June 15-19, 2009
“I’ll give you the permit,” the ranger said, “But this is definitely a red flag situation.”
I stood at the South Rim’s Backcountry Center, and was just give a permit to backpack through a region of the Grand Canyon called The Gems (sometimes it’s called The Jewels). The term for this section of the Tonto Trail is derived from the names of the side canyons in the area – Ruby Canyon, Sapphire Canyon, Turquoise, and so on.
The hike would be about 50 miles through the course of 5 days and 4 nights – not an especially big deal – but numerous circumstances piqued the ranger’s alarm bells (and rightfully so!).
It was June. Backpacking the Canyon at this time is not recommended because of extreme heat.
This stretch of the Tonto Trail is notorious for having little (to no) reliable water.
I was a solo male. A quick browse through Death in the Grand Canyon reveals that history hasn’t been kind to solo male hikers.
I would not have a vehicle at the trailhead. I hired a fellow cook from the El Tovar to drop me off at the South Bass trailhead. This meant that once he departed, I was committed to follow through with the trek to Hermit’s Rest. As a contingency I’d cache some water at the trailhead. But if I needed to bail out from the trailhead, I’d still be faced with 20+ waterless miles on sparsely traveled dirt roads to reach civilization.
The Gems traverse offers no viable bail-out routes to the rim (except via Jicarilla Point – beyond my skill level at the time), and there’s only a few (difficult) ways to access the Colorado River. Temperatures in June often exceed 100 degrees, with little shade from the blazing sun to be found.
All of this was okay with me, save for the water situation. The only truly reliable water source at this time of year was the Colorado River. Clambering down to the River in this area, at this time of year, would be an adventure in itself.
After receiving the permit, I lingered in the Backcountry Center to speak with an experienced ranger I’d developed somewhat of a rapport with (Lon Ayers). Once he was through with whoever he’d been helping, I handed him my fresh permit and said “What can you tell me about the water through here?”
I don’t remember all that was said, but I think it was mentioned which side canyons would provide an easier track to the River than others. I do remember that Serpentine was pointed out as an easy walk-down, and not to drink the water in Serpentine itself (to go to the River instead) because of reported gastrointestinal issues.
What sticks in my mind is how Lon humorously referred to a couple of enigmatic statements in Harvey Butcharts Treks. Specifically, Harvey stated in the book something like “It is possible to access the River in X area and Y area,” with absolutely zero elaboration. Typical.
I felt good about the information I’d acquired. Lon said “With the wet spring we’ve had, you should be okay. When you come back, could you stop in and let us know what you find? We don’t have any water reports from The Gems for this time of year.”
It was a successful trip. I often carried up to 2 gallons of water (16 pounds), and I didn’t encounter another hiker until the final day, at Dripping Springs.
The itinerary broke down as follows:
Day 1 – South Bass Trail to Bass Rapid
Day 2 – Bass Rapid to the East Side of Ruby Canyon
Day 3 – East Side of Ruby to the East Side of Agate Canyon
Day 4 – East of Agate Canyon to Boucher Creek (& Crystal Rapid)
Day 5 – Boucher Creek to Hermit’s Rest
Day One: South Bass Trail to Bass Rapid
A coworker drove me to the South Bass Trailhead on June 15th. The ride was rougher than I’d expected – slow and tedious. It took almost 2 hours to get there from the South Rim Village.
Soon I was alone with nothing but The Canyon and the miles ahead.
In my original triplog I noted that I liked the look of the Coconino Sandstone in this area of the Canyon. Maybe because it was “less thick” here.
I also enjoyed all the green vegetation throughout the Hermit Shale, lending a lush quality to the terrain. In hindsight this was probably due to the timing in June and the “wet spring” referenced above.
This is where the South Bass Trail meets the Royal Arch Route, which comes in from the west. I think it was shortly before this hike when I heard of a couple that was backpacking Royal Arch, but missed their turn here and got lost, eventually needing rescue.
Mount Huethawali dominates the landscape. After the trip I wrote “It’s supposed to be a relatively easy climb, and looked like a fun one to try, but I didn’t have the solo ambition on this hot day at the beginning of the trip.”
I’d go on to summit Huethawali in February of 2011, at the close of a Royal Arch trip.
The views open as I approach the Redwall break into upper Bass Canyon.
As I review these photos, it strikes me that the South Bass Trail is very efficient in its route from the rim to the River. In many cases with Grand Canyon trails, one has to contour for a significant distance before reaching a break through the cliffs (usually at the Redwall).
This isn’t true on the South Bass. Its descent is straightforward and consistent, save for a long switchback in the Supai.
Somewhere in Bass Canyon – below the Redwall but above the Tapeats – I remember being amused at the silliness involved in suddenly talking out loud to myself. It wasn’t an elaborate conversation, but it struck me how quickly I tuned in to the rhythms of a solo hike.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this striking geological formation is called The Wheeler Fold. It was so named, I believe, by one of Bass’s guests.
There were a few water pockets below the Tonto, where the trail breaks into lower Bass Canyon. I’d be camping at the River, so I didn’t need to drink from these.
