Off the beaten track in the Grand Canyon

Off the beaten track in the Grand Canyon

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

Pushing hard in the Grand Canyon

Pushing hard in the Grand Canyon

This trip started with the idea of doing something big and challenging (as do the best trips). For a milestone birthday, Jodi wanted to really push herself. Memorable and hard. What could be a better setting for such a challenge than the Grand Canyon?

This place just makes people happy – Jodi & Sil almost fall for this place!

Three years ago I ran (well, mostly walked) from the Bright Angel trail, down to the Colorado River, and back up the South Kaibab trail. Both trails start at the South Rim but Kaibab is higher and Bright Angel more gentle. All together, it’s 20 miles and about 5000 feet (1500 m) of elevation gain. I loved every minute of it, soaking up the scenery and moving quickly through the landscape, but I could barely walk the next day. It seems, that sounded like a great idea to Jodi.

We set off in the dark, down into the depths of the canyon. Once we reached the Tonto trail, two-thirds of the way down, I branched off, traversing along the canyon, while Jodi continued down to the infamous Colorado River.

Early morning in the Grand Canyon

From Tonto, it doesn’t look like it’s that far down to the river, but looks are deceiving. The Colorado has carved sheer cliffs deeply into the hard granite and schist that sat here for 2 billion years before the Colorado ripped into it. I waited expectantly at the top of a rock outcrop until Jodi reappeared, moving at a good strong pace as she climbed up and out of the inner canyon.


We met up with Sil who was waiting with water and snacks and all continued back up together. Despite struggling with some stomach upset, Jodi pulled ahead, reaching the canyon rim feeling elated. The Parks Service warns you not to attempt going all the way down to the river and back up in a single day. Doing just that is a big accomplishment.

Top of the world!

Now Jodi wants to come back for a much bigger challenge – the rim-to-rim-to-rim!