On April 10, Peter Bakwin and I ran from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the South Rim. “R2R” of course is now quite normal; a bucket-list route for many. But this took us 11.5 hours. Why so long? Because we started on the North Rim of the Little Colorado River, descended the fabled Hopi Salt Trail, ran and thrashed down the LCR for 10 miles to the Confluence with the Colorado River, traversed along the Beamer Trail for another 9.5 miles, then cranked up to the South Rim on the old Tanner Trail. It’s an interesting route; a worthy addition to our “R2R2R.alt” of a few years ago.
I became interested in the Salt Trail about 25 years ago, after hearing about it while spending a few days in Hotevilla on Third Mesa. I wasn’t sure it existed, but this is what the Grand Canyon Association book, Quest for the Piller of Gold, said:
“According to legend, in the depths of the Little Colorado River abide the spirits of the Hopi. In the dim past, these legends tell, the spirits emerged from the Canyon, and the dead returned to reside in hadean gloom. This exit from the world beneath is known to the Hopi as the Sipapu [sipapulima]. The abode of the dead, should be regarded with wonder and reverence, and that it is natural, therefore, the things found in the canyons are possessed with great mystical powers.
“Near the confluence of the Little Colorado River in the Tapeats Sandstone salt leaches out of the sandstone as water percolates through the coarse-grained sands and then evaporates. An ancient trail from the Hopi mesas to the salt deposits travels westward across the Painted Desert to the Little Colorado River Gorge, then plunges down to the river through what today is called Salt Trail Canyon, and proceeds downstream. The salt deposits can also be reached by following the Tanner and Beamer Trails. Since prehistoric times, people have made this precarious journey, close to the mystical underworld, returning with their heavy burdens. A man who returned with the salt was considered very brave (Titiev, 1937).
Nowadays this has become an increasingly known route, with it’s mystical status morphing into new status as a rugged and remote alternative to the over-indulged R2R route on the uber-popular Kaibab Trails. Either status was good enough for us.
So late in the evening we drove out from AZ 89 on unimproved dirt roads into seemingly the middle of nowhere. It was very bleak. But we encountered Navaho herders driving nice pickups, looking content and at home, and the occasional herders outfit, all looking pretty good. I realized this terrain wasn’t at all bleak to them! And I also considered the irony of the large lease payments made by the coal and uranium company’s to the Navajo Nation, which maintains a trust fund of possibly 2 billion dollars, possibly enabling the people to continue an approximation of their traditional lifestyle.
None of these really mattered to us however, as we arrived at dusk at the edge of the darkening Canyon, under a Full Moon so bright one was tempted to just walk off into the distance, until you at last came to the place you were supposed to be.
The Hopi Salt Trail was scrappy. The party whose trip account we were following said it took them 8 hours to descent 2.5 miles! Those numbers were ludicrous, reminding me once again that schlepping heavy loads so one is “prepared” and “safe” are probably the most dangerous and risky way one can travel in the backcountry, and also reminding me how glad I was to be with Peter and not that group.
The HST was actually 5.25 miles long, not 2.5, and we reached the LCR (Little Colorado River) in an hour 45.
Our real concern was getting across it. The account we read said, “Check out the bridge at Cameron; if water is flowing under it, don’t attempt the LCR”. Hiking down, we could hear the rapids from a mile away, and the online Stream Gauge we checked the day before said it was running at 300cfs. But crossing it wasn’t bad, so I would say: Under 300cfs – hiking/running will be easier on the mud flats; over 300 and it will become increasingly slower as you’re forced up into talus and brush; over 600cfs and it won’t be worth it.
On a September river trip 20 year ago I had run upstream from the Confluence, and the LCR was a startling aquamarine color; now in the spring it was liquid mud. We brought 2L of water, more than enough to get to the clearer Colorado River, so we didn’t need any, but purifying this would have required filtering, which takes time that runners don’t want to invest. So while water is actually not a problem, aesthetically, fall trips in the LCR are probably better.
We encountered surprising Dept of Wildlife work stations cached under overhangs, avoided more cactus (not entirely successfully), ran the flat sections, pushed through some brush, tried to find the easiest way, and eventually came to the Confluence. A classic spot. These are big walls! The Confluence marks the end of “Marble Canyon” and the start of the Grand Canyon proper. This is where Ben Beamer prospected for minerals (in Sandstone?), remodeled an Anasazi cliff dwelling into his own “cabin”, and tried to farm vegetables. I wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or horrified that early would-be settlers were clearly far crazier than ultra runners.
The trail he built and still bears his name goes in and out of every little draw and wash, while mostly above the attractive green colored CR. We saw rafts below and other hikers on the trail. We purified water from the River and made a point of drinking it.
Arriving at Tanner Beach there’s a river-runner camp. Continuing west above the River and along the Escalante would be the start of the classic and very worthy Tonto Rim, which continuing about 80 miles. We instead hung a left, turned uphill, and then it’s like every other River-Rim trail in the Big Ditch: put your head down, don’t think, just hike. Wish you would have brought trekking poles, and hope you don’t run out of water. The Rim is just up ahead … sort of … well, not really.
The Grand Canyon is indeed Grand. If you know it well, you know there’s something around the corner you don’t know.
A few route notes:
* We heard one is supposed to obtain a Permit from the Navajo Nation, which we would have, but had no idea how, so didn’t.
* Driving out the Navajo Roads to the TH requires following a GPS file (easier and more reliable than directions or a map).
* There are innumerable options on those roads; the one we followed was 20.5 miles from AZ 89 to the TH.
* Although the dirt roads are very remote, they are not hard, and 2WD sedans could do it if they followed the easiest route.
* Camping at the (unmarked) trailhead is lovely.
* The HST itself is steep and slow, particularly as one tries not to brush against cactus. 5.25 mi, 1:45.
* The juncture of Salt Trail Canyon and the LCR looked like a good water source, as the side canyon starts flowing in the last 50m.
* The one-time Crossing to the South side of the LCR is 2.6 mi down, on a travertine pouroff. 2:40 total (slow bushwhack section).
* Less than a mile after that is a Dept of Wildlife work station, that is visited about 4X/year – they are studying the Humpback Chub I think – most notable is they cleared a trail through the Willows, making the going much easier!
* A few hundred meters after that is a clear spring under a rock – it was warm and mineralized, but drinkable.
* The Sipapu itself is about 3.5mi below the Salt Trail Canyon on the north side. I have a photo but am not showing it.
* About a half mile up from the Confluence is another DOW measuring station perched on a cliff, with a remote transmitting sensor powered by PV panels – interesting technology.
* We didn’t see the old Beamer Cabin at the Confluence – probably have to be down at the River looking back south. 14.8 mi, 7:29.
* From the Confluence the Beamer Trail starts west – this is an official NPS Trail, and you’re now in the National Park – much more people on this trail than the unofficial and seldom-traveled LCR path.
* The Colorado is all dam-release from the bottom of Glen Canyon Dam, which means it’s quite clear and cold, and easy to purify.
* The Beamer is a nice trail above the River, fairly rugged the first 6 miles then easing off after that, with no big or even medium climbs but plenty of slow little ones. Tanner Jnct at 24.4mi, 7:29 (stopped and walked around).
* The Tanner is the typical River-Rim trail, with zero water and more fluctuation from steep to flat sections than the usual, and the NPS has done very nice trail work on the upper two miles.
* There’s parking at the top at Lipan Point. 32.8mi, 11:36 total.