To continue our journey, we must first climb up to the Tonto Plateau, which makes its' first appearance in the upper end of Grand Canyon just below Hance Rapids. This "mostly" level formation lies about 1800 feet above the Colorado River, and continues west for many miles as it skirts many deep side canyons that bisect the larger Grand Canyon.
Grand Canyon hiking is hard. There are no easy trails here, but there are trails that are easier than others. The problem is the geography is so extreme that seldom do hikers enjoy anything like level walking, and the next leg of the trip is no different. Leaving the beach at Red Canyon, the start of the Tonto Trail climbs swiftly up the emerging Vishnu Schist, a super erosion resistant layer that forms the Inner Gorge. Here is the oldest rock found in Grand Canyon, dating back nearly 2 billion years.
Little grows in this hot, rocky, dry desert. What plants do manage to survive are small and scrubby, with thin leaves and waxy stems that resist evaporation. There is certainly no shade other than that offered by overhangs or strangely eroded rocks like the one seen here, and overall the visitor is left with the impression of a harsh and unforgiving land, which is certainly true for the unprepared.
However even in this land of extreme conditions beauty abounds, especially in springtime. After winter rain and snow the austere and forbidding landscape puts on a brief but memorable show as nature demonstrates that this apparently inhospitable environment is capable of supporting a surprising diversity of life.
Climbing higher out of the Inner Gorge, the upper reaches of the larger Canyon begins to reveal itself. For me hiking the Tonto is one of the best ways to see the Canyon, as it affords fantastic perspectives on the size of the place. The river flows deep below, confined in the rugged and somber Vishnu Schist while thousands of feet above loom alternating bands of shale, sandstone, and limestone. Here humans are truly dwarfed by the landscape, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale on display.
Even after climbing to the approximate elevation that finally allows for east-west travel, challenges remain. There is no such thing as a straight line between points here, and although a destination may appear to be several hundred yards away as the crow flies, hikers will have to travel miles to reach it. Sheer drop offs and deep side canyons force trails like the Tonto to contour around the head of drainages where they can be more easily negotiated.
The picture below is a good example. East is on the left side, west is on the right of the photo. From where the pack is situated, looking west across this canyon reveals the trail on the opposite side. But to get there I need to head up canyon for a mile or more before reaching the upper end where the bottom is shallow enough to cross. Such is the nature of Canyon hiking.
For someone who has never been into the depths of Grand Canyon it may seem like the hiking here is too difficult, and the whole experience is too much of an ordeal. Granted, it is hard and most people will struggle at times. But the rewards of making the trip into what is arguably the most incredible geological wonder in the world are many, and along the way majestic scenery inspires and motivates the intrepid hiker.
Hiking the Tonto trail affords expansive views in all directions, and for the most part the walking is relatively easy - as far as Canyon trails go anyway. Alternating between long contours around side canyons and crossing broad platforms covered in ubiquitous blackbrush, the trail undulates up and down at roughly the same elevation, although there are many dips in and out of countless small drainages. The miles melt away fairly quickly as you progress towards the next major side canyon.
On this trip that canyon is where we'll spend the evening. Offering a rare perennial streams at its' bottom, Hance Creek is a great place to stop and rest up for the big push out.
Coming Up: The Trail Goes Ever On