During his famous early explorations in the region, John Wesley Powell became fascinated with the area's complex geology. His continuing interest ultimately prompted him, in the 1880s, to send a geologist and trail crew to improve an old Native American route to the river. Subsequently, the trail became the northern terminus of the "Horse Thief" route. It's difficult to envision a horse traveling this trail now but, according to legend, outlaws would steal horses in Utah and drive them to the bottom of Grand Canyon, then across the river and out the Tanner Trail to ultimately sell them in southern Arizona.Note:
Distance and elevation loss listed on this page is for the National Park section One-Way. You must hike the Nankoweap Trail #57 (Forest Service Trail) from one of it's trailheads
to reach the turn off for this trail.
|28.0 mi RT From West TH|
|29.0 mi RT From North TH|
The Nankoweap Trail has always been advertised as the most strenuous hike in the Grand Canyon by Park Rangers and experienced hikers alike. Any Hike from the south rim, no matter how long or challenging, would always be answered by the old crusty hikers by 'That's something, ya young whippersnapper, but it ain't no Nankoweap.' So the Summer of 2001 found me at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon with a day and a half on my hands, two friends, and a desire to see the untold beauty of the Nankoweap Trail. Here I come.
Disclaimer #1: Due to our time restraints, we had to complete a round-trip trip to the Colorado River and back on the Nankoweap Trail in two days. This timeframe is recommended by no reputable trail guide and strongly discouraged by Park Rangers. Two days for this trail made for a grueling hike for three quite fit 21 year olds with Grand Canyon Hiking experience-Four or more days would allow for less wear on the body and a more leisurely pace. Stashing of water is necessary. There is no reliable water in the 11 Miles between the Trailhead and Nankoweap Creek.
The beginning of the Nankoweap Trail is found in the cool confines of Aspen groves high on the Colorado Plateau within the Kaibab National Forest. The trailhead is relatively well marked as Forest Service Trail 57 (Saddle Mountain Trail). After dropping for less than half a mile, you begin the ascent to the Peak of Saddle Mountain, where you are greeted with expansive views of all areas east and south of Saddle Mountain (not including the canyon). After descending the Mountain on a series of switchbacks (which will cause much consternation on your return hike!), you will reach a flat area. Remain on Trail 57 until you come to an intersection where the National Park Service Nankoweap Trail begins.
The Trail begins with a series of vague switchbacks through heavily wooded south facing slopes. After reaching the red Supai slopes with a sandstone cliff rising on your left, you will begin a long traverse along the Supai. The trail is easy to follow, with Cairns in difficult spots. When in doubt, stay on the Supai formation. There is a 100-foot drop on your right and a 100-foot cliff on your left! After about two miles you will reach a point (Marion Point) with some campsites down a well-worn path straight ahead. The trail here continues along the Supai, and you will turn north, beat down some shrubbery and find the trail continuing. There is a small water seep near here, but not enough to count on. The trail will now continue through another two-mile stretch of Supai traverse, crossing a drainage and continuing on the north side of the side canyon. Just when you think that you were cheated and the trail does not ever go any further down, it will begin to slope downward and soon you will reach the Tilted Mesa ridge. Here you will have a broad panoramic view of the Canyon, with Nankoweap Creek visible on the right, Tilted Mesa in front of you (tilted upward, of course) and more scenery on the left. Now is when the descent begins.
Keep on the right past a campsite and soon you will begin the descent by a couple of 8-10 foot ledges that may require you to lower your pack, but there are some strategically placed trees which can be used as handholds. Following is a series of brutal switchbacks, incredibly steep at times but in good condition. You will probably drop 2500 feet in elevation within the next 3 miles, so pop the ibuprofens and bust out the hiking poles. After these switchbacks a steep traverse will down a slope will lead you closer and closer to Nankoweap Creek, easily identifiable by the verdant greenery found there. After a short walk along flat desert land, you will find the creek. We camped right under a cottonwood visible by the trail once you see the creek. There is lots of shade, the water is cool, and there was a large lizard on the tree which seemed to scare any mice away.
The hike down to The Colorado River has no particular route, it just follows the creek. It is a three-mile hike to the river so make sure you budget plenty of time. I can attest that maneuvering up the creek in near dark after hiking fifteen miles is not desirable. Once you reach the River there are a series of vague trails off to your right-pick the one with elaborate Cairns and steps that will lead you up another 750 feet to Anasazi granaries. I did not go up to the granaries, but they are not fenced so please respect the ruins-I've heard the view from up there is one of the best in the canyon. From the river you will see a cliff on the opposite side that rises 300 feet to the opposite rim. It's very impressive.
Disclaimer #2: Avoid the sun during the summer. We broke camp at 4 AM each morning to avoid the sun, and it was still unbearably hot. Stash water on the way down; Marion Point and Tilted Ridge are good places. Also, don't forget that once you get out of the Canyon you still have a mountain to hike up and down. Have fun!!!