The Tonto is calling...

Hermit/Tonto/Bright Angel loop – Oct 2010
 

 
  
 
 
(Click on any of the pics for a larger view)
 
 
By Darin Kerr

After completing a Tanner hike in April, my wife Mary and I decided we’d like to explore the other side of the park.  On this trip, we wanted to begin the trip by trying out our mountain bikes on a section of the Arizona Trail to help get us acclimated to the altitude and see a different part of northern Arizona.  Like most trips, it didn’t quite proceed as planned, but then the uncertainty is part of the vacation, right? 

I have never hiked Hermit trail beyond the first few switchbacks, so we decided to do a Hermit/Tonto/South Kaibab loop hike with nights spent at Hermit Creek, Monument, Horn and Cremation.  In reality, we ended up cutting this hike a day short so it ended up being a Hermit/Tonto/Bright Angel loop hike.  While it didn’t quite work out as expected, we had a great time anyway.  The weather during the backpacking trip was postcard perfect.  We enjoyed sunny, warm days, with cold crisp nights.

Sat Oct 23 – We left home around 4am, arrived at Flagstaff late afternoon.  We decided to stay in a hotel in Flag that night so as to avoid a cold night outside in the tent.  Mather campground nighttime temps are hovering near freezing this time of year, and all I have is a 3 season tent.    

Sun Oct 24 – Headed to the local store to pick up some last minute items, then drove through Williams to the canyon.  While waiting in the short line at the South entrance, I noticed a $12 hiker/biker permit fee.   I asked the ranger at the window about that rate and she quipped that ‘we could park our car outside and ride our bikes in for $12’.  The thought started running through my head… hmmm…  bikes with a 50 lb pack on my back to ride the rest of the way?  No way. I was hoping 2 bikes on the back of the SUV might qualify, so we paid the normal $25 entrance fee. 

We turned right and went west on Hwy 67.  After the normal stop for views and pictures along the tourist pull offs, we turned off the highway past Grandview point to catch the Arizona trail.  There was still quite a bit of mud on the dirt road from rains a few days earlier, so I decided not to risk getting a front wheel drive Escape stuck and we unloaded our bikes there.  Our plan for the morning was to bike 8 miles down the Arizona trail for lunch and return to our starting point at the car.  It was about 1.5 miles from the highway to the Grandview fire tower. Along the way, you pass by an old checkpoint cabin at the border of the national park that I suppose the NPS used years ago to monitor traffic coming in.  We were now off the park property and in the Kaibab Forest.  It was amazing how quiet it was once you got away from the highway.  We passed a group of campers that were enjoying an open campfire.  With all the rain lately, I guess there were no restrictions on campfires in the national forest.  In a few more minutes of riding, we pulled up to the 80 foot tall Grandview fire tower.  There was also a gateway arch  which marked the Arizona Trail at this point.  The 80 foot tall fire tower at the trailhead was quite impressive.  I’ve seen pictures taken from the top of the tower and was wanting to climb up there, but we both declined on climbing the steps to the tower due to the winds that
day.  Standing on a tower built in 1936 swaying in a moderate wind didn’t sound too appealing to me.
 
 
 
 
 
