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The Desert





Grand Canyon Backpack: Horseshoe Mesa to Phantom Ranch


Pat Burr, Kate Sullivan, Nancy (Pat’s sister), and your writer Bob Winkler

Saturday, September 14, 1996

Although dead tired from all the time in transit from home to the Grand Canyon we arrive at the El Tovar for our pre-backpack dinner at 9:00 p.m. By the time we finish we are almost asleep in our chairs and therefor skip desert and head back to the hotel.

Sunday, September 15

We’re up early for final packing, breakfast, to check non-backpack luggage and await our taxi to the Grandview Trail head, some 18 miles east of the South Rim village. We will spend the next two weeks and some 75 miles working our way back to this point.

At 10 a.m. after a short photo session we start down the Grandview Trail.

This is an old non-maintained minors route to the copper mines on Horseshoe Mesa. The trail was built at the end of the last century and was maintained through the early 1900s by the mines and later by a primitive resort hotel around 1920. After the hotel was put out of business in the late 1920s by the then new El Tovar located on the new railroad spur, the Grandview Hotel closed as it was a very rough stagecoach ride from the El Tovar.

Even though the trail has not been maintained for over fifty years, it was still in fairly good shape with many switchbacks and an initial steep descent. We stopped a number of times to adjust our packs and our bodies to our new loads. Nancy left her camera and hat at one of these rests and went back to look for them to no avail (Note: After leaving the Canyon Nancy retrieved her camera at the Lost & Found). At least her pack was now a little lighter. This wouldn’t be the last time we tried to lighten our loads.

With Pat leading the way (like a horse heading for the barn) we reached Horseshoe Mesa around mid-afternoon. We placed our packs next to the stone remains of an old building that was probably built by the minors. We scouted the area for a campsite and water. We chose a close-by site for our tents and went looking for water. There is no water on Horseshoe Mesa although we had heard of a “pump.” We never found the “pump” but did discover some mine shafts, surface equipment, and a sign pointing (the wrong way as we later discovered) to Page Springs (listed on our maps as Minor Springs). Meanwhile Nancy had scouted out some water lying on top of a flat rock. She would have probably never noticed if it hadn’t been for the birds frequenting this rock. We went back with a water filter and some bottles and managed to filter two quarts leaving the rest for the birds. Kate and I spent another hour looking for more water atop rocks. The search was fruitless, be I had fun scrambling around the rocks.

After a dinner prepared by Pat, we sat around the candle, sipped tequila, talked, and went to bed around 8:00.

Monday, September 16

After breakfast we split into two search parties to look for water. Pat and Nancy set out west and down off the mesa to Cottonwood Creek while Kate and I went to try and find Page Springs.

Ignoring the directionally disabled sign Kate and I traced our way south and east through the ruins of the mining camp looking for the start of a trail, as indicated on our map, that would lead us to the spring. After a couple of false starts we found the trail head and started down a very steep and narrow trail carved out of the side of a side canyon. There were places where we literally had to hug the wall. On the way down we did a very modest exploration of two mine shafts, about all that our nerve would allow. Once we reached the talus at the bottom of the canyon the trail became a nice walk. We spied the spring from about a half mile across the canyon, a shallow cave of about six feet in depth and four feet in height, shaded by a number of cottonwood trees. When we arrived it seemed to us that we had reached Shangri-La. Not only was this a beautiful shaded spot in an otherwise dry and hot desert climate, but the spring itself was full of vegetation including a hanging garden from the roof. Water dripped from the eves into clear pool that filled the cave’s width and depth in some places to almost a foot.

We broke out the water filters, bags, and bottles and proceeded to pump and filter water for the next hour or so, taking turns on the upper body workout of hand pumping. After the chores were done we each had a chance to bathe and wash what we had on by taking a couple of bottles of water away from the source and then drying ourselves in the sun during the hike out.

As we had only brought one empty backpack, we loaded all of the water into it, and agreed to switch the load back and forth during our assent back to the mesa. As soon as I put the pack on I knew that wouldn’t work. Kate took one of the water bags and a couple of bottles making the pack more manageable. About half way through the tough three hour climb-out we switched bag for pack.

