Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
March 22, 2014
9:00:02, 37 miles
For some of us Durango runners, the five hour drive to the Grand Canyon has become a biannual pilgrimage of sorts. It’s the perfect shoulder season escape when our hometown trails are thick with springtime mud, or when the alpine sees its first autumn snow, enough to make running unpleasant but not enough to ski on. These occasions tend to coincide with the time change (late March and early November) and typically ideal weather at the canyon—not too hot, not to cold.
Last month when Leah proposed yet another trip to the big ditch, I couldn’t refuse. Even after four visits in two years, the mighty gorge mesmerizes me each and every time. So eight of us divided ourselves and our gear between two vehicles and departed on a Friday afternoon, arriving at the rim-side Mather Campground shortly before sunset.
Nowadays it’s almost assumed that a troupe of motley ultrarunners bound for the Grand Canyon has intentions to run from “Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim”, but in fear of developing apathy the iconic route by running it for the fifth consecutive time, I vowed to seek out something new. Thus I consulted a map and discovered that the canyon has more to offer. Much more.
4.5 million tourists flock to the Grand Canyon each year, but only 1% of them bother moseying below the rim. And I’d wager that only a small fraction of those intrepid souls stray from the heavily trodden arteries: the Bright Angel and Kaibab Trails. Most have no knowledge of the alternate (albeit more primitive) routes linking the South Rim to the Colorado River, trails with names like South Bass, Boucher, Hermit, Grandview, Tanner and New Hance.
So Paul (my housemate and running partner for the day) and I selected the Boucher Trail (pronounced “boo-shay”) with plans to link up to the Tonto Trail and follow it upstream until we reached the Bright Angel Trail, which we would ultimately climb back to the South Rim, thus closing the thirty-something mile loop. The next morning we rode the rim shuttle to Hermit’s Rest where we embarked at sunrise on our journey.
Boucher rarely sees travelers, a fact that is immediately evident in the indistinct path as it twists, rolls, meanders and drops over loose rock through red, yellow and white cliffs. One must possess intense focus to avoid kicking a prickly pear, gouging his eyes out with a low-hanging pinyon branch or spearing his thigh with a sharp yucca. The narrow path does not support mule traffic meaning runners enjoy a more technical, rugged route without choking on clouds of dust and mule piss. Finally, Boucher is remote. In the first five hours we encountered not a soul, just curious ravens, skittish lizards and various florae in progressing stages of spring.
Our plunge down the Boucher took nearly two hours before it tied into the Tonto, a trail running the length of the canyon upon the Tonto shelf situated a good thousand feet above the river. Again the trail is faint, snaking in and out of sub-canyons with limited protection from the midday sun and few opportunities to fill water. Our first such opportunity came at Hermit Creek, about 14 miles in. There we spent several minutes in the shade dousing our limbs in the creek and fumbling our attempts to purify drinking water with a “Steripen” (I guess we should’ve done our homework). Ultimately we gave up and drank the damn stuff anyway.
From there, we opted for the two mile jaunt down Hermit Creek to the Colorado River while we still felt relatively fresh. The river roars through the gorge with incredible force, an emerald green cascade contrasted against a dry, desolate environment, inspiring awe in anyone who spends a moment at its edge. Just upstream of the rapid we removed our shoes, took a quick dip in the icy waters, then returned up the creek to the Tonto shelf and resumed our original route.
For the next fifteen miles we followed the Tonto upstream, exchanging few words as our minds wandered the vast landscape, liberated from the stress of routine back home, and enjoying the simplest, purest form of mental therapy—the kind of therapy that money can’t buy. As the afternoon hours slipped by, so did the miles, and though my bottles ran dry, it didn’t seem to matter. I felt at peace, harmonized with my surroundings.
The sudden company of hikers as we approached Indian Gardens shook me from my reverie and reeled me back into reality. Here, the Tonto intersects the Bright Angel trail before proceeding another 56 miles east to the Little Colorado River. Though my heart longed to venture further, we had only budgeted enough food and daylight to bring us this far. From here, we would grind out the final five mile climb back to the South Rim, sacrificing the solitude we’d enjoyed up to this point. Now we would have to share the trail.
Nine hours and 40 miles from our departure, we returned to the rim satisfied, humbled, renewed and fulfilled. Completing the Boucher-Tonto-Bright Angel loop prompted me to ponder the plethora of route possibilities the canyon provides. I now know the objective for my next five trips to the Grand Canyon: explore the paths less traveled.