Grand Canyon


By: Gordon MacLeod




This memorable, challenging backpack was suggested as the very best in the Grand Canyon region by John Vitz, who led it as a private trip in early April, 1971. His trip report was a Vitzian classic -- so good in fact and so close to what we did, in fact, that I have reproduced his report in toto, detracting only with annotating comments so as to identify variations that circumstances suggested to us. John's text is presented in typewritten script...

Early April is a perfect time to go into the Grand Canyon. But getting there from the North Rim is not easy. .The main road is [generally] closed at Jacob Lake [at this time of year], so entry must be made via a loqging road [NPS: 422] which runs southeast from Fredonia along the base of the Kaibab Plateau. Our group of seven and a half (counting the dog) gathered in Fredonia at 9:00 am. We followed the road toward Big Saddle until such time that the snow became so deep that it was impassable even to the four wheel dzive vehicles. Backtracking and taking a poorer road [NPS: 423 & 427] led us to the Indian Hollow Campground, trailhead for Thunder River, about noon.

Our plan was to make a loop route to the Colorado by going down Indian Hollow Canyon, Jumpup Canyon, Kanab Canyon to the river, then upstream to Tapeats Creek, Thunder River and out. We knew that once we reached Konab Creek that we would be able to find a route. However, no where in my reading had I encountered anyone who had descended Indian Hollow to Kanab.

Day One: I had advised Tom to leave the dog at home as I didn't know what kind of terrain might be encountered in the descent. In typical fashion, he chose to disregard my advice. The dog would soon regret it. We left the roadhead and walked down Indian Hollow Canyon through the Kaibab limestone, where the canyon was flat and choked with sage. But we knew that the Coconino was somewhere not too far ahead and that it might prove to be impassable. We were planning to descend to the first water far down the canyon so that we wouldn't have to dry camp. With incredible suddeness the the Coconino appeared. This is a hard, buff-colored sandstone-limestone layer, with a series of fifty foot dry falls.

At first glance it appeared that we had reached the end of the trip the first day. I scouted a ridge with the hopes of finding another way down. But there were only 400 foot cliffs in both directions. While I was panicking, Jerry and Larry were finding a route down the canyon bottom. It involved four serious pitches of rock and tree climbing but was passable. The dog went over all four on the end of a rope and enjoyed every minute of it. There were marks on the trees that indicated that someone else had been down the canyon. But the best news was that there was a seep spring at the base of the Coconino, as it was much too late to continue on down the canyon. We sat around the campfire thinking about the Redwall and drinking wine.

[DPS: Our trip followed one of the wettest Winter-Spring times recorded in the West, so we (1) departed from the Chapter schedule by re-scheduling from the first to the second week in April, (2) then cancelled the trip on Thursday (April 13th) based on NPS/NFS/BLM advice obtained that afternoon, but reprogramed in Kanab, Utah on Saturday morning (April 15th: on our way to do the Grand Gulch in Eastern Utah: based upon information supplied after breakfast by NFS Ranger Don Mackelprang of Friedonia, Arizona, who had kindly scouted the road [NFS: 423 & 427] to Indian Hollow on Friday for us. We started down from Indian Hollow Campground at about 11:00 am and camped where the creek/spring first appeared in the streambed about 3-4 miles downstream from Vitz first camp--we were not handicapped by dog-type participants.]

Day TWO: From the base of the Coconino the canyon opens up as it decends through the Supai sandstone. Near the bottom of the Supai, it becomes hard and the canyon narrows and becomes full of springs and pools surrounded by cottonwood and Juniper. We entered the Redwall without even noticing and encountered only slight difficulty for a distance. Then we hit a dry waterfall of about 15 feet. Once again the leader panicked and followed a ledge a significant distance only to discover that the ledge went level as the canyon dropped away. Upon returning to my flock I found that Super Haven had found a series of handholds down the face and had down-climbed it. Red face and all, I followed him. The dog got tossed off a cliff for the final time. From here Indian Hollow narrows to about six feet just before it joins Jwnpup, an impressive canyon in itself. Two miles later on we hit Kanab - which luckily was not quite dry. The water was warm and full of creepy-crawlies and delicious. We established camp about an hour later, just short of a beautiful spring. Figures.

