I planned seven days hiking in the Grand Canyon linking six trails together into a hike that surely in my mind rates as one of the best if not the best hike I have ever done. I don’t make that statement lightly. I linked the Hermit Trail, Tonto Trail, Bright Angel Trail, Kaibab Trail, Escalante Trail and Tanner Trail into one continuous 127 kilometer (79 mile) hike which I have called ‘The Grand Traverse‘.
My planning for the hike was minimal. I spoke with hikers emerging from the canyon with their packs and asked where they had been and what they recommended and also spoke with rangers about their favourite hikes within the park. With this information I went to the Backcountry Office at Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim to discuss the hiking opportunities. I spoke with the ranger at length about hikes, how many miles per day and what permits were available for me to hike. He also mentioned that as I could store my bicycle at the Backcountry Office for the duration of the hike. Awesome, the plan would be a reality. The only issue was it was 4pm and I was to start the next day. I went to the General Store which was well stocked with everything a hiker would need from dehydrated meals to stove fuel. That night I repacked my food into lighter weight packaging and studied the maps. I was excited for the possibilities.
I rose early the following morning and cycled to the Backcountry Office to store my bike then made my way to Hermits Rest, the start of the trail. There is a free bus that runs to the trailhead at Hermits Rest until 1st December. I would catch one of the last buses for the season. Now all I had to do was hike 17km and descend 1323 meters to the floor of the canyon and my camp at Granite Beach. I set off with 3 litres of water and a pack full of 7 days food that weighed about 21kg. I took comfort in the fact that it would get lighter by about 1kg per day as I ate the food but the water weight was mildly annoying. The trail continued ever downwards past many varieties of cactus with continual expansive and ever changing views of the canyon. If this was a preview of the coming days I would take many photos and possibly run out of batteries, it was so photogenic. Several hours later I arrived at Granite Beach, on the banks of the Colorado River, I had made it to the bottom of the canyon. The beach I camped on was located at one of the larger rapids on the river, called Granite Rapids oddly enough. I shared the camp with four other people. Close to sunset an older man arrived to advise of an incident at a nearby canyon. I won’t go into too much detail but the following morning a helicopter arrived to evacuate the injured person.
I hiked up the scenic Granite Gorge with a small detour to explore the narrow slot canyons on route to the Tonto Trail which continues for much of the length of the canyon. Frustratingly it follows the contour lines of the canyon and can take many hours to travel a distance that looks so close in a straight line. In truth there are many, many side canyons entering the Colorado River and most need to be skirted around due to the sheer size of them. After another day of stunning scenery I arrived at one of the most civilised of campsites, Indian Gardens. It was rather crowded and can be difficult to get a permit to stay here during peak times. I conversed with several other learned hikers who confirmed that by the time I finish the hike I will have completed the best the canyon has to offer. This was also confirmed by the duty ranger which stays at the nearby rangers hut. The campsite is nestled among Cottonwood trees that at this time of year changed into a stunning array of yellows, greens and oranges. During the night the deer and small rodents running around my tent kept me awake.
It was early when I set off on the descent of the Bright Angel Trail that descends to the Colorado River. I crossed the river on one of the suspension bridges and went to Phantom Range, a commercial operation that sells Snickers Bars. $16 later I left Phantom Ranch and headed up the South Kaibab Trail to again join the Tonto Trail and set of for my first dry camp with no nearby water. Earlier I filled my 4.5 litres of water which I hoped would get me to a known water supply at Grapevine Gorge. I walked till near sunset which comes early at this time of year and set up in a place that provided the most stunning view of the gorge. The sunset that evening lit of the clouds into every hue of pink and purple which turned the whites, yellows, reds and purples of the canyon walls into colours that are normally only seen in postcards. I have yet to see such a more beautiful place to watch the setting sun.
After breakfast I looked at my water supply. I had 1.5 litres. I had to hike 16km to my next known water resupply at Grapevine Gorge. The Tonto Trail continued to follow the contour lines making huge detours around the impressively deep gorges of Lone Pine Canyon and Boulder Canyon. By lunch time I made it to Grapevine Canyon. I had run out of water an hour earlier and happily treated the water with my steripen and drank copious amounts. I lazed at this spot for a while, eating, drinking and resting until mid afternoon when I set off towards Cottonwood Canyon which I also knew had water and I planned to camp for the night.
