Sunday, May 1, 2011

Grand Canyon Royal Arch Route


Royal Arch Route, April 16-22 2011

Trip participants: Andrew Douglas, Jennifer Koermer, Roger Soucek, and I.

Full photo gallery is on my Smugmug page

GPX map file available at Everytrail

Overview:
Royal Arch was a Grand Canyon destination that was on my list of places to see in the canyon, but which was pushed to the top by my friend Jennifer. We’d been discussing a Thunder River/Deer Creek trip, but after thinking that one over we switched to Royal Arch. The trip was supposed to be a challenge, but I thought that given my past experiences in the canyon it shouldn’t be too big a problem. In the end, the trip was much harder than I expected, but getting to see Royal Arch was pretty cool. We put in for and received a permit in December for our first-choice April dates. The participants were Jennifer and her boyfriend Andrew, their neighbor Roger, and I. Jennifer and I had done a simple North Kaibab trip in 2006; she and Andrew spent 3 weeks on the river last summer, with a lot of day hikes from the river. Roger also had done a river trip before, hiking in to meet a trip at Phantom Ranch.

This was the first trip I’ve done in some time that wasn’t a solo, and I was glad of that. This trip would be very challenging alone. We all read up pretty heavily on the trip and were a surprised by the difficulty at some places. Royal Arch is always noted as requiring a short rappel along the route; that rappel was actually one of the easier points. The route is not always hard to follow, though there are places where there are several possible routes around obstacles. There are also quite a number of false trails or trails where enough people have missed a switchback to create a short path to nowhere.

Overall, a good trip, but a hard one and one that shouldn’t be lightly undertaken.

The trip:
We flew into Las Vegas from NJ, picking up a 4WD Chevy Yukon for the reportedly-bad road to the South Bass trailhead. After a night in Williams, AZ, and a few hours of general sight-seeing in the Park, we headed out for the trailhead, following Park Service directions. The directions were serviceable, and the road was in generally good shape. It looked like one vehicle had gone ahead of us by a few days, digging deep ruts in the muddy road. If not for these ruts and a couple of wet places, the road would have been in excellent condition. We crossed the Havasupai reservation boundary without seeing anyone (and wouldn’t on the way out, either, saving us $25) and continued out Pasture Wash Road. Leaving reservation land the road degraded, but still wasn’t too bad- it is too narrow for two cars to pass on this section, but we didn’t have any problem with that.
At the trailhead we were surprised by the number of vehicles, and that a couple of them were passenger cars. I think the road was in pretty good shape, but I’d be hesitant about driving out there in some of the compact cars we saw. Still, it was in better shape than the road to Tuweep on the north rim, which at the time I drove it was “passenger car capable”, according to the Park Service.

There are a couple of picnic tables at the trailhead, and a great view down the South Bass trail. The Powell Plateau, on the north side, is visible; though it took us a little time with the map to decide that was really its identity. There are a couple of decent tent sites, and probably more if you look around. We camped here, sharing space with a man heading down the South Bass and then east, toward Hermit.
Day One:

We started out early on Sunday; officially we were heading for the point where the Royal Arch Route splits off from the Esplanade Trail, dropping into Royal Arch creek. We were all hoping to go farther, maybe even making the arch that first night.

The South Bass trail, rebuilt a few years ago, is in good shape, better than any of the other non-corridor trails from the South Rim. It drops quickly, one long straight run taking it most of the way through the brief Kaibab section and then Toroweap rock layers, then a slightly harder section through the Coconino. In here, the trail passes the squared openings of an Anasazi granary, well preserved just above the trail.

Soon the trail hits the Esplanade, the plateau that stretches in the Supai rocks in this portion of the canyon. The Esplanade Trail splits off the South Bass, heading north & west. It’s well defined and easy to follow, with small trees breaking up the rock and wide views all around. Mount Huethawali sits on the Esplanade, a major landmark that we’ll spot again in a few days when we reach Copper Canyon.

The Esplanade is very pretty territory, but it’s largely exposed and without shade. The April temperatures we experienced were high for the season, near records on a few days. I think more than anything the heat was responsible for increasing the difficulty of this trip. Ten degrees cooler and it would have been a lot easier; ten degrees hotter would have been dangerous. I wouldn’t want to try this trip in July or August.

