Anyone who has ventured below the rim of Grand Canyon can likely recall the moment in which his or her “light” came on. I refer to that step in the journey when distractions, obsessions, hang-ups, and anxieties dissolve like mist before the altar of unfolding beauty. It’s the point when one realizes, “Hey, I’m in the Grand Canyon!” This epiphany is typically accompanied by a broad grin, a deep breath, and hopefully a little more attention to subsequent footsteps.
In the midst of a recent South Rim hike, I’d already reached Santa Maria Springs after the third mile of a 22-mile Hermit/Boucher loop before my “light” came on. This was tardy by my standards, proof positive that this backcountry solo was long overdue.
No stranger to the Hermit Trail, I was well aware of the treasures my preoccupations had obscured: ancient marine fossils (and reptile tracks older still), the breezy bosom of Hermit Basin carpeted by fragrant Piñon pines, and the 1920s-vintage trail work, courtesy of the Santa Fe Railroad.
With my senses finally aroused, I pressed on past the trickling springs that shoulder Santa Maria Spring’s modest trailside shelter. Luring me on were the distant sunlit temples of the North Rim, the shadowy crevasse to my left that cradled Hermit Creek, and the piercing screech of a red tail hawk being volleyed back and forth by the rising walls. Just short of Lookout Point I chanced upon a desert bighorn poised atop a craggy spire. His fully articulated rack partially blocked a vanishing sliver of moon in a postcard-perfect pose. I found myself faced with every wildlife photographer’s dilemma: do I reach for the camera and risk shoeing away my subject, or live in the moment and settle with memories? I opted for the former and dug for my camera, buried as usual in the depths of my pack. The movement sent the creature disappearing up a rubble-strewn terrace and left me dodging fist-sized rocks tumbling in his wake.
With camera now at the ready, I stepped into the first rays of direct sunlight. The air temperature jumped ten degrees as I zigzagged down a break in the Redwall known as Cathedral Stairs, past the humble remains of the Santa Fe Railroad’s Hermit Camp, and finally to the clear, deep pools of Hermit Creek. My jubilation upon arriving at this oasis was quickly replaced by frustration as I realized that I’d neglected to pack my water filter. With no way of purifying water, my only choice would be to drink it straight and flirt with the microbes and parasites lying in wait. As I reluctantly lowered an empty bottle to the surface my salvation came from a most unlikely source. “Hey, you got any extra shorts?” came the desperate query from a nearby bush. “I blew out the backside of mine, and it’s my only pair.” It seemed that Marty, a vacationing attorney from Chattanooga, was in equally dire straits. We struck a deal leaving him with my spare trunks and me with two gallons of purified water courtesy of Marty’s high-tech filter. Happily hydrated, I began the six-mile stretch of the Tonto Trail en route to Boucher Creek. This was virgin ground for me, and it did little to disappoint. A bird’s-eye view of imposing Hermit Rapids cutting through the rocky basement of the canyon gave way to the dripping ferns and mosses of Travertine Canyon. Boucher Canyon, named for turn-of-the-century miner Louis Boucher, came into view as I stumbled badly on a half-buried stone. I had to laugh as I caught myself, craning my neck instinctively to see if anyone had witnessed my blunder only to find an endless expanse of inner canyon. Having dodged one bullet I exercised more caution than usual while boulder-hopping down the twisting creek bed en route to the Colorado River.
If emotions have addresses, then anticipation resides in the bowels of Grand Canyon on any final stretch to the rejuvenating waters of the Colorado. Claustrophobic Boucher Canyon is no exception as the river’s elusive song is contained by towering walls of stone until one is only a few strides short of the river’s bank. I collapsed on the fine sand and lay motionless for an hour. This beach has long been a favorite of mine: a sliver of paradise walled in by polished Vishnu Schist that has proven itself too difficult a journey for the Scouts (no offense to the lads in blue), and a mere distraction to river runners cinching up for fearsome Crystal Rapids around the next bend. Rolling thunder drew my attention to a towering monsoon cloud engulfing the North Rim’s Point Sublime. My eyelids fell with the darkness as I huddled beneath a hastily-erected tarp, the flicker of distant lighting illuminating the cliffs overhead. By morning the skies were clear but the evening rains had nonetheless foiled my plans. Unable to stretch my remaining water for a two-night stay, I had planned to drink untreated river water (don’t try this at home kids—I’m a trained professional). Unfortunately, a flash flood upstream had delivered its bounty into the main channel and turned the current a milky brown. After a hasty breakfast I turned uphill.
The Boucher Trail doesn’t waste any time testing one’s determination. After leaving the creek bed there’s nary a flat step for the first thousand feet of elevation gain. If one had a breath to spare at this milestone, the sweeping view to the east would snatch it away. Whites Butte, an easy climb just a stone’s throw away, begged for an ascent, but I had more pressing demands on my limited energy in the eight miles that lay ahead. Scrambling through the Supai cliffs I wondered how on earth Mr. Boucher rode his mules, or cajoled his guests, through this dicey stretch. Rounding Yuma Point, Hermits Rest came into view on the South Rim—a good gauge of progress, but still too far off to dwell on the creature comforts within. After a few more miles I reached the Dripping Springs Trail junction. The tug of the springs succeeded where Whites Butte had failed, and I decided to pay a quick visit. Just a mile off the main trail, the leaky overhang that empties into a modest basin proved an ideal lunch spot. A mountain lion is rumored to live in the area, and the discovery of a suspicious print, coupled with a rustling Juniper, left the hair on the back of my neck standing on end. Having finished my meal (and worried about serving as that of another) I rejoined the Hermit Trail for the final push, nodding silently to a day hiker on the trot, the only other human I’d encountered since Marty. With thoughts as sparse as trail mates I enjoyed the sights that I had neglected during the hike in—a task that proved much easier after a wordless day or two.
Mike Buchheit is the director of the Grand Canyon Field Institute (GCFI). Consult GCFI’s catalog of courses for backpacking opportunities such as the one detailed above, or call (928) 638-2485.