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Trip Report - April, 1996 - Hermit - Bright Angel Loop

April, 1996
Hermit - Bright Angel Loop
Patricia, Carol and Candace


In early April 1996, I backpacked this loop with my two girlfriends Carol and Candace. Candace worked for the Park Service at Grand Canyon and had day-hiked frequently in the Canyon but had done little backpacking there. Carol had kayaked through the Canyon but had never hiked or backpacked in it, except for side canyon hikes from river level. I had also floated the river several times and done much side canyon hiking from the river. The only Canyon backpacking I'd done at that point was the Tanner Trail the year before with my husband. We knew that the Hermit-B.A. loop was one of the most popular hikes in the Canyon and expected beautiful scenery but lots of other hikers. Except for the first day on the Hermit and the last day on the B.A., the latter expectation proved wrong, happily for us.

This loop can be done in a few days but I'd gotten a permit for a week-long trip. We were all stressed: Carol's twin sister was dying of cancer at the age of 36, my father was in a prolonged and stressful health decline, and Candace had recently had a tragic death in her family. I wanted this to be a leisurely trip with plenty of layover time for absorbing the serenity of the Canyon.

DAY 1. Hermit's Rest to Hermit Camp.

Candace was still cranking at work this a.m., even though she was officially on vacation time (note to anyone who thinks government workers are lazy or "feeding at the public trough": most Park Service employees I know routinely work abundant unpaid overtime). Consequently, we got a late start, about 11 a.m. The weather was sunny but pleasantly mild, and we were only going to Hermit Camp, not all the way to the river, so we weren't too concerned.

The trail from Hermit's Rest to Hermit Basin has spectacular views out into the Canyon. You don't have to get very far below the rim before the sounds of the rim disappear and are replaced by the huge silence of the Canyon: the only sounds are the wind soughing up the side canyons and tiny bird twitterings. Near the base of the Toroweap formation we heard the first canyon wren song of the trip, like a welcome-back greeting. Unfortunately, the Hermit Trail is under one of the major flight paths for scenic flights, so it wasn't too long before the drone of airplanes intruded. Luckily, this day the flights were not too frequent, maybe because it was early in the season.

In the Coconino Sandstone we saw fossil tracks in large slabs alongside the trail. Below the Coconino we dropped into relatively flat Hermit Basin, a friendly-feeling place supporting a beautiful pinyon-juniper woodland. Recently I spent a wonderful, lazy afternoon there on my way back from Dripping Spring, just watching lizards and birds while stretched out in the shade of a juniper. It would be a great destination for new Canyon day-hikers who don't want to do a long or rigorous hike their first time.

Where the trail drops out of the basin there are some shady areas with redbud trees, which were in gorgeous full bloom. We took a break in the shady shelter at Santa Maria Spring. The trail beyond the spring contours through and gradually descends the massive, ledgey, red Supai formation. Even though the trail feels nearly level through this 3-mile stretch, I found it very tiring because we had to negotiate so many scrambly washouts. None of them were difficult, but the cumulative effect took a toll on me.

By the time we got below the Supai and began descending the Redwall via the Cathedral Stairs, I had major sewing-machine knee in both legs. Due to an old knee injury, steep descents have always been much harder for me than steep ascents, and I had compounded the problem by not eating enough: my blood sugar was crashing. Carol loaned me her walking stick and stuck with me as I wobbled the rest of the way to Hermit Camp, while Candace went ahead to set up camp. Carol and I pulled into camp at dusk. I was pretty embarrassed; as the organizer and therefore titular trip leader, I felt like I should be on top of everything, instead of having to be nursed by my companions. For some of us, it's harder to admit we need help and accept it than it is to render assistance to others in need. I'm still learning, but I'm mighty glad Carol and Candace were there that day.

Because of our late arrival we didn't have much choice of campsite and ended up in Rodent Central. I'm fairly tolerant of mice, hantavirus notwithstanding, but it's unnerving having the little buggers running across your feet while you're fixing dinner. I was VERY glad we had a tent! I don't always use one in the Canyon, but it had snowed and been very cold just before we started our trip, so we had decided to bring one just in case.


