September 8th – 10th, 2008
My first overnight hike on the Tonto Trail linked the Grandview and South Kaibab Trails. I was lucky to be scheduled a 3-day weekend, and something about this stretch of trail called to me.
Despite its proximity to the South Rim’s center of activity, this segment can bear a sense of remoteness and isolation – especially in the lingering heat of September.
When I got the permit, I remember how the ranger at the backcountry office stressed that the water sources west of Grapevine could be dry, and altogether tried to discourage the trip. The ranger suggested placing a water cache for the final day, which I did.
On Day One I spent the night on Horseshoe Mesa, utilizing the extra hours to explore The Cave of the Domes and the Last Chance Mine.
On Day Two I backpacked from Horseshoe Mesa to Boulder Creek, immediately to the west of Grapevine Creek.
On Day Three I hiked from my camp at Boulder Creek to the South Rim via the South Kaibab Trail.
Day One: Cave of the Domes and Last Chance Mine
Since my first hike on the Grandview Trail only scratched the surfaced of points of interest at Horseshoe Mesa, I was excited to dig a little deeper on the first day of this backpacking trip.
My friend Michael dropped me off at the trailhead at 10am (of course, as per our tendency). I left the camera stowed away for the initial 3 miles down the Grandview Trail. My philosophy was that since I’d taken plenty of photos here just a month ago, I could forego pictures altogether until I came to more unexplored terrain.
I suppose that the official campsites at Horseshoe Mesa qualified as such unexplored terrain. This is an early afternoon photo – my strategy here was to immediately set a base camp and then to take off exploring for the day.
The green water bottle seen in the vestibule reminds me that I still used a denatured alcohol, pepsi-can stove at the time (the water bottle contained the denatured alcohol). It wasn’t until 2009 when I hiked the John Muir Trail that I switched over to a canister stove, the MSR Pocket Rocket, which I’ve been using since.
With a lighter pack I took off to locate the fabled Cave of the Domes, the only cave in the National Park that was open to public visitation. In the ensuing years the cave was officially closed, and as of 2022 it has not been reopened.
Immediately inside the entrance was an ammo box with a register book in it. I was surprised to find that the cave was somewhat frequently visited – somebody was there yesterday.
I was also interested to see that someone had tied a ball of string to a rock at the entrance, presumably so you could unwind the string as you explored deeper into the cave, with a quick method to retrace your steps. The string was gone when I returned to the cave only a month later.
I didn’t explore very deep. I was solo, unprepared with only a single headlamp, and felt uncomfortable in such a dark, enclosed environment with a tiny entrance (I had to stoop low to enter the cave). I suppose it was here that discovered I’d never be enthusiastic about spelunking or exploring caves in general.
Back out on the surface of the earth, I followed the trail that leads down from the western arm of Horseshoe Mesa to the Tonto Trail. The path was steep and often loose (Similar to other trails off the mesa), but in good overall condition. The above photo looks up at the tip of the west arm of the mesa.
From here I followed the Tonto Trail east toward Hance Creek.
In Hance Creek I stopped to fill my water supplies. The water would see me through the night and the next day, until I’d arrive at the spring in Grapevine.
There was a lone backpacker here, and the overcast weather gave the environment a quiet, almost dismal quality to it. I was happy to be headed back up to Horseshoe Mesa for the night.
Peter Berry’s historic Last Chance Mine is located along the Redwall climb from Hance Creek to the top of the mesa. You can see the rusty old items pictured here at the entrance, as well as an old wheelbarrow at the junction for Page Spring.
Some of these items have vanished in the years since I took these photos in 2008.
The entrance to the mine was blocked with an iron gate, with this sign posted to explain the closure. One can still venture about 10 yards into the mine before being blocked by the gate.
I thought it was really neat to see the rails that lined the floor of the tunnel, conjuring images of the mining carts seen in so many action movies.
It was late in the evening by the time I made it back to camp for the night on Horseshoe Mesa.
see more photos from Day One:
Day Two: Horseshoe Mesa to Boulder Creek
On this second day I would hike from Horseshoe Mesa to Gravepine Spring, where I would take a long, mid-day siesta before moving on to a random location east of Boulder Creek to make a dry camp.
Just when I’d thought I’d left all the rusty artifacts of the mesa behind, I was greeted by this big old pile of cans near the top of the trail that descends to Cottonwood Creek. I think I found the designated trash pit of over 100 years ago.
Cottonwood Creek is green and lush for most of the year, thanks to its namesake trees. The water here, however, is seasonal and often nonexistent or difficult to find. I didn’t see any on this September day.
Now on the west side of Cottonwood Creek, the above photo looks up the canyon. The redwall rim of the west side of Horseshoe Mesa is seen on the left.
The view in to the Canyon’s inner gorge was very impressive as I rounded above the mouth of Cottonwood Creek.
This is the only other human being I would see until reaching the South Kaibab Trail – it looks like he agreed about the view.
The photo above looks south, upstream at the large side canyon that is Grapevine creek. When I first reached it I could see the Tonto Trail stretching away on the canyon’s west side – only a virtual stone’s throw away – but it would take about 6 miles of hiking and several hours for me to get there.
This is Grapevine Spring, where I found water and stopped for a few hours to escape the mid-day heat. This would be the only place with water for over ten miles, until reaching my cache on the South Kaibab Trail.
So I cooked and enjoyed my dinner here, drank as much as I could, and filled all my water.
Here at last I rounded the head of the canyon and began the traverse down its far side
I remember how the feature pictured here caught my eye. I call it the Grapevine Thumb, though I think Grand Canyon’s most renowned rock climbers (who have climbed to its summit) refer to it as the Grapevine Buttress.
I stopped and made camp for the night at Boulder Creek, a dry canyon that’s significant as the first named feature west of Grapevine.
see more photos from this day:
Day Three: Boulder Creek to the South Rim
This third day was all business, as I was on a mission to backpack 18 miles up and out of the Canyon on a hot September day.
I was up at dawn.
Judging by the appearance of the photo above, one might think that this is a major named feature of the Grand Canyon, a prominent temple or butte.
On the contrary, it’s simply an unnamed point of the Redwall Limestone as it divides Grapevine Creek and Boulder Creek – one of hundreds of curves in the Canyon’s topography.
Such is the perspective gained by venturing below the rim of the Grand Canyon.
I was thankful for the presence of some light clouds in the morning – not only for their shade, but for the unique way in which they shone spotted shadows upon the landscape.
Crossing Cremation Creek was more strenuous than expected as I climbed up and down its numerous drainages.
There was one section – I believe it was somewhere near Cremation – where I lost the trail for a few minutes. The sensation of knowing you’re off trail (unintentionally) is always disconcerting – especially in hot, dry conditions – but it wasn’t long before I picked it up again.
This shady overhang provided a welcome respite from the heat.
I don’t think I knew it at the time, but these large cairns mark the boundary between the Park Service’s designated overnight use areas. Since the Tonto Trail approaches the main “corridor” trails here, no camping is allowed on the distant side of this boundary.
I was back on familiar ground after reaching The Tipoff, with its signature outhouse at the junction with the South Kaibab Trail. My water cache was placed in this vicinity, and I only required a small amount of the supplemental water.
From here it was the typical, weary slog up to the rim.