The Grand Canyon is one of the seven wonders of the natural world. Nowhere is there a canyon so deep, so long and so buttressed by steep walls. Looking over the rim your brain has difficulty registering the immensity, so to really comprehend the Grand Canyon, my wife, our friends, and I decided on a 5-day guided backpacking adventure with Wildland Trekking. We’d leave all the decisions on food and lodging to our guides. But which trail? Instead of the busy Bright Angel trail, Wildland Trekking suggested the road less traveled – the Grandview Trail.
It was difficult for all of us to fly into Phoenix and reach a hotel at the Grand Canyon on the same day, so we all stayed at the Magnuson Hotel Papago Inn, a boutique hotel near the airport in Scottsdale. After dinner in the hotel lounge, we toured Old Town and listened to country music at the Rusty Spur, one of the fun things to do in Scottsdale.
We caught the Arizona Shuttle to Flagstaff. Wildland Trekking drove us from Flagstaff to the Grandview trailhead. We hurried through a last-minute gear check and at 10:00AM we shouldered our backpacks and posed on the overlook for a group photo. We stood at around 7,000 feet in elevation. Behind us was the vastness of the Grand Canyon, more than 200 miles long and from 4 to 18 miles wide. Somewhere - so far below and so deeply hidden in the spider web of branch canyons that we wouldn’t see it for two more days - was the Colorado River.
Our guides, Emily and Nate, strode to the start of the trail, parting the curtain of milling tourists which closed behind us with whispers and surreptitious photos. We stepped over the edge of the overlook and started down the trail, the uneven sound of our walking poles noisily scratching on the hard Kaibab limestone like the claws from a pack of dogs. The trail below the lip of the overlook was steep, so we descended slowly.
I’ve backpacked many interesting places, but until now, avoided the Grand Canyon. Almost four decades ago I stood here with my boyhood friend, Chuck, a stop on our tour of the USA. To a couple of kids from a rural town in New Hampshire, just about every place we visited seemed fascinating and astonishing. Yet, here at the Grand Canyon, when I peered over the south rim, far, far down into that dark and narrow gash in the earth, I felt uneasy. After an obligatory stop at the Tower and the village we sped off.
I brushed away past uneasiness and picked my way down the trail. A half an hour later we took a break at the Coconino Saddle, a level stretch in the layer of yellow sandstone straddling the Hance and Cottonwood Canyon valleys. We sat in the shade of a stand of fir trees, sipping water while flexing joints and testing muscles to see how our bodies had fared during this first leg of our descent.
While my first impression of the Grand Canyon, years ago, wasn’t very stirring, this scenery has always been an inspiration to artists, perhaps no greater than to the famous American landscape painter, Thomas Moran. In 1903, he painted a scene from the beginning of this trail that looked very similar to the Coconino Saddle where we rested. Moran’s painting, On the Berry Trail -- Grand Canyon of Arizona, might have stylized the scenery with romantic attitudes of the day, but with its wisp of a view of the canyon beyond, this painting captured the essence of the unknown adventure that was in front of us.
We met a few hikers, but it was mostly quiet on the trail; no chirping birds, no rustling leaves, no splashing streams. Just above us was a busy parking lot, and a couple of miles down the road along the south rim, a crowded village, yet here above Horseshoe Mesa was solitude and few reminders of the twenty-first century.
According to our guide, Emily, this trail was formerly called the Berry Trail, named after miner-turned-tourist, Pete Berry. Originally an Indian path, it was engineered to carry copper ore from Berry’s Last Chance copper mine, located somewhere below us on Horseshoe Mesa. The trail was constructed to allow a string of mules, each carrying 200 lbs. of ore, to reach the rim. Berry designed a durable surface to withstand the plodding mule hooves by laboriously burying slabs of sandstone on edge, like books on a shelf. Around the steep verticals, a series of log cribs were chained and pinned to the rock face. Much of the original Berry Trail has been re-routed or replaced, but there were still some sections of that original surface that we trod upon.
There were places where we stood anxiously on the edge of the narrow trail to give uphill hikers the right of way, places where a misstep would mean a fall into eternity. Our guides reminded us of the dangers of picture taking while walking, the hikers equivalent of texting and driving. Emily said, “There is walking or gawking, but no walking and gawking!” It was a warm day, but I imagined this trail would be slippery and dangerous covered with winter’s snow and ice. Even more precarious to me was the thought of riding the trail on horseback like in this 1907 postcard.
