The Crystal Loop

This is a trip report of my solo hike to Crystal Rapid on the north side of the Colorado River that began on November 11, 2013.

Day 1 – The South Rim to Trinity Creek
Day 2 – Trinity Creek to Shiva Saddle
Day 3 – Shiva Saddle to Crystal Rapid
Day 4 – Crystal Rapid to 94-Mile Canyon
Day 5 – 94-Mile Canyon to Utah Flats
Day 6 – Utah Flats to the South Rim

It was a long time since I spent a night alone in the backcountry or attempted such a challenging solo hike. This trip was in the back of my mind for a long time, and things came together very quickly and suddenly to make it happen. I threw together a plan and picked up the permit only two days prior to the beginning of the hike.

My frequent hiking partner Jed Dryer was especially helpful (As always) in making this hike a reality. He took some time to point out the key routes in piecing the loop together, and allowed me to borrow his SPOT tracking device to negate the risks of traveling solo.

This was basically the George “Steck Loop” as described in Grand Canyon Loop Hikes. My only variation was in avoiding the Redwall route to Shiva Saddle from Phantom Creek.

Day 1 – The South Rim to Trinity Creek

I managed an early start down the Bright Angel Trail at 5am. Normally I would use the South Kaibab Trail for a hike like this, but sometimes living within a 10-minute walk of the BA Trail is too convenient to pass up.

The moon had already set and it was a very dark night. I encountered a mule deer immediately down the west trailhead, along a stretch with cliffs on both sides. We faced off for what felt like a long time (Though it was probably only five seconds) as the deer realized he had nowhere to escape except down the trail into the Canyon.

After the moment of confusion, I stepped as far as I could toward the inside of the trail, saying something like “Go ahead, it’s okay.” He immediately understood and cautiously walked up the trail past me, so close that I easily could have reached out and touched him.

The rest of the hike to Phantom Ranch was dark and uneventful.


Cheops Pyramid, seen from the lower Bright Angel Trail at sunrise


the bridges


North Kaibab Trail at Phantom Ranch


Bright Angel Creek

I made the obligatory stop at Phantom Ranch and got caffeinated with two cups of coffee. One of my favorite activities when passing through here on a hike is to sit on the front bench of the cantina and stare off at the comings and goings of the scene. This morning was no different. Autumn had come to the ranch and the cottonwood leaves were a bright beautiful yellow.

The Utah Flats Route is steep, but normally not so bad. Well, normally I’m not carrying two gallons of water and six days of food! I was hauling water to get me all the way to Dragon Creek to avoid the drop into Phantom Creek. Also, sleep deprivation and a lapse in fitness from selling my soul to Xanterra all summer long suddenly couldn’t be ignored.

Regardless, I was already having a wonderful time and made steady progress to the point where Utah Flats intersects with the route up to the Shiva-Isis saddle.


Cheops from the Cheops-Isis saddle

In all my time of exploring the Canyon I had not yet ventured beyond Phantom Creek, so this was all new country to me. Exciting! There was a decent little trail to the saddle, and it was indeed as narrow and stirring to the senses as it always appeared from afar.

The route down the south side had a faint trail that faded in and out. The idea here is to stay high over 91-Mile Canyon (Above the next major cliff band) that wraps over into Trinity Creek.

Midday grew to be pretty warm and sunny. There’s only one major drainage to move around through here, marked by two large boulders at the crossing. I lost a lot of time and energy here beyond the boulders when I went too high on the slope. It’s best to stay low toward the edge of the cliff, even through the places where it looks broken up by rocky ravines.

Last night’s lack of sleep caught up with me quickly after the mistake in route finding, and set the tone for the rest of the day. At one point I stepped within a few feet of a small, coiled rattlesnake that stayed dormant and idle. Typically I would always stop and try to grab a few photos of snakes, but this afternoon I just kept right on going, saying something like “Yep, that is definitely a rattlesnake there! Hmmm!” I’d already been talking to myself on this hike since before sunrise.

Eventually I came around to Trinity Creek, and continued contouring high until the cliffs gave way and let me down to the proper Tonto.

I heard the telltale shriek of a hawk and stopped to admire the raptor soaring above the canyons. It was large with a bright head and dark body, so I’d like to think that it was a bald eagle. In any event, it’s always neat to see these predators in lieu of the usual vultures.


Shiva Temple and an arm of upper Trinity

Somehow it was quite late in the day by the time I made it to the arm of Trinity that extends toward the Shiva Temple/Isis Temple saddle, my next major passage of the Canyon.

This arm of the canyon narrows where it drops into the Tapeats, and I explored this area out of curiosity for water. In my brief research before this trip, I remembered reading that this arm often has water that’s the only potable source in all of Trinity – the rest is reportedly over-mineralized and nasty.

