I overslept. The clock on the DVD player read 5:06 am and I had intended to get up at 4:30 am. Climbing out of the futon in our rec room, I heard my cell phone ringing on the kitchen counter, upstairs. It was Joe, my partner on this Grand Canyon hike. We'd hoped to be on the road by 5 o'clock but that was obviously not going to happen. Joe showed up a the front door a few minutes later and we chatted as I scurried about getting my gear ready and eating a quick breakfast. It was 5:38 am when we pulled out of the driveway.
The 80-minute drive took us north on Highway 89 to Cameron, then west on Highway 64 to the unattended east entrance station to Grand Canyon. We stopped at Desert View to use the facilities and scout the route to the river. While taking in the view from the overlook, we met a young man from Minnesota who was making his first visit to Grand Canyon. He was challenged by the scale of the place and wasn't quite sure what to make of our plan to hike to the river. The drive from Desert View to Lipan Point only takes a few minutes and, at 7:38 am, Joe and I headed down the trail to begin our hike.
Last year, I'd planned to launch my East Tonto hike via Tanner. But a rock slide wiped out a section of trail in the Coconino and forced a move of my entry route to the New Hance Trail. This trip provided an opportunity to see the repair work done on Tanner. It's impressive; a series of stair steps leads you safely through the slide area. It's reminiscent of sections on Grandview and other, better-maintained trails. I think I'll dub this new section of Tanner the "Stairway to Heaven." Whether you're heading into the canyon or on your way out, the moniker offers an apt description and offers a tribute to a great Led Zeppelin song.
We stopped for a short break at Seventyfive Mile Saddle, before making the traverse along the eastern base of Escalante and Cardenas buttes. The sun was out and a warm October day was shaping up on the Tanner Trail. It was 10:00 am when we arrived at the Redwall overlook, where we stopped for some photos and a snack in the shade. (Another couple arrived at the overlook while we were resting. I'm not sure they noticed our presence.) This marked the furthest point down trail I'd gotten on a November 2006 day hike I'd done with Dennis Foster. From this point until Escalante Beach, I would be covering new territory in Grand Canyon.
The initial descent from the Redwall is steep, rocky and murder on thighs already softened by the descent from the rim. Thirty minutes of tough hiking brought us to a relatively level section of trail at the base of the Redwall. After this short respite, Tanner continued its relentless downward descent toward the river. My legs felt like rubber during most of this final stretch, losing my footing and falling on a couple of occassions. After the second stumble, I slowed my pace stopped for a break in a shallow cove across from Comanche Point. It was 12:15 pm and the nearly 30-minute rest allowed my legs to regain some strength.
It was just 30 minutes after resuming the trek that we arrived at the river, settling in the shade of a sandy beach for a much-needed lunch break. My lunches were pretty much the same throughout the hike: salami and cheddar with mayo on an onion bagel, peanut butter crackers and a small Hershey bar with almonds. Since we were delayed by a day in starting the hike, we had to push on from Tanner to find a campsite in the BA9 Palisades use area. We left our beach front lunch spot at 2:00 pm, found the Beamer trailhead and began the long upstream trek. Our plan was to hike to a small beach we'd seen from the lunch spot but the trail passed by this inviting location without offering an obvious cross route to the river. As a result, we continued upstream to Comanche Creek drainage, which we followed to the river. There, we found a glorious sandy beach and setup camp for the night.
The objective for the second day was the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers. We got off to a late start, breaking camp at 8:48 am. Thirty-five minutes of hiking took us from the river, up to the Tonto level and back down to the river at the north end of a large island along the east shore of the Colorado. Within a few minutes, I spotted a group of dories running riffles and we stopped along the beach to wave at them. Resuming the trail, Joe and I worked our way upstream to beautiful Palisades beach, where we stopped to cool off and have a snack. The ascent from Palisades was just a 10-minute hike from the beach front rest area. The climb took 35 minutes in the hot October sun; what a grind! Soon after reaching the Tonto level, we found a patch of shade in a drainage where we rested for fifteen minutes.
We made pretty good time over the next hour-plus on Beamer Trail, taking our next break in a shaded drainage opposite Temple Butte. We'd covered about 2/3's the distance to the confluence and I estimated another hour on the trail, before we would reach our destination. This final stretch was a real grind but we did arrive, as expected, at the small nub of beach 1/4-mile downstream of the confluence. Joe and I rinsed off in the river and found a shady spot to relax in. I ate lunch and prepped to make the short hike to the Little Colorado. All I decided to bring were my camera and a single 3/4-liter water bottle. Joe was spent and decided to relax at the beach.
