June 25 & 26, 2009
After a successful backpacking trip through the Gems in June, I decided that it was time to go for the Old Hance Trail.
The New Hance Trail has a reputation for being one of the most difficult trails that descends from Grand Canyon’s South Rim. But before the New Hance Trail was constructed in 1894, there was such a thing as the OLD Hance Trail.
And it still exists… in our collective imaginations, at least.
The most salient point to keep in mind is that this original trail was abandoned before the year 1900. Rockslides were obliterating the route with enough regularity that the pioneer John Hance gave up on it, opting for a better way.
So it’s a wonder that the Old Hance is still referred to as a trail. Let me be clear – it’s an off-trail route, and a gnarly one at that. This write-up is not intended to be used as a route description.
I suspect that the only reason it’s still called a trail is because yes, once upon a time (well over 100 years ago), it was the first modern trail to descend into the Grand Canyon.
A friend had tried it last summer (in 2008), but felt he’d gotten in over his head and turned around. So I set out on this overnight backpacking trip with a bit of hesitation.
Day One: The Old Hance Trail to Hance Creek
I paused on the way to the trailhead to take in the morning view from the “Duck on a Rock” overlook on Desert View Drive. Sunrise was early at this time of year (probably about 5am), and it was essential to get an early start to avoid the heat of the day.
Fortunately the steep, north-facing route would leave me in the shade for most of the morning.
The Old Hance Trail
Here’s a sort of bird’s-eye view of the top of the route. It goes down the nearest drainage on the left.
At first I was lucky to encounter narrow switchbacks through the trees, but the path quickly disappeared. This image probably shows the clearest sample of anything that resembles a trail, all the way from the rim to the Tonto Trail.
I had a good route description in hand, so my progress actually went quite well. After getting through the top section of forest, I accessed this clear rock slide that brought me all the way down through the Coconino.
By the way, you’ll notice a stark difference in the quality of photos throughout this report. It’s because I used 2 cameras. I brought my DSLR at the time, but also carried a low-quality pocket camera to be used through the rough sections. That’s why the image of the Sinking Ship (below) is so much better than the route-based pictures above.
Clambering down through the Supai was the most difficult part of the route.
The area was thick with sturdy, unrelenting vegetation, and punctuated by large boulders and small cliffs. I was constantly forced on a circuitous route to avoid this special concoction of small obstacles.
The Redwall break was simple and straightforward, subsequently presenting itself around each turn until I made it to the bed of upper Hance Creek. A couple more simple obstacles were in the upper canyon, but nothing of real consequence.
Soon I met the Tonto Trail, and the Old Hance Trail was behind me!
Judging by the time stamps on my photos, the descent from the rim to the Tonto Trail took about 5 hours.
more Old Hance Trail photos:
(Day One is continued below)
Hance Creek to Sockdolager Rapid
When I planned this trip, I was tantalized at the possibility of continuing down Hance Creek to Sockdolager Rapid. The attractiveness lied in the prospect of going from the Rim to the River without the aid of a trail!
It constituted a completely off-trail descent of the Grand Canyon.
So after descending through the Tapeats I found a small, sheltered place to set up camp. Here I took a break and re-organized my backpack with day-hiking gear.
It was a little late in the day to embark on such an adventure, but I decided to push for Sockdolager Rapid.
To go down Hance Creek is not just a simple walk down the canyon. There’s 3 obstacles that must be bypassed by scrambling up and out of the creekbed over loose, steep terrain. There was one bypass in particular that seemed to bring me a couple hundred feet over the canyon floor.
There’s also a fourth obstacle, a chockstone that can be climbed without a great deal of difficulty. I used a length of cord to raise and lower my backpack there.
I wrote the following in my initial trip report:
I just can’t get enough of the primordial feel of these side canyons. Herein lies just a piece of the magic of hiking in Grand Canyon, the feeling of a journey to the center of the earth in the midst of this immense chasm of pure ancient wilderness – rock and desert – and tens to hundreds of canyons within it that are similar to this one, Hance Creek.
I made it to the rapid!
I felt such a sense of accomplishment, like the triumph of climbing a mountain. And a big part of that feeling was because I did it solo!
It was a quick visit at Sockdolager – I pushed beyond my sunset-turnaround-time to get there. So I hustled back up the canyon, and was lucky to get through all the bypasses while there was still enough light to see without a headlamp.
But just by a hair… I did ultimately have to use my headlamp before getting back to camp.
As I sat in the darkness and enjoyed my dinner, I discovered this spider, content in its web only a few feet from my leg! I’d never seen a black widow spider before, and was sure to grab a few pictures.
After I got the photos, well… I was comfortable enjoying my dinner there on the best sitting-rock in the area, so I stayed right where I was with the spider nearby, and finished my dinner! I certainly kept an eye on her, but all-in-all I suppose I enjoyed the company.
more photos from Hance Creek:
Day 2: Hance Creek to Grandview Point
There was some rain overnight, but the next day dawned bright and sunny.
I was slow to get going and leave camp. My timing in this was impeccably poor, because a thunderstorm hit as soon as I started walking up the canyon.
So I ducked under a Tapeats overhang near the Tonto Trail to wait it out. I have a wonderful memory of being here, dry and sheltered as the thunderstorm roared through the Grand Canyon. I often mention how I love the opportunity to be in the outdoors (safely) to experience a storm, and this was no exception.
The weather magnificently cleared for a late-afternoon stroll up the Grandview Trail.