Category Archives: Arizona

Brahma Temple

Temples from South Kaibab

Grinding out the South Kaibab climb, jogging some flatter sections but not wanting to put in maximum effort, I reflected on the fact that it will be 40 years this fall since I first hiked down that trail. The Grand Canyon is therefore a special place for me, so while I prefer mountains and generally dislike deserts, I always find excuses to return. I will never be a Canyon obsessive like Harvey Butchart, who sussed out all the Redwall breaks allowing passage from Rim to River, but the place has enough intrinsic interest outside the nostalgia.

In this case, I realized that several of the buttes are climbable at grades I can manage without a rope, including Brahma Temple, Zoroaster (“ZOE-roast-er”) Temple’s easier, higher, and less popular neighbor. While it may be approachable directly from the North Rim, the most common route takes the Zoroaster approach from the Clear Creek Trail. A couple of people I follow on Strava had recently done it in a day from the South Rim, confirming my belief that doing so was reasonable, and I even found a decent map on a blog I had run across before.

Sunrise on O’Neill Butte

Not knowing how long it would take me, but also not wanting to waste time running the initial descent by headlamp, I decided to start around dawn and bring a headlamp just in case. I camped off one of the Forest roads just outside the east entrance, then drove into the park around 6:00. Given the popularity of Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, I expected the picnic area parking lot across from the Kaibab trailhead to be full, but there were only a half-dozen cars. I took my time getting ready, then set off in a light overshirt, with 2500 calories and a cup of water in my pack. I passed the expected backpackers at the trailhead, then took some guy’s birthday photo before starting down.

Tipoff Rock

I had jogged the road to the trailhead, and felt good taking the descent at something like a genuine run, though the average grade of about 13% makes it a bit too steep to be comfortable. While some of the surface is pleasantly smooth, much is either rocky and chewed by mules, or split by endless equally-spaced steps. Because every man and beast falls into the same rhythm on these steps, they quickly develop hollows filled with dust behind them. This means that the best way to run without tripping is to land on the wooden retaining logs themselves, placing extra strain on one’s calves. While the trail no doubt sees more traffic than ever, there was less (mule) urine and feces than I remembered, a pleasant surprise.

Crossing the bridge

I made the descent from Rim to River in about an hour, mostly enjoying the descent, then was hit with a concentrated dose of my least favorite parts of the canyon. First, I got off the bridge to find a mule train stopped at the Bright Angel ruins while a Navajo-looking guide talked at length about the former inhabitants. Since they were stopped in the middle of a narrow part of the trail between a cliff and the ruins, I could not pass. The cowboy at the other end said they would be moving on in “a minute,” but it was more like ten before the two guides and their line of soft, bored-looking dumplings trundled past. I ate a sandwich and stewed about the oblivious entitlement shown by packers everywhere as they harm the vast majority of trail users. Shortly after finally starting, I passed a fat, sullen ranger packing a pistol. I was initially irritated at her, but soon transferred my ire to a system that takes caring for one of the world’s most beautiful places, and turns it into a soul-crushing menial job attracting and creating the attitude of boredom and petty authority found in mall cops.

South Rim from above Clear Creek

Stopping at Phantom Ranch, I drank as much as I could, then filled up my two-liter bladder for the dry, hot part of the day before jogging up-canyon to the Clear Creek trail. I was tired of the trodden and familiar corridor trails, so it was pleasant to head out into the Park’s less-traveled regions. I passed a surprising number of backpackers (as in “three”), who had taken in enough solitude to be cheerful meeting a stranger. Near where the trail crosses the first major wash below Zoroaster Temple, I left it to follow the west branch toward what I thought was the correct break in the Redwall.

Zoroaster and Brahma from approach

I found enough cairns and footprints to reassure me that I was on the right track, but it was still essentially cross-country desert travel, either in the rocky wash, or up the mixture of limestone choss and thorny plants to either side. It turns out that a trail emerges left of the wash as it steepens near the gap, but I missed it on the way up, instead slogging up the loose slope. The route’s first difficulty is a dryfall in the Redwall gap, avoided by third class climbing to the right. To my irritation, I found a rap anchor above this detour, nylon trash left by Real Climbers too incompetent or lazy to scramble down easy terrain they had previously ascended. Oddly, I found no similar detritus above the more difficult terrain above, a bit of class 4 on the left wall bypassing a second step.

Two large cairns marked the top of the break, at a saddle between an unnamed butte and Zoroaster’s long west ridge. Here I found an intermittent use trail, as climbers approaching the butte were forced onto a single feasible path. I also found two well-used tent platforms, though I would have preferred starting earlier from Phantom Ranch to carrying gallons of water to this dry camp. The trail disappeared above the platforms, but the terrain suggested trending left to get around the first Supai cliff bands. While it is not one of the Canyon’s steeper sections, the Supai has enough hard layers to force one to weave back and forth looking for weaknesses. Most of these seemed to be on the left/north side of the ridge, requiring much side-hilling on packed dirt.

Top of Supai slot

I eventually found some cairns leading to the first break, two low fifth class corners leading back and up to the ridge crest. Not having done any climbing in awhile, I was hesitant on the gritty sandstone, but eventually found my groove. Above this cliff band, I looked again to the left, then found cairns leading right to an improbable slot leading through the next. From there, a long stretch of easy walking on the crest led to the base of the main obstacle, a tall layer of cliffs below the Hermit Shale and Coconino of upper Zoroaster Temple.

First handline

Here there was a single, clear path, boot-prints in the dirt and mud leading on a long left traverse to an amphitheater where the single high cliff was eroded into smaller, manageable sections. The route weaves back and forth to find their weaknesses, with two permanent hand-lines on the most difficult ones. I first tried to climb both without touching the lines, but quickly realized that the necessary smearing on gritty sandstone in running shoes was beyond my current skill and confidence. With the knotted ropes to grab, neither pitch presented much difficulty.

Above, I followed the main trail up loose garbage, then descended to the saddle with Brahma Temple, where I found only a single set of old prints. While the summit register suggested that 5-10 people per year climb Brahma, but it is far less popular than Zoroaster, which holds a destination route for Real Climbers. The near side of Brahma is too steep to climb, forcing another long side-hill on steep red dirt around its left side. Once the Coconino became more broken, another convoluted route with some class 4 bits led to the summit ridge, where some walking and a couple of short steps led to the summit.

Zoroaster from Brahma

Brahma Temple is about as high as the South Rim, so it commands a fine view of Zoroaster nearby and below, Wotan’s Throne to the east, and the Gorge in both directions. It also has cell service, so I texted a couple friends as I huddled away from the wind and perused the summit register. It had taken me a bit over five hours from the South Rim, but nearby NAU is a strong running school, so I was not surprised to read that someone had done it in 4h07 a couple years earlier. I ate about half of my Mexican calorie puck (La Molienda Mazapan), then got tired of the wind and began retracing my steps.

Most of route from Brahma

The off-trail portion was only slightly faster on the way down, as the loose desert ground, particularly the limestone, somehow manages to simultaneously grab at your shoes, remain unstable, and be dangerous to fall on. I had some minor trouble retracing my route down the Coconino, having to backtrack and take a slightly harder line in a couple places, then got back into the groove. I tried side-hilling around Zoroaster rather than climbing to the trail, though I doubt it saved me much time. I followed the trail below the notch, hiked the wash, then jogged what I felt like of Clear Creek on the way back to Phantom Ranch.

O’Neill Butte and temples

I lingered in the shade near the canteen, drinking a liter o water and filling up another two, then eating one of my last two bars while listening to the resting hikers. I suppose I could have tried to put in a fast time, but it didn’t seem worth the effort, so while I jogged the descent to the Colorado and parts of the climb, I mostly just walked. Two more mule trains passed me near the bridge, but I saw almost no people between there and the Redwall hut, giving my mind time to wander as I rhythmically climbed the endless steps. Above the hut I encountered the tourist hordes come to watch the sunset. The final switchbacks were a disgusting traffic jam, with the trailhead crowded enough that I did not feel like lingering. Instead I strolled back to my car, where I ate continuously for an hour before driving out of the park again in search of a place to camp.

