Friday, June 29, 2012

Grand Canyon - The Escalante Route

Fully immersing oneself in the Grand Canyon backcountry is an experience that cannot be fully explained in words or pictures, simply because it is not possible to accurately convey just how rugged the terrain or how complete the isolation is to someone who has never been there. Even so, I'll make the attempt in describing a recent journey to one of the lesser visited areas along the Escalante Route.

Because of its unique geography, trails in Grand Canyon usually take one of two forms; a rim to river path or a meandering generally east - west traverse of terrain located at some level above the river.

Good examples of the former include Bright Angel or South Kaibab trails, while the latter is best represented by the through-canyon Tonto East and Tonto West trails. The Escalante route could reasonably be considered an eastern extension of the Tonto, however geology, terrain, and perspective are markedly different from that found further west.

One of the main points that distinguishes the Escalante from the Tonto is whereas the Tonto stays high on a bench around 1500 feet above the canyon bottom throughout its length, the Escalante begins and ends at the same elevation as the river, and indeed the best camping is found along the water on sometimes isolated beaches.

Another fairly important difference is that the only source of water on the Escalante is the river, and in times of upstream flooding the Colorado can become exceptionally turbid, full of muddy brown silt that wreaks havoc on water filters.  Hikers planning an excursion on this lonely but incredibly beautiful trail need to plan ahead for such contingencies to be successful.

The Escalante Route

In the Canyon the distinction between a route and a trail implies one is less established than the other, and this used to be the case with the Escalante.  But over the last few decades increasing usage has led to a well defined trail tread becoming the norm throughout most of the 12 miles between Tanner Beach and the mouth of Red Canyon at Hance Rapids.

That's not to say that careless hikers can't become lost or disoriented when making the trek, and in a few areas close attention to the surroundings are necessary to stay on the correct path.  There are also a few notable challenges found along the way that may or may not intimidate the novice Canyon hiker, but more on those later.

Although the Escalante Route can be done in either direction, most people choose an east to west trajectory due to the topography of the Canyon.  As the river cuts downward through the Kaibab Plateau the land rises steadily to the west, and this provides for a visually appealing landscape as walls begin to close in and rise ever higher above you.  Accordingly this hike starts on the east end, beginning with a descent to the river down the Tanner Trail, described in greater detail here.

From Tanner Beach the trail parallels the shoreline of the river for a considerable distance, at first traversing a long sandy stretch before turning south and inland for a bit.

The first few miles of the Escalante wind in and out of several small rocky drainages, never straying far from the river.

As noted in a previous post on the Tanner Trail, the eastern end of Grand Canyon is more open than what is seen downriver. The underlying Supergroup formation is composed of softer, more easily eroded rocks, and the result is an expansive and encompassing panorama of the area.

At 3 miles from Tanner Beach the trail crosses the dry channel of Cardenas Creek. The mouth of this streambed offers decent campsites as well as a last chance to fill up on water before the next opportunity several miles ahead at Escalante Creek. If staying here for the night be aware that Cardenas Beach is frequently used by larger river trips for camping, so be prepared to have your space invaded.

On the other side of Cardenas the trail begins a long and gradual climb up to an overlook of the river and Unkar Rapids below.

While looking down several hundred feet at the churning whitewater of Unkar Rapid, I spotted what would be the first of only two groups of humans I saw during the three day trip. Their tiny yellow rafts bobbed upon tongues of water, emerging unharmed but undoubtedly wet and probably exhilarated after the passage.

Continuing an upward trend, the trail now heads south and away from the river as it makes for the head of an unnamed drainage separating Cardenas and Escalante Creeks.

Once past this obstacle the direction returns to a more westerly heading, still climbing gradually to contour around a ridge bordering the Escalante Creek drainage. This portion of the trail is frequently mentioned in narratives as being "sketchy" or "nail biting", since a good portion of it consists of side hill walking along a narrow path mere inches wide, with a steep and likely fatal drop below.

Looking down:

Despite a fearsome reputation, hiking this section is no more challenging to an experienced Grand Canyon hiker than many Redwall descents, although to be honest one must really pay attention to where they put their feet. Besides, the lofty perch also provides some excellent views across the Canyon (when not focusing on the trail, that is).

Although the skinny traverse may seem endless, eventually the trail reaches the end of the ridge and rounds the corner into the Escalante drainage, where it begins a quick descent to the dry watercourse.

Following the sandy washbottom offers a few route finding challenges to avoid pouroffs, but scrambles up and around soon lead to the mouth of Escalante Creek and the Colorado River.

