The Gems Day 2: a salty mess

May 7th 2023

Serpentine Canyon -> Sapphire Canyon

16 miles +1,400 ft

Morning. It’s on the edge of darkness starting to becone light when I wake. I am in a heavy sleep. I hear Rockin stirring from her perch down below me, when I check my phone it is 4:51am. I have 9 more minutes, so I go back to sleep.

The chorus of frogs had settled in the night, leaving way for only crickets and stillness. Now, we have birdsong. Quail calls echo through the steep canyon walls along with other little tweets, chirps and screetches, then the high pitch of a hummingbird zooms by. The ambient air temperature is barely cool, just enough to appreciate a hot coffee. As I sip, I sit cross legged and breathe in deep energizing breaths to wake up my spine, my brain, my existence. It is good to be in this existence.


We leave Serpentine at 6am on the dot, picking our way up from the canyon to the rugged tonto. There is a thin cloud cover we hope will linger, and we wonder when or how we will see the sunrise since we are tucked so far back here. It isn’t long however before we are facing straight into the sun and the sky is clearing. It’s going to be a hot day.

We have sunrise

Our first objective of the morning is to make it to Ruby Canyon where we expect water but have no guarantee. It’s in the vicinity of 5 miles away, and since we still feel we can’t absolutely count on water we carry 4L each and it feels heavy. In our early morning steps through rock, grass and black bush I find a perfect little white egg. What might this be from? What does this mean, this little egg? I ponder this for the next while and decide it is a symbol of all possibility, a planted seed that can grow into your wildest dreams.

The symbol of all possibility

As we press along the tonto platform, I accidentally stab a prickly pear cacti with my trekking pole. It feels squishy and I laugh, usually you get a leaf stuck on your pole, but a full on cactus? Ha! It is so tender and juicy it seems edible. The cacti here are so full of water, they are exploding with life.

So tender and juicy
Prickly Pear explosion

There are so many flowers smattered everywhere I can’t seem to get over it and I keep saying “this is not normal” over and over again. In the crossing of a side canyon we find the cutest little cacti that looks like it’s growing chili peppers. I am calling it the chili pepper cactus.

Chili pepper cactus

Shortly after that, we run into our first snake. It’s very pale, almost an albino like color, a faded yellow. It’s curled up and does’t move as we approach. I can see it’s diamond shaped head and matted skin, it’s rattle is hidden but I’m positive this is a venomous specimen.

I believe this is a crotalus concolor or faded rattlesnake, also known as yellow rattlesnake

When we round the bend heading toward Ruby Canyon from up along the rim we can see all the way down a thousand feet into the bottom of the wash. Rockin points out a magical glittering ribbon down below. We have water! We are so relieved because it is getting hotter already, the kind of hot that makes the water we are carrying piss warm.

Heading to Ruby Canyon
Can’t get enough of these!

Collecting cooler, fresher water is certainly a godsend. Ruby Canyon becomes quite narrow in the back where the Tonto Trail crosses and I have memories of caching my water here a couple years ago when I did my Tonto FKT. Ruby was one of my favorite canyons on the tonto because of it’s narrow shelves of slickrock. Back then it was bone dry in February and now there are little rivulets of water trickling over the slickrock making gurgling sounds and glittering with sunlight. It’s already a dreamy, magical place and now with this water it’s simply heaven.

Heavenly waters of Ruby
Water = life

We take a nice little break at Ruby sitting in the shade. I make another coffee and eat my granola. I am feeling really tired today, it must be hormonal, or perhaps the heat, or both. Whatever it is, I feel like I need something to give me a boost. When we leave, we have to scout around a little bit to find the way up and out. It’s funny how easy it is to forget places, I have been here several times before but still can’t seem to recall where the trail goes.

Leaving Ruby well hydrated and cooled down

As we navigate to the next canyon we cross the Le Conte Plateau where we lose the trail several times. Rockin instinctively reaches for the GPS map to navigate and I tell her not to look at her map with a comment like “I don’t use a map here, I just look for cairns and feel my way along the trail”. I don’t realize in the moment it sounds arrogant, but she has a good sense of humor and teases me and we laugh. It is true though, you can feel the trail under your feet more than you can see it. I’ve learned that navigation here is less about map and compass and more about feel, which I love.

