• Brandon A. Kelone

Canyo-Thons and New Paths

Updated: Sep 8, 2018

I woke up yesterday feeling like I tend to feel after a thirty mile day below the rim—sore and eager. Truth be told I felt more of a throbbing in my head than in my legs since I finished yesterday camped in the national forest (my usual spot about five miles outside of Grand Canyon National Park) with a campfire and a few beers. I poured sweat yesterday, but having a water filter to be able to source from the Colorado River made the temperatures manageable. All in all, I think that yesterday was amongst the best days that I’ve had below the rim. No other hikers on trail, new routes that I’d never walked before, ideal weather with a couple of storm clouds rolling in during the afternoon, and an amazing sunset. That reminds—I have a lot of footage on my GoPro that I need to upload. I need another fifteen or twenty hours in my week. I’m finding it more and more of a struggle to hike like I want to hike, write as much as I want to write, work on building the website that I hope to have finished soon, and still earn an income in the midst of it all. Oh, and to even imagine that I could have a social life on top of it all is laughable. I’m doing what I can though. One step at a time brings me through life just as well as it brings me down the trail.

I slept in an extra half hour yesterday, which almost ended up costing me at the end of the day. But I needed the extra sleep. A thirty mile day below the rim, temperatures exceeding 105 degrees, and 5,000ft of elevation descent and gain is fairly manageable for me in my present condition. I’ve been practicing; my body is following along as it needs to do. But even so I’m not impervious to the accumulation of miles. I could have been up an hour earlier like I was the day before, but I knew that I wanted another big day and if I was going to keep moving I needed to get the extra sleep.

My plan for the day had been to just hit the main corridor and hike the South Kaibab Trail to the river and take the Bright Angel Trail out like I have countless times before, but something struck me yesterday morning and I found myself looking over maps. The Bourcher Trail was on the back of my mind, and considering how much fun I’d found on the Grandview and section of the Tonto that I hiked the day prior, I wanted to keep on with new territory. I’ve wanted to see the Boucher Trail for awhile now, so I settled on that. I’d hike the Hermit Trail to the Boucher Trailhead, follow Boucher to Boucher Creek, connect to the Tonto Trail, and take Hermit out from there. It would be around 23 miles or so—quite manageable after the day prior. Call it a “rest day.”

The Bourcher Trail didn’t disappoint. It took me an extra hour to get there after dilly-dally-ing around camp for a bit, stopping into McDonalds for coffee, and taking the shuttle to the Hermit Trailhead, putting me on trail at 7:30, but I figured that since the route would be shorter and that I wouldn’t even be reaching the Colorado River that it would still put me out of the park before sundown. Plenty of time to play, and enough time to take some pictures along the way.

I forget how beautiful that top section of the Hermit Trail is after so much time spent on the Bright Angel and Kaibab Trails. The Hermit is far more secluded in my experience; most hikers don’t step foot along its stretch, but the trail itself is absolutely stunning in its construction. It’s laid out like cobblestone streets up top. Whatever trail crew put their labor into those top miles deserves a medal of appreciation. Some of the stones even walk you through time as you look closely and see lythafied footprints of creatures that walked the earth hundreds of thousands of years before man ever lived here. It’s something that has to be experienced to be appreciated fully.

I had a rough idea of where the Boucher Trail led in comparison with the Hermit, but as I looked out towards the canyon walls, it was impossible for me to see the exact route. It’s not a path like the corridor presents—no mules are crossing the Boucher. Once it split off I knew that I’d be alone for the remainder of my miles. No one is below the rim this time of year. It’s just too hot. Even by nine o’clock it was exceeding ninety degrees. The heat didn’t particularly bother me, but I could tell that I was burning through a lot of fluids as sweat poured off my face and soaked through my clothes and through the padding of my pack. I started with three liters of water, but it became quickly apparent that I’d need replenishment. This meant that I’d either need to pray for water in Boucher Creek (a 1/2 mile detour with some 500 feet of elevation loss), Hermit Creek, or I’d ned to descend all the way to the Colorado River for replenishment.

I found it immediately gratifying to be exploring parts of the canyon that I’d yet to see, or more properly, paths that I’d never walked. I’d looked over to these cliff faces and shelves countless times from the Tonto and Hermit trails, but it’s so different to actually be on them. I also knew after the cutoff to Boucher that I’d almost certainly be alone for the remainder of the hike, like I’d been during my 30 miles the day prior; the Boucher Trail is already a rarely navigated route, but in temperatures that would be approaching 100 degrees later in the day, I was quite sure that I’d be the only one out there. This rang even more true once the sun broke over the canyon wall horizon and I started pouring sweat heavily enough that I started to worry about it soaking through my backpack, but fears of wet gear don’t hold as much weight in the hot months as they do during winter hikes or multi-day outings. Wet gear on this day wouldn’t mean life or death in the night. I didn’t have a sleeping bag with me, nor did I have any layers that I’d likely need to stay warm after dark since I anticipated being out of the canyon before sunset. My reason to believe this was that I’d hiked almost five miles more than I had planned on this loop in the day prior, and I’d descended all the way to the river. Today I wouldn’t be going as far in distance and I wouldn’t be dropping as deep into the canyon, so logic dictated that I’d be out probably around three or four o’clock.

