On Christmas day of 2009, my mother and I were in the Grand Canyon and she kindly sent me off to walk from South Kaibab to Bright Angel while she nursed her recently repaired ACL. One year later, she dropped me off at Hermit Trail before sunrise while she took her turn on the South Kaibab. It may not be the most traditional way to spend Christmas day, but it works for us.
The Hermit Trail starting point is a short drive or shuttle trip west from the Grand Canyon village. Access is limited during parts of the year, so check before going. From the main viewpoint, there’s a short dirt spur to the trail head parking lot where you’ll find the usual amenities, including the NPS trail map.
Logistics and Such
The goal for today was to go from the Hermit Trail start at 6,640 feet, down the trail to the Tonto plateau, walk east on the Tonto Trail, pass through a low point of 2,995′ at the Monument campsite (about 600′ above the river), continue toward Bright Angel, and proceed up the Bright Angel Trail to its start at 6,860 feet. According to Ron Adkison’s Hiking Grand Canyon National Park (2nd Edition) this is a strenuous hike of some 24 miles that should take “three-to-five days”. I gave myself 12 hours and hoped to do it in closer to 10 so I could drop down to the river at some point. Hey, it’s Christmas; what could go wrong?
Well, one thing was that I could bonk again. The previous two climbs up Bright Angel I had pretty much maxed out on energy. The previous time was attributed to a lack of electrolytes, so this time I took several water soluble electrolyte supplements, bit I wasn’t sure I had enough water to put them in, and this was the bigger potential problem.
I decided to take only 3 liters of water and refill at Indian Garden (19+ miles from the start). I planned to bypass spring water at Santa Maria Spring because the weather was cool and I wanted to see how far the water would stretch. Technically, I should have taken a great deal more water or refilled at the spring, especially given my propensity to sweat, but I wanted to keep the weight of my pack down and test my endurance on a relatively cool day. There was also another reason I’ll get to later. But enough prologue. Off we go…
Hermit Trailhead – 0 Miles @ 6:10am (6,640′)
It was dark. The moon was a bright white beacon in the cloudless night sky. Temperature was a pretty warm feeling 30 degrees. Gorgeous. I packed up, turned on the Petzl head light, quickly looked over the trail map and various warnings about not doing what I was about to do, and took off down the trail.
I quickly realized the light wasn’t necessary; the trail was very well maintained and descended slowly down some pretty mellow switchbacks. In the moonlight, there was no need for additional light. So I switched off the Petzl and immediately felt a sense of really being in the canyon for the first time. In the moonlight I could dimly see the shadow of mesas rising on both sides of the trail, and the gaping black abyss of the canyon before me. It was utterly silent, there were no artificial lights anywhere, and the overall affect was…I don’t know. Beautiful.
Waldron Trail Junction – 1.5 miles
I would like to say something insightful here, but all I can remember is that while it was still dark, the trail marker was clearly visible. I veered right to stay on Hermit and kept moving.
Dripping Springs Trail Junction – 1.75 miles
Same comment as for Waldron. For anyone looking to go from here to Dripping Springs, it’s only another 1.5 miles past this point to spring itself.
The moon, it turns out, is not merely a great source of light for early morning hikes. It’s also quite picturesque and shiny up in the inky black sky, and one tends to want to snap endless photos in order to capture all this moony loveliness for posterity. It also turns out that this is rather pointless with a point-and-shoot camera wielded by a man who refuses to stop walking in order to compose a shot or adjust the camera in any way.
Still, I do have a number of shots of the gradually lightening sky and a smeary white bit of moon; if you flip through them you get a time lapse of the sky going from black to slate gray as the eastern flank of the Eremita Mesa emerges from darkness. And while I can’t seem to take a photo at night to save my life, I also can’t recommend walking this part of the trail at night under the full moon highly enough. It is quiet, peaceful, and sublimely beautiful.
Turn off the flashlight and give it a try; you won’t regret it. Until you trip and face-plant into a nice rocky bit of the trail, in which case I never said any of this. And now we’re moving along…
Tonto Trail Junction – 6.4 miles, 9:10am (3,200′)
Adkison wisely advises that the 3,440′ descent from the trailhead to this point should take 4 to 5 hours. I had therefore taken the smaller number, divided by two, andarrived at the brilliant conclusion that I should have been here by 8:10am. I was thus already an hour behind schedule.
