In April 2012, I did my first backpacking trip ever, hiking 23 miles over 3 days in Grand Canyon National Park. I tackled the rugged and challenging Boucher, Tonto, and Hermit Trails on my first voyage, a much different experience compared to the corridor trails that most novice backpackers see in the Grand Canyon. While challenging, this itinerary allowed me a wilderness experience that was in no way disappointing. This article is not intended to be a blow-by-blow summary of the trips events, but a reflection of my inner emotions and perceptions that I felt during the trip, and how they have strengthened, but also changed my connection with the Grand Canyon.
As an avid hiker, geographer, geologist, naturalist, and Arizona native, my personal connection with the Grand Canyon runs deeper than the average person. When my wife’s out-of-state relatives come to see the Canyon for the first time, I am the de facto tour guide, and my tours don’t disappoint. Yet compared to many of the Canyon obsessed, whether it be the Harvey Butcharts, the river runners, the National Park Service biologists, or any other walks of life that dedicate inordinate amounts of their lives to the Canyon, I am but a dabbler. A relative Grand Canyon rookie, and I know it. And for a long time the Canyon has called to me in a way that I cannot fulfill by stopping at a roadside viewpoint, or organizing a simple six-mile day hike. This yearning was magnified last year when I read “Grand Obsession: Harvey Butchart and the Exploration of the Grand Canyon”, a fascinating account of the Canyon’s most accomplished off-trail explorer, and Colin Fletcher’s “The Man Who Walked Through Time”, an account of a soul-finding multi-month through-hike below Grand Canyon’s rim. When the opportunity arose for me to take my first backpacking trip, tagging along with some experienced Grand Canyon backpackers, I jumped on it. It was an opportunity for me to expand my prowess in the outdoors, see new sights, challenge my physical abilities and mental will, expand my catalog of photography, but above else, achieve a deeper connection with landscape, which I think to be an important part of my own road to a fulfilling life.
It is often said that it is impossible to truly appreciate the Grand Canyon from the rim. That one has to make his or her ways into the Canyon’s depths to achieve true appreciation of the Canyon. I had been below the rim before, but never like the ride that I took on the Boucher Trail. It seems that a hiker can exhaust most of the day before being able to descend even one-third of the way into the Canyon. A rugged and physically taxing trail even when flat, the Boucher traverses the slope-forming Hermit Shale for what seems like…forever. A hiker can be satisfyingly fatigued well before the fun begins, and the Boucher decides to descend a rare break in a cliff, catapulting the hiker and their 45-pound pack down harrowing grades and narrow, exposed tight-walks on red sandstone. Given that a hiker has any spare mental capacity beyond concentrating on navigating the route, the Boucher Trail provides top notch views of the surrounding buttes, temples, ridges and side canyons.
Part of the greater appreciation that traveling below rim provides is evident as one descends the Boucher through the massive Redwall cliff and onto the Tonto Platform, 3500 feet below the Canyon rim. Appreciation is in the sheer size of the temples that tower above you like mountain peaks. This was something that was brought to my attention by my friend Dustin Christensen on a previous Canyon day hike as we viewed Vishnu Temple from near Page Spring off of the Grandview Trail. Dustin remarked that the temples just don’t look that big from the rim, but from the canyon terraces below, one can actually get a perspective on their true size and mass. Dustin’s point echoed in my mind as I rested on the Boucher Trail, looking up at the dominant profile that defines Mencius and Confucius Temples, a twin peaked complex of formidable rock.
Boucher Creek is an oasis. Maybe its paradise-like qualities are enhanced following a day’s tussle with the Boucher Trail, but I found the creek thoroughly inviting. Boucher Camp, located where the Tonto Trail intersects Boucher Creek, marks the location where I spent my first night in the canyon. Beside sleeping soundly through the night, I spent much of my time creekside, photographing the small cascades flowing over boulders and enjoying the sweet song of rushing water. Given more time, exploring more of Boucher Creek seemed like a pleasant way to spend a day. Aside from the creek, the spring season also provided blooming yellow Brittlebush, which I was pleased to photograph at sunrise under the illuminated Redwall cliffs that towered to the west. Marsh Butte, a stunning limestone spire, makes for an excellent photographic specimen. Alas, a day’s journey across the Tonto Platform awaited, and I was slightly sad to depart Boucher Camp so soon. With the cool, crisp waters of the neighboring creek and the spectacular canyon scenery beyond, it is easy to see why “The Hermit” Louis D. Boucher had built a seasonal cabin here at the turn of the century.
