The Canyon most never see...
History: 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.
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!!!
NPS Reports This is a mostly waterless trail, with significant exposure in places. This trail is not recommended for people with a fear of heights. The majority of hikers take two days to complete the journey, spending the night on the way down at either Marion Point or Tilted Mesa; to do so requires carrying plenty of extra water. Hikers up to the challenge are rewarded with magnificent views, excellent chances for solitude, and fascinating human history.
Forest Service Trailheads to NPS Boundary: Both Forest Service trails #57 merge at the canyon rim, National Park Service boundary (trail 57 actually connects the two trailheads). The trail from FR 610 is straight forward. Long pants are advised because of dense, thorny brush. The trail from FR 445 leaves the parking lot and follows an old road south (uphill). It soon becomes a proper trail and descends into a deep ravine. At a fork in the trail at the ravine bottom, bear right to follow the creek. The trail crosses the creek several times over the course of about a half mile, then exits the creek bed to the south and travels continuously upward through forest toward the saddle.
NPS Boundary to Marion Point: As you enter the canyon you enter the Supai Formation. The trail turns south and descends quickly through the uppermost Supai cliffs (Esplanade Sandstone). At the bottom of the switchbacks you begin a lengthy traverse, remaining immediately below the Esplanade for the next five miles or so. On a map it appears to be fairly level, but in reality the trail continuously ascends and descends and there is much exposure. The trail is often only one footprint wide, loose and gravelly, with a 10-150+ feet of drop off. This trail is not recommended for people with a fear of heights. One place that may be confusing is where the trail passes Marion Point. Here it makes an immediate turn to the north continuing the traverse and does NOT continue out to Marion Point. Just beyond where the trail passes Marion Point, near the head of a canyon, it passes just below a very small seasonal seep under a ledge.
Marion Point to Tilted Mesa: The traverse continues in a rising and falling pattern until it approaches the ridge leading down to Tilted Mesa. There it begins a gradual descent through the remainder of the Supai and becomes more steep on the ridge. Two short cliffs are descended with the aid of a couple of trees. Excellent campsites are located at the top of each of these cliffs. The trail soon reaches the top of the Redwall limestone on the isthmus between Nankoweap and Little Nankoweap Canyons. The trail continues on or near the ridge until dropping off to the southwest and beginning the descent through the Redwall.
Tilted Mesa to Nankoweap Creek: The trail in the upper Redwall is clear and relatively well constructed. Where it is gravelly, the rocks are angular and large enough to be stable. Things deteriorate when the trail makes a couple of loose traverses, then a couple more, then descends straight down a loose ridge of yellow shale. A walking stick is helpful. At the base of this distinctive yellow shale slope, the trail then turns back to the northwest and onto a plunging ridge of semi-stable, conglomerate boulder debris. Though more stable than the shale, the trail down this ridge is VERY steep. When it approaches a large colorful knob the trail turns back to the southeast onto another narrow and loose traverse through the Bright Angel shale. This lasts about ? to 1/2 mile.
After traversing the lower reaches of Tilted Mesa, the trail continues a mild descent down the top of a wide, round, stable ridge. It goes through the Tapeats Sandstone via a few switchbacks and some multiple trailing. Then it drops into a small saddle and off to the southwest down a ravine separating the gray Nankoweap Formation and Black Cardenas Lavas. This ravine empties onto a large alluvial terrace above Nankoweap Creek. The trail stays on the terrace until dropping down to the creek.
Nankoweeap Creek to Colorado River: There are large springs above and below the point where the trail meets the creek. Those upstream provide tastier drinking water (this must be treated of course) than those below. There is an excellent campsite here but watch out for flash floods. From the campsites at the trail's first junction with the creek, the remainder of the trail follows Nankoweap Creek to the river. Once you reach the river, please stay on the established trails to decrease the erosion and confusion (beach trails are outlined by rocks).
Notes: This trail is classified as MOST difficult of the named trails in Grand Canyon. It has the largest total rim-to-river drop (5640 ft / 1735 m) and is one of the longest trails. Hikers must be experienced in canyon route finding; this trail is not recommended for inexperienced or solo hikers. The Nankoweap Trail is not enjoyable as a summer hike as there is no water and little shade until Nankoweap Creek. The hike will require a minimum of 4 to 6 liters of water per person, per day.
Water Sources: A very small seasonal seep is located just above the trail approximately 150 yards past where the trail passes Marion Point. Permanent water sources include Nankoweap Creek and the Colorado River. It is advisable to cache one half to one gallon of water per person along the trail for the hike out. Be sure to label all caches with names and dates and place in a location that is not visible from the trail. Remove all caches when you leave the canyon.
Campsites: Camping is available in the Kaibab National Forest near the National Park Service trailhead, at Nankoweap Creek (AE9), and at the Colorado River. There are 4-5 small sites located along the trail in the Supai rock layer between Marion Point and Tilted Mesa. For more river privacy, camp near the delta in the smaller beach areas and you won't be invaded by raft trips.
This hike is listed as One-Way.
When hiking several trails on a single "hike", log it with a generic name that describes the hike. Then link the trails traveled, check out the example.