Grand Canyon Loop Cut Short

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    Dean F.
    BPL Member


    Locale: Back in the Front Range

    So, as part of my post-deployment fun I had planned a loop hike through the Grand Canyon, sort of in the footsteps of Andy Skurka- essentially I was going to follow the portion of the Hayduke Trail in the canyon. The plan was to access the Lower Nankoweap trailhead, go down Nankoweap Trail, and bushwhack downstream to catch a ferry across the Colorado River just above the Little Colorado River (LCR) with some rafters. This would let us ford the LCR and catch the Beamer Trail, Escalante Route, and Tonto Trail to the corridor trail system. Then it was a matter of crossing the footbridge, ascending North Kaibab Trail and taking Ken Patrick Trail back to the Nankoweap trailhead and out:

    hike map

    I planned 10 days for this, April 1st thru 10th 2012, and was using it as another opportunity to make an attempt on the life of my old college room-mate, Sam. (Every couple or three years I drag him on an expedition to some gawdforsaken spot and do my best to kill him. Thus far, sadly, without success.)

    As mentioned, we were approaching via the Lower Nankoweap trailhead. This means approaching the national park through the Kaibab National Forest via Forest Service Road #8910. There is a trailhead at the southernmost point on the road, followed by a 3.5 mile hike into the park on Forest Service trail #57 (the Saddle Mountain Trail).

    Here is a view of the saddle we would climb, in the upper left:

    saddle view

    Here is a view a few minutes along Saddle Mountain Trail, with Sam:

    saddle mtn trail sam

    I pretty much fully outfitted Sam- I think the only gear of his own that he brought was a sleeping bag, footgear, a DriDucks suit, and underwear:

    sam pack

    For consumables we each had 21 pounds of food and 6 liters of water- in retrospect for a hike in early April we really didn't need that much water. We could have carried only four liters and it would have been generous, with perhaps backup containers for the drier sections.

    While hiking to the saddle it got cold enough that I put my rain shell on as a wind jacket- the rest of the hike was lower in the canyon and quite warm but the forecast had been for snow that first day. There was no ice on the trail and microspikes were not needed. Later we would learn from a ranger that there was no significant snow anywhere on the Kaibab Plateau (it has been a very poor snow year here out west- most areas are at 60% of average). Here is our first view of Nankoweap Canyon:

    nankoweap top

    The guidebooks describe Nankoweap trail as "poorly defined" and as having "significant exposure." I'll disagree with the poorly-defined part but there were indeed some spots where a foot or so is all that separated you from free-fall. Here I am on an early part of the trail:

    exposed trail

    Can you spot me in the photo?

    Here's a shot that I think was from Marion Point:


    You can see Nankoweap Creek in the background- that's were we spent that first night. We kicked off from the national forest at 0900 because we were lazy and wanted a last good breakfast at the motel and we just made it to Nankoweap Creek before dark. If we had kicked off at first light it would have been trivially easy to make the Colorado River that first day. Or so I thought… more on that later.

    I had used this trip as an excuse to try out Aarn packs- I figured it might be nice to counterbalance that much water weight- so I'm wearing the Featherlight Freedom. The packs are VERY overbuilt for what most people would consider ultralight backpacking. For instance, two loops on the waistbelt are reinforced with what looks like Hypalon. Also, while very comfortable, the suspension is complex and heavy. The main pack fabric isn't particularly heavy- it's just all the other stuff that results in a pack weight just over 4 pounds.

    All of that being said- I buy the hype. Again, more on this later…

    Here is a view back at Marion point from just before Tilted Mesa:

    marion from tilted

    I have to say- everything I ever read to the effect that "you can't understand how big the canyon is until you see it for yourself, because photos just don't cut it" is ABSOLUTELY true! This was my first Grand Canyon hike, though I'd hiked around canyon country before in Utah and western Colorado. The scale of the place simply boggles the mind, and you cannot appreciate that scale in photos. Estimating distances is tough, too- everything is farther away than you think. (And I'm a respectably experienced mountain hiker.)

