Monday, June 21, 2010

Grand Canyon - New Hance to Grandview Part 2

Having reached the Colorado River at the bottom of Grand Canyon, there's only one place left to go..... up. Except for the short and sandy River Trail located near Phantom Ranch, there are no actual paths along the river due to the extreme geography of the Inner Canyon, and most routes end up contouring along mid-level formations such as the Tonto or Esplanade.

To continue our journey, we must first climb up to the Tonto Plateau, which makes its' first appearance in the upper end of Grand Canyon just below Hance Rapids. This "mostly" level formation lies about 1800 feet above the Colorado River, and continues west for many miles as it skirts many deep side canyons that bisect the larger Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon hiking is hard. There are no easy trails here, but there are trails that are easier than others. The problem is the geography is so extreme that seldom do hikers enjoy anything like level walking, and the next leg of the trip is no different. Leaving the beach at Red Canyon, the start of the Tonto Trail climbs swiftly up the emerging Vishnu Schist, a super erosion resistant layer that forms the Inner Gorge. Here is the oldest rock found in Grand Canyon, dating back nearly 2 billion years.

Little grows in this hot, rocky, dry desert. What plants do manage to survive are small and scrubby, with thin leaves and waxy stems that resist evaporation. There is certainly no shade other than that offered by overhangs or strangely eroded rocks like the one seen here, and overall the visitor is left with the impression of a harsh and unforgiving land, which is certainly true for the unprepared.

However even in this land of extreme conditions beauty abounds, especially in springtime. After winter rain and snow the austere and forbidding landscape puts on a brief but memorable show as nature demonstrates that this apparently inhospitable environment is capable of supporting a surprising diversity of life.

Climbing higher out of the Inner Gorge, the upper reaches of the larger Canyon begins to reveal itself. For me hiking the Tonto is one of the best ways to see the Canyon, as it affords fantastic perspectives on the size of the place. The river flows deep below, confined in the rugged and somber Vishnu Schist while thousands of feet above loom alternating bands of shale, sandstone, and limestone. Here humans are truly dwarfed by the landscape, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale on display.

Even after climbing to the approximate elevation that finally allows for east-west travel, challenges remain. There is no such thing as a straight line between points here, and although a destination may appear to be several hundred yards away as the crow flies, hikers will have to travel miles to reach it. Sheer drop offs and deep side canyons force trails like the Tonto to contour around the head of drainages where they can be more easily negotiated.

The picture below is a good example. East is on the left side, west is on the right of the photo. From where the pack is situated, looking west across this canyon reveals the trail on the opposite side. But to get there I need to head up canyon for a mile or more before reaching the upper end where the bottom is shallow enough to cross. Such is the nature of Canyon hiking.

For someone who has never been into the depths of Grand Canyon it may seem like the hiking here is too difficult, and the whole experience is too much of an ordeal. Granted, it is hard and most people will struggle at times. But the rewards of making the trip into what is arguably the most incredible geological wonder in the world are many, and along the way majestic scenery inspires and motivates the intrepid hiker.

Hiking the Tonto trail affords expansive views in all directions, and for the most part the walking is relatively easy - as far as Canyon trails go anyway. Alternating between long contours around side canyons and crossing broad platforms covered in ubiquitous blackbrush, the trail undulates up and down at roughly the same elevation, although there are many dips in and out of countless small drainages. The miles melt away fairly quickly as you progress towards the next major side canyon.

On this trip that canyon is where we'll spend the evening. Offering a rare perennial streams at its' bottom, Hance Creek is a great place to stop and rest up for the big push out.

Coming Up: The Trail Goes Ever On

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Grand Canyon - New Hance to Grandview Part 1

Living near the Grand Canyon is a luxury for me. Although many visitors travel hundreds if not thousands of miles to see this magnificent work of nature, most spend very little time here, possibly a few hours gazing into the depths and walking along the rim. For them the inner canyon remains a mystery, inaccessible due to time constraints and the extremes of climate and geography.

I first ventured into the Canyon at 19 years of age, a journey which initiated a lifelong love affair with the landscape of this ancient and immense natural wonder. I've ventured along nearly all the named trails and most routes in every season, and by far I find spring to be the most enjoyable time of year to descend deep into the wilderness.

The Inner Canyon is a harsh place of severe topography and little water, and humans can exist here only with careful planning and preparation. Springtime helps blunt the brutal nature of the place, with ephemeral water found in many side canyons and temperatures that are generally favorable for strenuous hiking over shadeless expanses of rock and sand. As there are no "easy" trails into the Canyon choosing the right time to explore the depths can make the experience something other than an endurance test.

For me a trip into Grand Canyon in April is also a chance to make the transition from winter into summer, where I can decompress and get my head back to some sort of equilibrium after dealing with large numbers of people. The cabin fever I often experience as an occupational hazard leads me to make plans in January, and the anticipation of the upcoming trip keeps me going through the doldrums of February and March.