Signal Mountain

Sunset on Castle Dome

[Thanks again to Leonie for an early draft of parts of this. — ed.]

The Kofa Mountains are a remote desert range east of Highway 95 in southwest Arizona, surrounded by an eponymous BLM wilderness area created to protect bighorn sheep, and a proving ground created to blow stuff up. “Kofa” is not a native word, but a contraction of “King of Arizona,” the name of a briefly successful gold mine. The area is mainly a popular refuge for winter RVers, but it also includes two of the better summits on the DPS list, Signal and Castle Dome Peaks. Since it is roughly on the way between Organ Pipe and the Owens Valley, we decided to pay it a visit.

The original plan was to put in several hours’ drive, visit the mining museum, then camp at the Castle Dome trailhead before climbing it the next morning. We drove a mix of desert roads and Interstate 8, then turned north before Yuma on 95, which rivals 50 for the title of “Loneliest Road in the US.” Upon turning toward Castle Dome, we were met with signs saying “NO STOPPING NEXT 5 MILES,” with the clear but unstated implication that those who stop might end up on the wrong end of a live fire exercise. The road was as washboarded as expected, but otherwise fine, and the ten miles to the museum passed painlessly.

Sunset ocotillos

Land ownership is unfortunately complicated in the valley: in addition to the Yuma Proving Ground in the south, there are many private parcels within the BLM land, including the mining museum and its environs. Going back as far as the 1990, and as recently as early 2019, one could drive past the museum on a good dirt road to Castle Dome’s base, through three unlocked gates. However sometime between February 2019 and January 2020, the unfriendly owners of the mining museum blocked this access route, locking the gates, rolling large rocks across the road, and adding signs threatening even pedestrians. Their stated reason is that people were stealing mining junk from the abandoned claims. It was not clear to me whether it was legal to block this access to federal land, or whether the road should have remained a right-of-way, but I am not a lawyer, and the lady at the museum office talked about calling the nearby feds on people. Given that said feds have both serious guns and a surveillance blimp, it seemed like a bad idea to try poaching the peak. (I later found a trip report describing the new, longer, and rougher access route.) So instead we went for a walk until it got dark, then went to sleep under the blimp’s watchful gaze.

The palms

With our late and messed-up start, we salvaged the day by heading over to Signal, the Kofa Range’s other DPS peak. Both it and Castle Dome are impressive, as are a number of the peaks in between, though the latter is both more dramatic and less difficult, at least from the west. There is an easier trail up Signal’s east side, but it involves more dirt road driving, so we followed Bob and took the west route via Palm Canyon. This requires a small amount of low-fifth-class climbing, though much less than one would expect given the peak’s sheer aspect. The canyon is named for its small grove of California fan palms, the only one in Arizona.

Upper cliffs

Though we started late around 10:00, it was still cold and shady for our approach, so I was hiking in my down jacket. We met three guys hanging out near the palms, which are nestled a couple hundred yards up a side-canyon, but decided to see them on the way down, since we had an unknown amount of climbing and desert thorn-whacking ahead of us, and standing on top of piles of rock is always more important than seeing unique flora. The official trail gradually fades into a faint and intermittently-cairned use trail, then further decays into braided game trails made by the apparently abundant but shy sheep.

Kofa Valley and approach road

The canyon is filled with all manner of unpleasant desert plants; in addition to the usual cacti and yuccas, there are woody and prickly oak-brush, and some other plant, much greener, with actual spines on its leaves. Clearly neither plant wants to be eaten, and both go to extravagant lengths to make this desire clear — such is the desert. The trail climbs one ravine to where it ends at the peak’s west cliffs, then climbs into its neighbor to the right. Where the second ravine is choked with impenetrable brush, a fourth class wash leads out to the left. I scrambled up, unsure whether this was the correct route, and Leonie leerily followed. Where this branch ends, I spotted a thin and slabby traverse leading right around the difficulties, which felt low fifth class to me. I pulled out the rope in a frigid alcove, then trailed it around the corner and up 30 feet to an old anchor, from which I belayed Leonie. A few minutes higher, we finally reached our first sun of the day and were able to stop for a sort-of lunch.


From our lunch spot, we followed a mixture of class 2-3 rock and desert thrashing up what turned out to be a side-ridge, then descended to a narrow saddle before climbing again to the summit plateau. The Kofa Range seems to have confusing topography, with confusing branching gullies and unexpected cliffs, so I was glad to have a clear track to follow, and to be doing this part during the day. We summited at 2:50, painfully aware of the limited remaining daylight, but still took some time to enjoy our surroundings. Castle Dome looked every bit as impressive from this direction, and the rest of the range looked interesting as well. Nearby Ten Ewe seemed straightforward from its saddle with Signal, with its high east face suggesting long technical routes. A dramatic pinnacle to the south turned out to be Squaw Peak, about which I could find nothing online, and which looks technical from all sides.

Squaw peak

But we were running out of daylight, and soon deployed into hustle mode — in the wrong direction. Heading east following Bob’s route, we hoped to skirt the cliffs of the summit block and return to the car via Four Palms Canyon, sparing us tedious rope-work on the descent. After a decent trail devolved into chossy steep slopes we abandoned this plan, retracing our steps, forfeiting 45 minutes of precious daylight and dooming ourselves to some hard headlamp hours. The return trip involved scrambling, loose slopes, circuitous route finding, encounters with spiky shrubbery, a rappel, lowering Leonie down a sketchy clifflet and ferocious wind. We stumbled like drunken teens as fatigue set in hours after our headlamps came out. Despite a 20 pound rock rolling into her calf and a yucca drawing blood below her knee, Leonie maintained good humor, reciting poetry, telling jokes and singing an improvised song to the tune of “Both Hands” by Ani DiFranco:

I am ‘shwacking all through the night
And I am crawling over boulders by a very dim head light
And I am getting no closer to the car
I keep on moving, but it seems so far….

Ten Ewe Peak

After I offered her my brighter headlamp I led the way by her fading one and the flashlight from my phone. Intermittent GPS and occasional cairns guided us down the boulder strewn wash sprinkled with bloodthirsty desert flora. After a reckless backtrack and the determined application of my will and cellular data, I found a trail whose quality improved as we moved closer to the trailhead. We consumed our last calories and rejoiced in our ability to walk unhindered for the final hundred yards, reaching our twin Honda Elements at 8:30, thoroughly exhausted.

I mashed canned chicken into stale sandwich bread for dinner, while Leonie chewed on a red bell pepper and listened to Nordic folk music. We squirmed into bed in Leonie’s pop-top camper at 9:30 and were tormented by the wind until dawn. Aaah, Signal mountain… winter desert peaks with a start time after 11 AM. We sure ain’t never gonna learn.

Pinkley Peak

Smaller arch

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is about as far south and down as Arizona goes, so it was perhaps inevitable that we would end up there eventually. It was established during Prohibition, when the state donated the land to the federal government so they would pave the road, making it easier for bootleggers to smuggle booze up from Mexico. Since then, it has gone on to protect the far northern reaches of the Sonoran desert, which lies mostly in eastern Baja and north-central Mexico. Though the most distinctive species is the organ pipe cactus, a bundle of five- to fifteen-foot-tall stalks several inches in diameter, the park’s lowlands are most notable for their dense forests of saguaros. Most of the park lacks roads and trails, but there are two scenic loops on either side of Highway 85, each with several short tourist trails, a few well-worn use trails to some landmarks, and some migrant trails with the usual detritus of Mexican tuna cans and candy wrappers.