 
After taking a few pictures of the tower and the trailhead sign, we started our ride on the Arizona trail.  The trail was easy enough to follow and was well marked, although it seems to be more suited to foot traffic than mountain bikes.  I was hoping we might see some wildlife, but the trail was strangely quite silent.  The only sound we heard was the wind passing through the pine branches and the crunch of our tires over the trail.  We were forced off our bikes at several points due to rocky sections where the trail crossed dry washes.  The trail put a small hole in my rear tire, but the leak was slow enough that I decided not to mess with changing the tube and stopped every few miles to air it up.  My cross trail tires with the flat street tire tread aren’t quite as good as true knobby tires for fending off rocks and trail debris.  Also, many fallen trees blocked the trail in sections, requiring us to push the bikes around.  I didn’t want to ride the bikes off trail and possibly cause any damage to the soil.  After passing the 3 mile sign, we decided to park the bikes and try hiking the rest of the way.  
We actually made better time on foot.  We did make it as far as the Mogollon Rim overlook which was pretty impressive.   This entire section of the Arizona Trail was well marked and was quite scenic.  We both agreed we’d like to hike some more of the trail someday.  After eating a snack, we walked back north on the Arizona Trail and picked up our bikes for the ride back to the car.  The Arizona Trail is very well defined along this section, but is a bit rough for beginner trail riders such as my wife and I.   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
After returning to the car and loading up the bikes, we then drove over to the rim lodge area and checked in the Maswik Lodge.  Since we still had some daylight left, we then rode our bikes up the Hermit Road to enjoy the sunset near the old uranium mine.  With only tour buses along the Hermit Road, I felt it was relatively safe to ride on.  Although bikes are allowed on all roads in the park, I wouldn’t dare ride along the rim drive due to all the curves and drivers not paying attention.  The ride back down that 6% grade on the Hermit road was a blast!  After returning to the lodge, we tried the pizza in the sports bar - it was decent but hardly top notch for the $22.50 we paid.  Guess when you are used to Hideaway Pizza, the bar is set pretty high.

Mon Oct 25 – We tried to day hike down Grandview trail, but the weather didn’t cooperate.  It was cold, windy and rainy at the trailhead.  We waited it out in the car for about an hour before giving up.  The sun started peeking out of the clouds on the way back to the main hotel area, so we parked our car along the turnoff for the South Kaibab trail and tried to descend it, but the wind and rain picked up once again.  We only made it down the first few switchbacks along the Kaibab before giving up.  The wind was howling UP from the canyon depths, making the trail feel like we were pinned to the walls of a wind tunnel machine.  We headed back to the car and decided to wait out the weather near the Bright Angel lodge.  By afternoon, the weather had cleared enough for us to hike down the Bright Angel trail to the 3 mile rest stop and return to the rim.  We were trying to get in some exercise and trail time to try to acclimate to the altitude for the big day tomorrow.  We both had hardly broken in Asolo boots for this trip, and blisters would bother us for the entire time on the trail.  Everyone knows you never wear new boots on a big hike, but we didn’t have much time back home to try and break them in.  The next day I was wishing I had my old Merrell boots, for sure.

We spent the night at Bright Angel Lodge, and ate dinner at the Bright Angel Lodge.  I ordered a cheeseburger, and like most food at the rim, was somewhat disappointing for the price.  I think for my next visit we’ll plan on staying in the Mather Campground and cook for ourselves.  After dinner, we headed back to the room and got our packs loaded and ready to go.  It seems no matter how carefully I pack for a multi-day hike, I end up with a 40+ pound pack.  At 50 years old, I’m thinking my days of carrying a Winnebago on my back are coming to a close.  Single overnight trips or day hiking with a light pack with a soft bed to sleep in each night are starting to sound far more appealing.

Some construction work has been going on at Bright Angel Lodge since my last visit.  Park of the parking lot near the rim has been paved with asphalt.  Definitely should cut down on the potholes, dust and mud.

Tues Oct 26 – We were up at 6am, got checked out of the lodge, loaded the car and drove over to the  Backcountry lot.  One last final check of gear, and we then walked down to the Hermit bus stop. 
We must have just missed a bus, as it took about 20 minutes before the next bus arrived at the stop.  It was about a 45 minute ride including stops to the Hermit trailhead. 
We took a few pictures at the trailhead sign, then started down the trail about 9:30am.  Heat would not be an issue this time of year, but hours of daylight could pose a problem.  In hindsight, I wish we had started down the trail about an hour earlier.   Distance:  7.8 miles.  Very rough, and rocky.  As noted by other hikers, there are still a few cobblestone sections in the upper part of the Hermit trail before you meet the Waldron Trail junction.  We saw one foundation stone with the year ‘1915’ etched in it. 
 
