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Trip Report: The Escalante Route of the Grand Canyon

The Escalante Route, Grand Canyon

Trip Data

  • Dates: Thu, Oct 21, 2021 to Sun, Oct 24, 2021
  • Route: Lipan Point > Grandview Point
  • Weather: Sunny, with partly cloudy afternoons. Highs in the 60s and 70s, lows in the 30s and 40s.
  • Distance Hiked: 33 miles
  • Time: 4 days

Map

Background

In June of 2021, Max attained permits for an October descent into the Grand Canyon on the Escalante Trail, a relatively unpopular route that has a reputation for being more treacherous and difficult than the average Grand Canyon trek.

Although the standard trip length for this route is 4 nights, Max requested a 3-night permit to make it more likely our friends could get the time off to do it with us. The park rangers cautioned him against this due to the strenuous nature of the trail, but Max held his ground and they gave in.

We were surprised and amused when we received the permit, which said in large red letters, “AGGRESSIVE ITINERARY! HIKER INSISTED ON ITINERARY.”

Despite this delightful warning, our friends Jason and Dana still decided to join us. Max has extensive experience in the Grand Canyon, having worked there as a guide and completed multiple hikes, including the R2R in a day, Havasupai, and Salt Trail Canyon to LCR Gorge. Jason and I also have quite a bit of experience in desert backpacking, and Dana is a kick-ass rock climber, so we were all feeling a bit cavalier about our odds of success on this trek.

By the end of our 3 nights, we were rightfully humbled by the Grand Canyon, and Max had earned the cheeky nickname “Aggressive Itinerary.”

From left to right: Kim (the author), Max, Jason, Dana
From left to right: Kim (the author), Max, Jason, Dana

Summary

We embarked out of Grand Junction and drove to Utah to drop our daughter off with her grandparents. Max had all of his meals and snacks provided by Right on Trek, which made preparation for the trip very easy.

Jason and Dana flew in from Chicago. We picked them up at the Las Vegas airport, and headed to Arizona. We spent the night before our trek camping on a forest road outside of the park. It was freezing cold, and we were grateful for the beer and pizza we had in Williams to keep us warm.

The next morning, we had a leisurely breakfast at the Foodie Club restaurant in Tusayan, blithely ignorant of the ass-kicking we would receive in the canyon. We headed into the park that afternoon and left our vehicle at Lipan Point at about 2 PM on October 21st to begin our descent.

Day 1

Distance: 10.7 mi
Ascent: 475 ft
Descent: 5,123 ft

The trail drops steeply in the first 2 miles, with lots of scree scrambling and boulder hopping. I began to lament that I had not done more squats and lunges to prepare. I was grateful for my trekking pole.

After mile 2, the trail was less rocky, with flat sections to break it up. We were shaded from the warm autumn sun through all of it, and there were breathtaking views and geological wonders to entertain us as we descended down further.

Photo op on our first sighting of the Colorado River!
Photo op on our first sighting of the Colorado River!

Within a few hours, the setting sun painted a crimson streak on the cliff walls across from us, and we began to wish we had started earlier. We passed a group of hikers who had to stop and make camp early after one of them sustained an injury. It was a good reminder not to underestimate the canyon.

The setting sun's last rays cast on the cliffs above us
The setting sun’s last rays cast on the cliffs above us

It was full dark when the temperature noticeably rose, and we began smelling the sweet, reedy aroma of the Colorado River. After four hours of hiking, we had reached the bottom at last!

We heard the roar of the Tanner Rapids in front of us and felt a moment of relief. Unfortunately, thanks to our “aggressive itinerary,” we had another 4 miles of hiking to do before we could stop and camp.

We took advantage of the pit toilet at Tanner – which was a godsend as my legs were jelly and I couldn’t squat even if I wanted to – and then continued downriver with our headlamps on.

The trail was well marked with small cairns, and squirreled up and down the rocky hills that make up the toes of the canyon walls. The almost-full moon crept over the south rim, lighting up the splendor around us.

Despite the beauty, it was a grueling two and half hours, and we were grateful when we heard the whoops and greetings of the rafters camping at Cardenas, our night’s destination.

The rafters invited us to drink some beer with them, but we were spent after the day’s exertion. Dana had already developed bad blisters, and we were all aching and exhausted.