It was 3:26 pm when I left camp. Five minutes of hiking brought me back to the Beamer Trail and another 30 minutes delivered me to the confluence. The cyan waters of the Little Colorado blended into the deep green of the Colorado. A single, blue raft was beached on the north side of the confluence. The Beamer Trail gradually descended until reaching river level in a shallow drainage. I followed the sandy footpath through thick vegetation until it emerged at the base of a low shelf and overhang where Ben Beamer's old cabin still stands. Beamer supposedly built the cabin using stones from an ancestral Puebloan ruin. It is rectangular and covers roughly a 10-foot by 6-foot area. A framed doorway and window in the long east wall face the Little Colorado. The overhang provides an effective ceiling for the single-room dwelling. A natural stone shelf offers limited storage. Wooden shelves and cupboards have long-since collapsed from disuse. This was the simplest of homes for a man who lived a hard existence as a miner in Grand Canyon.
After visiting the cabin I made a bee-line for the Little Colorado, finding a sheltered area where I could take some photos and soak my trail-weary feet. I also washed off two days worth of dust and grit before lacing up the boots for the return trek to camp. It was 4:40 pm when I resumed the trail and 1/2-hour later, I walked into camp. With the sun already hidden by the walls of the inner gorge, I quickly set about the task of putting up my tent and unpacking for the night. My sleeping bag, mattress and pillow were first in the tent. Other items included my clothes, camera and other gear not having the scent of food. Then, it was off to the river to collect a bucket of water for filtering. Finally, I was ready to make dinner. Like most of my meals, dinners were fairly consistent throughout the hike. On this night, I prepared a single serving Pro-Pack of lasagna with meat sauce. I heated enough extra water for a cup of apple cider and finished the meal with--you guessed it--a small Hershey chocolate bar with almonds.
Our objective for the next day was Cardenas beach. This would get us fully back on the original itinerary but required a third-straight day of double-digit mileage on the trail. With day three shaping up to be another long slog, I set my watch alarm for 4:30 am so we could get in at least a couple of hours on the trail in the shade. The alarm ended up being unnecessary. I awoke at 2:25 am to water the river and never was able to get back to sleep. At 3:30 am, I gave up trying and started organizing myself for the day ahead. Joe got up soon thereafter and we made breakfast in the light of a last-quarter Moon. We hit the trail at 6:38 am.
With the Palisades of the Desert shielding us from the sun, we made quick work of the Beamer Trail. We hiked two hours before our first break and, during that time, had covered about 60% of the distance to the descent to Palisades Creek beach. Leaving this drainage at 9:05 am, we walked into sunlight for the first time at 9:28, completed the descent to river level an hour later and walked onto magnificent Palisades beach at 10:38 am. Resuming the trail at 11:15, we kept a good pace and arrived at Tanner rapids in time for a good, long lunch break at 1:00 pm.
I should mention that the Trails Illustrated National Geographic Map of Grand Canyon does not show two high route bypasses on the lower Beamer Trail. The first bypass is part of the climb out of Tanner rapids and skirts above the river's edge where the Colorado curls around a large beach on river right north of Tanner. The second bypass leaves river level just north of the Comanche Creek drainage and rises above the large island along river left. Joe and I hiked the bypasses both days and they add considerably to the distance, time and difficulty of the Beamer Trail.
We enjoyed a long, three-hour break at Tanner rapids. Joe wasn't feeling well after the long hike on the Beamer so, we used the time to nap on the beach and recuperate. I suggested that we spend the night at Tanner but he had recovered enough strength to feel up for the relatively short hike to Cardenas. It was 4:00 pm when we shoved off from Tanner, taking our first steps on the Escalante route. Hiking at a slow but steady pace, we rolled into a beautiful riverfront campsite at 5:30 pm.
In spite of a minor adventure with a local ringtail, I slept pretty well at Cardenas beach. Shortly after climbing into my sleeping bag, I heard the telltale clicking sound of a ringtail outside my tent. And soon after that, came the crashing sound of my cooking pot hitting the sand. Getting up to investigate, I found that the critter had chewed through the drawstring of the mesh baggy holding the kettle. Fortunately, that was all we heard from Mr. Ringtail on that night and, after a solid eight hours sleep, I awoke to the rhythmic chime of my watch alarm at 4:30 am.