The Tonto Platform is indeed a special place. My father said of his own Grand Canyon overnight experiences from the 1980s that he much preferred the grand panoramic views of the Tonto to the dark, sometimes claustrophobic Inner Gorge. As I may echo his statement later, I must agree that my experiences hiking the Tonto were exceedingly pleasant. As covered earlier, the views of the buttes and temples are simply breathtaking. But not to be forgotten are the views looking down to the Colorado River in the Inner Gorge. Amazement is most often induced by the impressiveness of the rapids from a thousand feet above. The sound of the churning water is so loud and radiates so well in the Canyon that you can often hear the distinct white noise when the rapids are hidden from view. My short hours walking the Tonto leave me with the desire to camp the Tonto someday. I got a glimpse of Tonto camping experience at Boucher, with the presence of Marsh Butte overseeing the camp, but the view was nowhere near the panoramic nature of the Tonto Platform proper. I imagine a sunset viewed from the Tonto Platform to be truly inspiring, with the temples flowing the motion of colors, orange then red then magenta, like you see from the rim, but in the calm peaceful wilderness of the Tonto.
Upon reaching Hermit Creek, I completely abandoned any sadness that was lingering from departing Boucher Creek. After an enjoyable yet very warm walk on the Tonto, dousing my face and head with creek water under the mid-day sun was no less than perfect. Hermit Creek pushes out a higher volume of water than Boucher, making Hermit more spectacular in terms of larger cascades and waterfalls. Hermit Camp, located where the Tonto Trail crosses Hermit Creek, is an awesome spot, but our second night’s came was down at Hermit Rapids, where Hermit Creek empties into the famed Colorado River. In the heat of the mid-day, the mile and a half hike along Hermit Creek was incredibly enjoyable. Carrying a 45 pound pack in sunny 85 degree weather is hard work, but having a bubbling creek as your hiking companion can really give you a psychological advantage. I’m not opposed to picking favorites, and I can safely say that the stretch between Hermit Camp and Hermit Rapids was the most satisfying walking of the trip. In fact, I was so inspired by the mid-day jaunt, I retraced my steps part way up Lower Hermit Creek later in the evening for some photographic exploration and private time with the creek.
I’m not too familiar with rafting and the like, but from what I’ve heard Hermit Rapids is one of the more impressive in the Canyon. One source even claims Hermit to have the largest waves and most powerful hydraulics of any Canyon rapid. After wandering a half mile up and down Hermit Creek, I took some time to sit at the edge of Hermit Rapids and become zen with the nature. I would stare into the motion of the water and let my mind venture to wherever it pleased. I was mostly fascinated by the grace and power of the waves created by the rapids. The waves aren’t just simple jumps in the water, but actual waves similar to those found at an ocean beach. As such, the rapid’s water is incredibly dynamic in its shape, and yet follows a rhythm that is mesmerizing. These rhythms provided an incredible calming experience, exemplifying the soul-pleasing benefits of perhaps my most direct attempt at forging a deeper connection with the Canyon. Living in the rhythms of nature was something Colin Fletcher spoke enthusiastically of in “The Man Who Walked Through Time”. Getting in touch with nature’s rhythms myself at the rapids is a definite memory that will stick with me as something to associate with my feelings toward the Canyon. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who was aware of my temporary state of bliss. George, one of my hiking companions, saw me sitting atop a granite boulder in an visible state of peacefulness, and attempted to scamper away without disturbing me as he told me after I had moved on from my stoop.
As I mentioned earlier, my dad has always spoken about how he preferred the open views of places like the Tonto Platform to the claustrophobia of the Inner Gorge. After spending the night at Hermit Rapids in the Inner Gorge, I can definitely concur with his opinions. While my existential experiences sitting by the rapids were divine, beyond that I found myself once again yearning for some grander views. The South Rim is visible from the river, but is severely obstructed by the steep walls of the Inner Gorge. Perhaps I have been spoiled by the car camping escapades hosted by my father, which typically involve driving a truck down a long dirt road to the edge of a cliff that overlooks an expansive view over the epic terraces of the Colorado Plateau. I’m not trying to complain, I just think camping in the Inner Gorge leaves something to be desired. However, despite how perceive the location’s drawbacks, I did manage to snag a great photo of a crescent moon rising through some beautifully colored dawn clouds from our camp in the Inner Gorge. It was a great reward for what turned out to be a terrible, nightmare-plagued night of sleep at Hermit Rapids.