I rose late in the morning, I don’t use an alarm. I use a combination of the morning light and my body clock to wake me. They failed me. Camping within a gorge meant the morning twilight took much longer to brighten the sky enough to wake me, the grey clouds may have also assisted. I continued along the Tonto Trail till it finished at Hance Rapids, one of the largest and most feared rapids on the river. I now entered the famed Escalante Route with a view to making it to camp for the night on the banks of the Colorado River where it joins with Escalante Gorge. I had been advised that navigation would be a problem and route finding skills were a necessity. I’ve done a lot of hiking in trackless wilderness areas and was looking forward to the challenge. I was pleasantly surprised to find rock cairns in most areas and had little trouble following the trail. I would stress that I would not want to be doing this section of the trail as my first ever experience in route finding. After climbing up above Red Canyon the trail descended along the aptly named Mineral Canyon with every colour in the spectrum represented. While peering over the other side of the Colorado River to a gorge called Asbestos Canyon I sighted what looked like mine tunnels. The name of the gorge I suspect will link what mineral was mined there. I continued upstream to 75 mile Canyon. A narrow slot canyon that needs to be traversed for several hundred meters until at the end of the narrow section I popped up onto the canyon rim only to follow it back down to the river. A most stunning section of trail. The clouds were getting thicker and a combination my instincts and memory of the long term weather forecast that I read at the Backcountry Office told me rain. I set up on high ground in case there was a huge deluge and flash flood. There was rain, but nothing more than an annoying drizzle on and off all night.
I continue along the Escalante route to the junction of the Tanner trail. Initially via the trail that ascended up Escalante Gorge on what could best be described as a ‘goat trail’ up to a blood red coloured mountain ridge that overlooked the gorge both upstream and downstream. The trail followed slowly descending course back to the river at a place known as Furnace Flats which is said to be rather hotter than anywhere else in the canyon during summer. As I got closer to the Tanner Trail I passed several other hikers who were either having a miserable time or didn’t want to talk to me. As I hadn’t seen anybody for several days I wanted to chat with somebody. Considering the Grand Canyon has visitors that number over 1,000,000 per year this is a little visited place, effort vs reward. I had lunch at the junction of the Tanner Trail and Escalante Trail which is on the Colorado River and filled my 4.5 litres of water then set off up the Tanner Trail, the last trail on my ‘Grand Traverse‘. I planned to walk for several hours until near sunset and make camp somewhere with a great view. It didn’t take long before I met another solo hiker, Murray. We chatted for an hour when I found out that he completed the Pacific Crest Trail twice and also completed the other long distance trail in USA, the Appalachian Trail. A true long distance hiker traveling with custom made lightweight hiking gear. I was impressed. I set off up the trail which continually climbed and climbed until I made it to a bench that had a most stunning view. The low clouds that had been hanging around all day set the Grand Canyon into another mood. I chose to make this my camp. Yet another campsite that surely ranks as one of my most stunning ever. After taking many photos around sunset I ate dinner and set about updating my journal and reading about Dick Griffiths adventures in Grand Canyon in the book, Canyons and Ice. It was dark and a bright light hit my tent. It was Murray. He hiked for an hour or so after sunset and made it to my camp. Again we chatted while he struggled to set up his Cuben Fibre ultra lightweight fly which he used to shelter from rain which he pulled out of his ‘Cuben Fibre’ backpack, so very, very lightweight. Once more I was inspired to one day soon hike the PCT, the long distance hike from Mexico to Canada.
On the Last Morning Murray and I set off together to make the final push up the Tanner Trail to the Trailhead at Lipan Point. For most of the way we hiked together until eventually he needed a rest and I continued alone to the top. Initially we hiked through damp cloud, then light drizzle and finally intermittent rain. When the thick cloud came in I had little idea how far we were from the top until about 15 minutes from the top it cleared. At the top I was cold and set about putting on all my clothing to warm my now wet body while I waited for somebody that would give me a lift back to Grand Canyon Village. The first few vehicles were all heading the opposite direction. But an Aussie couple took pity on me and went out of their way to drive me and Murray, who now made it to the top, all the way to the village even though they were heading the other way. A very kind act of generosity that seems to have followed me for the whole duration of this trip. And so it was that in 6.5 days I completed 127km of, ‘The Grand Traverse‘, my favourite hike so far.
Photos from the Rim of the Grand Canyon
Hermits Rest to Granite Beach on the Hermit Trail = 17km
Granite Beach to Indian Garden Camp, via the Tonto Trail = 20km
Indian Garden Camp to dry camp between Cremation Canyon and Lone Pine Canyon, Tonto Trail = 18km
Camp to Cottonwood Gorge camp on the Tonto Trail = 24km
Cottonwood to Escalante Gorge via Tonto Trail and Escalante Route = 21km
Escalante to Redwall Limestone Camp on Tanner trail = 20km
Redwall Limestone Camp to Lipan Trailhead = 7km