Upon reaching camp we found that Pat and Nancy thought that we were either splattered at the bottom of the trail or lost. They had arrived back earlier and had gone to look for us. When they saw the trail down to Page Springs, its’ steepness and condition they became worried. So it was with much relief that we were greeted back in camp with warm hugs.

We’ve gone from little water to an abundance so we decide to extend our stay on the mesa for one night giving us a total of three on Horseshoe.

After another hearty meal prepared by Pat, we clean up the dishes, chat around the candle for a while, and it’s off to bed around eight.

Tuesday, September 17

Everyone is up by 6:30 with aching bones from our sleeping pads. It is our aches and pains that usually get us up in the morning. We have our coffee and eat a breakfast of multi-grain hot cereal.

Mid-morning the women (not the girls as I am informed) head off to Page Springs with Kate leading the way. They plan to wash clothes, themselves (good idea), and generally frolic. They also plan to fill one water bag. I on the other hand will wash the dishes, clean and repair both stoves, clean the water filters, and generally tidy camp.

Halfway through my chores I take off to hike my way around the entire mesa. My goal is to find some caves that I read about on the internet. I hike all the way out to the rim at the left fork and spend an hour in a comfortable seat under a tree contemplating life, love and the Colorado river. After I pry myself up I continue my mesa walk in search of the lost (at least to me) caves. Most of the way around I spy Page Springs 700 feet below and a half mile away. After staring for awhile I detect motion at the spring. As the distance is so great, the women are only dots of white. Unfortunately, I don’t have the field glasses. Anyway, I give out a yell and wave my hat but to no avail. One thought was to take off my orange shorts and wave them, but I thought that they might have the field glasses. Anyway Pat did spot me finally and we had a conversation by yelling and waiting for our voices to carry.

The girls er women arrived back in camp around four just as I am finishing my chores. After a brief rest Nancy and I go back to explore some of the mine shafts more thoroughly. We followed every shaft we could, some for hundreds of feet. It appears that the southeastern part of the mesa is riddled with mine shafts.

We all enjoyed a meal of beef burritos, hash browns and tortillas. We chatted by candlelight until an 8:30 bedtime.

Wednesday, September 18

We are up at six to a breakfast of apple cobbler and coffee. We break camp and set out down the trail to Cottonwood Creek. We have a beautiful campsite with lots of shade, trees, and places to hang stuff. We washed ourselves, clothes, loaded up with water and generally relaxed for our last such afternoon for awhile.

Tomorrow we set out across the Tonto East trail to Grapevine Canyon. We will be moving every day now as we must cover almost 27 miles in less than three days. We may not see water again until our Saturday arrival at Phantom Ranch.

After all of our snoozing and reading away the afternoon, Pat prepares our dinner, a pepperoni pizza in her Outback oven and some mystery gruel. It is delicious. Later that evening while sitting around the candle we spot a light on the North Rim. Taking a look with the field glasses it is determined to be the North Rim Lodge over 20 miles away. We can even see camera flashes from the tourists taking pictures. At nine o’clock it’s time for bed.

Thursday, September 19

We’re up at six for coffee and power bars. As we set off we’re loaded with water with each of us carrying an extra 10 lbs. in addition to our normal 40-50 lb. pack weight. On our hike out of Cottonwood we meet up with a couple from Tucson and end up leapfrogging with them all day. As we come to the edge of the Tonto Plateau we can see the Colorado River, muddy, swollen with kayaks and rafters. An aswsome sight. We proceed around and into Grapevine Canyon on a narrow, heart stopping trail. One slip here would mean about 10 seconds of sliding and a 1000 foot drop. We are all quite careful. This is a deep canyon an we will spend the next 10 hours getting around and out.

We stop for lunch at a nearly dry spring where we find an animal skull with large curved horns. Some of us use this as a photo op. We find the only real shade available under a smallish tree and begin to settle in for lunch when Kate decides to add part of her thumb to the lunch menu. After checking in to the nearest first aid office, me, she is patched up a good as new with the added advantage of getting out of doing the dishes for a couple of days. We ban Kate from the pepperoni slicer.

