Sunday, May 10, 2009

Grand Canyon '09- Tanner-Escalante-New Hance

A slideshow of pictures is here, or the full gallery here.

GPS track of this trip is available at Everytrail.com

Sunday April 19 I began this year's Grand Canyon backpacking trip, a five night trip down the Tanner Trail, west across the Escalante Route, then up the New Hance Trail. I'd been on the Tanner and New Hance before; Escalante was new to me, with lots of references to sections that required climbing and maybe hauling the backpack up or down on a rope, and regular reports of challenging route finding. I didn't find it that bad, with only minor route-finding challenges, and for me the toughest parts of the trip were on the always-challenging New Hance while hiking out.

I dropped my pack at the Tanner Trailhead at Lipan point about 5, then drove to park the car at Moran Point, about a mile from the New Hance trailhead. The day before I'd given a ride from Lipan to the New Hance trailhead to a guy who'd dropped his car there, on his way to start an ill-advised afternoon trip down the New Hance; I was hoping that the karma would get me a ride back to the trailhead. I'd walked about 20 minutes when a park maintenance man picked me up, saving me a long walk.

At 6am, just as the sun rose, I stepped out onto the Tanner Trail.
dawn view from the Tanner Trail

Tanner drops steeply, with many switchbacks, through the Kaibab and Toroweap rock layers, then into the Coconino. The Coconino sections of most trails are a challenge; in late 2007 a rock slide destroyed a large section of the Tanner Trail, closing it for several months. The Park Service crew did a great job restoring this area, building large boulders into staircases and trying to stabilize sections of the slide. I'm not sure that it won't slide further and deteriorate, but right now it's pretty good.
new rock stairs in the Coconino

Below there, the trail drops further until reaching the saddle separating Tanner Canyon from 75-Mile Canyon, at Stegosaurus Rocks. There's a great view here down 75-mile, and several places that would be great campsites.

75-Mile Canyon
After here, the trail begins a long rolling run out the ridge below Escalante and Cardenas Buttes. There's some up and down, reminiscent of the Tonto Trail, but overall there isn't much elevation change until you reach the Redwall break, about 2.5 miles out. Before the Redwall drop there's another great area for camping, on the north side of the trail. Hiking out the Tanner in 2006 my friends and I had a great night here- the views aren't quite the equal of what they'd have been if we'd camped right at the top of the Redwall, but the wind was less.

At the point where the trail drops over the Redwall there's an obvious side trail continuing out & up the ridge. It's a short climb to the Redwall overlook, one of the more spectacular viewpoints in the canyon. It's also a good camping spot, though as noted earlier, it's always windy out there.
view from the Redwall overlook

At the overlook I took stock- unsure of how long it would take to get from my car back to the trailhead, I'd decided to carry enough water to get me through a dry night of camping above the Redwall if I couldn't make the entire trail. It was now about 10am, and I was about halfway to the river. Clearly I'd have plenty of time to get to the river, so I dumped the two extra liters I was carrying, saving me 4.4 pounds. That helped on the challenging Redwall descent.

The trip down the Redwall on the Tanner is probably the hardest section of the trail. It's steep, constantly switching back, and features approximately 25% of the loose rocks in the universe under your feet, trying to make you slip. It's slow and painfull on the knees and feet. My legs, already sore from a dayhike to Phantom Ranch two days earlier, objected quite a bit. This is probably where I also jammed a big toe a little too far into my boot, bruising it under the nail. It would be black & blue and sore most of the trip, improving until I got home. A week later it exploded again, obviously infected. A trip to the doctor showed it to be MRSA; with antibiotics and the loss of the nail it's starting to feel more or less normal now, two weeks later.

Below the Redwall the trail becomes a steadily descending trip along the side of a hill. The view is fantastic, but it seems to take much longer than it should. The destination is in view for almost the entire trip, but it takes forever to get there. It isn't a particularly challenging hike, but it's wearing after the earlier miles of trail.
rolling along

Eventually the trail drops into and crosses the bed of Tanner Creek, then hits the Tanner campground. There's a composting toilet here, with several unimpressive campsites nearby; I took a small one very near where the trail drops to the campground. I'd see the next day that there are several nicer sites on the north side of the creek- farther from the toilet, though that isn't a bad thing.