I had based my optimistic goal on the fact that a similar book gave precisely the same recommendation for the time to go from the top of South Kaibabto the Bright Angel campground at the river near Phantom Ranch. I seemed to recall having done that trail in about 2.5 hours, and I was in better shape this time, so emerged the magical 2 hour goal. This despite the fact that every guide book clearly indicates that Hermit is not early as well maintained as Bright Angel or South Kaibab. And since my strategy on South Kaibab had been to run a good part of the downhill (yes, run), and that was patently unsafe on Hermit, I was of course “late”. It turns out that hope really is not a strategy.
A few notes on the trail itself. The upper part of the Hermit down to the Dripping Springs fork is a breeze — you can run it easily enough. It is well marked, well-maintained, and completely sheltered by the mesas on either side of Hermit Gorge. However, between Santa Maria Spring and the top of the Cathedral Stairs, the trail is washed out or covered by rockfalls in several places. It’s easy enough to traverse given the kindly constructed cairns, but it is far slower going than you might expect on a trail like South Kaibab without such obstacles.
You also stay on a relatively high traverse until reaching the Stairs, at which point you rapidly descend to the Tonto junction. This gives the odd impression that you’re further from the junction than you actually are.
The next leg of the trek to Indian Garden was 7 to 9 hours according to the book, which was clearly going to take more than the crack-induced goal of 4 hours. If it took 7 hours instead, I wouldn’t get to the base of Bright Angelt until 4pm. This wasn’t a problem — you can easily walk up Bright Angel in the dark with a good head light — but it was annoying. I decided to aim for 5 hours, and see how it went.
It goes without saying that cairns, those awesome little piles of rocks that mark trails when you can’t seem to find them otherwise, are one of the clearest signs of community cooperation in the wilderness. That said, a special thanks is due to the cairn makers on the Hermit and Tonto Trails; at any number of points, the trail seemed to vanish into random piles of rocks or dry stream beds. But I always knew there would be a cairn if I just looked carefully enough, and there always was. Thanks to everyone who put the time in to mark these trails for the rest of us.
BTW, I did a quick calculation that if every visitor to the Grand Canyon brings a rock from home to help build a cairn, we can actually fill the canyon back up in 1,374,248 years. It’s something to think about.
Monument Creek – 8.7 miles, 10:20am (2,995′)
There are several points on this hike, both on the Hermit descent andon the first part of the eastbound Tonto, where the Canyon seems to open itself up to you. It happens first as you emerge from the Hermit Gorge, then a number of times as you come across a rise and have an even greater portion of the canyon and river revealed to you. I know this sounds a bit odd, but it’s a gradual process that helps you appreciate the canyon in a way the instant gratification of South Kaibab and Grandview do not.
That said, I am an astonishingly unobservant person, so it should come as no surprise that it never occuredto me to ask what monument had given Monument Creek its name. So I came a around a corner above the creek and found myself staring in astonishment at a rather monumental pillar of rock. Adkison describes it thus: “A tall spire of Tapeats sandstone perched on a base of Brahma shist rises before you.” I think I’ll add that to my eHarmonyprofile next time around. Who can resist a shist spire? No one, that’s who. It’s the hoodoo that I do so well.
Just before the Monument Creek campground, with the monument itself rising above you, there’s a fork in the trail to Granite Rapids. I didn’t take the spur this time around, but the river is tantalizingly close (1.2 miles each way). A bit further up you reach the campground itself and the trail gets a little confusing. Fortunately, again, there are many cairns on the opposite side of the creek bed to guide you up the east canyon flank — a climb of a few hundred feet back to the Tonto plateau.
Somewhere along the Tonto Trail east of Monument I saw a striking blue bird and an equally sized gray one take flight from a black bush just ahead. Unlike the year before on the South Kaibab, where by this time I’d practically mind-melded with a crow, stared down a Big Horn Sheep and seen various other signs of life, this was the first bit and last animal life I saw until Indian Garden. All I thought at the time was “pretty” or something equally inane. My mother later identified them using a field guide a good dose of patience as an Indigo Bunting (blue male) and mate (grayish female). Apparently they’re rare in the Canyon. Excellent.
