Grand Canyon - Hermit Trail
After our first backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon, the much-enjoyed rim-to-rim-to-rim during Christmas 2017, we decided to go back there the following year. The first trip was almost on a whim, now we had a bit more time to plan.
One aspect we agreed on right away: not the Corridor again. It was amazingly beautiful, sure, but way too crowded for our taste. Let’s try to find something a bit more secluded.
I started working on plans. Some were point-to-point, involving long distances on the Tonto Trail, crossing the Corridor. However, another idea came to mind and took root: let’s start at Hermit’s Rest, go down the Boucher Trail via the Hermit Trail and zig-zag to and from the river in several places, eventually returning to the same trailhead. I ran all the different the plans by our friend, Suzanne Swedo, who hiked almost every trail (and many non-trail routes) in the Grand Canyon during the past 30 years, and after hearing her thoughts on the details, we decided on the Hermit-Boucher lollipop loop. This would give us a great glimpse of the Grand Canyon’s more westerly side, with potentially few other hikers. The only concern were helicopters: being that most of our route was on the border of the no-fly zone, we’ll see and hear tons of choppers.
We’re lucky with our work schedule, most years neither of us has to work between Christmas and New Year’s. This year, however, it took until early November to make sure we’re free, so I requested the permit on November 11. There was no problem, the permit was in my email three days later. Starting December 23, we had four nights below the rim, three of them in three separate places on the river: Boucher Rapids, Hermit Rapids and Granite Rapids. The fourth night was for Hermit Camp.
For logistical info, like permits and zero-day accommodations, take a look at the other trip report.
This year, two things were different: on the way back, we didn’t have time to stop for a night, we decided to hike out and drive home right away. This was so we can regroup and go to Yosemite two days later in time to celebrate New Year’s there (something of a tradition for us lately).
Second: as some of us might remember, in December 2018, the federal government was about to shut down. The possibility had been hanging in the air for a while, and we were concerned they’ll close the park and cancel our permit. We were supposed to arrive at Grand Canyon village the very first day of the possible shutdown, sleep at the Yavapai Lodge motel, then start hiking on the second day.
I called beforehand and the motel told me the park and the motel will be open in case the shutdown really happens. Then I called the wilderness ranger, and he was very helpful, he said if it happens, the wilderness permit will be valid, we just don’t have to pick up anything at the wilderness center (as they’ll be closed) and they won’t be issuing any new permits or making changes to the existing ones. He advised that search and rescue, plus backcountry rangers, will still be on duty.
Then, of course, at midnight on December 22, the government shut down. This was 9pm PST on the 21st for us on the West Coast, as we were finishing packing. Despite all the things we were told, we still felt a bit like we’re driving into the unknown.
Day 0 – L.A. to Grand Canyon Village
We left L.A. in the morning and headed east, arriving at the park entrance around 2:30pm local time. The entrance booth was unmanned with a sign saying that the park is open, but services are limited.
First, we stopped at some of the overlooks, taking in the view that never gets old. Then, after settling in our motel room, we went for another drive, all the way to Hermit’s Rest. This is an overlook, day-use area and parking lot a few miles west of the Village. Being next day’s starting point, we wanted to scout the parking options and while there, enjoy the sunset.
Full moon was just that morning, meaning the moon rose a little bit after sunset. Last time we were here, the moon was new, assuring pitch black, star-filled nights. Now it meant moonlight.
Dinner was in the motel room, food we brought from home. As soon as we finished, we went for a night walk, out to the rim, and got treated to the sublime spectacle of the Grand Canyon by the light of the full moon. There’s not much to say, the pictures speak for themselves.
It was cold, well below freezing. Long-exposure night photography takes time, even if you hurry, but we didn’t mind, having brought extra winter jackets just for this evening. One picture ended up being our 2019 holiday greeting card we emailed to our family and friends.
Day 1 – Grand Canyon Village to Hermit Trailhead to Boucher Rapids
Up at 6am. Outside temperature: 18°F. That’s a full ten degrees warmer than the year before. Load everything into the car, drive to the Hermit’s Rest. Stop on the way to take pictures of the sunrise: impossible-looking colors over and under the splotchy clouds forming an almost-mackerel sky, the canyon view accentuated by the recently-full moon setting.
