Hiking the Gems (Boucher-Tonto-Bass) by Joseph T. Sinclair
We started the Boucher-Tonto-Bass trek by doing the shuttle of vehicles out to the trailhead. From the Tolvar Hotel out to the South Bass trailhead and then back to the Tolvar and out to Hermit's Rest takes about three hours by the time you drive it, transfer some gear from one vehicle to another, and talk with some people at the trailheads.
A high clearance or 4WD vehicle can travel the road to the South Bass trailhead in any weather except the deepest snow. That portion of the road from Pasture Wash to the trailhead is a quasi-4WD road traversing a rocky hill where you will have little concern about getting stuck in a high clearance vehicle. Low clearance vehicles can travel this road only in good weather with careful and unhurried driving.
About noon we took our first steps down the Hermit trail toward the Boucher trail. Initially, the trail is easy, but it turns difficult after a while. Even before you reach the Dripping Springs intersection, you can count on some rugged hiking. We stopped to camp on Yuma Point after hiking about four miles in five hours. The cool still evening was interrupted by intermittent breezes.
Yuma Point is a pleasant camping spot but hardly one that shows a lot of progress into the canyon. Early Monday morning well before 7 AM, we continued down on an even more rugged trail finally crossing the Whites Butte plateau and descending the Redwall. By the time we got to Boucher Creek in early afternoon, we were quite tired.
Because the trail is downhill and because it is rugged, don't underestimate its difficulty. It is an exhausting hike to Boucher Creek, particularly for the first day (3,520 feet descent in 9 miles).
Charlie Craft and his brother Topper Craft were my cheerful companions. They rested at Boucher Creek and then went down to the Colorado River without packs, about a 45-minute walk down the creek bed. I took a nap. Boucher Creek was about two inches deep and two feet wide with cool flowing fresh water. It's hard to believe this creek is perennial, but everyone seems to agree that it is. It disappears intermittently into the rocky creek bed.
We each carried a gallon and a half of water, perhaps a little more than necessary for springtime. But we liked to have a margin of safety, and we never had to worry about conserving water.
Charlie and I are Colorado peakbaggers who have plenty of experience hiking to the tops of mountains. Our normal climbing boots appeared to be inadequate for this trek. We both had sore feet (without blisters) the entire trip until hiking out (going up) on the South Bass trail. Why? Hiking down into the canyon with a 35-pound pack puts incredible strain on your feet, and it's the first thing you do on the trek. Your boots should fit perfectly. In my case, my boots were old and worn out. They had always hurt a little coming down off mountains, although not going up. My sore feet came close to spoiling the trip for me. My feet took a long time to recover from coming down the Boucher trail.
While I was napping at Boucher Creek, a corporate trainer from Phelps-Dodge in Phoenix (didn't get his name) showed up. He was about two hours ahead of his small group which was traveling all the way along the Tonto from Turquoise Canyon that day, about 14 miles. He has hiked 2,000 miles in the Grand Canyon over 20-some years. He hasn't seen a scorpion the entire time and has seen only one rattlesnake, coincidentally on his current trek. He told us which canyons had water (Sapphire, Turquoise, Ruby, and Serpentine).
We felt that we were behind schedule already as we had expected to be as far as Slate Canyon this evening. So, we started out of Boucher Creek in Topaz Canyon and camped up on the Tonto about a mile along the trail. Again, it was a pleasant campsite. The evening was warm with intermittent breezes. Oddly enough on the Tonto, a seemingly long way from water, there was a small mosquito problem.
The next morning we got up early, started hiking well before 7 AM, and encountered Slate Canyon the most rugged of the "Gems." (Is slate a gem?) We had rough going through the boulder fields in the side gulches, but the weather was cloudy and cool. Although some guides claim that Slate is a perennial water source, there was little evidence to support such a claim. In the creek bed about 100 feet below the trail, there were water seeps in the rock and one small pool of stale-looking water. The climb down into the creek bed looked easy, but we didn't try it. In the creek above the trail, we did not see any water.
It would be insanity to do this stretch of the Grand Canyon in summer or fall. In winter, when there might be water, getting down the Boucher trail with ice or snow present would be almost suicidal. That leaves spring as the only time this trek can be done safely, and you better make sure that water has been reported in the "Gems" before you go.
