|Tonto Trail: South Bass to Hermit, AZ|| |
Tonto Trail: South Bass to Hermit, AZ
|Backpack||50.00 Miles||6 Days |
|5,600 ft AEG|
|And now, ladies and gentleman, an epic tale of adventure, danger and triumph in the grandest canyon on earth...
I've been trying to "get er done" with this hike for years. My concept of hiking the whole of the Tonto from the LCR to Royal Arch Creek seemed doable enough back in 2009 - and now 7 years later I can finally count it finished . The Gems passage between South Bass and Hermit may not be the most difficult portion of this route, but it has proven over the years to logistically challenging and down right elusive. Cancelled shuttles, sick hiking partners and bad weather have cancelled my prior 3 attempts at this stretch of the trail. I vowed that come hell, high water or bad roads I would complete it this year - and the canyon pulled out some of her best attempts at stopping me.
Oh, and doing the trip this way means you have to hike out Hermit, which I hate by the way. Just sayin'.
The days before our hike, a storm blew into Northern AZ which threatened to make the roads impassable out to South Bass. A stroke of luck kept the worst of the moisture away from our area, and the roads were dry and safer than expected. It seemed almost a let-down that there was no mud on the road in, as I'd really sold it hard to my hiking companions not familiar with that road that as was gnarly and potentially dangerous. Of course, the fact that I was still finding red mud in my Subaru 3 years after driving it to do Royal Arch should have been evidence enough. Thanks to Tim for getting us out there safe and happy!
We originally had permits to camp at South Bass TH the night before our hike in, and we were VERY glad we changed our itinerary to drive in and hike down on the same day. Although it meant a very LONG hike in, it also let us spend that 11 degree night in a camping trailer (provided by the most generous Scat Daddy) rather than cowboy camping it. It ALSO meant that we didn't have to carry the gear needed for 11 degree camping with us for the remaining 5 nights ... none of which dropped below about 40. All around, a great choice!
Day 1: South Bass and Rainbows
I love this trail...up and down it is a delight to hike. The little break you get crossing the Esplanade under the watchful eye of Mount Huethawali feels like a piece of heaven. I was making up a little tune (think along the lines of Gentle On my Mind) as we hiked in...
"Well I'm back here on the Esplanade,
Making up a country song,
Hiking in with some of my good friends,
I feel I'm back where I belong,
in spite of this here country song,
walkin' through the canyon once again..."
If you read Sirena's trip report, you'll note that a couple of the folks we ran into that day either knew her or me or both of us, which made for a fun bit of conversation. I love knowing that our community of Grand Canyon devotees is not as big as one might fear, and that we all congregate in season about the waterholes and overhangs of our favorite side canyons.
Our trip for water down to Bass Tanks was hot and stressful, but in the end we got enough to drink to support a dry camp out on the point (always a preference!). I'd like to say that we took the wrong route to the tanks (following the creek instead of the trail) on purpose, looking for waterholes we'd found before. But the truth was that we really had no idea what we were doing, and we made a long trip even longer. Luckily, no permanent harm was done and the worst thing that happened was that we were short on mileage for day 1. We made camp on the plateau just before the trail turned back to the south.
When we set our packs down, I pointed out a substantial storm that was building over the Powell Plateau. We all excitedly headed down to the edge of the plateau to see the river, and the storm kept building. Once we realized that it was actually going to hop across the canyon at us, we rushed back to try to make camp before it hit. Instead, we made camp as it hit - with strong winds whipping our tents and tarps out of our hands and strong spray blinding us as we tried to stake everything down. I think the strongest rain was falling for about 5-10 minutes after we got the tents and all up, but it was never really a downpour. When the drops got more infrequent we crawled back out and were treated to that golden-light show that only a sunset shower in the canyon can give you. Even rainbows to play in!
"There's a storm brewin' across the rim,
but Roger says the chance of rain is slim.
Well either way the wind begins to blow.
The rain it beats upon my face
putting me back in to my place
I just hope it doesn't turn to snow."
Day 2: Helicopters and Bright Sunshine
The morning was brilliant as we watched a (much less spectacular) sunrise. We decided to try to follow a pattern of breaking camp before breakfast and eating later on the trail to make the most of our cooler morning hours. We figured it was about 2.5 miles into Serpentine, and we made it in a little over an hour. The hike back into the back of the canyon was a little more challenging than I'd anticipated - the Tonto platform is narrow going into the back of the canyon, and there were many little twists and turns to navigate. None the less, it was a spectacular morning for hiking - with blooming prickly pear abundant, the sage busting out with dark green foliage and delicate yellow flowers and a cloudless blue sky.
"We're Tontouring into Serpentine,
The rocks are brown, the sage is green,
The cacti have such lovely bright pink blooms,
I hope the canyon's kind to me,
I hope I hike out gracefully,
and not have this big rock hole be my tomb..."
