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Trail Description : Tonto Trail

The Tonto Trail is the longest continuous stretch of trail in the Grand Canyon. It runs some 70 miles or more from its eastern terminus at Red Canyon and the Red Canyon/New Hance Trail to its western terminus at Elves Chasm near the Royal Arch Route. I personally think that it is one of the beautiful trails in the Canyon as the vistas presented along its route are some of the most impressive to be found anywhere in the Canyon. To date I have completed its entire length from Red Canyon in the east to Garnet Canyon in the west and it has taken many trips to accomplish this.

The Tonto Trail has a rich and varied history that changes depending on the section you are dealing with. Most of the trail began as an old route or footpath that was created and used by the various indigenous peoples that inhabited the Canyon at one time or another. When these peoples were occupying and farming the depths of the Canyon it was probably considered to be the original information superhighway for the area. The history of the individual sections depends on the other trails that intersect it. The sections around Horseshoe Mesa were used frequently by the miner's who were extracting copper ore from the mines within the mesa and much of the trail was reworked and altered as a result of the miner's burros. Many sections of the Tonto in fact have been modified due to the wanderings of feral burros and in some places this can make the trail difficult to follow.

Many sections of the Tonto Trail are used to form loop hikes from and to the rim in conjunction with other trails. Some of the most popular loop hikes are:

The rest of this document describes the trail by breaking it up into logical sections running between one or more trails coming down from the rim. You may click on the section below that you wish to view or simply scroll down through it all and travel the full length of the Tonto from east to west.

Red Canyon to Cottonwood Creek

Trip report, December, 1992 - day 3

The Tonto trail begins (or ends - depending on which way you're heading) at the west end of the beach that has formed at the mouth of Red Canyon. This section of the Tonto Trail is probably the worst that you will encounter in its 70-odd mile length. As the Tonto Platform begins to climb away from the river the trail must climb along with it. The trail is steep and rocky as it traverses along and through the Hakatai Shale that is so predominant in the vicinity of Red Canyon. The trail continues to be difficult, climbing sometimes over and sometimes around the numerous rockfalls along its path, until it finally reaches the east side of Mineral Canyon. As long as you keep an eye out for the cairns you should not, however, have any problem in following it.

Once the trail enters Mineral Canyon it follows the contours about a mile or so back into it before turning east and heading down to start across it. Beware of the numerous feral burros trails in the area as you head across Mineral Canyon and look for the cairns that mark the trail instead. You should also be wary of following footprints if they seem to go astray as you may just be repeating someone else's mistake. Many of the old burro trails head up and down the canyon instead of across it and if you start following one you may end up back at the river.

On the other side of Mineral Canyon the trail will again ascend through the Hakatai Shale and climb to a spot called Shady Overhang which is just below and slightly east of Ayer Point at the head of a small, nameless, side canyon between Mineral and Hance Canyons. This makes a good rest stop to relax for a while from the climb out of Mineral. The view from this spot, looking back into Mineral Canyon, is very nice.

Beyond Shady Overhang the trail briefly descends into and then out of this nameless side canyon before finally climbing to the top of the Tonto Platform directly beneath Ayer Point. Now comes that section that really tests your worth, the long tedious contour into, around, and out of Hance Canyon, which seems to take forever, or perhaps slightly longer. The trail that comes out of Hance Canyon on the other side is perhaps only a half mile away when you first start into Hance, but you have to walk about 4 miles to get there. And a very long 4 miles at that. The trail does follow the contours for the most part through this section, which is good, and it doesn't descend to Hance Creek and the floor of Hance Canyon until it reaches the very back end, which is about two miles away. Before getting there you have one side canyon within Hance that you need to also contour around. The views along the trail from within Hance Canyon are magnificent. The depth of the canyon itself is difficult to comprehend and this is only a side canyon of the Grand Canyon. The cottonwood trees at the bottom look like little shrubs and the creek, if there is water in it, appears to be just a hairline.

When you finally do get to the back end of Hance the trail drops through the Tapeats Sandstone as it prepares to cross the creek. There are some excellent camping sites in this area if you are planning a layover day. If you are not staying over then it's a great spot to have lunch.

WARNING : Following Hance Creek to the Colorado is not an easy task. You should bring a rope and you should not attempt it alone. There a number of high dry falls that you will need to climb down or work your way around via various bypasses. There are no bypasses for the final drop-offs and you have no choice but to climb down.

