Back in early May of 2018 I was lucky enough to get on a group permit to hike down into the Grand Canyon National Park for the first time. Over a period of six days we took the Tanner Trail to the Beamer Trail to the confluence of the Little Colorado.
The Tanner Trail is an approximately nine mile long trail on the east side of the canyon, starts at Lipan Point, and ends at Tanner Beach at the river. The Beamer Trail is approximately 9.5 miles and takes you north from Tanner Beach up the river to the confluence of the Little Colorado.
I had never actually been in the Grand Canyon until this trip. I had always just been one of those people who would drive up to the edge and peer into its depths from the South Rim, or from the North Rim while on hunting trips in Kaibab with my brothers. You can’t fully understand how grand this canyon is just by admiring it from the edge. From the rim, it’s just like looking at the world’s most epic painting. It’s hard to fathom just how deep it is (over a mile), and how far across it is to the other rim (approx. 18 miles), and how far it stretches to the east and west (277 miles).
Hiking down into the canyon lets you know just how immense this ancient geological formation really is, and just how small it can make you feel. I mean, the Tanner Trail is nine miles from the rim to the river. Down through all the layers and periods of rock formed over millions and millions of years. Nine miles through geological history! Sure, there are faster ways to get down there, like falling, but some of us want to live.
Day 1 – Tanner Trail
Tanner Trailhead. Left to right: Cedar, Jack, Butch, Janet, Jay.
I drove up to Flagstaff the night before and stayed at my aunt’s house. Early the next morning we drove to Mike and Ronda’s “The Place,” a local diner off Route 66, to meet the rest of our group for breakfast. Jay, his long-time friend, Jack, and Jack’s two kids, Butch and Cedar, met us there shortly after we had been seated and we spent the meal talking of hiking adventures and experiences. After breakfast, we took Highway 89 to the 64 through Cameron to the park entrance on the east side of the Canyon. We made a pit stop at Desert View to take advantage of the bathrooms since they would be the last plumbing we would see for a while.
We drove around to Lipan Point, parked our cars, and hit the trail about 9AM. Unfortunately, a late start for how warm it was. There is an elevation drop of 4,650 feet over that nine miles of the Tanner Trail, from 7,350 feet at Lipan Point to 2,700 at the Colorado. Not too bad of a grade compared to other parts of the Canyon.
The cool thing about hiking with this group was that Jay and Jack had extensive experience hiking in the Grand Canyon and stored a wealth of knowledge about the Canyon, like this cool mnemonic device Jay taught me:
Know The Canyon’s History Study Rocks Made By Time. Verstehen Sie?
K – Kaibab Formation
T – Toroweap Formation
C – Coconino Sandstone
H – Hermit Formation
S – Supai Group
R – Redwall Limestone
M – Muav Limestone
B – Bright Angel Shale
T – Tapeats Sandstone
V – Vishnu Schist
I added “Verstehen Sie.” It’s German for “Do you understand?” The Vishnu layer will make an appearance later in the trip. These are some of the layers, and groups of layers, you see exposed in the Canyon’s walls. By no means am I an expert in Geology, but it is a good tool to help you identify the layers of rock as you pass them.
The hike down was beautiful. Steep, at first, but the trail was in the cover of trees at that elevation and in the shade of Kaibab Formation cliffs on either side of us. However, all that cover and shade goes away once you clear that Kaibab cliff wall and the trail dumps you out somewhere at the bottom of the Toroweap level. From there on your exposure to sun increases drastically. The thing about hiking the Grand Canyon is that it’s nice and cool at the rims, and as you descend it gets warmer, on top of increasing temperatures as it gets later in the day. Even in early May, the temperatures down in the canyon can reach from the high 90s to low 100s.
Suffice to say, it became pretty dang warm.
We took a short break at a somewhat even spot where the east/west portion of the canyon was coming into view. Then we crossed over a spine of trail that lead us over this ridge that was walled by huge square boulders facing the west just before dropping down in elevation again. The whole way down all I could think was that I was going to have to climb this on the way out. We weren’t even halfway to the river yet. We could see glimpses of the river at this point, glimmering in the sun. The tower of Desert View watching like a sentinel and becoming smaller and smaller as we descended.
We took turns carrying an extra gallon of water with us, and when the grade mellowed out we took refuge behind a giant boulder in a cluster of trees for a break and hid the gallon in a cavity underneath the boulder and put rocks in front of it so as not to be seen. This was to be our last bit of water on the way out on day six.
Did I mention it was warm?
