Backpacking in Grand Canyon

The Man Who Walked Through Time

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

About a month ago Steve E. phoned and said he was traveling down to California in late November and would I want to join him for a hike in the Grand Canyon.  I’d seen the Canyon 44 years ago from the rim on a hot hazy day, surrounded by mobs of tourists, and never had the urge to go back until a recent flight  to Idaho via Phoenix, during which the plane went over it at 30000 feet and I got the point. I was also feeling what Andy called Wilderness Withdrawal since returning from the Yukon and only managing to organize one campout–a night on the Sandspit with Chad. So I jumped at the invitation.

Steve had done preliminary research which indicated that it wouldn’t be easy to get a camping permit even at that time of the year, but since the reservation would have to be sent by mail, I volunteered to negotiate a time and itinerary  from here. The central trail which he had hiked 25 years ago and which had guaranteed supplies of water was unavailable, so I looked for alternate routes on the web and collected books from the Cal Poly library.  Because no large scale map of the canyon showing all the trails was available, this required learning quite a bit of nomenclature: categories of corridor, threshold, primitive and wilderness trails and names of specific trails and campsites and their designations, itineraries where water was available at least every other day, and a sense of the contours and distances inside the canyon.

Following up possible itineraries led to warnings like these:

Extreme care should be taken if you are using this trail during the winter months under icy conditions as at times your are literally walking on the edge of the gorge and one wrong step could be fatal. Once the trail reaches the head of Travertine Canyon the real fun begins. The descent is clogged with boulders of all sizes ranging from footballs to small houses. Most other guide books that I have read actually recommend this trail. I think that the people who wrote these must be out of their collective minds. You end up taking a lot of chances going down something like this and there are some difficult places where you may have to take off your packs and lower them down with ropes.

And this, coming from an independent authority, was mild compared to the warnings stated by the Park Service:

The Boucher challenges even experienced canyon hikers. The trail consists of tough, tedious traverses linked together by knee-destroying descents, with a section of exposed hand and toe climbing thrown in for good measure.

Not an adventure to take on with a partner who has bad knees.

After further immersion in the literature and several amiable conversations with people at the Backcountry Information Center, we were able to come up with what promises to be a reasonable five day loop that wont require the Satellite phone or other unusual backup arrangements. In addition, Peter B. decided to join us, flying into Las Vegas from Vancouver.

Even with the risks diminished, my imagination remained excited by the prospect of exploring a vast landscape different from any other on earth, a place where nature and recreation converge with metaphysics and myth.  I read that although the canyon itself was only 7 million years old, it trenched downward into rocks at the bottom that had been there upwards of two billion years, that the mile-deep descent through layers of strata conducts the hiker back that far on a voyage through time, where the passage of epochs can be followed in the coherent sequence of strata, like the dendrochronology in rings of ancient trees.

This seemed a particularly appealing prospect while I was spending time probing my own past, descending through volumes of journals, trays of slides, albums of photographs, packets of letters, looking for the overall shape and meaning of the story.

A comparable search drives Colin Fletcher, the author of a book written in 1968 entitled The Man Who Walked Through Time. For seventeen years, he planned a solo hike from one end to the other of the two hundred seventeen mile stretch of the Canyon within the National Park.  His account is structured as a vision quest, a passage through exertion, fear, deprivation and ambition toward an unmediated experience that puts him in touch with the nature out there beyond the busy preoccupations of his ego and that helps him understand the relationship between his tiny presence in space and time and the vast expanses of both in which it finds itself.

Backpacking in Grand Canyon (Day 1)

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Prelude and background

After a quick trip to Trader Joe’s for provisions the day before, Steve and I left San Luis early Wednesday morning and drove  across the Carrizo Plains on Highway 58.  The emptiness of the landscape and the beauty of the road provided a preview of what was to come.  The eight hour trip to Las Vegas over the Tehachapis and through the Mohave desert passed quickly, lightened by easy conversation, favorite music downloaded from my itunes collection and anticipation of the hike.

