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Happy Campers - May, 1995 - Dick Simpson and friends

May, 1995
Dick Simpson and friends
Tuckup - Stairway - Lava Falls

Tuckup - Stairway - Lava Falls
7-13 May 1995 (Sunday - Saturday)


Duration:     6-1/2 days (hiking)

Maps:         7-1/2' series for hike:
Fern Glen Canyon    Gateway Rapids    Vulcan's Throne
7-1/2' series for car shuttle:
Hancock Knolls      Mt. Trumbull NE   Mt. Trumbull SE

Car Shuttle:  about 30 miles (2 hrs minimum) each way

Hike:         36.5 mi plus side trips
trails faint to non-existent, rope advisable for lowering
packs at several spots in Stairway; water sources
widely spaced, cathartic

Sunday:       Parking area to Cottonwood via Schmutz Spring Q 6 mi, -1700';
4 hrs, including 1-1/2 hrs rests
Monday:       Explore Cottonwood and Tuckup Canyons Q 6 mi, 12100';
4-1/2 hrs each way including rests
Tuesday:      Cottonwood to Willow Q 9 mi, +200';
8 hrs including rests; hot, dry, tedious
Wednesday:    Willow to Central Stairway Q 4.5 mi, -1700';
10 hr day; 4 sections with rope
Thursday:     Lower Stairway to Colorado R to Cove Canyon Q 4 mi, -900';
11 hr day; 1 section with rope
bad brush on Colorado west of Stairway; hot
Friday:       Cove Canyon to Lava Falls Q 6 mi, 0 elev change;
9-1/2 hr day;
intermittent bad brush, foxtails; hot
Saturday:      Lava Falls Trail Q 1 mi, +2500';
3-5 hr exit; very loose on lower third


This trip is not for the faint of heart, nor for people in questionable physical condition. It was strenuous, literally abrasive, and (in several places) dangerous. The weather was extremely favorable, especially in that temperatures remained below average. This party of nine was well-prepared; a majority had been hiking off-trail in the Canyon for over a decade, and some had been over parts of this route before. Most, at the end, questioned whether they would ever again want to do a similar trip.


There is usually reliable water in the picnic area at the south end of Fredonia. We filled containers Saturday afternoon so we could car camp near Toroweap Point the first night and have enough left over to hike Sunday. There were no NPS camp sites available; we settled instead at "North Concourse, Gate 1, Tuweep International Airport" -- a shelter and picnic table off the north end of the dirt airstrip just outside the Park boundary.


We reached the trailhead for Schmutz Spring about 10:45 AM after two hours of driving from the airstrip. Roads are rutted, and careful attention to topo and BLM maps is essential; but passenger cars with good clearance can get through. We had earlier left a single car at our planned exit point -- the top of the Lava Falls Trail.

From the trailhead the route down was fairly obvious -- it follows an overgrown road near the beginning, then becomes a more conventional trail, eventually petering out on the final approach to the creekbed at the bottom. Basalts mix with sedimentary rocks through the middle sections. There were excellent wildflowers Q especially the larger ones such as paintbrush, Apache plume, and sego lilies. We arrived at the creekbed in about an hour and broke for lunch.

Schmutz Spring is a 10 minute scramble up the far side of the wash, in some trees at the base of a small slide of red gravel. In 1975 it produced barely a trickle; I have heard since that it is now dry. Half an hour into our lunch on this trip a shower hit; we packed quickly, threw on rain gear, and headed off toward Cottonwood Spring without giving Schmutz Spring further thought.

The hike to Cottonwood Spring was uneventful. We arrived only 4 hours after leaving the cars, including our lunch time and rest stops. We picked a campsite upstream from where the trail first crosses the creek; some ledges provided a kitchen area, and there were several choices for tent sites on benches to the east and north. Pools in the creekbed below our camp made for excellent bathing.


We used Monday as a layover day, exploring down Cottonwood and then Tuckup Canyons. It takes approximately an hour to reach Tuckup. About 200 hundred yards before the junction, however, is series of small pools, some redbuds, and a cliff. We passed the cliff on the left by lowering ourselves over a couple 6-foot ledges, then scrambling down a scree slope to regain the bed. Exploring the bypass took the better part of another hour, and only six of our original nine continued beyond. Two of the less ambitious then hiked above our camp and found a delightful meadow in upper Cottonwood.

The junction itself is polished white rock -- attractive in its own right. About ten minutes below the junction is a natural bridge carved into the west wall of Tuckup. Over the next two hours we wandered further down, noting occasional side canyons but quickly losing track of our exact position on the map. A significant rock fall, probably from the 1994-5 winter, caught our attention near the end of this section; it was large enough to have caused ponding in a 100-foot length of the bed.