    Here is the descent from Tilted Mesa:

    descent from tilted

    On this last hard downhill I noticed that Sam was moving slowly and mentioned that his knees were troubling him, but I thought this was just soreness from a day of hiking some particularly hard miles. After all, my legs were sore, too.

    Here is some weather moving in:

    weather moving in

    It hailed on us a couple of times, but they were small, soft stones.

    We found one of the springs where the trail meets the creek and tanked up, and pitched camp on a sand bench. The seep at Marion Point had been dripping, but slowly so it wasn't a realistic option for water as we passed by, though someone did have a trap set with two now-full gallon jugs. We ran into him just above tilted mesa- we think he was a guiding a commercial hike or something because we had seen a passenger van at the trailhead with the logo of a guide service on the door and this guy had a remuda of about half a dozen college-age girls trailing behind him.

    Dean F.
    BPL Member


    Locale: Back in the Front Range

    So, the next morning we headed down Nankoweap Creek toward the Colorado River:

    Nankoweap creek

    The trail down the creek bed is indistinct at times but as long as you keep heading downstream you're fine. In fact there really isn't a "trail", but route-finding down the creek was a breeze.

    Oddly, while going through my photos I realized that I never took one of the Nankoweap delta at the Colorado River. At the confluence the trail turns right (downstream) and crosses a large dune just before the pueblo ruins. Here's a view back at the dune after crossing it:

    nankoweap delta

    This is where we started the bushwhack down the right bank of the Colorado River, as described by Steck and later in the Hayduke Trail guidebook. Steck says it can be hiked from Nankoweap to the LCR in a single day.

    He is insane.

    Either that or he is a human bulldozer of a man who casts aside brush like snow before a plow. I had allotted a day and a half for this segment but it was getting obvious that we weren't even going to make it to Kwagunt Creek on the first day. Granted, we had started a couple of miles up Nankoweap Canyon but still. (I'd be REALLY interested in learning how long it took Skurka to hike this segment… hint, hint.) For anyone else contemplating this madness, taking the Horsethief bypass is probably a MUCH better option than bushwhacking along the river, though obviously water sources on Horsethief Trail are a bit more sketchy- Steck covers this bypass in his book.

    Anyway, at that point Sam and I made a river access to wash and cool our feet and found a bucket on the beach that had obviously been lost by a rafter at some point. Bonus- it was full of wine! Clearly we couldn't carry it out so we waved down a passing raft to see if they wanted it or were willing to haul it out.

    Now, it has been my impression that rafters tend to be very "gregarious" folk, and I wasn't disappointed. They were already adequately lubricated but were quite happy to take the wine, and we were offered a ride. Rafters are allowed to ferry hikers across the Colorado but they aren't supposed to take you downstream significantly if you aren't on their permit. (In fact we had hoped to catch such a ferry just above the LCR.) So, to make a long story short, in the process of giving us a ferry they probably carried us just a tad further downstream than was strictly proper:


    In the process of boarding and leaving the raft I noticed that Sam was moving a bit stiffly, but he brushed off my inquiries. (It is important to note that the relationship between Sam and I is essentially based upon one-upsmanship and an amiable antagonism. Trust me when I tell you that if he were to lose a limb to a wild-animal encounter he would just grimace and tell me "I'm good for another five miles." So, I should have known that he would never admit to being in pain, and frankly I should have had more mercy upon him the day before.)

    So, now we were on the left bank and bushwhacked to the LCR, which was high and muddy. I suspect that the hail we had encountered the day before turned into a bit of rain in the Navajo Nation. Nonetheless, with careful site selection fording the LCR was trivial. In fact, it was much easier than I had anticipated. Here's Sam afterwards:

    sam all wet

    And, yes, before someone comments he did have his waist belt unclasped for the fording.

