Indian Garden to South Kaibab Trailhead
Distance 13.4 km Elevation Gain 1150 m, Elevation Loss 200m, Time 6 hrs 5 min
Our earliest wake-up of the trip, it was still dark when we got out of the tent at 5:45am. After a hot breakfast, a coffee and a quick stop at the nicest restrooms on the trip, we exited Indian Garden at 7:04am.
Many people leave Indian Garden and hike to the rim via the Bright Angel Trail. We both prefer South Kaibab Trail over Bright Angel. Bright Angel travels deep inside a canyon (Bright Angel Canyon) and does not offer great view of the inner canyon. South Kaibab hikes up and over O’Neill Butte and along Cedar Ridge, affording expansive views of the inner canyon. Plus exiting using the South Kaibab would allow us to further explore the Tonto Trail and extend our time in the canyon.
It is approximately 6.5 km to Tip Off, the junction between South Kaibab Trail and Tonto Trail, from Bright Angel Campground. The net elevation gain is about 130 m, but like the day before, traversing the Tonto Platform requires hiking into and out of smaller side canyons.
It takes about 5 minutes to backtrack down the Bright Angel trail to the intersection with the Tonto East Trail. This section of the trail is not as well travelled as other sections, as most hikers choose one of the corridor trails or descend down to Phantom Ranch. It was a very pleasant hike, walking under the cliffs of Grandeur Point and in and around a couple of drainages.
As we exited Bright Angel Canyon, the sun was already rising over O’Neill Butte in the distance, so we stopped to put on sunscreen. Even in early spring, the sun can get hot and intense in the canyon.
After only 1.6 km of hiking we came to our first drainage of the day. On the topo map, it looks like an insignificant feature in the landscape. While the trail skirts by the very head of the drainage, the drainage opens into a large side canyon, joining with Pipe Creek, eventually connecting to Garden Creek.
As we continued eastward along the Tonto Platform, scattered throughout the landscape were large boulders. These must have be remnants of rock falls from the cliffs above. It was interesting that we did not see similar boulders along other sections of the Tonto Trail.
In just under a kilometre, at the 2.4 km mark, we entered into a large side drainage of Pipe Creek. This was a small oasis, with large trees and more plant life than on the main trail, but no visible water was present.
Pipe Creek has carved a large canyon into the Tonto Platform. We had to head close under the cliffs of the Grand Canyon to pass by. Like the previous water sources, there was an abundance of plant life, very good sized trees, and a small amount of water. There was a short climb right up a small spring; we actually got our boots muddy! As we left Pipe Creek, we came out right beside O’Neill Butte, but we had to hike back to the river to get around the butte to the switchbacks on the east side. We had hiked 3.7 km in 1 hour 20 minutes and had just under 3 km to go to get to the junction with the South Kaibab Trail.
We made good time hiking. We did stop regularly to snack, knowing that the real work was ahead of us. We were not rushing, but enjoying our time hiking the Tonto Trail.
After 5.3 km and about 1 hour 55 minutes since we left camp, we came over a slight rise, marked by a very dead tree, and the view to the north opened up. In front of us was what I believed to be Cheops Pyramid, to our right was Zoroaster Temple and Brahma Temple, and we could see Bright Angel Canyon (north). A few more steps took us back to the edge of the inner canyon, where we could see down to Phantom Ranch, highlighted by the green vegetation contrasting with the red and brown rocks.
A short little climb through some switchbacks and we arrived at the junction with the South Kaibab Trail. It was 2 ½ hours and 6.5 km since we had left our campsite at Indian Garden. We were now on somewhat familiar ground, as we had hiked down the South Kaibab on our first visit to the Grand Canyon in 2011, but this time we would be going up. There was a wonderful toilet (big and clean!) that we took the time to use prior to starting our hike uphill. According to the sign posted on the information board, we had 7.1 km and 994 m of elevation to gain to finish our hike.
The hike to the trailhead can be nicely broken into three stages. The first stage is from the Tonto Trail to the Skelton Point, 2.3 km and 372 m of elevation. Then a walk along Cedar Ridge, 2.4 km and a deceptive 274 m of elevation gain. Then the final stage is the climb to the trail head of 2.7 km and 348 m of elevation.
