grand canyon: tanner, escalante & tonto trails

Rick suggested a trek in the Grand Canyon between Christmas and New Years. I suggested Rim to Rim, and after a little bit of research he came back with a veto, and countered with the Escalante Route. The Escalante Route doesn’t connect to any part of the rim, so you take other trails down to it. The map describes the Escalante Route as ranging from “medium grades with some rough surfaces” to “steep and rocky, trail may be faint, may require scrambles and may have vertical exposure”. It indeed did have parts where the path was faint to indistinct and included several minor scrambles of 20-40ft, with a healthy dose of trip-and-die vertical exposure. Enough backpackers have done it that it’s decently well marked with cairns but that doesn’t take much mentally away from vertical exposure on loose material. 

Before we could tackle it, we had to get a permit. The US national park system still operates in the 80s, so to get a permit you have to fax in the application, preferably four months in advance. We were only six weeks out at this point, so much for four months of notice. I’ve never faxed anything, so I went to the experts. The library. Only, no one who worked at the library knew how to fax anything either but we managed to get it in with some help from the wiser ones in my family. I thought the review process would take a few weeks, but the Grand Canyon surprisingly issued us the permit within 8 hours of sending it in. Apparently hiking in December, even in the Grand Canyon, is not the most crowded or popular thing to do.

After the permit was issued there was very little planning and preparation. Rick doubled down on the idea that he is “good at suffering”, and to be honest neither of us have time to do multiple preparation 16 km hikes while we are working at the rate we do. These are the excuses I tell myself. 

After Christmas, we packed everything up, loaded it into the backpacks (70L and a 50L +10L) and drove from Scottsdale to Flagstaff. We stayed at a Travelodge and got woken up every 20 minutes by the room heater (felt like I slept maybe a total of one hour). At 5:30am we left the rattling room heater behind, and headed to the Canyon. We went up and over 8000 ft. Snow had accumulated. It was cloudy, -7C and windy. It was certainly not leisurely hiking weather. 

Day 1:

Since the US government was shut down, the park was free entry (haha, thanks silly government!) and there was no waiting in line. It was remarkably empty for the Grand Canyon, but I imagine that’s just because it was too early and too cold for the masses. We were in the park by around 8am, and clouds were sitting just barely above the rims. 

The hike begins at Lipan Point and descends down the Tanner Trail, a steep, rocky way down to the river (it sounds so close when I say it that way). Rick dropped me and the bags off at Lipan Point, then drove 20 minutes back to Grandview to leave the truck there. About 45 minutes after he’d left me in the parking lot, he rolled back in a minivan full of tourists. They were a little mind boggled with what he had told them we were about the do. They tried to give us plastic bottles– a strange thing to gift a backpacker if you’d ever gone multi-day hiking. People were giving me slightly puzzled looks while I waited, eyeing the full backpacks with confusion and brrrrr motions. I put on a second bottom layer. My gloves weren’t warm enough. There were tiny flurries blowing around. I hoped they wouldn’t stick around.

By 9:30am we found the Tanner trailhead and began the descent to the river. There was a little bit of snowpack that had been beaten into the trail but as we went down it mostly disappeared. The sun began to melt away the clouds and a few hours later the canyon was bright with sunlight. We could see the blue river bends in the distance below, flanked in cliffs and canyons. That’s where we were going, but by lunchtime they still seemed very very far away. The trail started in swichbacks and morphed into a knee-jarring rock-picking shin-splinting tramp downwards. There were a few spots that were a bit mellow near the end, but they came with their fair share of ankle bending. Little by little, step by step, we passed down below many different shades of limestone and shale. Red, orange, burnt yellow and ochres, speckled with green desert-like brush. 

By the end of the day we were plodding along with two pairs of very grumpy feet. We made it to Tanner Beach at about 4:30pm as the shadows were getting long.  Even walking in sand didn’t help much to relieve the pressure on our toes. We set up camp inside of a tree (or a bush?) about 15ft from the river. After we’d set everything up we realized that we’d doomed ourselves to a constant battering of tree-droppings for the rest of the evening. It got everywhere: boots, tent, bowls, cook pot. I don’t think either of us cared much at that point though. 

Dinner was delectable packages of pasta with packaged pesto dry mix, an entire stick of butter, half a block of cheese and some salami. This was most exciting because all those things weigh a lot. Lighter packs! 