    Here you can see the very muddy LCR entering the cold and relatively clear Colorado:

    LCR confluence

    Some guidebooks say that there is no river access and no camping possible on the Beamer Trail between the LCR and Lava Canyon Rapids. This is not strictly true- as shown on the Sky Terrain map there is a single campsite about a kilometer south of the LCR, well outside the no-camping zone around the confluence. It even has it's own side-trail marked by a cairn, and is the sandy effluent fan from a small wash:

    camp day 2

    But it really isn't a great site- there is little brush to break the evening winds and sand blew into every crevice of our bags and packs. Here you will see how I use my LuxuryLite Big Survival Stik as a center-pole for my MLD SuperMid- with one extra segment it is the perfect length. In my defense I bought the Survival Stik long before Doug Johnson's excellent tongue-in-cheek review of it, which can be found here:

    This put us an entire day ahead of our itinerary but that night Sam admitted that his knees were tweaking, badly- he has a history of such. The forced-march down Nankoweap Trail with 45-pound packs had apparently set them off. He piled on the ibuprofen and resolved to see how he felt the next day, but we started discussing bail out options. Clearly, no matter what Sam would have to hike out of the canyon but at least going uphill isn't as harsh on the knees. One option was to flag down another raft to take us to Bright Angel Campground then complete the hike. Needless to say we didn't want to impose on others if we could help it. Another option was to bail out up Tanner Trail at the far end of Beamer Trail, but this would leave us on the south rim when our vehicle was on the north rim.


    Dean F.
    BPL Member


    Locale: Back in the Front Range

    The next day Sam informed me that he could not complete the itinerary that we had planned, even though we were a day ahead at this point. Looking ahead to the Escalante Route, I agreed- his knees were simply too painful. Bummer, but I wasn't going to break out the cattle prod and drive him into the ground.

    The rafters who had given us a ferry had mentioned that they suspected no more rafters would be by for a few days. Thus, having slept on it, we decided to push through to Tanner Beach. There we could still catch a raft if one presented itself but our primary bail-out plan was to ascend Tanner Trail.

    We loaded all of the remaining food into my Aarn pack, as well as other "heavy" stuff such as the cooking set, tent stakes, stove fuel, etc.:

    sam beamer

    Really all that Sam had in his pack was two sleeping systems and his clothes and incidentals. Late in the morning a single motorized pontoon boat passed heading downstream, clearly a commercial tourist boat packed to the gills. We would not see another raft on this hike.

    The northern half of Beamer Trail is relatively exposed, too, but no gymnastics are involved. (Unlike Nankoweap Trail, which has a couple or three areas where lowering your packs on a rope is recommended. And, frankly, even those areas are nothing that anyone with even a drop of simian blood in him can't do perfectly safely while wearing a pack.)

    beamer view

    Here is the World's Toughest Cactus, growing right out of the rock:

    tough cactus

    Here's a pretty prickly pear:

    pretty cactus

    Sam managed to hobble through the Beamer Trail at about 1.3 mph on average, which is actually an indication of just how bad his knees were since there is no reason one shouldn't make pretty good time on that trail. The only thing that slows you down is crossing the washes. Here we are near Lava Canyon Rapids, after descending onto the beach:

    lava canyon beach

    dean lava canyon

    Here is the cairn where the trail drops onto the beach:

    cute cairn

    Someone was being a bit too cute with that one in my opinion, but the plant is cool.

    Near the end of the beach-like section, when we were resting before ascending the last tough section before Tanner Beach, we encountered Mark from Oregon.

    Mark was naked.

    Well, maybe not quite naked- he did have a hat, backpack, and sandals. Nonetheless this made an impression upon us. He apologized and explained that he didn't expect to encounter anyone else on the trail.

    We made it to Tanner Beach, which actually kept us ahead of our itinerary. There everyone seemed in awe of us when we mentioned that we had descended Nankoweap Trail- evidently it is thought of with dread by a fair percentage of the hiking community, though I honestly don't understand why. Yes some spots were exposed but it could easily be broken up, with outstanding campsites at Marion Point and Tilted Mesa.

    We also met the world's most understanding backcountry ranger, Betsy:


    She also looked bad@$$, with a pack so full of other people's trash that it looked as if she were hauling a yak. We had a lovely conversation.

