South Canyon Trip Report!
November 07/09, 2003
Today started very early, we were up and out of Flagstaff before 7am with hopes to make it to the trailhead by 10am. For those who have not driven out to House Rock Valley, it is a long, albeit scenic drive through the heart of the Navajo Reservation. We grabbed some fast food on the way out of town and by the time we were passing Sunset Crater on the edge of town it was still dark.
Our first rendezvous was at Navajo Bridge near Lee's Ferry and Marble Canyon. We stopped and took our first look at the clear green Colorado River, which helped stoke our desire to start the hike as quickly as we could. After driving another twenty or so miles from Navajo Bridge, passing Cliff Dwellers and skirting the Vermillion Cliffs we made a left onto a well signed dirt road for "Wilderness Access" and "House Rock Buffalo Ranch." We followed this well-graded dirt track for 19 miles until we came to a junction signed for "Wilderness HQ" and made a left. After 2 miles we came to a well signed junction "South Canyon (NPS) 1.2 miles." We made a right and continued to the trailhead parking area where we were all surprised to see another vehicle.
We had arrived at the trailhead about 10:15 am and after some last minute adjustments, repacking, and pre-hike stretching we started down the trail at 11 am. This was a little later than we had planned on leaving, but what can you do? It was over a three hour drive and there was little chance of us making an earlier start from Flagstaff. The hiking party consisted of me, Tom Grabarek, Jim Reist, and Seth Sharkey, who will be referred to as Shark. Between the four of us we have a good amount of Grand Canyon experience, with Tom being the only person to have hiked South Canyon. He had done the hike as an overnighter and was glad to be taking a layover day.
The hike starts with a downhill section through the Kaibab Limestone, mostly a downhill ledge walk until you reach the obvious V-shaped notch at the rim. The trail then descends a break and continues down steeply, while you hop over rocks and large boulders, I could tell it was going to be a long day. The trail (which is more of a route) descends some steep slopes through the Toroweap, and you must down-climb over some steep and mostly loose rock through the top Supai Cliffs over a dry waterfall down to what was the steepest loosest part of the trail, where one misstep could mean a good fall. After .8 mile from the rim and an hour from the cars the trail meets the creek bed and you feel the 1000 vertical feet you just descended.
From the head of South Canyon it was a tiring walk east toward the River via the creek bed. This section took us about 3 hours and we finally reached the left bypass which stays on top of the Redwall until the descent ravine upriver from the beach. There are some great views of Vasey's Paradise as well as the huge beach which awaits us 800 feet below. We reached the beach a little after 5 pm and immediately set up camp. Unfortunately there was a large river party who had the main beach so we were forced to use the small beach at the head of South Canyon. This beach was gorgeous, and I like that we were not disturbed by the river folks. Dinner consisted of fresh pasta, bread, spinach salad, and some red wine. We watched the moonrise and promptly went to sleep.
This was our day off, and we all made the most of it. The day started with some fishing before we ate breakfast. Jim was the first one to catch a trout, but we determined he was too small to keep so we released him. Breakfast was scrambled eggs, bacon, and veggies. We continued fishing and another river party showed up mid-afternoon and set up camp on the large beach. We all managed to catch a fish except for Tom who was still learning how to fly fish. All of the fish we caught were too small to filet, save for fish sticks, so we released them all and just had a nice lazy relaxing day by the River. Late in the afternoon we spotted some backpackers ascending the Redwall break above our camp and speculated where they were coming from and where they might be going. We all assumed they were the owners of the car parked at the trailhead.
One funny moment occurred while the four of us were out fishing. Jim and Shark had gone back to camp and found a squirrel eating a hole through my tent! It turns out I had left some of the bread from the previous nights' dinner in my tent and sure enough he found it. Let this be a lesson that the little buggers really will chew through your tent. Oh well, at least my tent has a Grand Canyon story now.