This historical boat is called The Ross Wheeler, and it serves as an iconic landmark at the foot of the trail. The boat was abandoned in 1915, but its claim to fame is that it was constructed by Bert Loper, who has a venerable and storied history among Grand Canyon river runners.
It took about 7 hours for me to reach the River from the trailhead, but I was really taking my time in the heat and experiencing this trail for the first time. There was still plenty of daylight to spare after I chose my camp, thanks to the long summer days.
Bill Bass’s main encampment was on the north side of the River, but there was plenty of history to be found here on the south side, too.
So I spent the rest of the evening exploring the area. I followed a trail that led a good distance downstream, but turned around before laying eyes on Shinumo Rapid (Bass Rapid is the one featured in today’s photos).
more photos from Day One:
Day 2: South Bass to East of Ruby Canyon
Morning at Bass Rapid was quiet, peaceful, and uneventful.
Soon I was back up to the Tonto Trail and on my way east.
Soon after getting into a rhythm on the Tonto, I was lucky to encounter this Great Basin Gopher Snake!
It was an especially appropriate wildlife sighting, because I was approaching Serpentine Canyon 🙂
There were some nasty looking pockets of water where the trail crosses the bed of Serpentine Canyon. I was warned that the water there can have a laxative effect. Fortunately my reserves were still full from filling my water in the morning.
You can see the head of Serpentine Canyon in the photo above. High on the rim, Fossil Mountain sits to the right, and Havasupai Point is on the left. The lower ridge on the right (extending out of view of the image) is called The Grand Scenic Divide.
The Divide is a place of geological importance in Grand Canyon, but has little significance outside the realm of Grand Canyon’s landscape (despite the illustrious title).
West of here the Tonto Plateau shrinks, and the rock layer called The Esplanade stretches to become prominent as a trans-canyon hiker’s corridor. The character of the dramatic buttes and temples that punctuate the Canyon to east dies off, and at the River level, the primeval Granite and Schist of the inner gorge disappears for a time, too.
Emerald Canyon (above)
The largest canyons throughout the Gems are called Ruby, Turquoise, and Sapphire, and these are the most likely to hold water. After leaving the River with 2 gallons of water, I’d gone through a good deal of it before arriving at Ruby Canyon (it was June, after all).
There was no water where the trail crossed Ruby, so I had a choice to make whether to explore upstream or downstream for water. I forget exactly why I opted to explore upstream – I think it was just a hunch – but I found some puddles of water only 100 or 200 yards from the trail. Score!
So I sat and pumped water for a while. In these days I was still using a Katadyn Hiker Filter. It was a bit of a process, but ultimately the pump filter was ideal because it let me pull from a shallow source.
It was neat to see animal tracks (probably mule deer) in the wet dirt next to the water, which I took as an indication that there wasn’t much more of it to be found in the immediate area. The source itself was riddled with bugs and tadpoles, and thus not a very attractive venture, but it was wet! Besides, as Ed Abbey noted in Desert Solitaire, it’s a sign of healthy water when it’s crawling with insects and supporting gooey green life. Right? Yeah.
The day grew old, but I continued into the evening to make a dry camp. I stopped on the east side of Ruby, at one of the northern points that afforded a wonderful view of the River.
Monsoon clouds teased rain, but brought none to me.
This photo (above) was one my last to get published in Backpacker Magazine. I was thrilled because they printed it as a big spread that used almost 2 complete pages. It was a peak in my pursuit of photography, as I never scored a cover photo.
Soon thereafter I began to withdraw from trying to achieve the next level in photography. The nature of the business was rapidly changing with the internet and increasingly high-tech cell phones. I was published in Backpacker only one more time before their regular calls for submissions grew less frequent, and I lost interest.
more photos from Day 2:
Day 3: East of Ruby to East of Agate Canyon
The morning view of the gorge near Ruby Canyon didn’t have the spectacular light seen on the previous evening, but the sight was still very impressive.
This area of The Gems has an unmistakable beauty seen in the ribbons of granite that punctuate the river corridor.
This drainage above is called Jade Canyon.
In 2009 the camping department in the general store at the South Rim used to carry a good supply of maps. I’m not talking about the standard Sky Terrain and Nat Geo maps. They had a collection of the actual USGS quad sheets – the large 7.5-minute ones at 1:24,000 scale. Most regions of the Park were readily available – especially those regions that were rarely visited by backpackers.
In addition to these, they had a large, fold-up map that was specifically for The Gems. I still have the map but unfortunately don’t have access to it at the time of this writing, so I have little more info about the map itself. I remember that it was curiously one-sided, and was awkward to fold like a traditional highway map or a USFS regional road map.
The point I’m leading to is that this map had names attached to the lesser side canyons throughout The Gems – names I haven’t seen referenced anywhere else. The only other place I’ve seen them labelled is in Bob Bordasch’s trip report, and there it looks like he manually inserted the names onto a base map.
I’d venture that Turquoise Canyon has the most reliable water to be found throughout the entirety of The Gems. Once I hit the bed of the drainage I soon found water downstream, but it was a puddle filled with (literally) at least 100 tadpoles. Farther down the canyon looked promising, so I continued about a quarter-mile until I found good pools that had some flow.
