Over “ski week” I drove off to the Grand Canyon for a multi-day backpacking trip on unmaintained backcountry trails. I am kinda a snob about the difficulty of backcountry travel outside the steep and stark Eastern Sierra, expecting the backpacking to be easy, on a beach and along a river after the way down. What I got was rugged trails, 3rd class, exposure and a tourist destination all to ourselves.
Our original route was an out and back from the New Hance trail to just past the Little Colorado confluence. However, after the canyon trails beat us up and a rest day, we decided to decrease the mileage, plan for a two day exit and day trip to the little Colorado. Our trip looked like this:
Full itinerary: 42 miles, 10,000 ft (map)
The New Hance Trail plunged us down into the Grand Canyon. Often on a good trail with some route finding. We passed two parties this day going up. After several hours and tight, sore calves we reached the bottom with a couple miles until camp. Joining the Escalante Route near the New Hance was the most technical and difficult route finding.
Cairns were pretty good but sometimes it was unclear if they meant up, down, left, right or straight until some looking around. A mile before we reached the Papago Canyon area where we camped there was one solid third class section downclimb. We hobbled into camp that night around sunset.
The next day we filtered from crystal clear water out of the Colorado, avoiding the bucket settling method required during the monsoon season when the river is so silty and muddy brown. We started up the Escalante Route, up-canyon to gain the butte. While walking up the canyon, this was the easiest to get off track, following the wash when the trail diverted. This section might have been my favorite since it felt like a grade 2, uphill canyoneering.
When we finally gained the butte, about 1500 ft above the canyon floor, the wind was in full force starting to blow the mid week winter storm in. Gusts were predicted to be 50-60 mph this day and it was moving us around a lot. Even at 260 lbs with my pack on I had to brace at times so I didn’t get blown over.
After wind in our face all day beating us up we limped into camp near the bottom of the Tanner Trail. Again we only saw two parties this day. This was our only sandy beach camp as the wind would sprinkle sand onto our faces, kicked up under the tent while we were trying to sleep.
We both slept poorly with the wind and dusty sand blowing into the tent. I woke up with a sinus headache. The wind was back in force and it was demoralizing thinking of taking the Beamer trail with our packs with the wind all the way to the Little Colorado. It was here where we changed our plan from the out and back up the New Hance to day hike the Little Colorado and go out the Tanner Trail.
Once we started East on the Beamer Trail we wouldn’t see any more people until evening, two days later. We walked the easy three beach miles to the start of the cliff section and setup camp in a hollow of trees well protected from whipping gusts and took our rest day naps.
It rained overnight and peering out of our tent in the morning we saw snow extending to a thousand feet at least below the rim. Clouds wisped like fog in the high elevations depositing more snow. Luckily we only got a few flakes of snow on us while hiking to the Little Colorado on our day hike.
After leaving camp and gaining the ledges we were soon greeted with the most exposed section of trail I’ve been on. Two feet from the trail was hundreds of feet down. I had to breath through the exposure to negotiate my fear response for this several hundred foot long section.
By accident, luck or logic our windy rest day had been the right call. Any wind blowing me around, causing a misstep could have been fatal. We made good time and quickly reached the geothermal-looking, turquoise water of the Little Colorado feeding into the clear Colorado. The wind picked up a little on the way back but not enough to move us around which I was thankful as I reversed the ledges.
Tired as our muscles were, I was worried about myself making it the 10 miles and 5,000 ft up and out of the canyon in one day. On Day 5 we had planned to start up and do it in two days, taking it slow. However our pace soon put us on track to get out in one day and our legs kept up as we ascended the Tanner Trail.
Most people go down the Tanner Trail and up the New Hance who do the Escalante Route. Despite the details of the steepness of the Tanner Trail, I found this trail the most easy because there was basically no route finding, limited exposure and the trail was pretty even.
The last 1,400 feet was a steep hike uphill in snow, 6 inches in places. I joked this was the freshest snow I’ve seen in months despite living next to a ski resort. After effort, we gave a whoop at the trailhead having made it after a long day and hitchhiked back to our car at the start of the New Hance, six miles down the road.
I had a great time in the Grand Canyon, I had a lot of really meaning time and conversations with my partner. My Sierra Snobery was humbled as I backpacked rugged trails, often with irregular footing and common obstacles and route finding. I am proud of having dealt decently with the frequent exposure, which while not often two feet like on the Beamer Trail, would often be 10-20 ft until a drop off.
My biggest surprise was that I didn’t fall in love with the Grand Canyon. I was expecting to have this “oh my gosh this is amazing and beautiful” the whole time, but it was easy to feel like the canyon all looked the same. Maybe this is because I spent so much time looking at my feet for footing or it is because you cannot access a fraction of the slabs, walls and canyons you see. In the mountains you see something and you can go to it, summit a pass and see an entirely different landscape. It is more tangible. In this perspective, I finally have a taste of how some people can say all mountains look the same. Now, I’m not saying there weren’t moments of beauty, but it didn’t wow me like I thought it would.
In summary, it was a good trip to a place often mobbed with people, except we had it all to ourselves. It felt like the backcountry and I was glad to have the experience exploring a new landscape in a new way.