Descending the Tanner Trail into the Grand Canyon
More than five million people visit the Grand Canyon each year; fewer than 5% of them descend below the rim to explore the Inner Canyon, and fewer still secure highly coveted backcountry permits for overnight trips—which is to say the Grand Canyon feels downright empty when you are exploring its labyrinthine features from 4,500 feet below the rim.
As is wont to happen when you have a healthy collection of adventurer-type friends, I was invited to join a group of women who were headed to Grand Canyon National Park in mid-April to backpack the renowned Escalante Route. Five days spent traipsing through one of America’s most iconic natural wonders with five other badass women who were certain to infuse me with some much-needed inspiration, insight, and laughter? Sign me up.
The Tanner-Escalante-Grandview Circuit explores the wild side of the park’s South Rim. The challenges: route finding, exposure, class 3 scrambling under the weight of a full pack. The rewards: camping on empty beaches alongside the roaring Colorado River, big views of an indescribably vast terrain, solitude. Or, if you prefer to visualize the adventure quantitatively, here’s a rundown of my experience on the epic Escalante Route by the numbers:
- 5 days
- 4 campsites
- 34 miles of hiking
- Countless thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss while passing through the myriad rock layers and micro-climates of the Grand Canyon
- 6 hilarious and strong and decidedly dirty women
- 6 wire-mesh ratsacks to keep pesky vermin out of the food supply
- 1 Grand Canyon Rattlesnake (crotalus oreganus abyssus)
- A lifetime’s supply of freeze-dried Mountain House dinners
- A few errant ticks
- One too many Probars
For a detailed summary of the Backpacking the Grand Canyon itinerary, see the full post in the Travel Itineraries section.
Sunset from the South Rim
Day 1 (Lipan Point to Tanner Rapids)
We began at Lipan Point, a designated canyon viewpoint roughly 20 miles east of Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim, where we followed the Tanner Trail for 1.2 miles down a brutally steep, switchbacking path that deposited us 1,300 feet below the rim in short order. Bypassing Escalante and Cardenas Buttes, we continued for 6 miles down to the Colorado River where we set up camp at Tanner Rapids.
This first day entails a knee-knocking descent of 4,500 feet into the Inner Canyon. The mind-blowing views make up for the joint pain, however. Across the Canyon, undulating red striations in the rock were lit aflame as the afternoon waned; the Colorado, a trickle of a river when observed from the South Rim, revealed its strength and fury with churning rapids as we inched closer. You could hear the river and feel it even when you could not see it.
To descend into the Canyon, you have to be willing to part with modern world for a while. Cellphone signals disappear; day hikers and casual canyon-goers are left behind. Down into the gaping maw of geological history you go, so far down, in fact, it is difficult to fathom the respective ages of the rock strata you bypass. The oldest rocks at the bottom of the Inner Canyon are close to 2 billion-years-old. The Canyon itself—an erosional feature—has formed only in the past five or six million years. Geologically speaking, the Grand Canyon is very young; its deepest rock strata, however, harken back to the earliest periods of multicellular life on earth.
Of course, I was not thinking about protozoa during the hike in; I was already thinking about the hike out, what a hot and sweaty quad-busting day that would be. I was also thinking about how lucky I am, to be able to have new experiences at age 31 which are truly mind-blowing. To see something unique, something remarkable, and something indescribably novel at this age is to return to the state of experiencing things as a child does, with a childlike glee and an unrestrained joy. In that moment of heightened feeling, the sensation of unbridled elation coursing through one’s veins is almost as beautiful as the sight itself.
John Wesley Powell, the one-armed explorer credited with leading the first group of white men down the Colorado River through the Canyon, had this to say about the place: “The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.” In short, there are no words that can adequately describe what you are seeing when you experience the Grand Canyon, whether for the first or the fiftieth time. Your head swivels and your eyes devour the colors and the depths and the dimensions while your brain issues a gentle reminder that you are merely looking at one sliver of one section of an enormous gash in the earth which runs 277 miles from Lee’s Ferry to the Grand Wash Cliffs.