Three miles into the Boucher Trail I found myself at Yuma Point. I’d looked at Yuma Point on the map last January when I was hiking the canyon and had read many descriptions of its views. The NPS materials that I’d looked over raved about the view, but said that frequent helicopters overhead made it a bit annoying to camp there overnight—both of these claims turned out to be true. I stopped at Yuma Point for about fifteen minutes to let my clothes dry in the sun after ringing the sweat out of them, and to have something approximating “lunch.” Yuma Point being right at the western edge of the canyon’s No-Fly Zone made air traffic quite heavy. I figured that maybe I’d hear a helicopter overhead every twenty minutes or so, but it turned out to be a constant stream of roars overhead. Literally every couple of minutes a new helicopter raced overhead either to or from the north rim of the park. That said, I still would like to get permits for Yuma Point at some time in the future. I think that it would be stelar views of the canyon under the stars and maybe under a 1/3 moon.

From Yuma Point the trail continues to follow a flat trajectory for about a mile before dropping deeply into the canyon and towards the Tonto Platform. I was actually surprised at how quickly the grade of the trail turns. It follows a fairly flat profile for nearly five miles, and then abruptly, and without warning, drops right into a wash and down some thousand feet or so. I don’t know what it would be like climbing this section of trail, but I was grateful to be descending rather than working my way up in this heat. A few times the path even disappears entirely and follows draws downward until reaching a new flat platform, follows that flat terrain for maybe a mile and a half, and then drops again after working its way around Whites Butte. From there I could see down into Boucher Canyon and Boucher Creek. At first the creek looked to be dry, but as I walked farther down, I could see a clear darkening in the earth that indicated moisture. At this point I still carried a liter and a half of water, but I knew that this wouldn’t get me through the day.

I had three choices: hike down to Boucher Creek and refill (.75 miles extra), hike down to the Colorado River from Hermit Creek (3 miles extra), or hope that Hermit Creek held water. If I’d just read my maps and looked over the information that I had in the park’s trail description I would have seen that both Hermit and Boucher Creek flow all year long, and I could have saved myself some time, but I was lazy and dropped into Boucher, figuring that it was better to have water now than hope that it’d be there later on.

At Boucher Creek I soaked my feet, drank as much water as I wanted, made note that I really need to invest in a new water filter, and then carried on back up to the Tonto Platform. The last time I had been on this section of trail had been in January while it was steadily raining during what was supposed to be a seven day excursion. I came very close to getting myself in trouble on that hike. I knew that a snow storm was coming in, but I failed to appreciate exactly how big the storm would be. I think everyone failed to realize it until the snow actually started to fall. By the time I reached the canyon rim that evening snow had already piled up to ten inches deep, and it continued to stack up from there. It ended up shutting down much of Northern Arizona, and I was lucky to have made it out as easily as I did. It was funny for me yesterday to look back on how cold I was on that day in the midst of temperatures that were already well into the mid 90s.

I enjoyed the Boucher Trail immensely, but it was also nice to be back on familiar miles. I like the portion of the Tonto Trail that stretches from Boucher Creek to the Hermit Trail. It’s easy to follow, and after climbing back up to the Tonto Platform, it’s almost completely flat—a luxury that is rare within Grand Canyon. That said, it’s also directly exposed to the sun, and if I’d not been so acclimated to the heat, I would have been suffering yesterday.

I was alone on the Tonto for about five miles before I ran into anyone, and when I did it rather startled me. I have learned over this past year that when temperatures are near 100 degrees the likelihood of encountering rattlesnakes is almost zero, and with that in mind, I was gleefully listening to music through earbuds when I almost ran right into a GCNP park ranger. I think that we were equally amazed to see someone else hiking this far down in the canyon during this time of year. The first thing she asked was, “Are you doing a massive day hike?”

I told her that I didn’t think of it as “massive,” but more moderately long. “Ultimately it’s a subjective question though.”

“Did you come down the Boucher Trail?” she asked, and I told her that I had. “Dude! That’s a massive hike!”

“It’s not as long as the miles that I covered yesterday,” I said, and proceeded to tell her that the day prior I’d covered 30.5 miles along the Grandview and eastern Tonto Trail.

“You did that yesterday?”

I did.”

From there we talked pleasantly as sweat steadily dripped down my forehead, down my face, and onto the hot, dry stone of the Tonto Platform. I rather enjoyed the company after a couple of days of solitude, but it was hard to be standing still in the sun like that. I know that it sounds strange, but in the heat I’ve always found it more comfortable to be moving forward and creating a slight breeze than to stand still. To me it’s literally easier to keep walking when temperatures are that high than to stand still and bake in the sun.

