Part 1: Tanner Trail to Tanner Beach (10 miles, 5000′ elevation loss)
Time: 830 am
Temp: 65 degrees
“Are we sure we want to do this?”
Angie asks me this while we are organizing our packs in the parking lot to start our three day Grand Canyon backpacking adventure. Our plan was a 3 day trip, crossing 27 remote miles with over 7000’ of elevation loss and gain. We would be descending from the south rim to the Colorado River via the unmaintained Tanner Trail, then following the remote Escalante Route downriver for 12 miles until reaching our exit point of the rough and difficult New Hance Trail.
We had some tourists snap a picture of us then off we went, excited to start hiking…except where was the trailhead? After a bit of wandering and a few false starts, we backtracked down the road a bit and finally located the sign for the Tanner Trail. This trail would drop over 4600 feet in about ten miles. The kicker is that there is very little shade and no water sources until it reaches the river.
The trail starts off with a steep and rock descent but we were in no hurry so we took our time. At one point another hiker carrying packraft gear came racing past us (surprised the crap out of me!). He was the only person we’d see for the next three days. The views were just stunning and we were blessed by a nice breeze, which was huge since the temperatures were approaching 95 degrees by early afternoon.
By the time we saw the river, it was still a long ways away. The last couple of miles were pretty brutal, as the intensity of the sun and the heat were really getting to me (I am a ginger, therefore hot weather is not my friend). Finally, we reached the beach and immediately dropped our backs and whipped out the camp chairs so we could chill with our feet in the cold water. My feet felt like they were on fire! We happily soaked our bare feet only to discover that we both had massive blisters on our heels –no bueno. Of course we had no blister kits with us because we hike so much that we never get blisters anymore. I guess the canyon showed us!
We napped and relaxed in the heat then eventually put up the tent. I had carried 5 liters of water and only drank 3.5, so I was feeling pretty good about the water situation. Little did I know that this would be put to the test soon enough. Dinner was spicy southwest hummus with tortillas and bean burritos, with a vodka lemonade nightcap. The bats came out at twilight and the stars were bright and numerous. We put the tent fly on but kept the doors rolled up. The night stayed warm and I slept like a baby.
Part 2: Escalante Route to Hance Beach (12 miles, 2000′ elevation gain/loss)
Time 8:00 am
Temperature: 75 degrees
The sky started to get light at 4:15 am but we didn’t roll out of bed until 6 am. After a leisurely breakfast where I managed to burn my biscuits, we packed up for our 12 mile trek to our next destination of Hance Beach (Hance Rapids).
Today the route would follow along the river but spend the majority of the time meandering high above and away from the river. We underestimated how long the distance between water sources would be. I decided to only fill up 4 out of my 5 available liters of water containers and Angie also did not top off her water bottle. We figured that in about 5 or 6 miles we would get to refill -bad miscalculation.
The trail starts off as a nice pleasant beach walk then slowly climbs up and down bluffs along the river, gaining elevation. Some rafters came by far below and I was a bit jealous. There is nearly no shade in this area and the heat seems to come from the sun and from the ground simultaneously.
Time: 11:15 am
Temperature: 90 degrees
Luckily we knew enough about sweating and electrolyte loss to bring lots of salty snacks. At this point we were over half way through our water and I estimated that we would get to the river in the next hour and a half –another miscalculation.
Side note: I brought my hiking umbrella on this trip and I don’t think I could have done it without it, this thing is a lifesaver! There is nothing like having your own personal shade when there is no shade to be found. Anyway…I digress
At 2:45 pm we were finally descending the Escalante dry creek drainage towards the river. Angie was worried that we would not be able to get water there, although all the trip information indicated that there would be river access. We were down to our last sips of water and I was starting to get seriously concerned about running out.
Finally we reached Escalante Beach at 3:30 pm and let me tell you, I have never been happier to see water! This place is literally an oasis in the desert. We are talking soft, white sands with cold, clear water that is gentle enough to swim in. The best part was that there was no one else there. Unfortunately we still had miles to go (2 miles according to the map but we’ll get to that). I soaked my tired feet, cleaned and wrapped my blisters and drank as much water as I could stomach, then refilled my water bladder. We figured that if we left at 4:30 pm then we’d reach our next camp by sunset, which was at 7:30 pm. I mean, we “only” had 2 miles to go, right?
Reluctantly we left this heavenly spot and continued on rocks slabs which soon reached the edge of cliffs dropping into Seventy Five Mile Canyon. It was still above 90 degrees out. Let me just say, this section was my favorite part of the whole trip, this canyon is impressive! The trail follows the edge of the canyon all the way to the head of the drainage, where there is a short, steep scramble down to the bottom. Note: this canyon is narrow and you would not want to be in there during flash flood season.