The trail contoured around several points. As we’d been told likely, we found water in pools at Seep Spring, just above the trail past Chemehuevi Point. We continued, passing Toltec Point and starting around Montezuma Point. Around here, I started to flag pretty badly. I’d probably pushed my pace too hard early in the day and now I was hitting a wall. We’d all pretty well decided by then that we weren’t going all the way to the arch that day; now we started looking for a place for the night.

It was also around this point that I think the Esplanade Trail and the Royal Arch Route split apart. I never really saw a break, but after a short distance of following a fading trail coming out of one drainage, I looked out to see a lower plateau with a trail on it. The trail I was on was real, but I think rarely used; we moved back and found a few cairns leading down onto the lower plateau and took a break.

Jennifer and I sat in shade for about a half-hour while Andrew & Roger looked ahead. They returned, telling us that there was water and some campsites not far ahead. They’d dropped their packs at that spot, now Andrew carried mine. (Thanks Andrew!) We continued around, this section of trail getting markedly rougher than any to this point. Eventually we reached what we realized was the branch of Royal Arch Creek that we were supposed to be following and made camp for the night. There was good water and a few decent campsites, so it worked for us.

Day Two:

The next morning I took off a little earlier than the rest, starting down the creek. A well-cairned trail led to the left of the creek and I followed that, soon reaching a steep set of switchbacks down into the creek bed proper. There are several different cairned routes down this hillside, so I sat there for a bit directing the rest of the group down the easier-appearing routes. None were really hard, but some were harder than others.

The creekbed turns, heading toward a junction with another branch of the Royal Arch Creek. The Park Service route description says that at this point you reach an impassable pouroff, with a short but difficult bypass to the left and a longer but less dangerous route to the right. We went by a number of possible impassable pouroffs, none of which were really all that impassable, before finding the real one. The drop is probably about 40’-50’, and there was an anchor rigged for a rappel. If you’re carrying enough rope, doing a rappel at this point looked like a good option. Otherwise there are the bypass trails. To the left the trail is easily visible branching right out from the top of the drop. It doesn’t go very far before turning into a narrow ledge that quickly disappears; we didn’t like that way. Jennifer looked around and found the right bypass, which starts further back and continues for some way out above the creek.

We went that way. The route isn’t too bad, though it’s narrow in a couple of places. In one, there’s a small hole you have to crawl through under a large rock; we passed packs ahead of us. The trail goes out quite a ways, before dropping over the side down steep switchbacks. At a couple of places we felt more comfortable passing packs rather than wearing them down; the more daring can probably go for it.

Be aware that this is a place with an alternate, or false, trail. Leading, I missed the cairn marking the route down. I followed other cairns out toward the creek intersection and was called back. As the trail I was on was petering out, I went back; I’m not sure if the trail I followed was a real alternate or not.

The Park Service route description has a memorable sentence at this point: “…normally this section offers something like hassle free hiking.” Um. Yeah, sure. If this is hassle free, I don’t want to see hassles.

Below the creek junction you follow the creekbed, sometimes going just above on bypasses where the creekbed is blocked. We’d only gone a few miles today, but all of our legs were tired from the large bypass. At least it clouded up today, and wasn’t as hot. This might be an observation from an overweight suburban desk-jockey, but this wasn’t hassle free. There are quite a few places where you have to squeeze past, climb over, or work around obstacles. It’s possible we missed side trails, but mostly the geography wouldn’t allow for them; also, we were usually following cairns. There are several places where we felt more comfortable taking packs off and passing them down; again, others may be ok wearing them.

Eventually we reached a spot where the trail met up with water in the creek, and where the creek dropped through a section of thinly-layered stones. This section didn’t look too bad, but there was one point where I got very uncomfortable. You must work your way around on a very narrow ledge, chest pressed against the rock, with very poor, crumbly hand-holds. It’s not a long fall, maybe 10’, but it would hurt.

Just below here the creek dropped into a waist-deep pool; we all changed to water-shoes and waded through. I’d guess that this pool is around in all but the driest weather. Below here are some more wet spots that we waded through, not changing back to hiking boots; these spots probably dry up quickly.

