Twig Adventures

HayDay 35: A Grand Finale

Friday, May 12th, 2023, 0600-2030
West Horseshoe Mesa to the South Rim, via South Kaibab trail
24 miles, elevation 7200′

Gazing at stars every time I woke was a grand experience. But when the quarter moon came up, it got pretty bright. With no trees or tent to block the light, even such a sliver made a big difference. I was also awoken by something crawling on my neck. I only remembered grabbing and flicking whatever it was away, then falling back asleep. It probably wasn’t a scorpion. Oddly, there were 20 or so little beetles crawling under our ground sheets in the morning, so I’d guess my nighttime visitor was one of these harmless critters. Such minor inconveniences were worth it. I enjoyed all of the views of buttes, cactus and stars. Good thing I didn’t have a blacklight to see all the scorpions, too!

Toasting the morning with my coffee… doesn’t get much better!

We were off with the sun, which made way too early of an appearance. The Tonto Plateau was brutally exposed, with nary a tree for cover. Luckily we brought our own shade…Sky and T Rovers were promptly activated. I had my brella up from 9 am until 6 pm… probably a record for a single day. I couldn’t imagine a trip along the Tonto without one. Temps were broaching the 90s this day.

We also took many breaks. First we stopped for second breakfast and a water top up at Cottonwood creek. Then we wound for a whopping 6 miles in and out of Grapevine creek. To contour the plateau, the trail had to weave along the edges of all the major drainages. A hiker could stare less than a mile across these side canyons, knowing it would take them hours to reach the other side. I would like to propose a zipline be installed in such places, but I guess that would involve a lot of liability for the park, and the government doesn’t like liability. So I could only stare and dream about such a fixture.

Looking across Grapevine and the main canyon, touching the void and contemplating the advantage of a zipline across…one can only dream.
contouring around one of the side drainages…I had to hike all the way to the end near the walls to cross this canyon

We took an early and long lunch at Grapevine creek, concerned there might not be much water further along. We were dragging our feet somewhat, intentionally trying to run out the day. At the beginning of the day, we’d decided to spend one more night in the canyon, which meant only about 17 or 18 miles of hiking. That would be a really big day in the Grand Canyon for most but for us, it just wasn’t enough. We took another long break at Lonetree canyon in the afternoon, precariously hiding from the sun under the tiny trees in the drainage. I cooked an extra meal and took a short nap.

This is what passes for a downed tree across the Tonto Trail. Notice a complete lack of shade? UMBRELLA!

Between the lack of water, the exposure, and our anxiousness, we changed our minds and decided to just hike out at the end of the day. Sky messaged Leah, who was staying in Flagstaff and had offered to pick us up. She had an Airbnb for one more night, so the promise of a shower and bed motivated us greatly. Plus, Sky was eager to figure out their next move in regards to continuing on to the North Rim and the rest of the Hayduke. We’d gotten word from Trailcrew that he’d found Shinumo creek (North Bass trail) to be impassable, just as the ranger had warned, and had turned back. This confirmed my suspicions that conditions around the North Rim were still just too uncertain and sketchy for my comfort. I did not want to waste my time trying to find a way and/or waiting for conditions to improve, when I could instead be with my family at my aunt’s memorial. These last few days in the canyon were a very satisfying end to my hike, at least temporarily. They had actually left me wanting more, and I was fairly certain I’d be back again. The Hayduke was the only hike that at times made me feel less confident about myself, rather than more confident. But at least for the last week, some of my confidence had returned and I felt more in touch with my experience, rather than just being along for the ride…or taken for a ride, as in the case of being swept down a river. It was a good note to end on.

We passed by Cremation Creek, which was bone dry, and the last place we could have camped. The sun still glared down on the campsites, further confirming our decision not to stay there. The trail was steep and slippery getting in and out of the drainage…tough in the afternoon heat. But when once we had been dragging our feet, now we moved with a purpose. The yin and yang of backpacking. Slow down then speed up. Speed we could do, even 3000′ and 4 miles all the way up the South Kaibab trail. I’d once propelled myself up the same trail at a solid 3 mph pace (AZT) and knew I had it in me to do it again this day.

