September 1st – 3rd, 2008
I lived at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon for over 3 months before I finally spent a night below the rim. There had been plenty of day hikes to keep me busy, and the summer heat was a factor too.
September is traditionally the end of summer, so Labor Day weekend seemed an ideal time for a first backpacking trip. The heat vanishes at the end August. Right? Yeah.
I teamed up with Michael Dax for this hike. We had similar interests (especially regarding hiking and exploring the Canyon) so we became fast friends that summer, and even roommates at the South Rim after my first roommate left the Park.
Our plan was to spend 2 nights at the bottom of the Tanner Trail, at Tanner Rapid. On Day 1 we’d descend to the rapid and on Day 3 we’d hike back up to the rim. Our main objective was to spend Day 2 hiking the entirety of the Beamer Trail from our base camp, to the Little Colorado River confluence (and back).
The Beamer Trail’s intense heat and mileage (19 miles round trip) proved to be too much for us, and we never made it the Confluence. A major factor in this was how the Colorado River, our only water source, was running silty and brown – and clogged one of our pump filters.
This was a very enjoyable and memorable trip, and the first of many with Michael Dax.
Day One: Lipan Point to Tanner Rapid
We started our descent at about 10am.
Despite our best intentions, our future hikes would tend to start at 10 in the morning – to the point that it became a running joke of ours. The humor lies in the fact that it’s specifically not recommended to hike the Canyon between the hours of 10am and 4pm throughout the summer.
We knew that the Tanner Trail started from Lipan Point, but we had some trouble in locating the actual trailhead. It’s somewhat hidden in a nondescript spot, along the spur road that approaches Lipan Point from Desert View Drive.
We walked only for a few minutes before we met a backpacker heading up the trail, out of the Canyon. He had spent a couple nights near our destination along the Beamer Trail, and was quick to share a word of caution:
“Watch out for mountain lions! I think one was stalking me, I could smell it.”
The tone of the guy’s warning, coupled with the assertion of smelling a mountain lion, struck us as hilarious in out naivete. Perhaps it was the way in which it was delivered, but the prospect of smelling a mountain lion sounded ridiculous – fodder for entertainment for the next 3 days:
“Smell any mountain lions yet?”
“How about over here?”
“Can’t say that I do.”
And so on.
The joke was on us, however, because in the ensuing years I’d learn that sometimes you actually can smell a mountain lion when it’s present.
We stopped for our first proper break at a saddle with some picturesque boulders, overlooking the head of 75-mile Creek. We’d already come down about 1,700ft from the rim.
I’d later learn that the location of our break is colloquially known as the “Stegosaurus Rocks.”
This group of hikers passed as we rested at the Stegosaurus Rocks. They were headed out for an adventure on the Escalante Route, which struck us as rather impressive, since the route was said to include some climbing and off-trail navigation.
The next 3 miles of the Tanner Trail were relatively flat as we contoured to the descent through the Redwall Limestone.
Comanche Point began to take center state as views opened up toward the Palisades of the Desert, and the upstream corridor of the Colorado River.
Our destination for the day – the location of our base camp for the next 2 nights – can be seen in the photo above. It’s the beach adjacent to Tanner Rapid, which is seen in the lower left corner of the photo.
Our hike on the Beamer Trail the next day would bring us along the right-hand side of the river as it’s pictured stretching away in the distance. The Little Colorado River Confluence is located just around the distant corner, out of sight.
The Desert View Watchtower (seen here above and to the right) on the rim of the Canyon was visible throughout much of the trip.
I looked upon it as a sort of “Eye of Sauron,” always present.
The character of this wall of rock below the Redwall limestone left a memorable impression.
I remember on a later hike with a friend I made a reference to the species of “purple cactus” in the Canyon, and the response was an incredulous scoff at my memory, to the effect of “There’s no purple cactus!”
Well here it is! Photographic proof 🙂
We reached camp at Tanner Rapid with more than a couple hours to spare, so we worked out a turnaround time and chose to explore the Escalante Route to the west.
We ended up turning around here at this set of ledges along Basalt Rapid. I stared into its biggest wave, impressed at the power of the River.
An interesting amount of debris had washed ashore here, including a car tire! I pointed out the same tire to a friend about 3 years later on a future hike. He went on to tell some folks with the Park Service about it, and they consequently packed it out during a river trip.
see more photos from Day One:
Day Two: The Beamer Trail
I had a good night’s sleep in my tent (an old one-man REI Quarter Dome). Michael slept out under the stars, as many Grand Canyon hikers choose to do, and had a fitful time with mice crawling over his sleeping bag. It amused me as the mice startled him throughout the night.