Hermit’s Rest was even colder than the Village, obviously, as it’s higher (6,640’) and more exposed. We put the packs on, secured the car and started down the trail. Boucher Rapids is at 2,300’, giving opportunity to crack silly jokes like “What do we have to lose?” “Only about 4,300 feet.”
Just below the parking lot, first the trail undulates among the trees, dropping a few hundred feet. Constructed in 1911, this was the trail in the Grand Canyon, serving glamping sites down near Hermit Creek. The trail was “paved”, there was even a tram down and the camp itself was the cat’s meow as far as backcountry camping goes, all this 10 years before Phantom Ranch.
After the camp folded in 1930, the trail’s use diminished by orders of magnitude and nature took over. It’s very eroded in many places, but still in great shape. The paving I mentioned can still be seen in several short sections: the stone carved out to make the trail was cut into regular slabs and arranged like huge cobblestones. One can still feel what a luxury highway this used to be.
About 1.6 steep miles down, there’s the junction and we turned left on the Dripping Springs Trail, following it for about 1.2 miles to the beautiful grove beneath Dripping Springs. The “hermit” was Louis Boucher, a Canadian prospector who build himself a camp in this area and lived there for about 20 years during the turn of the 20th century. Here we turned right (north) on the Boucher Trail, starting our contour of Eremita Mesa. From far away, this part looks hair-raising. When we looked at this from Hermit’s Rest, it was obvious where the trail was, but it seemed like it’s suspended mid-air on the sheer cliff, thousands of feet from the canyon floor.
Of course, it all a question of scale. In reality, the trail runs mostly in the boulder field in the Hermit Shale formation (if I'm wrong, email me), on a ledge at least a hundred feet wide in most places. The picture on the right is one of the narrowest parts. Even there, tt’s not scary at all, there is little to no exposure. Needless to say, the colors and view are gorgeous. We had clear skies and great visibility, with the sun staying at a low angle (this being only two days from the winter solstice) making the colors even more vibrant. On the far side of the canyon, we could clearly see the Hermit Trail’s middle and lower portion, our return leg in five days if everything goes according to plan.
Around 10:30am, we found a great rest area, somebody stacked a few flat rocks as chairs, providing an opportunity to sit down for a snack. The air was still cold, but with all the sunshine, it felt like spring.
There were a few narrow and eroded sections on the trail, but generally it was an easy walk. As we contoured around Yuma Point (and above Columbus Point), we lost sight of Hermit Canyon and got our first views of Travertine Canyon and Whites Butte. There were a few hairy spots here, one has to walk right on the edge of the precipice for a few steps. I know everybody has their own tolerance level with vertigo, I’m not trying to make light of the situation, for us it was still on the side of “paying close attention, but not scared”. For some it might be even easier, some might freak out there.
Then, in the focal point of Travertine Canyon, the trail descends right into said canyon. Wow, is this steep. There’s no exposure and it’s not really dangerous, but it’s a very, very steep class 2 downclimb for maybe 200 vertical feet. The main, truly deep part of the canyon is avoided, the trail contours some more while losing a bit of elevation and leaves the canyon for a small plateau traverse next to Whites Butte.
It was almost 2pm, time for a late lunch. Some previous hikers made yet another rest area with stacked rocks, meaning we could sit comfortably while enjoying the view.
Another descent followed, this also very steep, maybe a bit less so than the previous one, but longer. It’s a small, narrow side canyon that eventually takes the Hermit Trail to meet the Tonto Trail. The Tonto is one of the major trails of the Grand Canyon, running parallel to the river on the south bank, contouring around on the Tonto Platform, most of the time 1-2,000’ above the water.
To our biggest delight, we haven’t seen anybody since leaving the trailhead. On our left, the helicopter flying zone was busy with a chopper every few minutes. They were annoying, but not terribly close.
