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Tonto Trail West
Hermit Trail Junction to Indian Garden Camp (3,000 ft)

Hiking Around Las Vegas, Grand Canyon National Park
tonto west trail
Tonto Trail (view southwest towards the saddle where you leave the Hermit Creek drainage).

Overview

The Tonto, a truly spectacular trail, runs along the Tonto Platform for some 80 miles from near Desert View in the east to Bass Canyon in the west. The trail runs in and out of every side canyon along the way, and although there is little overall elevation change on the Tonto Platform, there is a tremendous amount of up and down on the trail. This 14.5-mile segment of the Tonto Trail runs between the Hermit and Bright Angel trails and winds around three major side canyons. With one notable exception (the 15 minute climb out of Monument Creek), this segment of the Tonto Trail is delightfully easy. There are many great views of the Inner Gorge, the Colorado River, and the towering canyon walls from the trail.

People often hike this segment of the Tonto Trail as part of a 3- or 4-day, 27-mile backpacking loop (down Hermit, east on Tonto, up Bright Angel). Including Hermit Camp (which is slightly off-route), there are six designated backcountry campgrounds and several places with permanent water along this loop. I've described the route from west to east, the way I hiked it, which seems to be a good direction for the loop trip because the Bright Angel is an easy trail to hike up. The loop is a popular, so plan ahead and make backcountry reservations early.

tonto west trail
Narrow trail on steep sideslope between Hermit and Monument Canyons (view east).

Link to map.

The Tonto Trail has a reputation for being difficult and obscure. This is true for western portions of the Tonto, but the segment from Hermit Camp to Indian Garden generally is wide, gentle, and easy to follow; not once on this segment did I stop to look for the trail, only to realize that I was still standing on it.

I hiked this segment of the trail on the 6th and 7th days of an 8-day backpacking trip. I hurt my knees badly on the 2nd and 3rd days of the trip, and I'm sure that my travel times and the tone of my descriptions were affected by the pain in my knees. I give travel times as real-time, 24-hour time in brackets, such that [1430 hrs] is 2:30 PM.

tonto west trail
Hikers on the trail below the saddle where the trail crosses into the Monument Creek drainage (view west).

Watch Out

Other than the standard warnings about hiking in the desert, ...this is a fairly safe trail, although there are many places where you could stumble off the trail and fall into the abyss where you would never be found. Some parts of the Tonto Trail are little used, obscure, and hard to follow, but not this segment; here the trail generally is wide, flat, and well defined; however, just east of the Hermit-Tonto trail junction, an unusually narrow section of trail cuts across a steep dirt slope that could be slippery if wet, and if it were slippery, it could be treacherous. Permanent drinking water is available in a few places, but ask the rangers about seasonal water sources. Plan to carry plenty of water just in case the next water hole is dry. Also, there is an old uranium mine (now closed) in the upper reaches of Horn Canyon that is said to have contaminated the water in Horn Creek -- play it safe and don't drink from Horn Creek.

While hiking, please respect the land and the other people out there, and please try to Leave No Trace of your passage. This is a long hike, so be sure to bring the 10 Essentials. Make sure this route of the appropriate difficulty for your skills.

tonto west trail
Hikers starting into Monument Canyon (view southeast).

Getting to the Trailhead

This hike is located on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, about 5 hours southeast of Las Vegas.

From Las Vegas, drive out to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. The trailhead for this segment of the Tonto Trail is another trail, either the Hermit Trail or the Bright Angel Trail, depending on which way you hike this segment. From the South Rim Visitor Center (Table 1, Site 811), ride the shuttle bus or drive to the Bright Angel trailhead (Site 814) or the Hermit trailhead (Site 815). For details of the trailheads, see those trail descriptions.

tonto west trail
The trail and scenery (view northeast).

The Hike

Hermit-Tonto Trail Junction to Monument Creek -- 2.3 miles

Link to Tonto Trail map.

From the junction of the Hermit and Tonto trails, it is 2.3 miles and about 2 hours to Monument Creek, the first water source and camping area to the east. Note that if you started the day hiking down the Hermit Trail, you've already hiked 6.2 miles to this point, and if you started at Hermit Creek campground, you've already hiked 1.5 miles.

