And make no mistake: Though we won't descend to the Colorado River, the mezzanine-level views on the Tonto are unmatched. We gaze out at crooked fingers of ridges, like Ottoman Amphitheater and Wotans Throne, reaching toward us from both rims. This mid-canyon perspective--when you're deep in the belly of erosion, but can still see the massive canyon sprawling above and below and to the sides--is the highlight of a rim-to-river trek; on the Tonto Trail, it's what you see the whole time. We look across a sere landscape of prickly pear and giant beavertail cacti, sagebrush, and broken plates of sedimentary rock. Later in April, prickly pears will light up the plateau with their big, brilliant red and yellow flowers.
We circle around deep gashes made by tributary creeks like Grapevine, Boulder, and Lonetree. These "side" canyons are so spectacular they'd probably be national parks unto themselves anywhere else. And while designated backcountry campsites on popular hikes are virtually always full, the Tonto offers at-large, all-to-yourself nights and few encounters with other hikers during the day.
The quiet affords Penny and me more one-on-one time with Alex and Nate than we ever have at home—listening to their simple, awestruck exclamations, or curling up together in a cool refuge of shade during the midday heat. This is what we came for.
On our last night, we camp on the plateau between Lonetree and Cremation Canyons, in wind that would carry the tents to Utah if we didn't stake them out well. By early evening, the sun drops behind the rim, but dusk lasts for two hours, setting the tips of the tallest formations ablaze. Across the canyon, the 3,000-foot-tall walls of Zoroaster Temple cleave the sky like a red warbonnet, and the sun’s last rays soften the cliffs of the North Rim. We have eight miles and 4,000 feet of climbing tomorrow--a tough haul for my young kids. But tonight, we're enjoying that sweat equity: a private campsite with a view of time itself.