On the other side of Hance the trail breaks away to the northwest and heads for the east arm of the Grandview Trail that descends from Horseshoe Mesa. Beyond that the trail heads north, heads out of Hance Canyon, and around the east arm of Horseshoe Mesa. Along this section you can see numerous other trails descending in Hance Canyon which I can only guess are also the work of the burros.

The next section is one of my favorites along the Tonto. The view from the head of Hance Canyon on this side, and the Colorado River flowing from the east, is magnificent. The sheer red walls of Horseshoe Mesa are also quite impressive. Within a ½ mile or so after passing front side of the east arm of Horseshoe Mesa you will come to the junction with the Cave of the Domes trail. This trail heads up the inside of the west arm of the mesa and links up with the Grandview Trail on top. Continuing on to the west the trail will begin to veer off to the south as it contours just below the west arm of Horseshoe Mesa and down into Cottonwood Creek.

Cottonwood Creek is a wonderful place to camp. The two times that I have been there, November 1992 and November 1993, I was completely alone and had the whole place to myself. Cottonwood Creek does not run year round and cannot be relied on for water. It was, however, flowing very nicely both times I have camped there. I had the additional benefit, in November of 1993, of being able to watch a total eclipse of the Moon from this spot and it was TOTAL-ly awesome.

Cottonwood Creek to South Kaibab

View trail map (Cottonwood Creek to Lonetree Canyon)
View trail map (Lonetree Canyon to South Kaibab)

Trip report, November/December, 1993 - day 2

The stretch of the Tonto between Cottonwood Creek and the junction with the South Kaibab trail is a long and lonely one. If you plan on doing this trek you should allow at least two days to do it. It really only takes about a day and a half at a good pace but trying to do it all in one day is pushing it and you won't get a chance to take in its beauty. It is 18 miles from from Cottonwood Creek to the South Kaibab Trail and the only perennial water south along the entire is in Grapevine Canyon. If there happens to be water in Cottonwood Creek you would be advised to load up there because the one time I was through Grapevine there was water there but it was just a trickle. Care should also be taken not to start following one of the many feral burro trails along this section instead of the main trail. I didn't notice this to be as much of a problem as in the area around Hance Creek and Horseshoe Mesa so maybe it's not a big deal. The burros have been gone from the Canyon for quite some years now and the trails that they have left behind will eventually fade and disappear.

When you are ready to leave Cottonwood Creek you may have to do some scouting around to figure out where the section of the Tonto Trail that continues westward is located. It is not that straightforward as the upper portions of Cottonwood Creek have quite a bit of vegetation which tend to obscure the trail. If you are staying in Cottonwood overnight you might want to locate the trail out the day before as I did. You should basically just work you way back up through the canyon and look for a trail that rises out on the west side. There are numerous trails through the area and you may just happen to run across the correct one. If not you should eventually spot it as you get higher up and then you can work your way back to it.

The first leg of the along this section is the 3½ miles to the head of Grapevine Canyon. This section is longer than it looks because you have to detour around a fairly large and nameless side canyon joins with Cottonwood Creek on the western side. This section of the trail was beautiful in the early morning hours when I was on it back in November of 1993. If you thought that Hance Canyon was big then just wait until you see Grapevine. Grapevine Canyon is the longest side canyon to cut across the Tonto Platform and Grapevine Creek is the only perennial water source along this stretch of the trail. It's a good 6 miles around Grapevine and you should probably allow at least 2-3 hours to complete it. You will be quite weary when you finally get back out again which is one reason why you should not attempt to go all the way to the South Kaibab Trail in one day. Chances are when you get out of Grapevine you'll be wanted to look for a place to make camp. One of the biggest problems with Grapevine is that it seems to take forever to get to the back side of it. The trail is constantly going into and out of side drainages along the way though there is not much change in elevation until you finally do get to the back. Even when you do get to the back the canyon there is forked and it takes a while before the trail starts heading back out again. Be careful in following the cairns when the trail finally cuts across Grapevine as this is not an easy stretch to follow.

