Grand Canyon, Hermit Loop

Overview

The Hermit Loop is one of the most beautiful routes of the Grand Canyon. Compared to a more classic Rim-to-Rim trip, the Hermit Loop offers a uniquely remote experience. After leaving the Bright Angel Trailhead behind in the first few hours of the hike, the remaining few days will offer superb solitude. The loop is complemented by the opportunity to take a detour to Plateau Point, one of the most breathtaking and awe-inspiring panoramas in the park; furthermore, there is an excellent opportunity to follow a slot canyon down to the dramatic, powerful Hermit Rapids. This loop also offers the unique chance to walk along the unmaintained Tonto Trail. This trail follows the Colorado River, sticking close to the rim of the Tonto Platform, looking over a sheer 1,000 ft drop-off to the churning rapids below, and surrounded by the dramatic uppermost rims of the canyon over 4,000 ft above. The Tonto Platform offers an unforgettable range of plant and animal life, as well as an incredibly immersive way to experience the Grand Canyon. The final day is a thrilling climb up the historic but no longer maintained Hermit Trail, a steep, rugged climb out of the canyon that rewards with some of the best views.

Trip Essentials

Trip Date: March 29-31, 2016

Distance: 31.8 miles

Permits: Permits for the Grand Canyon are naturally highly competitive, so plan the timing of your trip during an off-season if possible (early spring, for example). The best chance is to enter the lottery system by applying up to five months in advance. As of this writing, these permits are still accepted by fax only. Full information on how to apply for this can be found here.

Campgrounds: Assigned campgrounds. You must apply for a specific, designated site each night of your proposed trip itinerary when you apply for a permit. There are eight possible, designated campsites available on this route: Indian Garden (CIG), Horn Creek (BL4), Salt Creek (BL5), Cedar Spring (BL6), Monument Creek (BL7), Granite Rapids (BL8), Hermit Rapids (BM8), and Hermit Creek (BM7). We slept at Horn Creek (BL4) and Hermit Creek (BM7). A map of the backcountry campsites for this route can be found here.

Trailhead: Route is easily reversible, but going up Hermit Trail is preferably to going down it. Start at Bright Angel Trailhead. End at Hermit’s Rest. The ending is a bit confusing: when you reach Hermit Trailhead you will be at a small road. You need to walk along this road for a short 0.2 miles to reach Hermit’s Rest in order to get picked up by the shuttle. The NPS “Red Route-Hermit Road” conveniently connects these two trailheads. A shuttle comes every 15 minutes. This particular shuttle runs only March 1-November 30. Up to date information on the Red Route can be found here.

Difficulty: Easy mileage. Hermit Trail is unmaintained and may feel exposed to some with fear of heights, however, there is never any serious threat.

Season: Spring and Fall are ideal for the average hiker. Summer heat is a danger. In winter, icy conditions may be a danger on Hermit Trail. When we went, the weather on the rim itself was snowy and freezing. However, once we got down into the canyon itself, the temperatures were ideal. The trails were were dry and free of ice as well.

Water: After leaving the Bright Angel Trail behind at Indian Garden, water becomes scarce. There are only two reliable water sources after Indian Garden: 1) At Monument Creek Campsite – BL7 and 2) at Hermit Creek Campsite – BM7. Do NOT plan to drink the water at Horn Creek – BL4 or at Salt Creek BL5. Horn Creek has high alpha radiation in it from from the Lost Orphan Uranium Mine and Salt Creek is over-mineralized. Santa Maria Spring is a small trickle, and usually dries up early in the year.

Food storage: Something to protect your food from nocturnal critters is advisable. The campgrounds tend to be populated by cunning little mice (we saw a number of them) that come out at night. They’ve got sharp little teeth and will definitely get your food if you don’t take precautions. A bear canister is overkill however. My two recommendations would be an Outsak UL or an Ursack (they make bags designed for critters as well as bear bags).

Maps: The most popular option tends to be the Nat Geo Trails Illustrated maps. However, you can also print your own free, customized map by using the phenomenal map resource CalTopo.