Whenever we rounded a point, it was tough to not stop in the middle of the trail and gape at the immensity of the space and the breathtaking colors of the banded cliffs. John Muir, the famous Scottish naturalist, backpacked in the Grand Canyon. Muir was especially enthralled with the vast palette on which the almighty hand had mixed every shade of red, and yellow and brown. “But the colors, the living, rejoicing colors, chanting morning and evening in chorus to heaven!” Muir exclaimed.
Thomas Moran was more enthusiastic over the Grand Canyon than even Muir. Moran returned again and again to paint the Grand Canyon because he claimed it was the most grand and impressive scene that he had ever seen. Moran captured the raw, unrestrained power of the intimidating landscape in his 7 x 12-foot painting, The Chasm of the Colorado. In 1874 the United States Congress paid Moran the then outrageous sum of $10,000 for the massive canvas. Moran painted the Grand Canyon over and over, but by 1892 all he received from the Santa Fe Railway for, The Grand Canyon of the Colorado, was free train passage.
We continued downward until we reached Horseshoe Mesa where we stopped for lunch. We had bled off a couple of thousand feet of elevation. Our guides spread a tablecloth on the ground and set out our lunch in the shade of the ruins of a stone building. This was the remains of a cook house originally serving Pete Berry's mining operations. There were rusty cans, ragged sheets of old metal, nails and wire strewn about and the nearby camping area was the location of a wooden sleeping shack.
Even while the Last Chance mine was producing high grade copper ore, Pete and his wife, Martha, found themselves entertaining strangers and guiding them down the Berry trail. The couple took a shine to the tourist trade, and decided that mining the pockets of their visitors might be an easier way to make a living. To market their nascent vacation business, the Berry’s upgraded the name of their path to the Grandview Trail and expanded their log home on the rim into the famous Grandview Hotel. From June 1897 until the railroad reached the rim further west at Grand Canyon Village in 1901, the Grandview Hotel stood unrivaled among all other area tourist accommodations. (Photo credit Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection)
Now we began our slow circuit of Horseshoe Mesa. After lunch, we switch-backed deeper into the canyon, past the west arm of the mesa, down into Cottonwood Creek. Our guides had been telling us about how pretty the creek was as it splashed through the canyon, but when the trail intersected the stream, all we found was a dry creek bed! I’m used to backpacking in Olympic National Park which has water everywhere, so I was already nervous about hiking for days through a bone-dry land. Justifiably so because over the years there have been many explorers, prospectors and hikers who have perished of thirst in the Grand Canyon, many within sight of the Colorado River, but unable to reach it like this poor soul in the photo below. (Photo credit Northern Arizona University Special Collections and Archives)
Emily and Nate bushwhacked upstream and thankfully found water, so we continued down until we reached a cozy canyon next to Cottonwood Creek where we made camp. We had hiked about six miles from the trailhead at the rim and now stood at 3,400 feet. We relaxed while our guides prepared a delicious dinner. We spent the next day exploring cool, green, Cottonwood Canyon. After our hike through the broad Horseshoe Mesa, where there wasn’t a direction -north, south, up, down - where we couldn’t see for at least a mile, this small gorge felt intimate.
As we shared our finds, the ravine echoed with chatter that sounded like a neighborhood get-together. Five of us friends signed up for this adventure, but at the last minute a couple from British Columbia joined our group. From the start of the trail we had all become friends. One reason was Eric and Michele were such an interesting couple, but another is that it’s easy to make new friends when you’re backpacking. It’s the excitement of the unknown, where we’re all out of our element together. At home, we’re too engrossed in the minutia of daily life or may feel uncomfortable talking with a stranger, yet here in the Grand Canyon, we were sharing our stories with people who were unknown to us only yesterday. On the trail, no one questions your motives. On the trail, even the most reclusive can make friends. Poet Walt Whitman knew this feeling. “I will recruit for myself and you as I go…Whoever accepts me, he or she shall be blessed, and shall bless me.” – From Songs of the Open Road.
Wildland Trekking supplied all the gear including our tents. They were cozy and durable, and after a long day on the trail, our tent felt like the finest Arizona lodging. But on the second night, big gusts of wind blew though the campground for much of the night. You could hear the squalls barreling toward us as they whooshed through the cottonwood trees up the canyon. Our tent shuddered and grit swirled all around us until we zipped the fly shut.