Ah, layover days! Another sunny, mild, mostly windless day-- couldn't ask for better spring weather. A deliciously lazy morning, including a swim at the pool below camp. I heard this pool has since washed out during a flash flood. About mid-day we headed down Hermit Creek. When we reached the river, we saw evidence of high flows from the experimental controlled flood conducted that spring by Bureau of Reclamation: the tamarisk, willows and arrowweed had obviously been submerged not long ago. Plants were all bent in the downstream direction and the branches were plastered with algae, driftwood, and man-made garbage. Hermit Rapids was HUGE; all three of us had floated the river before and we'd never seen Hermit that big. I knew they'd done the controlled flood the previous month but thought it would be over with by now. Apparently BuRec ramped up the flow quickly at the beginning of the flood, held it there for awhile and then ramped it down very gradually, a hydrograph that mimics that of natural floods. We were there for the tail end of the high water. We snoozed among the streamside boulders in the shade of some tamarisk and hoped a river trip would come through so we could watch their big ride, but no such luck.

We returned to camp to find that the 8-ft-high pack bar poses little impediment to Hermit's acrobatic squirrels. A pillaged food sack was on the ground, its nylon cord chewed through. (Now I use wire.) Luckily, only a little food was missing or ruined.

Another Hermit evening with mice running over our feet. Carol used one of her water bottles to measure water for the chocolate pudding, but it was a 3/4-liter bottle, not 1/2-liter like she thought, so we had to drink our dessert.


Another beautiful, mild spring morning. After a power breakfast of cereal and leftover runny chocolate pudding, we set out for Granite Beach. It was a gorgeous day on the Tonto: awesome views; desert silence, now that we were farther from the scenic flight path; cacti in full flower; big black bumblebees and an occasional hummingbird buzzing around the tall, sentinel-like agave blooms. It was an easy hike over gently rolling terrain to Monument Creek, and we saw no other people on the trail. By the time we reached Monument Creek some clouds were moving in but it didn't look like major weather. Since our packs were still fairly heavy (although the Hermit squirrels had lightened our load for us) we opted for the trail instead of going down the slot canyon.

When we reached the river, we headed upstream through dense tammies and willows; we wanted to camp on the beach at the upper end. On the way we had to pass by two 45-ish couples who were swimming and sitting by the river near their camp. We said hi and apologized as we walked past them (because of the high water, there was no other way around). The two women smiled and said hi, but both men scowled fiercely at us and pointedly ignored our greetings. They acted like we were intruding on their space and had no right to be there. Their palpable resentment seemed especially strange in light of how few people there were on the trails. Did they expect to come to one of the most popular national parks in the U.S. and not see ANYONE? We were glad we were going to camp aways above them, out of earshot.

As we walked through the dense tammies we noticed what seemed like an inordinate number of flies. Then we saw fresh toilet paper hanging from some of the tammies. We looked more closely and realized there were piles of unburied shit and toilet paper everywhere back in among the tammies along the entire stretch of Granite Beach. It appeared to be only a day or two old and was obviously from a large group of people. I have since heard several horror stories about a guy who was leading large groups on unpermitted backpack trips in the Canyon and leaving huge messes behind. He finally got busted but I don't know the outcome. I wonder if this was one of his illegal trips.

The gathering clouds, the unfriendly hikers downstream, and the disgusting desecration of the beach combined to make a rather somber afternoon. We debated whether to try to clean up the beach ourselves, which would require burying the waste, or let a river trip do it that could haul the waste out of the Canyon. We didn't like the feeling of leaving an unpleasant task for someone else to do, but the latter option was preferable for the Canyon's well-being.

Early in the evening, a commercial dory trip pulled in by our camp. The trip leader jumped out and introduced himself. It turned out we had a number of river community friends in common (not unusual in the Canyon). They had done a passenger exchange at Phantom and the incoming group had gotten down the trail late, which was why they were arriving at Granite so late in the day. The trip leader headed off downstream to talk to the other group of hikers. Someone headed into the tamarisk and we warned them to watch where they stepped. The boatmen promptly got out trowels, latex gloves, and plastic bags and set to cleaning the entire beach, a large and unappetizing task.

A bit later the trip leader (TL) reappeared, looking worried, and asked if we would mind terribly if they camped at the upper end with us. He was extremely polite and apologetic and said he wouldn't ask except that it was too late to make the next camp before dark. He had asked the other hiking group if they would mind sharing their beach (the largest camping area at Granite); the two male backpackers had emphatically refused, even though the TL had explained his predicament. The two men were very angry and rude and told the TL to get lost. We didn't actually witness this exchange, but the TL's story was completely consistent with the attitude and behavior we experienced from both of the parties involved. If nothing else, you'd think the two men would have appreciated the boatmen cleaning up the beach, but I guess not.