Just before we finish our lunch and depart, the couple we met this morning arrives. We stay and talk a while longer and then continue on. The other couple passes us on the trail and we don’t see them again until we come to the end of Grapevine Canyon where they set up camp for the night and we take another major rest out of the sun. For the next two days we would see no one else.

We continued through the hot afternoon taking rest in the shade every half hour or so. About five o’clock, exhausted, we come to a rock the size of a small building overhanging a wide flat spot in the trail and decided this was home for tonight. Kate discovers that she has lost one of her Teva sandals. We had intended to sleep under the stars, however a small snake seemed to also call our rock home. So, as none of us wanted to share our sleeping bags with him (or was it a her?) up went the tents. Pat prepared dinner after which we enjoyed a tequila sunset and candlelight conversation under the Milky Way before a well deserved sleep.

Friday, September 20

We’re up before the sun in order to get in as much mileage as possible before the heat gets turned on. We eat quickly and clear camp by 7:30. This was a tough day. By the end we will have put in at least ten miles through sticker bush which attacks the lower legs and temperatures that exceeded 90 degrees. We rest at every shady opportunity. As there are no trees, sometimes the smallest rock that can be squeezed behind has to do. We clear Grapevine Canyon within an hour and begin to cross the Tonto Plateau on a faint trail overgrown with sticker bush. Again we parallel the spectacular Colorado River a half mile away and 2500 feet below us.

Shortly we enter Boulder Canyon. After two hours we reach the end and since our water is getting desperately low, and while Pat and Kate rest in the shade, Nancy and I grab a couple of empty water bags and a filter a go to look for the spring listed on our map. Nancy and I separate with the dry stream bed until I hear Nancy yell that she has found a trickle of a stream. That woman has real knack for water. When I catch up to her we go up a ways until we find a comfortable shady spot to do our filtering. When we’re done with the water bags we both decide to take a quick bath and then walk back to join Pat and Kate.

We continued in the hot sun into Lone Tree Canyon until about 11:30 when we found a shady nook and rested for the next three hours. I did some exploring up the dry creek bed looking for a spring but found none.

There was some apprehension that we were not in Lone Tree Canyon and faced still more mileage. However when we cleared this canyon it was obvious it was Lone Tree and that we were right on track. After clearing Lone Tree we headed into Cremation Canyon. This canyon is more like a wide mesa with a number of small deep canyons bisecting it.

We stopped just after sunset and set up camp about half-way across Cremation on a large (75 x 75 foot) flat rock. Pat discovers that she has lost her hat. We had a simple dinner. The women decided to use a bit of their water for a candlelight bath while they made me keep my back turned. After, we sat around under the stars and bright moon and finished off the last of the tequila. We slept under the stars.

Saturday, September 21

After a light breakfast we broke camp about eight and continued across Cremation Canyon mesa including two steep descents and assents out of minor bisecting canyons. Again we rested in the few shady places we could find. By 9:30 the temperature was over 90 degrees. We spotted the South Kiabab Trail to the north and west, about 500 feet above us and started our grueling assent to the intersection. Mid-morning we reached the South Kiabab and a real toilet. While the women made use of the facilities I rested outside.

The South Kiabab is a major route for overnight hikers from the South Rim to Phantom Ranch at the bottom as well as a pack mule trail. It is here that we encountered civilization in the form of clean and darned good smelling people. And as for us...well...

After our rest we started our decent into Phantom Ranch. We stopped at least twice to rest and get out of the scorching sun. We watched in disbelief and horror at some hikers going up hill in this inferno without adequate water.

We crossed the Colorado River on a suspension bridge, took pictures, and arrived at the Ranch around noon and it was really hot! We found a sunny campsite at the Bright Angle Campground as all of the shady ones were occupied. Everyone was a little irritable from the heat and Nancy was concerned because her husband, John and son, Jorden weren’t to be found. We were all put in better spirits after we climbed into Bright Angle Creek to cool off. After we headed over to the Ranch where Nancy met up with her husband and son. She was quite relieved and bent their ears for the next few hours. The rest of us went into the Canteen/Saloon for lemonades and bagels with cream cheese. We picked up our re-supplies of food, toilet paper and fuel that had been delivered by mules that morning. It was way more than we needed and we ended up spending $46.00 to send most of it back to the rim.

