Boucher-Tonto-Hermit Loop: A first-timer's backpacking trip on the rugged threshold and primitive trails of the Grand Canyon
Day 1 - Hermit's Rest to Boucher Creek
Hermit Trail to Dripping Springs Trail to Boucher Trail to Tonto Trail
We arrived at Hermit's Rest at about 8:00 in the morning, after a long drive up from the valley. Having worked the night before, I was running off of two hours of sleep plus whatever dozing I got in with the side of my head against the truck window during the drive in. My companions for the two night trip were my dad's friend Robert (Bob), who I had hiked with previously on a dayhike down the Hermit Trail to Dripping Springs, and his two friends Mike and George. We loaded up some water in our bellies and basically procrastinated on strapping our 45 pound packs on our backs. By 8:30 we managed to start the steep descent down the Hermit Trail.
I had apparently over-hydrated that morning because I had to stop numerous times on the Hermit to urinate. I think we were still getting used to lugging the heavy packs around, because we took breaks at the Hermit-Dripping Springs junction, and at Dripping Springs-Boucher Junction. When we finally started "down" the Boucher, it felt like we were actually getting somewhere, but not for long. From the beginning Boucher is noticeably more rugged than Hermit, and Hermit it no freeway. We took a couple of breaks along Boucher before reaching Yuma Point, as the day started to warm up and fatigue set in quickly due to the rugged, albeit relatively flat trail.
Boucher's upper reaches offer stunning views of Shiva Temple and vicinity across the canyon, which were welcome. However, I found Boucher's upper reaches to become increasingly tedious as it seems like it traverses the Hermit Shale FOREVER. I realize that Boucher is a primitive trail that relies heavily on finding breaks in the cliffs that are often few and far between, but I was ready to start dropping elevation already! When Boucher finally decides to descend the Esplanade cliff, it doesn't mess around. There is one section that is particularly narrow and semi-exposed, and I think that is the section where I read that some hikers have been known to lower their packs down. It is a little sketchy, but nothing that freaked me out at all. I definitely done (and turned away from) more intense maneuvers.
After the extremely steep descent through the cliffs in the Supai, everyone was hurting and we took a long break at some potholes along the trail. I hadn't been using my GPS, but I turned it on just to check the time. I announced that is was 2:00 PM, which was met with the response of "Already!" I had a hunch that the day was moving faster than everyone realized, so I wasn't so surprised myself. At that point, I think everyone realized that our pace needed to kick up a notch.
After regrouping at the potholes, we continued along a relatively flat but very warm traverse atop the Redwall. The views at White's Butte Saddle were excellent, and another break was tempting, but we pushed on down yet another brutally steep descent, this time through a rugged side canyon carved through the Redwall Limestone. The heavy packs crushing our bodies down the intense grade once again made us fatigue quickly, and a couple of breaks were required before we reached the Tonto Trail junction. All of us were running out of gas.
After a bit of confusion of which way to go at the Tonto junction, a little map reading cleared everything up and descended toward Boucher Creek. A spring was visible in a stunning alcove above in the side canyon, and I yearned for exploration. The brittlebush bloomed in stunning fashion along the Tonto in this area, and I could see ample potential for photography with Marsh Butte looming above as a spectacular backdrop. But alas, the day was growing late and there was no time. Two minutes later we reached the beautiful Boucher Creek, where there were numerous campsites, and everyone dropped their packs. I think almost instantly we all knew that Boucher Rapids was out of the question, and this oasis would be our home for the night. However, I wasn't taking any chances, so I quickly ripped my camera out of my bag and ran up to the brittlebush to snag a couple photos.
After a few minutes, the official decision was made to camp there, which excited me because I wanted to shoot the brittlebush under the better light that was approaching, and Boucher Creek was inspiring me as well. We collected water out of the creek and slowly set up camp. I ran around to take photos in between setting up my little tent and pulling out my sleeping bag and air mattress. I eventually ate dinner, which was a Mountain House beef stew. It was alright, definitely edible, but very mediocre.
As darkness set in, we noticed the frogs in the creek grew louder and louder. Everyone was beginning to crawl into bed, and I contemplated staying up to attempt star photography. However, laying down did sound awfully good. I decided to lay down until it was fully dark and then get to take some shots, but after minimal sleep the night before and a LONG day on the Boucher Trail, I stayed in bed the rest of the night
Day 2 - Boucher Creek to Hermit Rapids
Tonto Trail to Hermit Creek
I slept relatively well, and awoke to the sky becoming light again. Mike was already up wandering about, but I decided to remain in the warmth of my bed for a few more minutes. As George and Bob began to rise, it was time for me to do so as well. I filled the early morning with photography sprinkled in with camp duties once again. The light on Marsh Butte that morning was much better than the previous evening, and the brittlebush were once again revisited. Apparently I had forgotten to stash some of my food in the ratsack the night before, and a mouse had broken into my pack. Fortunately I had way more than enough food for the entire trip, but wasting that food frustrated me enough that I wasn't paying very much attention when heating up my oatmeal and dropped half of it on the ground. The roughness of the morning wore off soon enough, and we collected the days water and broke camp.