Mind equals blown.
Day 2 (Tanner Rapids to Escalante Creek)
Pleased that no vermin had broken into our ratsacks during the night, we headed west on the unmaintained Escalante Trail for 8 miles to our next campsite at the intersection of Escalante Creek with the Colorado River.
It was a scorching day, and the desert landscape was awash with a variety of cacti and yucca plants. On average, it is 20 degrees warmer in the Inner Canyon than it is 4,500+ feet above on the South and North Rims. I had been forewarned of the discrepancy, but I do not think the reality registered until I was humping a 40-pound pack under the midday sun without a cloud in the sky. Of all of the places managed by the National Park Service, the Grand Canyon consistently records the greatest number of yearly search and rescue missions. The reasons for this are multifarious, but surely the most ironic one involves dehydration and an absence of water sources—in a canyon bisected by one of the country’s greatest rivers, nearly all of its other water sources, from streams to natural springs, are intermittent and unreliable.
I was thinking of how easy it would be to die in this place as we veered off the Escalante Trail and made a quick side trip to the Unkar Rapid overlook, a prominent outcropping from which we could peer down many hundreds of feet onto the white water of the rapid. From there, we steadily gained altitude and wound over red-rock scree fields, contouring around cliffs and gorges that dot the Inner Canyon. At our high point of the day, 1,800 feet above the Colorado, we paused for a moment to catch our breaths, nibble on calorie-dense protein bars, and scan the horizon which felt strangely limitless from deep within the canyon.
We spent that night on an empty, windswept beach of pristine sand, no more than 20 steps from the waters of the Colorado River, foregoing tents and tarps in favor of sleeping under the stars: six sleeping bags spread out in a row with our individual ratsacks dutifully strung from the trees behind us.
Day 3 (Escalante Creek to Hance Rapids)
Now the real (route finding) adventure begins. Following cairns contouring above the Escalante Canyon drainage, we moved upstream in a single file to the crux of the Escalante Route: Seventyfive Mile Canyon, a 300-foot-tall labyrinthine slot canyon with quartz-studded walls and a polished walkway of pebbles leading back to the Colorado River. One of our group members, the unflappable Trinity L., a Gossamer Gear Ambassador of minimalist backpacking fame, had completed the Escalante Route a couple of years prior, so whatever route needed to be found we fortunately found with seamless ease.
At the head of the canyon, we walked down 30-feet of ledges to the slot’s floor. After a half mile progression through the snaking, narrow cut of rock, we reached the Colorado where we stopped for lunch. With only 3.5 miles to cover this day, everything felt leisurely and luxurious—long naps in the midday sun after a lunch of beef jerky, trail mix and Probars; extended side jaunts through high grass along the riverbank where we oohed and aahed at the sight of a somnolent Grand Canyon Rattlesnake. There was that childlike glee again, coursing through every vein as our minds operated in a suspended state of wonder.
We resumed our forward march with 100-feet of scrambling up a rock wall—cairns marking the best route—and proceeded to meander across broad cliff shelves, with a few more rock scrambles thrown in for good measure, before returning to the river’s shore to camp at Hance Rapids. 48 hours had passed since I last laid eyes on people outside of our hiking party. Hance Rapids broke the blissful spell of isolation. Walking into the campsite, we nodded hello to a man setting up his tent, waved to a couple headed down to the river to filter water, and watched a few others rock back and forth in Crazy Creeks in a wordless, languid stupor induced by the midday sun. Without speaking, our group of six meandered further down the trail and set up tents and tarps underneath a low-hanging, far-reaching mesquite tree whose branches engulfed us in what felt like one giant hug of relative isolation.