We turned left (west), following the Tonto down into Topaz Canyon, where Boucher Creek flows. There was water, not much, but plenty for camping if needed. We even found a few decent tent sites between the bushes. Of course, we continued on, bearing right in the watershed. The Boucher Trail continues here on the map, but there’s no physical trace of it, it’s all a big flood area with an easy route following the creek downstream. It’s about a mile to the Colorado in the twisting canyon that narrows to as little as 30-40 feet in a few places. In a few instances, the creek disappeared under the rocks for a while, only to reemerge a bit later. We kept looking for the last place where we saw it to see how far we need to come back in case it’s not flowing down by the river. Filtering from the Colorado is something we wanted to avoid if possible.
Turned out we were lucky, the creek bubbled up again just before we hit the riverbank. It was 4:30pm when we walked out to the mighty Colorado, flowing languidly on our right only to froth and boil on the famous Boucher Rapids to our left.
Boucher Creek polished lots of old black granite into almost metallic-looking texture, giving the place a bit of an otherworldly feel.
First, we explored upstream, but realized quickly that it’s unlikely any decent campsites can be found that way. However, a little bit downstream, next to the rapids, there was a very nice beach with an obvious established site. We set up the tent in the soft sand and went about cooking dinner.
Night fell early, but it wasn’t very cold, we had a leisurely meal sitting on the rocks. Then, the most awesome sight: a ringtail appeared. These creatures, sometimes also called miner’s cats, are not cats at all, they are close relatives of the racoons, but much more slender and graceful. They are nocturnal, with huge eyes, thing bodies, and long, ringed tails. They are very intelligent and highly inquisitive.
This particular individual crept close to our campsite, took a good look at everything, then left. Or so we thought. We took extra care to have all out food and scented items secured, but I made a mistake: about 30 yards from the tent, we were gravity-filtering water by hanging the setup from a tree. After I was done, I left the dirty-water line, and old Platypus hose, sitting on a rock while I walked to the tent with the clean water. Then we got distracted by the beautiful evening light and climbed a few steps up to rocks to take a picture. The hose was forgotten for a few minutes. When I went back to fetch it, it was gone. The ringtail appeared again, but high on the rocks, retreating into a small cave-like opening. We didn’t see him with the hose, but it was obvious what happened.
We felt really bad about this, but I would have never thought they would go for something inert and smelling like nothing (the hose never had food around it, wasn’t moldy, it only ran unfiltered water). We spent a lot of time trying to find it, even climbing up somewhat, but we never saw it or the ringtail again.
The rest of the night was uneventful, we slept great, lulled by the steady roar of the rapids.
Day 2 – Boucher Rapids to Hermit Rapids
Christmas Eve Day. At 6:30am, we woke to the light of the full moon. It was unbelievable. The canyon and the river were fully illuminated by the light of the setting moon with sunrise still an hour away. I quickly took a few long-exposure pictures, then set about making coffee and tea. Em was helping with the bedding.
It was chilly, but well above freezing. After packing up, we spent some more time trying to find the hose, but to no avail. Leaving camp around 8:30, we retraced our steps up Boucher Creek, then on the Tonto Trail, climbing out of the drainage. We were still in the shade, the morning sun already blazing on the higher parts of the canyon.
We kept following the Tonto Trail east, gaining altitude. About a mile up, we stopped for a snack break at a great spot, 1,000’ over the river, with portions of the water far below. Our destination, Hermit Rapids, was visible upstream. From another few hundred yards down the trail, looking back, we caught a perfect glimpse of Boucher Rapids and our former campsite, looking deceptively close.
The helicopters appeared, but as we were at the border of the no-fly zone, it was getting less annoying.
A beautiful elk walked by us, a bit higher up on the rocks, his huge antlers still visible in the brush for many minutes after we passed each other.
A bit further east, the Tonto Trail take a contouring detour into the middle reaches of Travertine Canyon. We tried to make out where we descended the previous day, but it was not well visible. However, Whites Butte towering above is a sight to behold.
At least some of the trail here was still in the shade, giving us a bit of respite from the relentless sun. One thing is sure: if it’s like this in the winter, I wouldn’t even consider coming here in warmer months.
The Tonto briefly reaches the rocks above the river again, and we realized we’re only a quarter mile from Hermite Rapids, though 800’ higher and separated by a sheer vertical cliff. We were looking right at it, almost close enough to touch. If one could abseil here…
There were still over three miles to go, however. We didn’t mind one bit, it was still early and the scenery was amazing. This contour into Hermit Canyon is truly deep, at least 1.5 miles one way. It’s great, easy hiking down (and a bit up) the rolling hillside.