Resources for the Hermit Loop

Trip Report/Route Description

For this trip, Karlee and I joined up with my brother and sister-in-law. We backpacked in the Grand Canyon for three days before adding on a brief two night car camping stay in Bryce Canyon (about four hours drive from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to Bryce Canyon). Since Bryce Canyon is small, it was a perfect add-on to the end of our trip before heading home to California.

Day 1 – Bright Angel Trailhead to Horn Creek Campsite BL4, plus Plateau Point (8.8 mi)

If you’re driving from somewhere far away (we were driving from CA) you’ll probably want to sleep somewhere in the frontcountry before hitting your trailhead the next day. Luckily, Mather Campground is conveniently located just a few minutes away from the Bright Angel Trailhead. Book a spot there in advance, when you get your permit, if you can.

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Stormy skies at the top of the Bright Angel Trail. Plateau Point is visible in the distance (the faint trail leading out in the lower, center of frame)

We hit the Bright Angel Trailhead at about 9am. It was quite chilly at the rim, and skies a bit stormy. At the trailhead, there were throngs of tourists and day hikers. However, the further you drop down into the canyon, the fewer people there are. Of course, the views are absolutely stunning the whole way down.

By the time we got past Indian Garden,  which is almost level with the Tonto Platform, all the crowds had dropped off. We didn’t see anybody else the whole rest of the day.

Make sure to water up at Indian Garden — the next safe water source won’t be until Monument Creek BL7, which is 10.7 miles away. So make sure you bring enough water for cooking dinner and breakfast too.

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On the massive Tonto Platform. Looking back (southwards) at the Bright Angel watershed (center of picture)

Shortly after passing the campsites at Indian Garden, you’ll come across a spur trail that leads out to Plateau Point. Make sure you take the time to do this. It’s a mere 1.5 miles round-trip, plus it’s entirely flat. And the views that you’ll get here may be the best views of the entire trip (which is saying a lot). Backtracking to junction with Tonto Trail, we casually meandered over to Horn Creek. the After a very leisurely day of hiking, we pitched camp and cooked dinner early in the evening. Horn Creek was a lovely campsite (despite the lack of water) with some lovely tree cover.

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Views from Plateau Point. The precipitous gorge of the Precambrian-age Vishnu Basement and Colorado River visible below
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Looking up at the Paleozoic formations… lots, and lots of rock
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Camp at Horn Creek

Day 2 – Horn Creek BL4 to Hermit Creek BM7 (14.8 miles)

This was one of my all-time most memorable days of backpacking. You spend all day hiking west along the Tonto Platform, following the Colorado River downstream. The Tonto Trail runs east-west for 70 miles, following the south bank of the Colorado River, and this section of the Tonto Trail between the Bright Angel Trail and the Hermit Trail is one of the most scenic.

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Beautiful morning, jaunting west along the Tonto Platform

The Tonto Platform is a huge. It’s really hard to take in the scale of the Grand Canyon from up above it on the rim. On the Tonto Platform, you’re perfectly situated about halfway down the canyon (the South Rim is 6,800′ at Bright Angel Trail, and the Tonto Platform is at about 3,600′). The Tonto Platform is so vast, that it forms a canyon within a canyon. Above you stretches the huge layers of younger Paleozoic Rock, and below you gapes the incredibly steep, treacherous chasm of the older Vishnu Basement Rock, bottoming out dramatically at the rushing Colorado River. I’ve rarely felt so small in my whole life.

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Heaven on Earth

Walking along the rim of this platform, with the astonishing drop to the Vishnu Basement always on your right (as you head west), following the Colorado River, you are constantly treated to an ever-shifting landscape of jaw-dropping views as you get a chance to actually look down the canyon (rather than just across it, as you do at the rims). Plus, getting to glimpse down at the rapids of the Colorado River is amazing. It all gives you a sense of the depth, variety and hugeness of the Grand Canyon that you just don’t get from looking at it up top.

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Soulful views on the way down to the Hermit Creek campsite.