Once inside the canyon, we were FINALLY in the shade and the towering walls were just stunning! This area reminded me a bit of the Narrows in Zion National Park. What we didn’t know was that the 2 miles to the next camp were 2 river miles and did not include this mile-plus detour up and down the canyon. The canyon ended too quickly and the route became a bit more exciting at this point (or tedious, depending on your view).
The “trail” traverses along boulder fields and rocks ledges with a few areas of exposure and some rock scrambling. There were plenty of cairns to follow and route-finding was easy but we were making slow progress due to the terrain. At this point we were both pretty tired both mentally and physically.
We reached Papago Canyon at around 7 pm. From here come the 2 crux points of the route, a 40 foot class 3 scramble up Papago Wall, followed by a steep descent down the loose and treacherous Papago Slide. From there it was nearly another mile of beach walking to get to our intended destination. Although it would make our last day longer and harder, we decided that it would be prudent to stay and camp at Papago Beach, since we did not know how long the bypass would take and didn’t want to get caught in the dangerous section in the dark.
Exhausted, we basically just skipped dinner and threw up the tent, this time without the rain fly. The bats came out again and I lay for a while and looked up at the stars. The night sky was dark and the stars were bright, it was an amazing place to be and once again, we had the whole beach to ourselves.
Part 3: Papago Wall to New Hance Trail to Rim (8 miles, 5200′ elevation gain)
I tried to talk Angie into starting our hike as soon as it was light enough to see, around 5 am. She wasn’t buying it and I was so tired that it was easy to convince me to sleep until 6. This was a decision I’d regret later. We got ready quickly and got right down to business at 7 am with the scramble up Papago Wall. The scrambling is easy with lots of ledges and good handholds. It is exposed, however, and you would not want to take a fall here. I had brought a rope in case we wanted to haul up our packs but we ended up climbing it with them on, which made it a bit spicier.
After ascending Papago Wall, the trail climbs higher along the cliff, alternating between hiking and easy scrambling. Before we knew it we were at the crux of the trip: Papago Slide. This is a steep gully full of dirt, loose scree and huge boulders. It looks intimidating when you first see it, but there is a relatively easy way down, just look for cairns and a boot path and follow the least steep line. We descended slowly and stayed close together to avoid kicking rocks down on each other. Turns out it wasn’t too bad and soon we reached the beach trail with easy walking.
Hance Rapids are impressive to watch and there are lots of great campsites here. Of course, this was where we originally intended to camp, but we made the right decision not to continue the night before since the bypass section over Papago Wall had taken well over an hour, which means we would have been stranded in the dark. We filled up the maximum amount of water that we could carry in preparation for our 4600’ climb up to the rim. For me, this was 5.5 liters of water, enhanced with lemon-lime Gatorade powder. I soaked my Kool-Tie bandana, guzzled as much water as I could, and soaked my hat and tshirt. Nothing left to do now but walk uphill.
Time: 9:30 am
Temperature: 89 degrees
The New Hance Trail is not marked but basically you head directly up the drainage of Red Canyon, straight up from Hance Beach. Once you are on track there are occasional cairns to mark the way. We were moving slow as molasses in order to prevent overheating, and stopping about every 30-60 min in whatever shade we could find to cool down in. The route is relatively flat for a while, then eventually leaves the drainage and begins to climb.
At one spot we somehow missed the multiple cairns marking a sharp turn in the trail and started to head up another creek drainage. I realized that we hadn’t seen a cairn in a while and suddenly our drainage seemed to reach a dead end. Uh-oh. Thank goodness for Gaia GPS, which worked surprisingly well in the canyon. Sure enough, we were off-route but quickly retraced our steps and found the correct path. Time to climb!
Time: 1 pm
Temperature: 96 degrees
Elevation gain remaining: 2800’
Our shade breaks were becoming more frequent and lasting longer. The heat was relentless. On the other hand, the views were getting better and better as we climbed higher. The kicker was that this trail is only 6.5 miles from river to rim, which we thought would only take us about 7 hours tops, even with lots of breaks. We sure underestimated the difficulty of climbing steep, rough terrain in scorching temps. Angie was so tired that she accidentally sat on a cactus! The trail varies from ridge running, to skirting deep canyon, and the rim still seemed so far away.
Time: 4 pm
Temperature: 88 degrees
Elevation gain remaining: 2200’
I know what you are thinking –it took you 3 hours to gain 600 feet?! Well in our defense, the trail mostly maintains or even loses some elevation in this section, and we were starting to run low on water but knew we had “only” 2 miles and a little over 2000’ left to get to the rim. The best part was that the cliffs we were traversing were finally in the shade –hallelujah! For me, the coolness of the shade was like getting a second wind and I charged up the trail –that is, until I accidentally left my friend behind and she was upset with me for ditching her in a tricky route-finding area. Oops. Of course my energy burst did not last long and then I totally bonked, not surprising since I’d had no appetite and had hardly eaten all day. I took a couple of salt tablets and started the slow, uphill plod.
