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South Kaibab - Tonto - Grandview; Late October, 1997 (Solo)

Late October, 1997
South Kaibab - Tonto - Grandview

Day 1

Flew into Las Vegas the night before and drove until 3:00 am before stopping in Williams, AZ for the night. By the time I scarfed breakfast at Dennys in Williams, drove to GCNP, checked water reports at the backcounty office (BRO has moved from near camper services to near the railroad tracks behind the Maswik Lodge), bought a few last minute supplies at Babbitts, and got a taxi to take me from the Grandview Point parking lot to Yaki Point it was 1:00 p.m. There were only a few puffy clouds in the sky, which turned out to be the most clouds I would see during the four days in the Canyon.

Going down one of the corridor trails, one can't help but pass by what seems like one continuous line of dayhikers, many of whom look unprepared to go more than a mile down the trail (not that that stops them). It always amazes me to see so many people as far down the trail as they are with little or no water and nowhere to go but up. In addition, many wear no more than tennis shoes, have only shorts and a T-shirt, and undoubtedly will be reaching the top in the dark when it will be quite chilly. I passed the last person on the S. Kaibab heading up approximately 1/2 mile above the Tonto Trail junction at about 3:30 p.m.

Knowing it might be days before I see anyone else, I head East on the Tonto. The trail peters out into a narrow, winding path almost immediately. As this is my first solo trip through the Canyon, and seeing how narrow the trail becomes so quickly, I immediately start questioning the wisdom of venturing the 18 or so miles along this trail to the Grandview Trail on my own. Maybe I should have listened to all the naysayers back home. Naw, to much planning and anticipation to turn back now. It's just a walk in the park, right?

I follow the trail for about 1 1/2 miles to the first campsite I come to, which is East of the Eastern arm of Cremation Canyon. It's a dry, exposed site with beautiful views of Zoroaster Temple across the river and the whole Cremation drainage area looking East. Sitting down enjoying the view, I see two mule dear about 300 yards to the East heading up the Tonto platform. Thirty minutes later I hear some movement and look up from the book I'm reading to see said mule dear staring right at me no more than 35 feet away, just a few feet outside the perimeter of the campsite. He looked to be about 300 pounds, and had a good-sized 6-point rack. He paused, looking at me inquisitively. I didn't want any trouble from him and was glad to see that he felt the same about me. I was lucky to snap off a picture or two before he strolled by and went on his way, heading back down the Tonto platform with lesser buck in close pursuit.

The first night was incredibly quite, an occasional owl hoot, rustling of some wind, and the constant ringing in my ears compliments of overexposure to loud music at a young age. The sky was clear and there was no moon light, so the star gazing was incredible. The same can be said for each of the next two nights. I carry a bivy sack instead of a tent because it is lighter, and I can get the same views from inside my tent if I set it up in the back yard. The sunrise in the morning was equally amazing, as I could see only the silhouette of the canyon rim to the east before the sun broke the horizon and began flooding the Canyon with light on its way up.

Day 2

I am up and hiking by 8:30. Wanted to get an early start, as this is meant to be my longest day on the trail, but my sleeping back was just too warm to crawl out from and into the chilly morning air. My destination for the night is Grapevine Creek. With the proper amount of attention paid to the trail, I have no problem following it into and out of the three drainages in Cremation Canyon. Heading West out of the Cremation drainage area I run into 3 hikers stopped along the trail during their trip East. After speaking with them for a few minutes and getting their assurances that the trail is well-marked with cairns ahead (they were coming from the Tanner-Escalante route), I continue on. Ten minutes later I run across another solo hiker heading East, who would turn out to be the last person I would see until Horseshoe Mesa.

The sun is shining and it is a beautiful day. The trail is narrow, but so far there have been no problems following it. That is, no problems until I ascended the West side of Lonetree Canyon. I think I left the drainage a little to far above the trail. In any event, I ended up bushwacking almost the entire Western side of Lonetree until I was almost on the exposed section of the Tonto along the inner-gorge. One of the problems was that I did not know if the trail was above or below me. This bushwacking covered about a mile, but I figure it probably sapped about 3-4 miles worth of normal trail hiking energy out of me.

If anyone ever loses the trail, my first advice is to remain calm. Staying calm did not pose much of a problem, but it can take a little effort the longer you are off the trail. The second piece of advice is not to venture far off the trail. As soon as it is apparent that the trail has escaped, return to the last point you were on the trail and don't resume hiking until you're sure you're on the trail. I did not do this, and paid the price in the form of my shins being savaged by the blackbrush scrub and my energy being depleted by the amount of boulder-hopping encountered. In addition, if you fall and hurt yourself, (which is not the plan, but the likelihood goes up as the terrain is much less user-friendly away from the trail) you could have serious problems just getting back to the trail. And it is not likely that anyone will stumble across you, as you're off the trail. I guess I can chalk this up to experience. It was not too much of a problem, but it could have turned into one. In any event, I would have preferred to stay on the trail.