After only a few hundred more yards we reached Royal Arch itself.
You don’t get much of a long-view of the arch; pretty much, you turn a corner and there it is. It’s a big carved section of rock, probably 50’ wide and 80’ tall to the bottom of the arch; the arch is probably another 40’ thick. The tiny little creek that carved this winds innocently through it; it’s hard to believe that this water carved this arch.

Just below the arch is a giant phallic rock monument, one of the biggest hoodoos in the Grand Canyon. It’s as tall as the arch, and equally impressive.

Past the monument the creek drops, a steep fall down into Elves Chasm almost 200’ below. I didn’t explore much this way, but some people do take a long rappel this way down into Elves. It’s variously described as 100’, 150’, or 200’; all of those are a little high for my rock skills.
We ate dinner at the arch and camped under it. It’s a great spot. There are a lot of loud frogs, but most of them gave up during the night. The near-full moon, bright enough to be annoying the first night, lit the canyon beautifully but was blocked by the arch from hitting my tent. This was the first night I slept well on this trip.

Day Three: goal Toltec Beach and (maybe) Elves Chasm.

Even in the morning I wasn’t sure that I’d be up for the trip to Elves , though I knew that Andrew and Jennifer wanted to revisit a place they’d been to on their river trip. We headed back up the creek, looking for the point that a trail would break off to the east and climb above the creek. We hadn’t spotted the trail on the way down yesterday, but weren’t too concerned.

One note about going back up canyon- near the point where we’d had to start wading, and at the point of crumbly rock that I hadn’t liked, there’s one large rock blocking the creek. Going down it had been almost unnoticed; on the uphill it’s more of an obstacle. I’ve since heard from people who’ve left a webbing strap in place when going downhill to make the return easier. This rock is smooth, and not very high- the issue is the smoothness. It’s hard to get a grip on going uphill, and it takes a little bit of scrambling.

Soon we found the trail up out of the creekbed. It’s steep, and like many trails around here it’s got lots of loose rocks underfoot. It climbs quickly, reaching a trail above that parallels the creek, going right above Royal Arch. The monument is easier to spot, but once you’ve seen that the arch stands out.

Beyond there, the trail curves around and begins a long, pretty, and not difficult (though hot) descent along a green expanse of (I think- I had some trouble with rock layers on this trip) Tapeats sandstone. There are good river views, and great canyon scenery through here.
Before too long the trail drops over into a side canyon and you reach the much-discussed rappel of the Royal Arch Route. It’s described variously as 10’-25’; looking back at pictures I’d go with 15’ or a little higher. There seem to be few good pictures of this point on the web, and looking back at mine I didn’t do any better. It’s on a narrow ledge with no real long view possible; there really isn’t much to take a picture of. There was a solid anchor around rock, and a new rope had been left. Looking it over, we didn’t break out the rope we’d brought. Andrew dropped over first, followed by our packs. I followed and was able to get pictures of Roger & Jennifer dropping down. It really wasn’t a big deal, though there’s always that moment of fear dropping over the edge.
Had we looked closer before dropping the packs we might have decided to just drop them further on the rope- below the rappel is another ledge, and carrying the packs down looked hard. We passed them down, then continued.

Below here the trail begins a relentless descent to Toltec, the small beach at the mouth of a wash on the Colorado, well below Toltec Point. For much of the descent our party needed to spread well apart, keeping the loose rock from bouncing down on those ahead. Eventually the rock ends at the top of a sand hill; descending this was more like glissading than hiking.
We reached Toltec by noon. Roger & I looked around and decided that it was a nice place for the afternoon. Andrew & Jennifer decided to continue up to Elves while Roger & I sat in the shade of a big rock and rested our feet in the cold river.

Late in the day a large group of 9, older boy scouts and their leaders, showed up at Toltec. We’d seen them while climbing out of Royal Arch (some of them, thinking we were in their party, shouted “Come back!”) and now they’d caught up. They were very nice about not taking up too much space, and were decent neighbors. Eventually Andrew and Jennifer came back, having given up and sat in the shade short of Elves, deciding the various crossing trails weren’t worth following.

Day Four, heading for Copper Canyon.

We had good reason to believe that there would be water in Copper, given that all of the “seasonal” sources had worked out for us. We were carrying pretty heavy water loads though, just in case.