We filled up a few containers with water in Serpentine. Reports of the quality of this water vary from "just fine" to "damn near poison", and we weren't sure which to believe. Like any seasoned canyon hiker, though, we were aware that passing a water source with empty bottles is tantamount to running with scissors - so we topped of. Some people tried a "blend" of Serpentine water, while others kept it in a separate emergency storage device. In the end, after all was said and done, our feelings on the water were mixed. No one reported major intestinal issues, but I've always had difficulties with my inards on backpacking food and water, so it's tough to say what the culprit might have be.
Like most groups, we don't always hike close to each other, but instead accordion out across the trail. John (who earned the trail name BBJ) was out in the lead - still nervous that he wouldn't be able to keep up (obviously he hadn't hiked with me before!). Sirena was cruising in second, a real force of nature out there on the trail. Then the accordion collapsed behind her when she stopped with some unexplained leg pain.
I'll refer you to her very detailed and fascinating trip log for details on her injury, call for help and subsequent rescue: [ triplog ]. We waved goodbye to the helicopter (video here: ) and then encountered that very surreal moment where there's nothing left to do but pick up your pack and start walking again. Minus one.
The rest of the day felt decidedly anticlimactic. We Tontoured in and out of Emerald and Quartz canyons - both of which were very standard, easy Tonto canyons. As we headed back into Ruby our water bottles were getting down to just the Serpentine blends and we were glad to be approaching what we'd been told was a pretty dependable source. The sun went behind the canyon walls while we collected water and chatted with the group planning to camp there (they were curious about the helicopter since they'd all spoken to Sirena as they passed us).
"I'm looking into Ruby now,
my feet are tired, and are they how,
I'm hoping for just one small bit of shade.
The ground is hard, the sun is hot,
for water we've just this one shot
and miles to go before our camp is made."
We watered up and kept on hiking out to a sweeping vista overlooking a particularly pretty piece of marbled schist. A point camp on the Le Conte Plateau made a wonderful place to watch the stars, regain some much needed nutrients and wonder how our friend was doing up on the rim.
Day 3-4: Slogging Out the Miles
The trail description written by the NPS on this portion of the Tonto is full of warnings about the remoteness and challenge of this piece of the Tonto (which felt misleading since we leap-frogged with 2-3 groups the whole way). However, in the end they say, "..it is mostly just a question of slogging out the miles".
If this is slogging, sign me up for a lifetime of it.
We hiked through Jade and Jasper quickly in the morning before breakfast. We knew from the day before that the heat was on its way, and we wanted to water up before it hit too hard. The Shaler Plateau is beautiful with its Muave cliffs and views of the greater canyon's constriction at the Scorpion Ridge on the north side of the river.
"Turquoise is up around the bend
the trail's red, it's green, it's brown again
It's changing just as quickly as my mind.
I love the canyon's morning light
the wren's call and the raven's flight
the worries of the modern world they mend."
Turquoise is a delightful tributary to hike back into, with lots of great views down into the Tapeats narrows and across the very narrow canyon. The big natural rock tank near the trail junction was a delightful place to rest and filter water - with some amorous frogs to keep us entertained and plenty of beautiful ledges to rest on.
After departing Turquoise, the trail becomes more Tonto like than ever, with a long, relatively flat hike around Castor Temple. It started to get quite hot, and so when we started back into Sapphire, we were really hoping for a shady afternoon siesta. The canyon is quite open compared to the previous Tapeats gorges, though, and the floor is baking in the sun...
...except for the space just under 2 Apache pines at the base of the canyon just below the trail crossings. Glorious pine tree shade! We napped until the sun dipped behind the walls of the rim, then gathered water from the slick rock pools upstream. We hiked on, determined to make enough miles to give us some room for a trip to the river the next day, and we ended up at a glorious rock shelf suspended in the middle of the rocky and dry Agate Canyon.
That night, we played with our headlamps and long-exposure camera shots to pay tribute to our lost comrade. We watched the stars (so brilliant with the late moon rise) and contemplated the nature of the universe that was laid out before us.
Then its back on the Tonto - singing my new lyrics and enjoying the eternal views. Scylla Butte made me think of my favorite Stripey Butte on the AZT Passage 17a, and it made me miss my hiking buddy even more.
"I'm out here on the wide plateau,
how far it goes, it's hard to know
you walk until your feet can go no more.
The side creeks all fall into line
already eight, or was it nine?
the Tonto always has some more in store."
Water was plentiful in Slate Creek, once you get down to it. Of course, like all of the Tonto canyons that deliver a big drop through the Tapeats to get to their floor, you get a nice healthy climb to get back out and up on the plateau again. By this time, though, we were feeling quite strong and it was fun to climb. Besides, it was but a warm up for the big show coming our way at Boucher Creek.
Hiking around Marsh Butte involves navigating some massive landslides that are reasonably recent as Grand Canyon landslides go. We picked our way through boulder fields and dry moraines, hiding from the intense sun under the cover of my umbrella. rounding the corner into Boucher is like entering a whole new type of canyon - the amphitheater created by Topaz and Boucher Creek is MASSIVE, crowned by Vesta Temple.