Cedar Spring Campground – 10 miles, about 11am
Sort of skipped on by this marker. I remember seeing it, but was focused on time. I’m sure it was very nice.
For much of the walk from Monument to this point, your southern view is dominated by the cliffs of The Abyss, a 2,700+ foot cathedral of stone that rises to the canyon rim. I tried several backlit shots of this amazing view as I walked, but none turned out that well.
Salt Creek Campground – 12.1 miles, 11:30am
Nice campground. Much needed outdoor bathrooms. Enough said.
Horn Creek Campground – 16.9 miles, 1:30pm
Apparently the water here is not potable. Something about “highly radioactive contamination of Horn Creek” by uranium from the Lost Orphan Mine, which seems strange — how hard can it be to find an orphan who glows in the dark? It’s like low-jacking, but permanent.
This also played into my “not drinking the water along the way” decision as, apparently, ALL the streams in this area of the canyon are a bit ticky on the Geiger machine. The water at Indian Garden is piped in.
Talking about water, at this point I finished all but the last quarter liter of water and was definitely thirsty. The hike from Salt Creek to Horn was the first and only time the whole day when I felt genuinely thirsty and would have liked at least another liter of water. This means that I should have brought at least 4-5 liters of water for the walk from Hermit to Indian Garden, and more for a warmer day (and of course this whole hike should be avoided in the summer).
Plateau Point Trail Junction – 18.8 miles, 2pm
Given that I just about out of water, hungry, late and generally off plan, I knew the wise decision was to turn right and get water ASAP at Indian Garden. So I pretended to dither for a moment in indecision, which was silly — every almost-great movie has that supposedly mysterious final decision point. At the end of Cast Away, which dirt road will Tom Hanks follow? The one with the hot country girl in the truck; that’s not even hard. At the end of Inception, will the director annoy the crap out of the audience with that frickin’ spinning top? Of course he will. And of course I was going to Plateau Point. That’s why they put it there.
Plateau Point – 19.5 miles, 2:15-2:30pm
I finished the last 0.25 liters of water + electrolytes, stuffed a Cliff Bar in my face, took in the amazing view (and it is amazing; I love this vantage point), and then called my sister to wish her Merry Christmas. The only other person there was a nice kid from Niagara Falls who asked me where I’d come from. I told him I’d just come from Hermit that morning, and he looked utterly crestfallen; apparently he and his friend had just done the same trail in 5 days and were now resting for a day before going up Bright Angel. I said something sheepish about enjoying the view, and he trudged back to camp at Indian Garden. My only saving grace was that he seemed genuinely grateful to know he could get cell phone coverage at the point, and was going to get his phone so he could call home.
Lesson learned = talk less. Lesson that should have been learned = eat more. Yes, that’s why you brought all the food. But more on that later. Eager to get some more water, I took a quick shot of the Colorado and hurried toward the year-round water fountain at Indian Garden.
Indian Garden Campground – 20.8 miles, 3pm
The campground offers closed bathrooms, year-round water via a water fountain, great camping, and a generally beautiful shelter amongst the trees. At the fountain, a friendly Indian family appeared to be filling large clear plastic tubes with water, as if they had evicerated their Camel Packs and just taken the bladders. Makes a lot of sense if you think about it.
Just above the water fountain I came across a several mule dear with their puffy white butts. I secretly hope they also identify us by the color and size our our rumps. A male with a nice rack blocked the trail for a few seconds while the does scampered into the grass.
K* and the Green Coat of Humility (aka, Da Bonk)
On the way up Bright Angel, I happened upon a girl and her two parents as they started up the climb after a break at the 3-mile rest house. I’d passed them on the way out to Plateau Point, so I smiled and said hello again, and then rather awkwardly fell into step behind her while her parents followed at a slower pace.
I should mention that this girl was bright-eyed and utterly devoid of perspiration, and her equally bright green coat bore not a single smudge of mud or dirt. I was therefore filled with certainty that I would soon leave her in the dust. Well mud. Okay, muck. Regardless, as she walked effortlessly through the puddles and slop, skipping over boulders and wooden steps alike, my confidence faded and — worse — we had entered that elevator-like awkwardness of two people on a parallel journey who had let the silence last far too long.