Heading out from Toltec, a cairned route takes you along the hillside above the river. Right off, this trail is harder than you’d expect. There’s a lot of up & down, often poor footing, and many of the large rocks along the trail have big nasty sharp pointy teeth. I’m not sure what they are- some kind of black volcanic rock, I think, but whatever they are, they hurt to put a hand on for balance.

A mile or so up river we reached Garnet Canyon. Here, the trail turns well back into the drainage and climbs. Pools of water were visible in a few places, but by all reports the water in Garnet should be avoided- it’s heavy with minerals, and even after filtering is known to cause “intestinal distress”. We skipped that part.

The climb up Garnet is well cairned, and near the top there’s a good shady rest point before going over the top. Once on top (well, it probably really starts at the creekbed in Garnet) you’re on the Tonto Trail proper. Most people treat the trail along the river from Elves to this point as the Tonto, but technically it doesn’t start until climbing up onto the Tapeats sandstone layer.
If you’ve hiked any of the Tonto, this section will be familiar. I was happy to see it after the condition of the trail from Toltec to Garnet. The Tonto goes up & down in short sections, rarely more than 25’ or 50’ at a time, mostly adding extra steps going out & around headlands and into drainages rather than gaining or losing too much elevation.

It is, however, exposed and hot. Only back in some of the drainages is there shade worth using.
Into the afternoon and I started flagging again. I rested for a while in the last major drainage before Copper, sitting for a half-hour in the shade and letting the rest of the party go ahead. I’d have stayed longer, but it clouded up and cooled a little, so I took the opportunity to go.
Eventually I reached Copper Canyon, finding my friends in a side drainage toward the back of Copper, where the Tonto crossed the canyon. They’d explored up & downstream, finding water in pools a couple hundred yards upstream from the camp. We also could now see Mt. Huethawali again, an old friend at the head of the canyon. We’d have to go around into Bass, the next major canyon, to actually get up there.

Tired, we all ate some and crashed for the night. My campsite was just barely the size of my tent, but it was enough. There looked to be a few more toward the other side of the creek that I spotted on the way out the next day, but I really hadn’t been in the mood to look the night before.

Day Five: heading back to the Esplanade.

On the trail the day before it felt like my pack kept getting heavier. Looking at it this day, I saw why- the lightweight pack had its waist-belt sewn to the pack, with no reinforcement to speak of. Now that join was failing. I put the pack on, feeling the extra weight on my shoulders, and took off.

We made good time up from Copper and around the headland below Tyndall Dome, hitting the trail junction to either head down to Bass Rapids or up toward the trailhead. We chose up. By here, my shoulders were killing me. Taking the pack off, Jennifer started experimenting and soon created a webbing splint for the waist belt, letting it take most of the weight of the pack again.

We continued up, eventually reaching the junction of the Tonto with the South Bass Trail. After a short rest most of the group followed; I stayed a few more minutes. I noticed then that I’d dropped my pack about 2’ from a pink Grand Canyon rattlesnake; he didn’t seem bothered so I didn’t either.

Continuing from here the trail heads uphill with little respite. It’s not terribly steep, but it does keep going. It’s tiring, but it’s not as much of a killer as many of the other trails. Again, this section of the South Bass shows the fine work that was done a few years back to rebuild the trail.
Eventually I reached the deepest penetration of the canyon, then turned on a switchback to continue uphill. Around here I was passed by a couple going downhill- a man with more, and heavier, camera gear than I carry, and a woman who was already struggling. They wanted to make it to the Tonto that night; I told him that they should camp at one of the several nice sites along the trail.

Going uphill I could see the last switchback before hitting the Esplanade, but I couldn’t really judge the distance. I pulled out my GPS to check it, and was surprised to discover that somehow I’d gone about 25 miles, and I was now near Wotan’s Throne on the north side of the Colorado. No wonder I was tired. I tried to let the GPS catch up, but gave up after 10 minutes.

I was extremely disappointed with my GPS on this trip. I had a new Delorme PN-60w with Spot Communicator. In the past I’ve carried a Garmin CX and separate Spot unit, but I’d liked the idea that with the paired devices I could send short text messages via satellite, instead of just “I’m ok” or “send help”. The reality wasn’t so good. The Garmin always did ok in the canyon, even in narrow spots like 75-Mile Canyon. South Bass, where the Delorme lost it completely, is pretty open. Beyond that, the battery life of the GPS when paired with the Spot was awful- only a little over a day with lithium batteries, not the 3-4 days I’d grown used to. End mild rant.

