The original plan of 23 straight days in the Canyon didn’t work out as planned, but I was still having an amazing time. After 8 days in the Canyon and a rest day playing tourist in Zion, Chris Forsyth drove me out to the Schmutz Spring Trailhead in Tuckup Canyon. I loaded up with a bunch of water and said goodbye to Chris. He was such an amazing help, not only for planning the hike beforehand, but also hiking with me, shuttling me all over the place and endlessly going over plans, backup plans, and backup plans for those backup plans. I also want to thank Rich Rudow, Chris Atwood and Jamie Compos for all their help when I was planning my trip. For the next seven days to Toroweap I’d be solo.
The next morning I started on the Tuckup Route. The descent into the Canyon was easy and I spent some time poking around the artifacts at the “Cubicle Boulder”. There was cowboy stuff, historic glass, and chips of rock from the manufacturing of stone tools.
From the boulder, the route was cairned in the grasses toward Cottonwood Canyon. What an interesting and vast landscape in this part of the Grand Canyon, much different than what I’d previously been through. It was pretty warm and I heard a rattlesnake buzzing- it was a safe distance up the slope and just letting me know of its presence.
I contoured into Cottonwood Canyon and found myself a camp on a bench above. I collected some water, hoping I wouldn’t have to use much of it as it was reported to be mineralized. I’d brought quite a bit of water down from the rim with me. As night fell, I was washing my hands when I heard the unmistakable scream of a cat. It was as if someone played the “wildcat noise” sample from a sound effects board. Totally put my hair on edge and I picked up my pot lid and hiking pole and banged it while yelling “Go AWAY!” I saw some eyes reflected in the cottonwood across the creek that stayed there for a while, then they turned and went up the hill. Most likely a bobcat, but holy crap, I’ve never heard such a noise, especially when out solo! It didn’t mess with my sleep, thank goodness. I’d had enough of that this trip.
The next day I contoured out of Cottonwood and made my way around the arms of Rocky Point Canyon. Just as Rich Rudow had told me, the Tuckup Route comes and goes, and there’s trail construction in the drainages. Sometimes tough to find, but it’s there.
North of Dome Pocket Canyon, I found some potholes of water and set myself up with my umbrella for a siesta. It was delightful.There are few things I like better than a backcountry nap.
I worked my way around Dome Pocket Canyon and the first arm of Fern Glen Canyon. There were some potholes marked on my map that I was shooting for. I was getting close and I went to step over a bush. My toe caught a branch and I fell, my shin and knee hitting a projecting piece of sandstone. Good thing I was wearing a knee brace, it took some of the impact and good thing it wasn’t limestone. That would have been a bloody mess. However, it did hurt as I hiked the last bit to camp. Only the morning would tell how bad it was. I had a spectacular sunset and moonrise at the potholes.
The next morning, the shin was sore, and my left knee wasn’t 100% happy. But I figured I’d be ok. I hiked over to the Willow arm of Fern Glen Canyon and took several of liters from Willow Spring, hoping I would find water in potholes and not have to drink it. There was a mineral crust on the walls that was way worse than Cottonwood Spring and the water was also said to cause intestinal distress.
The way from Willow Spring was tough to follow- there were several routes, some cairned more than others. Lots of cactus to avoid, especially tough when there was only a tiny bench of trail with a prickly pear growing in it. As I got closer to where some potholes were marked on the map, I realized I needed to be on the lower route so I found a rockslide to hike down to access the lower trail. The potholes I was camping at were all dry. I looked everywhere and none of them had any water. This made me nervous. I’d expected to find water in the evening, now there was none. I skipped making dinner and ate snacks that didn’t require cooking instead. It was a restless night and I woke up when it was still dark and got packed up so I could move at first light. Temps had been in the 80’s during the heat of the day.
I had seen a pothole nearby on my map that was supposed to be a good bet, but it was a bit of a bushwhack to get to. I checked there first. Nothing. I was going to have to go back to Willow Spring and get a bunch more of that mineralized water. Better than dying of thirst. I had been told that contouring along Stairway Canyon was arduous and didn’t know how long it would take me. There was no way I was going to risk going ahead with the water I had.
