Trip Report: Tontoing in the Grand Canyons!

The Grand Canyon is something most people are generally familiar with whether they’ve visited or not – perhaps from briefly peering into it from over the edge of the guardrail on the South Rim while passing through on a road trip or just from a postcard or nature doc. Kylie, Karan and myself had all visited it in the past and done some backpacking there (coincidentally a January 2015 rim to rim to rim hike was my first backpacking trip). But the Grand Canyon is one of those multifaceted, dynamic (and of course vast) landscapes that can dazzle even on return visits and certainly deserves more than a passing familiarity. And with Cassie having an elusive weeklong backcountry permit in-hand (leftover from a COVID-derailed Hayduke thru, we couldn’t pass up the chance to all go!

The trip spanned 6 days and 5 nights. We started at Lipan Point and worked our way west ultimately finishing at Hermit’s Rest, hiking primarily along the Tanner, Tonto and Boucher trails.

Day 1 began with an afternoon descent to the Colorado River where we camped in the hills above the beach. An easier first day – except for the fact that the only nearby water source for miles was the Colorado, which was full of silt. Filters and bleach would be no match for it. While at camp, at Cassie’s resourceful suggestion we made “buckets” by digging holes in the sand, lining them with gallon ziplocs, and filling them with water to let the silt settle. We would then use an old cut up sawyer bladder to scoop the water out. These “buckets” were moderately successful (the sand around the outside walls of the ziplocs moved easily and upset the silt settling on the bottom. Fortunately, we did not need to rely on this improvised method, as later that night, we found an old 5 gallon Home Depot bucket along the shore (likely permanently left there and frequently used by rafting tours). The trail provides! This borrowed bucket worked super well for settling and scooping (and then ultimately filtering). This was our largest water challenge; we had some longer carries later in the trip but there were enough streams or puddles to take from. The other (more enjoyable) challenge of the night was spelling out “DCUL” with headlamps in a long exposure photo. We first attempted this individually (we will leave you to guess who was the best and worst at this) but ultimately took a group shot with each person spelling out one letter.

Day 2 followed the Colorado westward forcing us into some rock scrambles and gully descents. Day 2 began the trend we experienced most of the trip of recurring ups and downs or ins and outs the trail took in order to push westward around/through all the smaller side canyons that empty into the Colorado. We all enjoyed hiking in one such drainage that was a narrow high canyon. We camped earlier than planned down next to Hance Creek in order to avoid the exposure of Horseshoe Mesa due to an impending storm. The storm more than lived up to its billing with intermittent heavy rain and constant strong gusts from late Monday all the way until Tuesday around 11am. Hance Creek swelled a good deal from the rain but never threatened us along its banks. A guide we passed the next day confidently asserted most of the streams ran at over “350 CFS” overnight, which gave us a laugh at his confidence and a running joke for the rest of the trip. We played a game of musical chairs with our shelters through the night during the storm- trenches were dug to drain a flooding tarp, a mouse took shelter in Cassie’s tarp, Cassie eventually joined me in my trusty X-Mid, and later Karan and Kylie took shelter for the rest of the night in Cassie’s tarp due to issues with their TarpTent. When we emerged late the next morning, both the north and south rims were covered in snow.

On Day 3 (Wednesday) we got a late start due to the storm but eventually the winds and heavy rain gave way to brooding skies with only occasional passing light rain and we pushed and still got in lots of mileage, hiking into the late evening darkness. The cloudy skies shed a different light on the canyon which brought out new colors in the canyon walls and a moody atmosphere to the area that we all found striking.

Day 4 and 5 were lighter mileage days that embodied what we called “tonto” – ing … referring to the Tonto trail’s tendency to maintain overall elevation but cut far away from the Colorado and then back to it around the side canyons. We saw a big horn sheep (well, most of us- somehow I missed it while drying my groundsheet) and a couple of tarantulas.

Day 6 saw us begin with an early start to push out of the canyon (7k+ gain), to try to beat most of the heat and get to town in time for dinner at a highly-rated Indian restaurant we had spotted on the initial drive from Vegas to the Grand Canyon. We had camped the night before above a beach along the river and so our ascent began with an under the stars climb out of the canyon enshrouding Hermits Creek. We followed the cliff’s edge around several mesas/buttes often staring straight down at the Colorado below before ultimately joining the Boucher trail and tackling 3 major climbs. The Boucher trail was stunning and also had a challenging scramble up a rockslide area. We crested the South Rim at 1:30pm (started at 5:30) and began our sprint to the Indian restaurant (oddly named Hunger Square). Roughly 80 miles total with 23k ft of gain for the route.

We were met at the restaurant door by a sign saying they were closed (catering an event out of town). We were gutted by this discovery but found a good country homestyle restaurant across town before driving up into the foothills of Flagstaff to find some dispersed camping.

With a free day to spare before our flights out of Vegas Sunday, we decided to counterbalance our many desert canyon miles with an alpine attempt on Arizona’s state high point, Humphreys Peak (12,637’). The snowy and frozen trail (~9k starting elevation) began next to a ski resort and wound through stands of goldening Aspen and pine before eventually reaching the bald but mostly snowless saddle and summit. Humphreys is very prominent and afforded 360 degree views across the pine forest and desert and you could easily make out the north rim of the Grand Canyon. We enjoyed the views but the wind at the top and our continued resolve to visit Hunger Square forced us to begin a hurried yet cautious icy descent back to the trailhead. 10 miles with about 3600 ft of gain in all. A superb day hike.

Photo Credit: Cassie

At last we crossed the threshold of Hunger Square and were treated to not just a meal but a culinary experience. The two chefs and owners of the restaurant waited on us, sat down by us, and entertained us the entire meal, talking through the dishes and sharing the vision behind their craft and the history of their business. The food lived up to the hype, irrespective of hiker hunger bias, and is what Karan says is the most authentic Indian food he’s had in the United States. It’s no Michelin-rated property, but for an eatery in a very dated strip mall in the unassuming, kitchsy tourist-trap town of Williams, it stood out as a quality, genuine establishment.

The Grand Canyon certainly wowed us all with its scale and beauty and exceeded expectations. You could easily say, “I get it, I get it! It’s big and a lot of red rock” and feel no need to pay it an extended visit. However, hiking in the canyon means endless views with no green tunnel. And walking every single step from rim to river and back up lets you truly grasp its massive scale. The canyon holds countless scenic smaller canyons, towering mesas and buttes, and smaller rock formations (windows, columns and hoodoos, or voodoos as Karan called them) to take in. All the “red rock” is steadily changing hue and tint as the sun runs its daily course – sporting shades of red, yellow, orange, and purple. And of course, the stars and Milky Way were popping, and witnessing the moonrise over the canyon wall and light up the canyon walls was a nightly treat.

—— Miscellaneous notes ——

⁃ Peanut butter, Nutella, and banana chips on a tortilla is phenomenal and super calorie/fat efficient.
⁃ Chicken pizza ramen (Indian grocery store) was also a standout camp meal
⁃ Ginger chews are a great post meal refresher.
⁃ Remember to bring a water scoop for desert backpacking trips
⁃ 6L was our max water carry (might be able to get away with a little less)
⁃ Mid-October in the canyon provides Goldilocks temps.
⁃ La Casita in Williams was also great for a no-frills Mexican meal
⁃ Temps are drastically different between the river and rims.
⁃ Bring a sport cap or syringe to back-flush your filter

Photos Album:

-Greg (High Point)

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