A little after noon we took refuge underneath a haggard looking Colorado Pinyon somewhere between Coconino Sandstone and Hermit where we ate snacks, hydrated, relieved ourselves and chatted a bit. I produced my foldable pack chair, which is always a topic of conversation among other hikers. They usually can’t believe why I would bother carrying the extra weight, and I just laugh. It’s one of my most valuable and used pieces of equipment in my pack. Beats sitting on the ground like an animal.
After some time we geared up and hit the trail. The trail took us west from here, then pointed us north where we continued our descent down some switchbacks in unrelenting sun exposure. I think this was the point where things became challenging for us. The family of the group packed lighter and were quicker. They were far ahead down these switchbacks. I stayed with my aunt, and somehow we lost sight of our sixth man, Jay. He was behind us, and my aunt kept stopping and waiting for him to catch up.
Did I mention it was hot?
She yelled down to the family of three so they would wait for us and Jay. They looked back to us, then continued down the switchbacks and took refuge under a lonely tree on the peninsula of a canyon finger to wait in the shade. We stopped there in the middle of the trail and waited for a bit. My aunt even suggested I go back to look for him. I was not keen on the idea. The way I saw it, we needed to keep moving and get to the river as soon as possible since we were in constant exposure from the midday sun, it was hot, and we only had the water we carried in with us.
We finally saw him coming down the switchbacks towards us, so we moved on, catching up to the rest of the group underneath that lonely tree. When Jay finally caught up to us, it turned out he had stayed back to answer a call from nature, and then got off trail by following another trail that followed along one of the canyon walls. This little hangup caused some issues for the next few days. People in the group were getting heat exhaustion, and everyone was going through more of their water than they should have.
Other hikers had come and visited with us and gone by the time we finally got going from under that lone tree. The family of three were quickly out of sight as they hiked the rest of the way to the river at their own speed, and a good thing they did. We were all running low on water and the exposure to the sun was wearing on us. We only took a few more breaks up against Redwall and Muav Limestone cliff walls where there were slivers of shade. I still had about a liter of water left. My aunt had run out. She ended up drinking a tiny spray bottle of water she was carrying to spritz herself along the way.
The grade of the trail was finally tapering out when we got to the bottom of the Bright Angel Shale level. I was ahead of my aunt. Jay was ahead of us. The other three were already at the river. When we were close to the bottom, Cedar came up the trail to meet us. She was carrying a bottle of water for us and told us we didn’t have much further to go. I told her I was fine on water. Had about half a liter left. I was going to stay with my aunt until the bottom, but Cedar insisted she would keep her company and I could go ahead.
The trail brings you down through a thicket of mesquite trees at the river bottom, past the raised toilet of the outhouse, and down to the campsites. There was a dry creek bed that intersected with the river. This is where the rest of the group was. Butch was lying on his side in the shade and Jay and Jack were refilling on water from the river. We picked the campsite on the other side of the dry creek bed. I dropped my pack and stripped off my sweaty shirt and picked a spot for camping. Aunt Janet and Cedar arrived and we started sharing stories of the day. This is when we learned Butch was suffering from heat exhaustion and feeling nauseous, and I think everyone had run out of water except for me.
There was another group of people in one of the campsites on the other side of the dry creek bed across from us. A group from Rhode Island. They had been there since the day before and also had trouble with the heat coming down. One of them almost passed out on the trail and they had decided to set up camp and stay put for the rest of their trip there at Tanner Beach.
Did I mention the heat felt like the 5th circle of Hell?
I pitched my tent with looks of disbelief from the others. Apparently cowboy camping is the way to go with this group. They just set out tarps, sleeping pads, and sleeping bags. Keeping it simple. And here I was, attempting to pound aluminum stakes into the hard ground with a folding shovel, something I had to reevaluate for future trips.
I started on the arduous task of filtering water from the Colorado, which I learned on this trip there is a process to it. Usually, there is a lot of sediment in the river, so I had brought coffee filters to filter any large sediments when straining the water from one bottle to another. Then I would filter that water with my new Sawyer I bought just for this trip. Turned out, the brown, silty river water is seasonal, and we lucked out getting some pretty clear Spring water. However, even without the extra step of using the coffee filters, it was still a chore filtering six liters of water through a one liter squeeze pouch twice a day.
We eventually made dinner and settled down for the evening and planned on getting up early the next morning to get a good start. We still had 9.5 miles to get to the confluence, and we were hoping for a much easier day.
Pretty sure this is a dinosaur fossil. at least that’s what I hope.
Maybe water marks in the ancient rock?
Finally made it to the river!
I made a friend.