I found a small puddle in a pocket of clean rock that was deluged in bugs. They began to swarm me in the short time that I stood there, and it was so annoying that I just didn’t have the patience to pump the extra water and taste it so late in the day.

I continued up-canyon with thoughts of beginning to look for a campsite. It was close to 5pm, and sunset was around 5:20.


Isis Temple

Soon I found a nice flat patio of rock directly in the creekbed. There was no problem with sleeping here because the weather looked like it would be great for the majority of this hike. It was a perfectly classic off-trail Grand Canyon campsite.

As I got settled in, I heard my first Canyon Wren of the trip. Ahhh.

Despite the perfection of the setting, the evening was quite drab and lonely. The afternoon’s contouring was harder and less fun than I thought it should have been. I was tired and had grown unaccustomed to the solitude. I missed Jackie and the comforts of home.

Sleep came quickly.

Day 2 – Trinity Creek to Shiva Saddle

I lingered in my sleeping bag this morning, aware as the canyon world grew from the dimmest twilight until the Redwall rim took on its first streaks of sunlight. I was packed up and moving some time after 8am.


First thing on today’s agenda was going up the canyon seen here with a simple Redwall route supposedly waiting at the end of it that granted access to the Shiva-Isis saddle. From there I’d work my way through the Supai to Shiva’s saddle with the North Rim.

In my planning I had hopes to attempt a climb of Shiva Temple. I went through more water than I thought I would since yesterday. A climb became less likely with every sip.

Again I wasted a lot of time and energy on my way up to the Redwall break. I started going up the left slope way too soon when I should have just stuck to the bed of the drainage. A tendency to unnecessarily climb high on these slopes of rubble became a common theme of this trip, especially in these early days when I was still weighed down with a heavier supply of food.

The Redwall did prove to be quite simple. I was surprised and momentarily daunted by a narrow spot that required me to remove my pack to crawl through it, and pull and tug and scrape my pack after me, but that was it.

At the top I was startled by the sudden, jaw-dropping expanse of air before me into upper Phantom Creek. I’d never ventured far up Phantom beyond its confluence with Haunted Canyon, and it was intimate and special to now be looking down upon its upper recesses.


Isis Temple from the Isis/Shiva saddle


southern end of “The Colonade”


looking toward Shiva Saddle


east, with an appearance of Zoroaster Temple


looking down Phantom Creek – Coronado Butte and Sinking Ship are visible as small bumps along the South Rim


Shiva Temple, getting up close personal

With all of the extra energy I expended over the last 24 hours, my water situation quickly became a “situation.” I was already down to just one liter before reaching the top of the Redwall. “Keeping an eye on my water” turned to a strict ration. I chose to allow myself half of that liter here at this saddle, and then planned to allow the other half upon reaching Shiva Saddle.

My strategy for the Supai was to stay close to the Redwall Rim until reaching the largest drainage that came off of Shiva Temple. I’d then go up this drainage all the way through the Hermit Shale at the base of the Coconino, which I’d follow to Shiva Saddle.

I actually for the most part stuck to this plan instead of climbing too high again, but it turned out that the Canyon had other plans for me.

This north face of Shiva Temple was dense with tough, unrelenting brush. It tore away at my skin and battled mercilessly against any forward progress. I felt the elevation on the steep slopes, and dehydration started to take a toll as well. The afternoon grew old, and I began to worry. Forward progress through the brush in any direction was just so taxing and frustrating.

At last I reached the uppermost cliff bands of the Supai, and there it broke my heart. I was cliffed out where I expected it to go through.

With some persistence and ingenuity I contoured along an unlikely ledge that let me through, only to be cliffed out again where I expected it to go. I went through this process three times, breaking my heart in despair three times, until I finally stood on the red slopes of Hermit Shale.

So the Supai really challenged me.

I reached Shiva Saddle as a torn and frayed mess of a hiker. The Canyon drew some requisite blood, and I mistakenly stained my pants with a brush of my hand. Ooooh but I made it. I was on Shiva Saddle.

4pm – with an hour and half until sunset, and half a liter of water. The spring in Dragon Creek was still some distance away… but at least I felt good about that distance, down a relatively simple route. I needed water very soon. I could take advantage of the last hour of daylight in advancing toward Dragon Creek, or sit tight and thirsty on the saddle for night.

The choice was actually quite obvious. I was exhausted, and it didn’t look like there’d be any practical campsites toward Dragon anytime soon. A cursory look around revealed that all the potholes were dry. I had assumed this would be the case, but of course it was worth a look.

I managed to have a pleasant evening there on Shiva Saddle. Even though I was basically out of water, I somehow felt good about the situation. Of course there’s clinically no such thing, but I felt a sort of “second wind” as far as my hydration, a sort of zone where I was thirsty and alert of the circumstances, but without major physical drawbacks.