Our permit would place us on the Utah Flats up behind Phantom Ranch for the next three nights. However, we decide to check out the steep almost non-existant trail first. We try to arrange for another night in the Bright Angel Campground but are informed by rangers that they are booked full through November. We then place our name on the cancellation waiting list for a cabin or dorm at Phantom Ranch.

After a scattered dinner we attended a lecture by the Grand Canyon Association (a non-profit group) on the history of Phantom Ranch. Following we head over to the Saloon for beer, wine, lemonade, and conversation. That night six of us sleep under the stars.

Sunday, September 22

Around 3:30 a.m. Nancy came over to tell me that she had spotted a small light colored scorpion in the women’s rest room. I didn’t investigate, but it turned out that this small scorpion was of the very poisonous variety.

Before first light we’re all up. I start by burning off extra fuel as we have way too much. Pat treats us to a pancake breakfast. We deliver our duffel to the pack mules with all of our extra food plus some of the stuff that Nancy and family won’t be needing. We just meet the limit of 30 lbs. and our hearts, not to mention our backs, are lightened as the mules pull out.

Nancy and her family depart for their hike out of the Canyon and trip home.

Pat, Nancy and I are informed that we have Cabin 10, with bunk beds, toilet, sink, air cooling, and SHOWERS.

While Kate and I go over to the canteen for lemonade and bagels, Pat (in seeing the need to get her hands clean) does the dishes. After, Pat and I take a half mile walk down to the Colorado River while Kate has a nap. While at the river we examined the grave of at trail worker killed in the 1930’s. We walk over to a beautiful sandy beach and wade ankle deep in the muddy, frigid 45 degree water of the Colorado. It is impossible to stay in for more than a minute or two water even though the midday sun turned the air into a furnace. After resting on the beach, we return to our cabin to find Kate still asleep. Pat baked some banana bread and we rested some more until half past three.

Pat and I set off up the trail to the Utah Flats carrying only water and cameras just after the sun sets on the ridge, about 3:30. Our purpose is to see if we could manage the climb and descent with full backpacks so we can stay on the flats Monday and Tuesday. Our hearts beat faster not only from the physical workout, but from fear as well. Route finding, easy to begin with becomes difficult at times. Pat tried a route straight up a 30 foot cliff while I tried a workaround. Eventually Pat did the workaround also. As I was going up, my thoughts turned to coming down and how dangerous it would be with full back packs. We didn’t make it all the way up as we didn’t want to come down in the dark. We decide not to attempt it with backpacks. Going down we slip slided all the way. After a while we even got good at it and had fun. We were even doing ski turns. We made it down just before dark and headed back to our cabin.

Kate was awake and up, yes really up. I suppose that we really wore her out last week. Since we weren’t going up on the flats we put our name in for a room for Monday night. Pat prepared a dinner of chicken and rice with pimentos in a garlic sauce. After we had our first showers in over a week. Ahhhhhhhh! After we staked out a table at the Phantom Saloon for an unspecified number of beers (Kate), glasses of wine (Pat), and lemonades (me). To bed in a real bed and asleep by nine o’clock.

Monday, September 23

We’re all up at 6:45, and as we don’t know if we have this room or any room, we must clear our stuff out of the cabin for a 7:30 checkout. That chore completed we settle down to coffee outside our room and are informed that we have this cabin for another night. The occasion is toasted with clanking coffee cups.

After breakfast and cleanup, we move our stuff back inside we set off on the North Kiabab Trail. Today we will explore Phantom Canyon, a slot-like canyon about 20 minutes north of here. Our first obstacle is Bright Angel Creek, about 15 feet across with depths up to 3 feet and flowing rapidly. We are on the wrong side and there is no safe way to cross by stepping on exposed rocks so it’s off with our boots and socks. Once on the other side we head into Phantom Canyon.