So I made my way back through the cairn maze to Willow Spring, collected 8 liters of water and tried to rehydrate before moving on. My pack heavy with 16 lbs of water, I hiked a third time through the cairn and cactus maze. I got some prickly pear spines in my feet through my shoes and when I stopped to take them out, realized that I’d lost my tweezers! What the heck did people do before the invention of tweezers? I tried with a needle but couldn’t get them out.
I stayed on the lower route into a gully along Stairway Canyon and didn’t like the looks of the exit, so I backtracked and hiked up a rockfall to the higher level. The higher level trail had clear trail construction in and out of the gullies, but now I was losing daylight. I’d spent a whole day chasing water. The route hit a saddle on a windswept ridge and I had to call it home for the night. I found a flat spot just big enough for myself that was protected from the wind but surrounded by razor sharp limestone. It was a marginal camp made even worse by the fact that I could actually see where I’d camped the night before.
Despite the marginal camp and the ever-growing intestinal distress, I enjoyed a spectacular full moon rise with The Dome. It was a rough night and I had to get up a bunch of times. Also, there were mosquitoes again- what?
The next morning, I was shaky and sick from the water. Ugh. As I was getting ready to leave camp, I was taking my camera out of its case and it slipped out of my hand onto the sharp limestone. Good thing for warranties, but that wasn’t going to help me out here. At least it was only the last two days of the trip.
I hiked the high route around the bays and gullies of Stairway Canyon. It went well and I got to see some Bighorn Sheep from above. I was nearing an area with slickrock and possible potholes and found a way to the lower trail. Nothing. All dry. My stomach grumbled.
I was heading for potholes that were just south of Big Point all the way out on the rim. At this point I was pretty concerned and going through contingency plans if there was nothing there. Just before noon, I saw a beautiful glimmer in the distance. Water!! As I got closer, I realized why this place was said to be reliable- there was a pothole double the size of a hot tub along with about 10 other good ones. I yelled and cheered and gleefully poured out the rest of my Willow Spring water.
I was a day behind schedule but couldn’t fathom the thought of not spending the night at this one of a kind camp. There were views downriver with a drop to rival that at Toroweap Lookout. I made the decision to just have a really long day the next day, it looked to be about 15 miles. The rest of the day was spent lounging about, enjoying the view, and cooling off and rehydrating with the sweet, sweet water. It was my last solo camp of the trip and I spent a while writing about my experiences. Camped next to a juniper and enjoyed one last bright red sunset over Vulcan’s Throne.
The next morning I was up and hiking early. I had Big Cove Canyon and then Cove Canyon to work around on my way to Toroweap. There was an option to take a shortcut over the mesa but I stuck to the sweet swoopy trail. Which was sweet and swoopy until I wasn’t on the right level anymore and then had to scramble up or down to correct. Thankfully there was always a break in the cliffs nearby so I didn’t have to backtrack too much.
I found the best artifact of the whole trip, a worked Archaic blade that was a gorgeous color. There are three main arms of Cove Canyon, but in reality it is like a fractal- arms break down into smaller and smaller arms and you have to work your way around all of them. It was a lot more routefinding than I had expected.
My friend Meg was picking me up at Tuckup Traihead and she had said she’d hike in to meet me. The last three miles are an old road and I was shooting for being on the road before I lost daylight. I really hoped I wasn’t going to have to try to navigate cairns in the dark. By this time I’d been hiking for 12 hours straight with very few breaks. I hit the road before I had to put my headlamp on- success!
Meg met me in the dark on the roadwalk, it was great to see her and we hiked the last bit under the Milky Way to the trailhead together. We were almost there when Meg stopped me in mid-sentence to look at the moonrise. It was the perfect end to the trip, a giant orange almost-full moon coming right out the side of Big Point. What a place. The next morning, we visited Toroweap Lookout with the classic view of Lava Falls 3000 feet below. It was a great end to my journey.
I so enjoyed the time I got to spend in the Canyon- the place is endlessly fascinating. I know that each section of my traverse of the length of the Canyon will come with its own challenges, it’s the price of admission to such a rugged and wild place. I’m already daydreaming about what section I plan on doing next.
If you haven’t already, please sign the petition to urge President Obama to designate the Greater Grand Canyon National Heritage Monument that would expand the protection of the Grand Canyon against development, mining and other threats to this wonder of the world. Map of the proposed monument below, learn more at www.greatergrandcanyon.org.