The hike out is usually seen as the great challenge of a backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon. As it would turn out, the first day’s descent of the rugged Boucher Trail was it some ways more challenging than the last day’s hike up the Hermit Trail back to the rim. On that final day, however, the first priority on my mind was something different. The previous day, as we rested where the Tonto Trail crosses Hermit Creek, I spotted a set of two waterfalls that formed a stunning scene as they trickled down a bench of slickrock sandstone. I knew I had to photograph them, but the harsh mid-day light was not going to work. On the hike out the final day, my goal was to reach the falls while the sun was still low enough for the falls to be cast in shade, eliminating the harsh light from the scene. Of course, the full mile and a half hike up Lower Hermit Creek was in shade, and I was tempted many times to stop and photograph many other nice scenes that were encountered along the way. I instead pressed on to get the waterfalls that were burned into my mind. Just in the nick of time did we reach the waterfalls, as the sun’s rays were encroaching into the canyon just upstream from the falls. It actually turned out to enhance the scene that way, with the golden light bouncing off the walls upstream being reflected in the creek water below and adjacent to the cascades. I ran about the falls firing off photos until satisfied, and then got back to business, filtering water with my hiking companions for the big hike out.
I spoke about rhythm earlier, in relation to the rolling waves in Hermit Rapids. Hiking out of the canyon is also about rhythm. The rhythm of footsteps matching breathing and heartbeat, all of which must sync with the plodding of the hiking poles. Finding the right rhythm is key, and usually matches a hiker’s level of physical fitness. Hiking up the first stretch of the Hermit Trail as it left the Tonto Platform, it seemed that we had no rhythm. Perhaps the heat of the beating sun at that low elevation was messing everything up, but our group couldn’t seem to hack it. We were blessed with shade as we approached the Cathedral Stairs where the trail steepens as it ascends the 800 foot cliff of the Redwall Limestone. Somehow we actually found a rhythm here and climbed those stairs with relative ease. The long traverse through the Supai tested our rhythm through stretches intermixed with sun and shade. After a couple long breaks where substantial shade was encountered (first at rocky nook above Lookout Point, then at the rest shack at trailside Santa Maria Spring), we were in for the final test, the big steep final climb. Over about two and a half miles, the Hermit climbs a good 2,000 vertical feet, relentlessly ascending the last five layers of the rock layer cake. Here is where a hiker’s ability to establish rhythm is truly tested, as the fatigue from the work of multiple days really sets in. For myself and two of my companions, our rhythms dictated a slower pace, while our friend Bob found that he worked better at a quicker ascent and reached the vehicles 10-15 minutes ahead of the rest.
Reaching the trailhead after three days in the canyon is where the sense of accomplishment sets in. Accomplishment in surviving in a rugged environment with only what can be carried in a backpack. Accomplishment in climbing from the Colorado River at 2400 feet above sea level to Hermit’s Rest at 6600 feet above sea level over the course of a day with a 45-pound pack. Accomplishment in doing something that the average person would scoff at as being too much work. Accomplishment in simply enjoying the company of friends and nature without the complications of cell-phones, the internet, social media websites, automobile traffic, work or any of the other inventions of the civilized world. Accomplishment in forging a deeper relationship with the Grand Canyon and all the treats it has to offer.
Of everything I experienced in my first Grand Canyon backpack, I must say that I enjoyed the creeks more than anything. Boucher and Hermit Creeks were absolutely gorgeous, refreshing, and inspiring. I’m frothing at the mouth just thinking about returning to explore them some more. As much as I yearned for a better taste of the grand Tonto Platform, I don’t know if I can imagine a Grand Canyon backpack being satisfying without a romp in a crystal clear creek. Before this trip, I was always enticed by the photos I’ve seen of creeks in the Grand Canyon, mainly around the corridor trails like North Kaibab and Bright Angel, and those locations are calling to me even more now.
Another interesting perspective I gained from this trip, ironically, is a new appreciation for the Canyon rim. Everything I experienced backpacking had its own special intimate offering, and yet it should not be understated that the endless views available at the Canyon rim are second to none. As it is, every point on the Canyon rim has a unique perspective, and experiencing the rim is not limited to roadside pullouts, paved rim trails, or South Rim hotels. Exploration of the canyon rim beyond the developed park infrastructure is totally feasible, and can offer great solitude along with those world class rim views. If I had choose whether I would rather view the Canyon from the rim or the river for the rest of my life, I would most certainly choose the rim, however I would much prefer to continue to see everything in between.
My first backpacking trip was an amazing experience and definitely deepened my connection to the Grand Canyon. But perhaps greater than that, it has made me even thirstier to explore more of the Canyon, and also revisit those places I’ve been, but experience them at an even more intimate level. I lust for more waterfalls, more sidecanyons, more temples and more buttes, more million dollar views with more sunrises and sunsets, more harrowing descents and brutal ascents, more rim hikes and more photographs, more memories and more emotional connections to one of the greatest landscapes on earth.
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