Phantom canyon runs from its’ connection with the Bright Angel Creek, way up to Haunted Canyon, and then to the North Rim. It is quite narrow with widths anywhere from three feet to 60 feet. Running down the canyon is our main obstacle, Phantom Creek. We will cross it many times.

Going up the canyon involved many steep rock scrambles and shallow “boots on” crossings. After about an hour we come to a small pretty double waterfall were we photograph each other and eventually climb out above to a wide flat area where we have our lunch of pepperoni, gorp and tortillas. All of the cottonwood trees here have been destroyed by what we later find out to be beaver.

After lunch we continue up the canyon for another hour before we come to our first major obstacle. The canyon walls have narrowed to six feet and are sheer on either side. The creek here although slow moving is some seven feet deep and about 25 feet long before the canyon opens up again. We will have to swim it. We remove our boots, socks, and daypacks. Pat and I jump in with Pat climbing out on the far end of the pool. Kate attaches our stuff to the ends of the hiking sticks and I swim them over to Pat. After about 10 of these shuttles, Kate and I join Pat. We dry our feet, put our boots on and continue.

After many more “boots on” crossings and then we come to a place where we will have to wade through waste deep water. Kate decides to wait here for us. Pat and I continue on for another hour or so. We encounter the smell of burning pot but see no one, do a couple more wades and another swim. As it is getting late in the day, and another swim will be necessary to continue, we decide to climb a steep, pulse raising, ridge to see what we can see. We reach the top, about 150 feet, take some pictures and do the slip-slide back down.

We reverse our course and head back. We meet up with Kate were we left her. She tells us that a young man came by earlier and barely slowed down to say hi. Don’t see how Pat and I missed him. Must have been the pot smoker and he must have hidden himself from us. All three of us then continued back down, reversing all the crossings, wades, and swims.

We arrived back at our cabin around 5:30 for showers, dinner, the Saloon and bed.

Tuesday, September 24

After another night in a real bed we sit outside our cabin preparing our breakfast, sip coffee, and watch the wranglers get the supply mules ready for their trip to the rim. There are two wranglers, looking like cowboys in every sense with lean bodies, tight blue jeans, tight western shirts, neckerchiefs, boots with spurs, big hats, and a Texas drawl. The women watch closely.

The mules and wranglers are off in a cloud of dust. We find out that our accommodations for tonight are in the coed group cabin. We meet two guys right out of Animal House and end up talking with them off and on all day. They will also share our quarters. The women soon tire of their sexist jokes, being a guy I manage to put up with it.

Today we decide to hike to Ribbon Falls. This is a 12 mile round trip up the North Kiabab Trail with a 2500 foot plus elevation gain. However the trail is nicely graded for pack mules and the going is mostly easy. After four hours and a number of breaks we reach the falls.

Ribbon Falls are two falls totaling about 100 feet cascading in two separate drops, the first onto a 15-20 foot wide domed rock, and the second to the bottom. The water on the bottom half has enabled a skirt of green vegetation to grow that if one braved the water could be navigated underneath.

Also arriving with us was a thunder storm complete with lightning, large rain drops, and booming thunder echoing off the canyon walls. We rested briefly, explored a shallow grotto, and departed as we had just enough time to get back before dark.

Pat discovered that she had lost her camera somewhere in the last three miles of trail. We searched and asked other hikers as we walked back, but to no avail.

The return trip was otherwise uneventful as the weather moved away from us, and we arrive back at Phantom Ranch around six.

After moving into the group cabin, Pat prepared a meal of chili rellinos and soup. Kate thought we had way too much and dumped some in the dirt. After showers we opened the Saloon at 8:00 and were then off to bed by 9:30.

Wednesday, September 25

Up at 4:30 a.m. IN THE DARK for our first meal out, the 5 o’clock (the only one we could get today) breakfast at Phantom Ranch. We were served an all you can eat bounty of pancakes, bacon, pear halves, orange juice, and coffee.

After breakfast Pat sets off alone back to Ribbon Falls to look for her camera. Kate goes back to sleep. I chat with a woman from New Zealand who is being helecoptered out due to a serious ankle sprain at a cost to her of $1,200.