At the focal point, where the creek flows, there’s Hermit Campground. From there, a narrow slot runs to the river where Hermit Rapids are.
When approaching this on the Tonto, there are great views into this slot canyon and it already gives you an inkling of what wonders await.
A few minutes later, the campground with the outhouse comes into view and we descended to the creek, crossed it (it was flowing very nicely), then sat down in the communal area of the campground to eat lunch. We still haven’t seen anybody since leaving the rim.
If all goes to plan, we’ll be sleeping here two nights from now, so it made sense to scout for a nice campsite. There are many great spots, but one high and halfway under an overhang caught our eyes right away.
Officially, the trail to Hermit Rapids is not directly from the campground. You have to go back to the Tonto, climb up a bit, and a few hundred yards up, past the remnants of the old camp, there’s a junction with the Hermit Trail descending into the slot part of the canyon.
While at the campground, I was looking for a use trail to go down, as I was sure there has to be one. Alas, there was no obvious trail to be found and from up there it seemed like there might be one unpassable section in the creek, so we decided to the proper version and went up to the Tonto.
As we figured out later, sure there is a use trail and it’s actually very easy, but that misses the uppermost portion of the real trail, and that place is a treat. From the Tonto, after a quick, steep descent, there’s a part carved right into the side of the hill with some overhanging rock above. It’s super cool and scenic.
Then the trail takes you down to the creek with impossible rock formation all around, including mushroom-shaped erosion plates and dripstone and mica and whatever you can (and can’t) imagine.
The trail is completely eroded in many places, but the route is obvious, you just have to watch out not to get lost in a cactus grove. Going was slow as we kept stopping to admire and place and take pictures. It took almost an hour and a half to walk the last mile of the canyon, by the time we emerged by the river, it was 4pm, with less than 90 minutes of daylight left.
The canyon’s mouth is similar to Boucher, with the creek (thankfully) making it out all the way to the river and a sandy beach with a campsite right next to the rapids. The rapid itself looked way bigger and tougher and Boucher. I’m not familiar with the classification system, but according to the information I found, Boucher is class 4-5 while Hermit is 7-8. Made sense.
We set up the tent, ate a snack, then explored the area, including getting as close to the rushing water as we dared. Seeing all that unbridled mechanical power up close is very humbling.
The wind picked up a bit, but then it died down enough for us to take a comfortable shower.
It was Christmas Eve, so we cut down a huge pine tree, then decorated it with all the lights and hundreds of ornaments we brought, even set up an inflatable snowman and a reindeer-sleigh-Santa combo, then showered each other with gifts. Carols were blasting from the speakers and we even turned the snow machine on to make it more festive.
Just kidding, of course. We dressed in all our silliest gear and then it was a regular backcountry dinner with some great dessert, and I managed to smuggle in a tiny, tiny gift for Em. She was very happy, of course.
The night was cool, but uneventful and sleeping again by the roar of the water was a great treat.
Day 3 – Hermit Rapids to Granite Rapids
Early morning Christmas Day greeted us again with bright moonlight, another opportunity for “night” photography.
We made sure we put on all the fancy clothing again, then went back up Hermit Canyon. It goes without saying: we couldn’t get enough of the place, so it took a long time again.
Plus, we made a “mistake”. We were so enthralled with the creek bed and the rock formations that we missed the real trail going up, so we stayed down by the water. When we realized what happened, we found the use trail going up to the campground. Instead of turning around, we continued to the campground and took a quick bio break. In this environment, using the outhouse is very much preferable to other alternatives. If the timing is right, of course.
Then it was back to the Tonto, and soon we went past the junction with the Hermit Trail’s upper portion. This is where we’ll climb out on our last day.
We had two miles to go to the Granite Rapids junction at Monument Creek. It was great hiking, easy terrain, great river views and dramatic section on the side of the cliff below Cope Butte. Some parts look way scarier on the pictures than in reality. Still nobody around, cloudy skies, perfect temperature, with some possible light rain in the forecast.