As I started the task of pumping water to see me through the next 24 hours (I fell into a rhythm of reaching water once a day, at midday, and dry camping), I noticed that some big puffy clouds were approaching.
I though to myself, “Great, once I’m done here there will be some shade, so I’ll take a nice break before continuing.”
But soon I heard some threatening thunder, and realized those shady puffy clouds heralded a good old summer monsoon.
A light rain introduced itself, and suddenly I was trying to pump my two gallons as fast as possible. The thought of flash flooding occurred to me, and I wanted to get out the wash, pronto.
The following ten minutes were very exciting as I basically ran out of Turquoise Canyon, under pouring rain and with strong wind in my face. Thunder echoed throughout the chasms.
The passing storm had calmed by the time I reached the trail.
Geikie Peak is farther away than it looks, as a number of side canyons are hidden in the landscape. This may (or may not) have been the area where the trail itself began to intermittently disappear. I learned how the Canyon hikers in the old days must have felt losing themselves on burro trails, because the track I followed kept disappearing, only to reappear just as easily.
I set camp near the rim of the gorge and near the foot of Geikie Peak.
Passing storms in the west set the stage for some fabulous evening light and a nice sunset.
more photos from Day 3:
Day 4: East of Agate to Boucher Creek (& Crystal Rapid)
One of the more attractive objectives in planning this trip was the opportunity to go have a look at Crystal Rapid for the first time. I’d read a lot about the rapid in the Death in Grand Canyon book and was curious to have a look at it.
I’d read that it was possible to get down Slate Creek to do so, without any rock climbing. Due to it being June and all, I figured that in any case it would be a good place to get to the River for water.
The main drainage of Slate Creek is blocked by a pair of difficult (and generally impassable) pourovers. The key to accessing the bed of the canyon is to locate the Tapeats pillar pictured above. It’s on the east side.
Once I saw this landmark, I scrambled down toward the base of it and continued down a slope to the north. Some parts of the route were even cairned.
I took a long siesta at the rapid, near the shade of this tree. Today would be the shortest day of the hike, mileage-wise, so I took the opportunity to escape the midday heat and enjoy the show at the rapid. June is the height of the commercial river-running season, so their was no shortage of rafts to see go by.
I’d hoped to see a stray beer or two washed ashore. But alas, I found nothing.
Here’s the same raft… but the boatman is gone! He was washed overboard, and here you see the passenger scrambling to pull him back in. Ultimately all looked well from my perspective.
I don’t think I could see Crystal’s famous “rock garden,” from the narrow mouth of Slate Creek. I’d like to think that the raft avoided getting pinned on those infamous rocks.
It was awesome to look down on the rapid again after climbing up to the Tonto Trail.
Rounding the corner below Marsh Butte was similarly a wonderful experience. Many of the familiar landmarks east of the Gems came into view, and it felt like coming home.
Boucher Creek was a sight for sore eyes. With the exception of the Colorado River earlier in the day, Boucher Creek had the best flowing water I’d seen for the entirety of the trip!
more photos from Day 4:
Day 5: Boucher Creek to Hermit’s Rest
Did I mention that it was great to camp near some running water?
This final day of the trip – up and out to Hermit’s Rest – would be my first experience on the Boucher Trail. I’d hiked to Dripping Springs for the first time earlier in the year, but everything else was new to me.
The Redwall wasn’t so red here, and I was impressed with the quality of the Redwall break itself. There was fortunately still plenty of deep shade when I went up it, and I surmised that it’s probably the most confined and direct Redwall break on all the official Grand Canyon trails.
At the top of the Redwall I was greeted by an open, sunny expanse of land that made for some relatively flat walking. This lower end of the Supai contour is punctuated by Whites Butte.
The Boucher Trail has a reputation for being one the most difficult trails on the South Rim.
Personally I’d give the New Hance Trail that title – especially mile for mile, because Boucher is significantly longer. I think Boucher’s reputation is based mostly on its length, its exposure in the Supai, and its Supai scrambles.
Below Yuma Point there’s a short Esplanade terrace that stretches to the northeast, with excellent views. Lucky hikers may even find some shallow potholes of water here, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Backpackers tend to refer to this spot as Yuma Point, but Yuma point technically sits high on the rim, in the forest above. If you find a USGS topo of the area, you’ll find that the spot is actually called Columbus Point. I imagine the designation dates back to the days when the Sante Fe Railroad was running tours on the Hermit Trail.
Regardless of the location’s modern name, the views are fantastic! Here I took the last extended break of the hike, watching ravens soar on the breeze as I ate the rest of my food and enjoyed the scene.
This was the last photo I took on the hike, as Drippings Springs lay ahead. The spring was familiar territory, a day-hiking destination where I’d speak to human beings for the first time in 5 days.
This was my longest excursion into the Grand Canyon to date, and surely an excellent one that I’ll always remember. My ability to do The Gems – solo in June – was a great boost of confidence. It inspired me to go on and continue backpacking the Canyon throughout the summer of 2009.