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Grand Canyon National Park

Drop into America's belly on a little-known hike that dips in and out of four different canyons, each blessed with gurgling spring water.

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The Trip
Treasure Hunting Discover the Canyon’s best-kept secrets on this 50-mile hike down the secluded West Tonto Trail.

Life gets pared down quickly on the West Tonto. Even on milder spring days on this arid shelf, your world is reduced to walking and water. Or, more specifically, walking to get to water. For five days, that is what you do. It’s all you do. And it will be the best five days of your life.

The trek that Grand Canyon regulars call “the jewels” descends the South Bass Trail for four miles through brush-choked Bass Canyon to the Tonto Plateau, an exposed and undulating balcony perched 2,000 feet above the Colorado River. Rather than continuing down Bass to the rapids, you’ll hang a right on the West Tonto. Here, the people are few and water is sparse–yet conveniently spaced a day’s walk apart in side canyons all named after precious gems: Ruby, Turquoise, Sapphire, and Agate.

The bumpy 25-mile dirt road to South Bass trailhead weeds out many would-be hikers. (That, and the mandatory car shuttle to Hermits Rest trailhead, at the end of your hike.) And since most of this trek is a lateral ramble across the Grand Canyon’s panoramic mezzanine level, it is not sought out by goal-oriented endurance hikers who stick to more difficult and crowded rim-to-river trails. Heading east from the South Bass junction, the barely discernable West Tonto Trail winds through a sun-baked, low-lying obstacle course of blackbrush and prickly pear cactus. The canyon falls away to your left, dropping thousands of feet straight down into a tight corridor of black schist and green river. Across the gorge, an archipelago of pastel-colored buttes and temples rise from an ocean of space stretching some 20 miles to the canyon’s North Rim. Within two miles from the junction, you’ll reach the twisting folds of Serpentine Canyon, your first night’s camp. If you’re lucky, the tiny seep at the canyon’s bottom will be running, producing a trickle of the cold, sweet water that emerges from an ancient aquifer. (Depending on seasonal precipitation, Serpentine can be dry. Be prepared to dry camp your first night, carrying six to eight liters per person.)

Your second day, it’s another six achingly beautiful miles on the Tonto to Ruby Canyon, the next water source. As you circumnavigate the deep drainage from the Tonto’s high perch, you’ll spot the glint of water. Near the head of the canyon, the trail meets a sandy streambed and a series of shallow, clear pools that are fed by a bubbling spring. Mission accomplished. Guzzle up.

On day three, continue connecting the dots, hiking six miles from Ruby to Turquoise Canyon and another water-blessed camp. Between the jewels, take in the space and solitude, venturing to the lip of the plateau to look down at the Colorado. Day four brings Sapphire and Agate–each a lush oasis. After 14 long miles, you’ll reach flowing Boucher Creek. Camp here, next to what seems like an obscene amount of water. On your fifth and final day, you’ll climb 10 steep miles out of the canyon on the Boucher and Hermit Trails to Hermits Rest trailhead, where your car is parked. (Note: Reliable water on this route can usually be found in Ruby and Turquoise Canyons and Boucher Creek. Depending on seasonal precipitation, water may also be found in Serpentine, Sapphire, and Agate Canyons. A high-clearance, 4WD vehicle is required.)

>> Plan B: the east tonto trail Although the 30-mile East Tonto Trail is not as remote as the West Tonto, it still has the far-as-the-eye-can-see, 360-degree vantages atop the Tonto Plateau. It is also significantly less crowded than the popular corridor trails like the South Kaibab and Bright Angel. Hike down the south rim’s brutally steep and rocky New Hance Trail to the river and camp on the beach near Hance Rapid, then ascend scree-filled slopes of the Colorado River gorge, turning west on the East Tonto Trail toward Hance Creek and hulking Horseshoe Mesa. You can climb up the east side of this red monolith via the Page Springs Trail or continue on the East Tonto to Cottonwood Creek. Have lunch on the mesa and soak in the panoramic view; if you’re not claustrophobic, take a peek inside Cave of the Domes near the Cottonwood Trail junction. From Horseshoe Mesa, it’s three steep miles to the south rim via the Grandview Trail.

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