On the far side of Cope Butte there’s another deep contour into Monument Canyon. The canyon’s lower section is another one of those narrow slot canyons. Like Bucher and Hermit, it has its own distinct personality. Here we have tall, free-standing towers, some stout, but one stands out at 130 feet in height and only a few dozen feet wide. This is the “monument” the place is named after.
The tower is well visible from above but then the trail descends with a few steep switchbacks and right next to the junction to Granite Rapids, there’s a short spur leading to the base. It’s a sight to behold.
The campground is another quarter mile further up the canyon, but we turned left on the Granite Rapids Trail, descending to the creek bed and following the canyon down to the river. Like in the other lower canyons, the trail disappears after a while, but that’s not an issue. We took our time looking at the rocks and taking photos, so it was around 12:30pm when we arrived at the river.
Compared to the other two river spots we’ve been to, this was by far the biggest. To the left (downstream) are the rapids, and there’s a big beach area with several sand dunes and some more cool granite towers. Several obvious campsites are strewn around.
Upstream, a thick, impenetrable-looking tamarisk forest blocked the way, but upon closer inspection, a wide and well-worn trail presented itself in the middle of the thicket. We explored the downstream campsites first, but then decided to take a look at what’s in the tamarisk forest.
The trail is about 200 yards long, sandy, well-cleared of any vegetation below, but the tamarisk growing tall makes is very tunnel-like. On the sides, several big areas have been cleared to make individual campsites, while leaving enough plants in place to provide privacy and shade, including a front hedge with a narrow entrance, turning it into a “room” of sorts.
At the very end of the trail sits an amazing little sandy beach with some willows and other trees. There was even a small bench made of an old plank and rocks, overlooking the placid waters of the small cove. We heard this is a popular and obvious spot for river rafting trips to stop and camp. Duh.
The place looked magical, there was nobody around, yet. Rain seemed imminent. We pitched the tent in one of the “rooms”, just in time, as it started pattering. Downriver towards Hermit Rapids it looked like more serious rain, but up there it never went past a medium drizzle. We retreated to the tent to take a nap, but got out again after 15 minutes because the rain stopped, the sun was out and the light was just magical.
A few minutes later, our solitude got shattered. A huge group of rafters arrived, tying their boats in the cove. They walked down the trail to scout the rapids and we agreed with them to take some pictures and video of them running it. Em and I positioned ourselves at the head of the rapid, and a few minutes later, the six rafts and one kayak rushed past us. According to some description, Granite Rapids is one of the toughest in the Grand Canyon, and while I know almost nothing about whitewater rafting, it certainly looked like requiring hard work, while also amazingly thrilling.
We thought we dodged a bullet, but no such luck. Less than half an hour later, another group showed up, this one even bigger than the first. They apologized, saying they don’t want to disturb us, but they don’t have much of a choice, the day is coming to an end and they know the previous group will be camped at Hermit and there won’t be room for them, so they have to stay here.
To make everybody’s life easier, we decided to move to the beach on the other side downriver. It was easy, we didn’t even take the tent apart, just stuffed the sleeping items in the backpacks and then walked with the assembled tent, trying not to get caught in the tamarisk. Twenty minutes later, we were set up in the new spot, on the sand about 40 feet above the water line.
Some of the boat guys came over to do a bit of rock climbing and invited us to their Christmas party to be held somewhat later. After dinner, we walked to their campsite, and there was a big party, indeed, with a nice fire, serious food, drinks, and all sorts of merriment. They were exchanging gifts with one silly thing following the other. One guy got a pair of down booties, not the technical kind, but with curly tips and reflecting dots sewn all over them. It didn’t’ take long for us to hang them from a branch and turn them into a makeshift disco sphere using one of the strong flashlights. We enjoyed the company for a while, then walked back to our tent and went to bed.
A little bit later, we awoke to some rustling, and lo and behold, another ringtail visited us. I left an empty bag with some clean plastic trash in the tent’s vestibule, weighed down with a few rocks. This was just on the other side of the fabric from our heads. By the time I opened the tent, the ringtail managed to drag the back a few feet, but thankfully he dropped it. He didn’t mind us being there, though, he kept coming back several times, giving us a great opportunity to take some pictures. He disappeared for a minute, then emerged on the other side, on a small tree, eyeing us curiously. We were in awe for smoothly and elegantly he moved in the branches, almost like liquid smoke.
