The Grand Canyon is the second most visited national park in the US. Five million people come here every year to catch a glimpse of the iconic mile-deep tear in the earth. You’d think, then, that this would be a pretty busy place for someone who likes to explore remote corners of the earth. Yes, it is crowded, but drop down into the canyon, turn off the main trails and you’ll be all on your own. That’s all it takes – from millions of people to none in just a few short miles.

Down the Bright Angel Trail

It has become quite difficult to book spots in the campgrounds along the “corridor trails” (the well maintained tourist route that runs from the south or north rim). Both of the nearby campgrounds were fully booked, so we reserved a spot at Cottonwood campground, all the way down to the Colorado River and halfway up to the north rim.

Fall colors at Cottonwood Campground

We took our time walking down into the canyon, enjoying the constantly changing scenery, but this meant it would be dark long before we made it to camp. I really didn’t mind. There’s something special about walking under the brilliant night sky in the desert.

Evening light above Cottonwood Campground
Nighttime visitor

The Tonto Trail runs along a plateau about 2/3 of the way down from the south rim to the river. It curves in and out of countless side-canyons, sometimes taking miles to cover what would be just a quick walk if you could jump over the gorges that cut into the sides of the main canyon.

Looking down into the Colorado river from the Tonto trail

After two nights at Cottonwood, which gave us time to explore up toward the north rim, we headed back across the river and turned off onto the Tonto trail. Almost right away, the trail got much rougher and almost all the people disappeared. It felt great to be all alone in this spectacular landscape.

Evening on the Tonto Plateau

One reason you don’t see many people along the Tonto trail is that there’s very little water. What little water we did come across near Salt Creek campground, I would never drink.

Freestanding pillar

It’s not just that it’s salty. Up on the rim above Salt Creek are the ruins of Orphan Uranium Mine. It wasn’t until 1987 that the Parks Service managed to acquire this land. In 13 years of mining uranium, the Orphan Mine allowed radiation to leach down into the canyon, contaminating its water with dangerous amounts of uranium. Disturbingly, the mining industry is still trying to overturn a ban on uranium mining in the canyon.

Grand Canyon uranium claims

After exploring the radioactive Tonto plateau, we were keen to spend a night right next to the river. We dropped off the plateau, down a dry sandy wash to Granite Rapids.

Trudging down a dry wash to the river

What a beautiful spot! We found the perfect place to pitch a tent – right on a sandy beach, next to the calmly flowing river. Just out of sight, the river plunges into thundering rapids.

Camping at Granite Rapids

As we were relaxing after dinner, I noticed a blue object appear from around a bend in the river. Then another. And another. Rafts. Soon there were six rafts. And two kayaks. Our quiet little beach quickly became overrun by a group of 16 rafters. But we couldn’t have asked for more friendly neighbours. Apologizing for the intrusion, they started a campfire and invited us for dinner and offered us a few of their 2,400 cans of beer. You can carry a lot more on a raft than you can in a backpack!

Rafters getting ready for the rapids

Best of all, we got to watch quite a show as our new rafter friends ran the roaring rapids in the morning.

Best seat in the house
Rafters blast over the waves

We continued along the Tonto trail then up the Hermit trail back toward the south rim. I think I must have gotten used to the warmth of the inner canyon as the air felt rather thin and chilly as we ascended. You forget how far up it is when you’ve been down in the canyon for a few days.

Endless switchbacks on the way up the Hermit trail

All together, we spent six days backpacking in the Grand Canyon, from the cold Colorado River, up through the surprisingly lush Kaibab trail toward the north rim, and across the dry and convoluted Tonto plateau. I’d like to return to hike the entire length of the Tonto trail, seeing even more of this amazing part of the world.

Sun and shade

3 thoughts on “Off the beaten track in the Grand Canyon

  1. Hello Justin, Are you still travelling in the Grand Canyon area or back in Alberta, and do you intend to be back before Christmas with family? Your photos are very nice that give a good picture of the wilderness area.


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