After crossing Grapevine Creek the trail ascends again slightly and then heads into Grapevine's western fork. Beyond this the trail starts to head out of the canyon and again takes you through a number of side drainages along the way. If you are looking for an adventure there is supposedly a shortcut when you start to come out to the northern end of Grapevine. This shortcut will take you up and over the saddle between Lyell Butte and the nameless butte to its northeast (4396 on the topo) and back down into Burro Creek. I did not try it and others do not recommend it. I doubt that it really saves you that much time and it just adds some additional climbing that you would not have to do otherwise. If you don't know what you're doing you're just going to destroy the landscape by adding footprints where none should be. But if you are looking for adventure and are pretty good at route finding...

When you finally do get back out to the head of Grapevine you should be ready for a rest. The view of Grapevine Rapids, from the rim of the Tonto Platform, when you finally do get here is splendid. If you take the shortcut you will miss it. The next section of the trail will take you along the front side of Lyell Butte and across Burro and then Boulder Springs. Both of these had trickles of water running down them when I was there but they cannot be relied upon as water sources. You can check with the Backcountry Office before starting your trip to see if there is water in these but even their response does not guarantee you'll find it. When I did the trip in November, 1993 they told me there would be no water at all along this route but in actuality Cottonwood Creek was flowing like crazy and all of the other seasonal water sources did have trickles of water flowing through them. DO NOT RELY ON THIS and always make sure you are carrying enough water with you for the whole stretch. If you happen to find some water along the way then great, you've got some extra.

From Boulder Creek to Lonetree Canyon is about 3 miles. There is nothing particularly tricky about this stretch and you should not have any difficulty in following it. If you left Cottonwood in the morning then it's probably time to start looking for a place to camp. I wanted to camp in the back of Lonetree Canyon when I did this trip but I simply ran out of time and ended up camping a mile or so away on the eastern side on the canyon.

From Lonetree Canyon to the eastern end of Cremation Canyon is another 3 miles or so. If you camped overnight in Lonetree then this makes for a very pleasant early morning jaunt. When you finally do reach Cremation Canyon crossing all of the drainages in it will take a good deal of time. The trail here does not tend to go around the drainages but rather through them. If you are doing this early in the morning and are well rested it should not be a problem. If you happen to come across this stretch late in the day it will tax your spirits. If you hit it midday during the hot season you will be baked alive. There are, however, some very nice camping spots along this section of trail. If you wanted to take 3 days to do this section of trail and have enough water to do so, you could camp the first night in Boulder and the second in Cremation. The views of Zoroaster Temple on the other side of the Inner Gorge are magnificent when viewed from the Cremation area. There are three drainages that need to be crossed in Cremation Canyon. The first one will bring you down into Tapeats Sandstone before climbing back out to the Tonto and the remaining two will bring you down into the Hakatai Shale before coming back out. Amazingly, it is less than a mile across this section of the Tonto, but it feels longer. Cremation Canyon was a sort of burial ground for the prehistoric peoples who inhabited the area. They would cremate the dead on the rim of the Canyon just above and then scatter the ashes over the edge.

When you finally climb out of the western arm of Cremation Canyon it is still more then 1½ miles to the junction with the South Kaibab Trail. The trail first contours north for a while and is quite misleading because you can see the South Kaibab Trail and you are not heading for it. After a ½ mile or so the trail finally turns back towards the west and starts to climb upward to join with the South Kaibab Trail, 500 feet or so above and less than a mile away.

South Kaibab to Indian Gardens

The section of the Tonto Trail between the Tipoff (the junction with the South Kaibab Trail) and Indian Gardens (the junction with the Bright Angel Trail) is probably the most heavily travelled section of the Tonto. The primary reason for this is because it is part of the South Kaibab/Tonto/Bright Angel loop hike, which is becoming increasingly popular.

This section of the trail is only slightly more than 4 miles long and because it is so heavily travelled does not require any special route finding abilities at any point along its way. If you are interested in hiking the Tonto just to get a feel for it, then this section is a good place to start. The South Kaibab/Tonto/Bright Angel loop hike is about 13 miles total and if you are in good shape makes for a long but very nice day hike.

