Day 1 | April 13th, 2019
Nothing prepares you for the Grand Canyon. No matter how many times you read about it or see it pictured, it still takes your breath away. Your mind, unable to deal with anything on this scale, just shuts down and for many long moments you are a human vacuum, without speech or breath, but just a deep, inexpressible awe that anything on this earth could be so vast, so beautiful, so silent. - Bill Bryson
I gaze out from the trailhead and try to wrap my mind around a landscape that is far too vast and boundless for human imagination.
Trying to comprehend the Grand Canyon requires all senses. You have to walk the trails, smell the wildflowers, listen to the birds and the raging rapids of the Colorado River. This is a place that demands your attention.
There are secret worlds that exist within the corners of every canyon, worlds that seem to be taken right out of the pages of a fairy-tale. Like treasures on a map, these hidden gems are waiting to be explored.
Looking out from the top of the rim the Colorado River appears tiny, almost insignificant. But, with nearly 6,000 vertical feet separating the rim and river, distance is deceiving.
A journey from the rim to the river, using any of the corridor trails in the park is a worthy adventure in and of itself.
Despite the physical weight of my backpack (which held a hefty five days of food) I felt a mental lightness as I descended the Hermit Trail, leaving the burdensome sounds of city behind me. Free from the distracted thoughts of my urbanized mind. Free from the technological chains that keep us all constantly connected and tied to a network of cluttered consciousness.
Unbound by social pressures and city stressors I can see clearly and focus solely on thoughts that are essential only to this moment.
I take in the canyon with all of my senses. I can smell the sweet scents of wildflowers and feel the warm sun beating upon my face. Legs moving, muscles engaged and breath flowing. My gaze bounced around the canyon wildly. But, like bumpers in a bowling alley, my attention stayed within the confines of coral colored canyon walls.
Cosmo and I reached the juncture where the Hermit Trail connects to the Tonto Trail. We headed west into uncharted territory, our final section of the Tonto Trail.
Spring adds color to the canyon, and this being a particularly wet winter meant that the wildflowers would be abundant. Yellow Brittlebush filled in the rocky slopes throughout the Inner Canyon and magenta, red, purple, and white cactus flowers lined the trail and colored in the plateaus.
We set up camp on a plateau with views in every direction.
Day 2 | April 14th, 2019
When I woke I took in a breath of fresh air, opened my eyes, and saw the glow of the sunrise begin to color the canyon walls with light. I felt as though I had been transported to a heavenly, otherworldly, location. Am I really awake or is this landscape part of an epic dream?
I reached my arms overhead and pressed through my heels in a good morning stretch.
‘OOOOOOHHHH!’ I moaned as I started to feel my body. I am definitely awake!
My stretch is stopped short as my calves stiffen and start to cramp while my sore shoulders refuse to allow my arms to straighten fully. Getting out of my sleeping bag has become my first challenge of the day. I have returned to my body, grounded by human sensations and the physical pains that follow a long day of hiking.
My attention has shifted from the euphoria of being back on trail to the more somatic sensations within my body. My calves, outer hips, and glutes all feel like a taught rubber band, stiffened and stretched to its limits. The skin on my shoulders is red and rubbed raw from the straps of my backpack.
Nevertheless, I smile. In a way, I like the pain. The aching leads me to parts of my body that I have not felt in a while. Being hyper aware of my physical shell, I feel alive!
The canyon is waking me up.
Cosmo and I gather our water from the rivers and perennial streams that flow within smaller canyons along the trail.
Most of the water sources along the Tonto are seasonal and unreliable (depending on the amount of precipitation that the canyon received). Checking with the backcountry ranger station before heading out is a must to get updated water reports.
We camped at Turquoise Creek where we were greeted by the sound of frogs.
Day 3 | April 15th, 2019
The third day of backpacking is usually when I feel my best. My backpack is lighter, my body is stronger, and I feel myself sinking into a steady groove.
In the wilderness I am not just aware of the nature around me, but I am aware of how we (humans) impact nature. The silence of the morning was broken rather intrusively by the loud roar of commercial airplanes and helicopters. Tourism prevails.
The sun was beginning to set as we hiked down South Bass in search of water. We ended up hiking all the way to the Colorado River. The trail led to a small beach, perfect for camping. From the trail we could see lights and boats docked at the beach.
We were greeted by a group of rafters on a guided trip. The guides were friendly and welcoming when we arrived — as were most of the passengers. The group insisted that we have some of their filtered water and that we join them for breakfast in the morning.
We noticed one open spot on the sandy beach just big enough for our tent, next to two cots (the guided trips provide luxury camping accommodations for their guests). We asked if it would be alright for us to camp there and the group went silent. One of the passengers replied hesitatingly, “I’m not sure about that spot but let me show you where all the other cots are set up and maybe you can sleep there!”
We followed the passenger to a cramped section of beach where cots were set up in a line next to each other. I gave Cosmo a look of confusion and he could see through that look that I was started to get tired of waiting around to set up camp. It was dark now, and I was ready to collapse. The passenger introduced us to several other passengers who all seemed more than willing to squish their cots together for us and let us cramp their already tight space.