Hiking across the Tonto includes level trails, trails across rolling hills, and trails around side gulches some of which are large enough to qualify as canyon branches. After Slate Canyon, the trail around the side gulches often went across a rock ledge instead of a rock field making hiking easier. Nonetheless, there were some rugged sections of trail even after Slate Canyon. Although the Tonto is on Bright Angel shale, the canyons are littered with Redwall, Temple Butte, and Muav limestone boulders. Almost every time you reach out to a boulder to balance yourself in a rough place, the boulder turns out to be sharp limestone which will potentially cut your hand if you are not careful. It is easy to lose the trail in many places. Fortunately, it is easy to find it again but sometimes after some unnecessarily rugged hiking. At least a third of the trail for the entire 46 miles has exposure. In many places the exposure is not bothersome. You hike along 50 feet from falling off a cliff, and the hazard seems distant. Unfortunately, the 50 feet is so steep that if you stumbled off the trail, you would slide or roll the 50 feet out of control and then fall off the cliff.
We continued on to Agate Canyon which we reached in early afternoon and rested for about three hours to avoid the midday sun. Agate Canyon has no water. It was cool in the shade. The sun was never the problem that it is in the summer. The days were reasonably cool with intermittent breezes, and the sun seldom became unbearable. We stopped in early afternoon more to get rest than to avoid the sun. However, the weather was hot enough to create very hot feet while hiking with 35-pound packs.
In late afternoon, we started for Sapphire Canyon where we camped for the night. We had covered about 11 miles, a respectable distance. Sapphire Creek had a small trickle of cool fresh water with small pools, most barely deep enough to submerge a water bottle and fill it. The trickle of water apparently ended where the trail crosses the creek. It was a pleasant place.
We lived on dried foods purchased at the supermarket. Soup makes an especially appropriate first course for dinner in the desert. Jerky and crackers make a reasonable lunch. Fruit-sugar and powdered electrolyte drinks (e.g., Gatoraid) may help put some spring in your step and are worth taking along.
Again, the next morning we hit the trail early. We reached Turquoise Canyon which had small pools of cool fresh water but no trickle. The water again seemed to end where the trail crosses the creek. Is Turquoise a perennial water source as some guides claim? It does not appear to be.
We had talked with some backpackers at the South Bass trailhead, when we did the shuttle, who said they had hiked the "Gems" during September. They dug deep into the sand at Turquoise Creek to find water. The water was so mineralized that their biggest concern for the remainder of their trek was running out of toilet paper.
The helicopters and airplanes flutter and drone constantly in the Hermit-Boucher area. It is unpleasant, distracting, and induces a false sense of security. In no other national park that I know of does the Park Service permit large unmuffled motor vehicles to cruise back and forth with the effect of ongoing noise pollution. You can hear the helicopters as far Agate Canyon. You can hear the drone of airplanes all the way to Turquoise Canyon. This is an outrage. Never have so few spoiled the natural tranquillity for so many. The original Park facilities and access to view points were superbly designed by Mary Jane Coulter (architect) and Fred Harvey (lodging entrepreneur), two pioneers in creating an unparalleled recreational experience. The vistas from the Park facilities along the South Rim from Hermit's Rest to Desert View strain your belief, even while you are looking at them, because they're so stunning and beautiful. Why the Park Service permits some affluent people to get a higher and inferior view of the canyon in aircraft while spoiling the day for everyone else defies all logic. Ms. Coulter and Mr. Harvey would surely retch if they knew.
We hiked on around two unnamed canyons (Jasper and Jade?) to Ruby Canyon. Although there are few trees anywhere, the sparse plant life on the Tonto, mostly blackbrush and cactus, looked healthy. Many plants bloomed with colorful flowers. The cactus bloomed too, mostly red flowers with infrequent yellows. An occasional Utah Agave (Century Plant) towered above the landscape with a heavy collage of pale flowers. Someplaces Agaves were abundant. Once in a while, a humming bird flew by. For lack of trees, the only place to find shade is in the shadow of a large boulder or under a rock ledge. The views from the Tonto, of course, are fabulous everywhere. It was always very rewarding to stop, rest your feet, and take in the view. So, we stopped a lot to rest on the trail.