Around 5 pm I crested onto the Esplanade, finding the rest of the party spread out and setting up camp. It’s a great spot, though it was pretty windy, as is common on the plateaus in the canyon. You also have to keep an eye out for the large patches of cryptobiotic soil, a black crusty ground that helps keep the soil from blowing or washing away and is very fragile.

Day Six: hike out.

The last day we only had a couple of miles, and about 1200’ of elevation to go. Roger & I, up early, headed out at around 6. The trail meanders across the Esplanade before reaching the junction with the Esplanade Trail, heading back for Royal Arch. We discussed doing another loop, but decided that since the permit was expiring that we shouldn’t.
The climb up wasn’t that bad, though I took it slow. I got to the top to find Roger talking with a couple of new groups who were heading out, one to Royal Arch, and the other to explore the Esplanade. We both cleaned up, joined soon by Jennifer and Andrew, then headed back up Pasture Wash road to Tusayan, then on to Vegas.

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.

Grand Canyon '09- The Warm Up Hikes

In mid-April I spent 9 days at the canyon. The bulk of this was a backcountry trip on the Escalante Route; for warm ups I did a dayhike to Phantom Ranch and spent a relaxing day on the Rim Trail west of Grand Canyon Villiage.

A slideshow of pictures is on my Smugmug siteor visible as individual pictures.

Friday, April 17 I hiked the South Kaibab Trail to Phantom Ranch and back. This isn't a recommended hike for those without canyon experience.
warning sign
I'd never done rim-to-river & back as a dayhike before, though many people do it. Without being ready for the strain, though, the hike can be a killer, literally. It's about a 15 mile round trip, almost 5000' vertical change in each direction.

I started at 5am, before sunrise, but with enough light in the sky that I didn't need a headlight. The South Kaibab drops quickly through a series of switchbacks, dropping down to Cedar Ridge, home to a resthouse.
The view from Cedar Ridge resthouse
Below the resthouse is another drop, then a long sloping decline below O'Neill Butte, named for one of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders. After Skeleton Point the trail drops sharply again down the Redwall, toward the Tipoff.
Switchbacks down the Redwall
At the Tipoff I spoke with a woman a few years my elder- she was on her regular dayhike down to the river, which she took about once a month. With guests due at 2 that afternoon, she was in a bit of a rush. If she could do it, so could I- after all, it was only 7 in the morning.

Below the Tipoff, dropping through the Tapeats & Vishnu of the layers of the canyon. Views into the inner gorge are terrific, almost straight down on Bright Angel Campground.
Silver Bridge and Bright Angel Campground

I got to the bottom about 8, and shortly thereafter made it to Phantom Ranch. For those who don't know the area, the South Kaibab, North Kaibab, and Bright Angel trails all come together at the bottom of the canyon, along the banks of Bright Angel Creek. Here is Bright Angel campground, with space for about 100, and Phantom Ranch, a collection of cabins & dorms available for rentals, usually reserved at least a year in advance, though there can be cancellations. There's also the Phantom Canteen, featuring the only cold beer for sale at the bottom of the canyon. At 8:15 in the morning, I went for a coffee and one of the t-shirts only available at the ranch, then turned around and headed out.

One of the "truisms" of hiking the canyon is that hiking uphill takes double the time of hiking downhill. I've never found this to be true; usually my speed is slower, but not by that extent.

This hike, it really did take twice the time.

At about 4pm I finally made it back up to the top. It was a long, tough climb for my sealevel lungs. There were also many more people, hundreds probably, on the trail, which didn't help my speed any, though it did give the excuse of being able to stop regularly to breathe and let them go by. (In Grand Canyon etiquette, the uphill hiker has the right-of-way, but I'm usually happy to take a break to let a downhill group go by.)