The rest of the afternoon was about lying in the shade relaxing, chatting some with a group who came in a few hours later.

Monday was a short day, just a quick hop to the mouth of Cardenas Creek. I did have a visitor for breakfast, a small snake coiled up under my hiking poles. It didn't move throughout my breakfast or while I packed up, never even reacting as I picked up the poles and headed out.

breakfast guest

North of Tanner Creek the Escalante Route begins, clearly defined by lines of rocks on either side. It follows the beach for a bit, then heads uphill to clear one of the several unnamed side creeks in this part of the canyon. It's never high above the river, and it was one of the easiest trail sections I've taken in the canyon.

I reached Cardenas Creek by about 10am and settled in for some serious relaxation on the beach.
at Cardenas

I spent the rest of the day there, reading "Dune" (the perfect Grand Canyon book) and watching rafters float by. One offered me a beer; it hurt to turn it down, but I really didn't want to add the glass bottle to my pack. I had another snake visitor, this time a much larger Canyon Rattlesnake that slipped past as I ate lunch, disappearing into the reeds along the river.
rattlesnake in the reeds

Late in the afternoon, back at my tent a little away from the river, I heard the sounds of another group; I presumed it was a rafting party. I never saw them until the next morning, though. In fact, I wouldn't see any other hikers the entire time I was on the Escalante- the only people I saw were rafting parties. Until Wednesday the longest conversations I had were quick "hellos" back & forth with rafts.

Tuesday was a longer day, aiming for the beach at Escalante Creek. West of Cardenas the trail climbs a hill of Dox sandstone, staying above the river. It curves around, heading back into the largest of the unnamed drainages along the trail. As it starts to head back, there's a section of trail prominently visible just to the west of the trail you'll be on at that point. How you reach it isn't as obvious, but it looks to be down a short drainage. I went that way, only to find that it was a side trail, leading to an overlook above the Unkar Delta. The view is nice, and it's a quick detour, but if you're in a hurry skip this side trail.
side overlook trail

Also in this general area- I'm not going to be specific, and I've removed the track from the GPS I've posted- is a side trail to Anasazi ruins. That's a longer trip, and slightly harder, but well worth it. The ruins are interesting, with a commanding view- one theory of their use was as a lookout- I'd buy that. The ruins are plainly visible on Google Earth, and popular with dayhiking raft parties, but still deserve protection and respect.

Escalante goes back into the unnamed drainage seemingly forever. It doesn't look like much on the map, but it keeps going back and further up until it feels like you're going halfway back to the rim. You do gain about 1200', but it feels like much more. Eventually you hit the back of the drainage, turning back out toward the river but still climbing. It looks like the trail is going all the way back up the the Tapeats, but actually it stays a little below, contouring out of the side canyon. You can clearly see the break in the Tapeats called "Butchart's Notch", a short cut that looks pretty reasonable from the east side, but looks a lot steeper around the other side.

Once around the point, you're above Escalante Canyon. You continue back some distance, then drop into the creekbed. The trail goes into the bed, but quickly climbs out the other side- if you continue down the creekbed you'll come to a sudden drop over a pouroff about 100' high. Sticking to the trail you detour around this, eventually dropping into the creekbed again at a much lower point.


There are nice campsites on either side of the creek; I chose one well upstream, on a sandy beach above the Colorado. Though today's hike was longer and harder than Monday's, I was still relaxing on the beach by 1. Late in the afternoon a river trip went by in dories- I hadn't realized that they were used commercially. It looked like fun.


Wednesday, another short day, but one that made me a little aprehensive. Today would be 75-Mile creek, reportedly a spectacular slot canyon that required several short climbs. The trail from Escalante climbs slightly above the river, starting out on a wire-rope & wood ladder set in the sand, then heading along the river to 75-Mile. It's an easy trip. At 75-Mile the trail turns left, up the side canyon, leading back about half a mile to the obvious point to enter the creekbed. I'd read several trip reports that suggested not going back this far, saying it was better to drop into the canyon at one of a couple of breaks where a scramble down a hillside lets you reach the creekbed. I'm not convinced of this- the trip back into the canyon probably didn't take much longer than a careful scramble would require, and the section of 75-Mile from the easiest creekbed entry is truly spectacular.
15 foot drop to the creekbed

The "climb" of about 15' down into the creekbed was actually very easy. I'm sure that some people would be uncomfortable, as it looks steeper from above than it really is, given the lack of contrast in some of the rock. I was fine with it- I never felt insecure with my pack on at any point along the Escalante, and never wanted to raise or lower it with the rope I brought along.

