Backpacking South Kaibab to Grandview along the Tonto Plateau in the Grand Canyon is a bucket list adventure.
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Length: 30 miles
Trailhead(s): South Kaibab (Start) / Grandview (Finish)
Elevation Gain: 5,073’
Trail Type: Point to Point
Dogs: Not Allowed
Difficulty: Moderate – Strenuous
Permit Required? Yes
Considerations: Advance Permits/Camping Reservations, Park Entrance Fee, Heat, Rattlesnakes, Water
Season: Year Round
Hike down and spend a night or more in the Grand Canyon and then yearn to come back for more. That is us. After three prior backpacking trips, we once again venture down to see and experience the harsh reality and incredible beauty of the Grand Canyon.
This 30-mile, four-day journey starts at Yaki Point. Hike down the South Kaibab Trail to The Tipoff, and then head east on the Tonto Trail towards Horseshoe Mesa. That is the route we took, and wow did we get a treat on this trip. Something almost unheard of in the Grand Canyon happened. We had all camping areas 100% to ourselves each night!
Grand Canyon Day One: Yaki Point to Lonetree Canyon
Get an early start. It is about four miles down to the Tonto Plateau on the South Kaibab Trail, and the further down you travel, the hotter it gets. This trip took place in mid-May, and it was hot.
Reach the Tonto Plateau at The Tipoff. There is a (new in late 2019) shelter here for refuge from the sun. There are also restrooms here, and water is available at the shelter (non-potable – use for cooling off only) from two 125-gallon cisterns. Do not expect to find water again until reaching Lonetree Canyon, so get your soak on here! Seriously, wet your shirt, hat, etc. and take the cool with you for as long as it lasts.
Tonto Trail East and Cremation
This part of the hike is pretty, and the trail moves up and down with the terrain. The washes in the Cremation area are very vertical. Climb up hand over hand and butt scoot down for safety if necessary.
Overall, the Tonto Plateau is an exposed hike. We found only one rock overhang to get out of the sun. Plan on a long day. We hiked 10 miles in just over 7 hours to get from the trailhead at Yaki Point to Lonetree Canyon.
The “lone tree” water source here is down canyon, but it was not worth the rock maneuvering and bushwhacking to get there. For us, it was a tiny puddle. It was no better than the small pool near the trail crossing. It was not terribly full late in the day, but it was more than enough. The water flow re-charged overnight, and the next morning water was trickling down rocks that were dry the prior afternoon. We did not need the rain flies on our tents on this or the other two nights of this trip. The stars were dazzling.
Grand Canyon Day Two: Tonto Trail East to Grapevine Canyon
The trail undulates and the terrain is rocky, but hiking along the plateau on this stretch of the Tonto Plateau is pleasant. Enjoy stunning views and, if they are in bloom, gorgeous cactus gardens. The cacti were in their full glory for us. The pink, yellow, and orange blossoms were mesmerizing. There are remarkable views of the Colorado River along this stretch of trail as well.
Grapevine Canyon is mind-blowing! It is enormous, and the only way to continue eastward is to hike all the way around it. It is so big it feels like getting around it will never end. When the trail does finally drop into it, we find another dry creek bed and set up our tents above it on a rock ledge. There are a few tiny pools of water in the creek bed, but the best water option is once again near the trail crossing. We take shelter from the scorching sun under a tall rock wall in this mini oasis with nice vegetation. We hiked just under 8.5 miles in 5 hours this day.
Unexpected Light Show
Not long after crawling into our tents we saw a line of bright balls of light streaking slowly across the sky. It lasted a few minutes. Because we have had no contact with the outside world since leaving the rim, we do not know what to think. We later learn it was a string of SpaceX satellites we saw cruising across the sky. It was weirdly unsettling at the time, but it was a special treat to witness from down in the dark canyon.
Grand Canyon Day Three: Grapevine Canyon to Cottonwood Canyon
More Grapevine Canyon
Leaving the campsite, we hike away from the south rim and follow the east side of Grapevine Canyon. It takes a lot of time and many steps to circumnavigate this huge crack. Grapevine Canyon is not like any of the other canyons we have seen along the Tonto Plateau. It is otherworldly, and it is gorgeous. After we get around it, however, we are rewarded with stunning views of multiple red rock mesas on the way to Cottonwood Canyon.
Another 5.3 miles and 3.5 hours on the Tonto East trail gets us to Cottonwood Canyon. It is a beautiful, lush oasis and we find a perfect place to set up camp under some trees. The creek is flowing, and water is plentiful. A rock wall and trees provide welcome shade.
A lone backpacker traveling through on the way from Arches National Park to Zion National Park stops to enjoy the shade of the trees at our camp. We provide information on the water situation at Grapevine and Lonetree. We are surprised we see no one else. Sitting by our tents in Cottonwood Canyon that evening we relish every minute of the quiet as we soak in the last, beautiful sunset of this trip.
Grand Canyon Day Four: Cottonwood Canyon to Horseshoe Mesa and Grandview Trailhead
It is possible to shave some distance by hiking a shorter, steeper route directly up to Horseshoe Mesa from Cottonwood Canyon. However, we want more canyon! As such, we chose to head a little further east along the Tonto Trail before ascending to Horseshoe Mesa.
It takes us a little over 5 hours to travel 6 miles up to the rim where we exit the canyon at the Grandview Trailhead. Why so long? We are ascending.
Climbing up out of Cottonwood Canyon we soon find the junction with the trail ascending to Horseshoe Mesa. This is where the climb begins. Views looking back into the canyon are wonderful, and the climb is steady. Upon reaching the mesa we enjoy a short break from climbing while we move across. Once the ascent up the Grandview Trail begins at the far end of the mesa, however, it is a steep, relentless hike up.
On the Grandview Trail we move at a pace that keeps us from panting. We do not move faster than we can comfortably manage to minimize the need to take breaks. Some breaks are necessary on this strenuous climb, however, and we enjoy fantastic views looking back into the canyon while resting. We encounter only a few day hikers going up and down the Grandview Trail as we ascend. Fortunately, this trail is not as busy as South Kaibab so most of the time we hike in solitude.
Emerging up top is a shock to our senses because we saw only four people between The Tipoff and the Grandview Trail. We are now surrounded by a sea of eager visitors at the edge of the viewing area at the trailhead.
Not only are we are dirty, but my pants are torn and we do not smell as fresh as those around us. We notice we are attracting attention so we quickly move on. It’s time to start working our way back to where we left our vehicle.
The night before we started our trip into the canyon we camped overnight at Mather Campground in the park. After leaving our vehicle at the visitors center early the next morning we took the park’s shuttle service to the South Kaibab Trailhead at Yaki Point.
There is a backpacker parking area at the Grandview Trailhead, but there is no park shuttle service to or from it. We had only one vehicle so we had no transportation back from this trailhead. It would be a long walk back to the visitor center if a kind soul did not pick us up. We get 10 minutes away from the Grandview Trailhead when another backpacker offers us a ride. We gratefully accept the offer and hop in the bed of the truck. The wind whips around us as we ride in silence. Our brains and bodies are slowly making the adjustment back to reality.
Scroll down to learn about the GEAR WE USE and OTHER OUTVENTURES in this area.
Additional Information (Click below to follow links.)
South Kaibab to Grandview Slideshow
Gear We Use for Backpacking
To see descriptions of the gear Chris & Mac use for backpacking, as well as links to manufacturers and retailers offering the gear for sale, please CLICK HERE.
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