Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky. (slithytove) wrote,
Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky.

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Grand Canyon travelogue

TRAVELOGUE  for my Grand Canyon backpacking trip. ^^

Day 1: This is the view into the canyon from the South Rim, about dawn, from Hermit's Rest. Sun is just beginning to touch the clouds with pink. That pink disappeared, though, and the day turned overcast, with occasional light rain. The smokiness in the canyon is partly nighttime fog, but is also partly smoke from fires on the North Rim, which had been burning for two months. It's the policy of the Park Service to let forest fires burn, unless they endanger people or buildings. Forest fires, contrary to what we all learned from Smoky the Bear for the last 75 years, are a natural phenomenon, and play a role in the ecology of a forest.

The Hermit Trail leads down from Hermit's Rest into the Waldron Basin, one of the many drainages on the South Rim. Only three trails in the Canyon are actively maintained by the National Park Service, and the Hermit is not one of them. The non-maintained trails are not in very good repair, as a rule, but the Hermit is probably the best of them. It's sometimes called the 'Yellow Brick Road', and the photo on the right shows why. One of the rock layers it passes through is the Coconino sandstone, a yellow to buff-colored rock. When the Hermit was originally built by the Santa Fe Railroad to take its tourists down to the river, it was paved in part with the blocks of yellow sandstone.




A third of the way into the canyon, the trail branches. The Hermit continues down into the drainage, the Boucher Trail splits off to the left. As you can tell, the day was overcast and dim, which was a good thing in a way. Temperatures were in the 80's in the inner canyon, and a cloudy day helps keep the hiker cool. The occasional rain was also appreciated. The inner canyon is a desert environment, and rain is usually not a problem, it evaporates almost as soon as it hits the ground, and it's refreshing to the weary hiker.

In the background, you can see four of the canyon's rock layers. At the very top, there is a cliff of the Kaibab limestone, and below it, a slope of the Toroweap limestone, which looks darker because of plants growing on it. Below that you have a yellow/buff/reddish cliff of the Coconino sandstone. Visible between two trees at right is a red cliff of the Supai Group, a mixed rock group of limestone, sandstone, and shale layers. Red iron pigments in the Supai leach out, coloring the rocks below, and are the chief source of the red-hued rock in the Grand Canyon.

My path led up and to the left, out on top of that cliff of red Supai.

Here's a nice campsite somewhere in the Supai, with a beautiful view out into the misty depths of the canyon. There's no water if you camp here, though, you must bring your own from the rim, or the river, depending on which direction you're coming. Water and heat are the two main limiting factors when you hike in the canyon. Water weighs 8 lbs. a gallon, and I usually start each day's hike carrying a gallon or more. This was a brief rest stop for me: my pack and a water bottle sit under a tree.

The Boucher Trail has a reputation of being difficult, and dangerous. I didn't find it dangerous, at least no more so than the other non-maintained canyon trails, but it was difficult, more so than I expected. There are few flat spots. Usually you're going either up or down, and like most Grand Canyon trails, you gain and lose a lot of altitude unnecessarily. There are many steep spots where you're not walking, but climbing. Most trails in the canyon were originally animal trails, improved by the Indians, improved again by the prospectors, made into horse and mule trails by early tourist guides and dude ranchers, then abandoned when the Park Service took over management of the canyon in the early 20th century. These trails wander here and there like the goats and deer which originally made them, are frequently washed out or obliterated by landslides, and generally are not kind to the human hiker. It took me 10 hours to do 11 miles of trail, which was considerably worse than I had anticipated. My legs were weak and shaky by the end. I stumbled into Boucher camp, found an empty spot, pitched my tent, made dinner, and crashed at around 6 in the evening.

Louis Boucher was a French-Canadian prospector who, like all the other prospectors in the canyon in the late 19th century, found there was nothing much to prospect there. He also found, like a number of the other prospectors, that the real value in the canyon was its scenic beauty, and began to market his end of the canyon to tourists, bringing them down the Boucher trail. Boucher was known as 'The Hermit', and he is whom the Santa Fe Railroad named its 'Hermit Trail' and 'Hermit's Rest' after, although he had nothing to do with either. It's said of Boucher that "he had a white beard, rode a white mule, and told nothing but white lies," unlike John Hance, another prospector turned tour guide, who was famous for his tall tales. Boucher built a cabin and planted an orchard in the area hikers now use for campsites. You can see the ruins of the cabin in the photo to the left. Again, that's my pack resting to the left. The cabin is tiny, about 8 feet square. We're near the bottom of the canyon here, about 4000 feet down, and less than 1000 feet from the bottom, and the sheer canyon walls that we just climbed down rise in the background.

The following morning I packed up and took off across the Tonto Trail for Hermit Rapids. The Tonto never touches the rim nor the river, but runs roughly parallel to both, for perhaps a hundred and fifty miles or more along the south side of the canyon, about two-thirds of the way down, on top of a shelf of rock called the Bright Angel shale. Soft rocks like shales tend to form slopes and platforms, and the broad Tonto platform is a consistent feature of both the south and north sides of the canyon in an area near the center of the park. The Tonto was used extensively by prospectors a hundred years ago, and now is used by hikers. Much of it is very rough, and can sometimes be difficult to follow, but the part between Boucher and the Bright Angel Trail (see below) is heavily used, and in very good shape. It's relatively easy to hike though this section, and you frequently get outstanding views of the canyon from it.

