South Bass and Copper Canyon Trip Report!

Joseph Heywood




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Trip Report – South Bass and Copper Canyon

March 17-20, 2003

 Monday - 17 March

I met my brothers Dave, Bryan, Brett, and Eric at the Backcountry Office at 1pm. I drove in through snow and rain from California and they came through similar weather from Utah. We met with Ranger Lon Ayers at the office and looked over what was available since we didn’t have a permit. There wasn’t much. Ranger Ayers was very helpful though, and we eventually worked out a permit that had us camping Monday night at the South Bass Trailhead, then three nights in the South Bass area. I had wanted to do the Royal Arch Route again with some variations, but this permit would allow us to get in one of those variations – a traverse from Bass Ferry over to Copper Canyon via a route that Doug Neering has written about (and possibly others). We spent a couple of hours packing up in the parking lot and strapping down packs on an improvised rack on top of my Jeep.

            We then made a quick run to the store, gassed up in Tusayan, and headed out to the South Bass Trailhead at about 3:45 using the directions provided by the Backcountry Office. We had snow off and on most of the way out. The roads were terrible. Slick mud and huge waterholes had us sliding and bouncing and tipping into ruts. I almost rolled the Jeep on one particularly deep rut we slipped into. Dave, Brett, and Eric alternated between complaining and cheering as they were sharing a small two person, fold-and-tumble seat in the back. It was actually pretty fun. There were no Havasupais at their “collection gate,” which was cause for small celebration. I guess the roads were too bad. The snow stopped falling after the gate (it wasn’t sticking, just making everything wet) and we approached the old Pasture Wash ranger station at 5pm.

            The ruts and mud through this section were really bad and just past the station we came upon a young couple from Indiana stuck in the mud in their Mitsubishi Montero Sport. We had heard about them at the Backcountry Office from Ranger Ayers. They hopped out as we approached and thought we were the “rescue crew.” We laughed and said we weren’t, but would be glad to help. They had sunk into a sticky rut coming out from the trailhead earlier in the day. They said the roads were good going in, but all the rain had changed them considerably. We tied a towrope to my Jeep bumper, dug out their tires with my shovel, jammed lots of sage into the mud, then pulled and pushed for the better part of an hour. It turned out that it was “a rental car not to be taken off-road” and it only had 2WD. We got them out of the rut and onto a flat spot right at the junction with the long, straight-shot road that is closed. We told them not to go on tonight because with only 2WD they would just get stuck again. They thanked us, took a picture, and we parted. By this time it was getting dark and we were covered in mud. We bounced and slid up to the trailhead and set up camp. A little bit of exploring around the trailhead and long looks out into the canyon from the rim. I love the excitement at the start of a trip. After a dinner of Chili-Mac and hot chocolate, we were in bed by 8pm.


Tuesday – 18 March

It snowed off and on last night, dusting the ground in a thin layer of white. My old tent wouldn’t zip shut last night so we had to duck tape the last 2 feet. Luckily we were only using it on the rim – we’d take lighter shelters down for the hike. We arose at 7 and spent a leisurely morning getting ready as it was overcast and cool. Dave threw up after breakfast, but said he felt fine. I circumnavigated the parking area about 100 feet or more away from the cars and found some old foundations and piles of rusted cans and containers strewn about the southern slopes. It must have been an adventure living there so many years. I would think about William Bass quite a bit over the next few days.

Breakfast of hot chocolate and Cream-o-wheat.

            On the trail at 10am. Temperature was probably in the upper 30’s. Shortly down the trail we ditched the sweaters and windbreakers for t-shirts. At 10:40 we reached the Esplanade after hiking intermittingly through sunshine and under cloud cover. The Esplanade was probably 10-15 degrees warmer than the rim and the twenty minutes or so walking through the trees and brush to the drop-off point into Bass Canyon were pleasant and at times a little muddy. Once on the Esplanade we realized we had forgotten to bring a water cache down for the last night’s camp on our way out. I kicked myself the rest of the trip for this.

            At 11am we dropped off the Esplanade on the west side of Bass Canyon and began the descent and traverse south back into Bass Canyon. At 11:35 we reached the USGS marker 4857ft. By 11:50 we had reached the bed of Bass Canyon at the bottom of the steep switchbacks. We still hiked in off and on overcast and sunshine, with cool breezes keeping the temperature in the 50’s and 60’s. At 12:20 we reached USGS marker 3824ft. and we all had the Grand Canyon Shaky Legs, but otherwise felt good. I was using a new boot-shoe this trip and that is always cause for some concern, but thus far had no problems or hot spots. They are a pair of low-top hikers called Lowa Tempest Lo. Great shoe. As we dropped down off of the east side of Bass Canyon where the trail had climbed up and away from the bed, we spooked a flock of blue-tinted dark birds that flew ahead calling out, landed, then spooked and flew out ahead again. Finally they flew off for good.