From the junction with the South Kaibab Trail the Tonto Trail heads southwest and after about a ½ mile or so crosses through a small, nameless drainage. From there the trail swings northwestward briefly and then south as it contours around the base of O'Neil Butte. After about another mile or so you will come to Burro Spring one of the two perennial water sources along this section, and another ¼ mile or so beyond that you will come to Pipe Spring, the other perennial water source. Pipe Spring is approximately the halfway point between the South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails. There is quite a bit of vegetation growing along the section of Pipe Spring where the trail crosses it and this is probably the only place where you stand a chance of loosing the trail, if that is possible.

Beyond Pipe Spring the trail swings northwest again and in another ½ mile or so crosses another nameless drainage. Beyond that it continues northwest for approximately a ¼ mile and then swings more westward as it approaches Indian Gardens and the junction with the Bright Angel Trail. This last section has a very wide open feel about it. It is a little more than a mile long and will swing south again just as you approach Indian Gardens.

If you are planning to do the South Kaibab/Tonto/Bright Angel loop hike, you should do it in that order, coming down the South Kaibab Trail, across the Tonto to Indian Gardens and then ascending via the Bright Angel Trail. The South Kaibab Trail is hot and dusty in the afternoon and there is no water and no shade along the way, so it is better off used as the descent. The Bright Angel Trail, on the other hand, has plenty of water and plenty of shade, and if you take a good rest at Indian Gardens before beginning the climb out you should not have any problems. Water is available year round at Indian Gardens and water is also available at the 3 mile and ½ mile resthouses during the the Spring, Summer and Fall months. The water in these resthouses is turned off during the winter because of freezing temperatures.

The Fred Harvey Company offers a shuttle service to the South Kaibab trailhead from the Bright Angel Lodge every morning for a nominal fee ($1 or $2 per person). If you are interested in this service you should contact the Bright Angel transportation desk in the Bright Angel Lodge for actual charges and times of departure.

Indian Gardens to Hermit Camp

The section of the Tonto Trail between Indian Gardens (the junction with the Bright Angel Trail) and Hermit Camp is probably the second most frequently travelled section of the Tonto, the first being the prior section. This section of Tonto is used to form another popular loop hike, that being the Hermit/Tonto/Bright Angel loop. Most people doing this trek will come down the Hermit Trail and go up the Bright Angel Trail primarily because there is always water available at Indian Gardens whereas there is none near the Hermit/Tonto trail junction unless you want to go all the way to Hermit Creek and then back.

This section of the Tonto Trail is about 12 miles long and is almost as easy to follow as the section between the South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails. The only difference here being that some of the drainages that this section of the trail crosses, are deeper and wider than any encountered in the prior section.

The Tonto Trail continues west just north of Indian Gardens by branching off to the left of the trail going out to Plateau Point. It climbs somewhat as it slowly curves away from the Plateau Point Trail and beings to head off in a more westerly direction. This section of the trail provides some very nice views of Cheops Pyramid over on the other side of the river. In about 2.5 miles you come to Horn Creek, the first of three major drainages crossed by this section of the Tonto. There is nothing particularly tricky about following the trail through the drainages. Just keep an eye out for the cairns marking the route out on the other side as you descend into them. Horn Creek splits into two drainages in its back end, hence the name, and you must descend and climb out of each - no major climbing involved. The Sierra Club Totebook Hiking the Grand Canyon claims that seasonal water is available in Horn Creek. I was advised by someone once before not to take water out of this creek even if it is present because it could be contaminated by the old uranium mine which is located just above it on the rim.

Beyond Horn Creek you've got another 4¾ miles to Salt Creek which also has seasonal water. The stretch of trail between Horn and Salt Creeks is very nice and the views of Isis Temple on the other side of the inner gorge are awesome. There are some awesome views down-river as you approach Salt Creek. Here is a wide-angle shot of the Tonto Platform and the inner gorge and another which is just a close-up of the inner gorge. Once past this viewpoint the trail turns south and begins to head back along Salt Creek until it finally reaches a point where you cross to the other side. I remember the climb into and out of this being a bit more rugged than Horn Creek but still nothing major. I didn't spot the cairn marking the ascent out and headed down the creek bed instead. After a minute or so I doubled back and located the right path out. The west side of the Salt Creek drainage is considerably steeper than the east side and is very impressive.