Finally I replied, “Thank you for everything, but I think it makes the most sense for us to camp in the spot that will fit our tent.” The passenger gave a small smile and said, “The couple that is staying on the two cots have been a little…difficult. If you have any problems just know that you are welcome back here with us!”
We walked away and I turned to Cosmo, “What a strange interaction”. Cosmo replied, “I think we should still ask the guests if we can camp next to them, just to be polite.
I walked up to an older couple, the two “difficult” passengers who had isolated themselves from the rest of the group, and close to whom was the only available spot to camp. “Excuse me. Sorry to bother you, but do you mind if we camp over here tonight?” Rather abruptly the man responded, “Absolutely not.”
Never in my life have I gotten a negative or unwelcoming response from a backpacker or a camper at a campground. My mouth dropped. “Excuse me?”
I could feel Cosmo’s discomfort but I wasn’t going to back down.
“I am on my honey moon, we paid several thousand dollars to be on this rafting trip and I do not want anybody sleeping anywhere near us. I am sorry but you will just have to find somewhere else.”
Cosmo nodded politely and encouraged me to leave it alone and go camp near the rest of the passengers. But I wouldn’t budge. “Excuse ME. We were asking your permission as a formality, to be polite. We have permits to be in this park and to camp at sites along this trail, you cannot actually tell us no.”
The older man wouldn’t budge either. “I’m sorry but you just can not camp here. I do not want anyone near me and my wife , you’ll have to leave!”
It went on like this for a bit longer until finally Cosmo found a smaller space. Begrudgingly we set up on a slant on trail a short distance away, and behind a bush so as not to be in sight of the couple.
I admire Cosmo’s ability to take the high road, to remain zen, and set an example. I knew I shouldn’t let the interaction get the best of me, but I did. It took me a while to let go of the conversation and settle in for the night. I felt upset that this man could pay a large sum of money to be escorted through a canyon and remain ignorant to the rules and courtesies of the back-country and the other people trying to enjoy the wilderness.
Day 4 | April 16, 2019
When we woke up the rest of the rafting group held true to their promise and warmly welcomed us to join their breakfast.
We had a lovely breakfast chatting with the rest of the passengers and talking to the crew. I didn’t see the older couple that morning, apparently they keep their distance from everyone, not just Cosmo and I.
We said goodbye to the rafters and continued on our way.
On our way back up the South Bass Trail we found an old historic expedition boat.
It was a rainy and cloudy hike back up through the Tonto.
Despite the gloomy weather we hiked down a gorgeous canyon and were excited to reach the end of the Tonto Trail!
The Tonto Trail does not end at a road or at any significant trail sign. In fact, when you reach the official end of the Tonto Trail you are still going to have to either turn around and hike out of the canyon or continue along another trail heading deeper into the canyon.
Cosmo and I looked at our maps and saw a short trail leading along the river to the Elves Chasm. We were intrigued. Our packs had some food left over, and we weren’t quite ready to turn around.
We scrambled over coarse and rugged rocks and quickly realized our “short trail” was turning into a longer route-finding expedition. And as we watched the afternoon turn into evening the route began to test our patience. The low clouds that had slumped through the canyon throughout the day let loose a misty and cold rain, and the steep terrain became slick. It took us an hour to go 1 mile, but that was far enough for us to refuse to turn back.
At the end of that long mile we reached a juncture at the Colorado River. It was a perfect camp spot, right on the water. We saw two tents set up and for a moment I panicked, ‘What if we have another over priced honey moon situation?!’ Thankfully we did not. Before my thought could leave my mind and turn into an audible concern, Wendy rushed over in her rain gear with charisma and a warm smile. As Wendy started to talk it became clear that she knew the area well. She empathized with our journey down here and let us know that the trail would not get any better before reaching the Chasm. Shortly into our conversation Roger appeared next to Wendy and added on to the warmth and positivity of the conversation. Roger and Wendy were planning on hiking to Elves Chasm tomorrow morning and encouraged us to stay the night and camp with them and we could all go together.
Cosmo and I smiled at each other and did not hesitate to put our packs down and set up camp. Wendy and Roger reminded us that the hiking community is still made up of friendly, kind hearted folks. Wendy and Roger hiked down with two other women, Holly and Ninnette. That evening we sat around in a circle eating dinner and sharing stories. Wendy works for the Arizona Trail (AZT) and Roger is a regular volunteer who helps with trail work for the AZT. The AZT is high up on our adventure to-do list and Wendy and Roger are very convincing.
Right away it felt like a trail family.
Day 5 | April 17, 2019
We woke up with the sun, made coffee, and got ready to mosey over to Elves Chasm.
We continued to climb and hike around the coarse rocks that Wendy informs us are called travertine, a type of limestone. After a couple miles we turned into a canyon that could be no other than Elves Chasm. Ruby-filled canyons that sparkle in the sunlight alongside cascading waterfalls that flow into cool clear pools, surrounded by an array of colorful wildflowers and huge butterflies that flutter around like fairies.