            We stopped for our first real break after we reached the bed again at 12:45 – packs off, legs up, eating and drinking. By 1pm we were hiking again and five minutes later we met up with the Tonto West junction, and two minutes later, after we hop up and out of the creek bed we passed the Tonto East junction. At 1:15 I almost stepped on a lizard which reminded me of the rattlesnake we met in this same area a few years back and suddenly I was walking with more caution (at least for a few minutes until I forgot about the snake). At 1:20 we rounded a bend and came upon the striking layer of rock that folds right down into the bed of the creek at a 90 degree angle. Shortly thereafter we came across a baby rattle- snake, shaking its little rattle but making no noise. I spent the next 5 minutes walking with caution again. We reached the bedrock tanks at 1:30 and spent about 10 minutes looking around above and below the pour-off where William Bass had one of his camps. A half an hour later, after the seemingly endless twists and turns of lower Bass Canyon, we came out above the Colorado River and hiked along the trail heading west until we reached the cairn marking the scramble down the cliff and boulders to Bass Beach. Much of the beach was under water as the river was high, but we found a wonderful open flat area for our camp. The skies were overcast and some rain drops fell, but otherwise we had a pleasant if not cool afternoon and evening. I ate a nasty hard salami for lunch, but choked it down with crackers and dried apricots. We spent the afternoon skipping rocks and seeing who could throw all the way across the river – most of us made it, though our arms were sore when finished. Dave and Eric built a sand castle; I read Jane Austen’s Emma and napped. We had the beach to ourselves and the quiet of the inner canyon solitude was refreshing. Dinner was Mountain House – Rice and Chicken. In bed by 8:30. Dave gave me a sleeping pill because I have trouble sleeping when camping, but it didn’t do anything for me. For shelter we used my small 2-man backpacking tent and my Walrus Trekker Tarp. I love the tarp as it knocks out sunshine, rain, and wind when needed, but also allows fresh air in the shelter and open views if we unzip the awning.


Wednesday – 19 March

Out of bed to a wonderfully warm and blue-skied morning to watch the play of colors to the west as the sun climbed. I slept okay last night, but Bryan and Eric in the 2-man tent didn’t. Apparently they didn’t like the slope of the tent so they slept in the tent with their heads at the foot. The problem is the tent tapers to the foot, so they slept face to face much of the night, only rolling over when the bad breath drove them to it. We had a good laugh over that one. I suggested that the next night they simply turn the tent around. They concurred it was a brilliant idea. The river dropped about 5 feet during the night exposing the beach as it was several years ago when we were there. Breakfast of Cream-o-Wheat and hot chocolate, then on the trail with daypacks at 9am.

            Our plan was to take the trail just above the river west past Bass cable-crossing to above the beach at Shinumo Rapids (the point across from North Bass Beach). On our way to this point Bryan tossed a rock down below and it sounded like a gunshot the way it hit. A large heron (?) flew out of the trees at the North Bass beach. As we came to the point where the trail drops down a ridge to Shinumo we saw two hikers down on Shinumo beach. We stayed high rather than descending, and picked our way along - sometimes on an obvious route, sometimes finding our own way. Occasionally cairns would appear but they didn’t seem to be consistent or they would mark a drop into a little drainage but not out of it, so we didn’t depend on them. We did try to scout from good vantage points any pieces of the old Bass route and sometimes we’d see a piece below and head for it, but the route was so sketchy we were usually just finding the best way or, occasionally, using Doug Neering’s advice. There is a deep cut-drainage that meets the river below Shinumo Rapids and this can be easily crossed up high. We reached this point at 10:15. From there the route was again apparent and non-existent intermittingly. At one point we were off the route and I checked Neering’s report and he said to stay in the red band of dirt through this section. We were above this band, so we dropped down and after a little while came across traces of the route again. At 10:50 we rounded a bend and frightened 4 bighorn sheep – one with a full set of horns. They were about 50 yards away and started to run to the west over a ridge, but suddenly turned and began to run towards us. We had met an aggressive ram on the Bright Angel Trail about five years ago and we thought for a moment that they were going to charge us. But they stopped, stared for a moment, then slowly worked their way back over the ridge west and out of sight. Following Neering’s advice and the natural lay of the land we worked our way up high as we approached the deep drainage just east of Copper Canyon. With some exposure we dropped down into the bed above a high pour-off. We reached this point at 11am. The sun had been on us for about an hour but the breeze was mildly cool. Temps in the 60’s. There was some water in bedrock pockets above the pour-off.