From Salt Creek to Monument Creek is about 3½ miles and about midway along this is the Cedar Spring campsite. Monument Creek has perennial water. This section of the trail provides some of the best scenery along the route. The Tower of Set and Horus Temple dominate the view on the other side of the river and from the northernmost point of the trail, after leaving Salt Creek, but before reaching Cedar Spring, you get a very nice view of the Granite Rapids, the head of the Monument Creek drainage and Hermit Rapids further on down the river. If you are heading down Monument Creek to Granite Rapids than that will probably be the most challenging part of your hike which still isn't saying much. It's a climb but that's about all - nothing tricky. Following the creek the 1½ miles from the junction with the Tonto Trail to Granite Rapids is pretty easy and Granite Rapids is a very nice place to camp.

Continuing west the Tonto Trail contours above the Monument Creek drainage and Cope Butte to its west detouring around a couple of minor side drainages along the way. This stretch is only about 1¼ miles and is over shortly after you pass the north face of Cope Butte. The trail climbs up over a little saddle on the west side of Cope Butte and reaches the junction with the Hermit Trail on the other side.

Hermit Camp to Boucher Creek

The section of the Tonto Trail between Hermit Camp and Boucher Creek is another extremely popular and well travelled section of the Tonto. It is probably not used as frequently as the prior two sections, those being the sections between Indian Gardens and Hermit Camp and between The Tipoff on the South Kaibab Trail and Indian Gardens, but it must surely come in as a close third. The reason for this is because this section of the Tonto is used to form another popular loop hike, that being the Hermit/Tonto/Boucher loop. Most people doing this loop hike will come down the Boucher Trail and go up the Hermit Trail because that is what other guides that I have seen recommend. I have only done this loop once myself, the other way around, and after coming up the Boucher I would never want to wish going down it on anyone. For more info on this check out the trail description for the Boucher Trail itself.

This section of the Tonto Trail is about 6.5 miles long and is pretty easy to follow for most of that distance. It is not as heavily travelled as some of the sections further to the east so there may be places where you might need some route finding ability to pick out the trail as it crosses a side drainage, particularly after a summer rain storm. The trail is fairly well cairned in these places so assuming you keep your eyes open for these you should not have a problem.

Finding the exit out of Hermit Camp that is the continuation of the Tonto Trail heading west can be a little tricky. After some scouting around you should find it further back up in the Hermit Creek drainage from the camping area. Once up out of Hermit Creek the trail levels out as it meanders back and forth across the Tonto Platform. The traverse around the nameless side canyon below Columbus Point takes longer than you would expect by looking at it on the map. It took my wife and I about an hour to traverse. Once this is behind you there is about 4.5 miles remaining to Boucher Creek.

A fairly straight and level section will then bring you out to some cliffs overlooking the river. The view from out there is spectacular and if you're early and lucky you might get to see a raft or two run Hermit Rapids. After a very short stay at the river the trail curves back and heads up into Travertine Canyon on the east side of Whites Butte. After another mile or so you will reach the point where the trail descends into Travertine and crosses to the other side. There are some nice spots in the back of Travertine Canyon that are perfect for camping or just a short break. Once you descend into and cross Travertine Canyon you are about 4 miles from Hermit Camp and 2.5 miles from Boucher Creek. The descent through Travertine Canyon should not present any complications. Once out on the other side of Travertine another mile more will see you back out at the river.

The traverse along this next section of the Tonto has its scary moments when the trail gets a little narrow and there is a wall on one side going almost straight up and a fairly steep slope on the other side going down. The view of the river makes it worth it. Shortly after you pass in front of the northern tip of Whites Butte the trail begins to make a long U-turn that will take you up into the east arm of Boucher. The trail just seems to take forever to do this and it will take a lot longer than you would think it should. Finally the Tonto will link up with the Boucher Trail coming down from southeast and the two trails join up for a short distance as they both descend along Boucher Creek. After ¾ mile or so you will come to a very large cairn marking the spot where the Boucher Trail splits off again and heads north and east down Boucher Creek towards the Colorado River, and the Tonto begins its climb up and out of Boucher Creek to continue its westward meanderings.

Boucher Creek to South Bass Trail

This section of the Tonto Trail is described by some as being a no-mans land. I personally have not yet completed this section of the Tonto so I cannot myself attest to its difficulty or lack thereof. It's 30 miles, more or less, from Boucher Creek to the junction with the South Bass Trail which means that you are probably not going to do it in a day and will hopefully take at least 2 and preferably 3 or more.

