The Tonto Trail, made famous by the "Man Who Walked Through Time," Colin Fletcher, is not what it once was. Since Fletcher's epic journey of 200 miles in the 1960's, access has been restricted on the west end of the Trail. Additionally, his hike went beyond the official confines of the Tonto Trail on the east end to include other routes. Be that as it may, the Tonto Trail remains one of the classic trails in the Southwest. It is a "mid level" trail in the Canyon running along the top of the Tonto Formation nearly 1,000 feet above the Colorado River and some 4,000 feet below the South Rim, on average. Therefore, it is relatively level. However, you must get down to it and back up from it via any combination of lateral access routes from the South Rim. It depends on how much of the Trail you are interested in hiking, some of it or all of it. From west to east these lateral access trails are: South Bass, Boucher, Hermit, Bright Angel, South Kiabab, Grand View, and New Hance.
For the sake of this discussion, the Tonto Trail is considered to lie between the east access route (New Hance) and the west access route (South Bass). I hiked it in pieces between November 2012 and February 2013, which involved seven trips. Three of these trips were overnight backpacking trips. The others were day hikes, some involving bicycling or the shuttle service on the South Rim to complete the loop between trailheads. Therefore, I will not attempt to describe each hike or the whole route in detail here. That information may be found elsewhere. Suffice it to say, that a permit is needed for overnight hiking below the Rim. Once you descend below the Rim, you enter a desert environment where shade is rare and surface water is even more difficult to find.
I will limit my comments here to selected highlights and challenges I found on the Tonto Trail between the east (Red Canyon/New Hance Trail) and west (South Bass Canyon/Trail) ends. I consider this trail to encompass seven sections, east to west. 1) Long day hike-ride descending the New Hance Trail, then I hiked west on the Tonto, and ascended the Grandview Trail. I was amazed by the sight of a mine on the north side of the River at the top of the Tonto Formation. Water was flowing in Hance Creek just east of Horseshoe Mesa. 2) A long day hike with my son to the Tonto Trail from Grandview Point, around Horseshoe Mesa and back to Grandview Point. There was some interesting mining paraphernalia on Horseshoe Mesa and in the Redwall on the east side of the Mesa. Water was found at Pipe/Miner's Spring on the east side of the Mesa and in Cottonwood Canyon on the west side of the Mesa. 3) An overnight hike-ride down the South Kiabab Trail, then east on the Tonto and back up the Grandview Trail. It rained below and snowed above on Christmas Eve. I found water in Lonetree Canyon, Grapevine Canyon, and in Cottonwood Canyon. 4) This was the shortest day hike using the shuttle between the Village and Yaki Point. My son and I hiked down the South Kiabab, then west on the Tonto and back up the Bright Angel. There was water at Burro Springs, in Pipe Creek, and at Indian Gardens. 5) A long day hike-ride from the Village, west to Hermit's Rest. I hiked down the Hermit Trail, then east to Indian Gardens and back up the Bright Angel. There was water at Santa Maria Spring, and at every side canyon encountered between Monument Creek and Indian Gardens. 6) & 7East) An overnight hike from Hermit's Rest down the Boucher Trail, taking in Dripping Springs on the way down. I then hiked west on the Tonto to Turquoise Canyon then came back to Boucher Creek. I then hiked east on the Tonto to the Hermit Trail then ascended it to Hermit's Rest. I found water at Boucher Creek, Sapphire Creek, Turquoise Creek, and Hermit Creek. 7 West) An overnight hike down the South Bass Trail to the Colorado River. I hiked east on the Tonto to Turquoise Creek and returned to hike out on the South Bass Trail. The only water was found at the Colorado River some 1,000 feet below and two miles beyond the Tonto Trail.
Surface water varies with the season and extent of recent rain/snow, therefore, what I found may differ from what you find. Be prepared. The busiest time of year - summer, is the worst time of year to hike below the Rim from the standpoint of surface water availability as well as comfort since the temperature is highest and shade is not to be found. I have hiked the Canyon in summer and winter. That's why I hiked this series in the winter. No more hiking in an oven, though I am an old desert rat. Maybe I have learned something - life is too short. Maybe I have nothing to prove, but much to enjoy.
The four plants below include classic members of the Southwest flora and are characteristic Canyon plants. Three are woody and one is an herb. The plant families represented are generally well known or widespread. Blackbrush forms continuous stands all along the Tonto Trail. Plantain too grows extensively, though it is easily overlooked, being a tiny annual with inconspicuous flowers. Everyone knows Mesquite but not everyone knows how important it is as a member of the riparian vegetation across the Southwest, extending into tropical regions around the world. Finally, Turpentine Broom, concludes the list with a rather aromatic contribution to the flora whether the one to notice the smell is a person or a butterfly. I wouldn't normally suggest you hike with your nose in the air, but this time I will make an exception.
Blackbrush, Coleogyne ramosissima (Rose Family)
Everywhere you look across the landscape atop the Tonto Formation you see Blackbrush. It's like widely scattered chaparral that is a bit lower in height. It is drought deciduous with thorny stems. Mile after mile, there it is dominating the landscape. If it's monotony that you see, you will soon lose sight of the obvious plants right in front of you. If it's success, life, dominance, and vitality that you see, you will pause and consider, what this little shrub has going for it that it is able to do so well here, when no other plants in this genus even exists in the United States. How did it get here? From where did it come? It is a member of the Rose Family, but an odd member at that. Its flowers have many stamens but no petals. There are four sepals and a central pistil that matures into a dry fruit called an achene. According to the Encyclopedia of Life, as well as River Plants of the Grand Canyon, seed germination has a low probability of success. But these plants are quite hardy and may live for a hundred years or longer, so if at first you don't succeed, hang around long enough and you might take over the land. This strategy is working, so it seems. Often it is a combination of characters that rules the day rather than a single attribute. Life is like that, more complex than we can understand initially, but once you sort things out, it makes sense.
