Fool’s Paradise: 3 Days Exploring The Depths Of The Grand Canyon

I’m something of a fool when it comes to backpacking. A comfortable fool. But still a fool.

By: John Segesta
March 25, 2016

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Gregg Boydston is a U.S. Forest Service Hotshot. This means he gets dumped on remote mountainsides carrying in his pack pretty much everything needed to extinguish wild infernos and keep himself alive.

The stuff for self-sustenance is pretty basic: a couple MREs, a Therm-a-Rest, a sleeping bag, Gold Bond Powder, water and, last but surely not least, eye drops. Forest fires are dirty, smoky things.

The stuff for the job is a little more involved. There’s a 25 lb. chainsaw and everything he needs to keep it running: fuel, oil, spare parts, etc. All of which is to say, Gregg’s no stranger to the idea of making his way in the wilderness with a heavy load on his back.

So when he called me before our backpacking trip with questions about, well, how to backpack, explaining that he’d never been, I was a bit puzzled. I was familiar with what he did for a living. Essentially, he backpacked for a living. Albeit with a professional, sometimes heroic purpose. What did he mean he’d never been backpacking?

Backpack from the Grand Canyon's Cremation Canyon to Utah Flats | Photo: Gregg Boydston

We were headed to the Grand Canyon. Not to a corridor campground, but into one of the lesser traveled at-large wilderness areas. Teamed up by CLIF Bar, we were sent to go test their new Organic Energy Food products and share our experience through images. The trip was just a few days out, and while I was a bit alarmed by Gregg’s questions I was excited that he’d be joining up with me for a few days of adventure. We were also joined by Tiffany Nguyen who though a dentist by day has a passion for the outdoors and who I knew would be up for anything.

On day one, we’d hike down the South Kaibab, one of the Canyon’s busier trails. It’s a ridge top affair for the most part; as such, the views are sweeping. And while it’s often crowded with tourists in its upper switchbacks, the trail is among my favorites because of these views.

The South Kaibab trailhead is at 7,260 feet. We’d hike 4.5 miles to the junction with the Tonto Trail, dropping 3,250 feet in elevation. We’d then hike east a mile or two on the Tonto before heading off trail a bit to make camp on a favorite ledge that looks over the inner gorge.

Backpack from the Grand Canyon's Cremation Canyon to Utah Flats | Photo: John Segesta

Day two would bring us back to the South Kaibab and into the inner gorge to cross Black Bridge, dropping another 1,400 feet of elevation. At Phantom Ranch, we’d replenish our water and get some cold beers. From here we’d planned to take the Clear Creek trail to another camp, this time on the opposite side of the Colorado River.

But early on, I considered changing the permit for night two to something a little more adventurous and, hopefully, rewarding: Piano Alley and Utah Flats.

Piano Alley aptly describes the route to Utah Flats. Clear Creek is a full-on trail that runs east from a junction with the North Kaibab just beyond Phantom Ranch. It was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

But officially, there’s no trail to Utah Flats, above and to the west of Phantom. There’s just a series of braided paths that, after an initial, very steep slope through the Vishnu Schist, make way to a side canyon choked with boulders that are similar in shape to pianos. But in size they’re much larger than pianos.

Backpack from the Grand Canyon's Cremation Canyon to Utah Flats | Photo: Gregg Boydston

I’ve done a lot of hiking in the Canyon, on and off trail. Utah Flats was one of the few remaining places I hadn’t seen. So I was keen to do it but I wanted to wait on the decision, size up the group and get a sense of what they were up for.

After a briefing in Flagstaff, Arizona morning-of, they were in. No hesitation. So we’d do night two at Utah Flats, and then reverse the route back to the camp of night one before our exit out the South Kaibab. Utah Flats thus became the trip’s objective.

As trip leader, I chose to guide the route up from Phantom. But it wasn’t long before Gregg made a diplomatic, if somewhat sheepish suggestion: “Maybe I should hike ahead, see if I can find the route around that headwall?”

Yes, Gregg’s considerate. And he’s a tightly wound spring. In any event, I was going slow. Really, really slow. And I was fully aware that Tiffany was behind me, right on my heels.

“Gregg,” I replied, “that would be brilliant.”

Backpack to the Grand Canyon's Cremation Canyon | Photo: Tiffany Nguyen

Tiff soon passed and fell in behind Gregg. I spent the next hour wishing I’d consumed fewer beers in the previous months, fewer cheeseburgers. And I wondered why I thought it so necessary to carry every conceivable comfort in my pack. My big, 60 lb., 85-liter Osprey pack. At least it was comfortable.

So I’m something of a fool when it comes to backpacking. A comfortable fool. But still a fool.

No thanks to me, we made it to the top of that piano-strewn side canyon. And when we got there, we were rewarded. Like Piano Alley, Utah Flats is named accordingly. The place is something of an anomaly topographically. It’s different: it looks more like Canyonlands National Park than Grand Canyon National Park.

As Gregg helped me with the last move over the edge, I saw a vast field of slickrock and knew we had a fun decision before us: where to camp. Everything looked epic. I also noticed Gregg had hacked the bite valve from his CamelBak onto the end of a CLIF’s Sweet Potato with Sea Salt Organic Energy Food. Maybe that was his secret.

But among the hoodoos, bowls and fissures in the rock, there was a fractured series of shelves that hung above Phantom Ranch on the left, the Inner Gorge on the right. And it provided a blissful evening where we all became somewhat less a group of strangers and more a group of friends. Funny how pain and suffering can do that.

Backpack to the Grand Canyon's Cremation Canyon | Photo: Tiffany Nguyen

The next morning, I waited in my tent as the sun rose and listened for the sounds of the others. The tent was my first effort to drop a few pounds from my pack and I was admiring the engineering. But when the light was high enough, I noticed that Tiff and Gregg had long since left their bags to shoot the sunrise. Tiff, Gregg and I all share a passion for photography and they weren’t going to miss a chance to capture the magical light.

I decided to get some breakfast ready and fired up some boiling water. It was an unknown what would happen if we heated up CLIF’s new Organic Energy oatmeal but I decided to give it a go. Hot, tasty oatmeal without the mess or trouble. Pretty awesome.

At the end of our trip when I overheard Gregg and Tiff talking photo technique, I was surprised to learn something. I won’t bore you with the technical details, but when I spoke up and asked, “Is that how you do that?”, Tiff was beside herself.

“You‘re kidding me, right? You didn’t know how to do that? You’re a professional photographer and you didn’t know how to do that?”

Like I said, I’m an fool. A comfortable fool. But still a fool.

Backpack to the Grand Canyon's Cremation Canyon | Photo: John Segesta

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Cover photo: John Segesta

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Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.