Hiking the Grapevine Loop – A Couples Guide to Extended Backpacking in the Grand Canyon
Photos by Douglas and Carol Cornell
My wife, Carol, and I didn’t begin backpacking until 2007. We had been married for nearly 30 years, and during all of that time we both kept in shape by bicycling and being active parents. But after our son left home for college, we decided to try hiking.
At first, we only day-hiked. We hiked the northern trails of Michigan, then, on a whim, booked a 3-day guided trip into the Havasu Canyon, which is a small yet stunningly beautiful canyon on the western side of the south rim of the Grand Canyon. We learned some important skills from our guide and felt that we were ready to try real backpacking. Until this year, all of our backpacking trips were limited to one night. By sticking to overnight out-and-back trips, we explored the limits of our endurance and figured out exactly how to pack our gear correctly. We also gained confidence navigating.
For our 30th anniversary, we hiked the Kalalau Trail on Kauai. It was just an overnighter, but it pushed us to our limits. In 2010, we traveled to Yosemite National Park and climbed Half Dome, camping over night 4 miles from this very interesting slab of granite.
We both had the bug to re-visit the Grand Canyon, and after reading about a route in Backpacker Magazine, decided to attempt a 3-night, 4-day backpacking trip. On New Years Day, 2011, I faxed a request to the Grand Canyon National Park Backcountry office to obtain a permit to camp at 3 different sites on the plateau 3000 feet below the rim of the Grand Canyon. Our plan included:
- Descending from the rim and hiking down the Grandview trail. This trail is not one of the “Corridor” trails, and is not overly used. All reports indicated that this would be a beautiful hike.
- Camping the first night at Cottonwood Creek, where there would be an ample supply of water.
- Camping the second night at Grapevine Creek, where there might not be water.
- Picking up water on day three at Lonetree Creek, then continuing on to camp at the dry Cremation Creek.
- Finishing on day 4 by returning to the rim via the Kaibab Trail.
After a few weeks, our permit arrived in the mail. Now all we had to do was make travel plans!
We departed for Arizona from our home in Michigan on Friday, May 13. Michigan was suffering from the wettest spring in years, so vacationing in dry desert was going to be a treat. Our flight arrived in Phoenix and we enjoyed a beautiful 3 hour drive north, past Flagstaff and on to the Grand Canyon National Park. While there are many hotel rooms in nearby Tusayan Village, we elected to camp in the park at the Mather Campground. We made friends with a neighboring camper, Steve, who went over our itinerary with us. He felt that we might need to carry more water to Cremation Creek, so he happily lent us a 2 liter bag. He also suggested that we leave our sleeping bags behind and just bring our down jackets to sleep in. The weather forecast called for dry, 80 degree days and 60 degree nights at the 4000 ft. elevation where we would be camping. We did bring Therm-A-Rest pads and our tent, plus we each carried a small sleeping-bag liner just-in-case. We also carried a map, GPS, personal items, camera, cooking kit, stove, and enough food to sustain us for four days.
Day One – 5 Miles. 1,234 Ft. Ascending, 4,857 Ft. Descending.
On Saturday morning, we drove to the GCNP Visitor’s Center and called the local taxi service from our mobile phone. 10 minutes later, we were in the taxi-van and on our way to the Grandview trailhead ($35 one way). We would return to our car via park shuttle bus at the Kaibab trailhead (where there is no overnight parking for park visitors).
We cautiously began our descent of Grandview trail. There is absolutely no way for a flatlander to train for a 3000 ft. descent, so we went slow and really relied upon our trekking poles for balance and to check our speed. Carol carries about 25 pounds in her pack, and I carry about 30 pounds. We have learned that every single item must have a purpose or we will not carry it.
After about 4 hours of slow descending (and taking lots of breaks to rest and enjoy the stunning vista before us), we had covered 3 miles and were near the point on the Horseshoe Mesa where our trail would bear left and head down to Cottonwood Creek. We enjoyed a lunch of PB&J and Pringles in the shade of an abandoned copper miner’s stone shack, and continued our hike.
The next section would be the most difficult and potentially dangerous of the entire hike. The last mile of the day involved carefully climbing down a very, very steep field of scree (very lose stones and ground). There were few switchbacks – we felt as if we were walking straight down the side of a cliff. Carol slipped and fell not once, but twice, but she must have had some seriously good Karma, as she only suffered minor scratches. A broken leg or sprained ankle here would have ruined our trip.
We reached Cottonwood Creek by 2 pm and began scouting for a campsite. There was only one other tent set up, so we wandered around and eventually found a secluded site that was right next to a cliff overhang and the creek, which was not overflowing but had enough water for us to cool off our hot feet and filter for drinking.
The sense of peace and relaxation we received at Cottonwood surpassed our wildest dreams. Even as the wind picked up and blew against the nearby butte, and the frogs began to croak with wild enthusiasm (I named them “Harley Frogs,” because they didn’t have mufflers!), we fell asleep by 9 pm and slept through the night.
Day Two – 5 Miles. 1,654 Ft. Ascending, 1,822 Ft. Descending
After a satisfying breakfast of instant oatmeal, hot tea, and Starbucks instant coffee, we began our easy second-day trek to Grapevine Creek via the Tonto Trail. We were told by the park backcountry office that there would be water at Grapevine, so we only carried enough water to sustain us for a fairly easy five-mile hike.
This hike would be fairly flat, except for the crossing of two dry creek beds. We paralleled the Cottonwood Creek for quite a while, and passed a dormant rattle snake that was sunning right next to the trial. Small cactus decorated the ground, and sagebrush frequently encroached upon the trail. We walked in the morning silence and rarely spoke. It was as if we didn’t want our voices to spoil the peace and quiet.