We were all aching from the previous days torture, and a short rest was taken after the short ascent to the Tonto junction. As we made our way out on to the Tonto Platform, I kept looking back at Boucher Canyon and getting one of those nostalgic feelings in my soul. I wished I had more time to explore and enjoy the place, and silently vowed to return again someday. As we made our way farther out onto the Tonto Platform, my attention shifted from the past to the present. Although hot and exposed to the sun, the Tonto has stunning views in all directions. Looking down into the Inner Gorge at the Colorado River is breathtaking. I remembered my Dad talking about how he enjoyed the open views of the Tonto during his own Grand Canyon exploits in years past.
Along the way we encountered several other groups going the opposite direction as us, so we exchanged information on creeks and campsites. One group made a particularly good suggestion on the best campsite at Hermit Rapids, our destination for the day. After a nice leisurely stroll on the manageable terrain of the Tonto, we were getting pretty toasty in the sun, and were happy to finally descend to the cool waters of Hermit Creek at Hermit Camp.
Bob headed upstream to collect water, and I followed him as I needed to use his filter. Around the first bend was a beautiful set of cascades flowing down a stair-stepped slickrock outcrop of Tapeats Sandstone. With the harsh mid-day sun beating down, it was in no shape to be photographed at that moment, and immediately I started scheming a plan to photograph it under open shade. Turns out I would reach it just in time on the hike out the following morning. After Bob and I collected water and marveled at the beauty of Hermit Creek, we headed back down stream to relax in the shade and eat with the rest of the crew.
The next leg of our trip would be blast: the mile and a half hike along the waters of Hermit Creek down to the Colorado River. Lower Hermit Creek is a wonderland of waterfalls, crystal clear pools, and beautiful cliffs. In the heat of the day, the company of the creek was welcome. As we approached Hermit Rapids, two other backpacker fellows had also just arrived, one of which promptly stripped to his underwear and sat down in the middle of the creek to cool off. I would converse with them later, and they had apparently descended the Hermit from Rim to River in all of four hours.
The elegant yet powerful sight of Hermit Rapids was one to behold, but our first priority was to find our campsite. We wandered the rocky beach through the tamarisks for a while before we finally found the spot on the bluff that was recommended to us by a hiker on the Tonto earlier. Cheers were bellowed as packs were thrown to the ground for the day, as our campsite offered a commanding view of Hermit Rapids. After relaxing in the shade for a while, Bob and headed upstream a ways to take a dip in the cold Colorado River. The water was frigid, but I was comfortable in the heat for the rest of the afternoon after that pleasant cool down.
I then decided that some contemplative time was in order, and found a couple nice spots to sit along the rapids and gaze into the glorious motion of water meeting rock. As the afternoon wore on, I headed back up to our bluff to eat an early dinner and set up my tent so I wouldn't have to worry about that stuff later when the good photogenic light would be my mind's priority. Dinner was a Mountain House grilled chicken with rib meat and mashed potatoes, however, I don't think there was really rib meat in the thing. Another decent meal, although better than the beef stew the night before. After setting up my tent, I chatted with the boys around camp for a bit before taking off for the creek as the sun grew low and shade began encroaching on the canyons.
I traveled no more than half a mile back up Hermit Creek, but shot many different cascades along the way. I had changed from my boots into the creek shoes I brought, so much of the time I walked straight through the creek which was incredibly pleasant. I even contemplated submerging myself in some of the deeper pools under the waterfalls, but it was no longer hot out and I decided to try my luck photographing the rapids. At the rapids, I tried many abstract compositions with the flowing water and boulders, which seemed to work pretty well. However, any attempts at traditional shots with the river, canyon walls, and sky seem to fail. Hermit Rapids is a difficult place to photograph.
Eventually I returned to camp, tired from exertion via photography. The rest of the evening I spent enjoying social time with my companions and viewing the landscape from our perch. Night eventually set in, and we enjoyed the sky transition into stars. As everyone went to bed, I ventured out to the end of our sandy bluff and attempted some star photography. I used a blooming brittlebush as a foreground, "light-painting" it with my head-lamp. Once satisfied, I turned in for what would be a fitful night's sleep.