New Hance to the Colorado River

I originally intended to make a longer trip than the one I ended up taking, but the extension of the ski season left me with no alternative other than to shorten the trip by two days. Because of multiple access points to the Inner Canyon I was able to "join" up with my original itinerary by dropping in on the New Hance trail, one of the lesser used and steeper paths from the South Rim.

First built in 1894 by John Hance to access mining claims in the area, the trail drops quickly off the rim into Red Canyon, named for a vivid formation called the Hakatai Shale. Like most "off-corridor" trails no maintenance or improvements are made, and conditions can vary from year to year. Most notable are large "step downs" and boulder strewn sections where hiking poles are very useful as an aid to balance, especially with a heavy pack.

Jim, who is also a seasoned veteran of Canyon hiking was my partner on the trip. And like many of my springtime outings, the weather was questionable with rain and snow in the forecast. He and I began the descent under mostly cloudy skies, and made perhaps a quarter of the distance before rain enveloped us in a steady drizzle. Here are the only images I was inclined to capture prior to the clouds closing in.

The focused concentration needed to negotiate the rocky and unforgiving path kept me from thinking too much about how wet I had become, and the necessity to get to the River where we could seek refuge was high on my list of priorities. Though the trail is only 7 miles in length, in places it is torturous and caution is needed to avoid a misstep, so the pace was slow but steady. Nearly 5 hours after we started we reached the bottom of Red Canyon, and the skies began to lighten revealing the stunning grandeur of the Inner Canyon.

Upon reaching the Colorado River, Jim and I dropped our packs, unloaded our gear and set it to dry, and put up the tents in case the rain returned.

The Colorado River usually flows relatively clear and cold, but on this visit is a muddy chocolate brown due to upstream tributaries such as the Paria and Little Colorado, which are swollen with snowmelt from the watersheds they drain. Since the Colorado is the only source of water here, extra steps are needed to settle the sediment laden broth before it can be filtered for drinking.

This view is looking up Red Canyon, which we had just descended. The brightly colored red rock of the Hakatai formation contrasts nicely with the green riparian vegetation of the canyon bottom, while gray clouds swarm the upper reaches of the rim, nearly a mile above us.

We've managed to survive the cold wet descent to the River, and we slowly dry out ourselves and possessions while soaking up a different kind of immersion - the unmatched beauty of the Inner Canyon. NEXT: What goes down must come up!

Friday, June 4, 2010

On Foot Part V - Bear Mountain

Years ago I chose to work in the winter sports industry, and I enjoy a job where being outdoors doesn't stop with the end of summer. That said I also appreciate the variety of different seasons, and after a long snowy winter I am ready to do something besides ski.

One of the best things about where I live is that even though ice may have a firm grip on the land immediately around me, warmer and drier conditions can be found within a reasonably short drive. Most often that means a trip to the Oak Creek/Sedona area located about 35 miles to the south. While snow does fall here it usually doesn't last long and the lower elevations offer milder temperatures.

The next few entries in this blog will cover a selection of hikes I took in early spring to escape the doldrums of snow, snow, and more snow. We'll start with my favorite, Bear Mountain.

Bear Mountain

Sedona offers a wide variety of outstanding trails set in the magnificent red rocks, ranging from easy strolls to steep scrambles. Personally I prefer a challenge, and Bear Mountain certainly delivers.

The trailhead is located on Boynton Pass Road about 4 miles northwest of Sedona. The drive alone is replete with beautiful scenery as the cliffs and canyons of the Red Rocks - Secret Canyon Wilderness rise majestically above the high desert setting.

At the parking area hikers are offered a choice between relatively easy and fairly difficult. The Doe Mountain trail heads south and climbs a moderate slope for views of the town and surrounding area. Those seeking a more intense and intimate encounter with the landscape must cross the road to begin the journey to the lofty heights of Bear Mountain.

The trail heads quickly for the first stage of the climb which begins at the base of red sandstone cliffs. All around are high desert plants consisting of juniper, pinon, agave, prickly pear, and native grasses. The open nature of the terrain and lack of shade make it advisable that hikers avoid this trail during the warmer summer months - spring, fall, and mild winters are best.

Right away the climb begins to offer dividends in the form of great views to the south.

Since the overall elevation gain is around 1800 feet in 2.5 miles, hikers should expect a moderate climb with a few steeps. The trail bed is in pretty good shape, although much of it traverses rock ledges and sections of cross-bedded sandstone tilted at off-angles to the slope.

There are a few "false" summits that trick the hiker into thinking the top is near, however it continues up and up.

Fortunately there are many opportunities along the way to stop, catch your breath and admire the scenery.

Persistent effort finally pays off at the real summit of Bear Mountain, where a little extra hiking around the perimeter reveals views of the San Francisco Peaks above Flagstaff, southward to Mingus Mountain and the Verde Valley, and deep into Fay Canyon to the east.

After a long, cold, and snowy winter the warm air and bright sunshine are almost enough reward for the effort of hiking a steep, rocky trail, but the real bonus is being surrounded by the awesome landscapes of one of Arizona's greatest natural treasures.