If I had any complaint about the trip, it would be that the Wildland Trekking itinerary mentioned an optional hike down to the Colorado River. When our guide attempted to lead us down that unmaintained route, it quickly became apparent that we would need technical skills and equipment. Safety dictated we turn back. We had lunch on a promontory overlooking the river, but that was as close as we ever got to the mighty Colorado.
Our trek into the Grand Canyon was an amazing journey through space and time. The changing flora and fauna in our descent was the equivalent of a walk between the conifer forests of the Pacific Northwest to the Sonoran Desert of Mexico. But it was the journey back through time that was the most spectacular to me. At the rim of the Grand Canyon were the youngest rocks, the 250,000,000-year-old Kaibab limestone. The limestone cap is older than the dinosaurs, because all the newer rock above it has been eroded away. If that stretch of time wasn’t difficult enough to comprehend, consider that close to the mouth of Cottonwood Canyon we touched the Vishnu Basement Rocks, estimated at 1.8 billion years old, almost half as old as our planet!
Nowhere else is there such a long stretch of geologic history exposed for all to see and speculate upon. So how was the Grand Canyon created? About 70 million years ago, nearby tectonic plates collided and the Colorado Plateau slowly began to rise. About 6 million years ago, the Colorado River began carving the Grand Canyon. Like a knife cutting through a layer cake? Nope. The creation of the Grand Canyon was more like holding the knife stationary above and slowly lifting the cake into the knife.
On the third day, we broke camp and headed east on the Tonto trail. Horseshoe Mesa, towering a thousand feet above us, opened its arms as we slowly circled it’s base. The loop around Horseshoe Mesa was challenging, and because we carried extra water, it meant that at times our backpacks were a bit heavy, but not unmanageable. Another reason our packs were hefty was because they were loaded with good food! Both our guides were excellent cooks. What a luxury it was to roll out of our tents to hot coffee and fried bacon for breakfast or relax over a steaming bowl of Thai noodles with chicken for dinner – yum!
The Tonto Trail turned north up Hance Canyon where we camped for the night at around 4,000 feet. Today we had gained a few hundred feet in elevation and had traveled about six miles. The canyon was named after John Hance, one of the more colorful characters in the early days of Grand Canyon tourism. Hance fought in the Civil War, scouted for Lieut. Col. George Armstrong Custer, and gambled with Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill Cody. Hance arrived at the Grand Canyon around 1880 and within a few years he’d built a ramshackle guest lodge on the South Rim above the canyon where we now stood. He constructed a trail to the river and guided the Grand Canyon’s first commercial tour. He even accompanied President Theodore Roosevelt during his famous visit here. But most of all John Hance loved to tell tall tales. Hance boasted that his horse could gallop and leap the Grand Canyon. But once, “I wasn’t halfway across before I saw that he couldn’t make it. We hadn’t taken a big enough start. So I turned him around and went back.”
After dinner, we played a rousing game of dice under lamplight. Night came early at Hance Canyon. Grand Canyon National Park has joined a select group of National Parks that have pledged to follow responsible lighting standards and limit light pollution. Cupped deep in the canyon, no matter where we camped, above us was an ink-black sky where uncountable stars shimmered.
The morning was dark deep in Hance Canyon and I was reluctant to roll out of my warm bag. Some of us had difficulty sleeping, but on the trail, I have just the opposite experience; without the temptations to stay up late or the urban noises to wake me, I can sleep for ten hours after a long day of backpacking. I had to force myself awake at night to marvel at the Milky Way.
When the slanting morning light finally struck the rim of Hance Canyon, the dark brown cliffs blazed into vibrant reds, but when we climbed out of the canyon, the cliffs were painted in pastels. The sun, that greatest of all artists, had remixed the colors on her palette, altering the pigmentation of her constantly changing masterpiece as she rose and arced across the sky.
The next morning, we began the trek back up to Horseshoe Mesa. Our last chance for water was at a detour off the trail at Miner’s Springs. In this tiny grotto was a basin filled with dripping water and surrounded by succulent plants and ivy, an inviting microclimate so different from the arid Grand Canyon that I felt that if we just stayed long enough, all the life of the desert would eventually migrate here to us.