            Brett kicked a cactus at 11:10 so we stopped for a rest while he checked out his toes. Looking away to the north the snow along the North Rim was a beautiful contrast to the reds and browns below the snowline and the blue sky above the rim. Coming out of the drainage on our way over to Copper we were wondering where the route might be. Suddenly, from above us a bighorn came bounding down the shelves and slopes just ahead of us, then shot off to the west, disappeared over a ledge, then reappeared bounding along west toward Copper Canyon. We waited a moment to see if his companion, standing on a ledge above, would follow. He didn’t move. Looking at the path the bighorn had taken, we realized he had used what seemed to be a nice game trail (or maybe even the old Bass route). It was great. We followed his tracks to the base of the Tapeats cliff and the ledge that Neering said he had to lower packs over. We found some easy handholds and steps and scrambled down the short ledge, then continued on. We stayed close to the cliff, scrambling up some ledges and steep slopes toward a tree with some blue ribbons caught in it. We reached it at 11:30 and stopped for a short rest. The ribbons were tied to old pieces of balloons. I wondered how long they had been there and where they had come from. As we took pictures and rested, rafters came down the river far below us. However, they stood up and started waving their hats at us. We were surprised they had picked us out so high above; we waved back. At 11:40 we rounded the bend into Copper Canyon, and though we weren’t really on a cliff edge it still felt exposed due to the steepness of the slope and the width of Copper Canyon. We worked our way into Copper staying near the Tapeats cliffs sometimes on an obvious route, but often losing it. We found an old chisel along one stretch of constructed trail and knew we were on the right track. At 12:30 we reached the bed of Copper Canyon having lost the route the last 20 minutes and scrambling down the rocky, brush-covered slopes toward the point where the Tapeats cliffs meet in the bed. We lunched downstream on bedrock in the shade. There were quite a few small pools of water all the way down to the copper mine.

            At 1pm we were hiking again and after about 15 minutes we arrived at the copper mine and old camp foundation above the creek bed on the east side. The area is littered with old tools and other items of interest: an old stove, stone foundations, mines, broken dishware and bottles. We even found some old newspapers – copies of the Los Angeles Daily Press from 1906 – and old product packages (oats, tea).  We left everything as we had found it and just enjoyed the historicity of the place. The copper mine is interesting. It goes back about 20 feet or so then drops about 10; a vertical shaft rises up and opens as a skylight of sorts. Beyond the drop and “skylight” shaft the tunneling continues. An old wheelbarrow sat in the entrance to the shaft across from the drop. Bryan was going to drop down and go back up into the further shaft but I stopped him because mines make me nervous. Butchart and Neering note water in the Copper mine, but we found none. After poking around the copper mine, we headed down the creek bed and after a few minutes came to the tunnel downstream on the west side. It goes back into the rock but ends at nothing. Neering suggests it may have been a failed bypass of the narrows. Brett started scrambling down the narrows but stopped at a high pour-off he wasn’t sure he could get down or up.

            At 2pm we left the narrows and started back. We were hoping to take a trail that Neering writes about that would take us up out of Copper to meet the Tonto on the east side of the canyon. Walking up the bed of Copper we never sited this trail nor any cairns marking it. We came to the Tapeats and the big boulder rock fall in the bed. We scrambled over this then continued up the east arm of Copper, climbed over a 30 foot pour-off using ledges, then met up with the Tonto in the bed of this arm at 2:45. We came across another baby rattlesnake here, head cocked to strike and rattle shaking but again no noise except for a quiet hiss when Dave got too close with the camera. He was about ten inches long, tan with black markings on his back. We started hiking and I reached up to adjust my hat and it wasn’t there. Eric and Bryan ran back to the pour-off and found it. What good guys. Eric said when he saw it at the bottom of the pour-off he almost came back and said he couldn’t find it. Punk kid. Just like we did a couple of years ago on our way through here from Elves Chasm, we lost the trail leading up to the saddle for about 10 minutes, then finally found it again up high. We were tiring out, but the afternoon was cool with a slight breeze and it had been a good day exploring Copper. At 4:20 we reached the spur trail that drops down into Bass Canyon to the bedrock tanks (you can continue on the Tonto contouring back into Bass). The spur we took drops down quickly and after a long day of hiking it seemed tougher than it probably is. We reached the bed of Bass a half hour later and were back at our Beach camp at 5:20. We were all really sore after this long loop hike. The evening was beautiful with clear skies and distant clouds. The river was back up to its high level of last night. Another couple was camped down the beach from us but all was still quiet. More rock throwing and Jane Austen before dinner (soup) and bed at 8pm.



