In 1883, "Captain" John Hance became the first European American to settle at the Grand Canyon. He originally built his trails for mining, but quickly determined the real money lay in work as a guide and hotel manager. From the very start of his tourism business, with his Tennessee drawl, spontaneous wit, uninhibited imagination, and ability to never repeat a tale in exactly the same way, he developed a reputation as an eccentric and highly entertaining storyteller. The scattered presence of abandoned asbestos and copper mines are a reminder of his original intentions for the area.
Shortly after his arrival, John improved an old Havasupai trail at the head of today's Hance Creek drainage, the "Old Hance Trail", but it was subject to frequent washouts. When rockslides made it impassable he built the New Hance Trail down Red Canyon. Today's trail very closely follows the trail built in 1894. The New Hance Trail developed a reputation similar to that of the original trail, eliciting the following comment from travel writer Burton Homes in 1904 (he did not exaggerate by much):
There may be men who can ride unconcernedly down Hance's Trail, but I confess I am not one of them. My object in descending made it essential that I should live to tell the tale, and therefore, I mustered up sufficient moral courage to dismount and scramble down the steepest and most awful sections of the path on foot .... "On foot", however, does not express it, but on heels and toes, on hands and knees, and sometimes in the posture assumed by children when they come bumping down the stairs .... The path down which we have turned appears impossible .... The pitch for the first mile is frightful ... and to our dismayed, unaccustomed minds the inclination apparently increases, as if the canyon walls were slowly toppling inwards ....
Hikers and geologists alike will enjoy the colorful rock layers found throughout Red Canyon. These layers are referred to as the Supergroup, and collectively represent hundreds of millions of years of earth's history. Pockets of Supergroup, like those found in Red Canyon, are the last vestiges describing what occurred during the Great Unconformity (the gap of time missing between the Vishnu Schist and Tapeats Sandstone). In Red Canyon, the most immediately apparent layer is the brilliant orange Hakatai Shale, which can be seen throughout the area. Across the Colorado River from the campsites at the mouth of Red Canyon the shale features a massive, basalt dyke intrusion. Local outcrops of Bass Limestone, located beneath the Hakatai Shale, contain bulbous stramatolites (1.2 million year old bacterial mats), which are some of the oldest fossils in the world.
The New Hance Trail is one of the oldest and supposedly most difficult trails leading to the Colorado River from the south rim. At 7.0 miles, (per our GPS), it is the shortest of the backcountry trails to the river and descends roughly 4,500 feet. While the South Kaibab Trail is a 1/2 mile shorter, it is considered a corridor trail and in much better condition. In summary, this trail has two very steep sections. The first is right at the top on the way to Red Canyon and the second is at the 4,900 foot point. In between is a treacherous traverse just before a large rock slide. Other than that, it's a snap! (smile) Our group consisted of 6 people, (myself, Carolyn, Doug, Craig, Brad and Diane), and we were taking this trail as the part of a 3-day car shuttle hike encompassing the New Hance, Tonto, and Grandview Trails. The total loop ended up being 20 miles, including a side trip to the cave on horseshoe Mesa, and took 17 hours of actual hiking time. On the way to the Grand Canyon the day before, our group decided to stop in Flagstaff at a Popular Store to purchase a few ponchos as the weather forecast had deteriorated to temperatures in the low 40's with rain and high winds at a steady 23 mph. We asked the hiking veteran at the counter, whom had been down this trail before, what the hike would be like given those conditions. After pausing for several moments to search him memory, he replied, "It will be epic". While we didn't have to contend with any rain on the morning of the hike, it was a chilly 41 degrees with high winds and his words were echoing in our minds as we started out at 7:10 on a Thursday morning. Early on, we experienced a brief period of snow flurries. We also had some concerns as one of our party, Diane, had been sick the entire night before. The New Hance Trail winds through the pinyon-juniper trees for .2 miles before heading down into the canyon, and I do mean "down". The trail is extremely steep and full of scree. While it is not difficult to follow, it requires many large downward steps which, even with hiking poles, are hard on the knees and test one's balancing skills with a 45-pound pack. We all took our time and were extremely careful where we placed our feet and poles. This made for very slow going and I had concerns that we would be able to reach the New Hance Rapids within the 6 hours we had been told to expect. At one point, I remember looking at the GPS and noting that it had taken us an hour to cover .6 miles. It took us a full 2-1/2 hours to make it to the head or Red Canyon which was only 1.6 miles into the hike. On the positive side, we had dropped 1,100 feet which put us at roughly a quarter of the 4,500 total elevation drop. I had previously been told that "elevation" is a better measure of progress in the canyon than mileage so that provided some comfort. (Otherwise we were going to be hard pressed to make the river by nightfall!)
As we descended down into Red Canyon, the conditions seemed to improve somewhat and our pace improved. Over the course of the next half-hour, our party got spread out and separated somewhat, but we had radios to alleviate any concerns. At this point, we got a call over the radio that Diane was just too uncomfortable with the conditions to continue. (Being up sick most of the night before undoubtedly played a role here.) Doug dropped his pack and headed back up the trail with the idea being that he'd carry her pack back down to our position. We thought that we would then split her pack amongst the rest of us so as to lighten her load and make her balancing easier. In this fashion, we thought we could still make our destination as a group. However, discretion got the better part of valor and Brad and Diane elected to abort and head back out and home to Phoenix which was a wise move. One always has to know one's limits. Brad jettisoned most of their liquids, (pouring out all of that merlot had to hurt), and took a good deal of Diane's pack weight and they were able to exit the trail in less time than it took them to get down in the first place.
The remaining four of us continued down Red Canyon basically following the drainage. At the 5,100 mark, this drainage "cliffs out" and the trail tuns sharply to the right along the canyon's edge. While not as steep as before, the footing along this traverse was poor and the trail was very exposed in spots. A slip would have resulted in serious injury. At the 4,900 mark, the trails enters a small half bowl and crosses a large rock avalanche area as it continues its traverse. We lost and re-found the trail several times through this slide area. While the footing isn't nearly as bad around the rock slide area, the trail climbs up and down several hundred feet which makes this terrain somewhat taxing. We stopped for lunch just before the next scheduled steep descent at the 4,900-foot mark. (This spot is just left of the "B" in BM 4949 on the topo map.) This was right at the 4-mile mark of the trip and it had taken us approximately 4 1/2 hours to get here. The next descent, while steep and scree filled, wasn't nearly as bad as the previous descents because it was not as exposed. A slip, (and Carolyn had a few), would merely bruise your bum or land your hand in an agave. After the 4,300 point, (BM 4286 on the topo), the trail begins a much more gradual descent down the ridge. By now, the skies had cleared out and it was a sunny 75 degrees. From this point it was all down hill as the nasty part of the trail was now all behind us. The final 1,800 feet are much more gradual and follow the drainage down the remainder of Red Canyon to the river. Just before point BM 3668 on the topo, the trail turns sharply right and crosses a drainage merging in from the east. This drainage had several high and dry waterfalls which we crossed well above before heading back south and continuing along Red Canyon. As we got closer to the river, the trail dropped down into the sandy creek bed which had much foliage throughout. The trail left the dry creek bed and up the east side of wash a few times but one could safely have stayed in creek bed as it never cliffed out. We finally emerged at Hance Rapids at 2:10 in the afternoon which made for a 7-hour trek. There were several prime camp spots east of the rapids but several groups already took them. We elected to head down river a little ways to another nice sandy spot just below the Tonto Trail which was our goal the next morning.