After Kate gets up we move the backpacks a half mile back to the Bright Angel Campground where we’ll be spending our last night at the bottom of the canyon. While I burn off some more fuel, Kate goes for a cool rest down by the creek. About mid-morning Kate and I head over to the canteen for lemonades and bagels. Thankfully the “guys” are not there. We both sit, sip lemonade, and read. I fall asleep in my chair for a while and awaken to find Kate trying to stay awake looking at the old photos on the canteen wall. We both go outside and claim park benches for an official nap. We are quickly interrupted around 11:30 by Pat’s return from her unsuccessful search to Ribbon Falls. We all chat with an older couple for a while, take another short nap (that is finish the last one) and head back to the canteen for more bagels and lemonade.

I run into Jim, a temp in my department in Connecticut, and we talk awhile. He is on a river trip and will be on his way in an hour. Eventually the whole canteen fills with mostly river rafters and becomes quite noisy. We therefor retire again to the park benches outside for another nap.

Around four I go back to our campsite to burn more fuel and arrange my pack for tomorrow’s hike up to Indian Gardens. I go back to the park benches to find Kate and Pat have left. However I have a very nice chat about California and hiking with a woman from L.A. Only later do I discover that she is married. She is with her husband and pretends not to notice.

It’s 6:30 and the dinner bell rings. I meet Pat and Kate in the dinning hall for Phantom Ranch’s famous stew dinner. What a meal. A hearty, thick, meaty, delicately spiced stew with whole white potatoes, green beans and more. The main course is accompanied by warm corn bread with butter, a fresh garden salad with Phantom Ranch dressing, iced tea, and coffee. All of this followed by chocolate cake.

Following dinner we head over to Ranger Rod’s talk on the geological history of the canyon, then back to the saloon.

Tonight we bed down under the stars, full moon, and a very small cloud.

Thursday, September 26

Midnight. We’re awakened by bright flashes of lightning and loud thunder. The rain begins. I throw my sleeping pad and bag in between Kate and Pat. We all then pull Pat’s HeppaWing tarp over us. We lay as close as possible in order to stay out of the rain and dry. We’re starting to get wet anyway as the rain begins to come down harder. Pat, bless her heart, gets up and erects the Wing on its poles and hitches the tie off points to rocks. We will be dryer now. For the rest of the cool wet night we huddle like puppies, close together, feeling each others movements and breathing under the Wing while we try to get some sleep.

We awaken and are up at 6:30 (had planned to be up at 5:00) and are quite tired from last nights activities. Although it has stopped raining everything that was out is wet. It all has to be packed up anyway, extra water weight and all. After a cup of hot coffee and a quick breakfast we start our hike out of the canyon, today as far as Indian Gardens.

We arrive at Indian Gardens mid-morning and hang our wet sleeping bags and other stuff in the hot sun. Pat prepares a brunch of scrambled eggs with fried summer sausage and coffee. For the rest of the afternoon we do little save a lot of relaxing.

Dinner tonight is a mushroom and olive pizza after which we wonder down to the corral to watch the deer try to get at the mules food trough. The would get in only to have the mules chase them out. Pat left early for our campsite. Later when Kate and I returned we found Pat chatting up three guys from Tennessee. The had deep southern accents and were quite cordial and acted like real southern gentlemen.

At nine we all went back to camp for our last canyon good night sleep. Pat and Kate slept under the stars and as I wasn’t taking any chances, in my tent.

Friday, September 27

We’re up before dawn and pack by flashlight. After a cup of coffee and a bite to eat we hit the trail for the climbout to the South Rim. It took us about three and a half hours.

I was happy to beat last year’s time by 45 minutes. At the rim we took photos of each other and found a tourist to take a picture of all three of us. There are a lot of people. What a culture shock!

At the hotel we found out that we couldn’t check in for two or three hours. Pat went to check on her camera with lost and found. Kate and I did some shopping in the bookstores. We all had lunch together at the cafeteria and checked into our room.

Kate bought the makings for margaritas which we enjoyed through our showers and repacking.

Our Grand Canyon trip ended as it had begun with a fine dinner, this time at the Arizona Steak House where we not only toasted the Canyon but ourselves.

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