From prior experience I also know there are many well placed cairns to keep you on track. Often times you are on a great segment of trail and then it suddenly disappears or becomes over grown with grass and the earth becomes squishy under your feet. In the past, my strategy has been: stop, look around, look for a cairn and move slowly until you feel solid earth under your feet again. You have to meander along the path of least resistance until you pick it up again, which you eventually always do. It’s not that you will get lost here but you can certainly get bogged down in cacti and wind up spending too much time out in the hot sun.

The Tonto is well marked with cairns

After crossing the Le Conte Plateau, we have two lesser canyons to cross before reaching the larger, deeper Turquoise Canyon. It is getting quite hot now and we wind up stopping after about 45 minutes to sit in a minimal bit of shade under a large boulder. I pour water over my neck buff and that combined with a breeze on my sweaty back helps tremendously. We sit there for a while before we feel we have cooled down enough to continue. There will be no more shade for quite a while.

Shade break!
Every twist and turn births a new view, I believe that is Fossil Mountain in the background there

At the next canyon we find pools of water once again and a trickle cascading down a pour off that we are able to sit an lean against. It it heavenly! I lay down in the water getitng my back and head wet too. Here, we meet another hiker who’s name is Trail Crew. He is hiking the Hayduke, which is a route very high on my list. We exchange water beta and both parties are relieved to hear there is sure water in the direction we are headed. Thus we lay in the shallow pools and wet our clothes once more before setting out again. With only 2 litres of water now, our packs feel so much better!

We take cooling off very seriously
More not normal flowers along Shaler Plateau

When we reach Turquoise Canyon we find yet more water just slightly up canyon. We decide to stop and cool down yet again. Rockin soaks her feet and I sit in the shade drinking lots of electrolytes. We had spent a lot of time at that last canyon talking with Trail Crew and then decided to eat lunch while we were there since it was getting late. We feel like we need to make up a little time but now here we are sitting in the shade next to the water again. What else to do? It’s hot and we are both a salty, sweaty mess.

Leaving Turquoise Canyon looking back across to Shaler Plateau

Thankfully from here, once we get back onto the tonto platform, the trail speeds up and we are able to walk a little faster. Ironically though, just as we find a good rhythm it goes and does the disappearing act on us once again. Rockin says she is feeling for the trail now and not looking at her map and it seems she is embracing this strategy. With this, we are able to pick it back up easy enough though we do loose a little speed which we were counting on here. Oh well, that’s the Tonto for ya. It’s always an erratic stop and go flow, a mental game for sure. Typically you move slower when crossing the back of the canyons and faster along the plateaus, but not always!

We finally reach Sapphire Canyon at close to 6pm and start scouting places to camp. Upon our arrival we are pleased to find there is plenty of water here too, hooray!! It’s a rare treat to camp next to water every night in the Grand Canyon without going to the river. Certainly not normal, but gratefully welcomed. This is a special year.

A plethora of water at Sapphire
We find a King snake at Sapphire Canyon which we will be sleeping far away from
Home for the night, looking across the river at Scorpion Ridge

It sure is a gift to have the trickles and pools of water here along with a soft evening breeze. Another perfect night for cowboy camping. We find some flat slick rock to lay out our beds and start the evening routine of getting cleaned up and preparing our meals. We are so salty, sticky and itchy we really need this water to wash off. My shirt is super crusty and when I take it off there is this crazy salty outline on my back. My butt is covered in a crusted salty line too. I’m wondering if I lost that much salt, this is not typical for me. Eventually I decide it’s from the water I was laying in earlier, not my body exuding heaps of salt. At least I hope not. I wash my body off and rinse my clothes, then hang them out to dry. I don’t normally feel the need to do this but tonight I sure do.

Another night of glorious cowboy camping

As we eat our dinners, we listen to the sounds of the crickets and frogs starting up. I wonder if it’s going to be as loud as last night? It’s a balmy evening, it feels so wonderful to sit out in the warm night air without a jacket. As I am cleaning up after dinner I see a little frog go hopping by. I suppose this is the new normal. We are sleeping next to frogs again. Once the sky fades to dark, the stars begin to emerge and Rockin points out the Big Diper hanging directly above us. We welcome the opportunity to star gaze without the need for tents, something we have always needed on other trips together. There is the slightest breeze that picks up every once in a while, it will be just enough that I will cover my body with my sleeping bag like a blanket, but I know I won’t need to zip it up. I am so ready to lay flat on my back and take a look at those stars before closing my eyes for a solid night’s sleep. Here’s to another great day in the greatest of Canyons.

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