It was still dark but the headlamp provided enough light to stow my sleeping bag, mattress and pillow. Then, it was out into the cool morning air to make breakfast. On this as every other morning, I heated water for coffee and oatmeal. Since I used my Sierra cup both for drinks and oatmeal, I made the coffee first and drank it with my blueberry bagel and peanut butter. Then, I used most of the remaining hot water to make a packet of oatmeal. Finally, the last of the hot water--warm by now--went into the cup to help wash down the last of the oatmeal.
The itinerary called for a short day; about 6 miles from Cardenas to Escalante beach, where we would setup camp and spend a relaxing afternoon by the river. We left the Cardenas beach site--the best campsite of the trip--at 7:40 am. Soon, we came to a junction where one trail continued generally westward and another branched to the left. We turned left and, almost immediately, the Escalante route began a direct and steep ascent toward Hilltop ruin. We reached the hilltop at 8:00 am and, while Joe continued down the trail, I spent about 10 minutes photographing the ancient ruins. Bathed in the early morning light and buffeted by blustery October gusts, the stone walls of Hilltop ruin are awe-inspiring. From this spot, the ancient inhabitants enjoyed a commanding view over the Tanner/Cardenas valley. Though difficult to know what conditions were like nearly 1,000 years ago when ancestral Puebloans maintained small communities throughout this region of Grand Canyon, I imagine that the remoteness from water and lack of arable land limited the function of this site to that of a lookout station. With the large community just across the river at Unkar delta, sentries at the hilltop site could spot approaching friends--or enemies--from a great distance.
Leaving Hilltop Ruin, I caught up with Joe further down trail at another junction. This junction featured a trail heading off to the right (west toward Unkar Creek rapids beach?) and another continuing straight (to the south). We continued on the southward trail and, at 9:17 am, arrived at the crossing of the unnamed drainage between Cardenas and Escalante creeks. From here, the trail began a short and steep climb to get above an obstacle. About fifteen minutes later, the trail passed through a minor arm of the unnamed drainage and began a generally westward traverse through the boulder field. The route through this "rock garden" was well-cairned and easy to follow, and we emerged on the other side after about ten minutes of rock-hopping.
It was 9:54 am and we were still in the early stages of a long, westward traverse along the southern flank of the unnamed drainage. We arrived at the point where the trail turns southward into Escalante Creek at 10:40 am. The views from this vista were truly spectacular. Looking upstream, I could see Unkar delta and the overlooking hilltop. Looking downstream, Escalante and Seventyfive Mile rapids were both visible. And off in the distance, several prominent Grand Canyon temples dominated the skyline.
The descent to Escalante Creek required only 24 minutes. We followed the trail across the creek bed to a cairned exit leading south and west onto the slopes overlooking the drainage. This bypass eventually led to a minor southern arm of Escalante. We followed this arm, did some minor down climbs and followed an "<---" cairn marking an exit for a short bypass over higher terrain. About 1/4 mile downstream, the route descended again into the main Escalante drainage. We down climbed a couple of pouroffs, walked through the wide open creek bed and emerged at a rock and scrub beach along the Colorado. It was 11:58 am and we were just in time for lunch.
During lunch, we discussed our options and, rather than spending the night at Escalante, we decided to push on to Hance rapids. Joe needed to go into work on Friday and camping at Hance would give us a reasonable shot at making it out of the canyon on Thursday. I should also comment on the condition of the beach at Escalante. On my dayhike to this beach during my October 2007 backpack, there was a pristine beach downstream of the rapids where I sat in the shade and enjoyed a relaxing lunch break. But on this trip, I noticed that my pristine beach has been eroded almost to the point of non-existence. That was a disappointment.
We left Escalante beach at 2:20 pm to begin the hike to Hance rapids along one of the most interesting stretches of trail in Grand Canyon. Included among the highlights were the walk through the narrow chasm of Seventyfive Mile Creek, the scramble over slabs of fallen schist to Papago beach, the ascent of the Papago wall and the boulder-hopping down climb through the Papago rock slide. Over the course of a few miles and couple of hours, one encounters features that illustrate what makes hiking in Grand Canyon so addictive. The final leg of the hike followed a river trail from the base of the Papago rock slide to Hance rapids. We arrived at 5:00 pm and setup camp for the night.
