Our gang of 6 on this latest trip had a common Alaska bond. With us was long time friend and hiking buddy, John Hoffer from Seattle. Lauri and I met John at a mountain pass in Alaska in 1990 on a backcountry ski trip. We’ve been friends ever since. His two adult sons, Dean and Erich, were with us. That’s what made this trip special. We’ve known these boys all their lives and this was our first trip with them together as adults and it was great to see father and sons sharing this kind of trip. Rounding out our crew was our good friend Andrea DeVore, a lifelong Alaskan, and intrepid world traveler and hiker. All of us except for Dean, the oldest son, had been on a previous Grand Canyon backpack trip. John has been on 5 “Big Ditch” backpack trips with us. Erich did his first when he was 13 and Andy was on her second Escalante trip with us having done it for the first time in 2014.
A DESERT IN CONCERT. I submitted my permit application for this last trip via fax, at 8AM sharp, on Dec. 1, 2016 – the first eligible day and hour for trips starting in April. I got lucky. My permit notification was emailed to me a few weeks later. I knew that a trip in the third week of April had a greater than 50% chance of being HOT! The average mid April high at Phantom Ranch is 85, so even 5-10 degrees above average would put us at risk for heat injury. The Tonto is mostly shadeless and brutally hot. But I timed it for peak flower bloom and I’m glad I did. From what I understand, fall rains (and I remember a wet fall here) have as much influence on following spring blooms as winter rains do. It paid off. The Tonto Platform was in concert! In fact it was the best I’ve seen on a spring trip. Fields of nakedstem daisies, cliffrose, showy four-o’clock, paintbrush, globe mallow, prickly pear, beaver tail, hedgehog and claret cup cacti all in simultaneous bloom were everywhere not to mention the profusion of green from blooming black brush, mesquite, willow, cottonwood and service berry. This kind of desert beauty can’t be seen from the rim. Pictures don’t do it justice.As it turned out we had average to slightly above average temperatures on this trip with zero rain and one night of strong winds. Average was hot enough. Ironically, our lifelong Alaskan, Andy, adapted the best. In fact, after a few days we were wondering if she was part reptile for all the sunbathing she did. For the rest of us, forget it. After leaving Alaska, the Hoffer boys grew up in Seattle, and Lauri and I re-located from Alaska to the high, dry and cold ski town of Taos, New Mexico. Our blood is still northern thick and probably always will be. If you hike smart and stay hydrated, the inner Grand Canyon heat is managable.
When we arrived at Cardenas Beach, there was already a raft party camped there that we didn’t see approaching the beach from the trail above. I remember from our raft trip that there are many great beaches to camp on, but Cardenas isn’t really one of them as it is overgrown and rocky. We bushwhacked upstream of the rafters to eat an early dinner, hydrate (“camel up”) and chill in the afternoon heat. Another mile up would bring us to one of my favorite dry camps, above the cliffs that line Unkar rapid on river left. This time it would not be as pleasant as I was in previous trips. The all night westerly winds damaged a couple of tents and resulted in a short night’s sleep. Strong winds kept the temperature from falling very much. It didn’t go below 60 and I didn’t crawl into my bag until wee hours of the morning. Strong nocturnal winds usually relent some in the morning. They calmed to a slight breeze, enough for a fairly pleasant breakfast with a few minutes to enjoy the stellar view of the inner canyon, river and rapids below. What lied ahead was my favorite section of trail along the Escalante Route. A NIGHT ON THE BEACH. We had 6 miles to go to Escalante Canyon our next access to the river and water. From there it was another 1.5 miles to our camp that night. The day involved varied terrain, with a 1000’ climb around an ancient landslide, more dazzling wildflower displays and a beautiful slot canyon, Seventy-Five Mile. The day was hot, but there was shade. We would end at Papago Beach, a secluded lovely beach on the border of our designated use area and too small for a regular sized raft party. Most raft parties continue another half mile down river to the much larger camps at Hance Rapids. We’ve camped here 5 times and have always had it to ourselves. The last half mile from Seventy-Five Mile to Papago was the hottest. At 3 in the afternoon you are rock hopping over dark, hot, loose rocks. There is no trail, just a few loosely cairned routes. This is one of those spots on the Escalante where the going is slow. My skin was parched and I felt like fire would shoot out of my eye sockets at any time. I was the first to arrive at Papago with others not far behind.When I took off my pack under a willow feet from a sandy beach along a large eddy, I stripped down to my shorts. You don’t even think about it. Do it before you cool down. The only way to end a hot hike into the Colorado River is with full and sudden commitment. I dove in to the 44 degree beautiful green water. It feels great for a split second. Then reality hits. In the desert air, you really don’t need a towel on a day like this. I was dry in 15 minutes.