This awkward arrangement persisted for some minutes — me trailing determinedly just behind, she gliding ahead, each pretending not to be aware of the other — until I finally said something ridiculous by way of introduction. It turned out she — let’s call her K* — could also converse charmingly and effortlessly while kicking my butt up the trail.
Moving rapidly past that she was a 20-something marathoner in training who had repeatedly climbed Whitney and many other peaks, it was still rather annoying when she dropped me as I “rested” (heaved up a lung) at the side of the trail about a mile later.
A few minutes later I trudged past the 1.5 mile resthouse; only a thousand feet to go. A few minutes after that, I was taking a rest at one of the great lookout spots on Bright Angel when she caught up to me — apparently she’d taken a moment at the rest house — and we started the butt kicking again. This worked rather well in my favor (pushing me rapidly toward the top) until my mom called and I decided to take the call, waving K* ahead and thinking I’d catch up in a few minutes.
I agreed to meet my mom at the Bright Angel bar, hung up, took about three steps, and realized I had somehow bonked while not even moving; I had no energy, no ability to recover as I rested, and I was just baked. Shawn, this is a fork. Stick it in yourself. Your done.
The good news was that I had only about 3/4 of a mile to go. The bad was that it was going to take a while. I focused on the beer and hot wings waiting for me at the bar, and plunged on again. This is only notable b/c I had bonked on the same trail about a a mile earlier just last Christmas. Then I blamed a lack of electrolytes. This time it appeared that I simple hadn’t eaten enough, which was simply dumb. Bright Angel 3. Shawn 0.
Bright Angel Trailhead – 25.4 miles, 5:30pm
Hurray! Now where’s the bar? It was a strange finish. I was glad to be done, bummed about the bonk, but I think more it was that I had emotionally finished the hike at the Plateau Point trail junction. Everything up to that point was new and mysterious. Everything after that point was beautiful but familiar. I knew I’d make it up from there; it was just a question of time.
As I walked toward the Bright Angel lodge along the rim, I caught a brief flash of K* and the green coat. I suspect she was watching for her parents, saw me, and dodged out of sight so I wouldn’t feel bad about having been dropped so easily. Either way, I thank her for the pacing.
All told, the 25.4 mile hike had taken 11 hours and 20 minutes, so an average speed of about 2.2 mph including rest stops. Not exactly blistering, but not terrible. According to one site, the record rim-to-rim time from North Kaibab to South Kaibab (about 20.6 miles) via Phantom Ranch is 3:06:47, for an average speed of 6.6 mph. So all I need to do is triple my speed and I’m there.
So would I recommend this hike? Absolutely. The trail was reasonably good at all points, the views are amazing, you get a huge cross-section of Canyon Geology, and you’re never that far from potable water. I’d do it again in a second. Well, 40,800 seconds actually, but close enough.
Bright Angel Lodge Bathroom – 25.41 miles, 5:35pm
Let’s just say I needed to wash up. I looked up from the sink and noticed that I was still wearing my sunglasses. I knew it was dark that last half hour on the trail…
Bright Angel Lodge Bar – 25.411 miles, 5:45pm
This was the point at which I planned to consume vast quantities of fried foods, beer, hot chocolate, and pretty much anything else on the menu. However, after two hot chocolates, a Fat Tire beer and a few bites of chicken tender, I found myself feeling washed out and nauseated — which is very rare for me, no matter what I eat. I suspect that I simply did not eat enough at Plateau Point before watering up, and my blood sugar was too jacked up by this point to take the sugar of the hot chocolate.
One other thought, however, was that the new electroylte mix I was trying was too artificial. The brand I’d picked was CamelBak “Elixir”, and I’d grabbed it w/o reading the ingredients too carefully. It has caffeine, sorbitol and other stuff that I would rather do without. More natural appearing and higher-rated brands include NUUN, but I haven’t tried them yet.
Notes for Next Time
Take more water. Eat more food and actually stop for lunch. Try a longer day (say, October or February) so you can stop and check out the views, including going down to Granite Rapids. Wear boots instead of trail running shoes — the rocks-on-rocks on the Hermit descent are an ankle’s worst nightmare. Learn more about the geology. And, of course, share it all with someone.