Rim to River to Rim: A Grand Experience in the Grand Canyon
Planning a trip for late fall can be tricky as the weather is completely unpredictable in most locations. In late November the Grand Canyon can see snow and ice or it can see warm, sunny days that call for shorts and a t-shirt. Since I always abide by the adage "plan for the worst, hope for the best" I anticipated we would see snow in the canyon and the steep trails would be ice-covered and dangerous. We packed our microspikes and I reserved a permit for the Horseshoe Mesa campsite, a 3.5 mile hike that was a relatively safe option compared to the trails that wound their way all the way to the canyon floor. As our trip approached it became increasingly evident that we would be treated to fair weather while in the Grand Canyon so we decided to change our plans so we could make it all the way to the river!
We pulled into the parking lot for the backcountry office just before it closed and I ran inside, fingers crossed that a spot in zone BB9 would be available. As the park ranger entered some info into his computer I nervously looked at the map, tracing the route we would (hopefully) take the next morning from the Tanner Trailhead, 9 miles, 4,900' down to Tanner Beach, where we would set up camp near the edge of the Colorado River.
"Aha," The park ranger exclaimed, I apprehensively looked up, waiting for his answer. "BB9 is available," he informed me as he altered our previous reservation. He then printed out our permit and went over a few backcountry regulations that included a few normal rules: camp on durable surfaces, pack out garbage, and then one that caught me by surprise: "Urinate directly into the Colorado River." Scientists have determined this does less damage than having visitors urinate in the soil or on vegetation.
After securing our permit, Alex and I headed to the beautiful El Tovar Hotel that's perched right on the South Rim and offers expansive views of the canyon. We had spent the previous night in the backcountry of Petrified Forest National Park so we were both looking forward to a shower and a warm bed.
The next morning we slept in and ate an energy-packed breakfast at the hotel before setting out for the trailhead. The hike starts just to the right of Lipan Point. We pulled in, found a spot (the parking lot is small) and headed a few paces back down the road until we found the trailhead and then we were off!
The park service describes the Tanner Trail as one of the most demanding routes on the South Rim. It's steep and unrelenting, but it's also beautiful and has historical significance and these two aspects are what drew me to it. Native people have used the trail to access the Colorado River for thousands of years. In 1890 Franklin French and Seth Tanner improved it and it has been in current use since, although not formally maintained by the park service. The fact that it is unmaintained is also a factor in its difficult grade. Rock slides have covered a few of the upper switchbacks, leaving hikers to clamber over rocks and find a new way around and over the rockfall.
The trail's tough grade is evident from the very beginning. It descends a harrowing 1,900' in the first mile and a half and as we were descending I kept thinking this is going to be a beast to tackle on the way up. But, that was for my future self to worry about, my current self was loving that gravity was aiding me with every step. Before long we left the trees and found ourselves on the Tanner Saddle and were treated to a spectacular view of the canyon.
From the saddle the trail traversed beneath Escalante and Cardenas Buttes on a wonderfully level grade for three miles. Alex and I cruised through this section before beginning a seemingly endless descent that didn't let up until we were on Tanner Beach with our toes in the river. Thankfully this descent wasn't nearly as steep as the initial one. We stopped every mile or so to re-hydrate and appreciate the views without worrying about misplacing a step and falling, which is surely something to avoid in the Grand Canyon.
After about four and a half hours of hiking we made it to Tanner Beach. On our trek down we had run into only three other groups of hikers and there was no one in sight at the beach. This was one of my favorite aspects of the hike. We left the bustling South Rim with people elbowing their way to a view at Lipan Point and, from our very first step on the trail, we immediately found ourselves very alone.
Despite it being 4pm the sun was low in the sky and shadows were enveloping the nooks and crannies of the canyon walls. We quickly began to set up camp and as we clicked tent poles into place and inflated our sleeping pads we heard yelling from the river. We turned around, and to our surprise, saw rafters facing the Tanner Rapids with enthusiasm. They laughed as their boat smashed into the waves and soaked them. It looked like they were having a blast and I immediately added a rafting trip on the Colorado to my ever-growing bucket-list. As we continued to set up camp a few more rafts roared by, each one full of people clearly having the time of their lives. A few times we waved and yelled back, it was hard not to be infected by their positivity!
Eventually the sun dipped below the horizon and we were treated to an unbelievable sunset from camp. If there's one thing I learned about Arizona on this trip, it's that the state has the best sunsets and sunrises I've ever seen. The clouds glowed with vibrant shades of orange before fading to pink and purple. The color lingered for almost an hour past sunset and put on one of the best shows I've ever seen.
After watching the fiery sunset we headed to the tent to get some sleep. Even though it was barely 7pm falling asleep was easy. The nearby river drowned out any normal noises that keep me up - small animals rustling, the wind singing in the trees, and other benign sounds that my brain interprets as threatening, and I let myself be lulled to sleep by the rushing rapids.
The next morning we woke just before sunrise in order to get an early start on the trail. We quickly enjoyed a breakfast of Mountain House Spicy Southwest Breakfast Hash (a new favorite) and then began breaking down camp. We each drank a 1L Nalgene bottle's worth of water in preparation for the impending slog and then we hit the trail, with our gaze fixed on the rim. As we stood on the shore of the river and looked up the feat seemed impossible, the rim was too high, too far away! Yet we started, we put one foot in front of the other, until finally we made some ground.
The ascent was tough and slow-going but eventually we found ourselves on the three mile level stretch and once again we cruised. Compared to the previous fives miles it felt like I was floating towards the trailhead and then, inevitably, the last 1,900' were upon us and we muscled our way to the top. It took us exactly six hours to reach the trailhead. We were sweaty, exhausted, and probably smelly but beaming from ear to ear. We just hiked from the South Rim to the Colorado River and back!