We pumped water out of the Colorado River through Rick’s filter. By 6:00pm we were in our sleeping bags, snoozing on and off (denial that we were actually going to bed at 6:00pm). By 8:00pm we succumbed and fully fell asleep. Despite a drop of 4,650 ft in elevation, it was not warm. The sound of the rushing river beside us was a soothing white noise all night. Sorry Travelodge, you’ve been beat by sleeping outside in the sand, in freezing temperatures.

Day 2:

When I woke up the next morning it wasn’t light out yet. I felt hungover– dehydrated and groggy. My legs felt like lead. I couldn’t move them too much in the mummy bag but I could tell they had sustained damage and some serious DOMS. This was confirmed upon unzipping the tent doors and trying to move my legs into my shoes. I wasn’t walking, This was waddling. The calves felt as if all the lactic acid had pooled and solidified overnight. Rick’s felt the same way. We moaned and groaned, made oatmeal, packed up camp and topped up our water supply and then dragged ourselves onto the trail with significantly decreased ranges of motion. 

The first thing we noted on our way along was the fresh new dusting of snow that had appeared a little higher than us, closer to the rim. It looked like a giant had sifted confectioner’s suger over the tops of the peaks. The sun was out but its rays were weak. Even when sweating, as soon as we stopped for a snack or lunch we had to put our puffy jackets on right away. 

Not that I need to say it, but the views were… ridiculous. Mindbending. Hard to grasp, even while walking over them. It’s really something that needs three dimensions to properly portray, and even then I don’t think it would really do it. The camera doesn’t do it justice. Everything looks smaller in the pictures, no matter what I did while taking them, or how I edited them. If I added a person for scale, they were lost as a tiny speck. If I zoomed in to ensure you could tell there was a person there… then the rest of the photo was lost. The main rim now looked distant and in front of us lay mesas, peaks, canyons, cliffs, rolling red hills and the winding Colorado River that morphed between light powdery green and a deep turquoise blue.

The day started on nice grades on easy terrain beside the river and then began to climb away from the banks. We navigated a large rockslide topped by stark red-orange cliffs, and side-hilled in loose pebbles on 45-50 degree slopes. The type that make your upside ankle hurt and if you did trip, down you tumble. It included a few areas of loose scree that were a foot away from a gut-wrenching drop. The trick is to not look down while you are walking it, lest you get dizzy.

Our lunch each day consisted of tuna wraps with mayonnaise and cheese. It was very difficult to pick a place with a bad view, but it was a little harder to find flat spots to sit down and eat. 

After climbing about 400m in elevation, we reached a saddle from which we could see the river snaking away in both directions. We spent the next hour or two getting down to our next campsite, again beside the river. We got into the campsite as the sky was getting dim (the days were really short) and cooked up our dinner and made our tent up with headlights. 

Our feet were sore and our legs stiff – I guess this description is getting old but I can’t stress this enough. Every time we sat down, the soreness seemed to increase when we decided to move again. We employed our usual camping system once again: I set up the tent and the sleeping bags and pads, and Rick cooked the food. 

Bedtime at 8:00pm, but not before freezing our hands off pumping water out of the river, and then freezing in general looking up at the stars. It was dark enough to see the Milky Way. We fell asleep again to the sound of rushing water. 

Day 3:

This was the longest day with the most “obstacles”. It began by skirting the edge of a deep ravine, 3-4ft from the cliff edge. Once we’d traced the canyon upwards to where it began, we were able to drop our bags into it with a 30ft rope and then scramble down the steep rock wall after them. 

We then walked back toward the river through the ravine, a dry streambed. It resembled a slot canyon, but most of it wasn’t too narrow. No squeezing required. The walls grew steadily above us. This was the easiest part of the day and we had no sense of urgency. 

The trail then began to climb up the side of a mesa wall, picking through rockslides. It reminded me of a mild goat trail. It wasn’t a steep portion of the trek –it climbed steadily before dropping down to a small beach. In front of us was a wall. It’s called the Papago Wall. It’s about 40-45ft high. On the other side I’d read that you get down via a rockslide (what an understatement…). The wall was fairly vertical, but the type of rock had enough hand and foot holds that it would be considered an “easy” rock-climbing route. However… that becomes a little more nerve wracking with a 40 lb pack strapped to your back. There was clinging involved. Rick likes this stuff, and I don’t. He went first and then up I came afterward, not without a few deep breaths mid-cling.