There’s decent cell phone reception here, and I couldn’t help but text Jackie and even update Facebook with a note about solitude and the silence of the Canyon. Dinner was a simple snack of red vines, cheez-its, and something like five ounces of water.

Day 3 – Shiva Saddle to Crystal Rapid


morning light on Shiva Temple

I managed a good night of sleep on Shiva Saddle. I woke after only about two or three hours with a bit of a headache, feeling restless and concerned… but add a couple sips of water and subtract a few garments of clothing, and this equaled sleep through the rest of the night.


the Dragon Head

I made quick work of packing and beginning the drop to Dragon Creek. The route was thankfully direct, simple, straightforward, and in the shade.

This cozy corner of the Canyon was quiet and tranquil in the early morning, and despite my obvious thirst, I was clearly feeling at home again in a Canyon groove. I inadvertently and consistently brushed yellow dead leaves from the trees as I descended through the narrow shaded Redwall.


upper Dragon Creek

Less than ten minutes after I reached the main bed of Dragon Creek, I turned a corner and was surprised to see two hikers walking upstream!

“Woah, I wasn’t expecting to see anyone out here!” I said in greeting. In fact, when I got the permit I was told that I would be the only one out in this use area.

“We weren’t expecting anyone either!” they said, and as they drew closer I realized they were NPS rangers. They were interested in my permit because it had been issued after they started their hike (And checked who, if anyone, would be out here), but it just a formality amid friendly conversation.

These were two rangers from the North Rim backcountry office – one was Steve Bridgehouse and I forget the other’s name (A female). I was actually quite animated in conversation despite the dehydration – my first conversation in over 48 hours. We went over the usual coming and goings of the routes ahead and mutual acquaintances on the Rim. They’d be exiting Shiva Saddle to the North Rim.

I was thirsty with miles to go, so it wasn’t long before we parted ways.


Dragon Creek comes to a Tapeats narrows with impassable pourovers (Without rope and harness).


It’s necessary to bypass this stretch on creek left. This image shows the narrows from above.

Soon I dropped back into the canyon, where there was water! WATER! Oh, the glory! I took a long, well deserved rest here.

I also encountered a tarantula perched on a boulder while exploring the upstream, dry section of narrows. Cool. There was of course more brush in the creekbed, but this stuff would actually give way when you shoved it aside, rather than pushing back and clawing and cutting.

The canyon opened up for a significant distance before its confluence with Crystal Creek. I really liked the feeling of being alone in this far-off part of the Canyon.

Crystal almost immediately transformed into a grand inner-canyon-ness of gorgeous granite and schist. I immediately started dawdling, taking a lot of pictures, and thoroughly enjoying myself.

At this point I was still quite a distance from the River, and eventually the hike downstream turned into a hurried slog down the creekbed. These north side canyons are big and long. If you’ve ever hiked down Clear Creek or down “the box” of the North Kaibab Trail, then I’m sure you know the feeling.

I came to the river at Crystal Rapid with only a half hour of daylight remaining. All of a sudden I remembered that the Park Service had started one of its “high flow experiments” where they release a lot of water from Glen Canyon Dam in an effort simulate the pre-dam high water of Spring.

I was told that the flows would be up to 34,000 cubic feet per second. Crystal Rapid was HUGE, FAST, and SCARY! The infamous rock garden was completely underwater, and the river had found its way up the mouth of Slate Creek too.

I stood in awe for a while (Holy Mother of Water!), and then shot this crappy little video before getting settled in and having dinner.

This was a relaxing and enjoyable camp on the River. The air was warm here at the bottom of the Canyon. There was a colorful sunset. The moon was bright, lighting up my surroundings. I was finally caught up on sleep, and sat out alone in the evening. I ate last night’s dinner, and tonight’s dinner too. I was at home in the Canyon again.

Day 4 – Crystal Rapid to 94-Mile Canyon


Crystal Rapid

There’s something about waking up at the bottom of the Grand Canyon next to a roaring rapid. Everything in the morning is as it was the night before. The rushing water and crashing waves go on for eternity it seems, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Soon I would have to make my way up and out of Crystal Creek. I’d love to wait around to see in any boaters were brave enough to run the rapid, but daylight was short these days and I had to be going.


Not far upstream from the mouth of Crystal there’s this two-tiered waterfall. It marks the bottom of a steep route that goes all the way up through the Tapeats to the Tonto. The way through the Tapeats cliff can actually be seen from the river.

The grade is tough, and I climbed slowly and steadily in the morning shade with another full load of water.


The wide world opened up once again when I reached the Tonto, and the sun shone all around. The sensation of reaching the top of this route was similar to stepping up onto the rim of the entire Canyon.

