Thursday, May 11th, 2023, 0610-1800
Cardenas to West Horseshoe Mesa
19 miles, elevation 3865′
My little nest among the trees was so snug and complete with the loveliest of birdsong in the morning. The crash of the river waves made me think I was sleeping next to the ocean. I was dreaming that I was on a beach in the Ten Thousand Islands, instead of in the canyon. That is until I looked out to see walls and buttes all around. I left my mesh partially open since the site was pretty much mosquito free (also unlike Florida).
The trail greeted us with a nice 1,500′ climb, only to go right back down to the river. We went in and out of every little drainage along the mesa, sometimes for miles, getting a good look at the river here and there. Pretty quickly we spotted our rafting friends set up on the north shore at Unkar Creek. They had gone a little bit further after all, beyond our reach. We had high hopes that we’d at least see them farther down the river, since our route followed the shore much of the morning. We’d switched from the Beamer Trail to the Escalante Route. Sky said it was named such because the trail wasn’t as defined in one section that we’d later come to. For now, it was a pretty easily discernible trail.
We stopped for second breakfast at the first river meeting, but no rafts came by. Up to a bench went the trail again and this time we came down a wash that turned into a pseudo slot canyon. It was very cool..Seventyfive mile creek. The morning was going very smoothly until I stubbed my right big toe pretty badly on a rock. This toe already gives me problems… probably arthritis….so I hated to inflict more damage on it. It didn’t affect my walking too much but did swell and bruise for the next few days. This was my only significant injury on the Hayduke…not too bad considering.
We caught up to a group of backpackers on a guided trip. They were the only other backpackers we’d seen since Tanner beach, the day before. The guide asked if we were Haydukers as we glided by. Was it our worn appearance or pace that gave us away? Perhaps it was the 5 foot ledge that I jumped down right in front of him. He looked alarmed as I launched myself but then he laughed. Of course we were Haydukers.
Emerging from the wash, we saw a bunch of rafts, but they weren’t our group. It was fun to watch them go down the rapids anyway. We cheered them on. Then we did a series of climbs along the cliffs, getting into some pretty spicy territory. It was also tediously slow and hot as hell. Sky’s earlier mention of the nature of the route was indeed true. We followed some cairns up to a class 4 chimney and I had to give it a big NOPE! Instead, we found some class 3 ledges that I still didn’t like but at least had the ability in my toolkit. I did have to take my pack off at 2 points. Sky clambered up, no problem. Sky spends a lot of time in the climbing gym, so I wasn’t surprised. In fact, Leah and Sky had both done some of the hardest alternate routes on the Hayduke. They were really confident and competent climbers, which I greatly admired.
After negotiating the cliffs, we had to descend an extremely steep scree gully. I didn’t remember this part from any of the blogs I’d read and was surprised by the difficulty. Fortunately, I tend to to better on these kind of descents, so I handled it pretty easily. But I wondered about the guided group behind us. They seemed to be struggling with the terrain prior to this, and it only got harder. The ledges and the gully would certainly give them pause… definitely not your standard national park trails.
Once clear of the obstacles, we followed the shore through the thick vegetation. Getting slapped in the face with tamarisk and mesquite made me wish I was still scaling the cliffs. A few rafts drifted by effortlessly as I struggled along. It was so hot, I desperately wished I could be floating on the cool water instead of bushwhacking. It made me really appreciate our raft trip the day before. The rafts were again not from our group but appeared to be another private group, complete with one kayaker. They stopped short of Hance rapids to scout.
We also stopped for a well needed lunch break and dip in the river. We filtered more water, since none of the creeks we’d passed had been running. We’d seen a few seeps but the river water was easier. We had a big climb to the Tonto plateau coming up and needed to be well hydrated. Three more backpackers drifted in, having come down from the rim via the Hance Trail. Mostly we only saw other hikers where there were trails coming from the South Rim, terminating at the river. There was only the one guided group braving the trails that went along the canyon…and us.
After a long break and several dips in the river (brr!!!), we said goodbye to the Colorado for good. We’d be up on the Tonto level for the remainder of our time in the canyon. We’d have glimpses of the river below, but that would be it. I got to admit, I liked being near the river. The trails could be somewhat tedious and up\ down, in and out, but the river added a lot to the experience. The climb was at least well graded and pretty easy trail…the official eastern end of the Tonto Trail. We put up our umbrellas and enjoyed the shade as we hiked. My clothes were wet as well, but in the dry heat, it didn’t last long.
After a few hours, we came to the first creek that was flowing well…Hance. We stopped for another long break to collect water for the night. I made my dinner while listening to all the frogs croak. We sat there alone until abruptly several different groups showed up, and suddenly it felt crowded. We discussed where we should camp and which route to take…one that went 1k’ up Horseshoe mesa or the Tonto trail, which contoured around the mesa but was 1 mile longer. Given the heat (87 degrees under my umbrella), we decided to avoid any more climbing. We’d been shooting for a campsite at Cottonwood creek at the beginning of the day, but since we had water and perfect weather, we thought we might find a more secluded and open-view campsite out on the plateau.
What a great call! We walked several more miles along the Tonto to find a perfect site for cowboy camping. It was the kind I usually shun due to exposure to the elements but the weather couldn’t have been more cooperative. The breeze was light and there was not a cloud in the sky. We set up just as the last rays were casting through the canyon. I sat down and took it all in for awhile. Maximum views…just like in one of those glossy magazines. I reflected on my life, this particularly journey and everything in between.
I almost never cowboy camp, saving the experience for special occasions. This was it, my only cowboy camp on the Hayduke. Save the best for last. But there were very many prickly pear cacti around, complete with their beautiful and bright flowers. Unfortunately one of their spines found its way into Sky’s sleeping pad, but even this didn’t dampen our spirits. We settled in for a grand night of star gazing. I will never forget this amazing night in the Grand Canyon and I was glad to be able to share it with my new friend, Sky.