After picking the Trail up towards the inner gorge (it had been below me the whole time) I followed it through Boulder Creek, making sure that I was on it when leaving the drainage. By now I'm ready for Grapevine and camp, but still have a good bit of hiking ahead of me. I'm beginning to get a little tired, thanks to the bushwacking, but there is nothing to do but keep walking. Regarding water: I heard reports of pooling in both Lonetree and Boulder. However, as I was not camping in either of these I did not scout up or down stream for it. I had just enough water to get me to the flowing stream in Grapevine.

On some of the exposed sections of the Tonto between drainage contours, but far back from the inner gorge one should take special care in following the trail, especially in the section just West of Grapevine. The brush thins out, and you can see a few places where footprints wander off the trail. After my off-trail experience East of Lonetree, I was not about stray too far from the trail again. Pay attention and you should not have any real problems here.

Grapevine Canyon is quite impressive. It seems like you contour dozens of very small (dry) drainages on your way to the back. This is the first part of the trail I felt might give trouble to anyone afraid of heights. But if you concentrate on what you are doing, you should be fine. The campsites at the back of Grapevine Canyon offer some beautiful views, and there was plenty of water flowing in the creek. I immediately started boiling enough water to fill my water bottles. I had finished the last of my water a mile before reaching camp, and I was hankering for a drink by this time. I prefer to purify my water by boiling it - the extra fuel required does not weigh as much as a water filter (and I don't have to worry about the filter not working). I also carry iodine tablets in my medical kit in case my Whisperlite falters, but it has always been reliable so long as I keep the pump-cup lubricated.

Grapevine looks like it would be a great place for a layover day if time permitted. There are all kinds of narrow trails heading up the creek (South) which would be interesting to follow as far as you could if you had an extra day. I imagine most of these have been created due in large part to the call of nature. It's also interesting to see how green and foliated the terrain is along the various drainages, especially in such an arid climate. This is especially true towards the back of Grapevine.

Day 3

I slept like a rock after the long day of hiking. Morning brought another spectacular sunrise. This one saw the sun light gradually creep down the Southeast-facing canyon wall as the sun rose in the sky. Looking South, rays of sunlight could be seen flooding into the canyon from the East. I took my time packing up camp, as I had a relatively easy 6 mile day planned to Cottonwood Creek. After enjoying a cup of hot chocolate and some granola cereal (just add water), I packed up and left this beautiful little oasis.

The trail along the East side of Grapevine supplied what I felt were the steepest sections requiring the most caution of this entire route. The problem is not so much wandering of the trail so much as literally falling of the trail. In a few stretches one wrong step could be your last. If you are not right on the trail, you might be lucky to be in only serious trouble. If you are unlucky - you are probably dead, and might not be found by anyone but some scavaging buzzards. I found this to be true especially in some brief sections between Grapevine Springs and the exposed section along the inner gorge. If you pay attention to what you are doing and proceed with caution, there should be no problem. If people had been falling to their deaths, I'm sure we'd all hear about it in the news.

The section along the inner gorge before entering the West arm of Cottonwood Creek provides some great views of the Tonto Platform and the Colorado River. This was a great place to sit down and relax while enjoying the expansive views along the inner gorge and chowing on some beef jerky. The scenery up and down the river is some of the best in the canyon on the exposed sections near the inner gorge. I knew that once I started for the back of Cottonwood I would not see the Canyon from this viewpoint again until my next trip (unscheduled, but inevitable).

Eventually I headed South into Cottonwood. After a brief contour of the West arm, I was heading into the East arm. The creek was flowing here too, but not as strong as it was in Grapevine. It was around noon and I did not know how far up the creek I would have to go to find the optimal camp spot, so I ditched my pack and strolled up stream scouting it out. I found a nice place about ten minutes up the stream and returned to get my pack. It turns out my pack was a little farther down stream than I estimated, and it had to circle once or twice before it turned up. I counted about 3-4 places which were obvious campsites, all a good distance from one-another. It was sunny and nearly 80 degrees, and I had a long relaxing afternoon ahead of me. It made it even more relaxing knowing that my friends were back home grinding it out in the work-day world. Man, how I live for vacation.

Around 4:00 p.m. I first heard, then saw a helicopter flying West above Cottonwood Creek. This struck me as being a bit odd, as I was under the impression that overflights were prohibited in this area. About 20 minutes later it flew back in the direction from which it came. Oh well.