The creekbed winds sinuously down toward the river, ranging from less than 10' to more than 20'. The bands of sculpted rock are beautiful.

75-Mile Canyon
There's one other short drop, again, fairly easy to negotiate. After that, a boulder about 3' tall probably poses no obstacle to most people. Me, I had trouble. My toe was aching, as was the ankle of that foot- I've long had a problem with it, a stress fracture that's never healed quite right. Trying to get down past this boulder without hurting that foot further I managed to scrape both arms, one leg, and land hard on the bad foot. So much for careful.

Eventually the canyon emerges at a beach on the river. I thought about camping here, exploring the canyon more later in the day with different light, but I decided to press on to Papago Beach, a little under a mile away. Papago, with a serious climb and drop, is reputed to be the worst section of the Escalante Route, and I wanted to start it early the next day.

At 75-Mile an obvious cairned, rock-lined trail leads up the hill from the beach; I took it. This was one point where I'm unsure that I took the correct, or at least easiest, section of the Escalante. The beach from 75-Mile reaches about halfway to Papago, and from the high trail I could see a low trail continuing. At the end of the beach the trail did climb a little, but the high trail that I was on had climbed about 200' above the river. It's probably a personal preference thing- overall I'd rather do a trail that's on rock, even if it changes elevation quite a bit, instead of a long hike on soft beach sand. In this case, though, that low trail looked very easy.

At Papago, the high trail dropped steeply to the beach. The infamous Papago Wall, climbing the opposite side, had been visible for quite a distance. It's difficult to actually judge how high the wall is.
Papago
The equally infamous Papago Slide is visible a little downstream, but only the bottom- the real extent of that obstacle can only be seen from the top.

Papago Wall is generally called out as about 50' tall. I think that's probably reasonable, though it looks shorter until you see someone climbing it, and get perspective. The steep section actually starts about 10' up, after an easy scramble to a high ledge. I watched a raft party climb up, but I'd leave my exploration of that wall for the next day. I probably should have scouted it, and explored Papago canyon, but given the aches in my foot I chose to spend a day lying in some shady rocks looking out at the river.
Rafters climb Papago Wall

At Papago beach, there's a wonderful campsite just downstream of the rapids, though I skipped it- there's a nice little bay that looked like a prime boater destination, and I really wasn't interested in camping with a river party. I chose a nice site, a little rocky and potentially wet in a flash flood, as it was just outside of the main channel of Papago Creek. Still, it was about the best of the alternatives.

The mouth of Papago Canyon looks like it will lead to something like 75-Mile, but only a few feet in you hit a wall of rock, smoothed by years of water. It's probably 15' tall; to go farther back into the canyon you have to climb the wall.
Papago Canyon

As I expected, a river pary did camp there that night; we chatted a little, but didn't really socialize. This was the first real conversation I'd had since Monday. They'd been on a wait list for a permit for 12 years, and had secured this one in a cancellation lottery.

Thursday my goal was to complete the Escalante Route, then start hiking out Red Canyon up the New Hance trail. My foot ached in the morning, so I took the last remaining Tylenol with codeine from oral surgery a few years ago. It must have still been good, as all the pain left pretty quickly. Or maybe it was a really good placebo.

Papago Wall was a little challenging with a pack on, but I hadn't loaded up with water, figuring it best to keep it as light as I could until I reached the other side. There are a plenty of handholds, but no good route that I saw straight up the wall- it was more like climb about halfway, then work laterally a few feet, then climb again. About 50' up you hit a level point and it settles down. The trail then climbs up and around, another one of those trails that seems to climb forever. My GPS track shows that the trail climbs over 300' above the river. GPS altitude, especially in a canyon, is never that acurate- it can't get a good 3D fix. I think it probably was 150'-200'.
View from above Papago Wall

You climb that height, then you hit Papago Slide.