In retrospect its great to sleep under the stars in remote camps, but not especially in more established places like Tanner beach.
In the morning we were lucky to see these kayakers running the rapids, followed by some larger rafts. A commercial river trip camped only a few hundred yards upstream of us, on the far side of the Colorado River.
Our plan for the day was to hike the length of the Beamer Trail to the confluence with the Little Colorado River, and return to our camp at Tanner beach. Our first steps upstream to locate the Beamer Trail were unsuccessful, but we soon found where it climbs the slope up and away from Tanner Canyon.
This photo (above) is on the north side of exposed section of trail we had just traversed. If you look closely you can see the path winding along the edge of the ledge.
On the return trip, we found a lower route close to the river to bypass this. On subsequent trips I noted that both routes still seem to be in use, and after more experience in the Grand Canyon, the exposure didn’t seem to be as unsettling as it was this very first time.
Thanks to the trail description provided by the backcountry office, we identified all of this tilted rock as part of the Supergroup, a unique geological layer found in the Grand Canyon. It’s some of the oldest sedimentary rock in the canyon, somewhere from 800 million to 1.2 billion years old.
At Palisades Creek we looked for evidence of mining activity, but saw nothing. It wasn’t until years later, when I was back here with more experienced eyes, when I finally identified some (now obvious) tailings and scrambled up to discover an old adit.
Soon we climbed above Palisades Creek to the exposed benches that dominate the northern section of the Beamer Trail.
Progress is notoriously slow throughout this section. Neither of us carried GPS devices, so we judged our progress the old fashioned way – keeping our eye on the landmarks. They were namely Carbon Creek, Temple Butte, and Chuar Butte – all on the opposite side of the river.
This means of navigation is why making headway through this part of the Beamer Trail is particularly daunting. The path winds in and out from the river in a perpendicular direction as it crosses numerous washes. So for every mile walked, only a fraction of that distance is covered in upstream progress.
Regarding such navigation, our map of choice was the popular Sky Terrain map that features Grand Canyon’s main trails. In the midst of the trip, we were tickled to see that its cover shows the part of the Canyon that we were presently exploring.
Due to the brutal heat of the day (on September 2nd) and our questionable water situation, we made the difficult but wise decision to turn around before reaching our goal, the confluence.
It was the right choice. The only source of water throughout the hike was the muddy Colorado River, and we were having severe difficulties with getting the water purified. As rookie Canyon hikers, neither of us carried alum powder to help settle the water.
Each of us carried a pump filter, but the thick mud clogged and broke Michael’s filter. This left us with only my Katadyn Hiker filter to share between the 2 of us, and my filter wasn’t faring much better.
Fortunately Michael carried a water bag. We wisened up to the idea of letting the sediment sit in the bag and settle to the bottom before pumping the water. But even after deploying this method, it was found to be a time consuming process and inadequate for our needs – upwards of 2 gallons per person per day.
So the water situation, the heat, and the unknown distance that remained caused us to turn around.
We spotted this chuckwalla in the area! The is the first of only a handful of chuckwallas I’ve ever seen in the Canyon, as they prefer very hot weather.
see more photos from Day Two:
Day 3: Up the Tanner Trail
The third day of this trip was all business – a simple mission to get out of the Canyon.
Michael had to clock in for a shift at the El Tovar today. I believe that shift started no later than 1pm, though it may have been as early noon, or even 11am!
The result was that we were awake and packed long before sunrise, and we began the day’s hike by the light of our headlamps. Not only did this help us get out of the Canyon early, but it helped to beat the lingering summer heat, too.
I remember that we didn’t have to rely on headlamps for very long, however, as the day’s first light was adequate to see by the time we’d climbed from Tanner Canyon, and certainly by the time we reached the Redwall.
I stowed my DSLR camera away in backpack as a tangible signal that I wanted to make good time, only stopping for a few photos when there was time to remove my pack.
If memory serves, I believe we left camp at 6am and made to the top at 11 in the morning.
I probably would have forgotten such details, but I remember the sense of accomplishment I felt with such an effort to hike out of the Canyon in good time with dwindling water supplies.
In the ensuing years, it’s been impossible for me to climb out of the Canyon via the Tanner Trail without recalling this first morning, and my first backpacking trip below the rim.