It's only about 8 miles from the Boucher campground to Hermit Rapids, but the hiker gains and loses probably a thousand feet of altitude, becauase the trail climbs up from Boucher Creek to the Tonto platform, and then descends again to the canyon's floor. The trip was uneventful, and I was able to pitch my tent in the sand dunes by the Colorado by noon or a little after. That's a view of the Colorado and Hermit Rapids on the right. Rapids tend to form just downriver of creeks, because the creeks pour debris in every size from sand to boulders into the river, making it shallower, and therefore faster running and turbulent.

The Colorado nowadays is blue-green, and icy cold, cold enough to kill a swimmer from hypothermia in a few minutes. Even just standing in it up the ankles will cause pain in the feet in a few seconds. The coldness of it quite remarkable. But these things are new. 'Colorado' means, in Spanish, 'Red color', because in the days the Spanish first explored this area, the Colorado was red, loaded with silt, and warm. It was so loaded with dirt that early explorers described it as "too thick to drink, and too thin to plow." It was warm, too, from flowing miles under the blazing Western sun. This all changed when the Glen Canyon Dam was built in 1963. All the silt the river formerly carried began to accumulate behind the damn, and the water released was from the bottom of Lake Powell, which formed behind the damn, and instead of being warm, was icy cold. This changed the ecology of the river in the canyon, and killed off several native species of fish.

I love to camp near the river, and listen to the sound of it as it rushes though the rapids. I read the first of the Harry Potter books the afternoon I spent beside the Colorado at Hermit Rapids. The next morning, I struck camp, packed, and was off on the Tonto again, this time to Monument Creek.

Monument Creek, like the Boucher Creek, is one of the few places in the inner canyon (besides the Colorado River) where there is reliable year-round water. On the right you see the pillar of rock that gives the creek its name. The scale is hard to appreciate from the photo, but it's probably a hundred and fifty to two hundred feet high. It's composed of the Tapeats sandstone, a rock layer that sits on top of the Vishnu schist, which forms the bottom of the canyon in this area. A standing pillar of rock like this is sometimes called a 'hoodoo'. I know of only this one in the Grand Canyon, but Bryce Canyon, which is nearby on the Colorado Plateau, has hundreds, although considerably smaller than this.

The next morning I packed up, and headed out from Monument to the Tonto again. I had 10 miles to do before I hit the Bright Angel Trail, and 5 more miles, and about 3500 feet of vertical distance to climb before reaching the canyon rim.

I started out as early as I could, when it was barely light enough to see, perhaps 30 minutes before dawn. The air was cool and still. Dawn crept over the canyon as I crested out of the Tapeats, back on the Tonto. I really think that my favorite times walking in the canyon have been early mornings like this on the Tonto, when the air is still mild, the sun is just beginning to crest over the canyon rim, and you can see forever and forever. The photo below gives a sort of flavor of what it's like, striding along the Tonto on a fair day.

The second photo is taken from a shady rest point, beneath a piñon pine, high on the Tonto trail, about a thousand feet above the Colorado river, which you can see running below. Ahhh... to kick off your pack for a bit, sit back, rest your legs, drink some water... this warm and sunny spot belongs to Pooh!

I ran into this sign at Horn Creek. There's a campsite there, and water during the rainy season, in the spring. But the rangers now say you can't drink it, because it tests too high in natural radioactivity. Not terribly surprising. There is uranium ore on the Colorado Plateau, there was active mining for it in nearby Canyonlands National Park during the 1950's, but it's a little surprising in the Grand Canyon. It's also a new finding, the last time I passed by here, around ten years ago, no one knew there was anything wrong with the water.

I asked a gigantic, three-headed toad who was passing by, playing a tuba, a flugelhorn, and a set of bagpipes simultaneously. "Dude," I said, "what's up with the sign? Is there really a problem with the water?"

"Nah," he replied, "Me and my people, we been drinking the water in Horn Creek for thousands of years. It's fine. Hakuna matata, amigo." And he waddled off, accompanying himself on fugues from Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Whew. That was a relief.

I had worried that I had cut out too much for myself on the last day, but things worked out. I arrived at the Bright Angel Trail by 12:30, and had time to break for rest and a snack and to refill my water bottles for half an hour at Indian Gardens. The rest of the trip was just heavy slogging up hill, doing 5 miles and gaining around 3500 feet in about three hours. Yes, I was very, very beat when I got to the top. Oh, I met these guys on the way up. These are desert bighorns, which are native to the canyon. You sometimes see them in the deep inner canyon. Those don't like humans much. These, however, were near the rim, and accepted the presence of humans with great sang-froid. 

And that was my trip.

In summation: 

Miles hiked: 41
Blisters: 2
Books read: 1.75
PowerBars consumed: 12
Compression neuropathies sustained: 1 (right great toe)
Shooting stars seen: 3
Days: 4
Nights: 3
Mountain lions: none
Lizards: uncountable
Mule deer: 1 dead, 2 live
Desert bighorns: 6
Thoughts thunked: many

Other canyon thoughts later.

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