Disclaimer: This is not a very good route, and I do not recommend it. It is of course incredibly scenic and geologically (and historically) fascinating, but there are long sections of unpleasant hiking due scratchy brush and lots of loose, sharp rocks. I like hiking off trail as much as the next guy, and have done a lot of it in the desert and elsewhere, but this is non-terrific. IMO, this route if for Grand Canyon aficionados only. Also, there are long distances between reliable water sources. Buzz & I are strong, experienced hikers, and were able to camp at water every night. Others may have to dry camp at times. As always, YMMV.
The GPS track to this trip is attached. It is also available here: https://caltopo.com/m/78G3
These are from Buzz's Strava https://www.strava.com/athletes/184882
, edited somewhat to remove GPS errors and such. You can also view more photos on there.
I read whatever trip reports I could find for this route and studied it carefully to come up with a track to load into Gaia on my phone. This turned out pretty well. We did find some of the route descriptions to be confusing and sometimes just wrong. So maybe our GPS track will help future hikers.
April is the best time to do this hike due to good weather, long days, and not too much snow on the North Rim. Unfortunately, the North Rim is mostly inaccessible in April. We simply added a bit of on-trail hiking by starting at the South Rim and making a lollipop loop. There are certainly other, shorter ways to do this, such as by starting at the Nankoweep TH and ending on the South Rim, which of course would require a shuttle. We figured a little extra hiking was simpler than dealing with logistics.
We didn’t want to camp on the North Rim, which would have been at least 15 degrees colder than anywhere else on the route, so we took a short first day and hiked the South and North Kaibab trails ~14 miles to Cottonwood CG.
Leaving camp at 6am on Day 2 was the last time we saw any people for over 3 full days. We decided to go up the Old Bright Angel trail, since neither of us had done it, and it seemed more in character with the route we were doing. Though easy to follow, Old BA is very overgrown in many sections and kind of a thrash. Buzz commented that in 5 years it will no longer be a viable route due to the brush. Though I think ~ 3 miles shorter I believe it took longer to go this way than just following the main trail. There was some post-holing on the Ken Patrick Trail, and we just did a short bush-whack up to the main paved road on the North Rim. Hiking on the closed paved road was of course fast and pleasant. We were relying on finding water at Neal Spring, which is on the USGS map, but it turns out the spring does not exist in real life. Which left us facing a very long stretch with no water, since we had not carried extra water up from Bright Angel Creek. Fortunately the weather was very cool (40s) and we found patches of snow that we could eat to sustain us passably well. Going down Nankoweep Trail the ephemeral spring near Marion Point was bone dry. Having made a really dumb route finding error earlier in the day which cost us over 90 minutes, we finally reached Nankoweep Creek ~ 90 minutes after dark. About 24 miles for the day, mostly on trail.
On Day 3 we hiked ~16 miles (all off trail) to upper Lava Creek. The only water between Nanko and Lava was in Kwagunt Creek. We carried plenty out of Kwagunt, but the day was cool enough and we didn’t have a problem. Route finding is easy – you’re just following along the obvious fault – and there were no technical difficulties. There don’t seem to be great (or any) established camp sites in upper Lava, but we found a very reasonable spot.
The hike from Lava Creek to Juno Saddle is definitely the technical crux of this route. It is brushy, steep, loose and I’d say dangerous. We started by heading up Lava Creek past the source spring. There is a large Tapeats abutment on the south side of the Lava Creek. We went just past the abutment and found an easy (though very brushy & steep) route up through the Tapeats. From there we continued up a bit and then descended into the main creek just below the junction of the 2 major arms of this drainage. We then turned up the (hiker) left drainage. Everyone says don’t miss this drainage, but it is obvious. The trouble begins after this point. You are not going all the way to the head of this drainage. Instead, at some point you will turn right and head up the slope out of the drainage, which is very steep, loose and overgrown. We turned out of the drainage at around 5200’, heading for the right side of an obvious tower (which turns out to be more of a fin). This was a lousy route, but I don’t know if there is a better one. About 100 vertical feet lower than where we left the drainage there is an obvious chute entering from the right. I would think that would be a better route, but since the route description we were following didn’t say “take the obvious chute at 5100 feet” we didn’t go that way. Anyway, we just kept thrashing our way up and eventually found ourselves on top of the Redwall and had an easier walk over to the saddle at 6012’. Descending Unkar was straightforward. At 4700’ there’s a cairn marking where you have to exit the drainage hiker left to bypass a dryfall. Going up the southwest arm of Unkar you will bypass a similar dryfall by climbing out of the drainage hiker left. The ascent up this arm of Unkar is straightforward with a lot of boulder hopping/scrambling but no route finding issues. The descent from the Redwall saddle into Vishnu is also obvious. Just head down (steep & loose!) into the drainage. After several hundred vertical feet you will encounter a huge dryfall, and you can scoot out right on Muav benches for a ways until you can find an extremely loose and annoying (SHARP rocks!) descent into the north arm of Vishnu. Just awful but mercifully short. From there we walked down Vishnu, through the lovely narrows to a nice campsite at a huge undercut just after the small, steep side drainage where you want to leave Vishnu for the next section. There was water at this spot, but it was relatively stagnant. Our Day 3 was about 12 miles, and we arrived at camp pretty early.
We got up early anticipating a long last day. There was a little scramble leaving Vishnu via the side drainage just above the undercut camp spot. Following the drainage up, then aim to go pretty far left to get around the Muav layer. You can try to find a more direct route through, but probably like us you will just wish you had headed left in the first place. From above the Muav just angle right to an obvious break in the Redwall (which seems to be a fault) just north of Hall Butte. From the saddle you follow the top of the Redwall layer mostly north for quite a long way (2 miles?) There are vague signs of past use. The climb down through the Redwall from the saddle between Angels Gate and Wotans Throne is the steepest, most exposed climbing we encountered, but the rock is relatively solid. Continuing down the drainage toward the east arm of Clear Creek, you must leave the drainage (heading west) just above a huge dryfall in the Tapeats layer and after a short way find a use trail down into the drainage, where you will encounter running water. I think it may have taken us 6 hours to hike the 7 miles from Vishnu to Clear Creek CG. From there we just motored out, happy to be on excellent trails finally. Capping a ~23 mile day, we reached the South Kaibab TH at 7:30pm, just before headlamps would have been needed, and just in time for the last shuttle bus.