With the average visit to Grand Canyon National Park lasting a scant hour or two, it’s no wonder that hasty forays below the rim are commonplace. Whether jogging rim to rim or simply creeping down a few switchbacks, seeking breathtaking sights or bragging rights, thousands are lured into the canyon annually.
Though single-day hikers are a tough group to pigeonhole, a number of patterns have emerged over the decades. Today’s typical inner canyon pedestrian is an “older” male (age 40-49) from a large U.S. urban area, “highly educated” (attended graduate school) and financially “well off” (annual household income of $75,000+). His hike is two to five miles in duration, and usually undertaken with one to two family members.
Though sharing few of these traits, I’m no stranger to the fine art of Grand Canyon “daytripping.” As a park resident, the urge to answer the call of the canyon is ever present. A free morning or afternoon often translates into a quick jaunt down one of the various trails. One such window of opportunity presented itself last autumn, and I decided to undertake an ambitious hike that I’d been planning for years.
“Leave the kids at home.” Such was legendary Grand Canyon hiker Harvey Butchart’s only advice about my proposed itinerary. A master of understatement, Harvey’s one-word description of this 26-mile South Rim grind as “sporting” should have prompted me to reconsider. My plan was to descend the rugged Hermit Trail to the junction of the Tonto Trail, continue east on the Tonto for eleven miles, and then exit by way of the Bright Angel Trail.
As always, I labored over the variables before lacing up my boots. The day would serve up eleven hours of sunlight from dawn to dusk. The forecast called for suitable hiking conditions with a slight chance for an early winter storm. I knew the terrain, so staying on trail was a given. Though I’d never tackled the route in a single day, I determined that the feat would require ten hours on foot.
Stretching at the Hermit Trailhead the next morning I felt an uncharacteristic twinge in my lower back. Perhaps my body sensed the pain that lie ahead, and knew to speak now or forever hold its peace. With a ritual pound of the chest, betrayed by a feeble cough, I trotted down the rocky path into a steady breeze.
The trail surrendered easily before my nimble steps. Like a racehorse out of the gates I was all oatmeal and adrenaline. It took a conscious effort to temper my pace, remembering that most injuries happen on the downhill-oftentimes to time-obsessed joggers. Within an hour I had reached Santa Maria Springs. An abrupt arrival at this gurgling oasis startled two backpackers camped illegally in the pioneer-vintage shelter.
Descending the Cathedral Stairs I roused a family of desert Bighorn sheep-unaccustomed to foot traffic at such an unreasonable hour. While waiting for their safe departure, I was bathed in the day’s first direct sunlight as translucent shafts of orange coursed through the fingerlike spires of Cope Butte high above.
Reaching the Tonto Trail I swung to the east, but only after noting a disturbing cloud bank on the western horizon. The billowing clouds were cause for concern given my narrow margin for error. The weather can change in a matter of minutes at Grand Canyon and my day had just begun.
Three miles later I arrived at the crystal waters of Monument Creek-a twofold milestone. Not only was this the last available water source for nine miles, but also the logical place to scrap my plans and retreat. To do so now would still translate into an eighteen-mile day and a colorful story or two. To stay the course would be to lengthen the hike and further tempt Mother Nature who, at the moment, looked to be changing her mood. Searching for a sign from the canyon I spied a pair of ravens gliding east towards Indian Garden. Minutes later I was taking their cue.
Nearing Salt Creek the trail hugs the edge of a sheer drop. I was gingerly making my way along the lip of this yawning chasm when I chanced upon Crotalus viridis abyssus-a Grand Canyon “pink” rattlesnake. I enjoyed the company from a safe distance while noting how late in the year it was for a viper to be slithering about. Right of way relented, I detoured up a rubble-strewn slope, keeping a close eye on the coiled rattler.
Further down the trail, while rounding Dana Butte, I felt the temperature drop by five degrees. The crown of a large cottonwood tree in the Horn Creek drainage swayed in the growing wind. I reached the Plateau Point Trail, one mile short of Indian Garden, as a light mist began. A solo rider appeared atop a nervous Thoroughbred returning from Plateau Point. Horses are rare below the rim—usually leaving the inner canyon to their less skittish cousins the mules. “How do?” drawled the hombre in the saddle with a tip of the hat. “I’d rather be on four legs about now,” I responded half-jokingly.
I took note of the sign holding me upright for the quick breather. It warned that Horn Creek could be radioactive, courtesy of the Orphan Mine in the cliffs high above. Instinctively, I looked up to see if I could spot the mine’s headframe on the South Rim. Both the wooden tower and nearby Maricopa Point shivered under a fresh blanket of snow.
Though it was tempting to linger in the lower climes, I knew it was time to turn uphill. The deteriorating weather had kept the feint-of-heart on the rim, so I had the normally bustling Bright Angel Trail to myself. Close to the top I was ankle deep in snow. Sounds were muffled, odors muted. Random trailmates appeared and disappeared in a thick fog as if phantoms. The visibility was so poor that only a blind brush with a frozen guardrail heralded my arrival at the rim-ten hours to the minute from my first step of the day. Wheezing, wet and wasted I pondered Harvey Butchart’s advice to leave the youngsters at home. Although childless myself, I might have chuckled at this caveat-had I a chuckle to spare.
Note: The day hike described in this article is not recommended for due to its extreme level of difficulty. The park service recommends that day hikers utilize either the Bright Angel or Kaibab Trails, travel with a partner, and limit hikes to just a few miles roundtrip. The Grand Canyon Field Institute offers three multi-day backpacking trips that cover the route described in this article. Refer to your GCFI Catalog of Courses for more information on these events, and take time to smell the roses.
Park Trail Descriptions
- Hermit Trail Description (76kb – PDF)
- Tonto Trail: Bright Angel to Hermit Trail Description (74kb – PDF)
- Bright Angel Trail Description (38kb – PDF)