Just before noon we arrived at a large chockstone blocking the way. There was no good way around on the right, and only an iffy way on the left. After further inspection, we noticed that there was a hole in the gravel bed on the upstream side of the chock; in fact, that was where the small stream that constituted Tuckup disappeared. I think in 1975 we may have scrambled down through the same hole to bypass the same obstacle. Although a bit damp, it goes; only two others followed, however.

Just downstream from the chock is a cemented gravel natural bridge that spans the canyon. The bridge was there is 1975, but it appears to have eroded somewhat and doesn't look as strong as it once did.

We three remaining hiked an additional 45 minutes to a second chockstone, sliding down a dry waterfall about midway (the waterfall chute was well-polished and presented some problems on the way back). I think we passed the second chock in 1975, leaving a rope fixed in place. We were stopped at a third obstacle in 1975, no longer having a rope. I have seen skilled climbers negotiate the wall at the third chock on the right; in 1975 we simply followed a ledge on the right to an overlook of the Colorado and called it a day. In 1995 we decided that we didn't want to spend the time setting up a rope at the second chock, then dealing with the fairly deep pool at the bottom and the third obstacle beyond. Previous visitors had left a couple large spikes wedged between the chock and the Canyon wall below us, but their viability wasn't clear.

At the second chock we took time to enjoy lunch under a few minutes of sunny skies and headed back. On the return we met a solo hiker from Chicago (originally from Poland) who had come down from the parking lot that morning and was planning to spend 11 days in the Canyon. Since his plan included hiking up Stairway Canyon, we expected to see him a few days later; but we never did.


The trip from Cottonwood to Willow Spring doesn't look far, but the hike is tiring. The trail winds in and out of side canyons and gullies, seemingly making little forward progress. The new 7-1/2 minute map series shows the trail accurately, but I was using the old National Monument map which has far less detail. The afternoon section is directly into the sun, and there are no dependable water sources between the end points. Our situation was complicated by the first signs of mass diarrhea, eventually traced to high mineral content in our water. The initial victim self-diagnosed stomach flu and decided the best treatment was to refrain from eating, which meant poor energy reserves as the day wore on.

We got an early start from our Cottonwood camp and hiked well through the morning. The scene is classical Esplanade -- red and white rock dotted with junipers. But the rests stops became more frequent and longer, especially after lunch. While we waited at one early afternoon stop for our diarrhea victim to recover, another member of the party became so concerned about his own short water supplies that he decided to push on alone. Once moving again, the main group followed his footprints for about half an hour until they vanished in one of the more diffused sections of trail. The main group arrived at Willow Creek about 4:15 PM and was quite happy to drink, wash, and bathe at first water while I explored upstream for a campsite.

For camp we used a large grassy area above the south side of the bed near the seeps, from which the flow begins. We were able to fill water bottles in a small pool a few yards downstream from the source. A 15 minute jaunt down the canyon netted our thirsty hiker, who had scrambled down a side gully from the trail where he thought water could be found.


Wednesday we made another early start, hoping to push down Stairway as far as possible. A trail from the Rim comes to Willow Spring; we wasted a few minutes climbing up, rather than contouring toward the south on the Tuckup Trail. We reached the head of Stairway in less than 2 hours, including another 20 minutes while I tried to relocate the trail in a section where it had been obliterated by heavy winter runoff. Our entry point was on the north edge of the west arm of upper Stairway, near a broad saddle as seen from the Willow direction.

We started down Stairway at 9:25. There were a small number of footprints at the top and we saw these intermittently all the way to the Colorado. A ledge and fall before the junction with the east arm of Stairway required use of the rope, mostly for lowering packs. The remainder of upper Stairway went fairly smoothly, the mild temperatures being a favorable factor. We reached the top of the Redwall just before noon -- ideal timing for scouting and lunch. There had been a few small seeps in the uppermost parts of Stairway, but we had not used them. At the top of the Redwall, there were two pools and most used the opportunity to refill water containers. We ate lunch in the shade of a huge boulder a couple hundred feet back from the edge.

After an hour, we packed up and moved 100 yds to the west to find the Redwall by-pass. A rough trail indicated that more than a handful of people had been through here since my last visit. The necessary crack can be downclimbed; but we used the rope for belay and lowering packs. Loose rocks are everywhere, so we kept those not actively involved in descending away from the crack.

Below the crack is an unattractive knobby limestone slope where we used the rope again to lower packs. Everyone got down the slope, however, without requiring rope assistance even though the rock is steeply sloping and sometimes breakable.

Near the bottom of the by-pass, we moved to the left and ended with a final 70 foot drop into the bed of Stairway over an awkward ramp. Again, most of the packs (and a few of the people) were lowered on the rope. We were all in the bed at 4 PM.

