It seems odd that during the Thanksgiving holiday when most are planning for get-togethers with family and where so many crowd stores for specials on Black Friday that I am alone in the depths of the Grand Canyon at a place called Nankoweap.
No internet. No cell phone reception. Nobody else to document and record my trek, except what notes I make myself, which after sunset is difficult due to the cold.
The Park Service lists the Nankoweap Trail as "most difficult" because of narrow ledges and steep drops, but also with some of most stunning vistas of any trail in the Grand Canyon. It also advises not to hike it alone. So noted.
I started my journey the day before Thanksgiving. I left Flagstaff before sunrise and after passing through Cameron and Marble Canyon I reached the trailhead, some 165 miles away, by 9:30 a.m. The last 27 miles are on a dirt road that is generally in good shape but goes through some ravines that may be flooded and/or muddy.
Until I had arrived at the trailhead I had forgotten about last summer’s Fuller Fire, which had closed down some roads on the North Rim for a time in late July. That fire burned all the way down to, and beyond, this trailhead. When I arrived, the apocalyptic landscape was a shock – what had been a rather dense forest of juniper and pinyon was now a dead zone of blackened trunks and branches. The wooden trail signs were completely burned away, with only their metal posts remaining.
It is three miles from the trailhead to the saddle between Saddle Mountain and the North Rim where the National Park boundary lies and where the Nankoweap Trail properly begins. Much of the first part of this hike was through this burned-out landscape. Late summer and early fall rains had washed away many portions of the trail and until more cairns appear it may be easily lost along the lower section of this trail. Nearer to the saddle the forest was in better shape, although many of the ponderosa pines up here were charred.
POWELL PARTY BUILT TRAIL
The Nankoweap Trail was built in 1882 by a party of men under the direction of famed canyon explorer Major John Wesley Powell. The trail was to be used by Charles Walcott to conduct a geological survey of the eastern portion of the canyon. The work began in mid-November, and as I hiked down this trail I would often fall into a reverie of what that experience was like. This day’s entry in Walcott’s journal reads, “Took a long walk down the canon to Nun-Ko-weap valley with Major.”
From the saddle it is a long eight miles to the creek, which is the nearest water source. For many miles the trail winds its way along a thin shelf in the Supai layer. There are places here where the trail narrows and hikers often refer to them as “scary” and for good reason.
Eventually the trail starts to descend to a formation called Tilted Mesa and then down through the Redwall. I was starting to run short of time and was anxious to get well below the Redwall before having to use my headlamp. This part of the trail is hard enough by daylight and nearly impossible to do at night.
I actually got down almost to the Tapeats layer before I needed to put on my headlamp. It took me another 75 minutes to finally reach a campsite at the creek. The hike down really wore me out and I spent two lethargic hours setting up my camp, getting water and fixing dinner, only half of which I finished before turning in for the night.
BELOW FREEZING AT NIGHT
I was up at 7 a.m. the next morning, Thanksgiving Day, and while it was light outside it was still very cold and packing up my camp took more than a couple of hours. Hiking in the canyon during the winter has its advantages – it is relatively easy to get permits and you can have wide swathes of the canyon all to yourself. The disadvantages include the cold, often below freezing at night, the very long nights and generally a heavier pack to carry.
This morning I had thought I might hike up and over into Kwagunt Canyon, but a ring of cliffs stymied my progress. After a few attempts to find a break I headed back down to Nankoweap Creek and then began a hike up one of its tributaries that leads up to Mystic Falls, one of the canyon’s finest waterfalls.
I camped at a junction of two side canyons. To the west was the one leading to the falls; to the east was one that starts a most interesting off-trail route that leads back up to the rim trailhead. Called the “Marion-Seiber Route” for the names of the two points that flank this canyon, it was clearly used by miners in the canyon’s past as there are residual trail segments that show some construction.
Black Friday was my last day in the canyon. While I didn’t do any shopping, like many others I was up and outside in the bitter cold of the early dawn. The ground was mostly frozen as I packed up my camp. I was on my way at a quarter past eight. I spent more than two hours hiking up this canyon, sometimes over a smooth gravel bed, sometimes hopping small rocks and sometimes climbing up and around larger boulders.
The next three hours were grueling as I covered about one mile as the raven flies and gained about 1,500 feet in elevation, getting me to the top of the Redwall formation. Thin ledges to climb, giant boulders to bypass, steep slopes to climb, brushy terrain to fight through, and cold all the way through. Branches would poke me in the head and snag my pack. The holly bushes have sharp-edged leaves and were difficult to wade through. Loose rocks were a constant threat.
The canyon is very narrow here and serves as an excellent echo chamber. Had there been any hikers up above me on the Nankoweap Trail they would certainly have wondered about the string of curse words coming from down below them. Repeatedly.
Once above the Redwall, the canyon opens up a bit and three cliffs in the Supai layer must be climbed in order to reach the formal trailhead near the rim. I was able to follow a bit of a path that lead to breaks through all three cliffs and was on the trail at the rim a bit after 3 p.m. Following a 30-minute break I started down to the lower trailhead where I had parked, reaching it at 6 p.m.
Although it was a hard day physically, at least it wasn’t hard on my wallet. Except that Cyber Monday was coming up, so maybe I need to do another hike!