    Given that we were self-rescuing for medical reasons she appropriately ignored our being ahead of our itinerary. In particular the SELF-rescue part seems to carry a lot of freight with her- she respected that we never even considered having someone else haul our sorry posteriors out of the canyon. I guess some other hikers are quite pathetic about that, and I imagine that it gets old fast. She clearly loved her work, informing us that she has the "best job in the world", and smiled even while picking up a sleeping bag that someone had jettisoned on the trail.
    We told her of our woes- specifically that we were bailing out to south rim but that our vehicle was on north rim. She thought about it and told us that our best option might be to catch a shuttle to Flagstaff and rent a car to get back to my truck, but to check in with the BIC and the rangers to be sure that no-one was planning on visiting north rim in the next few days. (Though as I said earlier the snow was NOT an issue the north rim remained closed until May 1st as in any other year.)

    So we spent that night at Tanner Beach and planned to ascend Tanner Trail the next day:

    tanner moon

    By the way, Colorado River water tastes nasty no matter how you treat it- fishy and skunky. With a couple of Nuun electrolyte tablets I could just barely keep choking it down, so whenever possible drink from springs. I think I'd even accept the small ars_enic dose from Miner's Spring (aka Page Spring) over river water.

    Edit- REALLY?? Ars_enic sets off the profanity filter???

    Dean F.
    BPL Member


    Locale: Back in the Front Range

    We asked around and most people seemed to think that Tanner Trail can be easily ascended in one day. Having now done it, I agree. But we took two days for the sake of Sam's knees. And also- wait for it- because Ranger Betsy had offered to let us stay at her residence in Grand Canyon Village if we couldn't expeditiously iron out our vehicular dilemma, but if we ascended in just one day her cousins who were visiting would still be there.

    We kicked off around 0700. This is the beginning of Tanner Trail, looking back at the river, the beach across the river from Tanner Beach, and part of Beamer Trail in the distance:

    tanner start

    Here is an obligatory vista:

    tanner vista

    Even bailing out I was having a great time:

    tanner happy

    As, oddly, was Sam:

    sam tanner start

    But I guess that if I were to carry a pack with only puffy insulation and fleece that I'd smile, too. :) I, on the other hand, definitely got my workout for the day.

    Here's my opinion on the Aarn packs… I have to admit that all things considered I was incredibly comfortable carrying all of that weight (fourteen man-days of food, 6 liters or water, etc.). Obviously I didn't have a scale but that pack had to be pushing 55 pounds. I have no doubt that putting the heaviest stuff (i.e. water) in the front balance pockets was a large part of this. If I ever PLAN to carry such a weight again, especially lots of water for desert hiking, I'll definitely do it in my new Featherlight Freedom. But otherwise they seem frightfully overbuilt by ultralight standards. (If I can be hypocritical though, it would be nice if there were straps to hang your pad on the outside of this ostensibly full-featured pack. But maybe my prior large pack- Osprey Exos- has spoiled me.) Perhaps the Marathon Magic or Mountain Magic are a bit better, but they'll still have that ludicrously heavy suspension. Really, Aarn could make a much lighter pack and still have their nifty suspension and front pockets.

    While going up tanner Trail we passed a group of Boy Scouts who had broken camp an hour or so before us. Not one of them offered to carry Sam- what's up with Boy Scouts nowadays? :)

    sam tanner later

    The Sky Terrain map shows a campsite halfway up Tanner Trail. In reality the trail all along Cardenas and Escalante Buttes is littered with great campsites. We got to the tail end of these, just before the last set of switchbacks up to Lipan Point, around 1300. We could easily have finished the trail but, as mentioned earlier, elected to hang out and spend one more night on the trail. We found a great camp- in a small cave under the side of a boulder- so we cowboy camped. 1300 is when the sun really seems to start blasting oppressively, but before that it was cool and breezy- we only drank 2 liters each up to that point. Presumably, it helped that we were gaining altitude.

    tanner near top

    Once on the rim we begged a ride to Grand Canyon Village. We checked with the BIC but no one was headed to the north rim anytime soon, so we caught the Arizona Shuttle to flagstaff and rented a car to get back to my truck. It turns out that we never needed to stay at Betsy's place.