At Ruby Canyon, we stopped for our afternoon rest. Ruby Creek had a healthy trickle of cool fresh water with some healthy pools, a few large enough to soak your body. After a few hours rest, we pressed on past one unnamed canyon (Quartz?) to camp on the north bench (Tonto) above. We had hiked about 9 miles for the day. I remember this campsite, because I backed into a cactus patch wearing sandals, and Charlie had to pick cactus spines out of my heels for 20 minutes.
The remainder of the trek presented a small problem. We knew we would find no water in Bass Creek. Unless we went down the South Bass trail to the river, our last water would be Serpentine Canyon. No one seemed to have the desire to go down to the river. Our plan had been to spend Thursday night at Bass Creek where the South Bass and Tonto trails intersect. Then on Friday we had planned a hike to the Esplanade to camp Friday night with a half-day hike to the rim on Saturday. The trouble with this plan was that it required two-day's water and water for two evening meals, a lot to carry from either Serpentine or the river. We decided to leave the Tonto early carrying our last water from Serpentine.
We pressed on to an unnamed canyon (Emerald?) and then to Serpentine where we put an extra half-gallon of water each in double Zip-Loc bags (for a total of two gallons each). Serpentine Creek was similar to the others, a small trickle of cool fresh water with small pools. The Tonto and the "Gems" are stark, rugged, remote, and arid country. It does not take much to create a more friendly micro environment. Some shade, some flowers, or a little water make a canyon seem a lot more pleasant. Consequently, the creeks, even with just a trickle of water, seemed very pleasant places.
The Tonto was surprisingly devoid of visible animal life. Lizards, of course, were abundant. An occasional soaring raptor was visible in the distance, usually quite large. From more than one of the trickling creeks came a morose loon-like bird call. There were tadpoles in every pool, no matter how small. We saw one small Kingsnake. And there were a few bats at night. But small birds were absent most places, and we saw no mammals other than the bats.
Between Serpentine Canyon and Bass Canyon are some of the most spectacular views of the Colorado River. When we got to the intersection of the South Bass and Tonto trails in early afternoon, we took our usual break. Here were the only signs of other people we saw the entire trip (except footprints). Some weathered boards, some rusty tin cans, and one small glass jar littered a well worn camping spot. The Park Service and backpackers have done an excellent job of keeping this section of the Grand Canyon unspoiled. For instance, we carried out all of our used toilet paper in wide-mouth plastic bottles as per Park Service regulations.
In late afternoon, we started up the trail through Bass Canyon for the rim (3,450 feet ascent in 8 miles). Where the South Bass trail almost reaches the Redwall we found a nice camping spot in the trees. We had traveled about 9 miles for the day.
Starting early again, we climbed through the Redwall to the Esplanade. The trail is somewhat rugged through this climb. The Esplanade was pleasant and cool. After a rest, we continued up to the rim on an easy trail reaching the South Bass trailhead about noon.
To hike this stretch of the Grand Canyon you must go a total of 46 miles. Plan on a full day in and a full day out. It makes the trip more bearable, however, if you can do the trip into the canyon in two half-days and the trip out in two half-days, as we did. Doing the stretch between Boucher Canyon and Bass Canyon in three days is almost a forced march. Such a schedule leaves little time to explore. Taking two extra days, for instance, will give you the opportunity to explore at least two canyons upstream and downstream, perhaps even reaching the river. Once we got behind schedule on our trip, it created a mentality of always pressing on. We did no exploring and ironically finished the trip ahead of our schedule. Our afternoon breaks were pleasant and relaxed. We camped late each night, however, and often washed dishes in the dark.
The "Gems" going from southeast to northwest are Topaz (Boucher Creek), Slate, Agate, Sapphire, Turquoise, Jasper*, Jade*, Ruby, Quartz*, and Emerald** followed by Serpentine and Bass.
* Unnamed on topo map.
** Unnamed on topo map. Another canyon on the other side of the river has this name on the topo map.
Copyright © 1997 Joseph T. Sinclair ( firstname.lastname@example.org )