With the sun beginning to set behind the tall canyon walls and 3 miles of rocky, technical terrain left to hike, we had a decision to make: turn back around to set up camp, refill our water supplies and reevaluate or trudge forward along what may or may not be the right path. It’s situations like these that make you realize backpacking the Grand Canyon can be a harsh and unforgiving experience if you make one wrong decision.
Along our 3-day, 27 mile route from Tanner Trail to New Hance, we were pushed to our limits time and time again. What was meant to be a “test trip” for our upcoming hike along the PCT turned into lessons of a. knowing your limits and b. what it truly means to be prepared.
Distance: 27.5 Miles
Time: 3 Days
Elevation Gain/Loss: 10,300 ft
Permits: Grand Canyon Backcountry Permit
Day 1: Lipan Point to Tanner Rapids
Stoke was high as we woke up in the Grand Canyon ready to shuttle out to the trail head. We checked our gear, packed our bags, and made it out to the trail head for a quick breakfast on the south rim by 7am. By 7:30 we had started the 9 mile decent to the Colorado River below.
I knew I was in for a long day of backpacking the Grand Canyon when my legs started shaking after a mere 30 minutes of switchbacking down the first canyon wall. It was the my first time hiking with a large pack – somewhere around 35 lbs. – and my body was a little unsure how to handle the weight, rough terrain and distance that needed to be traveled.
After my body realized that that I wasn’t going to be stopping any time soon, I think it gave up on telling me how tired and sore it was (so was the theme for the rest of the trip). The shakes and pains slowly faded and soon I was finding myself able to keep up a pretty solid pace.
That day was the toughest day of hiking I had ever had, but we were pushed forward by the thought of lounging on a sandy bank next to the river. After 7 hours of hiking, a couple near vertical scrambles, and a few breaks for snacks we had made it to Tanner Rapids.
Sore but refreshed from soaking in the river we drifted off to sleep confident that we had handled just about all that the grand canyon could throw at us.
Had either of us known what the next two days had in store for us, we would have stayed at that beach for one more night and hiked out back up the same route.
Day 2: Tanner Rapids to Hance Rapids
With the majority of this day spent hugging a cliff wall and tightroping along a 6-inch path that’s over 1,000 feet above the canyon floor, this route is not for the faint of heart.
This is where we learned the mistake of not having a topographical map the hard way. What we thought would be a leisurely day spent backpacking the Grand Canyon along the rivers edge turned into a day of pushing ourselves far beyond our preconceived limits.
The Escalante route that takes you from Tanner Rapids to Hance Rapids brings a whole new meaning to the word sketchy. Neither of us were mentally prepared to cross multiple sections of boot-wide, crumbling trail high above the canyon floor.
As you approach these sections for the first time, your stomach starts to drop, your heart starts to pump and you can’t help but imagine at least one grim outcome.
There was no turning back though, so you take a few deep breaths, steady your feet, take hold of your poles and then steadily and confidently place one foot after the other until you get to the other side. It’s manageable, but any missed step or loss of concentration would have been fatal.
And so it went for another 6 miles. Mentally, I wouldn’t say that it ever really got easier, but I did learn to take better control of my own thoughts and become much more confident in the way I move my body.
The day ended with us having to make a troubling decision between pushing forward 2 miles without water to Hance Rapids or turning around and hiking a half mile down a canyon and past the sketchiest sections of the day to a nearby beach. In the end, we opted for water and a sure campsite near some river rafters.
Huge shout out to Joe and the rest of the Grand Canyon Whitewater crew that supplied us with a hot meal, electrolyte tablets and the most gracious hospitality I’ve ever experienced. They even offered us a quick ride on their rafts the next morning to get us down to the New Hance Trail.
Day 3: Hance Rapids to New Hance Trailhead
After being both physically and mentally pushed bast our breaking points the day before we had mentally prepared for pretty much anything the trail could throw at us. Thousand foot drops, crumbly trails, limited water…we were ready for it all.
Our bodies were sore, our legs felt like cement bricks and we had blisters the size of extra toes, but as we started that 7 mile hike straight up and out of the Grand Canyon the only thought running through my head was, “I am not spending another night in this canyon.”
The trail out was so steep that it felt like we spent more time climbing than actually hiking. We continued to encounter more sketchy sections of trail, but seemed to handle them with much more confidence this time around. Only taking a few 10 minute breaks to take off our packs and eat some snacks, we made it to the top before sun down.
The Grand Canyon is one of the most beautiful places I have ever had the pleasure of visiting and backpacking it gives you an intimate experience of all its glory, but that doesn’t make it any less unforgiving or deadly if you come unprepared.
3 days of backpacking the Grand Canyon taught me what it truly means to be prepared, how far I can push my body and mind, and the importance of having a partner you trust. I’ve become comfortable with being uncomfortable and formed a far greater respect for just how powerful Mother Nature is.