Tuesday, May 9th, 2023, 0610-1800
Mile 21 of alt to Colorado River \ Nankoweap
20 miles, elevation 2800′
It was a very quiet night and I slept so well. I think I heard a western screech owl but that was about it. We had a big day planned: to get down to the Grand Canyon! First we walked the remainder of the road to the trailhead. We found several streams along the way, filling up on beautiful clean water, all run-off from the snow melt above. We climbed towards Saddle mountain for quite a ways, which I didn’t appreciate knowing how much we’d just have to go down to get into the canyon. Must go up to go down! My pack felt very heavy with all the food and water. I had to stop several times to rest, which I rarely needed to do this late into a thru-hike. We climbed high into a burn area and then a ponderosa forest. I wished we had made it as far as the ponderosa the night before, but our piñon tree was pretty good too.
We came to the park boundary and a small information kiosk just after 10 am. According to the map, we only had 9.5 miles to the Colorado River…and all afternoon to do it. But we needed to drop almost 5k’ in elevation. I’d heard many accounts about how scary and dangerous the trail was, so I was curious to see for myself. In fact, it was described as the most difficult of all the named trails in the park. It was nothing like the wide and well-graded corridor trails from the south rim to the north rim. Nankoweap was pretty infrequently traveled, minimally maintained, and steep...it sounded like just my kind of trail (like the PNT).
We took a break at the top, admiring our first views into the canyon. Starting down, the trail contoured just under a red cliff band for many miles. The route looked impossibly sketchy (narrow or even non-existent) from one or two bends away, but as we went along, we found it to be plenty wide enough and pretty easy. Sure there were parts where a slip could have meant a slide into a 1k’ drop, but how often had I slipped and gone down on this journey? Miraculously, not once! The Hayduke had calibrated my senses, minimizing the many spicy parts in light of the few spots that were truly worrisome. The upper part of Nankoweap turned out to be a really fun endeavor…and immensely scenic!
Along the way, we met 3 AZT hikers. Word had gotten out about the Hayduke route through the eastern part of the canyon, so many intrepid thru-hikers had been taking this much longer and harder way to connect their steps to the state line, in order to finish their hike. The North Kaibab trail would be closed for another month and a half, so it was about the only nontechnical way to get to the north rim. I admired their determination and they seemed to be loving the additional miles. I hadn’t even spent one night inside the canyon on my AZT hike, but this way involved 3 or 4 nights…which I too was greatly looking forward to. We chatted briefly and they informed us of several other Haydukers they’d passed \ met (Worm, Leah and Trailcrew). They seemed surprised that we of course already knew about all these hikers and their approximate locations…about the only ones we didn’t know were the several that were a week or more behind. But the AZT probably had thousands of hikers this year, so it wasn’t surprising that they couldn’t all know each other. Compare that to the 30 or so that were on trail in Fall 2019 when I hiked. It had been similar to the Hayduke back then.
After the meeting, we started the descent in earnest. We reached another couple of layers that dictated a bunch of short switchbacks, all on very loose gravel and shale. My shoes (original from the start and with almost no traction left) were sliding from under me almost every 5th step. Having 4 points of contact was crucial. I couldn’t have stayed upright if not for my trekking poles. Every step for the next few miles had to be braced, muscles straining, toes flexing to grab the earth, fighting the pull of gravity. It was a very slow and energy-demanding 3k’ of sustained loss in elevation. My legs were jello by the time I reached Nankoweap creek. I couldn’t even go on without taking a break in the shade of a cottonwood. I did feel a lot better after a dip in the creek. The AZTers had warned us that many wet feet crossings were called for, so I just went in fully clothed and shod.
After the long break, we continued down the beautiful creek bed. We only had 2 more miles to go and it was 4 pm. I’d hoped to maybe get a few miles down the Colorado river this day but could already tell that wasn’t happening. Even if we’d had more time in the day, I was way too tired. I knew Sky felt the same. There was no need to rush as we were still on schedule for our permit, but our progress wasn’t the greatest in terms of setting ourselves up for a raft hitch near the Little Colorado River. It was best to be there in the morning, but if we camped at Nankoweap, we would end up there in the afternoon the next day, perhaps having to wait until the next day after that to get a ride. Unless…we got really lucky and got a ride all the way from Nankoweap.
I let all these worries go as we strolled down the stream. It was yet another fantastical canyon, which I declared for the umpteenth time to be my favorite. The creek itself was wonderful, crystal clear and full of huge fish! I thought I was seeing things when a school of them passed between my feet. I almost stepped on them several times and actually tried to grab one as it went between my legs. I got my hands on it but it was too slippery to hold onto. They looked like salmon, swimming upstream in the current, fighting like mad in the rapids, fins thrashing out of the water. A rafter later told me that they were some sort of invasive carp. Actually, they were a native species of sucker fish and indeed could be caught by hand (see a later post).
And oh my goodness were the cactus flowers spectacular! In one particularly amazing spot, I swore I was walking through a cultured botanical garden of cactus and other desert plants. It looked like the gardens of St George that I visited at the beginning of the trip, only with even more flowers in bloom. The GC was showing its best and brightest colors during this extraordinarily wet season…the Grand experience. Also, the canyon walls along the creek were almost unmatched in terms of size and uniqueness. This was all somehow still outdone by coming to the Colorado River…the ultimate end to such a crescendo of epic-ness.
We collected heaps of water from the stream, prolonging our need to filter the silty (and probably polluted) CO river water. The river was running high…18,000 CFS some rafters told us later. It looked so majestic and domineering, it was easy to forgive its less than appealing potability. This river had played so prominently in my life. I’d crossed it’s headwaters on the CDT and earlier backpacking trips. I’d rafted down its Ruby, Horsethief and Westwater corridors, some of my first canyons and the very beginnings of my adventuring as a teenager. And now I’d walked in the vicinity of its length from Moab. I’d crossed it twice already on this hike. It was the centerpiece of the Hayduke, really.
The hour was well past when we’d hoped to end our day and we still needed to find a camp, smooze with the rafters, and climb 700′ to the ancient granaries for a side trip. Check off #1 and #2 but sadly we had not the energy for #3. Camp was made on a sandbar right next to the river, with fantastic views and white water noise. The wind picked up just a little once we set up, blowing fine sand all over everything. So what, it was worth it, part of the deal. A chat with the nearby commercial group didn’t yield much, though. They were very nice but politely explained that they couldn’t give long rides due to liability issues. They could give us a ride across, though. I kind of already knew all this, but it couldn’t hurt to ask. The guide asked if we needed any food or water and we politely declined (I wisely saved my yogi-ing karma credits for the next morning, which paid off in spades).
We settled into our awesome river camp and passed out quickly, absolutely exhausted from sensory overload and muscle fatigue. What a great state to be in…Edward Abbey would be so proud.