The descent into Boucher follows a huge collapse in the Tapeats that keeps you looking upstream in Topaz Canyon. It was steep and rugged enough to motivate us to put away the umbrellas and use both poles (and our full concentration) on keeping our feet where they belonged and our pumpkins off the dirt. There was nowhere to hide from the shade, except for about a 3 square foot space at the base of a boulder, where we found our companion John resting and waiting for us to finish the descent. Then we headed over to the babbling base of Boucher Creek to top off our water bottles, dump water over our dry, sweaty heads, and begin the final descent to the river (at last! The river!).
The hike from Boucher creek to the beach is a beautiful and easy walk down the gravel creek bed. I didn't bother to keep my feet dry, but enjoyed the cool water washing through my shoes and soaking my socks. There were lots of new flowers and plants down here, including some gorgeous scarlet monkey flower. By the time we made the beach, there was ample shade and just enough sun to indulge the skinny dipper in the party.
We watched a boat trip run the rapid, wistfully I might add, wishing that we could ride along (freezing water notwithstanding). Though I'd originally intended to camp upstream of the creek confluence, I'd completely forgotten about the GIANT beach downstream. The boys went off exploring and their excited discovery of a practically virgin stretch of white sand where the boaters usually camped got us to pack up what we'd spread out and move. Thus ensued one of the more delightful nights I've ever spent backpacking - with barefoot dancing on the beach, long ballads being sung and Scat Daddy's first cowboy's night out (of the tent). The rapid sang us to sleep and woke us in the morning again, refreshed, rehydrated and ready to climb.
"I'm still singing this here country song,
aren't you glad you've come along
on my travels through the canyon wide?
Camped under a starlit sky
the sand is soft, the hikers high
I wish the boats could offer me a ride..."
Day 5: Finishing the Tonto
The day went precisely as planned. We woke early, followed the winding stream up to its travertine dome and ate breakfast next to a gushing waterfall. We explored the ruins of Boucher's cabin briefly before beginning the climb back out of the canyon behind White's Butte. Then it was across the Tonto again to the next (dry) tributary. There's a beautiful if small campsite at Travertine which was still in the shade when we arrived at lunch time, so we took our siesta there. It was a little difficult to be still, knowing that I was so SO close to my finish point, but the clouds which had kept us cool in the first part of the day had burned off and hiding from that sun was a important part of keeping things fun. Once the death-orb had moved into position to erase our shade, we picked up and started the final leg into Hermit Creek and my last little piece of un-explored Tonto Trail.
I loved the little stretch that skirted the cliffs just above Hermit Rapid, ducking around an ancient juniper that clung to the slopes like a stubborn old man. My vertigo liked it less, though, so I didn't linger. By 3:45 we were in Hermit Camp, doing my happy dance and throwing Wendy's all over the place like I'd done something special. Yes - I was doing the happy dance with my pack ON - that's how excited I was!
We managed to snag the awesome ledge camp just as it got shady and we settled in for a delightful afternoon and evening of story swapping and booze finishing. A wonderful night's sleep was all that was in between me and the only part of this trip that I hadn't looked forward to: the hike out on the Hermit Trail.
Day 6: Did I Mention I Hate Hiking Out Hermit?
Okay... I guess this has become an epically long trip log, and all you really need to know at this point is that I successfully hiked out the Hermit Trail. We did have one fun encounter along the way: a young woman who was traveling from Grandview to Hermit met us on our hike up. She was a solo hiker from Australia by way of British Colombia, and would be traveling into the canyon once more the next day to help bring some food down to a group traveling very slowly from South Bass and out the Bright Angel. She was fun to talk to, and we helped her a little with rides once we got to the rim.
The Hermit is just a frustrating hike out. I actually enjoy the Cathedral Stairs...it's those "paved" ramps in the Coconino that really kill me. My feet don't like that steeply angled tread, I'd rather do steps up any day. But, for all the bitching it wasn't that bad and we were out in time for showers before grabbing an early dinner in Tusayan.
"As I climb all those Cathedral Stairs
the condors circle up in pairs
but they won't get a feast from me today.
I'm feeling good and pretty strong,
though the canyon sometimes proves me wrong
I think I'm gonna make it all the way"
As the sun set on yet another wonderful adventure in the canyon I began thinking about my next big goals, both in the canyon and beyond. I hope all of them provide me with as much challenge, satisfaction and sheer magnificent beauty that this one has.
But maybe, if at all possible, a couple fewer side canyons.
"I'll be back, I don't know when
to hike the Grand Canyon again
You know, I just can't seem to stay away.
There's something there I can't resist
a special kind of magic bliss
Come with me friend next time, and we will play...
...another stupid country song,
I promise it won't be so long,
but then again I always tend to lie.
I'm better off just walking there
deep inside the great rock lair
lets go and hike the canyon one more time.
||Wildflowers Observation Isolated
Prickly pear and black sage were blooming a lot. Cliff rose and the redbuds in the canyons up above the plateau.
||Pools to trickle
||Pools to trickle
|Flowing nicely at the trail crossing|
||Turquoise Creek - GC
||Pools to trickle
||Pools to trickle
|No flow - 200+ gallons in rock pool above trail junction|
Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.- Barack Obama