Grand Canyon Backcountry

We’d like to welcome Kelli to the Trailsherpa family! She’s a runner and hiker located in Lawrence, Kansas. This story reflects a trip she took into the Grand Canyon backcountry a few years back.

A while back a friend offered me the chance to backpack the Tonto Trail in Grand Canyon backcountry.  When the offer was presented I didn’t consider what an uncommon trek it is or the effort that might be involved.  Because of a Grizzly Adams-type upbringing (we camped in a teepee with lodge poles and a dew cloth) I had traded outdoor adventures for climate control.  I didn’t even car camp, at this point.  And this was backpacking.  MOBILE camping.

As hesitant as I am of the great outdoors my friend, thankfully, is the opposite.  She has run the gamut, being at times a Dahl sheep hunting guide in Alaska and other times a certified river guide.  A national magazine was paying her to write about this journey. She needed a companion.  Would I be interested?

The trip was scheduled for early October, all in all not a bad time to do this as we wouldn’t be exposed to sweltering heat, and snow was unlikely.  The temperatures would be in the 90s during the day with virtually no opportunity for shade, except for the rare tree clinging to a drainage wall, and at night we’d drop into the 50s. The itinerary was this:  Take the South Kaibab trail to the Tonto Trail tip-off, take the Tonto Trail through five drainages (Cremation, Lone Tree, Boulder, Grapevine, and Cottonwood), ascend to Horseshoe Mesa where we would meet the photographer for the article and take the Grandview Trail out.

Because of the thunderstorm that was sitting over the Canyon the morning we were going to start out, we delayed our entrance and decided to have a big breakfast and thumb through a book we’d purchased at the gift shop earlier.  It is titled “On the Edge:  Death in Grand Canyon,” and it articulates in as much detail as is available every known life lost in Grand Canyon.

It is vital when embarking on a trek like this one to stop at the Backcountry Office at GCNP and get the most recent news on the inner trails.  When we stopped by we were told that the first few drainages would provide little opportunity to refill our bottles, that our greatest chance in the beginning would be if we could find the rainwater that was falling right now pooling in rocks and that eventually we would come across a spring at Grapevine Canyon and another at Cottonwood, though it was small and therefore difficult to find, and sometimes not running.  The Tonto Trail, in short, is notoriously dry.  This meant we would need to carry enough water (heavy, heavy water) to get us to the first reliable water source and hydrate sparingly as we went.

The Tonto Trail follows very closely the contour line of a topo map, the gains and losses in elevation are low; a real danger, outside of dehydration, is that the trail is often at the edge of the canyon.  We were warned, specifically, about an area of Grapevine Drainage that had eroded, so the path had become narrower and the margin for error, or loss of balance, greater.

We entered the Canyon at the South Kaibab trailhead.  It’s a modern trail, wide and supported, and used by hikers headed to Phantom Ranch.  It generally accommodates burros taking supplies to Phantom Ranch, though this particular month they were restricting burro traffic because the surface rock on the trail was too loose.  We stayed on South Kaibab for 4.5 miles (descending 3200 feet) to the Tonto Trail.  Because of the earlier rainstorm, we had a late start, so we were behind “schedule” and pitching camp in the dark under a beautiful lightning storm on the North Rim.

Our alarm clock that first morning was a snorting, rutting, Bighorn Sheep making a move on a ewe.  We packed up and faced our first obstacle, Cremation Canyon.  This was one area of the Tonto Trail where actual climbing was involved. An interesting aspect of hiking Tonto is that while you have an unparalleled perspective of the North Rim when you’re hiking the south, you cannot fully form a picture of the trail you’re on.  The rock faces and drainages obscure your understanding of what’s to come.  I hadn’t expected this climb with a 55 pound pack on my back and from the look on my friend’s face, she hadn’t either.

The most difficult part of Cremation was that initial climb.  It evened out rather quickly and we covered a lot of trail.  As promised by the Backcountry Office, on this day we found a divot in a flat rock that held more water than I imagined it could, along with water-friendly insects and sediment. We drank measured amounts of the water we had, filtered this little pool, and refilled our bottles.

We covered all of Cremation Canyon, all of Lonetree, and hit the beginning edge of Boulder where we made camp for the night.  Our goal was to maintain a pace that would keep us on schedule, but not be so aggressive that the need for hydration became a problem with our limited water resources. We used filtered water to cook/reconstitute dinner and fell asleep listening to the Colorado River, a torrent of life-sustaining water, inaccessible 1000 feet below.

The next morning we had powdered eggs and talk of finding water.  We would try to make it to Horseshoe Mesa by evening where the photographer would be waiting, which meant a big push in elevation (nearly 1000 feet) at the end of the day.  My friend was beginning an anxiety spiral knowing that today she would face the sketchy area of Grapevine that the Backcountry office had warned us about.  Before we would reach that precipitous drop we would find one of the few promises of available water, a small trickle down the rock wall on the east side of the drainage.