This section of the Tonto, in combination with the section beyond it that leads to the Elves Chasm, are probably the ones that are used the least on the entire route. The reason for this is because of their remote nature. It starts at Boucher Creek which is inaccessible enough but where it ends is literally the middle of nowhere. The South Bass Trail is not an easy spot to get into or out of unless you want to walk out there to start your trip or walk back after completing it. There is a dirt "road" going out there but I would not take my car on it or a car from a rental car company that I ever wished to do business with again. This so called road should only be driven on with a 4WD utility vehicle or pickup or something else with a great deal of clearance between the wheels. This should also not be a vehicle of any particular value to yourself as theft of vehicle parts has been reported as a common occurrence at the South Bass trailhead. If you do insist on driving\ this road you should be prepared for an extended stay as it is commonly unpassable during winter snows, spring thaws and summer rains. The Park Service at one time maintained a ranger station at Pasture Wash, about 4-5 miles south of the South Bass trailhead, which is the purpose of the road. The ranger station has now been abandoned, however, and the road will soon be reclaimed by nature.

Another option is to hike out to the South Bass Trail along the Tonto and then turn around and come back the same way. Any way you look at it it is going to be a long trip.

Another thing that you should be aware of is that if you get into trouble on this stretch of the Tonto you are pretty much on your own as your chances of encountering someone else are slim. If anything does go wrong you should have a signal mirror with you and know how to use it. If that doesn't work then you will have to split up your party and send someone for help. During the river running season you may be able to obtain help from a river party by descending a side canyon such as Slate, Ruby or Serpentine to the Colorado River. Be careful when descending side canyons and do not go down something that you are not absolutely sure you can get back up.

Once all of the logistical problems involved with hiking this section of the Tonto are solved you should be in for a fabulous trip. Because this section is not often travelled you should have no problem in finding solitude if that is what you are seeking. This is one of those Canyon trails which while hiking will make you feel like you are a part of the Canyon.

To start this section of trail you should head west from the cairn that marks the western Tonto/Boucher junction, where the Boucher Trail continues down into Boucher Creek and the Tonto Trail climbs out. You will have to climb up out along the western side of Topaz Canyon for about a quarter to a half mile until it finally reaches the top of the Tonto Platform again. From there the trail contours around the base of Marsh Butte for about 5 miles to the head of Slate Canyon, the next major drainage to the west. The eastern side of Slate Canyon looks like it has a number of larger side canyons that you will need to negotiate. I have seen some topos that show a trail going down Slate Canyon to the Colorado River... most don't and I have never heard of anyone trying it. Slate Canyon is a perennial water source.

From the head of Slate Canyon to the head of Agate Canyon is another 4.5 miles. The trail reportedly stays a little low, below the Tonto Platform, when it climbs out of Agate Canyon on the west side. It does eventually climb back up onto the Tonto Platform before descending into the next major drainage, Sapphire Canyon, which is just over 2 miles from Agate. From Sapphire Canyon to Turquoise Canyon is another 2.75 miles and the trail stays atop the Tonto Platform for the whole distance. Turquoise Canyon is also a perennial water source. The hike from Boucher Creek to Turquoise Canyon is slightly under 15 miles and makes for a good camp location if you are coming from Boucher Creek.

From the head of Turquoise Canyon to the head of Jasper Canyon is slightly under 2½ miles. Jasper Canyon is not marked on my topo but is the next major drainage west of Turquoise. The next drainage beyond that which is also not marked is Jade Canyon and that is slightly under ¾ mile further. Have you noticed a theme for the naming of the side canyons in this area yet? From Jade Canyon to Ruby Canyon is slightly more than 2.5 miles. Ruby Canyon marks the first seasonal water source west of Boucher Creek.

From Ruby Canyon to Quartz Canyon is another 1.5 miles. Again not listed as such on all topos but the next major drainage to the west of Ruby. From Quartz Canyon to Emerald Canyon just under 2 more miles. Emerald Canyon is not listed either but is the first major drainage east of Serpentine, which is just under 1.5 miles further distant.