After all of the fears I had about climbs on this trip that turned out to be overstatements, I think the Slide was the one that actually turned out worse than I expected. It's generally called out as being about 75'. I think that's a serious understatement and it may be as much as double that, if you measure all the way to the river, though you can get clear of it above that height. It's a chute, filled with rocks ranging from pebbles up to multi-ton boulders, a great many of which are loose and ready to shift as you put weight on them.
Papago Slide

The best route down, at least right now, is sticking to the upriver side of the chute for most of the drop, until you hit a blockage that has stabilized that section of the slide. Crossing that, I continued down the downstream side. There's a point not far below here where the chute opens up on the downstream side, and a high trail picks up heading downstream. I don't recall my decision making at this point, but I could also see a low trail, so I continued further down the slide to there. this turned out to be a mistake- the upper trail would have been the better choice- both converge at a midpoint not far away, and the lower trail requires much more negotiation of the slide, as well as then passing through some nasty thorns.

Clear of the slide, the trail is an easy walk through sometimes dense riparian vegetation to the mouth of Red Canyon.


I relaxed just above Hance Rapids, watching some kayaks and rafts negotiate the rapids while I tanked up on water. My goal for the night was a dry camp above the Redwall, so I'd need water for two days of hiking along with dinner & breakfast. For me, that's about 8 liters, or 18 pounds. My pack was now almost as heavy now as it had been at the start of the trip.

I'd hiked the New Hance in 2002, my first backcountry trip in the canyon. From there we'd gone downstream to Hance Creek and Horseshoe Mesa, then out the Grandview Trail. This would be my first trip up the New Hance. It has always stuck in my head as the hardest canyon trail I'd done; my friend Keely, who'd been on the 2002 trip on New Hance and 2006 on Tanner wasn't sure which was tougher. After this trip, I have no doubt that New Hance is harder. Tanner is longer, more tiring, but New Hance is just tough.

From the river it runs up the creekbed with occasional bypass trails to either side. The Park Service trail description says they're all on the east side; I found that to be not true. I'm not sure that all of the bypasses are really required, but some of them seemed to get me out of the loose gravel of the creekbed on better footing.

The trail winds uphill gently through the bright red rock of Red Canyon, the exposed remains of the Grand Canyon Supergroup, ancient rock layers that are only visible in a few places, like Red Canyon. In most of the canyon they were washed away by later seas before the newer rocks formed above them.

Near the point where the trail leaves the creekbed for good I met the first hiker I'd seen since Tanner Beach Tuesday morning, a woman I had a nice chat with. She'd lost some sandals on the way down and asked me to leave them in a visible spot if I saw them during my climb, as she was due to hike out the same trail. I did spot them, separatly, in the Redwall; I hope they didn't blow away in the wind that night and remained for her.
Out of the creekbed

Past here, the New Hance begins a steady climb, wrapping around hills of loose stone. The footing isn't great- in 2002 this section really scared me- but it's similar to the lower sections of Tanner, and I was more comfortable this time. Eventually you hit the bottom of the Redwall and begin a serious climb. This section is a real challenge, the usual loose chunks of Redwall limestone making footing a little precarious if you aren't paying attention. Eventually you hit the top, the trail continuing upcanyon along/through the Supai layer for some distance.
New Hance Trail in the Redwall

The Supai was for tomorrow, though. It was only 2pm, and I thought that I could make it out if I tried, but I had the night left on my permit and didn't feel like pushing it. In retrospect that was probably the correct choice, but during the night I wasn't so sure.

It was windy on the point above the Redwall that I picked (as on the Tanner, any exposed point midway down the canyon is probably going to be windy) but that didn't surprise me. I staked the tent out pretty well at all 8 possible points, dropping heavy rocks over the stakes for some added security. The afternoon was pleasant, the sunset fantastic.
Near my campsite above the Redwall

I settled into the tent before 8, with the wind really picking up. I slept a little, on & off, until about midnight. The wind was really up now, the tent noisy & bouncy. A little nervous, I got out of the tent and used rope to guy it back to two trees. Feeling better, I got back in. Within a half-hour, though, one of the slim lines connecting the rain fly to its stake gave way- the tent's movement abraded it against the rock I'd piled on top and it failed. The wind wasn't quite broad to the wide side of the tent, but it was close and each gust seemed to push the tent closer & closer to collapse. Sleep was impossible. After holding out for a little while I finally gave up. In the tent I stuffed as much as I could into bags, then got out of the tent into the wind. I stuffed what I could into my pack, collapsed the tent poles, then piled rocks on the tent to keep it from blowing away. I took my sleeping bag and curled up in the lee of a tree and its exposed root. It was actually more comfortable, less windy & quieter than the tent had been, but I got little sleep.