Escalante offers some good tent sites along the river, with excellent ambience including superlative views and a constant but soothing white noise of water flowing over rocks in the channel.

Beyond Escalante Creek the path continues along the river for a brief while before climbing quickly to the level of the rising Shinumo quartzsite bench above Seventy Five Mile Creek.

The Shinumo formation is very erosion resistant rock, and this is seen clearly in sheer walls formed above the lower end of Seventy Five Mile Creek. While there are one or two places to drop into the canyon from above, in general these require a good deal of scrambling and exposure to negotiate, and it is wiser to continue up canyon where the bed of the creek meets the emergence of the Shinumo.

Once in the streambed the path is an obvious walk down canyon to the river. The narrow walls of Seventy Five Mile Creek offer an inviting place to take refuge during the heat of the day, with lots of shade and cool, uncommunicative rock.

Although camping is possible at the mouth of Seventy Five Mile Creek, be aware of potential flash flooding, particularly during the summer thunderstorm season. Heavy rain falling on the rim above may not be obvious to anyone deep in the canyon, and vertical walls on either side of the creek prevent rapid escape from a sudden and violent torrent of water and debris.

The next stage of travel on the Escalante stays closer to the river, climbing a few hundred feet above the water while heading west.

The distinctive and brightly colored Hakatai Shale appearing downstream at the mouth of aptly named Red Canyon signals the eventual end of the Escalante Route - but we're not there yet.

The beach at the mouth of Papago Creek suddenly looms below you, and the trail makes a abrupt and rocky descent to reach it soon afterwards.

Papago is unlike other side canyons encountered on this trip in that it terminates at the river in a steep pouroff at the mouth of the creek.  The shallow but dark narrows provides welcome shade on a hot day.

Another appealing feature is that the beach is small and unsuitable for most river parties, so hikers wanting peace and solitude will find this to be a nice option for camping.

While camped at this very restful and isolated spot, I saw the second and only other people I would encounter on this trip.

Even though the end of the trail is near, there are still two interesting challenges to overcome. The first comes immediately upon leaving Papago Beach, and consists of a quartz wall some 35 - 40 feet high. Although there are ledges and steps that can be utilized to surmount the rock face, it can be somewhat disconcerting to do it while wearing a heavy pack. Some suggest using a rope to pull the pack up after climbing, but I have found it to be relatively easy if you take your time and rest between moves.

Looking down from above after making the climb:

Once on top of the wall, the trail once again climbs sharply and higher than one would expect to continue the trip. Fortunately amazing views take much of the sting out of the steep ascent.

The last and possibly most intimidating obstacle is just ahead. Sometime in the past a massive rockslide occurred, creating a boulder and rock filled channel that forms a downward route back to the river. This seemingly unstable and threatening pile of rubble is loose and unconsolidated, and great care is needed here to make it down in one piece.

Looking back up after negotiating the most treacherous section:

It is advised that large groups stay close together or very far apart when taking on the debris field to avoid triggering further slides. Even as a solo hiker I definitely tested each and every step to be sure it was secure before proceeding.

At the bottom of the jumbled pile, the trail resumes its association with the river, wandering amongst large rocks and riparian vegetation along the banks.

In short order the roar of Hance Rapids begins to fill the air, and the terminus of the Escalante Route is found at the mouth of Red Canyon. Many good campsites are found on the east side of the drainage, and this makes a good place to stop for the night before continuing on in one of several different directions.

For those whose journey is nearing an end, the climb out on the New Hance Trail follows Red Canyon to the rim. Or if the trip is to be extended, the beginning of the Tonto East Trail is found on the opposite side of Red Canyon, and heading in that direction could be the start of many other hiking options.

The temptation is to keep on eastward, to the next stunning vista or majestic overlook.  Who knows - maybe someday I will give in to the impulse and just keep going.  But today I climb out, and even though every step takes me closer to exiting the Canyon and returning to life as I know it, I have gathered a rich and satisfying trove of images, sounds, smells, and sensations that will stay with me forever. 

That's what hiking in Grand Canyon's backcountry is really all about.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Grand Canyon - The Tanner Trail

The Grand Canyon is one of the largest natural features on the planet, stretching 277 miles from one end to the other. Despite this incredible expanse, there are relatively few established paths that will take a person from the rim to the Colorado River. One of these is the Tanner Trail, located on the South Rim in the eastern section of Grand Canyon National Park.