We met Peter at the airport, avoiding contamination of contact with the city, and headed south on highway 93. At Hoover Dam we encountered a massive traffic jam and got out to join thousands of tourists rubbernecking at the old dam in the spectacular late afternoon desert sunlight.


Rather than pay the 25 dollar admission to the new 115 million dollar visitor center we admired the art  nouveau mosaics and sculptures ornamenting the 1930’s engineering miracle.


It’s now dwarfed by a magnificent four lane bridge under construction across the canyon hundreds of feet higher at a cost so far of 250 million dollars.  It will, we are told, alleviate traffic congestion on the road between Phoenix and Las Vegas, even though an alternate Interstate route already exists.


A good Thai dinner in Kingman Arizona kept us going till arrival at the Holiday Inn Express room I’d reserved a couple of miles outside the park in a dreary new industrial tourism development.

full photoset and slideshow

Backpacking in Grand Canyon (Day 2)

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

full photoset and slideshow

Next morning after early breakfast we drove into the National Park, passing elk wandering the roads. We left the car at the Backcountry Information Center where we had to wait over an hour to buy a map and receive advice to head down the Boucher Trail, which my earlier research alerted me was dangerously erroneous.


fullsize map and itinerary

Then we took the red bus along the rim road to Hermit’s Rest, where I purchased a copy of John Wesley Powell’s The Exploration of the Colorado and its Canyons,  and followed the Hermit Trail over the edge.



The hike was ecstatic at first, the canyon more Grand and awe inspiring than any landscape I’ve seen, including Yosemite and Zion: the light and colors of the rock more dramatic, the succession of views on the trail”ahead, behind, across, up, down”more varying, the eye continually arrested by unfamiliarity of shape, texture, and scale.




The trail was quite busy with hiker traffic in both directions.  Three hours down we came across an attractive young woman sitting on a rock in the sunshine.  She asked to see our permit and then stopped a large party passing by to see theirs.  She told them they were too late to make it all the way to the site at the river where they were registered and signed a change order on the permit allowing them to stay at a closer one.  Then she warned them not to make noise that could disturb others at the campsite.  I told her that Steve was a half mile behind us carrying our permit and asked the penalty for camping somewhere without one.  Two hundred eighty seven dollars she replied without smiling.

I was having extra fun playing with the new camera I had bought for the trip–a two hundred dollar 10x telephoto 10 megapixel hand-sized Canon, which replaced both the point-and-shoot I handed down to my grandson and the bigger but less powerful SLR I’d purchased just two years ago.  At a turn in the trail that brought us for the first time within sight of the inner canyon, I wondered if a little blue dot in the middle of the view was some kind of gondola, and only after I took the picture could I recognize on the screen that it was actually the river.


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After four hours of carrying my overloaded pack–from excess caution I’d brought along five liters of water in addition to the heavy food, tent and stove”on a trail that got steadily steeper, more fractured and more littered with stones, the fun ended. The splendor of scenery, the invigoration of exercise, the stimulation of good company gave way to pain, fatigue and anxiety.  I ached in the shoulders from the pack straps, in the upper arms from bearing weight with the trekking poles, in the knuckles from gripping them, in the spine from the packs’ rubbing, in the stomach and side and thigh and calf muscles from tensing against the weight, in the hip and knee and ankle and big toe joints from internal friction at every step, in the thickened toenails crushed by my boots, and in the ears jarred by the clank  of poles against rocks.

This was predicted by the well-written Park Service Bulletin about the trail:

The Hermit Trail is unmaintained, the ruins of a pathway that hasnt seen a trail crew in 80 years….The trail runs across an angle of repose slope, crossing high gradient drainages at roughly perpendicular intersections.  ¦the trail has been badly damaged by the same erosional forces that shaped the larger canyon. Hikers must scramble across chaotic jumbles of rocks washed down or fallen from above every time the trail crosses a gully.  It is possible to lose the trail entirely where breakdown has covered the original route¦The uncertain footing as well as the impression of exposure presented here has caused inexperienced canyon walkers to conclude that they are engaged in a truly hazardous enterprise.