The long day had taken a toll. Though I had hoped to press on, members of our party were tired. After 20 minutes of additional walking in Stairway, I called a halt at a section where water flowed relatively abundantly on the surface, there was adequate space for camping (including tents), and there was a good set of pools for bathing in the sculpted limestone bed. This put us behind schedule, but further hiking Wednesday risked possible accident and injury.


On Thursday we needed to reach the Colorado, then travel what I hoped would be three miles along the bank to camp at Cove Canyon. We were hiking by 7 AM, but came to a cliff in the bed after only 30 minutes. This can be passed on the left, though the footing is less than ideal. As we negotiated this section, we watched a pair of bighorn sheep on the opposite wall bound fearlessly over routes I could only dream of following.

The correct drop back to the bed in Stairway is via a broad brushy and rock filled gully about a quarter mile beyond the cliff. From above there's no guarantee that it will go; but the alternatives are far less appealing, and the route on the left eventually pinches out. We lowered most of the packs down the final ramp to the bed.

There was intermittent water in the bed all the way to the Colorado this year. Most in the party were suffering from laxative effects of the minerals, however, so this was a mixed blessing. One of the people in the most discomfort lost her footing as we neared the Colorado and went head-first into a pile of boulders. She carried an ugly bruise around the left eye for the remainder of the trip. Her husband was already hobbling on an ankle pierced by a yucca the previous day.

The outflow from Stairway has left a sizable delta on the north side of the Colorado. We stopped there for lunch, exploring a bit in the sand dunes, before heading on.

The next half mile proved to be one of the most difficult sections of River travel I have experienced in the Canyon. On previous trips I think we have stayed more against the wall, dealing principally with boulders and thorns. This time we started by walking along some exposed wet sand, but then were turned away from the River into a tamarisk thicket. As we approached the edge of the flood plain on the right the vegetation graded into several varieties of thorn bushes and finally into a mix of thorns, rocks, and boulders. The first half mile downstream from Stairway took us an hour and 20 minutes; the beach at the far end was a welcome relief.

The remainder of the route to Cove Canyon was easier but still not fast. We alternated 30 minute stretches of hiking with 20 minute rest breaks and reached the upstream (and sandy) side of the Cove Canyon fan about 6 PM. No one moved quickly in camp; I didn't get to bed until 10 PM.


We made another early start. The nearly full moon, light upstream wind, and rippling sounds from the River had been pleasant during the night. But clear skies again suggested a warm day ahead. Fortunately, the Canyon walls twisted in such a way that we were able to stay in shade for the first 40 minutes of walking. During the morning we were passed by several raft trips, including a couple that were using oars only.

At Saddle Horse Canyon we again ran into bad brush on the downstream side of the fan. I think saying to the right (in the boulders) may have worked better on previous trips; but our ankle injury made "brush busting" a slighty safer alternative in 1995. After an early lunch, I put on long pants so as not to lose any more skin and blood. My shoelaces had picked up so many foxtails by this point that I gave up trying to clean them. At the end of the day I simply cut the laces off my boots and replaced them with pieces of nylon cord.

We arrived at Lava Falls at 5:10 and used the ledges at the base of the trail for camping. The last mile along the River was difficult, but the closer we got to Lava Falls, the more signs we found that others had tried to break their way through the brush. Unfortunately, it was only in the last few hundred yards that this made much difference. Along most sections, there was evidence that only a single person had preceded us (though occasionally in two directions).


On the last day, you find out how well your meal planning has gone. I had forgotten entirely to bring hot chocolate for the trip, and our Tang and spiced cider mix had been exhausted a couple days earlier. We were also out of granola, leaving dreaded Grape Nuts as the most prominent breakfast item. One person said he'd rather not eat breakfast than have to ingest Grape Nuts. Before we had finished, however, the following had appeared on the breakfast menu: unflavored instant oatmeal, Grape Nuts, Wheat Chex, graham crackers, molasses crisp cookies, oatmeal raisin cookies, applesauce and strawberries (both from freeze-dried packages), canned apple juice, humus, almonds and cashews, granola bars, tea, and coffee.

I had salvaged the canned apple juice from some River debris Friday; no one drank it, so we emptied the can before packing it into our garbage bag. About the same time someone else had found a can of Coors, which he opened and drank soon after. He described his beer as having a unique and distinctive "aged" flavor; one other person said the "aged" flavor reminded him of rust.

Our plan was to have the drivers hike out quickly so that we could start unraveling the car shuttle before the slower people reached the top. The group started up at 7:25. Early parts of the trail are steep, but reasonably well defined -- although there is more than one route. There is then a very bad section of loose volcanic scree, key parts of which disintegrated as we ascended. The remaining two-thirds is just a long grind, albeit with splendid views. Two of us reached the top in about 3 hours; the remaining drivers were only 30 minutes behind. The trailing group took 5 hours to climb out, but were well rested by the time the vehicles had returned.


Send mail to Dick Simpson(rsimpson@magellan.Stanford.EDU)

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