We reached the trail junction just as a construction crew was getting set to fly away. All afternoon we’d been seeing the park SAR chopper moving in and out of the canyon. On the first pass, we assumed it was going to Phantom Ranch to rescue someone from heat stoke…it happens all the time. But when the helo came back sporting a load attached to a line, we figured it had something to do with the toilets. Sure enough, it was hauling supplies from a recent remodel. The privies had been installed at the Tonto \ South Kaibab intersection. I couldn’t recall seeing them in 2019, so I guess they were a new addition. We joked with the crew that we’d love to hitch a ride, but they only giggled nervously. I definitely would have taken a free helo tour of the GC…duh. But we weren’t getting a hitch on this helo unless we had a life-threatening injury or illness, even if the helo was already was there and going our way. Never hurts to ask I guess. But I wasn’t about to feign a sprained ankle… I’m not that good of an actor.

We watched the helo take off while we chugged water and rested under a pavilion…also a new addition, from what I could recall of the area. It was still hot and damned if all the clouds around left just enough of a hole to let the sun bear down on us. Seriously, the sky was more then 60% covered, just not anywhere near where we were. We started our ascent at 6:45 pm…very late by most standards. But the Rim to Rim to Rim (and on and on) runners always do portions in the dark. I wasn’t even concerned, since I was pretty sure we’d make it by sunset. I put on a good playlist and got to it. The trail was amazingly trodden and wide, especially after we’d experienced little to no trail for hundreds of miles beforehand. It’s so well traveled that even the stone steps are worn down by foot traffic…and the dust was terrible. Though it was late, we passed 5 backpackers/hikers going down and 3 still going up. They and the helo crew had been the only people we’d seen all day. It was so nice to walk up this incredibly popular and crowded trail when there were so few on it. Good timing on our part!


The climb was pretty easy, but I started to lose my energy and pace in the last mile. Sky was right behind me, making it look even easier, and ended on a much better high note. I don’t perform my best athletically in the evenings, but we certainly slammed it by most standards. We reached the last few switchbacks just as the sun was setting across the canyon. Again, perfect timing! We snapped some pictures and chuckled at all the warning signs. Even as we made fun of the puking man, I felt a little nauseated. The park put up some very descriptive cartoons depicting sick and unprepared hikers… it’s a common thing to hike to the bottom of the canyon and not have the fitness to make it back up. Also the heat really gets to people. We were the opposite, prepared for the heat but not the cold. I was wearing only my dress, but still I had been sweating. With the sun suddenly gone and being at 7,000 some feet in elevation, the coolness of the desert hit me pretty fast.

A fake gag. I always thought the cartoon man was wearing a red shirt, but he actually has a really BAD sunburn!

Incredibly, a shuttle drove up just as we reached the parking lot, so we ran to catch it. I didn’t think the shuttles would still be running, but I guess they go right up until just past sunset. It was already 8:30 pm. I donned some layers as we sat down but by the time we reached the visitors center, I was shivering. The sticky sweat under my layers felt terrible. All I wanted was a shower.

A pretty good finisher photo…for me anyway. Sky kept going past the South Rim, all the way to Zion.

In our rush to catch the bus and meet Leah, I failed to get much of a finisher photo. Oh well. As I explained before, I didn’t know if this would truly be the end of the Hayduke for me, but I was certainly ready for it to be over this night. It had been another nice day in the canyon and a strong finish. The sunset over the canyon at the end was all the more reward and fanfare I could have asked for. I felt no emotions, other than being tired and cold. We connected with Leah at the visitors center and she whisked us away to Flagstaff. I spent another few days there and one awful night in Las Vegas before I flew back to Denver. All in all, it was a good but unexpected ending. Thank you both to Sky and Leah for being great companions and helping with logistics in this last section. It was fun getting to know them better and I was glad our paths had aligned from the very beginning.

The Hayduke: amazing, unique, rewarding, hard, punishing…I was glad it was mostly behind me, but also, still to be continued…

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