The descent becomes unrelenting at Cathedral Stairs.  An endless series of rocky switchbacks eventually leads hikers through the Redwall cliff and down the talus below Cope Butte….

As we made our way down that cirque of Cope Butte toward the more level Tonto Platform, I resorted to the emergency tactic I’d used while hiking with grandkids and Jan: talk distraction.


I asked Steve his worst hiking experience and he told me of the forty mile walk he took from Gold River to Tahsis and of his hair-raising climb up Bear Tooth, and I told him of my 1962 hike up the mountain in Yellowstone to the fire lookout I was stranded in for three days out of exhaustion.

After a rest stop at the trail junction, some gorp and two more Aleves, I got a second wind, and could again enjoy the sunset light on the buttes across the river. Miraculously, Steve’s wounded knee, a concern for all of us, showed no signs of further injury.


We ambled on to a solid rock campsite several miles short of the one where we were permitted to stay, but safe from the citation-dispensing rangers at this time of night.


We prepared an easy Thanksgiving meal”two cups of boiling water poured into envelops of dehydrated Turkey Tetrazzini–more than good enough to merit gratitude.  As the sun set, I blew up my Thermarest, crawled into the sleeping bag, rested my head on the unpitched tent and reveled in the sensation of relaxing muscles.


The stars were clear and the air mild”twenty degrees above the chilly rim four thousand feet overhead. I woke up several times without having to get out of the sleeping bag, following Steve’s suggestion to pee in a water bottle which remained comfortably warm beside me.  The waxing moon flooded the cliffs with light and then disappeared behind them. Three shooting stars flared.

Backpacking in Grand Canyon (Day 3)

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

full photoset and slideshow

After 12 hours of rest, we awakened in the predawn and packed up quickly to vacate the unauthorized spot.  I wished we’d had coffee.  Before starting out we dutifully stretched,

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and as the light came up we descended into a tight curvy canyon gouged out of the shale strata of the Platform that reminded me of the hike through Zion canyon I’d taken with Joe and Amy in 1995, during which he went off into a side canyon with her and proposed.


The sound of flowing water echoed as we approached Hermit Creek graced with little cascades and rich vegetation.


The old trail, originally constructed by the Santa Fe Railroad as part of a luxury resort serviced by a cable tramway from the rim, wound under rock overhangs down to a place where the neat horizontal layers through which we’d descended since yesterday were replaced by swirling shapes of hardened basalt laced with multicolored and multitextured stone.  We were entering the “basement” of the canyon, the deepest portion carved by the river and its tributaries that exposed rocks estimated as two billion years old.  The shale layers directly above them were supposed to be 500 million years younger, making for the “Great Unconformity,” in which the geological record had disappeared.  To mark the change, large clumps of overlying strata had fallen into the canyon on the opposite side of the creek. On the trail side we stopped to marvel at granite embedded with huge flakes of mica interspersed with quartz in bright shades of red, white and black.



As the canyon straightened near the bottom, we suddenly saw the pillar of Ra flaming above us and heard the roar of the river ahead.


Then the walls on our side opened to reveal sky and brilliantly colored cliffs upstream and down.  We were at the Hermit Rapids and didn’t have to leave until the following morning!


We had a choice of empty campsites and picked one in soft, warm sand right on the riverbank surrounded by tamarisks and willows .

Before unpacking and lighting the stove for coffee, we clambered over some large rocks for a look at the rapids themselves and  were joined by a young woman, Ingrid, one of a group of kayakers and rafters on a 27 day journey on the river.


She was soon surrounded by a crowd of men young and old who charted a course through the fast flowing turbulence.


They had camped here last night after swamping in Granite Rapids upstream and were just ready to take off.  Regretting the delayed coffee but excited to watch and take pictures of their daredevilry,  we waited beside the clean, green racing river that had carved the masterpiece engulfing us.