The 10 mile Tanner Trail is usually a means to an end, although it certainly makes for a good destination in itself with beach camping along the river.  Many hikers use the Tanner as one leg of a trip featuring the Escalante Route, or as a staging point for a trip upstream to visit the Little Colorado River via the Beamer Trail.  Whichever you option you choose, you'll experience wide open vistas of Grand Canyon unlike any other rim to river route.

Beginning near the parking area for Lipan Point on Desert View Drive (also referred to as U.S. Highway 64), Tanner Trail departs to the northeast through a pygmy forest of juniper and pinyon pine.

The path wastes no time making a swift and rocky descent through upper layers of the canyon. At this point views are limited, but that's o.k. as most hikers will be giving their full attention to the loose, steep trail.

Like many Grand Canyon trails, the Tanner owes its origins to the earliest inhabitants of the region. When pioneer and prospector Seth Tanner came to the area in the late 1800's, he improved the path once used by Native peoples to reach the Colorado River for the purpose of working his copper claims.

On another historical note the Tanner was once a conduit for horse thieves transporting stolen animals from Arizona to Utah.  After driving mustangs into the canyon, rustlers altered brands in an attempt to disguise the horses before pushing across the river and up the opposite side using the Nankoweap Trail.

The rapid descent of the Kaibab and Coconino layers ends just under 2 miles from the beginning. Here the trail enters the reddish Supai Group, and hikers can finally look up at the scenery around them.

At this point the path straddles a ridge separating Tanner Canyon from Seventy Five Mile Canyon (many side canyons in Grand Canyon are named for where they intersect with the Colorado River - Seventy Five Mile Canyon is found at river mile 75). Looking to the west reveals an impressive view of the country downriver.

For day hikers, 75 Mile Saddle makes a good turn around point.  The next several miles of trail winds through a wide basin in the jumbled Supai layer, and several suitable campsites can be found scattered throughout this area.

With the starting point of Tanner over 7800 feet on the rim and the destination at the river being around 2300 feet,  nearly a mile of elevation must be lost along the way.  This middle section doesn't help much, with the trail meandering on a very long traverse while making its way to the Redwall descent.

I frequently mention the Redwall when detailing Grand Canyon hikes simply because it is the most dominant geographic and geologic feature of backcountry travel. The ancient 335 million year old limestone layer forms sheer cliffs that range from 400 to 900 feet high, and it presents one of  the most difficult obstacles to anyone attempting to reach the river.

Animals and early inhabitants found places where the rock had faulted and slumped into the gorge, creating a slightly less severe slope.  Here on the Tanner, when the drop through the Redwall finally comes it is as steep and challenging as any found in the canyon.

After an extended and often precarious scramble hikers can take a few moments to breath and once again look up from the tops of their shoes at the surroundings.

The trail begins a long, steady drop along the ridge, which ultimately leads to the west wall of Tanner Canyon above a dry streambed.

What makes the Tanner different from other rim to river routes becomes evident as wide open vistas unfold before you. The eastern end of Grand Canyon consists of rock layers known as the Supergroup which tend to be softer and more easily eroded. The result is a more open, all-encompassing scene showcasing the river flowing in a sinuous line below.

As one of the longer rim to river routes the last mile or so can seem endless, with the path making slow but steady progress towards the creek bed and eventually the river.

The sound of elements in conflict begins to fill the air, faintly at first then louder as you approach.  The ceaseless pounding of river currents through Tanner Rapids works tirelessly to erode uncaring stone, while weary hikers trudge on in anticipation of  cold water caressing hot, tired feet.

Finally the mouth of the creek, the river, and trail converge as one. The sensation of weightlessness is palpable as the pack is lifted from aching shoulders, and the rush to untie boot laces begins. All else is forgotten in the moment as a feeling of accomplishment combines with appreciation of where you are to erase any lingering trail fatigue.

Once camp is laid out and you've settled in, it's time to sit back and watch the late afternoon sun paint the eastern canyon walls in vivid hues while shadows drape the landscape inch by inch.

Getting here might be a challenge for many people, and most won't even try. But that's part of what makes it so incredible. While thousands will experience one of the world's greatest natural wonders standing elbow to elbow from a crowded overlook, you're actually in it, up close and personal.

When the sun goes down, churning whitewater mere yards from camp will lull you to sleep. Once the day begins anew first light from the rising sun will ignite colors of the upper canyon walls, putting on a display that is reserved just for you.  It's your ticket to the Greatest Earth on Show.