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.


  1. Great photos, hope to try this one in 2013. Really enjoy your site - thank you for the time and effort that you put into this.

  2. Thank you for your guide. I used it in planning my recently completed 4-day solo Tanner trek. Fantastic and difficult trail.
    Good luck on your journey.