Organ Pipe is known among peak-baggers for its two DPS peaks, Ajo and Kino, both of which seem to be the typical desert fare: a long march across an alluvial plain followed by a slog up rotten volcanic rock covered in spiky plants. Fortunately there are other things to see, including the flora and fauna (e.g. javelinas, occasional desert bighorns), some cool volcanic features and, arguably, an interesting visitor center. We checked out the latter, then headed across the street to the eastern scenic loop, intending to tag Ajo Peak.

Arch from TH

Partway around the loop, we were distracted by a striking pair of natural arches, one on top of the other. Unlike those in Arches National Park, which are carved from sandstone by wind erosion, these seem have formed from volcanic rhyolite and breccia (a.k.a. “choss”) via the universe’s natural trend toward greater entropy. The lower arch is around twenty feet high and fifty long, while the upper is twenty long, less than ten high, and only a foot or so thick at its thinnest point. Given the nature of the rock, this may become a single arch within my lifetime, but fortunately the upper arch is too difficult for most tourists to reach. There is an official trail up the wash toward the two, then a well-used social trail to the base of the lower one.

Sunset at campground

Since the sign said that the lower arch was only a mile or so away, we left our packs in the car in anticipation of a quick hike. We followed the official trail to its end at a sign warning about illegal immigrants, with graffiti urging people to “give them water!” There is a tension along this part of the border between enforcement — two checkpoints along Highway 85, and 500 Border Patrol agents since a ranger was killed in 2003 — and aid — official emergency call boxes topped by flashing blue lights, water stations, and no doubt volunteer water caches. With summer air temperatures well over 110 degrees, rugged terrain, and a long hike to civilization at Ajo, the crossing near Sonoyta seems dangerous, but it also seems popular judging by the empty water jugs and camp remnants.

Larger arch

The arch trail was steep but easy to follow, and we met another couple on their way down. The trail climbs abruptly to the ridge, then traverses and descends to the arch’s base, but peak-bagger that I am, I of course wanted to stand on top. We briefly explored the near end, but could not tell where the main arch began or ended from there, so after draining a fresh tinaja, we continued to the inside of the arch, then took a look at the far end. The south side looked unwise to climb, even with rock shoes, so I went around to explore the north side, sparing Leonie a probable waste of time.

Old piton

After a false start, I continued around to find a route that was no more than class four, and seemed to reach the top. I scrambled up to an intermediate plateau, then called for Leonie to join me, assuming with my usual optimism that the rest of the way would be no harder. One more slightly exposed traverse and scramble got us to the top of the main arch, where we found a sidewalk in the sky leading to the tiny upper one. I was tempted to walk across the mini-arch, but it was only a bit over a foot wide and less than that deep; it had probaly held for thousands of years, but it likely saw little foot traffic, and I would have been crushed (and possibly injured) if it collapsed under my weight. Instead we took turns hanging from it, then completed the loop by scrambling back to the trail side, passing an old piton along the way. The area appears to have a lot of climbing potential, and seeing hardware on such a minor and not-too-difficult route made me think that someone from nearby Tucson had explored it.

Ajo from Pinkley

Organ Pipe is far away from anything else, so it made sense to spend multiple days there. The natural thing for me to do would be to climb Ajo, which we had not had time to do after the unexpected arch diversion, but that would involve repeating the same 20-mile dirt “scenic” drive, so we looked around for something else and settled on Pinkley Peak, in the opposite direction from the visitor center. The friendly ranger there had suggested a loop up the peak and along the ridge to Dripping Springs, returning along another one-way scenic road, advice that seemed to reflect her enthusiasm, overconfidence in our abilities, and lack of experience.

Arch on Pinkley

Pinkley rises like a constellation of spiny plants in the firmament of volcanic choss northwest of the visitor center. While a few dedicated peak-baggers climb it from the end of the two-way dirt road, not enough do so to create a use trail or even a line of cairns, so we parked at the picnic area, then took off on what seemed like a plausible line up a wash toward its summit ridge. The ranger had noted correctly that cross-country travel in the Sonoran desert is easy across flat ground, and rough in the washes, but all parts of the hillsides seem similarly difficult. The ravines are still brush-choked, but the ridges are often rotten, sometimes cliffy, and frequently covered in dense cholla and catclaw. They are also confusing, since the slow erosion seems to create complex and unintuitive topography.

Smuggler solar panel

Passing some interesting geode-like rocks embedded in breccia, we eventually reached the summit ridge, where we were met with more solid rock and some difficulties. We passed one step via class 3 terrain to the right, another via an angled chimney-ramp, then traversed left to avoid a false summit. In returning to the summit ridge, we found the day’s only solid rock, some dark class 3-4 slabs. To my surprise, we had continued to find occasional Mexican tuna cans along the way, and found a camping cave just below the summit, with some foul bedding, a solar panel, and an antenna attached to a yucca. With a clear line of sight to Sonoyta, and probably somewhere in Arizona, this peak seems to have at one point been an observation post for smugglers of people or contraband. There was of course no register, and no comfortable seat amidst the volcanic choss and desert flora, so we stayed only long enough to eat an avocado before descending.

I had downloaded a GPX track with my summit cell service, hoping it would lead us to a better route, but sadly this was not the case. The descent route was different in its particulars, but essentially the same as the ascent, a mixture of choss, short cliffs, and spiny plants. All sensible routes on Pinkley seem to be moderately unpleasant, and will remain so until the peak-baggers and smugglers get together to make a trail. Until then, this peak will never become a desert classic.

Queen Creek

Sunset on Atlantis

As winter advanced, we continued to retreat south and down. After finding that sport climbing in the Superstitions is limited, bad, and hard to reach, we continued to Queen Creek, an area between Superior and Globe along Highway 60 suggested by Leonie’s friend Liz. I had never heard of the place, but it turned out to have multiple areas with short approaches and plentiful sport routes on welded tuff and some granite. There is also — rarity of rarities! — free camping with pit toilets on nearby Forest Service land at Oak Flats. Most of the climbing is on Queen Mine land, and requires a liability waiver from the mine company, but this is a free and easy formality that can be taken care of online at the Queen Creek Coalition site. We ended up climbing there for three days, and could have stayed longer had the weather not turned.

Ali Cat

We spent our first day in Atlantis, a five-minute walk down a steep slope from the highway. Most of the climbs in this area are on either side of a slot canyon below a concrete check dam, and are too hard for me to lead. However there are enough moderate routes to stay busy for a day, and I even managed to lead a 5.10b by mistake. We arrived to find a family with a dog climbing on one of the easier crags below the main area, locals who helpfully oriented us in the confusion of crags and bolts. We started with Ali Cat, a long 5.7 going up a steep face with positive holds. It was a good place to become familiar with the area’s rock, with ample bolts and low-consequence falls. It was windy, and the guidebook recommended Atlantis for such days, but that suggestion seemed way off base, as the wind was fierce higher up on west-facing Ali Cat, and the main area was a wind tunnel.

After cleaning the first route, we dithered for a bit, then headed into Atlantis proper for First Born, a varied 5.8 involving face, crack, and chimney climbing. One of the other climbers came over to watch, remarking that it was her favorite moderate and that she had never seen anyone do the final chimney facing the way I was. Little did she know that I only faced that way because I had no idea where the anchors were, but fortunately there were plenty of holds to turn around and top out.

It would have blown away

Next we moved slightly downstream to attempt one of a couple of 5.9s. The guidebook and Mountain Project were both somewhat confusing, though, as the former is outdated, the latter lacks diagrams, and there has been continuous modern route development. I ended up by mistake climbing KGB, a 5.10b on which I had no business and which I had wanted to avoid. Though it felt more serious than the 5.9 I was expecting, I amazingly managed to climb it without falls, and was inordinately pleased with myself for pulling it off. We finished with some short moderates on a small west-facing section downstream, then hiked back to the car and took a spot at the popular but spacious Oak Flat campground.