Getting through  Boulder was  fast and easy.  It was shallow erosion that didn’t cut back too far into the Canyon wall, so when we hit the beginning of Grapevine, we knew it.  The shale was looser on this narrow trail than it had been the entire distance so far, or perhaps it only felt this way because the trail here sloped dramatically toward the maw to our left.  There was no room for mistakes.

Halfway through Grapevine, on a sandstone bed we came across our first human being on the Tonto Trail.  A woman from Lawrence, Kansas, was celebrating her 50th birthday by taking a leisurely hike—ours , in reverse and slower—but at this moment she was washing her clothes in pools of the only water we’d seen in a day.  We asked politely if we could filter around her laundry.  While she explained to my friend what we’d face in the trail ahead, I stayed with our backpacks and defended them from ravens, renowned in the area for unzipping packs and stealing food.  I overheard Lawrence say, “It’s not that bad if you’re not afraid of heights,” to which my friend responded, “Isn’t everyone afraid of heights if they’re high enough?”

We strapped on our packs and continued.  We passed the spring running down the rock face, debated the feasibility of filtering water as it ran down a rock face and, in general, stalled for time.  And then my friend broke down.


And then she took a new tack.  We would turn around and go back, she decided.  We didn’t fully understand what lay ahead, but we knew the trail behind us.  We could go back and when we didn’t show up for the photo shoot, the photographer would return to the rim and we’d contact him then.  People’s plans changed in the canyon all the time.  There were always delays, hopefully they weren’t caused by any real issue, but we’d assure him we were okay when we all returned to the rim.

This was unacceptable, obviously.  We were one day from coming out of Grand Canyon; the bulk of our journey was behind us.  Aside from the added distance and time involved, we would be headed back into the driest part of the journey.   I offered to check out the trail ahead.  I walked the 30 yards along the edge of the canyon.  They were hairy yards and I would have found them to be impossible without the trekking poles I borrowed from friends in Las Vegas and when I crossed I found an open plateau on the other side.  I dropped my pack there and walked the path again, returning to my friend.

“We’ve crossed worse than this,” I said, which was true. “This is just the longest distance of bad.”  I offered to take her pack so she would be unburdened while she hiked the edge.  She thought the change in weight might throw off her balance.

“I’ll follow you,” she said. “I may not be right behind you, but you go ahead and I’ll follow you.”  With that, I returned to my pack, crossing the hairy trail for the third time.  Then I turned around and waited.  And waited.

Finally, “I’ll go around!” my friend shouted.

Around what?  I wondered.

“You keep walking ahead on the trail and I’ll cut over to meet you!”  It sounded like the beginning of an entry in “Over the Edge:  Death in Grand Canyon,” when hikers split up and no one sees one of them again until a vacationing river rafter finds the body on the bank of the Colorado.

“If you keep walking ahead, and I cut over, I’ll be able to find the trail again because I’ll see you.”  I saw many flaws in this plan, and none of them, it turned out, was worth my concern.  Her route, though unmarked, was safe, and by lifting my trekking pole she could see my location almost throughout her off-trail hike.

We made it out of Grapevine and into Cottonwood where we found a tiny spring working very hard to give small amounts of water.  It was slow, but it was steady, and we soaked our shirts, and drank our fill, and sadly moved on.

But we would not make Horseshoe Mesa that night.  The delays in moving forward combined with the emotional exhaustion sapped too much energy for the 1000 feet vertical climb.  We made camp in the shadow of the Mesa and it loomed, reminding us that we now had 5.5 miles and 2500 vertical feet to cover tomorrow to get to the Rim.

We started early the next morning.  The trail to Horseshoe was short and steep.   When we arrived on the plateau, we saw the photographer had three people with him carrying his gear and his water.  They had enjoyed the night here.  They looked invigorated.  They looked like the commercial for backpacking and their reactions to us told us we might not be camera-ready.  We had blisters on our feet, cactus needles in our shins, gravel on our knees, salt rings on our shirts, and a shine on our faces, and not once did it occur to either of us to use precious water to clean ourselves for a photo.  The problem was solved by taking our picture from behind as we looked out over the impossible landscape we had traveled. This journey had been the simple business of putting one foot in front of the other—sometimes carefully, always firmly—and moving ahead.  It was the purest metaphor I’d lived and the most determined I’d ever been.

The push out was a challenge, “an inverted mountain,” the photographer’s guides reminded us, rewards you with the difficult climb at the end.  They spoke a great deal about the rocks on Grandview Trail being loaves of bread, the suggestion, I suppose, making us think of a soft and giving surface, but we knew the ground was solid, that its push against us was as strong as we needed it to be to get us out.  And after we passed a rattlesnake on the trail and caught up with two Europeans smoking cigarettes, we knew we were near the Rim.

At the top, the first voice I heard was of a British girl asking me if I’d walked the whole way.  I was too tired for details, so I just nodded.  She went on about the price of rental cars, and as I walked away, her boyfriend spit into a puddle of rainwater.

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