I kick the microspikes on my boots into the hardpacked snow and ice coating the trail. Then I start taking short, deliberate steps, following an old mining path barely more than a foot wide. A slip here could end with a plunge hundreds of feet off the sheer cliff.
With my free left hand, I grab reflexively at scraggly little weeds protruding from cracks, as if they would hold my weight against a fall. With my other hand I clutch the fingers of my 7-year-old daughter, Alex, as she inches along the same scary traverse, just in front of me. And just in front of her, my 9-year-old son, Nate, and my wife, Penny, finish navigating this treacherous stretch of trail. It’s only 20 feet of ice, but it feels like a mile.
Penny and I wanted to introduce our kids to the Grand on an intimate, in-your-face level, not just a South Rim drive-by or inner-corridor mob walk, and we figured it’d be better to take our chances with the possibility of spring ice at the 7,400-foot rim than wait until summer’s guaranteed triple-digit temps. So we decided to spend our kids’ spring break on the four-day, 26.8-mile trek from Grandview Point to the South Kaibab trailhead, which offers the park’s best balance between easy access, deep-canyon scenery, and smaller crowds (except the route’s beginning and end).
Even without ice, the Grandview Trail is intimidating–it drops 3,500 feet in 4.5 miles–but it’s not technical. Soon we sink below the freezer zone and zigzag down to Horseshoe Mesa. We’ve walked into the desert in full spring by the time we hit the Tonto Plateau. We shed our microspikes and fleece jackets, and walk in 70-degree afternoon sunshine down to our first campsite, an inner-canyon oasis of shade trees on Cottonwood Creek, four miles in. Up here near its headwaters, the creek is a slender stream gurgling below red cliffs. But a mile farther downstream, it carves a ragged, 1,000-foot-deep side canyon explorable all the way down to an impassable pouroff.
On our second day, we hike a half mile downstream and turn west onto the Tonto Trail. We’ll follow this for the next 18 miles, to our exit on the South Kaibab Trail. Hiking for three days on the Tonto Trail is unlike any other Grand Canyon hike: Instead of the exhausting elevation change you get on rim-to-river routes, you cross the gently rolling Tonto Plateau, staying between 3,600 and 3,800 feet the whole way.