“Monument Creek is my favorite destination below the South Rim,” said a well-known and longtime Grand Canyon native geologist as we walked down South Kaibab. Surely this was enough to pique my interest. After recently moving to the South Rim, we were eager for the weather to cool down so that we could continue our exploration of the Inner Canyon in much more detail. My wife Wendy and I have been hiking the Grand Canyon for almost 25 years with literally hundreds of drops on the tires. Now that we live within a few minutes’ walk of the South Rim, we decided that one or two backpacking trips a month was completely within reason. Our first destination was Monument Creek Campground in Monument Creek on the recommendation of our friend.
If you’ve hiked the Grand Canyon “Corridor Trails” (Bright Angel, South / North Kaibab), the hike up Monument Creek is definitely a big step forward. The corridor trails are well maintained, compared to the hermit trail, they are pretty much groomed. First, for any overnight camping trip under the tires, you must obtain a backcountry permit by calling the GCNP Backcountry Office at 928-638-7875. There are nominal fees associated with the permit. Then organize your gear and pop a new memory card in your camera for a fantastic dive into a more remote section of the Grand Canyon.
The journey to Monument Creek begins on the Hermit Trail with a quick 1000 ‘descent to Waldron Canyon. From Waldron Canyon, the trail heads north, past the Dripping Springs Trail, to a neat little rock that spills out. The trail to this point is well maintained and receives quite a few day trippers on its way to Santa Maria Springs, less than a third of a mile away. I mention the dumping because the road from here on becomes considerably more difficult. There are numerous rock slides that line the trail with various vertical exposure areas. All of this is completely doable with a backpack, you just aren’t going to have a good time.
Santa Maria Springs is an oasis adjacent to the Redwall Formation approximately 2.2 miles from the trailhead. This makes this area a favorite destination for hikers. There is a wonderful little spring that seeps into a trough where you can fill your water bottles. (Always remember to filter the water anywhere in the Grand Canyon.) Next to the spring is a super cool rock hut with a bench and a very cool double rocking chair with the words “Rest Bit” etched on the back. The view to the west from inside the rock hut is covered in hanging vines; Trust me, Martha Stewart couldn’t have designed a more comfortable rest home.
Traveling the trail that hugs the Redwall Formation with numerous rock slides for the next hour will take you to Lookout Point, a great place to take a break and enjoy the view. Directly west of Lookout Point through Hermit Creek Canyon is the Boucher Trail. It is very difficult to see and it is very rugged. This trail is named after the original hermit Louis D. Boucher. Another hour or so still embracing the Redwall formation with numerous rock slides and vertical exposure will bring you to Breezy Point. Breezy Point is 5.5 miles from the trailhead and is a great lunch spot. The towering views to the north provide a preview below the Tonto Trail that runs southwest to Hermit’s Camp and northeast to a small saddle that takes you to your destination in Monument Creek.
Passing through Breezy Point and still hugging the Redwall with numerous rock slides and more vertical exposure, you’ll reach the cathedral steps in about half an hour. Cathedral Stairs is the crux or hardest part of the hike. Trail builders have literally carved a narrow trail into this formation. It is steep and rocky, but short, less than 1/4 mile. Once at the bottom of the Cathedral Stairs, one feels somewhat liberated from the canyon walls. There is a long backcountry adjacent to Cope Butte and after numerous changes you will join the Tonto trail about 7 miles from the original trailhead. One cannot help but look south at Breezy Point and the cathedral stairs and marvel at the ingenuity of the trail builders.
The Tonto trail heading east offers a nice respite from rock slides and vertical exposure after several miles of hard hiking along Redwall. In fact, one can stride this part of the way and allow his muscles to relax. There are glimpses of the Colorado River below as the Tower of Set dominates the northern horizon. In about an hour you will find yourself approaching the Monument Creek drain. The descent into the drain is bumpy and finding the trail can be tricky. There were hikers in front of us who descended straight into the creek, only to get back up. The trail actually hugs the edge and goes down a bit, look for rock cairns.
The Monument Creek Campground area is an oasis. You have now traveled approximately 9.5 miles into a well protected drainage with many mesquite trees for shade with easy access to water flowing through multiple sites. There are perhaps a dozen different campsites, although night-use permits currently only allow 4 campsites. Therefore, it is easy to find a “private” campsite to your liking. We chose a well-shaded campground among the mesquite trees to hang a rope to hang our backpacks, camping supplies, and most importantly, the “rat sack.” A rat sack is a Grand Canyon backpacking must-have, it’s a wire mesh bag with a velcro closure that will keep critters, especially ringed tails, away from your food. However, hanging it up is usually not enough during daylight hours, the crows will simply land on the sack and peck at your food. Therefore, it is better to cover the rat bag with another bag. Your backpack will work, but crows are also incredibly dexterous with their beaks and will soon have all your zippers open as they rummage through the contents. I have heard stories of crows flying away from backpacks with money in their beaks! On this trip we put a couple of friends of ours, by pure chance, and they lost the cover of a library book due to a particularly read raven; no, it was not written by Edgar Allen Poe.
Once settled in Monument Creek Campground, you will likely want to explore the Monument itself. This pinnacle rises more than 200 feet above the camp, and towers like a sentinel guardian of Monument Creek. I’ve read reports that it went up 4 longs with a 5.10A rating, well above my pay level.
The Monument itself blends in with the rock that surrounds it, but can be seen from Monument Creek Vista on Hermit Road about 3,500 feet higher. By far the best day hike from Monument CG is the 1.6 mile drive up Monument Creek to Granite Rapids. The incomplete trail that descends to Monument Creek begins on the western side of the Monument. There are several sharp bends with loose rocks, but within minutes you are in the sand / rock drainage of the creek itself. There are easy to follow cairns for the first two hundred meters and then they follow the natural drainage. It is incredibly beautiful. Monument Creek flows mainly underground, but closer to the Colorado River it is above ground and can be jumped when it hasn’t rained. Be aware of the weather before descending to Monument Creek, there will be a flash flood.
From Monument CG, one can either hike the Tonto Trail back west and spend time at Hermit’s CG and ascend the Hermit Trail or head east to Salt Creek CG, Horn Creek CG, Indian Gardens CG and up Bright Angel Trail. We consider Monument to be a destination unto itself and we loved exploring the entire area and then going back up the Hermit trail. A few hours later, we are sitting at the “Rest Bit” in Santa Maria Springs and we are already planning our next Grand Canyon adventure.
Eric is a real estate broker in Tucson AZ and manages properties in South AZ.
Visit my website: http://www.TheTucsonHomeHunters.com