 
 
 
We met 4 hikers along this stretch of trail.  The first 2 were hiking out from Hermit Creek.  They told us they got started at 4:30am that morning.  They had hiked down the Boucher Trail on the way down.  The second pair of hikers were doing a day hike to Dripping Springs. 
We made good time to Santa Maria Springs, pulling in there in about 2 hours.  We took a nice long break at that point, taking off our boots and elevating our feet.  I already had a blister forming on my right heel, so I lined the back of my boot with moleskin and wrapped my heel as well.  A couple of hikers on a day hike stopped at the spring.  We passed by them and continued on down.    We met another pair of hikers that were climbing out.  They were with the first pair that we met near the top. 
The next section of the trail became more and more challenging.  Over the past 80 years, a number of rockslides have covered the trail, requiring more care in making sure you find the trail exit on the other side.  Scrambling over rocks sure does use a lot more energy than hiking on level trails.

We stopped again for a long break at Breezy Point.  We shared a lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  I tried spotting the trail proceeding down towards Cathedral Stairs, but lost the trail after the first turn past Breezy Point.  I could see the switchbacks of the trail far below near the Tonto junction and told my wife that is where we will be in a few hours.  I wasn't very hungry at the time, but knew I needed to eat something.  We got back on the trail after about 30 minutes.  We got lost off the trail just past Breezy point, and spent about 20 minutes scrambling up and down a rockslide looking for the trail.  There were cairns marking the way, but I saw a fresh set of footprints leading down what looked like a path.  I should have believed the cairns.  I can’t imagine trying to cross this section of trail after dark.

A young park ranger caught up with us just before we got to the Cathedral Stairs.  He checked our permits, chatted with us for a few minutes, then proceeded on ahead of us.  He was heading down to Hermit Rapids and was making much better time down the trail than the two of us.

The Cathedral Stairs made this redwall descent pretty easy compared to the narrow crumbly goat trail that the Tanner Trail is through this section of rock.  The trail bed was very rocky, requiring a lot of attention to where you placed each foot.  The long switchbacks below the Cathedral Stairs seemed to drag on forever.  Although temperatures were only in the low 60’s, the sun is relentless along this section and it seemed far hotter than it was.  I cannot imagine hiking through this section on a hot summer day.
I thought the Hermit Trail had less exposed sections than the Tanner Trail that we had hiked earlier in the year.  The Cathedral Stairs was a lot easier to go down than the Tanner Redwall section.
We made it to the Tonto junction with about 90 minutes of daylight left.  I knew that Hermit Creek wasn’t far, but the Tonto meanders along making one wonder when their destination will finally appear.  By the time we made it to Hermit Creek we had spent about 7 hours hiking.  Both of us were pretty well beat and we looked forward to a hot Mountain House dinner.  There was only one other couple camped at Hermit Creek. I was a little surprised at this; I assumed most of the camps would be full along the trail. I hiked down to the creek itself and took some pictures of the nice waterfall and pool that was built by hikers.  That water would probably be awesome in summer, but this time of year you’d have to be a polar bear to enjoy it.  I had a collapsible plastic bucket with me, which made it easy to filter drinking water.  The water coming out of Hermit Creek was about as clear as tap water.  It was a huge difference from our trip in April when we had to filter Colorado River water for drinking. 
 

Along Hermit trail, many people complain about the helicopter and plane noise.  I did hear a few, but most of them stayed west of Hermit Canyon so the noise was never a huge issue.  I would imagine the noise would be bothersome for someone hiking further west over to Boucher Trail and points to the west along the Tonto trail.

The sun goes down pretty early this time of year.  Mary read for a bit and we spent some of the time making up our top 10 list for all types of subjects to pass the time.  Beats watching TV at home any day of the week.  I think I fell asleep about 8pm.  The moon didn’t rise until about midnight and it was so bright in the clear air that the light from it woke me up several times.  I looked out of the tent, and the moonlight was so bright you could have probably hiked along the Tonto without the aid of headlamps.

Wed Oct 27 – Today is my 50th Birthday!  Today’s hike was going to be an easy one. 
We only had to hike from Hermit Creek to Monument Creek.  Distance:  Only 3.8 miles.  We got a fairly late start today (9:30am), as I knew we only had a short distance to hike.  The climb out of Hermit Creek wasn’t bad at all, and we found ourselves back at the Hermit/Tonto junction sign in about 30 minutes. 
 