We told the TL we'd be happy to have them (as if we had the right to tell them no, anyway!). We knew they'd ply us with cold drinks, fresh food, river yarns, and the use of their Unit, a/k/a The Groover, The Groaner, Esmeralda, Mr. Pooey's Condo.... The offer of food was especially attractive because Candace's stove was malfunctioning. She'd spent much of the afternoon tearing it apart in a futile attempt to fix it (stove problems plagued us the rest of the trip; afterwards, we discovered the problem was bad fuel, which manifested when we'd used up the fuel in the stove's tank and started tapping the spare fuel bottle). With our dinner problem solved (for one night, at least), the beach cleaned up via the heroic efforts of the boatmen, and great companionship, we had a highly enjoyable evening.


This morning we bade the boat trip folks farewell and watched them take a major roller-coaster ride through Granite Rapids. The two grumpy not-so-old men and their wives also took off this morning and no one else arrived all day, so we had an entire day and night of blissful solitude. The beautiful weather continued: mostly sunny with some high haze, mild temperatures, no wind. We skinny-dipped in the river below the rapid and lounged on the brand-new sand dune of Granite Beach. The controlled flood had deposited an extensive dune where there used to just be a narrow, silty mud flat. Beautiful clean white sand and no harvester ants; many of their nests must have been washed out by the flood. A sublime day, the best of a great trip.


I had debated whether to include this intermediate stop; people had told me Horn Creek wasn't an especially attractive camp, and all the way to Indian Gardens was more ambitious than I wanted. This was supposed to be a leisurely trip with lots of layover time, so I'd opted for a night at Salt Creek. In retrospect we could have made it to Indian Gardens, but no matter: we got to explore Salt Creek and environs, although it turned out to be an exposed campsite on an extremely windy day.

As soon as we broke out of Monument Creek, the wind hit us. It was a sunny, stunningly clear day with sustained winds about 30-40 knots and gusts in excess of 60 knots. We had to listen carefully and anticipate the gusts to keep from getting knocked off our feet. At one point we heard the whoooo of a big gust approaching us; we all stopped to brace ourselves, and happened to look upslope and see a huge barrel cactus snap off in the gust and hurl a couple of hundred feet through the air. For a gruesome mental picture, imagine being in the pathway of that! (Although it wouldn't be as ignominious as being hit by the toilet seat at Salt Creek, which we found lying about 50 yards from the toilet.)

We reached Salt Creek by late morning. Because the site was so exposed, we decided to set up the tent for some wind shelter and figured we should do it right then in case the wind got even worse in the afternoon, as it tends to do. The poles kept collapsing under the wind so we rigged an elaborate system of guys with nylon cord, which was actually kind of a fun little engineering project. It's good we got some fun out of it because at sunset the wind promptly dropped to dead calm.

It had been a dry winter and spring, and Salt Creek was barely running even though it was only early April. I was feeling lazy and explored Salt Creek below camp while Candace and Carol hiked upstream to the base of the Redwall cliff. They said it was hot and open all the way up, but cool and verdant right at the cliff base. I speculated on whether people with binoculars at the South Rim overlooks could see the open-air, unshielded toilet at Salt Creek (they can if they know where to look; I checked it out after we hiked out. It's a great little nugget to share with bored-looking kids at the overlooks; perks them right up.) No one else joined us at Salt Creek and we'd seen no one on the trail that morning.

Candace's stove wouldn't function at all; we'd anticipated this and had been soaking dehydrated black beans in water all afternoon. Our evening's repast was cold, slightly crunchy black beans served with a side of gorp and a Gatorade chaser. Backcountry fare, ya gotta love it.


Another gorgeous hiking day: sunny, only slightly breezy, crystal-clear from the previous day's wind, and perfect hiking temperature, about 68-70(F. We were blessed weather-wise the whole trip. (Some might argue about the previous day's wind, but it was worth it to see that cactus shoot through the air.)

Another beautiful day cruising the Tonto. This stretch ventures in places close enough to the edge for good peeks of the river and the Vischnu Schist of the inner gorge. We saw one group of hikers west of Horn Creek; as we got closer to the Bright Angel trail, we saw more people, although still not very many.