Saturday was a recovery day after that rough hike; it would only require about 8 miles of hiking along the rim. In 2008, as part of rebuilding the road to Hermit's Rest, the park worked on the rim trail, paving some portions of the existing trail and adding new bike/ped "greenways" for other parts.
View from Powell Point

At Powell Point, I saw that a great deal of work was being done on the site of the Orphan Mine, an old copper mine from prospector days that later became a major uranium mine, working until the late 1960's. There had been a large steel lift structure over the mine, an ugly but distinctive landmark visible for a long way from the inner canyon trails. Now, that structure is gone and most of the site is covered with a black material, held down by sandbags. I'd known work was in progress on cleaning up radioactive waste, but I didn't know it was that extensive.
work at the Orphan Mine

Out to this point the trail had been about the same as I remember, though I think that it might be paved farther than it had in the past. The section around The Abyss, though, is now an 8' wide paved path for bikes & pedestrians; at Pima Point it narrows, but remains paved. The path is nice, but it's generally well back from the rim, with limited views. Luckily, the old rim trail is still there, except in sections where the new greenway lands on top of it.
The Greenway

The section from Pima Point to Hermit's Rest is probably my favorite section of the rim, as the trail winds back above Hermit Canyon. There are great views into & across this side canyon, over toward Dripping Springs, and downriver to Boucher Rapids, which I visited on last year's hike.

This trip, I did see something I never spotted before, somehow, even though it's pretty prominent. A collection of rusted iron hardware almost directly above the Hermit Creek Campground. In the days when Hermit Camp was a prime resort spot below the rim, there was some kind of cable tramway that carried supplies down; this, I think, was all that remains of that tram.

After Hermit's Rest, I drove out to some of the eastern viewpoints, looking down on the Tanner Trail and Escalante Route that I'd be starting Sunday. I met a hiker at Lipan Point- he'd just dropped off his car and was looking for a ride to meet friends at the New Hance trailhead; since I was hoping to get a ride like that the next day, I took him. They were doing the reverse of my trip, down the New Hance, across Escalante, then up Tanner, but they only had 3 nights. Doable, but with little rest or exploration time. On top of that, it was after 3pm and they hadn't started on New Hance yet. It was his first canyon trip, though they did have experience in the party, who thought that the 7 or 8 mile New Hance could be hiked in about 3 hours. Obviously, they hadn't been on the trail before. I told them that I thought their plan was overly ambitious, but they pushed on anyway. I never saw them during my trip on the Escalante; I hope they made it out okay.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Grand Canyon North Rim & Monument Valley

Something is wrong with the pictures in this post. I'm going to blame Blogger for now, until I figure out what it is.

In mid-October I made yet another trip to the Grand Canyon, having a few days off before needing to be at a trade show in Las Vegas. I didn't have enough time to plan a backpacking trip this time, so I planned to spend 4 days on the North Rim just dayhiking around. The full photo gallery for this trip is here

I started waaaay too early in the morning in NJ, driving into NY to get to a JetBlue flight from JFK. I was due in Vegas before 11 am, but given the time to pick up a car then find a gas cannister for my stove I was afraid that it might be dark by the time I got to the canyon, and I didn't really want to deal with setting up my tent in the dark. I made a reservation at Jacob Lake Inn, about 50 miles north of the park. It's a fine place, with small but decent cabins and plenty of heat. I did make it faster than I thought, arriving around 4pm. I dropped my stuff and went to the park, getting a nice sunset.

The next morning I left early (still on Eastern time) and made it to the park for sunrise. I'd planned on going out to Cape Royal, but the sun was a little ahead of me so I stopped along the road, I think at Vista Encantata.
Sunrise

I spent a few hours that morning along the Cape Royal road, at the cape itself then on the Cape Final Trail. That's about a 2 mile walk, mostly level, through the woods out to an isolated viewpoint- much like Shoshone Point on the South Rim. It's a pleasant walk to a quiet viewpoint.
From Cape Final

Later that day I hiked part of the Widforss Trail, another wooded rim trail. It's got a fair amount of up & down to it, nothing like the strain of hiking into the canyon, but given that I'd done no exercise prep for this trip my sea-level lungs had trouble.

A note about the North Rim- guest services end on October 15, a couple of days before I arrived. In the past, this meant that the park was technically closed, though it was open for anyone who wanted to make the trek and deal with the possibility of bad weather. This year, probably trying to get a little more money, the park was still open, charging the full $25 entrance fee and charging $12/night (the normal is about $18, I think) for the campground. Given the almost total lack of services, this seems a little unfair to me. $12 for a place to put the tent and an overflowing portapottie is a little much. On top of that, I was there for some of the close out of the Lodge. This meant that the bar was open for employees, but not to the public, which is almost like adding insult to injury.