To start the climb onto O’Neill Butte, we had to traverse to the east side. The trail up is well defined and is frequented by mule trains. Mules walk in single file and create a soft rut in the middle of the trail. This makes the walking slightly more difficult since it is hard to push off in the sand and get a solid thrust forward.
The National Park Service has done a lot of work to protect the trail from the impact of the mules. Frequent steps have been put in to prevent erosion, and parts of the trail on the switchbacks in the Redwall Limestone have stones inlaid like natural paving stones. The switchbacks make the gradient up very manageable; they are after all graded for the mules.
We stopped and looked east, trying to spot where the Tonto Trail cuts across the landscape. We were very successful in doing this when looking west, but looking east, we could see no sign of the trail.
We arrived atop the switchbacks in just over 40 minutes after leaving the Tonto Trail.
We had a mule train in front of us, so we popped through a hole in the cliff to have a snack and take a view westward to see where we had been. We could clearly see the trail leading into Indian Garden and in the distance Dana Butte. We then posed for an old time selfie, propping the camera on some rocks and using a timer. Some ravens flew overhead, riding the thermals. We stopped to watch them for a few minutes as the birds bobbed and weaved in the air currents.
One last look down at the switchbacks and it was time to keep heading up. The very next part of the trail featured some of the greatest exposure on the trip. The trail is a good five to six feet wide, but then the cliff drops all the way to the Tonto Platform.
We arrived at Skeleton Point, covering the 2.3 km in 1 hour 10 minutes. We stopped to look back across to the north side, we see Zoroaster Temple with Brahma Temple right behind it. Time to focus our energies on the next section, the long traverse of Cedar Ridge.
The trail starts out heading straight for O’Neill Butte. The path has a gentle grade and the National Park Service has lined it with stones to keep foot travel contained to a small path. Just before turning left to head around the east side of O’Neill Butte, we took a look westward. The Tonto Trail can easily be seen slicing across the Tonto Platform.
The elevation gain was steady and relentless. The soil was very loose, like walking in sand. Steps were positioned regularly on the trail to prevent erosion, but were at odd intervals, making it difficult to get a constant rhythm to our stride. We passed many people going both ways, mostly day hikers attempting to get to Skeleton Point for a view.
The view across to the northeast was dominated by Wotans Throne and Vishnu Temple, both towering over 2000 m in elevation, the Colorado River is about 750 m above sea level at this point.
Once past the butte, we came to a little plateau with a dead tree, a little ominous at this point. We continued climbing the east side of the ridge. Coming to the rest area called Cedar Ridge, looking back we could see that we had hiked up a lot of elevation as we passed by O’Neill Butte. It was exactly one hour since we left Skeleton Point. Only one small leg of our journey left, but first, lunch!
After a good lunch and some chocolate (Aero Bubbles, a staple on all our hikes), we leave the rest area and start on our last section of the hike.
A series of switchbacks took us up through the Coconino Sandstone, a tough cliff-forming layer of the Grand Canyon. We could easily see the cross beds of the ancient sand dunes preserved in the rock. The trail starts out reinforced by what could be described as natural paving stones. This gives a nice solid surface to push off of. Soon the trail goes back to the loose sandy base, contained within the steps. The trail is a dark red/orange colour as we rise through the sandstone layer. As we approached Ooh Aah Point, we passed into the Toroweap Formation, and the colour of the trail returned to a sandy tan.
Looking back, we felt as though we were being chased by the mule train we first encountered on the way up to Skeleton Point. It took less than 20 minutes to arrive at Ooh Aah Point, covering 1 km and 165 m of elevation gain, not much hiking left to do. Ooh Aah Point offers amazing views of the inner canyon and is a prime viewing point for people coming down from the rim. With the crowds thick at Ooh Aah, I only stopped to take a quick photo with the camera and then we pushed on to the top.
A nice traverse through the Toroweap Formation followed. Arriving at the very top layer of the Grand Canyon, the Kaibab Limestone, the traverse abruptly changed into a series of switchbacks cut into the hard limestone cliffs. We arrived at the trail head at 1:08pm, 35 minutes since Ooh Aah Point. Our adventure in the Grand Canyon was complete. It had been 6 hours and 5 minutes since we left Indian Garden.