Four of us carried 100oz water bladders (Brett didn’t bring water – he shared) with snacks and a lunch. We used up about half to 2/3 of our water going over to Copper Canyon so it wasn’t absolutely essential for there to be water in Copper on this day hike loop. However, we were hiking in cool weather at a somewhat relaxed pace. I would recommend wearing pants for the hike over from Bass to Copper on this lower route. I wore shorts and my legs were scratched up really bad from the brush. As far as the route is concerned we were trying to stay on Bass’ original trail just because it is fun to find the pieces. However, one can easily leave this puzzle and just find their own way. The lay of the land tends to push you in the directions you need to head. For a map we used a Trails Illustrated map of the Grand Canyon. I would recommend having experience in off-route exploring in a desert canyon environment to negotiate this route. It isn’t so much the difficulty of route-finding, but the spooky feeling some get when the trail and cairns are suddenly gone or nonexistent. We did use Doug Neering’s write-up of the route as a reference, but it doesn’t really take one through the terrain step-by-step. Usually we would reach a significant drainage or point in the route and I would read Neering’s report and say, “Hey, we made it to the same spot!” We brought a rope, but didn’t find a need for it. If we had full packs we may have lowered them over the one ledge as Neering did. If you are wondering about the time it took us to hike this loop, the five of us range in age from 16-29 and are in pretty good shape. I never felt like we rushed any part of this hike.


Thursday – March 20

I had thrown back the awning of our tarp so we could look at the stars and full-moon during the night. I sat up for a while in the middle of the night and admired the shadows and light on the canyon walls and the river. It seemed like a good night for a moonlit hike, but I was too tired and sore. We arose at 6:30 covered in dew. Cream-o-Wheat and hot cider for breakfast. The air was somewhat chilled but no breeze. Clear skies. Once the sun was on us we felt warm. We packed up and began scrambling up the rocks past the abandoned metal boat – The Ross Wheeler – to the trail above. We dropped our packs on the trail and headed over to Bass cable-crossing. We spent about 20 minutes visiting this site and then went down the well-constructed trail immediately west to a small beach. This trail down to the beach is interesting as it is almost entirely intact. There is one 5 foot section still being held up with an old wooden log. The beach would make a nice camp if the dead tumbleweeds were cleared off. We climbed back up and headed towards our packs. On our way back to our packs we noticed a large cairn up on a ledge above. I wonder what it marks.

            We reached our packs at 10am and pulled them on. It was getting hot. I was already sweating. At 10:30 we stopped for fifteen minutes at the bedrock tanks to top of our water supply and soak our shirts. We were all really sore. At 11:10 we met the Tonto junction and by noon we were through with the long climb up through the brush slope on the east side of the canyon and working our way into the back of Bass. We stopped for lunch in the shade – tuna, crackers, dried apples – and were moving again at 12:30. We passed a day hiker at 1:30 just above the redwall. At 1:50 we were at the top of the switchbacks and beginning the traverse north along the west side toward the Esplanade. We were really going pretty slow, stopping a lot to take pictures and rest. Going up through the redwall break a storm came from the south and west to block the sun – perfect timing! As we hike we admire a beautiful display of colors off to the north with the snow and clouds and reds and browns of the canyon, and Dox Castle in the middle of it all. At 2:35 we reached the Esplanade under a gathering storm. The temperature had dropped to the 40’s and we could feel the first drops of rain. We rested a bit and I was tempted to camp our last night here even though we forgot to cache water. Bryan was sure we’d find water pockets somewhere. I had really wanted to climb Mt. Huethawali and look for Mystic Spring, but that will come another trip I guess. Even though we were exhausted, we pushed on up toward the rim. We were hiking by 3pm. It lightly rained off and on the last 40 minutes and got pretty cold. Just below the rim we passed the couple we saw yesterday down on Shinumo beach. We stopped and chatted a while. The last climb up from the Esplanade was beautiful with storm clouds and rain scattered throughout the canyon. A rainbow formed over the Colorado River off to the right of Bass Canyon. It was a wonderful display to close the trip. Once on top, the skies cleared somewhat and we loaded up before the rain came. The couple, from Colorado, came up and shared some string cheese. We headed out. The roads were dry and the pools of mud were easy to run through or around. We passed through a brief snow flurry near Pasture Wash station, and stopped to watch a herd of elk soon after. A large bull trotted out and stood his ground between us and the herd that had moved off into the trees. Pretty animal. I guess some jerk will shoot him this fall and hang his stuffed head in his house. By 6:45 we were at the Backcountry Office unloading and saying our goodbyes. It was a good trip.



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