At the B.A. trail junction, we joined the herd and headed out to Plateau Point. What an incredible view of the river below! We had lunch there and were joined by a mule ride group. By then the wind had picked up, and as the mule riders ate their lunches we were amazed at the cluelessness of some of them as a continual stream of napkins, plastic bags, wrappers, etc. was blown into the canyon. After the first few people's litter had blown into the canyon we thought the other people would figure out that you couldn't leave lightweight items unattended in such wind, but the learning curve was pretty flat. We politely said something to them about it but that didn't do any good either.

By then it was warmer and we slogged our way up to Indian Gardens. As we passed through the campground looking for an empty site, we saw three 35-ish men at one of the sites. They had just hiked down and looked really tired, with good reason: they were busily extracting an amazing array of canned goods from their packs, I mean I'm talking probably at least 30 lbs. of canned goods per guy. But what the hey, to each his own: they were there, they looked happy, and they probably enjoyed their dinner a lot more than we did ours.

After dinner the ranger stopped by our site and Candace knew him, so we chatted awhile. He asked where we'd been and when we mentioned Granite Beach, he said a weird thing had happened the day before. He said the male contingent of two middle-aged couples staying at Indian Gardens had collared him and read him the riot act about a river trip that had tried to throw them off Granite Beach a couple of days earlier. They said the river trip leader had told them that they had to leave, that the beach was only for river runners, etc. The two men were angry and abusive and told the ranger that they were going to file a complaint, that they were both attorneys and would sue, etc. etc. The ranger had found their story dubious and was not surprised to hear our version of the incident.


As a Park employee, Candace had done this stretch of trail so many times it was second nature, so she opted to take off for the top so that she could walk the extra mile to her house and bring a car back to the trailhead for us. Carol and I trailed behind at a slower pace, mostly because we were less strong hikers than Candace but also so we could look around and be tourists on the way up. I had heard so many jokes and horror stories about the crowds on the B.A. that I was surprised to find myself enjoying this segment of the hike. It was nothing like being all by ourselves out on the vast space of the Tonto, but it was still fun in its own way. The views up and down the trail are great, and fellow hikers are a great source of camaraderie and amusement, both intentional and not. Early in the morning when the trail was still sparsely populated, we heard a rhythmic refrain emanating from the switchback above us: a breathless male voice expostulating "Oh God!", followed by! a high-pitched female gasp, repeated in a suspicious rhythm: "Oh God!"... "gasp!" ..."Oh God!"..."gasp!" ...etc. They seemed to be rooted in one spot and we weren't sure we wanted to round the bend and witness what was going on up there. When we did, we saw a pair of exhausted-looking day hikers ascending in an excruciatingly slow lockstep: he was behind her with his hands on her butt, pushing her up the trail one step at a time, gasping, "Oh God!" with each step, she gasping loudly for air between each step. And in keeping with Canyon legend, we did indeed see people on the B.A. in high heels, business suits, and other interesting trail attire.

We made it out mid-day, high-fived each other, and found Candace. We spent the afternoon strolling (pack-free!) along the West Rim trail, looking down on the Tonto Trail and our campsite at Salt Creek and appreciating where we'd been.


The perpetually angry attorneys never did file a complaint. Probably they just got busy and didn't bother with it, but who knows-- maybe the Canyon did have some effect on them, even if the onset was delayed. (Or maybe their wives smacked some sense into them.)

Carol's sister died a few months after our trip. I know Carol would have handled it in the same strong and graceful way she did, with or without the Canyon trip, but I hope that the trip gave her a little extra reserve of strength and happiness. While hiking together on the Tonto, Candace and Carol sometimes talked about the respective tragedies in their families and I think that being able to talk to someone going through a similar experience helped Candace too. My father died two years later; I know that my Canyon time gives me perspective and helps me cope with his and other loved ones' deaths.

A couple of years ago Carol was backpacking in the Colorado mountains and fell in on the trail with a sympatico fellow. They walked together and talked about other places they'd each backpacked. When Carol mentioned our 1996 Hermit-B.A. loop, the guy peered at her and recognized her: he was the ranger we'd talked to at Indian Gardens about the incident on Granite Beach. It's interesting how such a vast space as the Grand Canyon can generate such a close community of people; that's just one of the many reasons we love the place.

Copyright © 2000 by Patricia Corry

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