The spectacle was worth the delay.  First came Ingrid and another kayaker in their tiny solo boats.


Then the rafters, some in twos, some by themselves.


This was no guided tour; they were all highly experienced River Rats who owned their equipment and lived for the sport, according to Mike P., the grizzled rower who left his email address. Once they had all run the rapids, they assembled in the eddy below and then disappeared around the blind curve ahead.


We set up our gear, boiled water for coffee and oatmeal, and luxuriated in the prospect of a day of rest and relaxation.  Despite the long sleep the night before and the stimulant, we all napped for a couple of hours, Peter after taking a dip in the icy water that flowed from the bottom of the dam upstream at Glen Canyon.


In the afternoon we went exploring the creek and beaches and rock formations of this wondrous oasis in the midst of vertical walls that otherwise made the river unapproachable from land.



I started reading Powell’s enthralling account of his 1869 trip down the river.  He was the one-armed leader of a small expedition of wooden boats, which by the time they had reached here had lost most of their tools and provisions and still had they knew not how far to go and what awaited them ahead.

As I stood munching our lunch of salami and cheese, I looked up at the cliff behind the campsite and saw moving shapes.  Two of the canyon’s legendary mountain sheep were browsing on the low ridge line no more than 200 feet away.  “Get your cameras,” I whispered, pulling mine from its holster.  Eager as any hunter to shoot, we captured the quarry.



Click last two images for full-size versions

Backpacking in the Grand Canyon (Day 4)

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

full photoset and slideshow

The preceding night’s long sleep, the day’s light exertion and even the nap didn’t prevent us from hitting the sack soon after early nightfall.  Not only did  our creaky bodies crave extra rest since the big descent, living outdoors increased synchronization between the anatomical clock and the seasonal one.  Drifting off to sleep felt like hibernating–to conserve and store energy, and also to continue a winter journey into the underworld.

Two days earlier the permit-checking ranger had said that we’d be in for a change in the weather Saturday, and the morning sky seemed to confirm her warning.  Our itinerary called only for a five mile hike today, mostly on a good trail, with no great altitude changes, so we dallied at the river, adding stewed dried fruit to our outmeal, brewing an extra pot of coffee, further exploring the little oasis and gawking at dancing patterns of light and shadow projected on the canyon’s  walls  by thick fast moving clouds.




Relieved of unnecessary weight and the straps better adjusted, on the way  up through Hermit Canyon the pack felt more like a strong hug than a troublesome burden, and the effort to escape gravity while ascending was easier on the joints than resisting it on the way down.


Once back on the Tonto trail heading eastward on the Platform, it was possible for the first time to enter the springy rhythm of forward motion propelled by the momentum of extra weight that for me makes hiking a real sport.  Cruising this wide plateau–continuous across both banks of the inner canyon, which usually hides, but then suddenly gapes at one’s feet with a fifteen hundred foot drop either to the flowing Colorado or the tributary gullies the trail must circumvent by leading back to the base of walls and buttresses and towers that stretch higher overhead with every step–under a sky that transforms momentarily from a limitless expanse of light to a dampening ceiling of fog made walking feel like flight.





Like the canyon itself the trail’s track through space performed tricks with time.  It led a leisurely traverse around the base of Cope Butte, the harshest section of the descent two days ago,  and above the river it provided a retrospect of yesterday’s idyll at Hermit Rapids.



As the afternoon shadows deepened we passed along the edge of Monument Creek’s side canyon eager to find the campsite at its head before dark.  The trail twisted off the Platform down into a tight gully through which we could hear water flowing toward the river.


After debating which of the many surrounding formations above us could be the named Monument, the answer was suddenly obvious looming from below. The top two thirds of the column consisted of brownish fractured sandstone layers, the bottom third of rounded pink lobes.


As the trail dropped into the basement level of rock formation, the colors on the wall beside it became even more unearthly than those in Hermit Canyon.



