FINDING DIFFERENT GEMS IN THE GRAND CANYON: THE HERMIT-BOUCHER LOOP WITH PETER BUGG
Words and Photos from Peter Bugg @bugglife
Over the past few years, I’ve been making an active effort to accept when plans have to change. Sometimes, you don’t get to do what you wanted to, but if you can let go of your frustration, you’re likely to have an equally good time doing something else. This was precisely the case on a recent four-day, three-night backpacking trip on the Hermit-Boucher Loop in the Grand Canyon.
The original itinerary was to hike a 46-mile section of trail from South Bass to Hermit Trailhead known as “The Gems” due to the names of the side drainages crossed by the Tonto Trail - Ruby, Turquoise, Sapphire, Agate, and Topaz to name a few. Unfortunately, single-digit overnight lows on the rim combined with significant snow to create questionable road conditions on the way out to the trailhead, prompting us to adjust our permits. The new, “less heroic” itinerary involved a 23-mile loop, with lots of opportunities for exploration up and down side canyons - as long as the parks service opened up the road to the new trailhead.
So, after my companions flew into Phoenix, we drove four hours to the South Rim on a Thursday, where we checked in with the backcountry office and were relieved to hear that the road to Hermit Trailhead had been cleared and our permitted itinerary was a go. With business taken care of, we enjoyed frigid, breathtaking canyon views of blue skies, green trees, and white snow. Dinner at the lodge followed, and then final food prep and backpack adjustments in our hotel. The adjoining modest-but-comfortable rooms brought back pleasant memories of night-before-cross-country-meet accommodations from college.
On Friday morning, we opted for a strategic lollygag with the hopes that a later departure would allow for warmer, more comfortable hiking conditions. Our timing may have helped, but it was still cold - when we left the rim, it was 20 degrees, and our noses, fingers, and toes all felt it. Luckily our spirits were bolstered by first tracks on a rare powder day in the canyon. The first 1.5 miles and 1,800 vertical feet down were covered entirely in snow, which had blown into a smooth gradation that hid the stair steps along the trail, requiring our trekking poles to do double duty as depth sensors.
Once lower elevations and physical exertion had warmed up most of our bodies, I was puzzled why my right big toe was still uncomfortable - until I looked down to see my toenail poking out through both my sock and trail runner. Luckily, we had a sewing kit and were able to mend my shoe once we got to camp, so it was only a temporary discomfort.
Research and past experience in GCNP encouraged us to approach the loop in a counterclockwise direction, which would allow us to tackle the steepest section of trail on our third day with lighter packs while heading uphill, which would be tougher on the muscles, but easier on the joints, and less likely to induce a tumble. So, after the first 1.5 miles on the stick of the lollipop, we took a right and began tracing the candy part of our loop toward Hermit Creek. 6.5 more downhill miles took us to our campsite, where we set up our tent under a nice overhang in the Tapeats sandstone and ate lunch. I often become so goal-oriented in the backcountry that I forget to enjoy side jaunts with light daypacks. Luckily our relatively shorter day left us with enough energy to head down to Hermit Rapids, adding almost four miles round trip with views of some nice narrows along the way. Once we made it back to camp, we were all appropriately tired and satisfied with the day’s accomplishments, so the stereotypical early backpacker’s bedtime followed our rehydrated dinners.
Saturday’s itinerary called for us to continue about 5.5 miles in our counterclockwise direction to our next camp. This section of trail gave us some of our best views of the trip, with sight lines up and down river that inspired daydreams of future rafting adventures in warmer temps. Another enjoyable part of the Tonto Trail was being able to see the beach we had visited the day before, the beach we hoped to visit later that afternoon, and other features to bookmark for future research.
After making mental notes regarding possible future itineraries, we had a leisurely lunch at our sleep spot before following another 1.25-mile spur trail down to the river. The beach at Boucher Rapids was a little larger and sunnier than the previous day, and it was a perfect place for euchre, whiskey, and Cheetos.
Just when we thought the afternoon couldn’t get any better, a rafting group passed by, and we exchanged firewood-collecting assistance for beers and toasted to good Canyon Karma. As the shadows got long, we returned to camp, where we ate dinner, crawled into bed, and tag-teamed a crossword before turning out our headlamps.
Sunday was probably our most exciting day. We spent the morning on another side jaunt exploring Topaz Canyon with lightweight daypacks. A section of narrows in the Tapeats section was quite nice, and the cold air descending from the rim caused interesting cooling patterns, evidenced by frozen puddles that felt out of place compared to ambient air temperatures in the 40s. It was a concrete example of how a lack of moisture in the air enabled evaporative cooling and was also a good reminder of the specifics of winter desert travel. We got back to our camp around lunchtime, where we refueled and packed up to begin our ascent up the section of trail we had been thinking about all trip - 2,600 feet of elevation gain over about 3.5 miles on the Boucher Trail, most of it focused in two sections of steep.
The first bit of climb was sunny, warm, and sweaty, but once we hit the shade, the aforementioned evaporative cooling worked in our favor. After a few breaks, we made it to the top of the redwall near White’s Butte, and a nice traverse to Travertine Canyon provided the opportunity to stretch our legs and once again appreciate snow-dappled views of the South Rim. During the final climb and traverse before our campsite, patches of snow made the trail significantly less grippy, requiring us to increase our focus. Luckily, we didn’t miss some notes left for us by a duo we met on the trail the day before. Perhaps our three-pound Ultamid 4 shared among four people inspired some jealousy compared to the seven-pound tent they split between the two of them. Regardless, we felt their pain and got a chuckle when we read “Peter Sucks” and “Hyperlite Sucks” written in the snow.
Finally, after some slippery, spicy traverses, we made it to our last campsite. Panoramic views provided a backdrop to our dinner, and we enjoyed pointing out sections of trail we had descended two days before and trying to identify peaks and other geographic features that brought back memories of past adventures and inspiration for the future.
On Monday, hopes for an equally magnificent sunrise beckoned us out of bed and were not misplaced. We spent about an hour in the peaceful quiet, appreciating the play of light on the topography, occasionally pointing out a particularly nice feature. While we all took photos, we also did a good job of appreciating it in the moment, knowing it was our last morning in the canyon, at least for a while. Once the sun was sufficiently high in the sky, we ate, packed, adjusted layers, and climbed the final 1,500 feet over five miles of trail back to our car. Flush toilets, hot showers, and various types of melted cheese prepared by others welcomed us back to the frontcountry, but we still looked on with a bit of envy at the people in the parking lot that were just beginning their adventures.
NOTES ON GEAR
This was my first time trying Greenbelly meal bars, which were somewhat expensive and bulky but also delicious and relatively lightweight. I would definitely eat them again, but I recommend taking them out of their original packaging and using something more low-profile.
We all brought microspikes (or variations) for traction in the snow. We did not use them on the descent, but we found them helpful on some of the traverses near the end when we felt a little more exposed on slippery terrain. Did we need them? Probably not. But even when we were not actively wearing them, they provided some confidence and comfort that was worth the 11 oz weight penalty.
As I mentioned above, the Ultamid 4 tent continues to be a solid investment. It can require a bit of effort to find an area that is both flat and large enough to accommodate it, but the rewards outweigh the cost. It’s very lightweight, easy to split between two people, and kept us nice and warm while simultaneously providing plenty of space. If you often travel with more than two people, I highly recommend it.