The Tonto Trail between Bright Angel and Kaibab Trails.
The Tonto Trail at Grand Canyon stretches 70 miles (112km) along the Tonto Plateau, a shelf of land about half way between the rim and the Colorado River. The most traveled trails at Grand Canyon, Bright Angel and South Kaibab, slice their way from the rim to the river as efficiently as possible. It makes sense that people are drawn to the Colorado River, the natural force (along with the uplift of the land) that created the majestic Canyon. I hiked from the rim to the river twenty-one times before taking the pleasant 4.5 mile (7.2km) hike on Tonto Trail between Bright Angel and Kaibab Trails, the only portion I will write about here.
The Tonto Trail splits from the Bright Angel Trail a short distance North of Indian Garden. Keep your eyes open, because the trail sign could be missed if your focus is down the trail. Indian Garden is the last place you will have access to clean water anywhere on this hike, Summer or Winter.
In contrast to Bright Angel and Kaibab Trails, Tonto trail is much less traveled and much narrower. The brush will touch your shoes and legs in many places, making it appropriate to wear bug repellant in tick season. Once you leave Bright Angel Trail you will be exposed to the elements for the rest of the hike, making Tonto Trail a great trail in the Winter or on a cloudy day, but a hot hike in just about any weather. On my February hike, the temperature was 31F (-.5C) when I left the rim, but read out as high as 80F (26.6C) on the thermometer in the sun on the back of my day pack (probably more accurately about 60F [15.5C]). In my opinion, because of the lack of water and sun exposure, the Tonto Trail, like revenge, is best served cold
To get a good sense of this section of the Tonto Trail, it is a great idea to hike or drive to the Geology museum at Yavapai Point the day before your hike. You get a great view of the majority of the trail from there.
The first landmark you see about a quarter mile down the trail are the telephone poles installed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935. The trail remains relatively level through the entire hike, and the views cutting across the canyon (rather than going up and down) are refreshingly pleasant. You continue along the trail, first passing an unnamed sub-canyon of Pipe Creek (so named for the water pipe that runs along the creek near the Colorado River, then continues along Bright Angel Trail to the rim). If you are frightened of heights, this is the only area where the trail might give you pause. You then go around a second canyon created by Pipe Creek and cross (at least in the Winter months) a small stream and oasis-like vegetation. From there, you continue on the East side of the Pipe Creek Canyon to Burro Springs–something I nicknamed Cottonwood Corner, about half way through your trip on Tonto Trail and a great place for lunch.
Past Burro Springs, the trail climbs around the base of O’Neill Butte and eventually connects with South Kaibab Trail at the Tip Off. Shortly before you reach the Tip Off you get a nice view of Phantom Ranch.
The three segments of this hike, Bright Angel to Indian Garden, Tonto from Indian Garden to South Kaibab Trail, and South Kaibab Trail to the rim, each measure approximately 4.5 miles (7.2 km). On my February hike, Bright Angel Trail had 2.75 miles (4.4km) of snow pack and ice, making progress very slow. South Kaibab had about .75 miles (1.2km) of ice. For me, a 58 year old, the entire hike took about 8.5 hours. I imagine in perfect conditions, it would take 6.5 hours. I highly recommend this hike. The views hiking parallel to the canyon walls are different from those hiking up and down the canyon. Plus, there is great solitude on the Tonto Trail. On a Sunday in February, we did not see a single other hiker the length of the Tonto Trail, but there is some cell phone reception in case of emergencies. Good hiking to you!
Note: I normally highly recommend Bright Angel Trail as the best route to the bottom of Grand Canyon, but on this February hike, because of snow and ice, South Kaibab would have been the better route. It is always advisable to do a "pre-hike hike" the day before your long hike to get a sense of trail conditions. This is easy at Bright Angel Trail, but harder at South Kaibab as you must take one or two buses to get there. Perhaps the best strategy is to hike a bit down Bright Angel and speak to the hikers coming up--most of them with packs have spent at least one night in the Canyon and the majority of hikers (contrary to my advice) go down South Kaibab Trail and come up on Bright Angel Trail. In Winter, be sure to question several as to the ice and snow on both trails, as perceptions and reports vary from hiker to hiker. As always, in Winter months you should pack crampons and hiking poles so they are available in case the trail is icy.