After securing everything inside the tent, we went back to sleep and the rest of the night, he left us alone.
Day 4 – Granite Rapids to Hermit Camp
We only had a very short distance to go, so we slept late and had a very lazy and long morning. We would have loved to film this other boat group on the rapids, too, but they said the water level will be ideal after 1pm. That was a bit too late for us, we left before 11am. It was a crisp, sunny day, just perfect
We met a couple on the trail, the first non-boating humans of the trip. They were headed to Monument Camp. Then two nore guys came our way, they said they're on a day hike from their camp at Hermit Rapids.
Even while taking our time and stopping for many pictures again, we were back by Hermit Camp before 1:30pm and surprisingly, it was totally empty.
We set up in the spot we scouted earlier, under the overhanging rock. You could say this is the penthouse of the camp. After lunch, we took a nap, then a shower, and finally, another hike, down into the slot canyon again as we couldn’t get enough of that place.
The evening was chilly, the coldest so far, but still very tolerable, and to our biggest delight, there was almost no wind. We had a great time, it was one of those usual bittersweet moments of a trip’s last night.
Bedtime was early, no animals harassed us, and we got up early, bracing ourselves for a long day.
Day 5 – Hermit Camp to Hermit’s Rest, then L.A.
We got up at 6am, still in the dark. The temperature was just around freezing. The sky was overcast, but it didn’t look like imminent rain. Like always, despite our best efforts, it took us two hours to get going.
Another beautiful stag greeted us around the Tonto/Hermit junction, eyeing us from a safe distance.
Thus, the climb began. First, it’s relatively gentle, followed by a few switchbacks taking you to a long ramp leading to the famous Cathedral Stairs. Several people mentioned how tough and bad this section is, and I have to disagree. It’s spectacular and sure it’s steep, but the truly strenuous section is very short and there’s no real exposure. The entire length of the staircase is about a quarter mile with 450’ of gain. We set a slow pace with frequent photo stops. The views are amazing, of course, and as the clouds started breaking up, the constantly changing light made for great pictures.
Then it’s still uphill, uphill, contouring on the side of the canyon. We took several small detours to lookout points, one to see Hermit Camp from above (it looked like we’re floating above it), and another combined with a snack break.
Several big rockslides block the trail, but they are all manageable with some trail work done to make the traverse easy. They are very humbling, though, the seemingly inert rock’s raw power on full display.
Around 11:45am, we walked past Santa Maria Spring and the shelter. Here we started meeting day hikers, including a young couple in blue jeans and tennis shoes two thought they might be able to hike down to the river and a big family with at least 8 members. Before this, not counting the boat people, we only met four other hikers during the entire trip.
The sun was out here, but as we were gaining altitude, the air kept cooling. It was around noon, and we decided to eat a few energy bars, then push for the rim and have lunch by the car. Up and up we went, connecting with the Dripping Spring Trail, now in familiar territory, still awed by the landscape.
At 1:15pm, we walked up to our car, still safe and sound. Clouds moved in again and there was a bit of wind. The temperature hovered below freezing. We put on a few layers and sat at one of the picnic tables, looking at the canyon we just emerged from, eating a big lunch. Then we packed up, got in the car, and drove out.
On Road 64 while traversing the Coconino Plateau towards Williams, we saw several big storm cells dumping rain all around us, but we only hit one. The rest of the drive home was uneventful, we were back in L.A. by late evening. Two days later, it was off to Yosemite Valley for New Year’s Eve car camping.
Compared to the rim-to-rim route, this was much more immersive and more relaxing, mostly because of the lack of other people. I couldn’t really choose which one I liked better because of the vast differences, but it’s safe to say that these two together give you at least a preliminary taste of what the below-rim Grand Canyon is like. Adding a third one, the long trip on the Tonto I mentioned before, would be a great next step, one I hope we can take soon.
As I mentioned before, see our rim-to-rim-to-rim trip report for permit, lodging and travel logistics to and in the Grand Canyon.
Like always, don’t forget to take a look at the full picture gallery.