The next day we hiked over to Upper Devil Canyon to check out the climbing there. We spent most of the day on a few climbs on Lost Wall, the only memorable one being Projectile, a 5.7 following an open book. We finished with a fun route that might have been Spanish Omelette (5.8) on Universe Wall, which pulled several well-protected bulges. It was fun climbing, and grippier rock than the stuff at Atlantis, but after being spoiled by five-minute approaches, it was somewhat of a disappointment.

The Pond

For our final day before the rain, we headed back to the roadside area to explore the Pond, an area around what is, in the Spring, a pleasant waterfall and swimming hole. Now it is a slimy mosquito breeding facility, but the climbing remains high-quality, and the approach under an overpass and up some rebar rungs is quick and fun. We started with three routes near the pool, Deadpool (5.8) and two others to its left, both supposedly rated 5.7. I led the middle one first, which felt unreasonably hard for its grade; later I learned that some holds had broken, making it closer to the 5.9 it felt. Leonie was not feeling particularly well or motivated, so she mostly hung out and did yoga, sometimes doing both in the middle of a climb.

Double heel-hook

A few other parties joined us as we climbed, starting from the left and working their way right as we did the opposite. There was plenty of room to keep socially distant, and even mostly out of earshot, so it never felt crowded. I eventually made it up Weak Sister (5.10a) after falling a few times on the well-protected crux bulge; my limited forearm strength was showing on this steep, crimpy climbing. Sufficiently humbled, we did a mediocre neighboring 5.8, then found a 5.6 far to the left. I led it, then Leonie toproped it a couple of times before leading it herself. Despite having climbed for many years, it was her first time on sport lead, and she handled it calmly.

Too late in the day, I decided to try Pocket Puzzle, a vertical west-facing 5.10a. Such a pumpy route would have been a stretch for me even when fresh, and it proved far too much for me at the end of the day. I made it a bit past the first bolt before admitting that I would never be able to top out, then managed to clean it and downclimb before scampering up neighboring Adventure Quest, a mediocre moderate involving brush and yucca, to finish the day. We both left feeling that we had left a lot of unfinished business at Queen Creek, but with two days of cold and rain in the forecast, it was time to once again move on.

Prescott climbing

Yours Truly climbing?!

After Leonie and I took care of things in opposite directions — me closer to her home, and she closer to mine, ironically — we needed to meet somewhere in between, and chose Prescott because it was a roughly equal drive for both of us, not too far out of the way, and south-er, lower, and presumably warmer than the now-frigid southern Utah deserts. We met off I-40, then found a… perfectly adequate place to camp along Highway 89, in a National Forest mattress-dumping area. It reminded me a bit of the start of my 2016 road trip with Renee, though with only a handful of clean-picked cow carcasses in place of the dead sheep.

Granite Gardens map

In the morning we drove into town and stopped at the first likely climbing spot, Granite Gardens, an improbable collection of granite blobs nestled in a neighborhood north of downtown. Though we had come to central Arizona for warmth, it was too cold for climbing, so we decided to take a hike/scramble first to get an overview of the area. We were immediately surprised by the visitor-friendly signs at the trailhead and at intersections, which had both numbers and small maps. Unlike most places, where climbers are at most tolerated by the surrounding communities, they seem to be almost welcomed here, though one crazy neighbor lady apparently objects.

Playing on rocks

We started off along the outermost trails, then left to scramble up one of the easier formations to get a view. Though houses encroach in all directions, the granite formations hide enough to offer a pleasant view, and Granite Mountain and Thumb Butte, a basalt volcanic plug, beckoning to the west. We rejoined the loop with a bit of down-scrambling, and were making our way around the far side when I noticed some bolts on a wall. As I checked out the start of the route, which felt hard, a man with a limping dog hailed us and eventually introduced himself as Jared. He turned out to be not only a local climber, but one of the people active in local route development. He named the routes on the wall (including “Full Metal Corndog” and, of course, “Corndog Millionaire”), then took off for home to get his climbing gear while we returned to the parking lot for ours.

The Jump

We spent some time climbing a few progressively harder routes on the short Corndog Wall, then moved on to climb “Hop, Skip and a Jump,” a moderate but improbable route ascending a fin or arete with a gap crossed by a large and committing step or a short jump. I always enjoy jumping things, so I found the move fun, but Leonie did not especially enjoy it, taking five minutes or so to prepare herself and/or psych herself out before making what, with her flexibility and balance, was a straightforward move. Shenanigans complete, we finished up with some harder but more normal routes nearby, leading a 5.8 and toproping a 5.10d. The 5.8 felt reasonably serious to me, but I led it cleanly, and more-or-less cleanly toproped the 10d after Jared spent quite a bit of time working out the crux sequence.

We had planned to camp in some National Forest outside town, preferably somewhere with fewer shot-out TVs, but Jared kindly invited us for dinner and to use his spare bedroom and, crucially, shower. I do not expect such hospitality from strangers, even less now in our pandemic times, but traveling with an attractive and sociable woman does have its advantages. Jared turned out to be a fascinating guy, with interests ranging from Mary Oliver’s poetry, to guitar, to deer hunting with native bows he makes himself. We finally turned in after a folk sing-along, with plans to climb with Jared the next day.

Leonie on limestone

The next morning we piled into Jared’s Honda Element — the only one with enough room for three people — and drove back up Highway 89 to near where we had camped to visit some “secret” limestone sport crags. We drove an obscure dirt “road,” followed a faint cairned trail to a canyon, and descended through a band of basalt to the bottom. There limestone bluffs intermittently emerged from the otherwise volcanic walls, some hopelessly rotten, but others solid enough to climb, though apparently only after significant cleaning with a pry-bar.

Jared kindly allowed me to do the leading, while he and Leonie took turns following and belaying. Limestone is much different from the previous day’s granite or the sandstone I had climbed with Renee in Sedona. Because it features sharp-edged slots and pockets, and is rough and grippy, routes are steep for their grades. This means that falls at grades I can hope to climb are safer, but also that the rock tears up one’s fingertips, and that it is easy to exhaust one’s forearms. Proper technique requires using small footholds, subtly shifting one’s weight, and strategizing about how and when to spend limited forearm strength.

Granite Mountain climbing

I had climbed limestone before in the Dolomites and crags around the Tetons, so I took to it quickly and enjoyed the different style of movement. Leonie, just getting back into climbing and used to Sierra granite, was less comfortable, and took awhile to learn the best technique. For once her flexibility worked against her, as it is often best to make small upward movements with one’s hands and feet instead of big reaches and high steps. I led two routes on a wall downstream, then two more on one just across from the approach trail. On the second-to-last, I realized partway up that I had two too few draws, forcing me to choose a couple of bolts to skip and run it out. It was all thoroughly enjoyable climbing, and we were lucky to have met a local willing to share it.

We had only planned to stay for one night, but Jared insisted upon making curry for us, and it was hard to refuse another night of running water and heated space. We stayed up “late” again (where “late” for a winter dirtbag means several hours after dark), talking about life and even some politics, then turned in to enjoy a last night of civilization. Jared had to take off early the next morning, but kindly allowed us to depart at our leisure, so we enjoyed a final hike and shower before heading down and south in search of warmth.

Weavers Needle

Weavers from Lost Dutchman Saddle

[Thanks again to Leonie for significant contributions and help writing this quickly and promptly, and for photographic help. — ed.]

I had already climbed Weavers Needle, but a sunny mellow southern Arizona peak is just the ticket for taking a new girlfriend for a test climb. After a leisurely breakfast of bean tacos and avocado we hit the trail at the crack of nine. The parking lot was a snarl of shiny SUVs and the trail was infested with families and groups no doubt spraying Coronavirus on us as we passed.

Less than a mile in we found Bob, a 70 year old Forest Service volunteer, and Leonie paused to pick his brain about possible backpacking loops. We devoted the next hour to Bob’s recounting of feral apples at the Reavis Ranch and his extensive journeys into the back country of the Superstition wilderness. He and his family had seemingly lived in the area for decades, and I wanted to learn more from before Phoenix exploded, but we had a peak to climb.