Thursday, October 23rd would be our last day in the canyon. Keeping my usual schedule, I was up at 4:30 am to stow my gear and make breakfast. Knowing the New Hance Trail's reputation as, arguably, the most difficult South Rim trail, I had filtered an extra three liters of water the night before. All total, I began the day carrying 7 1/2 liters of water. Joe could carry 4 1/2 liters so, I kept in the back of my mind the possibility of giving him two 3/4 liter. bottles, if he ran out before reaching the rim. We left the campsite at 7:18 am. On the way out, I showed Joe where the Tonto Trail began and we chatted briefly with a woman who had arrived the night before with a group from Hance Creek. Soon enough, we were walking upstream through Red Canyon Creek bed.
The trail leaves the creek bed in several places for bypasses around obstacles. These are well-cairned and fairly obvious to the experienced hiker. It was 8:30 am when we arrived at the cairned exit from Red Canyon drainage. Unfortunately, the impressive six-foot cairn marking this point in the trail has tumbled in the year since my first visit. It is no longer the towering pyramid shown in my photos (Link) from that hike. But it's still an impressive marker.
The long, slow climb to the rim begins in earnest with the exit from Red Canyon drainage. The first leg leads to a crossing through the eastern arm of the drainage. It was during this section of the hike that Joe and I first met a group of three dayhikers who where on their way to Hance rapids. They'd left the rim earlier that morning and were carrying water bladders, trekking poles and little else. These fastpackers were making good time down the trail. We passed through the east drainage of Red Canyon at 8:57 am. From here, the trail continued upslope towards the base of the Redwall and our first real challenge of the day. En route to the Redwall we passed a couple of nice campsites. But it was the climb through the Redwall that really got our attention. It involves some hand and foot climbing that can be tricky under the weight of a full backpack. Eventually, I arrived at the top of the Redwall at 10:23 am and settled in to wait for Joe.
He arrived about 15 minutes later and, after a bit more than three hours on the trail, we were halfway to the South Rim. While I'd done a good job of estimating the time needed to top out on the Redwall, I seriously underestimated the time that would be required to finish the hike. I'd thought 2 1/2 to 3 hours of hiking would finish the job. In the end, we would need another 4 1/2 hours. The traverse along the top of the Redwall to the point where the trail turns up canyon through Red Canyon drainage took nearly an hour, alone. But that's hiking in Grand Canyon.
It was during this stretch along the Redwall that we had our second encounter with the three fastpackers. They were on their way back to the rim and we stopped to chat with them for a few minutes. Needless to say, I was dutifully impressed at their speed, strength and endurance on this difficult Grand Canyon trail. A rim-to-river dayhike on New Hance requires a level of fitness and hiking ability that I can hardly imagine. Of course, we were carrying far more weight with our full packs and gear. But still, what they did amazes me.
Joe and I battled scrub, prickly vegetation and tricky scrambles throughout the long, slow hike up Red Canyon. I even ended up doubling back on myself at one point. But at 1:36 pm, I made the hard left turn that led to the final ascent through the Coconino, Toroweap and Kaibab layers. Fifteen minutes later, I arrived at the base of the Coconino. This final ascent wasn't about speed--not when wearing a full backpack. It's about setting and maintaining a slow, steady pace that gets the job done. This was where 500 miles on the treadmill, 73 miles on hikes up and down Mt. Elden and several Grand Canyon dayhikes since my knee surgery would pay off. And fifty-two minutes later at 2:44 pm, the hard work and prep did pay off when I took the final step off the trail. I sat on a boulder near the trailhead sign, removed my backpack and let loose with a "Yee Haw!" in celebration of finishing the hike.
But there was still work to do. I needed to hitch a ride to Lipan Point to retrieve my Isuzu Rodeo for the drive home. Estimating that Joe would be about 30 minutes behind me on the trail, I left my backpack with a note at the trailhead and walked to the South Rim Drive. I only had to wait about 15 minutes before somebody stopped. My good samaritan was Olaf, a German citizen on holiday in the American Southwest. We chatted while he drove to Lipan Point. He was a designer for a solar cell firm and had just spent a week in San Diego at a convention. Since he was in the States, he decided to explore a bit and this was his one day at Grand Canyon. On Friday, he would be driving to Albuquerque. Now, he was looking for a good view of the Colorado River. I thanked him for the ride, and suggested he check out the views at Lipan and Desert View.
Settling in behind the wheel of the Rodeo, I felt the familiar satisfaction that has come upon the completion of past Grand Canyon backpacks. It was a satisfaction born of having just completed a major hike, of knowing that I would be soaking under a hot water shower in just a few hours, reading my son his bedtime story and sleeping in my own bed. And it was a satisfaction born of knowing that I would be back as soon as possible for another overnight trek on the trails of Grand Canyon.