Before dinner Shark, Jim, and I decided to explore up the South Canyon Drainage from the River. The creek is immediately blocked by a large chockstone which requires some climbing on the slick rock of the Redwall to bypass. The creek is again blocked by another larger chockstone but the second stone is easier to climb. The Redwall narrows here are amazing and there are so many caves it would be impossible to count them. I would recommend to any who venture down South to check out the narrows.
We returned to camp as it was getting dark, and the River level was rising. We started on dinner and ate some of the best backcountry burritos ever! Tonight there was a full lunar eclipse that we were not able to see because of the cliffs, but it sure was dark. The moon finally broke the canyon walls a little after 9 pm, so we stayed up and enjoyed the beautiful night, which was our last by the River. We were all asleep by 11 pm.
Today is the day we have to hike back to the rim. We got a later start than planned, but I will discuss this more in a moment. We all got up about 7:30 am and hiked up to the Redwall platform above camp to check out the ruins and take some pictures. The ruins above South Canyon are nice, but not all that impressive. There is clear evidence of the early inhabitants in this area. The ruins consist of a few Redwall caves with some rocks stacked up to form the structures foundation. There is another similar foundation upriver that is also not very impressive. We did see some pottery shards and arrowheads which made the hike worthwhile.
Shark reported that right near Vasey's there was a dead bighorn sheep that stunk pretty good, and this was enough of a deterrent to keep us away from it. The morning was very pleasant, after our short hike we fished a little, ate breakfast (more eggs and bacon) and packed up camp. We reluctantly left the beach at 11 am, a real late start, but heat wasn't an issue. In hindsight we should have done a cold breakfast and left camp by 9 am.
The ascent up to the top of the Redwall was typical of all Redwall ascents: steep, loose, and did I say steep? We were on top of the Redwall in about a half hour and stopped as we approached the Redwall narrows from above for a few pictures. It was very cloudy and the thought of precipitation never escaped our thoughts. After we finished the first bypass we dropped back into the creek for the long boulder hop to the head of the drainage. Route finding is easy here and there are cairns to mark the bypasses.
Tom was hiking ahead of us and tried to go up the unnamed drainage on the left before you reach Bedrock Canyon and we had to chase him down and point out the mistake. He had just missed the cairn for the pour off bypass, and hadn't gone far. It seemed a whole lot easier to find some of the short sections of trail which break away from the creek briefly while we were heading up, these little routes were tough to see going toward the River. I could not tell you if these shortcuts saved time or not, but it's a mental thing right?
We reached the head of South Canyon at 4:30 pm and took a short break before the final ascent. This is where the men are separated from the boys (and women from girls). This is as steep as it gets and hands were used to help balance with the heavy packs on our backs. We reached the final ascent chute as it was just getting dark. The trail up was easy to follow, just remember you have to go up, and ignore the little spur trails to the left and right. By the time we reached the cars it was 6 pm, dark and threatening rain. The car that we saw when we arrived at the trailhead was still there, so I wonder where they went. We did not see any other backpackers camped on the beach just river parties, so the whereabouts of the occupants of the other car still remains a mystery…
We left promptly after congratulating each for doing such a great job. We stopped for gas and refreshments at Cliff Dwellers and made it back to Flagstaff a little before 10 pm, ready for our next adventure in the backcountry.
We all had a great time on this trip but underestimated a few things. The first being how long it would really take to complete the hike in both directions. Our times were in line with those in Ron Adkison's guide book "Hiking Grand Canyon National Park", and we felt we were pushed pretty hard. The hike is definitely strenuous, but most in Grand Canyon are. It would be nice to do the hike without the bypasses and hike the Redwall narrows all the way to the River, though this route is not for everybody. We also could have packed a little bit lighter. The true distance is 6.5 miles, but for those who have done long creek walks know it require constant attention to keep from going ass over tea kettle, and it takes a lot out of a person. I would recommend this hike for those with a respectable amount of Canyon experience, and would do this hike again myself in a second.
*Note: There was water in the bed of South Canyon, some of it looked drinkable and some of it looked pretty nasty. We did have some rain the week before the trip so I would assume it is not usual to find any water until you reach the River. In hot weather I would cache water at the base of the rim descent.
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