Beyond the Corridor trails with their bathroom, water, rest and emergency phone stations along the way as well as guaranteed tent sites with picnic tables and toilet, lies a truly wild Grand Canyon backcountry experience. I’ve backpacked in a lot of beautiful places, along the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails, including the High Sierra, North Cascades, the Colorado San Juan, the Idaho Sawtooth, and Glacier National Park not to mention many backcountry trips in the Alaska and Brooks Ranges. The Grand Canyon backcountry is world class offering stunning beauty, challenging trails and solitude. At first glance, going to rim viewpoints, and hiking the Bright Angel and South Kaibab Trails, you would’t think that solitude would be possible here. Thanks to effective backcountry management it is – even at the peak of spring break. I commend the NPS for their management of the backcountry. You have to know something about how the use areas are laid out, how to plan your pace and how to submit an application 4 months ahead of time. Demand is increasing and sometimes we don’t get a permit. That’s OK. Permit holders are pretty much guaranteed a quality wilderness experience, provided they have the skills, equipment and physical ability to execute their trips without incident.The backcountry office can be hard to get a hold of on the phone but for the most part they have been helpful and knowledgable. There is a lot of good and helpful information on the backcountry pages of the Grand Canyon website including trail descriptions and water sources with distances and elevation changes that are helpful for planning. I’m not going to post links here. If you’ve passed Googling 101, these pages are easy to find. The book I use the most for ideas and planning is the Falcon Guide: ‘Hiking Grand Canyon National Park’ by Ron Adkison.
At first glance, the Park Service’s trail descriptions seem to over exaggerate the difficulty and dangers of the wild and primitive trails. I understand their position though. They are the ones that have to pluck hikers out of the backcountry who over estimated their abilities or just ran into bad luck. Sure, there are some very steep and exposed sections of trail. If you have solid footwear, reasonable balance, accustomed to hiking steep mountain trails with a pack, you should be fine. Yes, there are potentially long water hauls across long stretches of unshaded and hot terrain. Have an itinerary that allows you to take long mid day breaks. If you have the capacity to carry needed water, know how to find it when it is not obvious from the trail, and have a manageable pack load to allow for heavy water loads then you will be fine. Navigation and route finding can be challenging especially on your first trip. Outside of boating the river, there is no direct route to anywhere in the Grand Canyon. Even on the well worn sections of the Tonto it can be easy to temporarily lose the trail if you are not paying attention. Don’t rely on just your phone as your sole source of navigation. Carry a paper map and compass and know how to read it. On our first Royal Arch trip, we lost the route on the Esplanade going around the Toltec drainage and ended up spending 3 hours going 1 mile over a treacherous landslide. At one point, Lauri accidentally kicked a rock the size of a recliner down and it almost pinned my leg and would have snapped it if it did get pinned. That would have ruined our day. We were not lost. We know where we needed to be. We just missed the cairned route that laid out the best way to get there. ASCENDING THE TONTO. Hance Rapid is an interesting place. It is the first technical rapid river runners encounter and it’s advisable to scout. A beautiful setting with abundant beach camping, it is where Red Canyon and the New Hance Trail, one of the South Rim’s most difficult descents, ends at the Colorado River. This would be our last river contact and last water re-supply before reaching Hance Creek, 1500 feet up and 5 miles away. Getting here is only .6 miles from our Papago Beach camp. However, the route took over an hour.If there was any place one is likely to snap an anke or tib/fib it would be going down the Papago Slide. Loose, steep and rocky, it is easy to kick rocks down below. For safety we went one at a time. On the bright side, if you did get hurt here, it was only a short distance to the beach where a raft party could help. That didn’t provide much comfort to me though.