Another leg of the hike began. This marked a turnaround transition – from here I’d be contouring all along the Tonto back toward Phantom Ranch.


The Tower of Ra was a lot bigger and more dramatic than I’d ever imagined it from afar.

Again on the Tonto I made the mistake of going too high in my route finding. It seemed as though it would make sense to go high and try to cut some corners, but this wasn’t the case. Over the next two days, I found that it was best to stay low along the edge of the side canyons after all.

The outside of one of my shoes had blown out, leaving the sock exposed. This made the usual pleasure of walking the Tonto into a chore as the cactus needles made pincushions out of my feet. The Tonto was little more than a huge cactus field!

The day grew into a hot afternoon, as I’d also forgotten the southern exposure on the north side of the Canyon.


The eastern landmarks of Wotans Throne and Angels Gate revealed themselves in the distance, as well as the much-closer Dana Butte. It was also cool to look straight up lower Hermit Creek from this side of the river.

Eventually I worked my way around to 94-Mile Canyon and walked along its west side, looking for a way down. It wasn’t long before the route presented itself, marked at the top with a cairn. The way was simple enough.


in 94-Mile Canyon

This canyon proved to be a real treat in the late afternoon, silent and inspiring as the finest cathedral.

I was delighted to find some small trickles of good-looking water in the bed of the canyon. I was counting on purifying the muddy Colorado River water, and now this wasn’t necessary.

It was another great night alone beside the river.

Day 5 – 94-Mile Canyon to Utah Flats

Today’s journey began with another hike from the river up to the Tonto Plateau. Just like at Crystal, 94-Mile Canyon affords a direct and convenient route from the mouth of the canyon up to the Tonto. Today’s route was a little more gentle and forgiving than yesterday. The Tapeats felt especially enjoyable and intimate this morning.

Now it was time to contour along the Tonto again, this time around two nameless side canyons that reach out from the Tower of Set.


Tower of Set

The weather took on a new character today with a strong wind and white, fluffy, quickly-moving clouds. A change was in the air.

Sometimes I really enjoy some wind when I’m out hiking, and this was one of those days. Call me melodramatic, but if you stand alone in the wilderness for long enough and listen to the wind, it’s as if it’s trying to speak to you.

Soon I came to look upon a gaping expanse of the mouth of Trinity Creek.


Trinity Creek


Shiva and Isis


Shiva

One thing I’d overlooked in planning this hike was this last day at Trinity. I didn’t have any information about traveling through it from the Tonto. To the best of my knowledge, I’d have to walk all the way around this significant side canyon.

So you can imagine my delight when I spied a potential shortcut directly across the canyon! The route looked like it would come out directly at the base of the break in the cliff that I needed to be above in order to get back to the Isis/Cheops saddle, retracing my steps from Day One. The route went through effortlessly! It was like it was made to be.

This was such a great way to end my coverage of new terrain on this trip – plotting out a route in such a “hands-on” way without any prior knowledge or research. Off-trail in Grand Canyon at its finest!


Isis Temple from within Trinity

It began to rain by the time I was back up on the Tonto and working toward the Cheops/Isis saddle.

The rest of the day was dramatic and wonderful.


Cheops


Angels Gate shines on the horizon


looking up Phantom Creek

I made a final solo camp under the Canyon sky on the slickrock of Utah Flats above Piano Alley.

Day 6 – Utah Flats to the South Rim

This last day was just a leisurely hike out the Bright Angel Trail.

First of course I had to descend to Phantom Ranch and enjoy two cups of coffee on their front bench. Despite the ensuing hike out of the Canyon, rolling into Phantom on the last day of such a hike feels like the end.

Jackie hiked down and met me just above the 3-Mile House.


Autumn color at Indian Garden

Comments

  1. Hey Jamie,

    Awesome trip report. I’ve been looking into loops to do in the Grand Canyon for some time now since I moved to San Diego. What time of the year would you say is best for a loop of this nature? Are we too far along in the spring season for anything this year?

    Would love to speak with you more about hikes in this area.

    Thanks!

    -Pete

    • Jamie Compos says:

      Hi Peter,

      April and October are generally the best times to hike in Grand Canyon. Yes we’re too far along in the spring season, it’s awfully hot down there already. Best to wait ’til October.

  2. Great TR! I enjoyed the account of decision making on (or rather off) the trail, missing your companion, etc. Also it was nice to see so many good pictures.
    AJ

  3. Great story Jamie and some magnificent photos. Thank you for doing this.

  4. Mark Wilson says:

    I rarely comment on reports but that was one very interesting, borderline gripping, report. Images were great, the story, very well done. Thank you much for sharing!

  5. Nice TR buddy! You sure made that out of water camp sound better than it must have been! Really pretty country up there. I really like the format of your new website, and those were some amazing pictures!

    -JC

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