After picking our way through a boulder field (and losing the trail once – “We are supposed to be 200ft higher than we are and it looks like we’re heading to a loose cliff… we need to go back”), we arrived at a little plateau on a cliff with a nice view of the river below. I saw our trail along the bank, almost directly below us. 

I thought the boulder field was the slide we were to navigate after the wall. I was wrong. I wondered how the trail connected the plateau we were currently on, to the bank elevation in less than 50m. I followed the cliff edge and then I saw it. Papago Slide. This wasn’t a boulder field. It wasn’t a slide that was done moving. It was a chunky loose slide that was sandwiched between two cliffs. It was a slide where the rocks could start going at any second with one wrong foot jerk. It looked and felt that way anyway. There were many loose boulders, crumbly rock and loose dirt. Here’s the photo. Again, the scale just doesn’t do it justice. I couldn’t get close enough to the edge to even get the drop in the frame. It’s so steep that you can’t see the slope below it. It just drops. Note the cliffs on the right and left hand side. 

Rick went first and I waited until he was all the way to the bottom and out of rock-fall range. I couldn’t see him, I just heard skittering rocks. No screaming though, so that was good news. And then I went. It was not fun. One portion my legs were too short to reach anything below, but the rocks behind me were too close and were pushing my bag and my bodyweight forward. It was a mini-leap onto loose rocks on a slope that was probably 70 degrees. But I made it! Would I do it again? NOPE. 

The trail then followed the riverbank through brush until the next small beach among small trees. The option exists here to camp, and then exit to the rim via the New Hance trail. That wasn’t on our permit though. We planned to hike to Hance Creek, which may or may not have water running in it. Hance Creek was another 400m climb and it was already early afternoon, so less than 3.5 hours of daylight and dusk left. We refilled all of our water in case Hance Creek was dry. 

Then began the trudge upwards. Very little of this hike was chill. It was either up, down, or picking through rock scree (or a combination of both!). Rick’s feet were blistering and we stopped to bandage them up again. It was getting late and we still had far to go. I was getting concerned that we would end up hiking in the dark. Up we went, and each time we stopped Rick would say, “It’s 3 more miles”, “It’s just up over that hill”, “It’s just around that next bend”. The canyon plays tricks on you. Mesas inside mesas. Trails that go back on themselves. 

The vistas yawned below us as we climbed. Everything expanded. These were the largest views we’d been in. We felt like specks. Far, far, far below we could see a little piece of the river. Framed against the north rim it was itty bitty. You could barely see it, and looking at it was dangerous. Looking at the canyon opening below the trail induced instant vertigo for both of us. The sun setting on the peaks was gorgeous, the shadows shifting over the rose-coloured rocks and the sky darkening too quickly for comfort. The trail was 4-5ft from an 800ft cliff. The campsite was nowhere in sight. There was no sign of water below. At around 5:30pm we pulled headlights out. Although we saw a few bail-out options in terms of places to set a tent up, Rick wanted to know if there was water in the creek so that we could plan the next day well (turns out that despite the creek being so small and shallow, it’s described as flowing year-round). Nevertheless, we were committed to our plodding, next to the cliffs in the dark. 

And then in the distance we saw headlights. As we got closer, we could make out two lit-up tents. I allowed a small shard of hope to pierce my ebbing adrenaline. I didn’t like being so close to a cliff in the pitch black. The camp looked close, but of course it was much farther than it appeared. Even if you’re 400ft from the camp, it could be miles to get there. You follow the cliff walls of a canyon, and the canyon winds, and winds, and winds. So many corners, you cannot see the end of it. It felt like we would never get to Hance Creek, or maybe we had passed it and not known… after all our maps had only rough-dropped the pinned campsites on them. 

We saw another bail out point. Each one looked increasingly inviting. Then we stumbled on the creek. It had about 3 inches of running water in it. Joy! We got to stop! We had extra fuel to burn so we boiled extra water and stuck them in water bottles to keep sleeping bags warm. We huddled in our sleeping bags while looking at the elevation we needed to climb the next day. We woke up to frozen Camelbacks and a frozen tent fly. 