The other thing that’s so breathtaking about the Tonto Platform is the amount of floral diversity. I was blown away by how lush and colorful the plat life of the Tonto Platform was. There many innumerable cactus and succulents, various and sundry spiny and poky things, and most surprisingly, countless wildflowers that were blooming in a vibrant array of colors. We were in total solitude in the Tonto Platform as well. We didn’t see anybody until we got to the campsites around Monument Creek. The Monument Creek area is gorgeous, and incredibly verdant, almost like a miniature jungle. Plus, the rock formation that gives the site its name is quite beautiful. After you climb out of the Monument Creek watershed, enjoy the last of the views along the Tonto Platform before reaching Hermit Creek. The views along this section are some of the best of the whole day. Hermit Creek is a gorgeous watershed, and was definitely the fullest of any of the creeks we had passed. If you have time, it is very well worth following the creek down to the bottom of the canyon where it meets the Colorado River at the Hermit Rapids.

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The little slot canyon of Hermit Creek. It leads from the campsite down to the impressive Hermit Rapids.

Day 3 – Hermit Creek BM7 to Hermit Trailhead (8.4 miles)

The Hermit Trail is a very old trail, and the NPS stopped maintaining it many years ago. Although the NPS website tells you that it’s a dangerous trail and quite difficult to follow, with dangerous dropoffs, we found that it wasn’t too bad (although certainly not as easy as Bright Angel Trail). There was only one or two spots where the trail is overrun by rockslides. We never had trouble losing the trail. And overall the exposure was never too bad.

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At the top of Cathedral Stairs, you get a commanding view of the steep walls of Cope Butte, surrounding the Hermit Trail. The Hermit Trail is faintly visible stretching out just below the butte, near the bottom of the frame.

In fact, the climb up the Hermit Trail was a thrilling climb, with even better views than the Bright Angel Trail. It’s about 4,000′ of climbing to get back up to the top of the South Rim.

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Lookout Point is the hill in the left, foreground of the frame

We got after it early, and finished at around noon, because we wanted to drive up to Bryce Canyon that same day. Hermit Trailhead is conveniently located right next to a shuttle stop. Catch the shuttle back to your car at the Bright Angel Trailhead.

 

Bryce Canyon Detour

We decided to add two nights of car camping in Bryce Canyon onto the end of our trip, which was a lovely decision, and highly recommended if you’re looking for an extension to your time in the southwest. Plus, if you get the chance to see Bryce Canyon when it’s still snowy, it is highly recommended. The mixture of red rock hoodoos dusted with layers of bright white snow is unforgettable. It is significantly colder in Bryce, since it is at an elevation of about 8,000 ft. Nights will be freezing temperatures. The only campsite open is Sunset Campground. During winter/early spring no reservations are necessary. The campground was very sparsely inhabited.

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Snowy sunrise on the main amphitheater of Bryce Canyon

 

Figure-8 Loop

For our sight-seeing in Bryce Canyon we did the Figure-8 Loop, which is the most extensive loop hike that goes through all the best trails in the main amphitheater (it links up the Navajo Loop and the Peekaboo Loop).

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Views at the start of the Figure-8 Loop
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Wall of Windows
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Views from Sunset Point, at the end of the Figure-8 Loop

 

Vista Points

At sunset we spent our time driving around to the many vista points that dot the southern half of the park. We drove all the way to Rainbow Point, the tallest point in Bryce at 9,115′ (and also the southernmost terminus of the park). Doing this is well-worth the time, as you get to see much more of the park than just the main amphitheater.

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Natural Bridge vista point
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Agua Canyon vista point
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Yovimpa Point
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Rainbow Point

 

Fairyland Loop

The next day before we drove home, I took a leisurely trail-run of the Fairyland Loop in the early morning light. I would definitely call this a don’t-miss trail. I enjoyed it even more than Figure-8 Loop. A lot more solitude, and achingly beautiful. Plus you get to venture further out and deeper into the amphitheater.

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Tower Bridge, from the Fairyland Loop
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Fairyland Canyon
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Looking back (southwest), the main amphitheater is a speck in the center of the frame.

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