From Serpentine Canyon to Bass Canyon is just under 4 miles. If you camped at Turquoise Canyon the night before then the hike from there to the junction with the South Bass Trail would again be just under 15 miles. If you wanted to take three days to do the hike and can arrange to carry enough water to do so then you might want to consider spending the first night in either Agate or Sapphire Canyons and the second night in Jade or Ruby Canyons.

from to miles kilometers
Boucher CreekSlate Canyon5.008.00
Slate CanyonAgate Canyon4.507.20
Agate CanyonSapphire Canyon2.003.20
Sapphire CanyonTurquoise Canyon2.754.40
Turquoise CanyonJasper Canyon2.504.00
Jasper CanyonJade Canyon0.751.20
Jade CanyonRuby Canyon2.504.00
Ruby CanyonQuartz Canyon1.502.40
Quartz CanyonEmerald Canyon2.003.20
Emerald CanyonSerpentine Canyon1.502.40
Serpentine CanyonBass Canyon4.006.40

South Bass Trail to Elves Chasm

The Tonto Platform technically ends at Garnet Canyon, a couple of miles up-river from Elves Chasm, and so does the Tonto Trail. The trail that continues on to Elves Chasm is actually part of the Royal Arch Route and is simply included here for continuity as most people who hike the Tonto to Garnet will probably be continuing on to Elves.

Bass Canyon to Garnet Canyon

The eastern end of this section of the Tonto begins at its southern junction with the South Bass Trail in Bass Canyon. There is also a spur trail, further to the north in Bass Canyon that connects the South Bass Trail to this section of the Tonto, joining it just northeast of Tyndall Dome. The climb out of Bass Canyon at the southern junction is very easy and well marked. The climb out of Bass Canyon along the northern spur trail is steep, rocky and in places, slippery. Some people have claimed to have had problems even finding the spur trail but I did not have this problem when I did it in late April, 1998. There is not a huge cairn marking the climb but there are cairns. The key is finding the huge block of the Tapeats formation that has separated from the rest. The trail that climbs out of Bass Canyon heads up towards just northeast of this and then cuts back to pass just beneath it. This block provides some good shade for a rest stop. Beyond the block the spur trail climbs much more gradually until it joins up with the main Tonto Trail. The distance from the floor of Bass Canyon to the Tonto junction along the spur trail is about a half mile long, maybe a little more. The section of the Tonto that comes out of the southern end of Bass Canyon and joins with this spur trail is slightly more than a mile long and easy to follow.

Beyond the junction with the spur trail the Tonto Trail begins to head almost due west towards Copper Canyon. The first mile or so of this trail is pretty easy to follow and then the trail starts to become considerably less distinct. The problems start near the unnamed drainage that comes down from Wallace Butte, about midway between Bass and Copper Canyons, and I suspect that there is more than one route through this section. There are some good places to camp just east of this drainage and some nice overhanging ledges that provide some good shade along its eastern edge. The key to getting through this section is to watch for the cairns and to keep your mind on following the trail. If you want to look around, stop and look around, and then make sure you are headed in the right direction before starting again. If you like to look around while you are walking you will loose the trail in here very easily.

On the western side of the drainage the trail becomes a little easier to follow as it contours around an arm that extends out from Wallace Butte. On the other side of this arm the trail begins its circuit around and through Copper Canyon. The distance from the Bass spur to this point is about 2 miles. The distance through and around Copper Canyon to the north side of Fiske Butte is a probably a little less than a mile, but it will feel like more. Copper Canyon is fairly large and takes a fair amount of time, about 1.5 hours, to negotiate. The trail through Copper Canyon is fairly well marked but, again, I believe that there is more than one route through it. On my way west along this section of trail I encountered some hikers headed east that were about 100 feet above and to the south of me. I knew that I was on the trail and they insisted that they were as well.

Once on the west side of Copper the trail begins a long contour around Fiske Butte on its way towards the large unnamed drainage below Spencer Terrace and above Walthenberg Rapids. This section of trail is well marked, easy to follow and just under a mile before you start into the drainage. There are some very scenic views up canyon, down canyon and of the river below from this section of the trail. There is a very nice view of Hakatai Rapids from almost directly above it.

