the Grand Tour
with Joe Hudson
South Bass to Boucher/Hermit
Stan, Roger and I hiked this 38-mile route in March 1987. Stan returned a year later and did the route again, with Barb. It was her first canyon hike, and she suffered sunburn, nosebleeds, blisters, everything but a scorpion sting, but she's been back every year since. And she and Stan got married -- at the canyon, of course -- in 1993.
Just for the record, this route includes the stretch that Colin Fletcher, the "man who walked through time," hiked naked.
After the South Bass descent comes a 22-mile stretch of Tonto Trail that we had all to ourselves in March of '87. We went five days without seeing another human, but we did have some company: a small herd of desert bighorn sheep just east of Turquoise Canyon. There were plenty of water sources along the way: seasonal streams in Serpentine, Ruby, Turquoise and Slate, plus the permanent stream in Boucher. The camp at Turquoise was heaven: we slept on a large outcropping about 15 feet above the streambed. A spring trickled out of the ground just a few yards away. A hummingbird occasionally buzzed by.
Slate Canyon has a giant, shade-making boulder to camp next to. A side trail follows the streambed down to the river, where if you're lucky you'll see rafts shooting the notorious Crystal Rapids. Slate Canyon is where, in 1992, we were wakened just before dawn by what sounded like a train rumbling through. In an instant we realized it was an earthquake -- 4 on the Richter scale, we later learned. Marlene's constipation was suddenly a thing of the past.
Descending the Boucher Trail. April 1979.
At Boucher Creek, prepare yourself for a most strenuous ascent to the rim. It's doable in a day, but we usually spend a night partway up, on the scenic promontory below Yuma Point. This is a dry camp except for possible water pockets in the rock, so you'll probably need to haul water up from Boucher Creek, making the 2,400 feet of vertical gain even more of a grind.
The Boucher Trail ends at Dripping Springs trail near the top of Hermit Canyon. You turn left and soon reach Hermit Trail, which takes you to the rim.
Another way to approach this area of the canyon is to start on the Hermit Trail, easily reached at Hermit's Rest. The Boucher Trail descent is the most unnerving one I've done in the canyon. Poor footing and steep terrain through the Supai formation make it downright dangerous when going downhill. An alternate route: Stay on Hermit all the way to the Tonto Trail and head west.
Camp near Tanner Rapids. March 1990.
The Tanner Trail starts at Lipan Point, about two miles west of Desert View on the east end of the park. The trail to the river is long (eight miles) and dry, and at the bottom there is only river water to drink. This part of the canyon is noticeably wider and more open at the bottom than points farther west, giving it a distinctive feel.
From the river you hike west on the Escalante Route, an extension of the Tonto Trail. The Tonto doesn't officially start until Red Canyon, a two-day hike from Tanner. Some people find that a 20-foot rope comes in handy at two points along the way: For lowering packs where the trail dips into the narrow and steep-walled drainage of Seventy-five Mile Canyon, and for lifting packs during a climb through rockface just west of Popago Creek.
View from north end of Horseshoe Mesa. March 1990.
There are plenty of places to camp at Red Canyon, where you can see the Tonto Plateau emerge from river level and rise westward. If you don't want to drink river water, creek water can be found -- in springtime, at least -- about a mile and a half up Red Canyon.
Farther west, Horseshoe Mesa and the Grandview Trail -- the way out -- can be reached via either Hance or Cottonwood canyon. Both canyons have plenty of water in early spring. The climb to the mesa is probably more interesting via Hance: an abandoned copper mine and a year-round spring are trailside attractions.
Ice and packed snow can make the upper portion of Grandview very treacherous in winter and early spring. And even when the trail is dry, it can break your heart. Many a hiker has been fooled into thinking he was almost at the top when there actually was nearly an hour yet to go. The trailhead, at 7,400 feet, is the South Rim's highest.
New Hance (Red Canyon) to Kaibab
The upper part of the New Hance Trail is frustrating: constant twists, turns, switchbacks, protruding pine branches, boulder-hopping, etc., and hardly anyplace you can really stride out until the base of the Redwall. We covered this route in March 1995 and started out in a cold, drenching rain and wind gusts that could knock a person over. About four hours later, things had really changed: We were in T-shirts as the sun beat down on the canyon's desert interior. But that wouldn't last long, either: At nightfall at camp down by the river, the rain started again -- and didn't stop until the next morning. We found out later that the storm had caused landslides and floods in other parts of the canyon, forcing the closure of the Bright Angel and Kaibab trails and knocking out the water line that supplies the South Rim. We were lucky all we got was a little wet.
The Tonto Trail west from Red Canyon goes through Hermit and Cottonwood canyons, mentioned in the previous section. Then comes Grapevine Canyon, with its springtime creek forming dozens of pools in the slickrock streambed. There actually were two creeks this year, in adjoining arms of the canyon. Luckily, this was where we had scheduled a rest day, and we were glad to spend the extra time there.
About three and a half hours west of Grapevine is Lonetree Canyon, another pleasant spot with seasonal water. Unfortunately, four of us -- Lloyd, Marlene, Loretta and I -- overshot Lonetree and hiked all the way to Cremation Canyon, our next day's destination. So Stan and Barb had Lonetree all to themselves. Meanwhile, the four of us stayed at Cremation, which is nearly as desolate as the name suggests.
From Cremation, it's about three hours to the rim via the Kaibab Trail. Lloyd did it in two and a half hours -- not bad for a guy who turns 50 this year.
Kaibab and Bright Angel
The Kaibab and Bright Angel are the two main tourist trails -- well-maintained, wide, practically impossible to get lost on. These crowded trails are not most backpackers' idea of getting away from it all. But if you can't get an overnight permit and you're intent on making it to the bottom, this route is probably your only option: with enough energy and daylight, you can go down the Kaibab all the way to the river and up the Bright Angel in a day. That's what I did on my first canyon hike, in 1972, even though the Park Service strongly discourages it.
The accompanying photo is from that first hike. Bob (left), Dennis and I, in our canvas sneakers, took turns lugging that partly filled five-gallon water jug the whole way. Why we didn't have individual canteens I can't recall. At lunchtime at the bottom, Bob lost a stocking in the river and had to hike all the way out with one foot sockless. I don't believe he's ever returned to the Grand Canyon.
In 1977, Stan did his first canyon hike: down and up the Kaibab with Jim. They didn't carry enough water on the way out, so they got a bit delirious. In their extreme thirst, they resorted to munching on trailside snow -- including the stuff turned yellow and green by the park's pack mules.
What to do before you go
Permits & Planning
Backcountry Reservations Office
Included in the packet are a map and the lowdown on the rules and regulations you must abide by. For instance, the canyon has four official usage zones (Corridor, Threshold, Primitive and Wild), and you cannot camp outside established camp areas while in the Corridor and Threshold zones.