[DPS: It rained for a couple of hours on the second morning, so we had a stream to follow all the way down Indian Hollow from our first campsite. Vitz's 15 foot dry waterfall was very wet for us -- a foot of falling water blocking the climbing route. We had to repel along side of the waterfall over the nose of a gigantic chockstone. Our camp was about a mile downstream of the junction of Kanab Creek and the Jumpup, where a side canyon comes in from the east. Kanab Creek was running about a foot deep and was very unappetizingly muddy. We found much better water in a plunge pool about 100 yards up the side canyon. Just the same, the light weight portable water purification unit we had along certainly proved helpful in a number of spots -- if only for psychological reasons -- those creepy.-crawlies can be best used as protein supplements by Vitzians.

Day Three: The trip to the river involves 12 miles of boulder hopping, stream wading, and mud slogging through incredible Kanab Cayon. Indian Hollow and Jumpup are the last canyons entering Kanab which are passable without technical climbing or jumping. The rest of the canyon to the river contains sheer walls of from 800 to 1200 feet. Near the mouth the canyon is less than 40 feet wide. We reached the green Colorado in early afternoon, set up camp, and took a swim.

[DPS: We arrived at the Colorado River about 4 pm and enjoyed a beautiful camp site amougst Tamarisks on the east side of the Kanab Creek.]

Day Four: After a fine night on the sand bar we proceeded upriver with Deer Creek as the objective. It was only ten miles distant - but it took over 8 hours to get there. Most of the way is boulder hopping along the river, but a mile past Fishtail Creek the Granite Narrows are encountered. A ducked route leads up the canyon wall and around exposed sandy ledges of Shinumo quartzite for two miles and included is a gain of 1000 feet. The route returns to the river about a mile from Deer Creek. As we waited for the group to reassemble the river began to rise - two feet in 45 minutes. And as it rose it turned from a clear green to the deep muddy brown of the real Colorado. There was a problem, however, as the last mile entails a traverse along the river's edge below an outcropping of Vishnu schist. We just made it around the corner as the river continued to rise and arrived at Deer Creek about dinner time. Deer Creek is one of the real gems of the inner canyon. The stream has cut a wavy canyon down through the Shinwno to the harder metamorphic rocks below and then it plunges over that lip 100 feet to the river. The water is clear and cool. The river finally quit rising - thanks to the great gods of the river up at Glen Canyon - about one foot below where it would have wiped out our campsite. That evening it warmed up as the clouds came to get us; it was 84 an hour after sunset. But it cleared later without bothering to rain on us.

[DPS: Based upon Vitz's info, we chose to divide Vitz's hardest day (the 4th) into two parts with an intermediate camp at Fishtail Creek (dry). This variation was a very smart move for two reasons: We had the extra time and our fourth day proved to be very warm. During our fifth day, we most likely carried-out the most remote FIRST ASCENT the DPS ever made (which certainly qualifies it for the LIST! --- don't you think, Andy?) that of Peak 3130 about 1300 feet above the Colorado River. Some very rough terrain was traversed in route-even Harvey Hickman (a rock climber type) called for a rope. The drop to Deer Creek was spectacular but easy. We had lunch in the region of the Deer Creek narrows and spent the afternoon exploring this magnificient feature and the canyon above. The grotto at the base of the 100 foot Deer Creek falls with its associated diminutive rainbow and surrounding ferns provided the backdrop for the most magnificient cocktail lounge --- or so It seemed to Barbara Reber and the rest of us after the third MacLeod Special.