Woolly Plantain, Plantago patagonica (Plantain Family)
Plantain is nothing less than cute. Sometimes called Indian Wheat, it could be confused with a grass. It is small, with spikes of diminutive flowers which resemble grasses on the most superficial level. But if you look closer, even just a little bit, you will see important differences. The leaves are arranged in a basal rosette. They lack a petiole, thus are glass-like in appearance, but that's where the similarities end. For the structure of the flowers tell a tale of vast differences between Plantain and the grasses. There is a hairy bract at the base of each flower. The flowers are perfect or bisexual. The sepals are quite small, only about 3 mm long. The petals are whitish and not much longer, but they have lobes that are curved backwards. The flowers are 4merous or have parts in fours: four sepals, four petals, four stamens. The fruit type is a capsule. Plantain can be widespread in a particular area with thousands of plants covering the ground. Small mammals consume the seeds and people have added them to corn meal and water to produce a nutritious drink called pinole. This is a most widespread group of plants, as this one's name implies. It occurs from Patagonia in Chile (South America) all the way north to Canada. This little group of herbs really gets around. No doubt you will bump into it, if you haven't already. More than likely you've stepped on it without realizing it. Wonders in the Grand Canyon are not just over your head, they are also under your feet.
Western Honey Mesquite, Prosopis juliflora var. torreyana (Pea Family)
In "Gathering the Desert," Gary Nabhan devotes one chapter to Mesquite, the genus Prosopis. The title of the chapter is, "Mesquite as Mirror, Mesquite as Harbor." He begins with a description of a staircase in a church that was first constructed in the late 17th century. It was subsequently broken and rebuilt in a cycle that repeated itself to the present day. He described the color and luster of the wood in intimate detail. As I read this chapter, I imagined the wood grain and the rings that went round and round, each circle representing one year of life. Some of those years were good, some were not so good, either reflecting life like a mirror or sheltering life like a harbor, or both. Later in the chapter, Nabhan likens the growth of a Mesquite to that of "a resurrection plant." Wendy Hodgson, in "Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert," refers to Mesquite as a "Tree of Life" to some Indians, like the River Pima. How does such an organism become so revered, so important to a particular people group? Mesquite as harbor involves supplying quite a range of resources to a variety of beneficiaries. Donald Kirk, in "Wild Edible Plants of Western North America," gives quite a few examples of Mesquite as a resource (pods ground into meal used to make cakes or drinks, cooked to make a syrup; sap eaten raw, made into candy or used to make a black dye; the bark was used in basketry and fabrics). Benson and Darrow include other uses of the plants, such as fuel or building materials, in "Trees and Shrubs of the Southwest Deserts." Additionally, Anne Epple, in "A Field Guide to Plants of Arizona," reminds us that a variety of insects, especially bees, along with coyotes and birds, use Mesquite for food and shelter. In the ocean of extreme heat and drought, which we call the Grand Canyon, Prosopis is a protective harbor, an island of shade, nutrients, and moisture. On your next hike in the Canyon or elsewhere, when you come upon a Mesquite, pause to peer into its reflection. Consider its contribution to fostering life where it stands. May we follow its example, nurturing life and reflecting the Giver of life.
Turpentine Broom, Thamnosma montana (Citrus Family)
It's as plain as the nose on your face, so the saying goes. That's the case with Turpentine Broom, because its aroma gives it away as a member of the Citrus Family. There are only two members of this family in the Canyon, probably because it is better represented in tropical places. Members of this family bear many glands that release a strong fragrance, especially when bruised. Therefore, Turpentine Broom gives off a characteristic aroma that helps to distinguish it from plants that look similar, such as Mormon Tea and Rabbitbrush. The flowers are a bit odd looking too, should you be fortunate enough to see it in flower. The purple color isn't so odd, but the shape reminds me of a narrow vase. The stigma and stamens protrude slightly beyond the petals. The stems are virtually leafless, as the tiny leaves fall off early in the spring, leaving behind yellowish-green, naked stems. The plants look thorny. On the South Rim, they occur sporadically along the Tonto Trail as well as at higher elevations into the Pinyon-Juniper zone toward the Rim. Turpentine Broom is a favorite reproductive site of Swallowtail butterflies. They lay their eggs on these plants and the caterpillars eat only Turpentine Broom as they mature. This makes them distasteful to predators, giving them a survival advantage. Plant taxonomists well understood the importance of aroma when naming this plant. Thamnos is Greek for shrub and osme means odorous. Learning plants involves all your senses, from your nose to your toes. Stop and smell the "roses" on your next hike, in the Canyon and beyond.
More like this story
- Column: Hiking Dripping Springs Trail in the Grand Canyon
- Native Plants of the Southwest (37) - AZ Trail: Blue Ridge Segment
- Native Plants of the Southwest (6) - Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Warner Trail
- Native Plants of the Southwest (51) - South Bass Trail, Grand Canyon, South Rim
- Column: Spending time at Dripping Springs, Part II