SHAWN STANFORD’S GRAND CANYON BACKPACKING ADVENTURES - South Kaibab, Tonto, Grandview - April 27-30, 2006
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This was my first solo backpacking trip after having completed 15 previous trips that included 5 Havasupai trips and a North-to-South Rim trek. I work bivocationally as a paralegal and college composition instructor. At the time, I was also researching for my doctoral dissertation. I desperately wanted a break from being stretched in so many directions, so I decided to stretch out my legs in another way: why not backpacking? On the spur of the moment, I found a free weekend and drove up to the South Rim’s backcountry office to see if I could get a 4-day permit. I got a permit for this route without any problem. The rangers informed me water was recently reported at Lonetree Canyon, Grapevine Canyon, and Cottonwood Creek. The permit gave me 1 night each in the at-large usage areas of Cremation Creek, Grapevine Creek, and Cottonwood Creek. My 16-year old son and I had completed a 5-day trip in March of this year that gave us some pretty tough weather, so I was hoping for a much calmer outing on this trek.
I spent the first night at the Mather Campground on the South Rim. The afternoon prior to that night was rather dreary, and the night-time brought a few sprinkles. It was a relatively slow and inactive night as I eagerly, yet hesitantly, anticipated my first solo trek that would start in the morning.
I started down the South Kaibab Trail about 6:40 am and had a pretty uneventful hike. The trail was in good condition, and the weather was a chilly 45 degrees when I started and a cool 65 degrees when I reached the Tipoff about 3 hours later. I stripped down to my shorts and short-sleeved shirt as I pondered my next move. Throughout my life, I had heard stories about solo hikers on treks elsewhere running into problems or disappearing and not being found. My hesitation began to increase. Should I continue on as planned, head down to Bright Angel and see if I could squeeze in there, or return to the trailhead I started from? I had never been a real believer in solo backpacking because of the potential dangers of being alone, and I had surprised myself a few days earlier when all-of-a-sudden I wanted to try a solo backpack. So here I was: on the one hand, I was about to embark on the Tonto Trail eastward, but on the other hand I was holding back because I knew this might be my loneliest trek yet. I also felt a little strange leaving my wife and 3 teenage kids back in Phoenix. I was surprised my wife did not put up a fuss about my wanting to venture a solo trek. I also wished my son, who has been my backpacking companion, was with me. Our trek over to Clear Creek a month earlier during his spring break was not our most pleasant trip, and it looked like I might get a few days here of wonderful weather that I would love for him to have experienced.
I decided to press on as the permit allowed. The trail’s rolling terrain over the first ½ mile or so surprised me. It looked extremely barren to me for some reason, and with each step I realized I was getting farther from being able to turn around and head back before it got too late. I was also beginning to tire out more quickly than I thought I would. The temperature has arisen to a pleasant 70 degrees about 11 am, and I took a 15-minute break under a ledge. I was in the Cremation Canyon usage area at this point, so I knew I could stop at any time and camp. That would not have been wise, though, and I wanted to reach Lonetree Canyon for my first night. I have always found the first day into the Canyon to be more difficult than the final day out. The downhill onslaught on my arthritic knees and ankles takes a toll that tends to make my legs feel a little like hamburger by the time I reach my first destination. On this trek my legs were already starting to weaken, so I knew I would to re-charge a few more times before I would reach Lonetree.
One of Bob’s trip reports mentions that, at this stretch of the Tonto Trail, crossing a couple of the steep drainages in Cremation Canyon can tax the spirit. I could certainly attest to that. After descending and ascending rather steeply into a couple of drainages the trail had to cross, I wanted to call it quits for the day. It was only about 11:45 am, though, and I knew I still had quite some distance to cover. About 12:00 pm I took another 15-minute break at a point where the trail crossed a wide and rather smooth drainage. Even though it was not shady, the sunshine was very agreeable as the temperature rose to the upper 70s. I decided to press on and find a shady spot for lunch. After about 30 more minutes of hiking, I found a huge boulder on the north side of the trail that provided a perfect spot of shade. So I took about a 35-minute lunch break.
About 1:15 pm, my spirit was renewed and I looked forward to reaching my destination. On the map, it looked like I should reach it in another couple of hours. The sun bore over my right shoulder under a perfectly clear sky, but it was not overbearing. This was my kind of weather: about 80 degrees, no wind, no rain, no threatening weather, and the views it offered were magnificent. About 2:15 pm I turned the corner to head south into the big drainage of Lonetree Canyon. I could see the head of the drainage about ½ mile down as the crow flies, and it sported a huge patch of green foliage out of which a running stream flowed. What a welcome sight! I still had many side drainages through which the trail zig-zagged to get there, so that final leg was probably closer to a mile in length. It was a pleasant stretch, and I was extremely happy that I had made it in relatively good shape. I arrived at the head of the drainage about 2:40 pm, which means the 10-mile hop took me about 8 hours. About 2 hours of that was resting, though, so at a comfortable pace and with fewer breaks one could negotiate the trip in about 6 hours.