She told me that she’d been a ranger for GCNP for fourteen years and that when she was younger she used to hike what she called “Canyon-thons” with a close friend. She said that they were giant day hikes that were more than 26 miles. Since I was looking at around that distance, she said that what I was walking was indeed a “massive” hike and that she thought of it as a “Canyo-Thon” excursion.

I told her that I was flattered, and after our small talk tapered to a close, we continued on our way. She was headed out to Boucher Creek, although she didn’t say why. She was in uniform and gave the impression that whatever she was doing was for work, but at the same time there’s nobody down there, so I don’t know what kind of work she might have been needing to do other than just surveying the area for unpermited campers. I told her that I didn’t expect that she’d see anyone else during her two-day out-and-back, and she said that I probably wouldn’t see anyone either, and that was it. “May our paths cross again,” I said, as I always seem to do after I finish talking to a hiker on trail, and we went on our ways.

Three miles farther along the Tonto I ran across Hermit Creek, which I should have known would be flowing. The water of the creek wasn’t cold as I would have liked for it to be, but it was colder than the steadily warming air around me that was at least at 100 degrees by now. I looked at my watch, then up at the canyon rim, then down towards the Colorado where Hermit Creek flowed towards and made the decision to add a few miles to the day. I’d never walked down Hermit Canyon, but I’d heard good things, and those good things panned out immediately. Again I found myself elated to be exploring parts of the canyon that were as yet unknown to me.

Walking down Hermit Canyon was a bit like hiking a miniature version of the Zion Canyon Narrows. The canyon walls of Hermit Canyon were a stark juxtaposition to the open Tonto Trail, and it was refreshing to be off trail and hiking through ariver instead of along the flat terrain of the Tonto, although I still love the latter very much. The hike to the Colorado River from the Hermit Trail was 1.5 miles one way, and just before reaching the Colorado, I ran across seven big horn sheep. I can probably count on one hand how many times I’ve encountered bighorn sheep in the Grand Canyon, and this was the second day in a row that I’d found such fortune. To boot, one of them was of nearly a full curl. I watched them for about five minutes as they scurried away and up the rock walls that surround Hermit Creek, and I wished that I had a camera with a zoom strong enough to be able to take a better picture of them. Even still, it was nice to have the opportunity to see such majesty in such a beautiful place.

In all, I have to say that the detour up Hermit Creek was the highlight of my day, which is saying a lot considering how wonderful the loop ended up being.

I soaked my feet in the Colorado River for ten or fifteen minutes once I arrived. While I was there a commercial group of floaters passed through Hermit Rapids, and it was nothing short of a thrill to watch them work their way through the rushing white current before I started back up Hermit Canyon to Hermit Trail and then back up towards the rim. Even though I had a full liter and a half of water left at that point, I dumped it out and refilled from the creek since the bottles I was carrying were so hot from baking in the sun over the last several hours.

It was four o’clock by that point, and storms were beginning to form all around. Some rain sprinkled down, but nothing near what it would take for me to don rain gear at that point. I was grateful to be able to have some shade. I could have made it out under the sun, but the climb from the Hermit Trail to the rim would have been 8 brutal miles if I’d had to walk it in the sun. Even in the shade of some cloud coverage it was a bit of a struggle. I could fee the accumulation of miles building up in my legs and I wished that I’d brought more food. It wasn’t a dire situation by any means, but hunger was building as the day drew close to an end.

Through the entire length of the Hermit Trail it rained off and on, and rainbows formed out towards the east as the sun grew closer to the western horizon. I realized in the final hour of daylight that I’d miscalculated my timing and that by adding the detour to the Colorado River, I’d likely be watching the sunset from below the rim and that I’d be cutting it close to get out in time to take the shuttle back to my car. I remembered taking the shuttle into Hermit’s Rest in the morning and the bus driver’s announcement that the final shuttle would leave an hour after sunset. If I missed that shuttle, it’d be an additional 7 mile walk back to my car—nothing that I couldn’t do, but not something that I really wanted to do. By the time I reached that final mile of trail I was absolutely and completely exhausted. Walking another 7 miles along the paved rim would have sucked, but I was fortunate enough to catch the final bus just before it departed from the rim.

After some coconut water and a beer I drove out of the park, stopped at the store for ice and a sandwich, and went back to camp at the same location where I’d camped the two nights prior. I didn’t think I would have enough energy to hike the canyon again today, but I wanted to have the option there for me incase I somehow found the strength to do so.

I sat beside the fire last night again and thought about the miles. I’d walked 30.5 miles the day prior, and with the extra detours along the way, the Boucher/Tonto/Hermit hike ended up being 31 miles. Two river descents along the way. 108 degrees at the river both days. It was a feeling of accomplishment.

I slept soundly last night under the stars.

Life is a beautiful place.