Onward, up to the pass where the crowds thinned and we had the trail to ourselves. We cruised down to the use trail towards the Needle and I watched as Leonie picked her way up loose scrabble terrain. A fire since Mike and I had climbed the Needle in 2014 had greatly improved the area, eliminating the catclaw while leaving the cacti and yuccas intact, and simplifying the approach. We continued up the third and fourth class scrambling to a new intermediate anchor, replacing the old pipe, where we roped up. I trailed a rope as I stemmed up the steepening gully and thrashed around the crux chockstone; Leonie groveled even more and somehow landed on top sideways. Rumor has it that tunneling underneath is 5.1, while the lefthand side is around 5.4, but the tunnel looks awfully narrow.

More fourth and fifth class scrambling interspersed with gravelly steep slopes brought us to the summit, where we explored our underwear modeling careers before returning the way we had come. Leonie kept it together while the down climb challenged her preference for facing out (why do people do this?), and we returned to the chockstone and a mildly sickening overhanging rappel.

One of us managed to wedge the rope firmly into the pinch between the chockstone and the right wall, forcing me to climb back up to free it. While I was muttering and flailing the rope, we saw the first two people since leaving the pass — two guys planning to sleep on top. As I was rappelling the second pitch, two Frenchmen from the Bay Area showed up to join the summit sausage party. Leonie down climbed as I completed my rappel, then we flaked the rope and set off to race the fading daylight.

Down we went over more steep and unstable loose slopes through the burn area, flakes of burned cactus leaves and a saguaro bark remnant that resembled plastic corrugated roofing. I chose a different line of cairns, which left us thrashing through thorns and rounded boulders until we stumbled upon the trail. Clearly the work of fire here is not complete. Two hours or so of headlamp time later, we were back at the now mostly empty trailhead. I would have been faster without Leonie on the rocky trail, since headlamp jogging is what I do, but she kept me entertained with jokes and tales of bartering two silver rings for the use of a horse in rural Tibet many years ago. We whipped up some couscous-based nutrient glop back at the car and were sleeping by 9 PM.

Capitol Butte and the Sedona Kitsch Vortex

Town from Capitol

Climbing with Renee was one of the fixed points in my evolving winter plan, so I rallied down from southeast Utah to the kitschy little town of Sedona, south of Flagstaff. Despite countless trips through Flagstaff, I had never taken the thirty-mile side-trip south off the Kaibab Plateau, and while I was impressed by the abrupt drop from ponderosa forest to sandstone desert, the “no camping next N miles” sign hinted that I was entering a place incompatible with my dirtbag essence. According to Wikipedia,

In the mid-1950s, the first telephone directory listed 155 names. Some parts of the Sedona area were not electrified until the 1960s. Sedona began to develop as a tourist destination, vacation-home and retirement center in the 1950s. Most of the development seen today was constructed in the 1980s and 1990s. As of 2007, there are no large tracts of undeveloped land remaining.

In other words, the place has almost no history, what little history it does have is bad, and it has been overpopulated for the last decade. Be that as it may, I drove through the tourist schlock emporia among the pink jeeps, and found a place to park along the road below the overflowing trailhead for Capitol Butte.

Capitol Butte

Whatever its flaws, Sedona is surrounded by interesting sandstone buttes, and Capitol, being one of the most prominent, seemed likely to have a good sunset view. It is also reachable by a short, steep trail, so I could get a quick workout after my long drive and make it back to the car without headlamp time. Being used to the cold Utah desert, I was surprised at how warm Sedona was, given that it is at the same elevation as Grand Gulch and Mexican Hat. Even standing still in the shade, I was comfortable in shorts and a t-shirt. I found the correct trail and the unsigned but well-used turnoff to Capitol, and had little trouble following the route on the way up. There are several braided paths, and while I may not have chosen the best, I did not lose much time. The route had a few runnable sections, but was mostly either too steep, or involved brush and rock steps, with several third class sections. If for some reason I ended up living in Sedona, it would make a fun workout peak. I reached the summit in time to enjoy the evening light on the sandstone north and east of town, then made it back to the car around dusk. The correct trail was harder to follow on the descent, and I wandered off-route several times before using my Strava track to correct my error.

Sunset from Capitol

Once back at the car, I panned around the map for awhile looking for likely sleeping spots, and eventually settled on Boynton Pass Road. I have been doing this for awhile, so I was not surprised to have chosen correctly. However, I was surprised at both how far out I had to drive, and how crowded it was, hosting a mixture of the ubiquitous Sprinters with California plates, rental camper-vans, RVs, and trailers. I was tired and it was dark, so I settled into the first spot with a faint cell signal and a bit of privacy, ate my usual dinner glop, and turned in.

I woke well before dawn, then met Renee at a more civilized hour to climb a multi-pitch sport route I had found on Mountain Project, Motorboating. Given the distances and parking difficulties, it seemed easiest to approach by bike, so we rode the “moderate” trail to the base. Renee, being a competent mountain biker on a capable bike, probably enjoyed the rocky trail more than I did, but it was still an interesting challenge to negotiate as much as I could on my gravel bike with a heavy pack. We locked our bikes together off the trail, then scrambled toward a likely-looking starting point, getting ready to climb, and walking our gear along a ledge when we realized we were at the wrong place.

Motorboating goes up that

The route was somewhat disappointing in a couple of ways. Have the pitches were easy enough to barely require a rope, and it was necessary to walk the rope between belays. Worse, the sport route did not top out on the formation, so I did not get points for a summit. I was glad to be climbing with Renee, who both knows me and is patient, because I was a bumbling and incompetent partner after two or more years without climbing on a rope. On top of that, I managed to drop my long-suffering phone while leading the last pitch. Fortunately the case absorbed the first blow, and it landed through a bush onto sloping dirt. It has been a tough year for the poor little thing, which needs to last until Apple’s new “mini” (i.e. “normal-sized”) phones are available for cheap.

Renee following for a change

Renee was on child care duty for the afternoon, but we had just enough time to toprope the first two pitches of the route, which we had skipped with our mistaken approach. Lowering in from the top, I failed to bring any gear to redirect the rope, and was forced to climb the 5.10a variation. I flailed and fell and hung on the thin feet and crimps, but struggled through rather than giving up and untying at the bottom. Renee did a much better job, climbing it patiently and cleanly. We packed up, then rode back to town, finding the trail much more rideable in the slightly downhill direction. I killed some time internetting, then drove back out toward Boynton Pass to camp. It was even more crowded than the last time, so after a fruitless foray farther, I settled into my previous spot with a few more neighbors. It was almost like “camping” in an RV park, and soured me further on Sedona.

Still a bit too young

Renee was on Tyler duty on our final day, so we found a crag with some moderates and a very short approach, curious whether he would have the agility and motivation to play on a 5.7. I thought he might do well, since climbing the slabby routes we had found the previous day would be a bit like crawling. Unfortunately this area was steeper, so the 5.7s were relatively steep with big steps and handholds, too far apart to be doable for a three-year-old. The first route we climbed was dirty, with lots of rubble perched on ledges and ready to bombard the belayer while lowering. The second was at least clean and fun, and a little more kid-friendly, but by that time he had exhausted his motivation, and preferred to snack and play with dirt. He helpfully brushed off some of the lower holds, which Renee and I hoped would lead to actual climbing, but it was not to be. I doubt I would enjoy being a parent, but I do enjoy observing my friends’ kids’ development. My brother and I were both capable of a variety of outdoor activities by the age of five, but two years makes an enormous difference around that age. Even a four-year-old we saw on the way back to the car was quite a bit more capable, though apparently not enough so be motivated to climb.

