A week ago I hiked up, and out, the Nankoweap Trail to my truck, parked at the Saddle Mountain Trailhead. After 5 fantastic days below the rim, the semi-frozen Gatorade I had left in my cooler was the best thing I had tasted in months!
This trip had been on my radar for years and, after a couple failed attempts — excessive heat the first time, and impassible roads the second — I finally made that drive down Forest Road 8910. I chose this access, rather than the slightly shorter approach via FR 610, because it actually has a 1000’ ascent to the official beginning of the Nankoweap Trail, rather than a 1000’ descent.
Yes, I know, “Why would you want to go uphill??” Two reasons: A) Going uphill with a loaded pack is not as hard on my knees/quads as going downhill; B) After climbing up and out to the trailhead, I would rather look forward to a 1000’ descent with my empty pack, than another long climb. So, I chose the House Rock Valley route. It’s also less popular than the alternative, and there is a nice “car camping” campsite just before the Saddle Mountain trailhead, that wasn’t part of the old burn.
Day One began, after coffee and breakfast, with a sunny/breezy morning hike. After signing the trail register — I noticed there was a group of 6, one day ahead of me — I begin walking up, through the old burn. After about 30 minutes, the trail descended into the dry creek bed and wound along for about 45 minutes, before climbing back up into the Ponderosa. It was nice and cool, and the fall colors were starting to really pop, so the hike was quite pleasant, despite the hill climb. Don’t worry, it’s not THAT steep, just take one step at a time and don’t rush. I got to the rim, and the official Nankoweap Trailhead, about two hours after leaving my truck. The National Park Service (NPS) describes this segment of trail as being “3.5 miles.” It is closer to 4 miles, if you’re serious about tracking exact distance.
At the rim, the two Forest Service access trails come together at the NPS trailhead. There are actually a couple of small campsites here, and it makes a pretty nice spot for lunch, before continuing on, into the Canyon. Here I met a group of 4 ladies on their way out. They were tired and happy, which made me happy.
Once I’d rested from my hike up to the actual trailhead, I gathered my reserve and began descending the last of the Esplanade to the long Supai traverse. This is where the trail could become problematic if you have issues with heights, vertigo, balance, exposure, etc. The trail was very well defined, so no real route-finding skill needed, but there is a lot of exposure. Ie., the trail follows along a ledge system, at times very narrow, with a cliff wall to your left and the void to your right. In places, the trail narrows to less than 16 inches wide. It takes you along, for about 2 miles, to Marion Point. Here, there is a small, dry campsite that will accomodate a few tents if you don’t mind being close together. There are small campsites along the trail, past the point as well. Here, I stashed a couple of liters of water for my hike out, ate a snack, and continued on for another 3.5 miles to Tilted Mesa — my destination for the night. NOTE: The “seasonal” seep that is described by the NPS, has diminished to a patch of damp lichen. It is NOT a water source. More on this later.
The traverse/trail heading over to Tilted Mesa was essentially a continuation of the same trail type leading across to Marion Point. There are a couple of spots where the path takes you around large, protruding boulders (they push you towards the edge of the drop-off). I just kept my eyes focused on the path directly in front of my feet, and made myself blur out the void. One foot in front of the other… Bearing in mind that I had dry conditions for my hike, I could see these narrow spots being quite scary if muddy.
After a seemingly long, mostly unshaded walk, I came to the point where the path descends down through the last of the Supai. Here it does require a little bit of down-climbing, in a couple of spots. With the help of two handy trees, the climbs weren’t that bad, maybe 7-8’ of Class 4 scrambling. I kept my pack on, but if you are more comfortable lowering your pack, definitely do so. It shouldn’t require more than 5’ of cord, or a belt and long arms.
Once you get down through the Supai, the path eases up and descends down to the top of the Redwall formation, and a handful of nice, small campsites. I chose one, next to an odd structure, built by hikers. It’s up against a big, gnarled Juniper tree and, I suppose, it would help shelter you from the wind. It reminded me of a Tolkienien troll house, so I set up my shelter outside, and kept an eye on the structure. This was a dry camp, and I had carried just enough water across to take care of my basic camp needs for that night, and the hike down to the creek in the morning. No bird bath, or extra cup of hot tea tonight!