    I will be back to finish this hike. Oh yes, I will be back…

    I'll be back

    Ken Thompson
    BPL Member


    Locale: Right there

    Thanks Dean! I anxiously await the next installment.

    Hiking Malto
    BPL Member


    Hopefully it won't need a membership! Great writeup. Can't wait to get back to the Canyon Friday.

    Dean F.
    BPL Member


    Locale: Back in the Front Range

    With the extra few days that Sam and I now found on our hands we poked around the Four Corners area a bit. We stopped at Petrified Forest National Park:

    sam petrified log

    Which was interesting but absolutely not a great place to hike. There are NO water sources in the park. I probably couldn't spend more than a day there.

    One neat thing we did find there was historical documentation of the giant birds that once infested the Southwest and ate children:

    childivorous bird

    Mesa Verde was next:

    pueblo ruins

    Also quite an interesting place, and I suspect that it has much more enticing hiking tucked in there somewhere but I didn't investigate. All the ruins are a good 20 mile drive from the entrance gate, by the way. I could have spent days there, but only one pueblo was open to the public- the rest were opening for the season the day AFTER we were there. Here is a view from atop the mesa:

    mesa view

    Next we returned to one of my favorite places in Colorado- Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. It must seem odd to a lot of you that of all Colorado I really like this place, but I like it precisely because it is beautiful in a very different way from the rest of the state.

    storm dunes

    Several thunderstorms washed down the San Luis valley that day and made for really striking scenery, with lightning hitting the peaks to our north and northeast. Around 13:00 the wind changed and a storm passed over the dunes but by then we were on our way down anyway. The climb to the top of High Point Dune is absolutely worth it:

    sam dunes

    more dunes

    There are 30 square miles of dunes in the park, but it includes much more than just the dunes. Part of the Sangre de Cristo wilderness is actually in the park.

    sam scenic

    view toward visitor center

    That last one is a view toward the visitors' center and parking lot, to give some sense of the scale.

    Sam was actually pretty adept at skiing down on his sandals:

    sam sand skiing

    Here's a view of the dunes from a nearby trail, as that rain was falling:

    distant dunes

    I wrote a trip report about GSDNP&P a few years ago when I first came to Colorado:

    I encourage everyone to give this place more thought. It is scenic as all hell, not crowded, and it is nestled in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness with mountains to the north/east/south so you can definitely get your montane fix. Best of all it is just a 2.5 hour drive from my house…

    Mary D
    BPL Member


    Locale: Gateway to Columbia River Gorge

    Sounds like a wonderful trip, even if you did have to bail prematurely. Sometimes those things just happen–it's all part of the adventure! I hope Sam's knees are getting better!

    Dean F.
    BPL Member


    Locale: Back in the Front Range

    Yes, he was still limping a bit at GSDNP, especially immediately after getting out of the car, but he was definitely getting better.

    If I don't get back to GRCA soon my next homicide attempt will likely either be Flat Tops Wilderness or the Everglades…

    Ben C
    BPL Member


    Locale: Kentucky

    Looks like great fun, Dean, even with the trip cut short. I think I have hiked with Sam or his doppelganger a few times where I had to pack out the heavy gear because of bad knees.

    Michael L
    BPL Member


    Locale: NoCo


    thanks for this great write-up. really enjoyed it.

    Dean F.
    BPL Member


    Locale: Back in the Front Range

    OK, I just attended one of Andy Skurka's talks, at the Colorado Springs GoLite store. Naturally I asked about his experience in the canyon and he says it took him "a couple of days" to get from Nankoweap to the LCR.

    I guess I don't feel like so much of a wimp, after hearing that. Hell, if I ever make HALF his pace I'll be ecstatic. I still think we could have made the whole trip in 10 days, though a slightly different itinerary might have been closer to ideal.

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