Trail Description : Nankoweap Trail
The Nankoweap Trail was originally constructed by Major John Wesley Powell and his party during a visit to the Canyon in 1882. It was constructed so that the geologist of the party, Charles Dolittle Walcott, would be more easily able to examine the Canyon's rock layers.
This trail is not one to be taken lightly. The Park Service lists it being the "MOST difficult of the named trails in Grand Canyon" and after hiking it once I would have to say that I must agree with that classification. The Nankoweap in many places is simply trouble waiting to happen and unless you've got a lot of Canyon miles under your boots I would not suggest that this trail be attempted. If, however, you do have those miles under your boots, want to see some extremely wild regions of the Canyon and feel comfortable that you are at peace with your maker (in case hiking the Nankoweap results in your meeting he or she somewhat sooner than you may have expected), then the Nankoweap is for you.
The first difficulty with the Nankoweap, as with any good north rim trail, is the location of the trailhead. It's located out in the middle of nowhere and you cannot drive directly to it. To get to the trailhead you must first drive to one of two different access points in the Kaibab National Forest and then hike either 3 or 3.5 miles along National Forest Service Trail number 57.
The first access point for NFS trail #57 is located off of USFS road #610 in the Saddle Mountain Wilderness. To get in this way turn right off of AZ 67 onto USFS road #611, about a mile south of Kaibab Lodge or 4.5 miles north of the north rim entrance station. After about a mile road 611 joins with road 610 which in 13 more miles will bring you to the trail 57 trailhead.
The other access point for NFS trail #57 is through House Rock Valley along USFS road #445. To get in via this route turn off of US-89A onto USFS road #1049, about 20 miles east of Jacob Lake or 20 miles southwest of Marble Canyon. Follow road #1049 until it becomes road #445 which will take you to the other trail 57 trailhead.
Mileages are as follows (one-way):
The above distances are from the USFS trail #57 trailhead at USFS road #610, add another ½ mile if you're starting from the trailhead at USFS road #445.
All water should be filtered or otherwise treated in some way.
Getting to the trailhead itself is half of the fun. It's more work to go in from the #445 trailhead but it will make it easier for you coming out - if you're planning on going out the same way that is. If you come out to the #610 trailhead then you've still got another 1200' to climb before you reach your vehicle. Most people I talked to before-hand recommended using the #445 access, but I wanted the "complete" experience and went for the more difficult route. The Nankoweap trail does not need this added difficulty and you would be well advised to use the #445 access point, and give your body a break.
I cannot comment on the route from the #445 access point, because I obviously have not done it. The #610 route was very pleasant at the time of the year that I did it, that being early October. The Aspens were in the process of changing from green to gold and the colors were fantastic. The trail very quickly drops a couple of hundred feet and then immediately starts to climb up and around a small hill. After descending this hill on its eastern slope the trail cuts across a wide, flat clearing for a mile or so before beginning the descent to the Nankoweap trailhead. The descent to the actual trailhead is long and in a couple of places somewhat steep.
The official park service description states that trail #57 from road #445 starts off as being more obscure than the other route. It leaves the parking lot and heads south along an old road until it comes to a fork. The trail goes to the left, crosses a clearing and then becomes a little more obvious. It then descends into a ravine, which it crosses back and forth for the next half mile or so, before exiting it and beginning to climb up through the forest towards the Saddle Mountain saddle where it meets the Nankoweap trail.
Once you do make it to the real Nankoweap trailhead, inside the park boundry, then the real fun begins. The trail starts off being really bad, really fast. It quickly descends through upper layer of the Supai Formation, the Esplanade Sandstone. There is one spot very near the top where a log has been secured to the edge of a cliff to act as a sort of railing to prevent people from falling in. This is just a warning of what to expect further along the trail, except that there are no more railings... just long drop-offsa. Further on down there is a spot where a small seep has created a muddy spot in the trail. This can be a little tricky as you are in the process of coming down a fairly steep descent when you reach this. Stepping in it will probably cause you to slip and trying to step around it is only slightly less dangerous.
Once you get thru this first descent the trail begins a long undulating traverse, just below the Esplanade Sandstone, that brings you out to the overlook for Titled Mesa, about five miles away. The trail is fairly easy to follow along this section except in a couple of places where the brush is a little dense. There is no way to get lost as there is a hugh cliff above you and another one below and only one way for the trail to go. If you loose it just look around.