From the Hermit-Tonto junction [1116 hrs], the trail runs north at moderate grade for about 5 minutes to a saddle with a nice view of the Hermit Rapids on the river [1121 hrs]. If you came down the Hermit Trail, this is a good place to look back up at the Cathedral Stairs, but the view will make you wonder how you got down it. From the saddle, the trail leaves the Hermit Creek drainage and drops at a fair grade as it cuts across a steep sidehill beneath the north face of Cope Butte. Here, the trail runs on a narrow, out-sloping, dirt tread. It takes about 25 minutes to cross this exciting bit of trail and climb onto the next saddle [1145 hrs], which is on the main ridge below Cope Butte. If you are running late, there is a nice illegal campsite just west of the saddle.

tonto west trail
The Monument overlooking Monument Creek (view east from side canyon).

From the saddle [1156 hrs], the trail crosses into the Monument Canyon drainage and runs more-or-less straight down the slope to the rim of Monument Canyon [1200 hrs]. From the edge of the cliffs, which have a great view of the canyon and the rim, the rocky trail turns south and runs across a steep sidehill and in and out of little side canyons with steep, but short, bits of up and down [1209 hrs]. This is followed by a short bit of nice trail that runs into the back of a side canyon. The trail then drops off the Tonto Platform and makes a steep, rocky descent through the Tapeats Sandstone to the bottom of the side canyon [1230 hrs].

tonto west trail
Monument Creek campground area (view southeast).

As the trail drops into the side canyon, it degrades into a steep, washed-out rubble field with lots of boulders to work around, but it only takes a few minutes to get to the wash at the bottom [1236 hrs]. If you are hiking west, hike up the side canyon until just before reaching several huge boulders that block the wash. At that point, cairns mark the route up the north side of the canyon; it doesn't look like a trail. Heading east, there is a real trail all the way down the side canyon and up to the campground, so you don't have to boulder-hop down the wash (although there is a cairn trail in the wash). The trail runs down the side canyon and intersects Monument Canyon at "the Monument," a 200-foot high, freestanding pillar of Tapeats Sandstone [1248 hrs]. There is a species of yucca growing along this section that I didn't see elsewhere on the Tonto Trail.

The Monument marks that start of the Granite Rapids Trail. This trail runs for about 1.5 miles to the Colorado River. I've not hike this trail, but campers at Monument Creek said that it is a nice hike.

tonto west trail
Monument Creek as it starts into the Vishnu Schist (view southeast).

From the Monument, the trail turns south and runs up along the west side of the canyon beneath highly sculpted Tapeats Sandstone cliffs. It takes only a few minutes on an easy trail to get to the campground [1253 hrs]. The trail enters the north end of the campground by a 2-seat outhouse. The campground stretches up the canyon for a few minutes walk from there. The camp area is in a mesquite thicket, but the north end burned, so sites there are in full sun while others are sheltered under the trees. The southern-most campsite is located under a large rock overhang on the west side of the creek. Water is available from springs in the creek bed just downstream from the campground.

The campground is in a narrow gorge below the Tonto Platform and the views down the canyon are limited. However, there are nice views of the Redwall Limestone cliffs and Mohave Point, and the sculpted Tapeats Sandstone is quite interesting. Also, just below the springs, the creek flows out of the Tapeats Sandstone and into a narrow, water polished, gorge in the Vishnu Schist, which is quite pretty. The polished rocks are not slippery, and scrambling a short ways down the canyon is easy.

Monument Creek to Cedar Spring -- 1.3 miles

Link to Tonto Trail Map.

From Monument Creek, it is 1.3 miles and about 45 minutes to Cedar Spring, the next water source and camping area to the east. Except for getting out of Monument Canyon, this segment of the trail is quick and easy and has nice views up to Mohave Point.

tonto west trail
Monument Creek campground as seen from atop the cliffs east of the canyon (view northwest).

The trail to the east starts at the south end of Monument Creek Campground [0649 hrs]. The trail crosses the wash at the upstream end of the camp area and starts into a shallow side canyon. About 20 feet beyond the edge of the wash, a good trail turns to the south and cuts up the south side of the side canyon. The trail runs up a number of short, steep, rocky switchbacks as it climbs through the Tapeats Sandstone cliffs and quickly gets back onto the Tonto Platform [0706 hrs].

Above cliffs, the trail turns and runs north towards the river. After running along the contour, the trail turns east and runs up a shallow side canyon to a saddle with nice views. The trail then runs out to another higher saddle [0726 hrs]. This part of the trail is a little steep, but not bad, and it begins to bring you around to the north side of Mohave Point.

From the higher saddle, the trail runs along the hillside to Cedar Spring [0734 hrs]. Heading east, nothing (not even the cedar tree) is obvious as you come upon the campground sign. The cedar tree is located down the wash at the top edge of the Tapeats Sandstone cliffs, and water runs over the rocks at the edge. There are small campsites just below the trail, and there is a larger campsite on the west side of the wash near the tree. Two use-trails run up the hill above the trail, so there might be campsites up there too.