A few reports I had read said that mice were a particularly large nuisance in Cottonwood Creek. These reports were all accurate. As soon as it was dark I could hear the wily opportunists scurrying around my campsite, looking for food. All my food and trash had been hung well out of their reach, so that was not a concern. However, it was somewhat unnerving in a bivy sack when I could hear mice touching the bivy down by my feet. At one point, I rolled over only to see one ambitious mouse less than two feet from the end of my nose - in a full sprint for the bushes. After an hour or so, the mice disappeared and were not heard from again. I did not notice any owls hooting in Cottonwood, as I had in Grapevine and Cremation; and Cottonwood is the only place I encountered mice. Maybe the owls keep the mice population in check in the other drainages. Cottonwood could probably benefit from a few hungry owls.

Another thing worth noting here: whenever I stopped hiking for a few minutes, the bugs tended to get pretty annoying. This was true of all three days after hiking, and any extended breaks I took while hiking. Gnats would swarm all around my face, ears and neck like I was a fresh steamy pile of it (and I probably did not smell much better than one after a few days). This continued each night until sundown. Smearing REI "jungle juice" on my face, ears, back of neck, brim of may cap, and above the ears on my cap seemed to keep them hovering 3-4 inches from my skin without making too much contact. I just learned to tolerate it, because there was not much else I could do. A few small mosquitos would also join in the fracas, but these were not as annoying as the gnats.

Day 4

When I woke in the morning I looked closely at the dirt around my bivy and saw mouse tracks all over the place. I was up early the next morning and did not waste much time getting started. I had scouted the trail leaving Cottonwood the afternoon before, so I had a pretty good idea of where I was going. I had read that the trail can be somewhat difficult to follow in this area. I think it might be more difficult finding the Tonto Trail where it crosses the creek after descending from Horseshoe Mesa than it is going up. I basically followed what trail there was up the creek. It eventually branched off to the East, away from a lesser trail, and did not take long before it seemed to go straight up. This was my first reminder that no matter how unreal the scenery and peaceful the time spent in the Canyon, there is no easy way out.

The 1-2 miles to the top of Horseshoe Mesa were very steep. However, I was feeling well rested after an easy 3rd day, so outside of breathing heavy the steepness, this section posed no real problem. As soon as you reach the top of the Mesa from the Western Spur trail, you immediately see the old mining cabin built nearly a hundred years earlier by Peter Berry. I heard voices on top of the Mesa, and a couple minutes later I bumped into a party of about 4 people breaking down their camp from the evening before - the first humans I saw in two days. We got to talking, and they told me that the helicopter I saw the afternoon before was lifting one of their hiking partners out of the canyon. Apparently he had fallen on the way down and had severely injured, if not broke his ankle. A reminder (not that I needed any) that the Canyon is unforgiving to all who venture within it.

After dropping the deuce at the facility on top of Horseshoe Mesa, I started up the Grandview Trail, passing what was left of Peter Berry's old copper mine in the first few hundred yards. Soon after, the trail made another vanishing act. It was pretty apparent where it was heading though - up. Only a minute or two of scouting was required before I was back on it, going up. The trail is not to steep for the next mile or two above the old copper mine, and I did not find the drop-off to the side to be as intimidating as some parts around Grapevine. Extra care should be given to each foot placement, however, as there are many more rocks with injury-causing potential on this section of trail than on most stretches of the Tonto. It only takes one bad step out of thousands to really screw things up for you in the backcountry.

Once you are above this section, the trail becomes very steep, very quickly. During the last mile to 1.5 miles or so I felt like I was climbing a ladder. I passed the first couple of day-hikers and asked how far to the top; about an hour, they said. Forty-five minutes later the next couple tell me it should take about 30 minutes to reach the top. Twenty minutes later and another pair of day-hikers tell me the top is only 30 minutes away. Am I walking on a treadmill here? Twenty minutes more and the next group I pass reports that it is only about twenty more minutes to the top.

This upper section is extremely steep - I would hate to be on it during wet or icy conditions. I've been lugging around a set of instep crampons for the past 4 days, but I'm just as happy to leave them in their sack. A few more switchbacks and I've made it. I always have mixed feelings about reaching the top: there is always a sense of accomplishment, but I'd much rather be down it the Canyon, worlds away from the crowds on the rim.

One last word to the reader: Other hikers might find different parts of this route to be more intimidating (with regards to height) than the sections around Grapevine which impressed me. Also, there are several places where one can easily lose the trail if not paying close enough attention - probably more so than around Lonetree, where I lost it for a little bit. But for the most part, the trail is very easy to follow along this route.

Copyright © 1997 by Jim ( jehaus@erols.com )

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