This campsite offered the succor of perennial creek water that could be purified and harvested to fill our drinking bladders, coffeepot and dehydrated dinner envelops. In addition it provided a toilet conspicuously absent from last night’s where we had to search fruitlessly for a satisfactory place among the rocks for our leavings and make unpleasant acquaintance with the deposits of others.  Like in many other recreational wilderness situations, this is more of a problem than might be expected, and we felt grateful for the stinky and prominent facility here provided.


A large party of backpackers had occupied the marked campsites and so tight was the gully that the sound of their amiable voices boomed around us, so we relocated to a more solitary spot, again unauthorized but well used, to pitch the tent and cook supper in the light of a brilliant sunset and haunting moonrise.



The pole stretching the fly on my two-person tent had become deeply bowed over years of use, and Steve exerted his design skills to straighten it, to great advantage, since in the middle of the night the wind blew and the rain pelted down but inside we stayed cozy and dry.


Backpacking in the Grand Canyon (Day 5)

Monday, December 14th, 2009

full photoset and slideshow

Come rain or  shine this day’s destination was eleven miles along the Tonto trail, so we broke camp early and dressed for rough weather, leaving behind a woman in the large group of hikers whom Steve had provided with  prescription painkillers he had brought just in case.  The night before she was in severe distress because of an injury to her knee, and we expected that she’d either have to be carried the distance by her friends or helicoptered out.  An hour down the  trail, carrying a full pack, Diana passed us with a smile that was still on her face when we met again at the end of our full day’s trek.


The  skies this morning were moody and unstable, reminding me of Powell’s admirable description:

Clouds are playing in the canyon today.  Sometimes they roll in great masses, filling the gorge with gloom; sometimes they hang aloft from wall to wall and cover the canyon with a roof of impending storm, and we can peer long distances up and down this canyon corridor, with its cloud-roof overhead, its walls of black granite, and its river bright with the sheen of broken waters.  Then a gust of wind sweeps down a side gulch and, making a rift in the clouds, reveals the blue heavens, and a stream of sunlight pours in.  Then the clouds drift away into the distance, and hang around the crags and peaks and pinnacles and towers and walls, and cover them with a mantle that lifts from time to time and sets them all into sharp relief.  Then baby clouds creep out of side canyons, glide around points, and creep back again into more distant gorges.  Then clouds arrange in strata across the canyon with intervening vista views to cliffs and rocks beyond.  The clouds are children of the heavens, and when they play among the rocks they lift them to the region above. (p. 256)

Rather than just depicting the landscape, his description recreates it for me. So do the photos  I snapped and later processed, which I see now complemented and enhanced by Powell’s account:





Sitting at my computer two weeks after the trip, reviewing his words to stimulate my own, I feel connected with that heroic voyager in 1870 transcribing and embellishing his watersoaked journal to prepare it for publication.

In the late morning as the trail skirted the inner canyon and rounded a turn into the drainage of Salt Creek the sky went threateningly dark. I understood why this section was named on the map as “The Inferno.”  The assemblage of fractured, knife-sharp points and ridges lining the great gash in the earth seemed to drink up light like a black hole, recalling Milton’s description of hell as “darkness visible” or Dante’s prospect of the lowest section of the underworld: “We came to the edge of an enormous sink/Rimmed by a circle of great broken boulders” (Canto XI)


It started to rain hard, but just as I unpacked my waterproof pants, to the south the clouds parted  to produce another metaphysical sign.  It emerged from the depths of the abyss below


and arched from one bank to another of  the side canyon



perfectly framing the Isis Temple on the north side of the river.


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As the sun achieved dominance and its rays illuminated the inner walls, their colorless obscurity took on a rosy-veined glow.


mirroring the pink spines clustered at the center of a barrel cactus.


In the clear afternoon, it felt like The Great Outdoors was beaming on us as we sauntered along, brimming with joy and awe.