Day 3 - Hermit Rapids to Hermit's Rest
Hermit Creek to Tonto Trail to Hermit Trail
I slept intermittently and horribly, with nightmares plaguing my mind each time I napped. When the sky finally began to lighten, I was relieved. We arose early, knowing we had a long uphill day ahead of us. Bob said he had nightmares too, and said he woke up yelling at one point, which eased my mind and spirit. The others heated up water for their breakfasts, but I didn't bother and just ate granola bars and trail mix, lord knows I had enough left to last me another couple days out there. There were clouds in the sky, making for a nice sunrise, but I only took one photo being at such a photographically difficult location. It was for the better, as I needed to get my bag packed to go. I was more concerned about getting to the waterfalls at the Hermit Creek-Tonto Trail junction anyway.
Our departure from the rapids wasn't super-early, but early enough. I said goodbye to the Colorado River silently as we headed toward the creek. The hike back up Hermit Creek was as pleasant as ever. I skipped shooting a good waterfall shot about halfway to Hermit Camp, thinking to myself "someday". Closer to Hermit Camp, I chose to do a quick shoot of some cascades while the others continued. They had trouble finding a way up the creek bed a little higher, which allowed me to catch back up quickly. We arrived at Hermit Camp and my beloved waterfalls just before the sunlight overtook them with it's nasty harsh light. I quickly shot as many compositions as possible while the others started collecting water for the hike out.
Once tanked up, we started the ascent of the Tonto back onto the Tonto Platform. This was perhaps the busiest section of trail we had seen, while multiple groups going different directions. We were soon in the sun, and albeit mid-morning, it was getting pretty hot. We already felt hot and tired by the time we reached Hermit Trail proper, and the intital ascent up the Bright Angel Shale was rough. We rested once halfway up the Bright Angel/Muav Limestone sequence, and then again right below where the Cathedral Stairs climb up the Redwall. We started catching good shade at this point, and we got some wind in our sails. We steadily climbed the Cathedral Stairs, and continued and at good pace toward Lookout Point. The clouds built up nicely during this section, continuing the shady theme for a while and making for good hiking. I remember having to stop in awe at the view up Hermit Canyon at one point, as the shade made the colors of the rock layers look superb, and the sets of cliffs up and down the walls were stunning.
As we ascended the switchbacks above the Lookout Point saddle, the sun had come and a break was in order. We found shade behind a sandstone wall a took an extended lunch. My stomach had been rumbling and I needed to refuel on granola bars and gatorade. We lost some of our momentum after this, and the next mile and a half of slightly uphill hiking seemed rougher than it should have been. The rest shack at Santa Maria Spring was a welcome sight. We each collected an extra liter of water out of the trough, and took another extended rest. An older gentleman (dayhiker) joined us soon, whom we had seen sitting atop the summit of Lookout Point (George had mistook him for a Bald Eagle for a second). We chatted with for a while before he took off so he could meet his wife after she finished a Rim to Rim to Rim that day.
We knew the finals climbs were going to be brutal, and they were. Bob, who had been in front most of the day anyway, had an appointment with the toilet at Hermit's Rest and set a faster pace than the rest of us. The climb up the Esplanade cliff wasn't too bad, but it started to get tough as we ascended the Hermit Shale out of Hermit Basin. To me, the ascent through the Coconino Sandstone seemed the hardest as the trail is strictly on uneven slickrock or riprap through its entirety, and the uphill is relentless. With Bob nowhere in sight, I called for a short rest at the Coconino-Toroweap contact. We pushed through the final climb through the Toroweap and Kaibab, although the last bit seemed to go on forever. As George, Mike and I reached the trucks, we spotted Bob strolling his way back from the bathroom. Handshakes and high fives were exchange after an exhausting, challenging, beautiful, and above else FUN trip. George and I made our way to the bathroom soon after. We headed straight to Tusayan for a welcome yet slightly underwhelming meal at McDonalds before making the drive back to Phoenix.
This being my first backpacking trip, and quite at intense one at that, I have to say that it was a huge success! I guess I didn't hardly describe my companions in this triplog, but they were a great bunch, and I am forever grateful that they gave me the opportunity to join them. Thanks guys! I could go on and on about my experiences, the things I learned, and what I want to do in the future, but I've already burned through half a day writing this triplog, and I still have a good amount of work to do on the photos. Let me just say that I hope this was the first of many successful backpacking trips for me, and not just in the Grand Canyon, but all over the state of Arizona, the western United States, or even beyond that!