Day Two found me waking up at 6am to raindrops on my shelter. That made me sad, because I hate packing up wet gear, and I was not looking forward to the Redwall and Tapeats in the rain. Luckily, the rain didn’t last, and the trail was mostly dry. The Redwall descent wasn’t bad, for a RW descent. The worst sections have been built up/cribbed, to prevent any major slides. The loose gravels on the trail surface were big enough to be mostly stable. I usually have a foot slip at least once every Canyon hike, and it didn’t happen this trip. That said, because of all the warnings I had read about or heard about this trail, I was making a very serious effort to control my momentum, and only take one step at a time. This is NOT a trail to loose focus on. If you need to look at the scenery from time to time, stop, get your feet planted and then look around. This amount of attention is tiring, and after 2.5 hours of descending, while evaluating every foot placement, I was mentally worn out.
Getting to the creek was a relief! I scoped out my future campsite (Night 4), filtered a couple liters of water (I drank my bottles dry 30 minutes earlier) and headed on downstream. The hike to the river from where the trail hits the creek is mostly along the stream bed. There are a couple of places where you can leave the bed and hike along the ledges. It was beautiful —- fall colors in full-swing, gurgling creek. After a couple of hours, the river came into view!
I followed the main trail (very well defined) up and detoured onto the narrow ridge, overlooking the delta and lunch beach. Here you can see the remains of a small pueblo — a few room outlines, and a couple of poorly “reconstructed” wall segments. Sadly, any ceramic fragments or other small finds, left by the former occupants, have been carted off.
The Group of 6 had staked out the usual backpackers campsite I had been hoping for, so I walked around the top of the lunch beach, and found a nice spot in the old dunes, off of the Granary Trail. I got my damp gear out to dry, went to the beach and cleaned up, and was very surprised to find the water to be a COMFORTABLE temperature?!? I actually found myself getting back into the water to warm up, after standing up in the breeze. The water is so low in Powell Reservoir, that it is leaving the dam at surface temperature, which is almost warm. A commercial guide I spoke with said that by the time it reaches Nankoweap, the water is almost 25 degrees warmer than last year at this time. Good for the native fish, bad for the invasive trout. The water was also running clear — I was there between up-canyon storms.
After lounging around for a while, I noticed a private river trip heading into the eddy. Really cool group of folks, mostly from Wyoming and Idaho — My old stomping grounds! They invited me up to their camp for a beer. I decided to take them up on their offer, and they had appetizers, which they generously shared with me. While that was happening, the clouds rolled in and the skies opened up. We got a big, wing shelter set up over their kitchen and they told me I would be staying for dinner. They had not one, but TWO fire pans! When I’m not hiking I’m paddling. I am a river-rat, and for a couple of hours, they let me join their trip. They’re still on the river, heading for Diamond. Y’all, if any of you happen to read this, Thank you, again!!!
Day Three, I got up early the next morning, to hike up to the granaries. I actually had them to myself! The last time I saw them I was on a river trip with 15 other people. It was a bit crowded up there. A bonus: The NPS trail crew was just putting the finishing touches on a trail reconstruction project, the day before, so I got “first tracks.” They did a fantastic job, and the trail is now very stable and solid. The views down the river, from the granaries, is spectacular — well worth the effort to get up there!
I wandered back down to the river trip’s camp and said farewell. Then, it was back to my site to pack up and work my back up the creek. I found the little site I’d scoped out on the way down, and set up. I had the creek to myself for a couple of hours, before the Group of 6 came in. We kept to ourselves, and I was up and out the next morning, before they were.
Day Four, the climb out was, well, the hike down in reverse. I am one of those people that would rather climb up a steep, loose route than work my way down one. Gravity does most of the work keeping my feet under me, and I don’t worry about slipping as much. It was strenuous, but not nearly as mentally exhausting as the trip down. There are a few good spots to stop and catch your breath, and I did take advantage of those. I try to stop once an hour, when I’m on the trail, to take off my pack and boots, just to prevent pack soreness and blisters.