Fortunately Renee had some more time later in the day to climb, so we were able to get on some more challenging routes. We both cleanly led a 5.8 and 5.9, with the latter feeling close to my limit these days. This was a pleasant surprise, since even when I was eight years younger and climbing more regularly, I never led more than about 5.9-5.10a. I suppose years of scrambling experience and my current leanness make up for my lack of practice and approaching decrepitude. In any case, it was a pleasant way to end the day. We toproped a couple of made-up and chossier routes nearby while talking to another pair of climbers, then went our separate ways. I was anxious to escape Sedona before being sucked into a vortex of yuppitude.

Mount Hayden

Hayden from the rim

Hayden from the rim

To recover from the Nankoweap death march, we spent an easy recovery day on Mount Hayden, a white butte close to Point Imperial. Rising late, we drove out to the overlook, spent awhile sorting gear, looked at the butte just 2/3 of a mile away, then hiked 100 yards of pavement, jumped the fence, and dove into the brush. Before the fire, the Hayden approach was supposedly fairly friendly. However, the usual post-fire scrub has taken over this part of the rim, including the dread New Mexico locust.

Fixed rope in Coconino

Fixed rope in Coconino

The approach descends terribly loose dirt, then follows the ridge right of a bowl before diving into the brush to a break in the Coconino. Here the thrashing began: Renée opted for leather gloves and brute force, while I chose finesse, careful writhing, and a certain amount of bleeding. This part was not bad, as the watercourse was mostly scoured free of soil and plants. We followed a seemingly useless fixed line for awhile, then actually used it to descend a low 5th class step, where it was vaguely helpful.

Enter the suck

Enter the suck

Then we entered the suck. The traverse back south to the Hayden-rim saddle had also burned, and is now home to a thriving locust population, occasionally interrupted by oak-brush. There is a network of faint use/animal trails, with one near the base of the cliff being the best, but finding this one, especially on the way in, is next to impossible. Instead we picked our way through lower down, linking logs, surviving trees, boulders, and even the blessedly spine-free oak-brush to minimize time spent in the spiny horror show.

Hayden from past the bushwhack

Hayden from past the bushwhack

We finally found relief at the red dirt ridge leading southeast to Hayden, where we took a break to sweat and admire our goal. From here it was a fairly painless hike along the ridge and around the butte’s north side to the base of the climb. I took the first pitch, which started with a tricky move from a red ledge to the more solid white sandstone above. After that, it was mostly a low 5th class bushwhack to a sort-of belay ledge full of cactus, dirt, and loose rubble. Though I had climbed sandstone before, I was not used to this gritty variety, which I was slow to trust. I was slowed further by the use of half-ropes, which allow longer rappels and supposedly reduce rope drag on wandering pitches, but mostly just complicate belaying and rope management.

Cruxing toward the brush

Cruxing toward the brush

I belayed Renée up while she freed one rope or the other from plants, then she led up more similar terrain to a bulge with a fist/knee crack, the route’s second harder move. After trying a couple options, she decided she did not want to lead it with so much rope out (i.e. a long, bouncy fall while it stretched), so she belayed me up to an awkward stance, where I thrashed around and acted tentative for awhile before jamming fist, foot, and knee in the crack to reach flatter ground, finding a two-bolt anchor perhaps 20 feet on.

Topping out

Topping out

It looked like scrambling to the summit from there, so I flaked 100 meters of rope, brought Renée up, and we both unroped for the sometimes-exposed scramble. The final 20 feet on the left-hand side of the butte were a bit tricky, but all the holds were there, and we soon emerged on a large, perfectly flat white table. From this perch we could see the Nankoweap route to the north, and the Palisades and start of the main canyon to the south. We could see people at the Point Imperial overlook, but could not tell if they waved.

hayden-6Photos taken, it was time to get off this thing. After scrambling back to the anchor, I threw the ropes and slowly rapped, disentangling the ropes from themselves and the brush as I went. The descent requires two double-rope rappels, so I looked for bolts and slings as I went, but found none as I neared the end of the ropes, so I put in at a comfortable ledge, then shouted for Renée to try her hand at finding them. With some searching, she found a slung block, a decent bolt, and a lousy one, on a pedestal 30 feet up to my left. While she pulled the ropes, I soloed up to the pedestal, then clipped in for an amazingly bush-free rappel onto either (1) our packs, or (2) a yucca patch; I chose the former.

The return went much better than the approach. From the ridge connecting Hayden to Imperial, the route stays near the cliffs and is relatively easy to follow. It descends from the cliff near the Coconino break, where it joins a more prominent but ultimately worse route at an obscured junction. I found this use trail pleasant, but only compared to the morning’s spiny hell. After nearly missing the turn up to the fixed rope, we scrambled the gully, bushwhacked back to the ridge, and struggled up the loose dirt to the paved path. We chatted with some friendly Coloradoans who knew a bit about climbing, then headed south to the campground for showers, water, and a rim-side dinner.

Either the north rim has a population of several million deer, or all 500 of them spend their nights right next to the road. I was happy to follow Renée at safe braking distance as she shooed them out of the way on the drive back to Jacob Lake. She apparently found the experience somewhat stressful. We were both tired, so we pulled off on an abandoned forest road a short ways south, found a mostly level place, and promptly passed out.

Nankoweap hiking

Rooms with a view

Rooms with a view

After more uncharacteristic but not unwelcome water-adjacent activities, we were off to the Grand Canyon for what turned out to be two fairly intense days. The first part of the plan was to backpack the Nankoweap Trail, a less-used and challenging route from the North Rim to the Colorado northeast of the main canyon. I had first become aware of this trail while researching last year’s trip down the Tanner Trail to the Little Colorado. I was interested in seeing it both because it passes through a new-to-me part of the canyon, and because it is the northern part of an old horse-stealing route leading up the Tanner and on south to Mexico. Renée gamely played along.

Just below the trailhead

Just below the trailhead

The trailhead is at the end of a long dirt road following the National Park boundary east, drivable at fairly high speeds even late at night. This being National Forest land, there was ample free camping at the trailhead (i.e. enough for 3-4 parties). We got a leisurely start, eating a decent breakfast and packing various camp-stuff before taking the rolling trail along the forest boundary down toward Saddle Mountain.

Supai traverse

Supai traverse

Where the trail joins another from the north, it crosses into the park and descends steeply south, then contours along the Supai layer to Marion Point. Like most Grand Canyon trails, its course is constrained by breaks in the white Coconino and red-painted gray Redwall cliffs. In this case, the breaks dictate a long and at times semi-exposed traverse to the saddle west of Tilted Mesa. As this traverse is south-facing and dry, I had packed an extra gallon of water to leave at some appropriate-seeming place. My knee was not altogether happy with the extra eight pounds, so I dropped the water at the saddle, a mere 2500 feet down the canyon.

Flora (century plant)

Flora (century plant)

Along the traverse, we had met a couple hiking out, each party surprised to see the other in this little-used corner of the park, and they mentioned making camp at Nankoweap Creek rather than the Colorado. This sounded like a good idea to me, as it would both make the hike out shorter, and justify my caching the water so high up. Below Tilted Mesa, the trail descends southeast across a loose, steep slope, passing through the Redwall via a rubble-pile before continuing to something like the Tonto Plateau. Unlike in the main east-west canyon that most visitors see, where the rock strata are flat and parallel, the layers here are tilted and confusing, with the same rock appearing at different elevations to the south, and across the river to the east. There were also flora and fauna.

Fauna (collared lizard)

Fauna (collared lizard)

Below the Redwall and Muav, the trail enters a scorched desert hellscape, crossing spiny brush, cactus, and sharp rock on its way toward the cottonwoods suggesting some kind of watercourse. Though these water sources are often buried, we found Nankoweap Creek to be 3 feet of swiftly-flowing, though warm and not especially tasty, water. After a break in the shade, we crossed to find a popular-looking camping area, where we ditched most of our gear before continuing downstream toward the river and some rumored ruins.