The Tonto climbs towards a saddle, where we had a great view of the river.  There was a bit of exposure on the east side of the saddle, but the exposed sections were very short and really didn’t cause me any problems. 
Eyes glued to the trail until I got past that section.  It wasn’t long after that we made the turn towards the south and started heading into the Monument drainage.  Monument is a pretty large side canyon, and coming in from the west you first go through a dry wash which I mistakenly assumed was the main canyon.  We passed a couple of hikers from Rochester, NY who told us plenty of water was flowing in Monument.  One of the hikers added that they drank the water unfiltered, as the water passes through a lot of sand which filters it naturally.  While I agreed that the water was probably well filtered, I didn’t want to risk it and knew I would filter whatever water we drank from there.  We got to the campsite areas about 3 hours after leaving Hermit Creek.  At that time of day, the camp at Monument was completely empty.  Once again I was a bit surprised there weren’t more hikers down here. 
We considered hiking down to Monument rapids, but ended up hiking only as far as the large stone tower near the creek. 
 
 
 
Our feet and legs were still a bit beat up from the slog down Hermit trail the previous day.  I was a little concerned about where the Tonto East trail exited Monument canyon, so we spent part of the afternoon exploring the canyon.  We spotted cairns on the east side of the canyon, and as soon as I looked up, I saw a group of 5 hikers coming down switchbacks.  We spoke with those hikers from Seattle briefly, and they asked us for the location of the group site camp.  We passed it near the other side of the canyon and I relayed that info to the hikers.  At least we had confirmed where the Tonto was for the next days’ hike.  The climb out that side appeared to be pretty steep.

Later in the day, a European couple that hiked down the Hermit trail came into camp.  Monument has about 8 campsites, and that was it for company that night.  We could hear the hikers from Seattle for a bit that evening, but they quieted down and we got a good nights’ sleep.  Temperatures seemed a bit colder that night than our first night at Hermit Creek.   

Thu Oct 28 – Hike from Monument Creek to Horn Creek via Cedar Creek and Salt Creek.  Distance: 8.2 miles.  My notes state: Pack extra water, Horn Creek does not have drinkable water due to uranium contamination.  Between the two of us, we were carrying 7 liters of water which turned out to be just enough.  The climb out of Monument Canyon was probably one of the toughest climbs we did on the Tonto.  I was pretty well winded by the time we got out on the Tonto level above.  As we got closer to the river, we started hearing a helicopter.  It was one of the park helicopters heading towards Hermit Rapids.  Not long after that it came back, and returned again.  This time a red box was slung on a cable beneath the chopper.  We never figured out what is was carrying or why it was headed down there.  We passed through Cedar Creek without stopping, but stopped at Salt Creek for a long break and to nurse various blisters on our feet.  I think I was really cussing my Asolo boots at that point. 

I came around one bend in the trail and almost stepped on a snake. 
I was glad Mary wasn’t in the lead, as I think the sight of even a baby snake freaked her out a bit.  In all my hiking trips in the Grand Canyon, this was the first snake I ever saw.  Other than the ravens and one mouse, this was all the wildlife we saw below the rim.
About an hour out of Salt Creek, we stopped for lunch among a couple of large boulders.  We heated up water to eat a BBQ beef Mountain House dinner.  It was probably one of my favorites I’ve tried so far.  Tasted really good on a couple of slices of pita bread.
 

 
Only saw 3 people on the trail today.  We saw a solo hiker heading west on the Tonto leaving the Horn drainage, and were passed by the European couple that we saw at Monument the previous night.  They told us they were hiking all the way to the rim that day.  Wow, to be 25 again!  I didn’t relish the long hike they still had ahead of them that day.  Their packs were pretty minimal compared to ours, so at least they had that advantage.
 