Cedar Spring to Salt Creek -- 2.1 miles

Link to Tonto Trail Map.

tonto west trail
Trails in Monument Canyon (view west from atop the cliffs).

From Cedar Spring, it is 2.1 miles and about 1 hour to Salt Creek, the next water source and camping area to the east. This segment of the trail is fast, wide, and easy, and the views above and below the trail are truly spectacular.

From Cedar Spring [0734 hrs], an easy trail runs to the east over a low ridge and into the next side canyon [0745 hrs] where the marks of a recent flash flood dramatically show the power of fast-moving water.

From that side canyon, the trail runs north on a cliffy section to a point on a ridge overlooking the river [0801 hrs]. There are some awesome views from edge of cliffs straight down to river from here. A few minutes farther, the trail turns a corner and starts up into the Salt Canyon drainage system [0806 hrs]. For much of the way, the trail runs along the edge of the Tapeats Sandstone cliffs, and there are more spectacular views. After winding around a shallow side canyon, the trail arrives at the junction to Salt Creek Campground [0828 hrs]. The campsites are a short distance farther up the canyon, uphill from the Tonto Trail. There is a pit toilet, which is reported to be a seat with a grand view (no walls).

tonto west trail
Cedar Spring (view northwest).

From the top of the cliffs east of Monument Creek to the back of Salt Canyon, the trail is easy, fast, and wide, but with a few rocky spots. The back of Salt Canyon is quite spectacular. The Redwall limestone cliffs above the trail are very red, close in, and wrap around to form a big cirque with Mohave Point on the west and Hopi Point on the east. This area, "the Inferno," is well named by the red walls, and I can imagine that during summer, the color only adds to the temperature. The white sandstone cliffs and the green ponderosa pine trees above the Redwall accent the red color.

Salt Creek to Horn Creek -- 4.8 miles

Link to Tonto Trail Map.

From Salt Creek, it is 4.8 miles and about 2.5 hours to Horn Creek, the next camping area to the east. There is no drinkable water along this segment or at Horn Creek. This segment of the Tonto Trail loops around Dana Butte, which is on the ridge below Hopi Point. As before, this segment of the trail is fast, wide, and easy, with many grand views above and below the trail.

tonto west trail
Green water and Vishnu Schist in the Inner Gorge (view north).

From the junction of the trail to Salt Creek Campground [0828 hrs], which is on the west edge of the Salt Creek gorge, the Tonto Trail turns east and switchbacks at a moderate grade down through the Tapeats Sandstone on a good trail to the bottom of the wash [0832 hrs]. The trail then turns north and climbs back out of the gorge on an easy ramp to regain the top of the Tonto Platform [0836 hrs]. The trail here is good, and this is one of the easiest major crossings along the Tonto Trail.

The trail continues running north and eastward, winding in and out of three side canyons: turning into the first [0844 hrs], crossing the back of the second [0850 hrs], and in the back of the third [0900 hrs]. Along here, the good, but a bit rocky, trail runs high across the slope. Coming out of the last side canyon, there are nice cliffy sections with great views into the canyon, but you can't see river.

The trail then begins to turn out of the Salt Creek drainage system. Just before the point, there are some awesome views down the river [0925 hrs]; and out on the point, you get more of that "same old grand view down the river" [0927 hrs]. On the saddle below the northwest toe of Dana Butte, there is another little illegal campsite where people caught out late can safely spend the night [0934 hrs].

tonto west trail
...just more scenery along the trail (view northwest).

The trail continues eastward and climbs to the next saddle, which is out under the northeast toe of Dana Point [0945 hrs]. This is the high point on the trail between Salt and Horn creeks, and it provides more spectacular views to the east. The last bit up to the saddle is a fair uphill run on a rocky trail, but it is still pretty easy. From the saddle, the trail runs straight down the hillside to the east in a rocky erosion gully. Just east of the saddle, there is another nice point with an illegal campsite [0951 hrs].