The trail through and around the large drainage west of Fiske Butte starts off easy enough but gets progressively worse the further west you get. The descent into the east side of the drainage is not that bad but after you cross over to the west side the trail becomes rocky and there is some good exposure in a couple of places. This is a very deep and rather impressive drainage and I don't understand how features like this go by for so long without being named. People with a fear of heights may experience some problems on the west side of the drainage as the trail gets pretty close to the edge and is not in great shape. Coming out of the drainage on the west side you immediate start around another smaller one. As you head out of the second drainage and back onto the Tonto Platform the trail improves. It is about another mile and a half around these two drainages and this should take about 1.5 hours. Shortly after you exit the second drainage you come out to a point above the river with a very nice view of Walthenberg Rapids. There is also a large boulder there that offers some relief from the sun and makes a good rest stop.

Shortly after you reach the Tonto Platform the trail begins to turn southward for the final run to Garnet Canyon. There is one more major side canyon left to negotiate and the trail through this, like the first one, starts off easy on the east side and gets worse on the west side (these are technically the north and south sides at this point). After you exit this drainage the trail makes pretty much a straight run south towards Garnet, passing through three more very small drainages. This section of trail, from the viewpoint above Walthenberg to the descent into Garnet is about 2.5 miles.

The descent to the floor of Garnet Canyon is a little tricky and again there appear to be multiple routes. The basic idea is to descend using the west side of the first major side drainage that you encounter once you enter Garnet. There are cairns marking these routes and I found it more confusing going down than coming up, though coming up I remember having to climb more using both hands, and in some places my hiking stick to push myself up. The trail comes down into Garnet near the little promontory of rock that marks the junction of this drainage and the main drainage of Garnet. There are a couple of good campsites just up canyon, and on the north side, from where the trail finally reaches the floor. On a walk further back into Garnet there appeared to be more campsites further back.

Garnet Canyon to Elves Chasm

The trail to Elves Chasm starts out of Garnet just a little west of where the Tonto Trail reached the floor. It is down past a couple of small drop-offs, around a small bend and climbs out on the south side. There is (was) a huge boulder there (8+ feet high) with a cairn on top to mark the start of the trail. The trail is cairned but it is not that easy to find the start of it if you miss this marker. The trail climbs easily out of Garnet Canyon, passes a nice lookout with a good view down into the canyon near where it drops into the river, and then begins to head south. This first section of trail is pretty easy to follow. There are not many cairns but the trail is pretty well worn and they are not needed to follow it. Once the trail starts south above the river it gets progressively worse. There are cairns but you need to look for them as the trail is pretty well overgrown in places and this growth tends to conceal the cairns from a distance.

The trail passes through and around a couple of good-sized drainages but nothing like the prior section of the Tonto. Each of these takes only about 5-10 minutes to get to the other side. The descent into one of them (heading towards Elves Chasm) was pretty steep and hairy but on the way back I discovered another route, further towards the backside of the drainage, that made the climb out much easier. There are a couple of places along this route where there is more than one way to go and you pretty much have to choose what looks best to you. About a mile south of Garnet there is a very nice spot near the bend in the river where you can see all the way up river to Garnet and all the way down river to Elves Chasm.

The biggest hazard with the next section of trail is all of the man-eating limestone along more than half its route. This stuff is sharp and like rock with shark's teeth. It is highly recommended that you bring gloves with you just to protect you hands along this section of the trail. Given all of the brush along the trail and the fact that you also have to climb over some of this man-eating rock, long pants are also recommended.

There is one spot closer to Elves Chasm (about a mile east) where the trail descends to a small beach at the end of a drainage and the trail out the other side is not very obvious. The only trail that I could find climbed rather steeply out of the drainage and appeared to be going higher than it should. I became concerned that I was on the wrong trail and thought that maybe I was on the Royal Arch Route heading towards the rappel, even though I was pretty sure I had already passed that point. After descending back into the drainage and looking for an alternate route I finally gave up and followed the trail and it did continue down river.

Even closer to Elves Chasm there is one section of trail that requires you to pass around a huge outcropping of rock with only a very small ledge beneath you to support your feet. You cannot simply walk here and must turn and face the rock a look for something to hold on to. It's only a few steps to the other side but persons with a fear of heights would probably not be able to do this. I didn't see anything obvious but there may be another route that somehow goes over and around this outcropping.

The total length of the trail from Garnet Canyon to Elves Chasm is about three miles even though the river miles along this section number only a little more than two. It will probably take about 3 hours, one-way to, do this. Once you get to Elves Chasm all of the hassles with the trail will seem worth it.

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