Day 4: 

We were moving again by 8:30am the next morning, wanting to be at the rim by around 2:00pm. We passed old mines and signs that said, “Keep out, radiation”. We took a selfie with it, as was appropriate. To get up to Horseshoe Mesa we began in the ravine below. Our iPhone app showed the trail heading straight up to the cliffs… and seemingly right over them. It didn’t look like there was a trail up there. I knew it was going to get scrambly. As we got closer the walls rose higher and higher above us and at some point we saw it– a tiny notch in the corner. That must be where we were going to get up it. Near the top of the mesa the switchbacks were notched into rock, old mining routes. They flipped back on each other so tightly that looking over the edge you could barely see the one you just came up. I couldn’t imagine hauling loads of mined rock up these pathways. There were more than a few times that the poles were tossed into one hand so that the other hand could grasp the cliff wall. Again, do not look down. The last switchback was burrowed into the cliff, with the walls curling overhead. Duck, and don’t let your bag hit at exactly the wrong moment. 

Once above Horseshoe Mesa, the Grandview trail was noticeably more maintained, involving large rocks rearranged to act as stairways, and pathways that mules could traverse. It was built in 1892 to laboriously haul copper ore out of the mines on mules. There started to be snow accumulation as we climbed in elevation. We saw a few day hikers, a very encouraging sign that we were getting relatively close to the exit. We kept going, and the rim again seemed to rise, and rise and rise, but somehow stay right around the corner. Almost everyone we passed going down asked if we’d been at the river. All we wanted to do was keep going up. Stop asking me questions, I need my peanut M&Ms that are in the truck! They also all lied and said we were “close”. Trudge, trudge, trudge. The snow began to squeak under our boots. The river had long since disappeared behind us, and I’m not sure how it was possible but the canyon looked smaller now that we were above most of it. You can’t see how deep it is without going there. 

We finally reached the top at 2:06pm. It was a zoo of cameras and shivering people. Walking on pavement felt a strange, like I didn’t trust it or my feet anymore. I did little dances. I felt so lucky to have known what lay among all those layers of limestone and shale, and so proud to have done it. I knew about Papago Wall, and the slide, and the side-hilling, and the vast desolate emptiness far below. I knew of a tiny 3” deep stream that was a hiking lifeline, and the creepy deserted mines that possibly leaked radiation. I knew what primitively-filtered Colorado River water tasted like (quite tasty, actually). 

Summary

The route we did is typically done in 6 days and we crunched it out in 4, which probably added to our physical pain. Most reports stated that only the clinically insane or the supernaturally fit attempt to climb river to rim in a day, so at the very least we heeded this advice and stopped overnight on the way back up. Based on all the descriptions we managed to dig up, we underestimated the harshness and remoteness a little bit. We only saw about 6 other people on the trails the entire time. It felt so far away from civilization. There wasn’t a lot of wildlife there either, which added to the impression that nothing lives there and we felt far from anything else living. We saw two deer and a couple of crows but that was it. 

Day 1
Tanner Trailhead to Tanner Beach

Distance: 15 km
Elevation Change: 1417 m descent
Water Source: Colorado River
Our experience: Trail was easy to follow although narrow, steep and rocky in places. Poles highly recommended. 

Day 2
Tanner Beach to Escalante Creek Mouth
Distance: 14 km
Elevation Change: 365m climb, 365m descent
Water Source: Colorado River
Our experience: Starts in easy smooth gentle terrain, gets into some vertical exposure and rockslide navigating, but mostly manageable. 

Day 3
Escalante Creek Mouth to Hance Creek
Distance: 15.5 km
Elevation Change: 365m climb
Water Source: Hance Creek
Our experience: Wide slot canyon, goat-trail like skirting of the river bank, boulder fields, extremely steep slope covered in loose rock, 40-45ft wall to climb, increased vertical exposure. Don’t trip. 

Day 4
Hance Creek to Grandview
Distance: 8.5 km
Elevation Change: 1,110m climb
Water Source: None that we saw, although the maps say Miner’s Spring has some if you need it
Our experience: From Hance Creek to Miner’s Spring relatively easy with steady climbing, from Miner’s Spring to Horseshoe Mesa becoming rock-scrambly with vertical exposure, less maintained trail. Don’t stumble. From Horseshoe Mesa to Grandview, relatively steep climb with minor vertical exposure, steady climbing but mostly on maintained trail. 

I’ve never done a hike quite so intense from start to finish both in terms of physical terrain and the vistas we traversed. It was like climbing an inverted mountain and the mental mentality had to change a bit to account for it. 

Regardless, a stellar example of Type 2 fun. Do it if the Rim-to-Rim sounds mainstream (although, any trail that goes Rim-to-Rim is going to be physically trying no matter how maintained the trail is). It’s an enormous way down and a long way back up, and a long winding rocky way in between… but during the short periods we weren’t looking at our footing, we were wow’d every time. 

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