That afternoon, evening, and night were incredibly relaxing. Before I prepared for the night, I spoke with 3 men who had rested there for the afternoon and were on their way to Cremation Canyon for the night. They informed me that the trail was pretty easy to follow from Cottonwood Creek to this point. I had gained some confidence in my reaching this destination, and it was welcome news to me that the rest of my route would probably not be that difficult. There was plenty of water between a steadily flowing stream and many pools at Lonetree, so it felt good that I could be well-stocked for the next day’s trip. I had a wonderful few hours before dark while reading a Clive Cussler novel I brought with me. It had to be the quietest night I have ever experienced in the Canyon. Nobody else was there, to my knowledge, so I got to enjoy the beautifully decorated starry sky by myself as I sacked-out in my Eureka Solitaire bivy.
I started about 6:30 am in my trek over to Grapevine Canyon. The trail was easy to follow until it rounded a corner to start heading south in the approach to the Boulder Creek drainage. As I moseyed along, suddenly the trail disappeared. I do not know whether I was in such trance that I simply lost it by not paying attention, or whether it actually fizzled out and became more of route than a trail. I could see the Boulder Creek drainage about 1 mile or so south of me, and I knew there were not many places I could go between this point and that drainage since the ledge dropped off the east and high ground to my right towered above me. But I was puzzled about what happened. I backtracked a little to see if I could pick up the trail again, but I could not locate it. I looked for cairns, footprints, overturned stones, anything that might clue me in to where the trail was but was not successful. At this point, as a result, I decided to chart a visual route ahead of me and head for the drainage. The Tonto Platform here was fairly easy to hike, but I felt a little unsettled knowing that I was not on the trail. I took a break about ¾ of a mile from the drainage, stretching out under a ledge and snacking while I pondered what had happened. After about 10 minutes, I caught sight of 2 hikers going the opposite direction. They were about 50 yards over to the west of me and about 10 feet higher above me, and they seemed to know exactly where they were going. I felt a surge of relief as I considered that they must be on the trail. After resting a few more minutes, I headed over to the spot I saw them walk by, and sure enough I relocated the trail. Between there and about the next ¼ mile toward the Boulder Creek drainage, the trail faded in and out, but I arrived at and crossed the drainage without any major setback.
The rest of the way into Grapevine Canyon was pretty uneventful. The last couple of miles on the west side of the drainage are something else. The trail is pretty scary at a few points, as it comes dangerously near the edge of sheer drop-off, and its constant windiness in and through several side drainages can test the patience. I could see the head of the drainage from about a mile off, but the trail takes about 2 or so miles to get there. The temperature had warmed up to about 75 degrees at 10 am, so I was glad that I had gotten an early start and would beat any heat that would likely increase as the day wore on. I took a couple more breaks on the last let going into Grapevine, and I arrived at the campsite area about 11:30 am.
By the time I finished lunch about 12:30 pm, I still had an entire afternoon to relish the place. I read more of my novel, explored downstream, jumped into a few of the pools, and soaked up the fantastic weather and surroundings. Again, I was the only person at this site. Along with my previous night at Lonetree Canyon, my stay here had to be one of the most pleasant nights I have ever spent in the Canyon. The solitude and silence provided me a much-needed respite from my hectic overly-booked city- life existence. What a fantastic place!
I looked forward to my last destination at Cottonwood Creek. I started my hike about 6:15 am and had a nice, calm, silent walk all the way there. The trail on the east side of Grapevine is scarier than on the west side. I found I had to keep my eyes constantly focused on the trail just in front of me in order not to be intimidated by the straight drop-off on the left side. The trail even seems to slant a little downward toward the drop-off, and it get perilously close to the edge. The views along this stretch are magnificent. About ½ mile out of Grapevine, there is cove off the east side of the trail that apparently is fed by a spring that is marked on the topo map. This cove is lush and green, heavily overgrown with bushes, tall grass, and trees. The trail goes right through it, and it took some guesswork to determine exactly where the trail was. A stream from the spring poured across a couple of open rocky slabs off to the side of the trail. It appeared that one could actually make this a campsite if he or she were not fearful of being blown off the edged by any prevailing winds that might sink from the top of the butte above it. After about 2 hours, I emerged from the Grapevine drainage and began to bend my way toward the east.