Horn Creek has a dry arm you must cross first before you reach the eastern arm with the single campsite.   I did see water flowing just below the campsite but knew that water shouldn’t be used except in an emergency due to the uranium in it.  If there was anything in the water, you sure couldn’t tell from the vegetation growing all along the creek.  We pulled into camp around 3pm.  The European couple were taking a break on a large rock near the camp. 
I assessed our water situation.  We still had about 3 liters of water between us, so I figured there was no need to hike the 5 mile round trip to Indian Garden to replenish our supply.  All we needed was enough water to fix dinner tonight.  We decided we would just eat a trail mix bar for breakfast and plan on eating more once we got to Indian Garden the next morning.
 

 

The night at Horn was very quiet and probably the coldest night we spent so far in the canyon.  About an hour after we went to bed my wife said she heard a mouse climbing on her pack.  She aimed her flashlight outside and said the mouse had jumped from a branch the pack was hanging on to the top of the pack, but then fell off.  We never had any other mouse problems during the trip.  We kept all food in a steel mesh ratsack, and hung our packs to keep them off the ground.

I had a 50F summer sleeping bag for myself, and ended up using the emergency blanket spread on top of that to keep warm.  I had a 20F bag in the car, but decided to save a bit of weight and space by bringing the 50F bag.  My wife reported she got cold even in her 20F bag.  Someday we need to upgrade to decent down bags to save on weight while remaining warm.

Fri Oct 29 – Hike from Horn Creek to top of Bright Angel Trail.  Distance:  7 miles. 
 
The plan for the day today was to head over to Indian Garden, fill up on water, then stop by the Ranger station for permission to camp in Bright Angel or Indian Gardens instead of going over to Cremation (about 6 miles further east). 

The 2.5 miles from Horn Creek to Indian Gardens was a very easy and pleasant hike.  This was probably the easiest section of the Tonto that we had hiked on for the trip.  No major climbing, and the trail bed itself was relatively rock-free.

In about 90 minutes, we were at Indian Garden.  We stopped by the main faucet to fill up on water and to listen to a Mule Wrangler give us normal speech to the greenhorn mule riders by the corral.  Both my wife and I nearly ran over when a young girl repeatedly walked right behind a mule that had kicked its hind legs just moments after.
 

 
We found an empty picnic table and heated up some water for some warm oatmeal.  After eating, I left my wife at the table and proceeded up the path to the ranger station.

I knocked on the door, and asked the female ranger who answered if I could get a change in my itinerary.  She eyed my permit, told me that she doubted anything would be available.  She reminded me how ‘busy weekends are in October’ in the canyon.  Yes, I know, but thought maybe there may be some cancellations.  The ranger took my permit inside, and phoned the BCO, but bad news, nothing was available.  Decision time.  Choice #1: continue on to Cremation for a dry camp, then hike out the following day on the South Kaibab trail.  Choice #2: Hike the 4.5 miles to the rim using the Bright Angel trail. 

The decision wasn’t too hard.  We were pretty worn out, smelled bad, and neither of us was looking forward to another cold night on the Tonto.  We packed up and started the climb out on the Bright Angel Trail.  We carried 2 liters of water each which really helped keep the weight down in our packs.  It took about 3.5 hours to climb out.  Hiking on the Bright Angel is like walking down the midway at the local State Fair.  You see some of the strangest people you will ever see.    Some looked like they were more concerned about their wardrobe choice than hiking down the trail.  Some were so engrossed in what was playing on their iPods that they were missing what was all around them.  I think every time I hike this trail I swear it will be my last time.

We stopped at the 3 mile rest stop to heat up water for lunch.  A group of 20 somethings were nearby smoking cigarettes.  We both about cracked up at that sight.

We arrived at the top, took a few congratulatory pics, then headed for the car to unpack.  The temperatures were downright warm at the rim.  It was nearly 80F that day. 
 
We then hit the showers at the Mather campground.  8 minutes of pure heaven for $2.  Felt great to wash 4 days of trail dust off our bodies.  It was about 4pm, and time to start the long drive home.

Highlights:

The awesome views all along the Tonto Trail.

Perfect weather.  Very little cloud cover and moderate daytime temperatures.

Negatives:

Don’t wear new boots or even lightly broken in boots ever again!  J

Bring a real sleeping bag for late fall weather in the canyon.

Spend more training time hiking on rough surfaces.