About 5am, the sky lightening, I gave up. Given the wind I didn't want to try to heat breakfast, I just ate a granola bar and packed. I thought I'd eat more when I got further up the trail, hopefully out of the wind. I was on the trail before 6.

At this point the New Hance winds through the Supai, generally staying low, just above the Redwall. There's some up & down, and the trail is sometimes not that obvious. Most of the time it contours around side drainages; at one of the larger of these I must have missed it climbing over a ridge and kept continuing out, off the trail. I realized pretty quickly that I was off the trail, but decided to climb over from where I was, rather than backtracking. The trail wasn't hard to intercept, but it probably would have been less effort overall to backtrack than it was to bushwhack through the stiff Supai growth.
Downcanyon view, above the Redwall

Eventually the trail reaches the back of the Redwall drainage. There's a very nice campsite here, though it was still just as windy as where I'd camped. I ate a little, but while I was really hungry I didn't feel much like eating. I quickly continued uphill.

From here, the New Hance heads steadily uphill. No more of the up & down, just up. The trail is sometimes not entirely obvious, but I didn't have too much difficulty and never lost it, despite the fact that I've never felt like I have the best route-finding ability. I do remember losing the trail several times on the 2002 hike.
Open area in the Supai
As the trail climbs, it heads toward a saddle between the rim and the massive Coronado Butte, the major feature visible from the New Hance trail. Before it quite reaches the saddle the trail steepens, turns away from Coronado, and heads up into the Coconino layer of rock.
Sinking Ship
Around here, Sinking Ship, a distinctive double-top butte that does sort of look like the superstructure of a sinking ship, comes into view. It's a sign that you're approaching the end of the trail.

Like most of the trails, the Coconino is steep & not that easy, but it didn't seem that long to me this trip. The route that the trail is going to take out is never quite visible here- from one switchback to the next you can't quite pick out where the trailhead is going to be. Working up the Coconino you hit the Toroweap, a section of softer, sloping rock, then finally reach the top layer, the Kaibab limestone.
Base of the Kaibab

On the New Hance, the Kaibab is one of the shorter layers, the trail leading up through a visible break.
New Hance Trail running up a break in the Kaibab limestone
Fairly quickly from here comes the top of the trail, followed by an easy walk through the woods to the road, about a quarter of a mile away.
New Hance Trailhead

I dropped my pack near the road, then took an easy walk the mile to Moran Point and my car. There is no parking at the trailhead (it's most easily spotted when driving by the No Parking signs) but there is closer parking than Moran- there's a fire road where parking is allowed about half a mile in the other direction from Moran, but I hadn't used it to shorten my distance for getting to the Tanner Trail on my hike into the canyon.

Back in "civilization" I headed straight to Wendy's and a bacon-cheeseburger, then drove to Kingman, Arizona for the night. It's a good spot, most of the way back to Las Vegas but relatively cheap and the staff at the Silver Queen motel never seems to look at me funny when I come in dirty & unshaven after a week in the canyon. Saturday, up to Las Vegas and the flight home to NJ.

For those who haven't seen it, the new bridge bypassing Hoover Dam is a pretty spectacular piece of engineering. It's been under construction for years now, and apparently is still a couple away from opening, but it's pretty cool.
Hoover Dam and the Bypass Bridge

Overall, despite the troubles of the last night and the bad foot, it was a really good trip. The Escalante was a challenge, but not nearly the difficulty level I'd been worried it might be. The scenery all along it was terrific, and for someone who likes to take vacations to get away from people, the solitude was terrific. It's a trip well worth taking.

Next up, 6 nights in Glacier National Park in late August/early September. The next trip for the canyon may be awhile- maybe next spring, maybe fall of 2010. That will probably be Nankoweap, a trail with a reputation much more difficult than New Hance.

2 comments:

heidie said...

On Monday my family took a grand canyon tours. we had a wonderful time. The tour was beautiful. Keep sharing!

backpackingamerica said...

Backpacking is an exciting way to explore nature, challenge yourself, and get away from everyday life. From the Grand Canyon to the Sierra Nevada, the United States is full of great places for a backpacking adventure.

Backpacking