At Hance, the Escalante Route ends and the Eastern Tonto begins. Once on the Tonto, the hiking is considerably easier as the trail contours around side canyons with only minor climbs and descents. This spring, water was more abundant due to a wet winter. It’s still hot though. The trail is narrow and the stiff branches of blackbrush will result in many superficial scratches on your calves. There are also stretches of trail through cactus mine fields. But the dazzling spring green, wildflowers, steep side canyons, and views of the river and inner gorge and awesome view camps made us forget about time on our remaining 3 days.The Grand Canyon backcountry isn’t for everyone. We witnessed a disturbing reminder of that on our second Royal Arch Loop trip. We found an abandoned backpack on the far western end of the Tonto. Some guy left a nearly full backpack, with boots, clothes and food which were rummaged by rodents and ravens already. We ran into a volunteer sent down to investigate. We never did learn what happened there.
The primitive and wild areas of the Grand Canyon have become part of our normal stomping grounds. I don’t consider the Grand Canyon backcountry to be particularly dangerous or difficult as long as you have some sense of how trails and routes are laid out, how to read a map, have adequate food, know how to avoid heat injuries and dehydration, and know how to select suitable camps. That said, I never forget this is truly wild country and the canyon shows no mercy for the unprepared or for those with poor judgement and cocky overconfidence. The demographic that experiences the most injury and mishaps in the Canyon are young adult males who consider themselves athletes. Don’t be that guy! If you can, go with experienced hikers who’ve done the route before. If you have the right skills, equipment and sound judgement and approach this awesome vertical desert world with a sense of healthy respect then be prepared for a memorable, sometimes challenging, rewarding wilderness experience that will draw you back again and again. THINGS TO CONSIDERTRAIL PACE. The corridor trails are like other well worn mountain tracks such as the John Muir Trail but steeper and hotter. While hiking the JMT and other portions of the Pacific Crest Trail, doing a 15 mile day was effortless and we could easily do a 20 mile day if we pushed a little. That pace in the Grand Canyon backcountry would be a dangerous fools errand and an unneccessary forced march. On the well worn parts of the Tonto, we planned a 10 mile/day pace if you didn’t have to carry more than a day’s worth of water. Plan less if you have to carry 2 days worth. On the nasty approach trails such as New Hance and Tanner we plan on less than 1 mile/hour pace. This also applies to portions of the Escalante Route and Royal Arch Loop. Here we plan on 7 mile days. You need to leave time to not hike in the heat of the day. In addition, sometimes getting water can be an hour affair as you may have to walk 30 minutes up or down a side canyon to a water source. Unless you get lucky with cool weather, once in the lower elevations of the canyon your best strategy is to start hiking early to beat the heat, seek shade in the hottest part of the day then resume in late afternoon when more shade develops. When you have to plan your trip 4 months in advance it’s hard to determine what the weather will be.