We found a sandy grove a few hundred feet from the river and collapsed into our tents. We had to take precautions to keep the mice from our food while we slept. The earplugs I brought helped tune out the sounds of revelry from the rafting camp. We all had a great night of sleep in the warm riparian air.

Kim poses in the Grand Canyon

Day 2

Distance: 8.1 mi
Ascent: 1,744 ft
Descent: 1,828 ft

We slept in and broke camp slowly, limping on our stiff legs. I discovered that my water reservoir had sprung a big leak and was useless, so I made my way down to the rafters to see if they could help me out.

The view from Cardenas Camp
The view from Cardenas Camp

They were a large group out of Aspen, CO. They were incredibly kind to us, offering to take our garbage, supply us with beer and seltzer, and gave me a large jug to carry my water in. We were floored by their generosity!

We filled our water bottles in the Colorado, which was clear enough to require very little filtration, then started on the trail at about 11 AM.

Looking back toward Cardenas Camp from above
Looking back toward Cardenas Camp from above

It was warm and sunny with a mild breeze. We climbed about 1300 feet onto a mesa several hundred yards away from the river. The trail was narrow and exposed, with sheer scree slopes on the side. It seemed like it was created for bighorn sheep rather than people. Any misstep would have been disastrous.

Kim (the author) makes her way over a talus slope
Kim (the author) makes her way over a talus slope

As we hiked, the rainbow of surrounding geography lifted our spirits. Black lava slopes, green flaky layers, deep red cliffs, and rocks with polka dots, stripes, and swirls decorated the canyon around us.

Dana’s feet were rapidly deteriorating, forcing our pace to slow. She was suffering from a multitude of bad blisters and beginning to lose sensation in part of her foot. She joked that her feet were made of “puff pastry.”

We encountered Escalante Creek at about 3:30. It was dry, but fortunately we were still carrying plenty of water and were able to continue on.

Escalante Creek was dry as a bone
Escalante Creek was dry as a bone
Max poses in front of one of many grand views on the route
Max poses in front of one of many grand views on the route

At about dusk, we skirted along the yawning abyss of Seventyfive Mile Canyon. There is a steep scramble where you descend into the canyon, and then continue back toward the river.

We took a brief moment to enjoy sunset on the river
We took a brief moment to enjoy sunset on the river

It was a shame we didn’t get to pass through the canyon in the daylight, but the sheer walls around us were impressive even in the dark. We were also able to enjoy the performance of the many bats that careen through the canyon at night. There were still a few datura blooming in the sand at our feet.

We arrived back at the river, and began to ascend back onto the steep, arduous trail toward the Papago Wall. We quickly realized that it was too dangerous to continue in the dark and turned around at about 7 PM.

We found several sandy camping spots on the beach upriver of Nevills Rapids. We had the area to ourselves, and moonrise lit up the whole canyon at 9 PM. I took advantage of the moonlight and solitude to take a bath in the cold river. The water was still clear, but the taste was a bit siltier here.

The view from our camp upriver from Nevills Rapids
The view from our camp upriver from Nevills Rapids

Day 3

Distance: 9.0 mi
Ascent: 2,072 ft
Descent: 962 ft

After vowing to get an earlier start, we broke camp and started on the trail at 8:30 AM.

There are few "cruiser" miles on The Escalante Route
There are few “cruiser” miles on The Escalante Route

The terrain was quite difficult approaching the Papago Wall, and I was grateful we hadn’t attempted it in the dark. The scramble itself was straightforward, albeit exposed. None of us struggled with it.

Dana in her element on the Papago Scramble
Dana in her element on the Papago Wall

The trail immediately after it was rocky, exposed, and difficult to follow. We cliffed out, had to backtrack, and climb higher up another sandstone scramble.

We waved at our rafter friends from above
We waved at our rafter friends from above

After enjoying some stunning vistas, we had to follow a steep, shifting boulder field dropping 200 feet. We split up to avoid hitting each other with rockfall. I found it much scarier than the Papago, and was glad to have it behind us.