I got up to my first night’s campsite, on Tilted Mesa, in 4 hours. There I met a young German couple, heading down. They were stopped in the shade. She was looking at a large blister on her heel, and he was fiddling with his small pack. They were wearing light running shorts & tops, and running shoes, carrying 30 liter backpacks. As soon as they saw me come up, they both started asking me if there was water in the creek. They asked four times if there was water. He seemed a bit panicked about whether or not there was water in the creek. I asked if they had camped here, or at Marion Point, and they said they had hiked in from the National Park access that morning. It was about 11:30am, and was getting quite warm. I then asked if they were camping at the creek, and they replied that they were heading over to Kwagunt that evening. I noticed only one, 1 liter bottle in each of their packs. They may have been carrying more, but those packs were small and they were clearly out of water. Subsequent events would convince me further, that they were only carrying limited water/carrying capacity…
I said “Good Luck” to the two, Kwagunt-bound” adventurers, and made my way up, onto the traverse trail. By now it was getting pretty warm. I’d packed an extra liter of water that morning, knowing the hike across the traverse would be in front of a tall, heat reflecting sandstone cliff. I made it around to Marion point around 2:30 and collected my water. I noticed the Group of 6’s water cache, tucked into the rocks above the trail. I decided to press on and get to the rim, before sunset. I didn’t want to cram into the small camping area with a large group. I got across to the rim by 5pm and set up camp. The traverse back over was no less exposed/narrow than it had been on Day 1, I just had the void to my left this time. I had dinner during a perfect, Canyon sunset, then collapsed when it got dark.
I got up after the sun hit my tent (it was a cold night) and was just getting around to heading out, when the Group of 6 came up the short scramble to the trailhead. It was there that I learned that the young couple I’d encountered on Tilted Mesa had helped themselves to 6’s water cache. They only took 1 liter — one half liter from two different containers — but pilfering any water from someone’s cache could be potentially life threatening for the person/people that cached the water. That said, the Group got to the trailhead with enough water to be okay. If it had been hotter, it might have been a different story.
What do I think happened? The couple had started their hike without enough water. Based on the size of their packs, their condition when I encountered them, and only one visible bottle each, they’d headed out with limited carrying capacity. They got to Marion Point, looking for the seep that is still listed on the NPS trailhead sign as a possible water source, to find it dry. They saw the unmarked cache (no note) and assumed it was ok to help themselves. At least they only took the bare minimum. That half liter each probably didn’t get them all the way to Tilted Mesa, but got them through the hottest part of the trail, and there was definitely, positively water waiting for them at Nankoweap Creek. My hope is that they realized how unprepared they were, and stopped there. Pushing on to Kwagunt from Tilted Mesa, on a warm day, leaving at 11:30 was not going to end well. At least, that’s what I imagine happened.
Anyway… I hiked down to the Saddle Mountain trailhead, my truck and my semi-frozen Gatorade. The Group of 6 caught up with me. We hung out for a bit and then went on our way. One of them gave me a sweet bumper sticker for my truck. In all, my trip was amazing. The weather, despite the little bit of rain, was perfect for this trail. It’s not one I would do in the warmer seasons, or if I knew that conditions would be snowy or muddy. I met some amazing folks, saw some new scenery and got to revisit some old sites. This route is described by the NPS as “The Most Difficult” trail in the canyon. It is a long, steep, exposed hike. It would have been the most difficult route I’ve done, if I had tried to do it in a day, do it in late spring, summer or early fall. The exposure isn’t any worse than some I’ve seen on the Escalante, or Beemer, there is just a LOT more of it. The steep, loose sections aren’t any more so than what I’ve seen descending the Boucher or dropping off of Horseshoe Mesa, they are just longer. I broke the trail into sections, and had a great time. One misplaced step could’ve resulted in a different outcome. Will I do it again? Probably.