling exposed was plenty enough for me. The trail is gravel and tilted toward the sharp drop through the Tapeats cliffs. I was glad that I wasn't the only one who thought it was a bit scary looking. Toward the back of the canyon, the Tonto platform flattened out and there was more room for the trail. Grapevine really is huge - it would be a destination all by itself in other parts of the world. Here, it's just another side canyon
The group straggled into Boulder in a few shifts. As we headed for the back of the canyon, we saw Alan, Mike and Nate in a camp just above the creek, and we made a b-line for them. Problem was that the trail didn't make that b-line, and we spent a good bit of time wandering about on the soft, saturated slopes trying to get to camp. Turns out they were camped above the trail crossing - we just didn't notice where the trail dipped into the creek on our way up.
The camp was really too small for our group, but we made do rather than break up the group or make the lead team take down their tents. We kept thinking it was going to start raining on us (the forecast was for a %40 chance), and we all wanted protection quick. The trickle in the creek was enough to keep us in good spirits, but once again we were all tucked in before 9pm. It never did rain that night... that canyon is a terrible tease.
Day 3 was originally to be our longest day, and our most difficult. We'd shaved a few miles off of it already, which was good. I'd billed this as an 'intermediate' canyon trip, but in retrospect it might have been just a little over that level. With such short days, 10 miles is a lot to hike on top of setting up and taking down camp, pumping water, cooking meals and debating trail decisions.
We watered up in Lonetree Canyon. We found some decent sized potholes just about 50-100 yards downstream from the trail crossing. The water was a bit silty, but after filtering tasted delicious. Nate and I explored downstream to locate the spring, which was strikingly obvious with the namesake cottonwood tree in full fall yellow. The spring was flowing good, but the distance from the trail definitely made the potholes the most attractive option. We were loading up with 5-6L per person, and that's a lot to carry while scrambling on the creek bottom.
We made camp in the middle arm of Cremation Creek. Cremation is very unlike the previous side canyons we'd encountered. It's flanks are wide and not nearly as steep, and the are many more small 'arms'. Then there are the fields of bus-size boulders at both the entrance and exit from the drainage. Makes you feel distinctly hobbit-like.
I explored upstream and downstream from our camp to see if there was water in this arm. Upstream we found nothing but huge chunks of Tapeats sandstone that threatened to crush unwary travelers. Downstream in the narrows there were a couple of potholes, but they would have been quite challenging to access and looked pretty stinky. I was glad we had plenty already.
The big fun at Cremation camp was our 'Occupy the Grand Canyon' movement, orchestrated by Cindy. It was nice to have some time to play at camp before dark set in. We went to bed early again with a few light raindrops hitting the tarp. That was all we got, though, and I spent the next 11 hours trying to talk myself into sleeping with very little success. At least the sky was beautiful to watch!
Last day, big climb! I actually didn't anticipate how tough it would be to get to the South Kaibab trail from Cremation. I was figuring on something like the 2mi from Horn Creek to Indian Gardens. No way, Jose! This bit of the Tonto trail goes up and down and up and down and up! I'd read about it, but you don't really know until you're there. The views were amazing, though, and the terrain, vegetation and geology much more varied than on other stretches of the same trail.
The group had fractured before even leaving camp: one member left before the sun was up, and the rest took of in groups of 2 or 3, leaving Alan, Cindy and I on the trail most of the way as a trio.
Once at the Tip-off, it was just a game of endurance. I knew we could do it, and as long as we kept our pace nice and slow and even, we made great time. It can't ever be said to be 'easy', but it's infinitely doable by folks in good shape. We made it to the top by 3pm, and were elbow-deep in pizza and salad by 4:30.
I was impressed with everyone's positive attitude (ha) and willingness to work hard (yeah right). The only real problem was that we had to stop and go back home!