The last 1 and ½ mile or so toward Cottonwood Creek, like the other two sites I had just visited, is a constant negotiation of ins and outs through side drainages. I crossed what appeared to be its west fork on the northern end, and a trickle of water flowed steadily. It looks like this might be an area where camp can be set up, but there did not appear to be much shade. As I pressed eastward after crossing that drainage, after about 10 more minutes or so I recognized I was entering the northern end of the Cottonwood Creek area. The foliage quickly thickened, and I was excited to know I was already there to set up camp for the night. It was only about 9:15 am, so I had much daylight time yet to kill.
As Bob and others have pointed out, the trail through this portion of the creek can be a little tricky to follow. Several spur trails break off to the east and west, some of them probably leading to campsites, while the main trail snakes through tall grass, heavily foliage, and sometimes crosses the creek. Nobody was had set up camp around this area, so I would have my pick of almost anything I wanted. As I pondered where to set up camp, I decided instead to hike out of the canyon and return home. I had considered that possibility when I first started hiking, but I had wanted to see how I felt first after reaching Cottonwood Creek. I felt good: the trail over to Cottonwood was not difficult, my legs felt strong, I was not really winded, and the temperature was only about 70 degrees. So I took about a ½ hour break instead of setting up camp, and I pressed on toward the Grandview Trailhead about 10 am. The foliage thinned out as I neared the upward climb toward Horseshoe Mesa. I was little puzzled as I started that stretch, for I could not see on the topo map how the trail first contoured on the northern side of a slope before bending around in a southeasterly direction. I at first thought I might have gotten sidetracked on the trail that circles the Mesa on its western slope, but eventually I realized I was climbing much too steeply for that. The hike up to the saddle just north of the Mesa was pretty uneventful, a little taxing but not threatening in any manner. I took a couple of short breaks and snacked at my second one to re-charge for the final leg up to Grandview.
Little did I know as I began the final 3 miles that I would face a pretty scary challenge the rest of the way. After hiking about a quarter mile or so, my 50-ounce Camelback bladder ran dry, and I was down to my last half-quart or so of water. Hindsight is certainly 20-20, as the saying goes, and I reflect back to how stupid I was not recharge my water supply at Cottonwood Creek. I had taken enough water to make it to the creek from Grapevine earlier that morning. Once I reached the creek, my most pressing thought was that I wanted to get home and get back to my family. Being a little too hasty, I had not refilled my bladder and bottles. So at this point I adopted a water-conservation mode that I figured I would have to live by if I were going to make it out of the canyon. I was not too worried, for I knew the Grandview trail would likely be heavily traveled by day hikers and I could always ask somebody for a little water if I ran out. As I pressed on, the sun warmed up and I was in 80-degree temperatures by 12:30 pm. Before long I was down to about my last 8 ounces of water and still had a couple of miles to go. At this point, I knew I had to turn to a survival mode; I was getting more parched by the minute, and the last couple of miles to the top of Grandview can be quite challenging. I had passed a couple of day hikers, and amazingly I could not see that they were carrying any water. I decided that I would keep my mouth completely shut, breathe slowly only through my nose, not swallow, and will myself to the top. I quoted to myself over and over again my favorite Bible text, Isaiah 40:31 (“Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength; they will mount up wings as eagles, they will run and not be weary; and they will walk and not faint”), as I concentrated on putting one step in front of the other. I took another break or two, the final one at the saddle about a mile or so below the Grandview Trailhead. When I reached a corner about 100 yards from the top, I knew I was going to make it and I sat down for a final recharge. A day-hiker passed me on my way to the top, and it looked like he had a couple of water bottles that would be more than he needed. I rather timidly asked him for his extra bottle, and he gave it to me without hesitation. As I chugged about 16 ounces of water right there, my energy level rose and I hauled my rear to the top without any problem. After I opened my backpack at the top, I saw that I had may 4 or 5 ounces of water left in one of my bottles.
I was thankful that the last couple of miles on this trip was not as hairy as I had thought they might be. My survival mode actually worked, and I learned I could go pretty far on very little water while walking pretty steeply uphill in warm, sunny weather. After reaching the top, I was kicking myself for not having enough sense to have filled up at Cottonwood Creek. It was not something I want to duplicate again, and I would not encourage anyone to try it. Fighting dehydration is not very fun. My last 3 miles on this trip was pretty scary because my strength fizzled out with each passing step, so that finishing became a sheer test of determination. It alerted me to how much more careful I need to be about taking advantage of water on a backpacking trip when it the water is available. It also challenged me to think about planning my hike in at the end of a trip rather than just jumping at it on the spur of the moment. I could only imagine how much more of challenge the last 3 so miles would have been if I had been on the trail in the middle of May or later.
Copyright © 2006, by Shawn Stanford