Nankoweap Canyon

Nankoweap Canyon

The river was farther away than I thought, around endless bends in the lower canyon. Though we found occasional cairns and bits of trail, most of the route was a boulder-hop along one or the other side of the creek. Most of the way down, we found a superior source of water: a virtual spigot of a spring coming from an overhanging rock just above the creek. I quickly topped off my bladder, diluting the Nankoweap-y taste of the contents to an acceptable level.

Rafter beach

Rafter beach

The stream meets the river in a nasty locust- and mesquite-soaked delta, but a trail leads up and south, crossing over a low ridge before descending to two beaches popular with rafters. Just past the ridge, a well-built trail leads from one of these beaches to the cliff dwelling; both even appear on the USGS topo. Though we had the ruins to ourselves for the moment, two parties of rafters were disembarking on the beaches, while more streamed by along the river. As we later learned, this is a well-known landmark and popular stopping-point for those visiting the canyon by raft.

Lintel technology

Lintel technology

Ruin-wise-speaking, we had visited Nankoweap and Grand Gulch in the wrong order: buildings that might have impressed me a few days ago seemed mundane compared to what I had recently seen. Still, it was interesting to note the different levels of lintel technology in adjacent dwellings, with some individuals having a better grasp than others of this important building technique. The inhabitants seemed not to have mastered arches; then again, given the abundant flagstone-like rock, they had no need.

Seeing a herd of rafters approaching, we beat a hasty retreat, passing a line of people in mediocre hiking shape on our return. Having time to kill, we headed to the less crowded-looking of the two beaches, planning to rinse off in the river. However, with high clouds directly above, the air and water were too cool for more than a brief foot-rinse.

Sunset looking south

Sunset looking south

As we photographed (me, easy) and painted (her, less so) the surroundings, a couple of the rafters approached to chat. Our different frames of reference made talking about the canyon difficult: where they dealt in miles along the river, I thought in trailheads. The raft-folk seemed friendly enough, even offering dinner and use of their “groover,” and I was tempted to laze around for a few hours, partake of their board, and try to interact with humans before shuffling back to camp. Renée was not so inclined, and I soon found my self psyched about her plan to hike back out the same evening. Doing so somehow seemed truer to my nature, and I could probably use the fortifying hours of evening headlamp time.

We dumped and replaced our water at the spigot, shoved the camping gear back in our packs, and took off for the rim in cloudy, comfortable conditions. We reached the water cache surprisingly quickly, and I laughed at the absurdity of pouring out three of the quarts I had lugged all that way. I knew the Supai traverse would feel long on the way up, and doing the last two thirds by headlamp made it feel even longer, especially with no moon. However, I underestimated the long slog from Saddle Mountain to the trailhead; though it is all “along the rim,” it gains 1,200 feet over several rolling miles. We finally reached the cars at some ungodly time near midnight, where I diligently resumed my sleep deprivation training.

Grand Canyoneering

Upriver from Tanner Beach

Upriver from Tanner Beach

Though I normally associate backpacking with debilitating shin-splints, when Ted proposed a trip to the relatively remote eastern end of the Grand Canyon, I quickly agreed to join him. Though I had hiked and run the main Kaibab and Bright Angel trails over a dozen times, and made numerous day-trips nearby, I had never been to this remote section of the park, or done any desert backpacking for that matter. The plan was a 3-day blitz of the most difficult trails on the South Rim: descend the Tanner Trail, continue on the Beamer Trail to the Little Colorado River confluence, then return along the Escalante Route and climb the New Hance Trail. At 46.5 miles and about 10,000 feet of gain, this seemed like a busy but comfortable itinerary, though it was deemed unreasonable by the NPS permit office.

Classic Grand Canyon view

Classic Grand Canyon view

Taking off mid-day, I drove to Flagstaff, hung out with the winos at the Saddest McDonalds in the World, then drove on to some nice Forest Service camping near the park’s east entrance. Waking up early the next morning, I drove through the unmanned entrance station, met Ted at Moran Point, then rode back with him to Lipan Point and the Tanner trailhead. After some quality time spent mocking Ted’s elaborate array of camera gear and freeze-dried food (potato flakes and sardines for me, thanks), and taking pictures of the Asian tourists taking pictures, I headed over to the north-facing start of the trail.

Lipan Point to the Little Colorado

Starting down Tanner

Starting down Tanner

The rim had seen a significant snowstorm recently, so the first part of the trail was slick with packed snow. After several hundred feet of cautious descent, we found easier and flatter walking to the saddle between Escalante Butte and Lipan Point, above the head of Seventyfive Mile Creek. From here, the trail meanders through the Supai past Cardenas Butte, eventually reaching a break in the Redwall. After another steep descent, more side-hilling leads to the river at Tanner Beach, with the dark cliffs of the Supergroup looming to the north.

Upper Tanner from head of 75-mile Canyon

Upper Tanner from head of 75-mile Canyon



After lunch, we continued north, following the trail up and across some red sedimentary ledges before descending to a long beach, where the water issues began. The only reliable source of water along our route was the Colorado River, an unpleasant mix of silt, agricultural runoff, giardia, and rafter pee. To combat this, we each had a filter, and Ted had some chlorine tablets. Unfortunately his filter seemed to be clogged for some reason, so after both using mine, we left the beach to make a long traverse along the Bright Angel Shale to the Little Colorado.

Hiking along Beamer

Hiking along Beamer

This section of trail was the best of the trip, traversing narrow ledges with the river hundreds of feet below on the left, and the Palisades rising nearly 3,000 feet above on the right. For some reason the soft Supai Shale, which normally forms a gentle slope, is nearly vertical here, joining the harder Redwall and Coconino to form a near-continuous cliff. As the trail meanders through the many steep washes which end at cliffs well above the river, this section proved slow going, and it was nearly sunset by the time we reached the confluence.

Mixing of the Waters

Mixing of the Waters

After dinner, Ted assembled his equipment for some star photography, while I went down to get some water from the Little Colorado. This proved to be a mistake, as its much siltier water quickly overwhelmed my filter. But that was a problem for the next day, so after some unsuccessful attempts of my own at star photography, I crawled into my unzipped sleeping bag for the night.

Little Colorado to Cardenas Creek

Bathe, but don't drink

Bathe, but don’t drink

Getting a late start the next morning, we retraced our steps along the Palisades to the beach, where we resumed the water wars. Noticing that a large lagoon was less silty than the main river, I forced a couple liters through my semi-clogged filter. Taking a sip, I realized I hadn’t though things through: though the silt may have settled, evaporation also concentrated the salt (and God knows what else) in the lagoon water, so I now had 3 liters of unpleasantly salty water. It was drinkable though, so given my filter’s condition, I kept it. With some more fiddling around, I was able to rinse and squeeze most of the silt out of the filter cartridge, giving it some new life. With this newly-functional filter, we were able to backflow the silt from Ted’s dysfunctional unit, and were now up to two mostly-usable pumps.

Looking back across wasteland to Palisades

Looking back across wasteland to Palisades

Hiking through Tanner Beach once more, we passed an apparent family resting in the shade to avoid the mid-day heat, then left the river to hike across a barren red wasteland to the mouth of Cardenas Creek. At this point the Escalante Route leaves the river and climbs 2,000 feet to avoid cliffs near the Unkar Rapids. Though it was only 4:00, neither of us relished making the long, dry climb up and over in the brutal afternoon heat, so we made an early day, camping at the mouth of the creek.

A-me-ri-ca, A-me-ri-ca...

