“Monument Creek is my favorite destination below the South Rim”, said a long time Grand Canyon native and well-known geologist as we hiked down the South Kaibab. This was certainly enough to peak my interest. After recently moving to the South Rim we were anxious for the weather to cool off so that we could continue our exploration of the Inner Canyon in far more detail. My wife Wendy and I have been hiking in the Grand Canyon for almost 25 years with literally hundreds of descents off the Rims. Now that we live a few minutes walk from the South Rim, we decided that one or two backpack trips a month was completely within reason. Our first destination was Monument Creek Campground on Monument Creek per our friend’s recommendation.
If you have done any hiking in the “Corridor Trails” of the Grand Canyon, (Bright Angel, South/North Kaibab), the hike down to Monument Creek is definitely a big step up. The Corridor Trails are well maintained, versus the Hermit Trail – are practically groomed. First off, for any overnight camping trips below the Rims you must secure 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 put a fresh memory card in your camera for a fantastic plunge into a more remote section of the Grand Canyon.
The trip down to Monument Creek begins at the Hermit Trail with a quick 1000′ descent down to Waldron Canyon. From Waldron Canyon the trail heads due north past the Dripping Springs Trail to a neat little rock pour off. The trail up to this point is well maintained and receives quite a few day hikers on their way to Santa Maria Springs, less than a third mile away. I mention the pour off because the trail from here forward becomes considerably more difficult. There are numerous rock slides covering the trail with several areas of vertical exposure. All of this is completely doable with a backpack, you’re just not going to make great 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 day hikers’ destination. There is a wonderful little spring seeping into a cattle trough where you can fill your water bottles. (Remember to always filter your water anywhere in the Grand Canyon.) Next to the spring is a super cool rock hut with a bench and a way cool double rocker with the words “Rest Bit” engraved into the back rest. The view west from inside the rock hut is covered with hanging vines – believe me, Martha Stewart couldn’t have designed a more comfortable rest house.
Traveling down the trail hugging the Redwall formation with numerous rock slides for the next hour or so will bring you to Lookout Point, an excellent place to take a break and enjoy the view. Directly west of Lookout Point across Hermit Creek Canyon is the Boucher Trail. It is very difficult to see and is very rugged. This trail is named after the original hermit Louis D. Boucher. Another hour or so still hugging 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 place to have lunch. The commanding views to the north provide a preview below of the Tonto Trail running southwest to Hermit’s Camp and to the northeast towards a small saddle that leads to your destination at Monument Creek.
Winding past Breezy Point and still hugging the Redwall with numerous rock slides and more vertical exposure will bring you to the Cathedral Stairs in around a half hour. Cathedral Stairs is the crux, or the most difficult portion of the hike. Trail builders have literally carved a narrow trail into this formation. It is steep and rocky, but short, less than a 1/4 mile. Once at the bottom of the Cathedral Stairs one feels somewhat released from the walls of the canyon. There is a long traverse adjacent to Cope Butte and after numerous switchbacks you will join with the Tonto Trail at approximately 7 miles from the original trailhead. One can’t help but stare back 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 the rock slides and vertical exposure after several miles of tough hiking along the Redwall. One can actually stride this portion of the trail and allow your muscles to relax. There are glimpses of the Colorado River below as the Tower of Set dominates the northern skyline. In an hour or so you will find yourself approaching the Monument Creek drainage. The descent into the drainage is rugged and finding the trail can be tricky. There were hikers in front of us that descended straight down into the creek, only to bushwack back up. The trail actually hugs the rim and descends 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 plenty of mesquite trees for shade with easy access to water flowing over multiple pour offs. There are perhaps a dozen different campsites although the nightly use permits presently only allow 4 camps. So, it is easy to find a “private” campsite to your liking. We choose a well shaded campsite amongst the mesquite trees to string up a rope to hang our back packs, camp items and most importantly the “rat sack”. A rat sack is a necessity for backpacking in the Grand Canyon, it is a wire mesh bag with a velcro closure that will keep critters, especially ring tails away from your food. However hanging it is usually not enough during the daytime hours, the ravens will simply land on the sack and peck through at your food. So, it is best to cover the rat sack with another bag. Your backpack will work, but the ravens are also amazingly dexterous with their beaks and will soon have all of your zippers open as they rummage through the contents. I have heard stories of ravens flying away from backpacks with money in their beaks! On this trip we met a couple friends of ours, purely by chance, and they lost a library book cover to a particularly well read raven – no, it was not written by Edgar Allen Poe.
Once settled into Monument Creek Campground you will likely want to explore the Monument itself. This pinnacle towers over 200′ above the campground, standing like a sentinel guardian to Monument Creek. I have read reports of it being climbed in 4 pitches with a rating of 5.10A – well above my pay level.
The Monument itself blends in with the rock around it, but can be viewed from the Monument Creek Vista on the Hermit Road some 3500′ above. By far the best day hike from Monument CG is the 1.6 mile trip down Monument Creek to Granite Rapids. The sketchy trail descending to Monument Creek starts at the western side of the Monument. There are several steep switchbacks with loose rock, but within a few minutes you are standing on the sand/rock drainage of the creek itself. There are easy to follow cairns for the first couple hundred yards and then follow the natural drainage. It is incredibly beautiful. Monument Creek flows mostly underground, but closer to the Colorado River it is above ground and may be jumped when it hasn’t been raining. Please take notice of the weather prior to descending into Monument Creek, it will flash flood.
From Monument CG one can hike the Tonto Trail back to the west and spend time at Hermit’s CG and ascend the Hermit Trail or make your way east to Salt Creek CG, Horn Creek CG, Indian Gardens CG and up the Bright Angel Trail. We considered Monument to be a destination of it’s own and loved exploring the whole area and then ascending back up the Hermit’s Trail. A few hours later we’re sitting in the “Rest Bit” at Santa Maria Springs already planning our next Grand Canyon adventure.