AT-LARGE CAMPING. Having the skills and confidence to choose your own campsite with 30 minutes of daylight left comes from years of experience and detailed map reading ability. The quality of at-large camping and solitude in the Grand is one of the main reasons I come here. Few places can rival the Esplanade or Tonto for star gazing with 360 degree stellar views. There is zero light pollution out here. There seem to be two types of campers: valley and ridge campers. Valley campers like to be nestled and cozy, close to a water source. It’s not uncommon for three parties with a permit for the same use area to all camp at the same place, a perennial water source, such as Hance Creek. In these places you’ll find well worn tent sites, big shade trees and wind protection, but not solitude. As a photographer and hopeless claustrophobic, I’m a ridge camper. That’s where the action is. I don’t want to be in a hole, or under a canopy of trees with other parties I don’t know. I want to be where the first and last rays of light will be, and, as mentioned earlier, where the star gazing is along with 360 panoramic views. My preference is to dry camp and it is not that difficult. For one dinner and breakfast and teeth brushing between water sources it is only an extra liter per person (2 lbs). Otherwise the amount of water I carry between sources would be the same. So we “camel up” at a water source, then carry water to a dry camp.Ridge top or open country camping is not without risk. We had one night of gale force winds on this last trip and two tents sustained mild damage. The ground is hard and not very stake friendly. Have a high quality 3 season tent and know how to stake it out with a deadman. Or cowboy camp, which is possible 90% of the time. Usually, we just sleep without the rainfly. This way we can still star gaze and be protected from little creepy crawlies in the night.
GEAR: The best strategy for off corridor backpacking in the Grand is to go as ultra light as possible. Adopt the PCT/AT style of backpacking. Dean and Andy had their base weights to 9 lbs. Mine was at 16 and that was OK with me. That included 3 lbs of camera gear. Having a manageable base weight makes it easier on your knees for the steep plunges down canyon and easier to deal with a 2-day water carry. Below I will lay out the big 3, pack, tent, sleeping system, food, then all the other stuff. Remember, you don’t carry a pack. You WEAR it. Pack selection and fit is just as important as footwear. Don’t go on an extended day trip, especially here, with a pack you have never tested before.PACK: Lauri: ULA Catalyst, less than 3 lbs. Me: Custom fit and made McCale at 4 lbs. This pack comfortably carries heavier loads. With this pack I can hike 2-3 hours with a 35 lb load and not need a break. Other Ultra Light packs on our latest trip were a Gossamer Gear Mariposa (Andy) and a Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest (Dean) – a great pack.
TENT: There is a growing array of lightweight shelters from cottage industry manufacturers such as Six Moon Designs, Tarp Tent, Z-Packs and Hyperlite Mountain Gear. We have a Big Agnes Copper Spur Platinum 2.8 lbs with everything. That makes it 1.4 lbs per person well within ultra light territory. SLEEPING SYSTEM: Nowadays, it is easy to get a high quality down bag (800 or 900 fill) 30 degree bag for less than 2 lbs. In fact you can get a 30 degree quilt for about a pound. Lauri’s 20 degree Feathered Friends Flicker quilt is 1.6 lbs. Pad: We use Exped Synmat at 14 oz and a Big Agnes Q Core SLX at 15 oz. We also use Z-Rests which weigh another 12 OZ. Some of the younger folks use only a Z-Rest. At my age, I’m sleeping comfortable. I bring both. The Z-rest is worth its weight in gold. I’ve never had an inflatable pad leak but if it did, I would still have some padding and insulation below me with the Z-Rest. I also believe the Z-rest helps protect an inflatable mattress. I carefully check it for anything prickly before I place it in the tent. I also use the Z-rest for mid-day naps and long rest breaks. STOVE: Soto Windmaster. 2.3 OZ. Best stove I’ve used. An 8oz MSR or Jetboil canister lasts 5-6 days boiling 1.5 liter a day for meals/tea for 2. Go stoveless for even lighter pack.KITCHEN: 1 liter titanium pot with lid, long titanium spoon, a titanium cup, very small green scub pad and a very small bottle of bleach is our entire backpack kitchen kit. We also bring a small disposable lighter for back-up if the stove piezo lighter fails.
