Thursday, February 12, 2015

Walking the Big Lonely: Four days on the Tonto Plateau


First light, after climbing out to the rim on the Bright Angel trail with a headlamp.
Late in the day, day three I think, far into my thirteen miles, I happened upon a man attempting to dry out his gear at the desolate Cedar Spring (Condensation happens, even in the Big Ditch). This would be the only person I would see all day. In the Grand Canyon. What if, I thought, Something has happened to every other person on the planet, and I'm the only one left alive? That's how it felt this week on the Tonto. The designated campsites nestled into the rocks, deserted and quiet. At Horn Creek, water I was warned not to drink, tainted by a long-ago uranium mine, trickled into the perfect dipping pool. I could not resist--that is probably not what I'm going to die from.

The loveliness that is Granite Rapids. Not strictly on the Tonto, but who can resist a February swim and sleeping on sand?
The Grand Canyon was mostly, oddly, silent, the corridor trails deserted despite the seventy degree temperatures. A handful of backpackers lay collapsed at Indian Garden, moaning about the remaining miles to Phantom Ranch. Not me. I was taking a left, onto the Tonto trail.


The Tonto. It's where I seem to always end up. It's wild, lonely and desolate. People have died here. There's a lot of climbing in and out and over huge drainages, walking exposed above raven colored cliffs that plunge into the Colorado. The entire trail is many miles long, belting the Canyon at midpoint, and I know I have barely scratched its surface. I've only begun to venture off the main paths. There is still a lot to discover.



On the last day I decided to see if I could stay at Indian Garden rather than Horn Creek, two and a half miles farther, to catch an earlier shuttle, and the ranger at the campground looked puzzled. "Of course!" she said. "If you could stay here instead of there, why wouldn't you? Welcome to civilization."

At Indian Garden, a large group chatted in non-campground voices. "Going to bed already?" a man exclaimed as he saw me with a toothbrush. Later, I overheard him name dropping: "I wonder if people on the rim can see our headlamps. When I was on Mount Whitney.."  An earnest conversation over whether to have breakfast before or after packing up ensued, with a woman stating that she always had breakfast before, so she could "digest while packing."

Eyeroll. Give me the Tonto any day. If you could stay on the Tonto instead of the main corridor, why wouldn't you?

So I counted. I've backpacked into the canyon now six times. That's a lot! But I want to explore past the boundaries. Someone tell me about Grandview, Horseshoe Mesa, Grapevine, South Bass.

14 comments:

  1. Have you read Colin Fletcher's The Man Who Walked Through Time? He hiked the Tonto through the length of the canyon many years ago. So the hikers at Indian Garden were moaning about four more miles DOWN? Wait till they leave Phantom Ranch to hike back out! Agree that the chatter of groups after the silence of wild places is hard.

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    1. The campground wasn't very full and most people went to bed at 7, when it got dark. Just these people talked. But they finally threw in the towel about 8, luckily.

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  2. Give me a deserted trail anytime! I get tired of trails full of people. Your backpacking trip looks wonderful.

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    1. I kind of expected to see people, so was prepared. It was a nice surprise!

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  3. The Tanner trail is good too. I've day hiked to Grandview.

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    1. Where's the Tanner? I'll have to look it up.

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  4. Great adventure! Enjoyed the photos!

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    1. Thanks for reading! It's so hard to capture the GC. I've about given up.

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  5. For me the ideal frequency for meeting other people on the trail is somewhere around one every five miles.

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    1. Hmm, I've never thought of it that way but that's a good metric.

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  6. I think we all need a taste, a morsel, a reminder of sharing with others to be quickly drawn back into finding the road less traveled and quiet solitude, my happy place. During my recent visit to Bryce, I felt quite luck to have timed my visit to minimize shared experiences. I found plenty near the rim and at the trailheads but saw only 4 people during my two days of hiking in the canyons. In Zion, I visited the very popular Angels Landing on a winter weekday, too many for my liking, but not nearly as many as on a weekend, plus gasp, the trail was paved WTH? Glad I had the opportunity to do it, but sure makes me appreciate my quiet time. Ahhhhh . . . Now I need to add Tonto to my list when I head to the southwest next winter.

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    2. I need to spend time at Bryce. If you can't or don't want to get a backcountry permit at the gc, a nice day hike would be to go down to indian gardens and hike as far as you wanted on tonto west. It would be a long hike, though. Overnight is better.

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