Trekking through the Grand Canyon

I have the good fortune of having friends who possess a passion for backpacking in the Grand Canyon, and I've accompanied them twice on treks, both times in October.

The first hike was in 2005 down a south-rim slot canyon named Royal Arch Canyon. My three companions were Tom Costello, John Edwards and Jay Lawrence (all current or former IBMers from the Rochester area). The other trip was in 2009 down another slot canyon from the north rim, named Saddle Canyon. Jay Lawrence and I did the second trek. Both trips were about a week long and included some unmatched beauty of the desert Southwest, as well as some planned and unplanned adventures.

There were beautiful and interesting sights. For example, two days into the first trek, we camped under the stately Royal Arch. The Grand Canyon is not noted for a lot of natural arches, but this is one exception. On day three, 10 minutes into a cloudburst, we suddenly noticed impressive water spouts shooting out of the sides of 1,000-foot vertical walls. On day four, we had a layover day on the Colorado River, and we took a hike downstream to a beautiful alcove named Elve's Chasm; it is a favorite stopover for rafters. On the eve of our final day on the Royal Arch trip, we ascended the Redwall layer (usually a 1,400-foot cliff, but here it was eroded enough that a steep trail was built) and set up camp in the dark. Then, in the morning, we climbed Mt. Huethawali — which is a 900-foot mountain on the Esplanade layer — for a spectacular 360-degree view.

The 2009 trek had some equally beautiful sights and sounds. As we descended Saddle Canyon, we came to some smoothed and polished rocks, as well as instances of undercutting of the rock from eons of erosion. On day two, Jay and I were pondering how to get over a 15-foot ledge, when we heard a sharp noise way above us, like a rifle shot, followed by staccato cracks as a huge boulder dislodged and caromed down the canyon, making a very echo-filled descent. We got ready to take cover, but luckily the danger was down canyon from us. On day three, as we neared the Colorado River, Saddle Canyon joined with Tapeats Creek and then, a little deeper into the slot canyon, a torrent of water cascaded down from Thunder Cave. Thunder Cave is an impressive gusher of water creating a hanging garden midway up a 2,000-foot vertical wall.

On both trips, we met a few other hikers and rafters. On the Royal Arch trek, we were passed by a couple from Albuquerque, N.M., who were really into ultralight gear and were traveling ultra-fast. On the Saddle Canyon trip, we met up with a younger group of rafters from the northwestern United States; there were maybe 15 of them, and they were camping a couple of nights at the mouth of Tapeats Creek and the Colorado. They were very friendly, and we crossed paths several times as we all hiked up to Thunder Cave.


Both hikes had their share of adventures. For example, in a steep-walled, narrow section of Royal Arch Canyon, we encountered a garage-sized boulder, and below it was a deep pool of water. One online trip report said to bypass the boulder by using some cliffs on the left side. We did not see any cliffs, so we ignored the online report and did as our guidebook recommended, and swam the pool (it was too deep to wade). The October sun in the Grand Canyon is generally mild, and, luckily it was warm that day. On another part of the Royal Arch route, we had to rappel down a 20-foot cliff. Again, the guidebook told about this, and we had some minimal climbing rope and gear to do the job.

On the Saddle Creek Canyon route, we encountered the "slippery slide," as the guidebook called it. It was a smooth, high-walled steep slide in the rock with a pool of water at the bottom. During wetter parts of the year, the slide has flowing water and has slippery moss growing on it. Jay and I put our rain gear on (don't ask me why, it just seemed that it would keep us a little warmer when we hit the pool). We slid down the slide with our packs trailing us; we hit the water and floated our packs (in their rain covers) as we waded the pool. One other part of Saddle Canyon brought us into a narrow, high-walled section and by now, we were deep enough in the canyon to have a torrent of water flowing in the slot canyon bed. This lasted about half a mile, and we were constantly wading. Finally the canyon opened up enough to allow us to climb up to some higher (and drier) ground.

On the 2009 trip, we exited our route one day early (it snowed on the top of the north rim), so we moteled it in a little crossroads called Jacobs Lake. The shower and warm, soft bed felt good. Because we had one extra day before heading home, we drove to another trailhead that Jay knew about, in the upper Grand Canyon. It was a little lower elevation, and thus we got out of the snow. We took a one-day descent into the confluence of two slot canyons, South Canyon and Bedrock Canyon, where they run into the Colorado. There was no real path, only a general route and we got to practice some class 3 and 4 climbing. Late that afternoon, we ascended and got back to our vehicle just as the sun was setting and creating a beautiful rose hue on the Vermillion Cliffs area of the Grand Canyon.

These are two beautiful routes on some seldom-traveled regions in the Grand Canyon far from the crowds.

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