FOOD: We use the same guidelines we use for a long distance through hike. Generally speaking, we shoot for 2 lbs per person per day and most everything we bring meets the minimum of 125 calories per ounce. Going hungry on a backpack trip sucks. So does bringing too much or heavy food. A backpack trip in the Grand is no place to diet. You are burning calories and sweating out salts and electrolytes. Leave the fat free, sugar free, dairy free, (everything else that’s good free) crackers at home. Snickers bars and Cheez-its are your friend out here. We buy Mountain House freeze dried granola, and scrambled eggs in bulk and then vacuum seal our own portions. We also buy a lot of dehydrated bulk food at Winco such as mashed potatoes, beans and dried cheese. We also buy commercially dehydrated meats and put together our one-pot meals at home. Don’t forget electrolytes. We use Propel and Emergen-C. We bring enough for 2 liters a day of drinks with electrolytes. These greatly help with joints, energy level and brain function. Food is carried in ultra light stuff sacks.
CLOTHING. All clothing for our 7 day trip is 2 pounds for a mainly hot weather hike. We carry different clothing for a cold weather hike. If you are in the Canyon in March or November you have to carry for both cold and hot weather. We basically adopt a wear one, carry one philosophy. I carry only one extra t-shirt, socks and undies. I have one pair of full zip long pants that slip over shoes and shorts with a draw cord waist for 6 oz. I have one pair of running shorts and one long sleeve button down shirt. Don’t waste your money on a $100 shirt that has an “SPF”. A used dress shirt from a thrift store will have the same SPF. And you can trash it. For $5. I take a very light t shirt for sleeping. I have a Patagonia hooded down jacket for 10 oz along with a lightweight fleece beanie hat to take off the morning chill. For rain gear, which I’ve only needed for 10 minutes on 11 trips here, is the Outdoor Research Helium jacket. For cold or wet weather hiking I take a very lightweight Patagonia base layer t shirt. SOCKS: I like Wright double layer socks, ankle high. The double layers really help prevent blisters. Lauri likes Darntough socks. They are too hot for me. SHOES. The Grand Canyon backcountry is no place to test new footwear. Have your shoe/sock system dialed in before you come here and make sure you can hike several days in a row without getting blisters. They suck and really slow your pace down. I’m a late convert to light weight trail running shoes. Now I will never go back to the Swiss-Alpine leather waffle stompers I used to use. I use LaSportiva Wildcats. Lauri uses the ever popular Altra Lone Peak trail runners. They come from the factory ready to accept Dirty Girl gaiters. How cool is that? Dirty Girls, cheap with many cool patterns to choose from, are worth their weight in gold.TREKKING POLES: We use Black Diamond carbon fiber Z-ploes. Poles save knees, provide ankle support, help flip pesky rattlesnakes off the trail, can be used as tent support (some UL tents are designed to use poles as their support) and can be used for deadman anchors on your tent in strong winds. We’ve even used them to assist in hanging a food bag on a branch just beyond our reach. If you do break a limb, then you have a readily available splint.
WATER FILTER: Sawyer Squeeze with chemical tablet back-up. The Sawyer filter system comes with collapsible 1- liter containers. You get your water from the source into these bags, then filter from those bags to a clean container. The Sawyer filter also fits on a Dasani/Aquafina bottle with just some minor leakage. In the past, we used a Steripen. We’ve never been sick from Grand Canyon water with either system.WATER BOTTLES: Steel canteens are heavy. We’ve used the same Dasani 1 liter water bottles for over a year now. Much lighter. We carry 2 each.
ADDITIONAL WATER CONTAINERS: MSR Dromedary bags were our gold standard for carrying water to dry camps or for long hauls. They are heavy. The new kid on the block is Hydrapack. We have 2 of the 3-liter collapsible containers. They are guaranteed against puncture and leakage. When not needed they fold up small and weigh much less than Drom bags. They are also more durable than the Sawyer collabsible containers. I make sure each person has the capacity to carry at least 6 liters.