But the blessing was also human: my old Lund companions who got these excursions going, and the gear I wore and carried, which allowed me to range comfortably and safe:

  • my Dana Designs packsack that Joe had picked out for me in Moab fourteen years ago
  • my Danner boots from Takkens that I’d just had resoled
  • my Leki trekking poles that saved my knees on the way down and now, as my wrists swiveled in the straps, advanced me from  a two to a four legged creature
  • my pretty REI tent that took five minutes to pitch and had kept the wind and rain out last night
  • my Camelback bladder that taught me the  difference between drinking and hydrating
  • my ancient REI down sleeping bag, now patched with duct tape
  • my Thermarest mattress, easily patched after having been penetrated by a sharp stick while serving as a river raft for grandsons
  • my new Brunton stove, weighing no more than a pound and able to boil a litre and a half of water in three minutes
  • my tiny headlamp that never wore out its cheap batteries but provided enough light to work and read in the dark
  • my Sierra Designs rainshell bought in Powell river in August which had already protected me in four storms
  • my two layers of well used First Lite merino wool underwear that Kenton had sent  last summer
  • my weightless cashmere scarf that Amy made me for Christmas, soft as her voice, warm as her smile

The Platform flattened and widened as we passed the last four-thousand foot buttress between us and our destination of Indian Gardens.  The panorama unfolded: a long reach of the river lined with dozens of brilliantly colored monuments intersected by Bright Angel Canyon, a fifteen-mile perpendicular corridor leading back to the snow-bedecked north rim.

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It was a moment I didn’t want to let pass.  I walked off the trail and sat in the newly washed desert gravel, stared, meditated and played my recorder.

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Then it felt time to go on.  A grove of golden cottonwood trees, incongruous but inviting, beckoned from the creek bed ahead.  The poles of an old telephone line appeared at intervals at the cliff base.  The trail broadened and showed signs of heavy travel and regular maintenance.


We trudged into Indian Gardens campground, admired the stonework of old buildings and walls and the varied assortment of large trees planted a hundred years ago by early tourism developers. We chatted with the voluble ranger who lived here in a house with TV and  power, filled our pots with potable water directly from the tap and ate dinner at a picnic table under a steel-roofed shelter.  Even though on a gentle grade and a good trail, ten hours of hiking left us ready for our sleeping bags before nine p.m.

Backpacking in the Grand Canyon (Day 6)

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

full photoset and slideshow

Awakening and packing on the last day of the hike was accompanied by familiar bittersweet emotions.  The amazing winter light painted a picture to remember of the fantasy world we were leaving, framed by the side canyon’s shadows, and it ignited the sparkling white limestone near the South Rim where we were headed.



On a sign detailing the history of property disputes over control of the trail leading down was taped a notice that it would be closed for some time this morning to facilitate a helicopter salvage operation.


The trail itself was wide enough to accommodate hikers side by side with the pack trains led by central-casting  mule-skinners.


Surfaced with pulverized sandstone that was soft and springy to the feet and decoratively bordered with stable boulders, it snaked at a gentle grade along ledges carved in the pink sandstone.


Travel along it was once again vertical rather than horizontal–the same stretch of canyon above and below dramatically altering as the changing angle of view hid and revealed features.



An hour or so into the ascent, we heard the thumping of a large helicopter, which appeared in the sunlight above the rim, disappeared behind a buttress and soon reappeared dangling a miniscule-looking car from a long cable.


This, the ranger had informed us, was the remains of a vehicle deliberately driven over the edge by a suicide some months earlier. 

As we ascended toward the 7000 foot elevation of the rim, the temperature dropped and the air thinned, requiring regular short pauses for breath.  Nevertheless, greeting the steady flow of daytrippers from above swelled our pride in being grubby veteran adventurers. 

A tunnel bored through the rock just below the edge marked the trail’s end.


While we stood for our portrait to be taken by some polyester-garbed fellow-retirees in the parking lot, Steve chatted with them about the football team fortunes of their shared alma-mater in Cincinnati, Ohio.