Sunday, April 20, 2008

Grand Canyon, Boucher Trail to Bright Angel Trail

Pictures from this Trip

Recently I took a 5 night backpacking trip to the Grand Canyon, travelling down the Boucher Trail to Boucher Rapids, followed by Hermit Creek Camp, Granite Rapids, and Indian Garden before hiking out the Bright Angel Trail.

My original plan for this spring's trip had been to explore the Escalante Route between the Tanner & New Hance trails, but given the closure of the Tanner just prior to when permits could go in last year, I elected to shift west to Boucher. Tanner, it turns out, did open in time for my trip, but I'm just as glad I didn't try it- I'd have been worried the whole winter that my vacation plans would need a major overhaul at the last minute.

I got to the canyon Friday afternoon, April 4, and spent a little time exploring the rim west of Bright Angel, mostly just feeling the altitude. I wasn't scheduled to hike in until Sunday morning; Saturday, as is my habit, was a day of acclimitization. I started Saturday early, on the South Kaibab Trail at 5 am. I made it down to Cedar Ridge quicky, starting with a headlight but quickly removing it with the growing light. I was at the Cedar Ridge rest house by 6, in time to see a nice sunrise, and ahead of the morning mule train.
sunrise, cedar ridge

I spent about an hour down there, then returned back to the rim over a trail that was much busier than it had been before. I just managed to get off the trail before a group of over 50 headed down on a day hike to the river. I was a little surprised to notice how much ice there was covering the top of the trail- I hadn't noticed it at all on the way down. It's so coated with dirt & mule crap that there's no problem with the footing.

After spending Saturday getting some exposure to the altitude, Sunday was the day to start the trip. Again, I was off early, catching the 5 am shuttlebus to the Hermit Trailhead. For those who don't know, the road to Hermit's Rest is closed this season. For the next couple of months there will be two morning shuttles to the trailhead; over the summer, no access at all.

Hermit was in good shape, easy to walk in the early light as I started down. I crossed what some maps call the Hermit Basin, others the Waldron Basin, splitting off the Hermit Trail to the Dripping Springs trail. riprap cobblestone on the Hermit Trail

Around to the far side of the basin the trail splits again, the Dripping Springs trail heading to the eponymous spring, the Boucher (boo-shay) Trail beginning its long meander out Hermit Canyon. The Boucher stays high all along the west side of the canyon, rising & falling slightly as it traverses along the Hermit Shale layer of the canyon. The trail is plainly beaten, easy to follow throughout this area. There are a number of nice potential campsites at the area beneath Yuma Point, and as you approach it. They're dry, but with a great view. The only negative out here (and at White's Butte, where I camped) is the inssesant noise from tourist planes & helicopters flying the air corridor above. There was rarely a break of more than five minutes without their noise.
Near Yuma Point

After rounding Yuma Point, the trail continues for a bit into Travertine Canyon, before dropping quickly down through the Supai to just above the Redwall. I'd read that this was a difficult section, but I was still surprised just how bad it is. The top, dropping through the Esplanade sandstone, is brutal. The trail drops steeply with loose gravel providing poor footing on the harder stone beneath, with a couple of places where the trail is narrow enough to be scraping your pack as you pass through. Below this, you continue to drop through the several Supai layers. It's always steep, with frequent switchbacks and a great deal of exposure, though I usually found the footing through here to be a little better than at the top of the drop.
Boucher Trail dropping through the Supai in Travertine

By the time I reached the bottom of the Supai, my legs were totally blown for the day. I'd been planning for a dry campsite, probably at the White's Butte saddle, and that's what I'd do. It was only 2pm, but I couldn't face the idea of dropping over the Redwall today. I met a party coming up that way, planning on camping at Yuma Point, who confirmed that it was as steep or steeper than the Supai drop.

The saddle was a great place to camp, though lacking in shade or water. It was a little windy, but the views were great from the saddle, and further out below the butte itself. It quieted just after sunset, with the sightseeing flights done for the day.
At White's Butte

In the morning I was on the trail by 7. The drop through the Redwall was indeed steep, but it really didn't feel as bad as the Supai to me. That might have been the advantage of fresh legs, but it seemed much easier than Redwall descents on either Tanner or New Hance. The trail wanders up & down a little below the Redwall, before its junction with the Tonto heading east, or the trail heading down to the creek.

This trail wasn't difficult, but it was a place where the footing twice surprised me, once sending me into a full face-plant. Oops. It's a quick drop to the creekbed, where a number of paths & false trails criss-cross. The ruins of Louis Boucher's cabin are plainly evident, and his mine is visible up a bit on the north side of the small canyon.
Boucher's cabin

I followed the creek downstream (no real trail, but an easy walk in the creekbed) to Boucher Rapids. There was water virtually everywhere in the creek, only a few dry spots the entire length. There are small sandy areas to the right of the creek, and a huge beach to the left.