We explored the entrance to Pete Berry’s mine on our way back to the top of Horseshoe Mesa. While the Berrys and Hance catered to visitors east of Grand Canyon Village, another tourism pioneer, William Wallace Bass, did the same to the west. His rustic camps and trail to the river attracted writers, such as Zane Grey, and industrialists like Henry Ford. Thomas Moran and John Muir stayed with Bass too. Along a placid stretch of the Colorado River Bass even built a crude wooden ferry. While early pioneers like Bass, Berry and Hance were crucial in building needed tourism infrastructure, the competition for guests eventually degenerated into a brawl. Billboards and hawkers assaulted visitors the moment they arrived. Toll gates blocked trails. It took the creation of Grand Canyon National Park and years of legal battles to evict the private property holders and bring peace to the wilderness that we now take for granted.
We spent our last evening camping at the top of Horseshoe Mesa at 5,000 feet. We feasted on a fantastic dinner that Emily and Nate prepared as the sun set and the stars returned. Tomorrow we’d retrace our steps back up to the rim on the Grandview Trail, so for now we enjoyed the magnificent scenery carved over the unimaginable eons. As Thoreau said, “The finest workers in stone are not copper or steel tools, but the gentle touches of air and water working at their leisure with a liberal allowance of time.”
On our final morning, we watched the sun rise as we sipped coffee and ate breakfast on Horseshoe Mesa. We broke camp, shouldered our backpacks and headed up the trail, same as we we’d done each morning over the last five days. How to sum up our Grand Canyon adventure? The scenery had been open and airy - not the dark and closed-in canyon I'd imagined. Each turn of the trail had brought us a wondrous site to behold. There had been some difficult sections that tested us, but to me, this week had been a slow, rhythmic journey where we were unsure of what the long time in between waking and sleeping would bring - an adrenaline rush delivered in a lengthy, even dosage.
We reached the rim at 11:00am. The trail was steep but we kept a steady pace. The Wildland Trekking shuttle driver was waiting for us with a feast of sandwiches, fresh vegetables and fruits. We congratulated each other with hugs and handshakes. We chatted about what we had seen and what we enjoyed best. We exchanged addresses with Eric and Michele and discussed future adventures.
In May of 1901, toward the end of his career, Thomas Moran returned to the Grand Canyon. Moran stayed with his old friend John Hance and renewed his friendships with Pete Berry and William Bass. What stories they must have told! Did they relive all those exciting days when they were young and exploring the Grand Canyon for the first time? Moran said the scenery still seemed ravishingly beautiful and that, “no matter how well-traveled one may be, a new world is opened to him when he goes into the Grand Canyon of Arizona.”
Or as Cervantes said, “The road is always better than the Inn.”
Final Logistics: Wildland Trekking drove us back to Flagstaff and the Arizona Shuttle drove us back to Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix. There are many a beautiful Arizona hotel, but we stayed overnight at the cozy Magnuson Hotel Papago Inn again. If you are extending your stay, you might consider another exciting backpacking adventure in Arizona; searching for the Lost Dutchman Mine in the Superstition Mountains. It’s about an hour or so northeast of Scottsdale. Other than the Grand Canyon, the Superstitions are Trisha and my favorite destination for backpacking in Arizona. Or if you’ve had enough of the long trails, Papago Park and the famous Hole in the Rock are perfect day hikes from the Magnuson Hotel Papago Inn.
Finally, we truly enjoyed our guides. Emily and Nate were informative, delightful and great cooks. We highly recommend Wildland Trekking for backpacking the Grand Canyon. Click Here for more information.
Photos by Bret Wirta and Eric Fretz. Story by Bret Wirta with information from the following sources:
Thurman Wilkins, Thomas Moran, Artist of the Mountains, copyright 1998 by University of Oklahoma Press.
Shane Murphy, I’ve Got to Tell Stories, Separating Fact from Fiction in the Life and Legend of Grand Canyon Pioneer John Hance, Winter 2015 issue of the Journal of Arizona History.
George H. Billingsley, Earle E. Spamer and Dove Menkes, Quest for the Pillar of Gold, The Mines & Miners of the Grand Canyon, Copyright 1997, Grand Canyon Associates.
Ms. Ellen Brennan, National Park Service Cultural Resource Program Manager, Grand Canyon National Park
Joseph Wood Krutch, Grand Canyon Today and all Its Yesterdays, Copyright 1958, Morrow Quill Paperbacks.
Michael F. Anderson, Living at the Edge. Explorers, Exploiters and Settlers of the Grand Canyon Region, Copyright 1998, Grand Canyon Association
George Wharton James, In and Around the Grand Canyon, Copyright 1901, Little, Brown & Company.