The view from the top of Papgao Wall
The view from the top of Papago Wall
The somewhat dicey scree slope we descended after Papago Wall
The somewhat dicey scree slope we descended after Papago Wall

We encountered another group of rafters just upstream from Hance Rapids. This group was from Tennessee, and was even more welcoming than the last, if that were possible. We were laden down with plenty of beer and supplies when we walked out of their camp after lunch time.

Dana and Jason share a romantic moment in the canyon
Dana and Jason share a romantic moment in the canyon
Max and Kim (the author) having a good time
Max and Kim (the author) having a good time

Their generosity put us all in a fabulous mood for the next several miles, which was aided by the uncharacteristically easy trail we followed. We found a bag of garbage near the river, and gathered up as much as we could to take with us before photographing it to notify the park rangers.

Garbage left in the canyon 😢 We gathered some and notified the NPS
Garbage left in the canyon 😢 We gathered some and notified the NPS

After that, Max and I decided to split off and book it to the next campsite to ensure we could find a spot before dark. We stopped only once to enjoy the sunset and inhale some of the delicious snacks provided by Right on Trek.

We arrived at Hance Creek around 6:30 PM and found a pleasant, sandy campsite surrounded by trees. We were delighted to find that the water bubbling out from the creek rocks was crystal clear, delicious, and warm!

Jason and Dana hiked in around 8, following the light of our headlamps to find our site. Dana’s feet were in terrible shape, but she maintained a smile and a positive attitude.

We had a great view of Vishnu Temple from the trail
We had a great view of Vishnu Temple from the trail

Day 4

Distance: 5.3 mi
Ascent: 3,793 ft
Descent: 125 ft

We got another early start and began the steep ascent toward the canyon rim.

The trail was a lot more simple and straightforward than what we had been traversing, and we enjoyed a relatively easy day despite the elevation gain.

We saw more Indian paintbrush as we gained elevation
We saw more Indian paintbrush as we gained elevation

We stopped to check out an old mine and and the rusted equipment around it, a great reminder of the Canyon’s history as a site for uranium mining.

There were thousands of colorful rocks scattered below the mine sites
There were thousands of colorful rocks scattered below the mine sites

As we neared the top, we made a short detour to investigate a crumbling old mess hall with a large rusty cauldron in the fireplace. Signs warning of radiation decorated the land around it.

We continued on, reaching Grand View trailhead at about 4:00 PM. The air was frigid compared to the balmy temps at the canyon bottom, and we immediately dropped our packs and donned several layers of winter gear. We had hiked into a different climate zone!

The trailhead was packed with tourists who had come from all over the world to look into the canyon. None of them were backpackers, and many of them stared at us, congratulated us, or asked us about our trip. We felt a bit like minor celebrities and laughed as we realized we had become part of the tourist attraction.

Max grabbed a ride back to Lipan with one of the couples who had stopped to talk to us, and I was able to kick back, relax, and contemplate the magnitude of the canyon.

As I watched the crowds of tourists come and go and surveyed the incredible views, I realized that the Grand Canyon is a land with many competing claims upon it – miners, tourists, indigenous peoples, rafters, and hikers like me. All of us are insignificant compared to the scale of the canyon walls, and none of us can truly claim it. It has been around long before all of us and will be there long after we are gone.

I was just grateful to be able to pass through it, marvel at its wonders, and come out unscathed – despite our “aggressive itinerary.”

We enjoyed "summit" beers at Grandview Point
We enjoyed “summit” beers at Grandview Point

Food

This year, RightOnTrek brought Max on board as an ambassador and offered to support our hikes and outdoor activities with custom meal plans.

On their website, you can order backpacking meals with fresh ingredients, shipped directly to you.

For the Escalante Trail, Max customized a plan that provided him with 3000 calories per day.

RightOnTrek’s meals are way tastier than the competition, and a great way to nourish your adventures without the hassle of shopping.

Use code BackOBeyond50 for 50% off your first order

View at RightOnTrek

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3 comments

  1. Wow, just wow. What an amazing looking trip. I’ve never backpacked the Grand Canyon, but boy does it look worth it. Adding this to my list!

  2. I’m planning the Escalante trail this year and found your post. Thanks for sharing such a detailed journey, it provides me a lot of information. The pictures are amazing!

    1. Thanks Paul! You’re definitely in for a treat!

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