I spent the day on the beach, watching river runners go by. There were a few groups that day, including one group with some lifting equipment on board their rafts- I later learned they were a survey team, checking the results of the March flooding event.
The beach at Boucher Rapids

The beach appeared to be a good place to camp, but by midafternoon the blowing sand got to be too much for me. I moved to the other side of the creek, picking a smaller spot surrounded by brush that formed enough of a windbreak to keep the sand down. It still seemed to pass through the screen of my tent, but not as bad. Sometimes
air doesn't seem to make it through those screens, but talc-fine beach sand didn't have a problem.

Tuesday was another fairly short day, a quick run back up and over to Hermit Creek. On the way back to the Tonto, I met a guy at the Boucher ruins who told me rain was likely that night, and maybe the following day. Not great news, but a little rain is ok.

This section of the Tonto Trail surprised me by just how much of the platform was in bloom. Yellow flowers had covered the Vishnu Schist of the Inner Gorge with a shocking amount of color; the plants along the Tonto weren't much different. Vast quantities of yellow-flowered Blackbrush and red Indian Paintbrush were everywhere, along with a blue & purple flowering bush I didn't recognize.
Flowers above the river

This is a generally easy section of the Tonto, leaving me at the Hermit Creek campsite by noon. I spent a relaxing afternoon there, enjoying the pool in the creek just below my tent and watching the clouds come in. It did rain very lightly that night, but hardly enough to notice. It was a quiet campsite, just myself, a single woman, and one party of about 4 sharing it that night. Still, this was the first night that I hadn't camped alone. It was also a site with a backcountry toilet. It had been ok in 2004, but now it was pretty foul. (I'd pass the Monument Creek toilets in a couple of days- in 2004 they'd been the worst I've ever seen. They've been replaced with nice clean ones that are, however, entirely lacking in anything like privacy. Just 3 toilets in a row, no real attempt at screening.)

Wednesday was another short day, a quick hop over to Granite Rapids, at the mouth of Monument Creek. This section of the Tonto was also in bloom, but not as vibrantly as the section just to the west. I made it to Granite Rapids by about 10:30 in the morning, giving me another day on the beach.

I'd been to Granite in 2004; it was probably my favorite campsite from that trip. It's about the same now, though back then there had been a wide, low sandbar-beach that formed a warm pool at the east end of the beach. That's gone now, just a steep 6' bank of sand down to the very cold river. One other change is that on that trip the squirrels had been relentless in trying to get into our tents, bags, and anything else left around; this time I never saw one. The next morning I saw one set of tracks too large for a squirrel, probably a ringtail, but my food (in a big plastic container) was unmolested.
beach at Granite Rapids

There was a little drizzle during the day at the beach, but it was still a great location. Only one group of river runners went through, a private group who stopped to scout the rapids but didn't stay. I went to the other side of the rapids to take some shots as they passed through and saw another tent above the beach on that side. The occupants, a man & woman spending their second day at Granite, stopped by and chatted later.

Thursday was the long day of my trip. I was on the trail by about 6:30. Then I realized I was heading up the wrong creekbed at Granite and back on the right trail by 6:40. The goal of the day was Indian Garden, 12.3 miles away over the Tonto. On my 2004 trip, we'd crossed from Indian Garden to Monument Creek (about a mile less) on a May day with a temperature over 100 degrees. It was a shadeless, hot, borderline-miserable day. Having lost my hat in the Supai on Boucher, I wasn't looking forward to it.

This time wasn't nearly so bad. The air temperature was probably in the 70's, but a strong wind made it feel cooler.
On the Tonto
Several times during the day I traded the lead with Andi & Jeff, a couple from Portland who were hiking from the South Bass Trail to the New Hance Trail, most of the length of the Tonto. They, too, were on their 5th night, though they'd covered about double the distance I had, and still had 4 days to go.

I got to Indian Garden by about 2 and settled in quickly. Indian Garden has its good & bad points- decent sized sites, each with a picnic table with a roof over it; toilets. But there are people, a lot of them. There were two large groups at the site, both coming up from Bright Angel campground. They were carrying packs of amazing size, with all variety of stuff. It was louder than I'd prefer to spend an afternoon in the back country, but they did quiet down quickly in the evening. Jeff and Andi made it in shortly after I did; Jeff & I had a nice talk. I hope they made it the rest of the way ok; I'm confident they did.

Friday was the last day, hiking out. I considered skipping the Bright Angel, continuing another 4 miles on the Tonto to the South Kaibab, but I decided that my ankles had had enough. I'm sort of glad I took the short way, but every time I hike the Bright Angel it reminds me why I never want to again. It's heavily maintained, but given the usage, especially by mules, it needs it. It's infested with mule trains & tourists, it's ground down into a deep, sandy or muddy "U" almost the entire length, and it's back in a side canyon with few good views. There are rest houses along the way, but water was still off for the season at both; lacking water, it doesn't have much going for it.

Still, it makes for a relatively easy (for the Grand Canyon) trip out, leaving me on the rim by about 11:30 after leaving Indian Garden before 8. Like the South Kaibab, the shaded upper portions were still deep with ice, but again the footing was fine.
Near the top of the Bright Angel
Another good trip to the canyon, maybe with a second this year to follow in October.