Beyond the saddle, the trail runs around a side canyon and up to a low saddle. From there, you can look up Horn Canyon and see Hopi Point (above Dana Butte) and Maricopa Point on the rim. Between the two, you can also see scaffolding left over from an old uranium mining operation. The mine is actually on the side of the cliffs about 1,000 feet below the rim. The water in Horn Creek is contaminated with uranium from the mine. From the turn, you can also see Grandview Tower (far to the east) and the communications towers above the South Rim Village area.

tonto west trail
Good, clear trail (view northeast)

From the low saddle, the trail turns south into the Horn Creek drainage system [1029 hrs]. Getting down off the saddle, the trail runs down another rocky erosion gully, but then it becomes a gentle easy trail, and there is a long straight piece of trail that is like nothing else on the route. This must have been an old fenceline or a road; it is too straight and long for a trail. The trail then runs out to the edge of the Tapeats Sandstone and follows it around to the back of the Horn Canyon. The trail along here is exceptionally pleasant, and only last few minutes were rocky. The trail crosses the west horn of Horn Creek [1053 hrs], which is easy, and runs over to the east horn [1103 hrs], which is another easy crossing.

There is a nice campsite under a tree on the east edge of the streambed, and there is an outhouse up the hill just west of the creek. From the number of cairns and hand-drawn signs, it seems that people have trouble finding the outhouse. Water runs in the creek about 50 yards up from the trail crossing, which I found suitable for bathing, but don't drink it.

tonto west trail
Plateau Point is on the horizon at the edge of the Inner Gorge (view east).

Horn Creek to Indian Garden Campground -- 2.5 miles

Link to Tonto Trail Map.

From Horn Creek, it is 2.5 miles and about 1.5 hours to Indian Garden Campground, the next water source and camping area to the east. This segment of the Tonto Trail loops around the ridge below Maricopa Point and enters Bright Angel Canyon. As before, this segment of the trail is fast, wide, and easy, with many grand views.

From the east horn of Horn Creek [1155 hrs], the trail runs northeast, curving around a small side canyon and then a larger side canyon on an easy grade [1203 hrs]. After running on the contour most of the way out of Horn Canyon, the trail turns east and cuts up the hillside at fair grade on a rocky trail. The trail then abruptly turns north [1223 hrs] and runs along the contour again. Out on the point, the trail curves to the east, goes over a ridge, and turns out of the Horn Canyon drainage [1230 hrs].

tonto west trail
Cottonwood trees along Bright Angel Creek below Indian Garden (view south).

From the ridge, the trail gradually climbs at an easy grade as it runs east across the side-slope below Maricopa Point [1237 hrs]. There are only a few rocky spots along this part of the trail.

The trail then turns a corner and starts into Bright Angel Canyon [1243 hrs]. From this corner, you can see down to the Plateau Point Trail (to the north) and up to the Bright Angel buildings on rim. The trail continues around the corner and runs gently downhill to a junction with the Plateau Point Trail [1248 hrs].

From the trail junction, you can look up the Bright Angel Canyon and see the trees at Indian Garden, but they are farther than they look because the trail winds in and out of several little gullies, and the campground is towards the far end of the trees. The Tonto and Plateau Point trails run concurrently on a gentle uphill grade towards Indian Garden. The trail is broad (6 to 8 feet wide!) and flat, and the walking is easy. It takes about 10 minutes to get to the cottonwood trees, at which point you are walking along Bright Angel Creek [1300 hrs], and the sounds of running water are particularly soothing after spending days walking across the desert. Another five minutes brings you to the Bright Angel Creek crossing, where you enter civilization at the mule corrals [1306 hrs]. The campground is a few minutes uphill from there [1313 hrs].

tonto west trail
Winter in Indian Garden Campground (view northeast).

Indian Garden is an interesting place with a long history. The area was originally settled by Native American farmers. Later, the area was taken over for a tourist camp that was run by an unsavory character. The Park Service took it over, cleaned up the area, and developed a ranger station, trail crew quarters (corrals and bunkhouses), and a campground. The campground is nice and has running water, composting toilets, and covered picnic tables that make passable rain shelters. Rodents are a problem, but the Park Service put poles in each campsite where you can hang your pack.

From Indian Garden, the Bright Angel Trail runs for 4.6 relatively easy miles to the trailhead on the rim.

Table 1. Highway Coordinates (NAD27, UTM Zone 12S).

Site # Location Latitude (°N) Longitude (°W) UTM Easting UTM Northing Elevation (feet) Verified
811 Visitor Center, Canyon View Information Plaza 36.05897 112.10848 400166 3990857 7,092 Yes
814 Bright Angel Trailhead 36.0574 112.1429 397067 3990721 6870 Yes
815 Hermits Rest trailhead 36.06044 112.21170 390870 3991131 6,642 Yes

Happy Hiking! All distances, elevations, and other facts are approximate.
copyright; Last updated 111002

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