A-me-ri-ca, A-me-ri-ca…

We had company: five rafts full of Idahoans, beer, and weed, and a backpacking couple in a spot of bother. The woman had caught some sort of stomach bug that morning, and had apparently spent the day alternately vomiting and lying motionless in the shade. The rafters had evidently made a call on their satellite phone, and as we hung around camp, an NPS helicopter landed on the sand nearby.
NPS to the rescue

NPS to the rescue

I had expected the chopper to extract the woman and leave everything else behind, but they quickly loaded the couple and all their gear into the chopper, stuck her with an IV, and sped off to who-knows-where. Watching her slowly stumble to the chopper, I realized that she had been in worse shape than I thought, and probably could not have hiked out on her own.

Standard dinner

Standard dinner

Excitement over, I rinsed my pump, then filled my water bladder from the river. Tragically, while I flushed the last bits of water from the pump, the handle broke, the 8-year-old plastic overwhelmed by the force required to filter so much silty water. The disgusting prospect of drinking chlorinated river water loomed.

Sunset on Palisades

Sunset on Palisades

After cooking our pathetic hiker-food, we moseyed over to hang out with the rafters as they feasted on fresh vegetables and meat. I was stunned at the luxuries one can carry in a boat: days’ worth of fresh food, cots, chairs, tables, and even a gas-heated shower. Most of the group was from Idaho Falls or southern Idaho — several worked at INL — though I happened to find one state high-pointer from Michigan. After talking until too late around their fire-pit, I forced myself to sleep in anticipation of a long day.

Cardenas Creek to Moran Point

grand-canyon26Unlike the previous day, we got started shortly after dawn, eager to beat the sun on the long climb over to Escalante Creek. We almost made it, the sun hitting us near the top of the long sidehill past Cardenas and Escalante Buttes. Descending into Escalante Creek, we were pleasantly surprised to find a short stream of clear, siltless water. We happily filled all our vessels (using the rest of Ted’s chlorine), saved for awhile from Colorado River water, then continued the descent to the river.

Blessed non-Colorado water

Blessed non-Colorado water

From the mouth of Escalante Creek, the trail immediately climbs again to the Tonto Plateau above Seventyfive Mile Creek, which passes through a sort of slot canyon over 100 feet deep on the way to the river.
Hiking 75-mile Canyon

Hiking 75-mile Canyon

The route follows the rim of this canyon for about half a mile before reaching the creek-bed and following it back to the river. However, we cut off perhaps half this distance via a fun 3rd-class downclimb.

After returning to the river, we followed cairns that climbed up and along Supergroup ledges toward Papago Creek. (Later, we realized that a more efficient route simply follows the beach.) Spotting a group of six high on the creek’s east side, I followed increasingly faint trails to meet them. They turned out to be headed out New Hance as well, though with much larger packs and at a slower pace. They were also wasteful enough to drop goldfish crackers and leave them lying on the ground; I gratefully helped myself to a few. Continuing past them a short distance, I realized that we were off-route; the correct version of this unnecessary high bypass descends to the mouth of Papago Creek.

Idaho passing on day 3

Idaho passing on day 3

Passing some college kids hanging out in the shade in this dry wash, we stopped for lunch, then made another apparently-unnecessary high bypass to the mouth of Hance Creek and the start of the New Hance “Trail.” (It looks easier to boulder-hop along the river from Papago Creek.) While the New Hance connects the rim and river, and is not too hard to follow, an early travel writer quoted in the NPS brochure is not far off:

There may be men who can ride unconcernedly down Hance’s Trail, but I confess I am not one of them. My object in descending made it essential that I should live to tell the tale, and therefore, I mustered up sufficient moral courage to dismount and scramble down the steepest and most awful sections of the path on foot… ‘On foot,’ however, does not express it, but on heels and toes, on hands and knees, and sometimes in the posture assumed by children when they come bumping down the stairs… The path down which we have turned appears impossible… The pitch for the first mile is frightful… and to our dismayed, unaccustomed minds the inclination apparently increases, as if the canyon walls were slowly toppling inwards…

Lower New Hance "Trail"

Lower New Hance “Trail”

The trail, such as it is, starts by following the broad, rocky dry wash of Red Canyon, briefly dodging east to avoid a few jumbles of large rocks. It was early afternoon by now, and brutally hot in the red-walled canyon. The heat was getting to both of us, and we paused in whatever shade we could find. As the canyon narrowed, we found a seasonal stream that emerged from the streambed where it crossed sandstone slabs. Ted wet his shirt, and I my hat, but we opted not to pick up more water, figuring that we had enough to make the rim.

Final blessed water

Final blessed water

Right where the trail leaves the streambed, we found a perfect campsite in the shade of a large rock, near a place where the stream runs above ground. Ted semi-seriously suggested camping for another night, but I was having none of it: I believe in sticking to schedules, and in moving while daylight remains. Unfortunately, as we climbed the baking west-facing slope toward the base of the Redwall, the heat and Ted’s desk job started getting the better of him, and our pace slowed considerably. This would take longer than I had anticipated.

Exiting Red Canyon on New Hance Trail

Exiting Red Canyon on New Hance Trail

The trail traverses the Tonto Plateau, then switchbacks steeply toward Moran Point through a break in the Redwall, passing through a sparse juniper forest that seemed lush after hours spent in a rocky, cactus-spotted wasteland. A group of four we had passed resting at the base of the climb split up, two of them speeding ahead of us while the other two suffered slowly behind. Talking with one of the stragglers, I learned that he had flown down from near Anchorage, where the dry winter had given them “only” 200 inches of snow.

New Hance passing through Redwall

New Hance passing through Redwall

Once through the Redwall, the trail makes a long, undulating rightward traverse, returning to the base of the canyon at the top of the Redwall. The spring feeding the stream is apparently at the base of the Redwall: while there is a healthy cottonwood grove at its base, the canyon is once again bone-dry at the top. Ted continued to suffer on the traverse, and with the sun taking its time setting behind Coronado Butte, the heat remained mildly unpleasant, though nothing like it was 2,000 feet below. We were both running low on water, and the last 1,000 feet promised to be a thirsty slog.

View back toward confluence from near the rim

View back toward confluence from near the rim

As we reached the base of the Coconino, I gave Ted some water and the rest of my food, then mercilessly ditched him. This wasn’t entirely unjustified, as my car was parked at Moran Point, about a mile from the camouflaged “trailhead.” I put the hammer down, grinding up the steep and sometimes confusing trail through the upper white layers, reaching the rim just as the sun sank below the horizon. Fast-walking the trail along the top, I passed the usual trailhead information and “warning you will die” signs well-hidden from the road, then met the two faster members of the party of four, looking bored as they waited for their ride.

Coronado Butte from upper New Hance

Coronado Butte from upper New Hance

Panting and sweating, I mumbled something intended to be friendly smalltalk, dropped my pack, fished my keys out, and took off jogging up the road. Figuring I had some time before Ted summited, I decided to drive into Grand Canyon Village to get some real food and beverages before everything closed. Between traffic and other shoppers, the trip took longer than I had hoped, so Ted had some time to cool his heels next to my pack and get to know the people waiting to pick up the two stragglers. Evidently he moved much faster without my impatient presence looming behind him.


I highly recommend a trip to this part of the canyon. Unlike the main corridor trails — the Kaibab and Bright Angel — which are crowded with hikers and befouled by mules, the east-end trails provide some measure of wildness, as well as interestingly-varied scenery as the Supergroup rises away from the river. The Beamer and Tanner trails were apparently part of a horse-smuggling route from southern Utah to Arizona. Starting on the North Rim, this route descended the Nankoweap Trail, then followed the Colorado until it crossed to the Beamer near the confluence. Though this crossing is no longer possible thanks to the steady outflow from the upstream dam, I hope to return and dayhike the Nankoweep sometime.

Prior to this trip, all my backpacking experience was in the mountains. There, clear water is always nearby, and it is rarely necessary to carry more than two liters or to treat water before drinking it. Also, should one become ill or weak, the retreat is usually downhill. Seeing one weakened backpacker helicoptered out, and exhausting our three water treatment options in as many days, made me apprehensive about doing too many of these. Dayhikes and mountains are so much simpler…