We were surprised to reach our campsite at Grapevine Creek at just past noon. We scouted out the area and decided to wait to see how windy it would get before setting up our tent. The forecast called for 40 MPH winds, and we found that the wind liked to drop from the rim and blow directly up the creek beds. Grapevine Creek has several small pools of water teeming with tadpoles, but we stripped to our skivvies and cooled our hot and tired bodies. The afternoon was spent reading and napping. Only two other hikers crossed our path at Grapevine, and we had the entire creek for ourselves.
Since there was no natural wind protection for the tent, we picked a spot and set it up. The wind began to howl at dusk, and I had place heavy rocks on our tent stakes to keep them from being yanked out. The nearly-full moon cast a bright light on the landscape, and it was easy to see clearly without a flashlight. We slept soundly though. Even the frogs were quieter here.
Day Three – 12 Miles. 3,019 Ft. Ascending, 2,977 Ft. Descending
For our third day on the trail, we had an ambitious itinerary: We would hike 8.6 miles to Lonetree Creek and replenish our water and have a hearty lunch. Then we would hike another 3.5 miles to Cremation Creek and camp. 12 miles is a long way to go when your legs are tired, but we found the trail to be fairly easy. The ground was firm, the scenery was magnificent as we watched the Colorado River rush 2000 feet below.
It is necessary to cross nine small canyons on this hike. We found this to be highly entertaining, as it broke up the monotony of hiking on the flat plateau. We averaged nearly 1.5 MPH, which isn’t too far from our Michigan average of 2 MPH. We reached Lonetree Creek around 1 pm. To conserve water for the evening, we ate supper for lunch. After bathing our tired feet and resting for an hour, we filled every water bag and continued on to Cremation Creek.
We crossed three very steep dry creek beds that I would also classify as small canyons. Descending several hundred feet with nearly 40 pounds of pack weight is not easy! We could only laugh, though, as there was no alternative. Still, I remember this part of the hike as being gorgeous beyond belief. We only saw one other hiker all day, and we felt as if we were the only people on the planet.
We camped at Cottonwood behind a huge rock, hoping the wind would be blocked a bit. We ate our last BP&J’s for supper. For a treat we shared a handful of Pringles and a Payday candy bar. We had plenty of energy bars left, but those would be needed for our climb back to the rim.
It got colder that night, but we didn’t suffer much. We each wore our coats, long underwear, and wool socks to bed and shared body heat when necessary.
Day 4 – 7 Miles. 4,725 Ft. Ascending, 1, 564 Ft. Descending
The last day of a hike is bittersweet. We wanted to be done, but we didn’t want to leave the solitude.
Due to the mild temperature, we had plenty of water left so we decided to skip our ample supply of energy bars and enjoy another hot breakfast of oatmeal and coffee. We were on the trail by 6:30 am, and began the last crossing of the plateau that would lead us to the Kaibab corridor trail. After an hour or so, we passed two large cairns that mark the backcountry boundary. Then, after crossing two more challenging dry creek beds, we caught sight of the Kaibab Trail in the distance. We could see hikers descending the trail, most who were on their way to Phantom Ranch or the Colorado River.
We reached the “Tip-off,” which is the intersection of the Kaibab Trail and the Tonto Trail. We climbed Kaibab six years ago with just light day packs. How would we fair with full backpacks?
It turned out to be much easier than we expected. Our legs were strong and our spirits were willing. We stopped several times to see if we could spot our campsites from the previous two nights, which were far below us. The wind gusted at nearly 70 MPH at times, and the temperature dropped with each step. Other hikers, who were descending the trail, looked at us with admiration as we rather quickly ascended this very, very steep climb. At 1 pm on Tuesday, we returned to the rim.
While I didn’t expect a welcoming ceremony, I will admit that the completion of the hike seemed a bit anti-climatic. Carol and I had survived in the wilderness for 4 days – not a significant amount of time for experienced hikers, but for us, it was a major event.
As we rode the shuttle bus back to our car, I thought about how much I wish more people would challenge themselves to complete a backcountry adventure. Carol and I had a new understanding about our ability to endure. We strengthened our relationship, and worked together as a hyper-efficient hiking team.
Whenever I worry about the fate of mankind, I find solace in the fact that in the 21st century, so many of us enjoy hiking in the wilderness.
- There is no shuttle bus to the Grandview trailhead. Unless you have 2 cars, the only way to get there is to take a park taxi.
- We each take our fair share of the load in our packs. For instance, I carry the tent fabric and Carol carries the poles and stakes. We use the smallest Kindles for reading – they are lighter than most paper-back books. We each carry a 72 oz. CamelBak bladder in our packs, and carry an insulated CamelBak water bottle. We also carried unfilled supplemental 1 liter water bags.
- Carry plenty of salty snacks. Chips and nuts are preferred.
- Carry some powered drink mix and put it in your water bottle.
- We use a pump water-filter. It is slightly bulky, but it has never let us down.
- Due to the extremely dry climate, campfires are not allowed in the Grand Canyon.
- We wore mid-height hiking shoes.
- Take turns leading. Carol is better at going downhill, but sometimes I lead so I can slow her down.
- Use trekking poles!
- Wear a sun hat with a full 360 degree brim. A baseball cap will not keep the sun off your neck. We also like our very-light long-sleeved sun-protection shirts. Long pants were necessary to keep our legs from being scratched by sagebrush.
- Check in with the backcountry office for last-minute advice before departing on your hike.
- There is limited mobile phone coverage on the Tonto trail. I mostly kept my phone turned off, but it was nice to know I could phone for help in case of an emergency.