The next day I started at Point Imperial, hiking the Saddle Mountain Trail out to Saddle Mountain, and the Nankoweap area. At the time, I thought I'd hiked to an area between Saddle Mountain and Tilted Mesa; further review of the GPS says that what I thought was Tilted Mesa was Saddle Mountain, so I didn't cover the ground I thought I did. Hey, it looks tilted. At least I got a nice view of Kolb Arch, a natural arch near Point Imperial that somehow remained uncharted until 1953, when it was "discovered" by Barry Goldwater.

Me at Kolb Arch

The trail out toward Saddle Mountain from Point Imperial is one of the ugliest places I've been in the canyon. It travels through a dead forest, and the trail is lined with heavy thorns. It didn't look burned, at least not recently, just dead. It'd be a great location for Cormac McCarthy's The Road. The trail is also accessible from a Forest Service road that didn't look too bad- the road starts north of the park boundry, near the Kaibab Lodge and North Rim Country Store.
Another road leads in from the east, apparently used regularly by backpackers heading to the Nankoweap Trail. As remote as it is, I still saw two other groups on the trail that day. The full trip down into Nankoweap is on my list; maybe another year or two down the road.

During a later hike on the Uncle Jim Trail, yet another pretty rim trail in the forest, I decided that I was a little bored with the plan for another full day at the canyon. Given the north rim view related to a sun in the south, and a little smoke/haze in the canyon, I wasn't that thrilled with the photography conditions. That, combined with my continuing exhaustion from altitude (being overweight and inactive had nothing to do with it) I decided to take a long drive the next day to Monument Valley.

About 4 1/2 hours from the canyon, Monument Valley lies on the Utah/Arizona border and the Navaho reservation. It's instantly recognizable from the films of John Ford & John Wayne and more recent films like Forrest Gump. A short road leads from the main highway to a visitor center (under heavy renovation right now. Leave it to me to travel to a construction site.) It's $5 to get into the park, which gives you the right to take your car on a 17 mile dirt road winding through the park.


The road isn't great, but it's acceptable for small cars. Better than what I'd take the next day, at any rate. It's a fantastic drive down among the giant buttes, well worth it. There are other options, including tribal-led tours that go off road and get you up close, but for me this trip around was enough.

Like the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley is a place that looks in person exactly like it does in pictures and movies, and yet feels nothing like the photographic versions. The scale and the breadth of the view is stunning. For a touch of the flavor, John Ford's The Searchers gets close, his first widescreen film in the valley, but it's still not like the reality.
Monument Valley

After the trip back to the canyon and another night on the rim, day 4 dawned. I was due in Las Vegas that night, so I looked for sightseeing opportunities along the way. I've spent much more time on the south side of the canyon, so I don't know the north nearly as well. I came across a description of Tuweep (also called Toroweap) on the Park Service web site, and it was featured in the North Rim Guide newspaper. It's a 61 mile trip on a dirt road off the main road, leading to a viewpoint 3000' directly over the river. It's mentioned as a rough dirt road, but caled ok for passenger cars. (The National Geographic Trails Illustrated map calls it an "improved road", which is way off.) In reality, this is a scary road for an Easterner like me. About 55 miles of dirt, stone, sand, and blind hills to get to the Park boundry. Then it gets bad. Right around this point there's a road grader parked off the road. It looks like it died there.

From the park entrance to the viewpoint the road goes to one lane and gets much rougher. It's slow going all the way, past a campground and some trailheads, but the view doesn't disappoint. It's straight down to the river, with expansive views off to the east. You can see as far as Sinyala Mesa, near Supai, which I saw from the south on my trip to Havasu Falls in March 2007.

Tuweep Overlook

After the long drive out, and with the return trip high in my mind, I couldn't really enjoy the time out here. I only spent about 15 minutes out there (after 2 1/2 hours of travel) before I gave up and went my way. The car survived, which was good since it was probably a violation of my rental agreement to take it there, though it did take a washing and thorough cleaning of places like the inside of the doors before I felt ok returning it.

Up next for the canyon- the Escalante Route, probably in April '09.