At the end of the canyon a huge waterfall leads into a clear pool. Roger insists that he must jump from the top of the waterfall into the pool. Ninnette and Holly are nervous and tell that the water is too cold and he is too old to be cliff jumping. Roger’s excitement grows and its clear that he can’t hear caution. Wendy and I encourage Roger who then takes off his shirt and climbs to the top of the waterfall.
He pokes his head out from the top so we can see him and almost slips. “The rocks are very slippery up here!” He yells. We watch nervously as Roger gets closer to the edge. He shouts “I love you” to his wife (who is not on this trip) and jumps into the cool clear pool. Shortly after he pokes his head up out of the frigid waters and shouts, “Yaaaaaa hooooo!”
Cosmo is inspired and also climbs up to the top of the waterfall. I gasp when I see him almost slip in the same spot as Roger, but before my concern could grow he jumps into the pool with a huge grin and pops his head up with a smile. I could tell by the look on his face that it was worth it.
We left the big pool and hiked into the sun where we perched on some rocks and soaked in the warm sun.
On our way out of Elves Chasm and back to the trail we bumped into another group of rafters (fortunately these were not commercial rafters). They yelled out and asked if we wanted any beer. My ears perked up and Cosmo and I hurried over. Adam, sporting a familiar Pacific Crest Trail hat, said, “ I hope you like IPAs!” As he handed us several craft beers. This was the ultimate trail magic.
We hiked back to camp and sadly had to say goodbye to our new friends.
It was time for us to hike back up to the Tonto and make our way out of the canyon.
Cosmo and I got back up to the Tonto and were alone on the rim. We found a flat scenic spot and set up camp on the edge of an overlook just as a nearly full moon was rising from behind the towering rock walls.
Day 6 | April 18, 2019
In the morning we made our way up the South Bass Trail to get to a parking lot.
On our way we passed a couple who was heading into the canyon with extra large backpacks and already a look of defeat on their faces. They were happy to take a little break and told us that they packed too much food. Hungry and eager to help we offered to take some of their snacks off their hands.
The South Bass Trail leads to a less popular parking area on the west side of the Grand Canyon. We didn’t think we would have a difficult time hitchhiking back to our car, but when we got to the parking lot we saw a few empty cars and no sign of any people. One of the cars we knew belonged to Roger (who would not be returning for another day or two). We left a note on his car to let them know we made it and decided to just start walking down the long dirt road.
We hiked several miles down the dirt road without a single car passing by.
We decided to call it quits for the night and found a camp spot on the boundary of South Kaibab Forest before hitting the Havasupai Reservation. There is still some light so we take some time and explore the area. We were low on water so I decide to hike up a hill just before bed. The map showed a river but all I found was a dry river bed.
A long and shade-less dirt road walk was not originally part of our plan and the heat of the day had us slurping through our water faster than we should have.
The bright full moon begins to rise up over the trees filling in a clear sky. I try to relax but I constantly mistake the sound of airplanes for cars and maintain a false hope that someone is coming to give us a ride.
Eventually we set up the tent and settle in for the night. I hear another noise but this time it sounds different. It’s persistent and sounds like it’s getting closer. I climb out of the tent and run down to the dirt road. In the distance I see head lights!
Cosmo runs after me carrying our empty dromedaries.
The car was going slowly and the driver cautiously pulled up to us and stopped. I was in pajamas and Cosmo was barefoot holding two empty dromedaries. We must have looked crazy.
The driver slowly rolled his window down, “Are you okay?” he asked.
We explain our situation and he relaxes a bit. Unfortunately he is not going in the same direction as we are so he is unable to give us a ride. Before he leaves he gives us his extra gallon of water and let’s us know we are 25 miles away from Tusyan (the nearest town). We happily carry our water back up to camp. It’s gets cold quickly at night so we hurry to get into our warm sleeping bags and drift off to sleep.
Day 7 | April 19th, 2019
We wake up feeling refreshed and ready to walk. As we make our way along the dirt road I notice a possible alternate route on the map. We are nervous to stray from the main road so we continue along. By mid morning a sprinter van drives towards us and stops to see if we are okay. Inside was a father and son getting ready to go on a backpacking adventure. They let us look at their paper maps (which were far better than the ones we had on our phones) and it seemed like the alternate route might be the way to go. The father is enthusiastic about helping us in any way he can and after we take photos of his maps he refills our water bottles.
Instead of 25 miles to Tusyan we will now hike 15 miles along a rocky, dirt road to the rim of the Grand Canyon. We are feeling good about our new plan.
From Road 328 we decide to get back on trail. We hike over to the park boundary trail which takes us to the Waldron Trail which will connect us to Hermit Trail and eventually our car!
After a strenuous last mile we finally reach the parking lot.
We drive over to a cafeteria within the park boundaries and sit down with a bowl of vegan chili. I look a few benches over and I notice a big family having a very theatrical Passover Seder dinner. They catch me lip singing to one of the traditional Passover songs and invite us over to join. We happily accept the invitation and move our seats to their table.
We get to participate in the reading of the Passover story, which was one of my favorite holiday traditions as a kid!
It was the perfect celebration to end a wonderful trip!