Day 4 (Hance Rapids to Miner’s Spring)
The day in which we would have to leave the Colorado River behind dawned cool and comfortable under a layer of much appreciated cloud cover. From Hance Rapids we marched over sand dunes on the East Tonto Trail, winding around the rim of Mineral Canyon below Ayer Point. It was here that we bid farewell to the mighty river and began the long, steady climb out of the canyon through a landscape of succulents, scrub brush, and flowering barrel cacti. We covered the 8 miles between Hance Rapids and Hance Creek, our intended campsite for the evening, in fairly short order, arriving at Hance Creek around 1pm.
To continue or not to continue, that became the pressing question. A little more than a mile up the trail, a permanent water source known as Miner’s Spring was marked on our maps. As the spring was still in our permit zone for the evening, we debated whether to move ahead and give ourselves a jumpstart on the final day’s notoriously challenging hike out of the canyon. Would there actually be water at the spring? Would we find a place to pitch tents amidst the steep contour lines of a narrow canyon? We were momentarily sidetracked from making a decision by an impromptu tick scare after someone in our party found a tick in her hair. Everyone immediately felt compelled to check various bodily nooks and crannies; the scene devolved into six women furiously kneading scalps like dough. Oh, the joys of backcountry living—how rapidly we all become neanderthals.
Moments after the scare subsided, a passing hiker alerted us that there was nowhere to camp at the spring. “It’s located in a narrow gorge of loose rock,” she told us. Nowhere to camp, rather than sound like an ominous warning however, was received as more of a fun challenge to this crew. So we set off for the final 1.3 miles and 800 feet of elevation gain of the day.
Our fellow hiker was right, of course. Miner’s Spring is located in a steep, narrow gorge filled with boulders previously dislodged by strong water runoff. She was wrong to suggest it was uninhabitable, though. We spread our tents and tarps out on a series of ledges in the dry riverbed, renamed the place ‘Ferngully’, casually remarked a few times that we sure hoped it wouldn’t rain tonight (and in all fairness, both the weather forecast and the current conditions indicated it would be a dry evening), slowly filled our Camelbaks with spring water that emerged from a mossy rock in a steady flow of single drips, and nestled down to watch a memorable sunset light up the rock walls far across the canyon in vivid hues of red, orange and purple.
Day 5 (Miner’s Spring to the North Rim via the Grandview Trail)
3,000 feet of elevation gain and 3.6 miles to go—these were the numbers to know before we would top out on the South Rim. Within those numbers, however, exist a bevy of historic sights that flush out the canyon’s modern history. Between Miner’s Spring and Horseshoe Mesa, we passed Last Chance Mine, scene of rusty debris sticking out of the mineshaft and oxidized copper fragments scattered about the trail. Once atop the Mesa, we walked past abandoned mines warning of radiation contamination. At least one of these mines had been blocked off because someone had contracted the Hantavirus after spending the night in its the gaping mineshaft.
From Horseshoe Mesa, we steadily marched out of the canyon on the Grandview Trail for 3 miles following a series of well-enforced switchbacks, ascending 2,140 feet to the South Rim while trudging in the footsteps of miners and mules and now encountering day hikers with increasing regularity. I watched some foolhardy teenagers scamper down the steps without water bottles or extra layers and was reminded in a glance why the Grand Canyon incurs more visitor rescues than any other national park.
The end always comes quickly to these sorts of trips. Within moments of reaching the South Rim, a series of hugs were exchanged, cell phones were turned on, a picture was taken, one carload ferried friends to Colorado, and the rest of us returned to Las Vegas. The real world swallows you whole much as the Grand Canyon does. It is immediate and unforgiving. But while one subsumes you in silence and splendor, the other floods your senses with the jarring noise of rumbling RVs and the acrid fumes of cigarette smoke. This is why we have National Parks—to escape. And this is why we have backcountry trails within National Parks—to escape our initial escape.
Permit: Required. $10 permit plus $5 per person per night. Apply early (as much as 4 months in advance): https://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/index.htm
Season(s): Target spring or fall for cooler weather and fewer crowds.