Two miles may seem short but don’t underestimate them. The last two miles to the rim are steep and rough, with just as much rock scrambling as there is hiking. The trail heads up the valley then cuts directly up the cliffs in short, steep switchbacks. We reached 6000’ at 6:30 pm and Angie informed me that she had run out of water and needed food. I had saved an “emergency” half liter of Gatorade so she drank some of that. She wasn’t happy when I told her that we still had 1000’ feet to climb. Sunset was in one hour.
The good news was that the temps were nice and cool in the shade, now that we were at a higher elevation. The sunset was spectacular, with bright orange sky over layers and layers of canyon shadows. With only a couple of hundred feet left to climb, we had to put on headlamps. Darkness was coming fast and this trail is just too treacherous and rocky to follow in the dark. Twenty minutes later, at about 8:15 pm, we reached the trailhead sign. WOOHOOO!!! I don’t think I have ever been so excited to see a trailhead.
With the hard work behind us, we were relieved and excited but also had one obstacle left: getting a ride back to our car. I figured that getting someone to give two dirty strangers a ride after dark would not be easy. There was plenty of traffic still driving along the road and we counted at least 30 cars that went by and not a single one stopped.
“Where are all the nice people?’ I grumbled, “Don’t they know how much we suffered today?!”
After about 20 minutes, we decided to just throw up the tent in the woods and try in the morning. I felt terrible because I knew my parents would be worried if they didn’t hear from me that night, but there was no cell reception here. We got to the other side of the road and stuck our thumbs out for a truck that was traveling in the opposite direction that we actually wanted to go. HE PULLED OVER!!! It was a nice local guy name Tai and he said he would give us and our stuff a ride back to our car, which was a 20 minute drive in the opposite direction than he was going. He restored my faith in the goodness of people, for real!
We got to the car and ran into another guy who had just finished a packrafting trip down the Little Colorado. He asked us what we had done and how long it had taken. We told him our route and that it took three days. He said “Wow, that is really fast!” We certainly didn’t feel fast but that made us feel a lot better!
The closest town was Tusayan, which is right outside the park entrance. I was way too tired to drive to Flagstaff so we were hoping to get a room somewhere here, which of course was packed full of holiday tourists. I walked into 2 hotels that were either booked or only had $300 suites available. I was getting some weird looks from people, not surprising since I was filthy, stinky, had wild hair and orange duct tape holding my shorts together. J Then we passed a tiny motel called the 7 Mile Lodge and they had a Vacancy sign on –score! The owner said she had one room left and the best part was that it was only $109! The room was clean and had updated appliances, a really great find and highly recommended. This was our second lucky break of the night.
Next on the agenda was food, of course. We were told that only McDonalds and Wendys were still open but had seen people in the pizza places so we decided to check them out first. The pizza/pasta place was closed so we drove across the street to Pizza Hut. Sure enough , they were closing up but the manager said they had two meat lovers pizzas left and asked if we wanted them. “We’ll take both!” I said. Clearly I was delirious with hunger at this point. Then he GAVE us both pizzas for FREE!! This was our lucky night! I was starting to like this town. Last stop was McDonalds drive through for the biggest Sprite I could drink while we scarfed an entire pizza just going through the drive-through. Showers and a clean bed ended a challenging and rewarding trip.
The Grand Canyon was everything I hoped for and more. I can’t wait to get back here and see what else this spectacular place has to offer.
Consider this route if:
- You are looking for something a bit more challenging than a rim to rim hike
- You are an experienced backpacker and scrambler and like remote trails
- Like comfy beach camps along the river
- Are comfortable with exposure and tricky route-finding
- Like a challenge
Here are a few tips I would offer:
- Don’t go in late May like we did! I think April or October would be the best months to go, when temperatures are more tolerable
Carry more water than you think you need, and make sure to add electrolytes to replace what you are sweating out. We ate salty
- snacks, added electrolytes to our water, and took salt and electrolyte tablets hourly.
- Wear short gaiters to keep rocks and sand out of shoes. Also, bring a good blister kit. It had been years since either of us had developed blisters from hiking and we both got them on this trip.
- A PLB would be smart to bring, although we didn’t have one. The route is very remote and we saw only one person in three days
- Hiking umbrellas are the bomb!
- Be comfortable with rock scrambling and route-finding, this trip is not for beginners.
- Allow more time than you think you need, the canyon is deceptively difficult and numbers alone do not do it justice