The biggest problem along this section of trail is in a few places where it comes right up to the rim and there is a drop-off of anywhere from 10 to 150 feet below you. There is a cliff on the other side and all you can do is try to stay as close as possible to it, walk very carefully and pray. The worst of these spots occurs just west of the approach to Marion Point were the trail is confined by the upper and lower cliffs. There is a slope of reasonably solid ground about 4 feet wide between them with a little trail about 6 inches wide at the top of the slope. One wrong step here and it's all over. There are a couple of other bad spots just west of the approach to Titled Mesa, though they are not nearly as bad as the first. This first one frequently causes some concern for people and many hikes have been aborted because they have not wished to take the chance and pass it. I was lucky and hit it both times with the ground being dry. I'm not sure what I would have done had the ground here been wet or muddy.
Once the trail reaches Marion Point it turns to the north and goes into a nice shady (at least it was both times that I hit it) side canyon for a while, before turning again towards the east. If you leave the rim at around 7 am then this is a perfect spot for lunch as it gets you out of the sun for a while and gives you a good break. There are many scattered pinon pines and junipers all along the trail until it reaches Tilted Mesa and though these do not provide much in the way of shade, they are better than nothing when the sun is beating down on you. Unfortunately the good sitting rocks and the shade from the trees do not come together in many places. There is lots of other brush along the upper sections of the trail which can sometimes be very annoying.
Just before the trail reaches Titled Mesa it begins a gradual descent down to it via a ridge. In this section you pass through the remaining layers of the Supai Formation and finally reach the top of the Redwall. The further you get out on the ridge the steeper the trail becomes and near the eastern end there are a couple of small cliffs that you need to descend. The trail is conveniently located so that there is a dead tree at each place where the trail descends the cliffs and I was able to use these to help in the descent/ascent and go up and down both of these without the need to remove my pack.
If you're not in a hurry this is a good place to call it quits for the day. There are some very nice campsites located on the ridge and the view is awesome. I sat down for a while and had a snack and thought long and hard about whether to camp for the night or continue on. I should have camped but I didn't.
The descent from the cliffs to Nankoweap Creek is extremely steep and rocky and lasts for about 2 miles. In this section of trail you will descend through the Redwall Limestone, Muav Limestone and Bright Angel Shale. The long descent is broken up by some long traverses that descend at somewhat more reasonable slopes, but they still put a strain on your legs and feet, especially if you are trying to get down this section in the same day as the upper section. The problem with doing the trail all in one day is that you are very tired when you finally reach the most difficult portion. The upper sections of this portion of the trail are more stable than the lower sections because the rocks are bigger and lock together better. The lower sections are composed of crushed shale and scree and can be very slippery. A walking stick makes the descent a lot easier. An excerpt from the official NPS trail description for the Nankoweap says WARNING: THIS IS A VERY STEEP DESCENT!!! Please be aware of this and be prepared for it, they are not kidding.
The last mile or so of the trail before you reach Nankoweap Creek is fairly easy. Be careful at a spot where the trail crosses a small, dry, creek bed, the trail does not continue down this. I was following footprints instead of looking for cairns and ended up going the wrong way. Following the creek bed will bring you out to almost exactly the same spot as following the trail but there are more obstacles to contend with in the creek bed. There are a number of trees that occupy the whole bed requiring you to get out and climb around them and there is also a small dry fall just above where the creek bed reaches Nankoweap Creek. Again, it's easy enough to work your way around this but if you stick with the trail you won't have to worry about it.
If you are still trying to do the whole trail all the way to the river in one day then at this point you may be out of luck, I was. It was starting to get dark at this point and I decided to call it quits right here. There are still another 3 miles (1½ - 2 hours) to the river and in early October there just wasn't enough daylight to finish it off. If you're doing the trail in July you may have enough daylight but you're also going to be suffering through a lot more in the way of heat.
There is no trail along the creek and you just have to follow the creek itself to the river. It is confined by some very impressive cliffs of Tapeats Sandstone that begin shortly below the creek camping area and run right down to the Colorado River. The creek is easy to navigate in a few places but is bad in most. It's very rocky in most places requiring you to choose your route very carefully. Again, if you're doing this all in one day your feet are not going to be happy.
As you approach the river, look for cairns along the southern bank of the creek. These lead the way out of the creek and up to a series of trails that connect the Nankoweap trail, the boat beach and the trail that leads up to the granaries. The trail that leads up to the granaries is very steep as well and considerable caution should be exercised when using it.
December, 1996 : The Park Service just finished up a trail rehabilitation project in November from the Redwall to the creek. The trail is still steep, but the it is more stable in some of the squirrely sections. There is a good chance that work will wash out in the next couple of years. The best camps are at Marion Point, Tilted Mesa, the creek and the river.
The best advice to pass on to folks wanting to know about the Nankoweap is NOT TO UNDERESTIMATE IT! It is the most difficult trail in the Canyon and if you start at the upper trailhead it has the greatest elevation change from rim to river, 8848' to 2787' = 5950'. There have 3 preventable rescues there this year (1996) of hikers who were less experienced than they thought they were.