Day Five: When we got up we noticed that the river had dropped a full ten feet to its level of the day before. Had we been one day later we would not have been able to camp at Kanab. This was an easy day of three miles upriver to Tapeats Creek. Before leaving we explored Deer Creek above the falls - an enchanting canyon of purple quartzite until it opens into a wide hidden valley. After leaving this beautiful place - which incidentally is not in either park or the monument - the route again climbs oway from the river, but the difficulties encountered were minor as compared to the previous day's. Tapeats was reached early and the day was spent exploring the lower narrows and washing dirty bode. In spring it would be dangerous at best to try to go up the creek as it is both cold and strong. The river was so low that there were acres of rainbow colored rocks exposed to view - polished and sculpted by a great artist.

Day Six: The route ascends a talus slope on the west side of the creek to a series of ledges which are followed upstream above the narrows. The creek has to be crossed twice before arriving at the junction with Thunder River. Camp was established here and we continued up Tapeats Creek through the narrows, up to our hips in water. We are now in the park and so we encounter picnic tables and other assorted garbage - but still no people. We thought that perhaps for six days we had had the whole western end of the North Rim to ourselves.

[DPS: Just as we arrived at Tapeats Creek, we saw the first human type of the trip (excluding ourselves of course):a helicopter pilot at very close range - as if he was looking for us. Tapeats Creek was acting as if it was still springtime with four times the volume flow rate Abe Seimans remembers from another trip at about the same time of year. As we were having lunch, Bill Sanders provided entertainment by crossing the torrent with a belay from Eric Schumacher, and more importantly recrossing the same with only once being swept off his feet. Since the rest of us were not convinced by the demonstration, we were faced with the alternative of proceeding up the Creek on the wrong side in full view of the fine NPS trail on the other side (east). Since we only had to belay once on the west side sheep trail that we followed, we figured that we were ahead by one, since we would have had to cross Tapeats Creek twice on the normal route. Our sixth camp was just below the junction with Thunder River at a beautiful site somewhat blemished by camper debris, which we quickly rectified. Near by, we met two young men from Fridonia, Arizona, and a party of three came into the area a little later.

Day Seven. It is a short hike up to the springs at the head of Thunder River. Two holes in the Redwall allow water to explode from within and roar down the mountainside. The first 500 foot drop takes only 1/8 of a mile and cascades continue for another 500 feet in 3/8 of a mile until it joins Tapeats Creek. A 4000 foot deep cave lies behind the opening but high water made it impossible for us to enter. So the headwaters of Tapeats Creek.

[DPS: We had originally planned to spend a day exploring upper Tapeats Creek. Unfortunately, since we couldn't proceed up the narrow canyon just upstream of the Tapeats Creek/Thunder River junction, we decided to take advantage of an unusual situation on the Esplanade --- running water in normally dry creek beds. Accordingly, we placed our seventh camp beside a minor creek amongst Pinnons and Junipers about 0.8 miles due west of Bridgers Knoll (6603'). As a result, we divided the 4000 ft backpack up to the cars into more amenable proportions.]

Day Eight: It is 14 miles and 4000 feet back to the cars along the Thunder River Trail which switchbacks up the Redwall, wanders along the Esplanade, and grinds up through the Coconino to the North Rim. On the Esplanade we met another group that was heading in and had gotten lost the day before - almost a perfect trip. We reached the car in fair time and returned to Kanab for one of those incredible trip-ending meals. A fine trip through superb country - little of which is protected by the park.

[DPS: With a late start the next morning (following a very chilly night) we stopped for a short lunch about three-quarters up the Coconino switchbacks on the way to the cars, which we reached at about one o'clock.

Since Vitz's trip (and perhaps because of it), the National Park Service has extended the Grand Canyon National Park boundaries west to Kanab Creek and north to Indian Hollow. National Park permits are required, and unfortunately, no fires-not even for trash --- are allowed. All because of Vitz'. Glen Howell, a veteran backpacker, who on completing his first trip to Grand Canyon, his first DPS trip during which he climbed his first DPS peak (a first ascent---eat your heart out, Andy Smatho), asked: What are we going to do for an encore? How can you improve on that trip? Answer: Nothing!

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