October 25, 2016

A Trek to the Bottom of the Grand Canyon, the Hard Way

Writer Brendan Leonard drops into the Grand Canyon’s rarely-done Walter Powell Route. Could you handle this epic hike down to the Colorado River?

The idea was straightforward, but there’s no easy way to this controversial place: They want to build a gondola to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, so let’s go have a look at the spot where they want to do it at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers — an intersection of a U.S. National Park and the Navajo Nation.

The execution was not as straightforward: Get a camping permit from the Navajo Nation in case we set up camp on one side of the Little Colorado River, get a second backpacking permit from the Grand Canyon National Park Backcountry Information Office just in case we end up on that side of the river instead, find the “trailhead” via a network of unsigned two-track roads, find the route (apparently marked by a single cairn on the canyon rim), carry all the water we’d need for three days, and then find the way down to the bottom, dropping a very steep 3,400 feet to the river.

Grand Canyon National Park

Did I mention the Walter Powell Route is a beast?

It was my friend Sinjin’s idea. He offered to drive, having scouted out the route to the alleged trailhead a few weeks before, spending several hours taking wrong turns, looking over topographic maps and his GPS in order to find an unmarked spot where the flat high desert drops into the Colorado River.

Why so motivated?

A development group had been trying to convince the Navajo Nation to build a hotel on what’s called the Grand Canyon’s East Rim, plus eight-person gondolas that would transport up to 10,000 people per day to the bottom of the canyon, plus a restaurant at the edge of the Colorado River. Even if you don’t get too deep into the politics of the idea there’s controversy all around. A lot of Navajo are not big fans of putting a gondola and resort in a place historically sacred to their people, while some of the Navajo Nation liked the idea of an economic boon and jobs coming to the area.

I heard about it and instantly imagined empty water bottles and burger wrappers errantly blowing off the patio of the canyon-bottom restaurant and flying downstream where they’d get caught on the walls of the canyon or swirl around in eddies along the sides of the river.

There are currently two ways to get to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. The first is to take several days and join a raft trip leaving from Lee’s Ferry, 62 miles upstream from the confluence. On day 4 or 5 or 6 of a raft trip, you arrive at the confluence, where the usually turquoise waters of the Little Colorado stream in from river left. Camping is prohibited at the confluence, and boats are prohibited from going upstream into the Little Colorado, so raft trips just stop to check out the scenery and/or have lunch before continuing downriver.

The second way to get to the confluence, as we found out, is via hiking boots. Meet the Walter Powell Route.

We drove for over an hour off the pavement, Sinjin handing me his GPS to help him navigate the tracks through the sand and sagebrush and past the occasional Navajo home in the distance, then taking the GPS back when he realized I didn’t know how to use it. Eventually, we ran out of land and parked his truck at the lip of the canyon, on the East Rim, a few hundred feet from where the proposed hotel and gondola tower could be.

It’s out in the middle of nowhere, as far as everyone in America is concerned besides the handful of Navajo folks who own pieces of land out here—but I suppose lots of places in the Southwest felt like that 200 years ago, including Las Vegas, until someone built a bunch of stuff there.

We loaded up our packs and started to search the rim for the cairn we’d heard would mark the start of the route. After a few hundred feet, we found it, and started down broken rock, then downclimbing ledges and pour-overs until we had to lower our packs with a length of rope Ace had brought with him.

We descended into a deep notch via a series of ledges, then through the notch onto a broad rib of broken rock.

The Walter Powell Route is said to be one of the least hiked routes in the Grand Canyon, and if many people have done it, there aren’t a lot of signs of traffic, and there sure isn’t a groomed trail anywhere. The route takes its name from Walter Powell, John Wesley Powell’s brother, who first ascended, and then descended it, during the Powell Expedition through the Grand Canyon in 1869. Walter Powell started up from the expedition’s camp at the confluence and arrived at what is now called the East Rim, then turned around and went back down to camp.

I wonder what he thought he might find up on the East Rim nearly 150 years ago? Even today, you can take in a 360-degree view and see zero signs of civilization—aside from the helicopter traffic and commercial airplanes far overhead. In 1869, Powell may have just shrugged and headed back down.

Our descent took us through a couple route finding challenges, getting cliffed out here and there, turning around and climbing back up to find a safe way down. One of the down-climbing cruxes I’d have rated 5.5, and it felt harder with my 40-pound pack and the crumbling hand- and footholds. The sun dipped as we got lower and lower, but we were not descending quickly enough.

Colorado River on Walter Powell Route

A few minutes after the sun disappeared, we hit the final slope down to the Little Colorado, a few hundred yards upstream from the actual confluence with the Colorado River. In the fading dusk light, I managed to kick a cactus with an errant step and embedded some pesky spines in the toe of my shoe.

We clicked on our headlamps and set up camp, tossing our sleeping bags out on a sandy patch a few feet above the river. After a quick dinner, I zipped myself into my bag, looked up at the stars, and reminisced about my Grand Canyon raft trip a year and a half prior.

Every night during that trip, I slept next to the rushing river under half a sky, the outer edges blacked out by the towering walls of the canyon above me, the “river of stars” (as author Kevin Fedarko calls it) flowing in between.

hiker in the bottom of the Grand Canyon

In the morning, we walked down to the confluence, meeting a raft trip stopping for lunch. They’d said goodbye to civilization a few days before, and hadn’t seen an automobile for five days. After they left, I climbed up the slope a few hundred feet upriver from the confluence, where the proposed gondolas would go, and wondered what it would do to this place.

I wrote in my notebook about the U.S. being a country where “the hard way” was celebrated, how we love the story of hard work paying off in the end, whether it’s the story of a business that started in someone’s garage or an Olympic athlete who defied all odds to become the best in their sport. I wondered why we didn’t feel the same way about the Grand Canyon, why someone wanted to build an easy way down here and bring 10,000 people to a spot that had never seen more than a few dozen people a day. They said that everyone should be able to see the bottom of the Grand Canyon sometime, and a gondola would enable that.

Well, I worked my ass off to get down to this spot. Everyone can see the Grand Canyon from the top, for sure, from the South Rim and the North Rim, the same as we can all look up at Mount Rainier from the Paradise parking lot. And if you’ve ever been to any of the viewpoints looking over the Grand Canyon, you know it’s a magical experience.

I can vouch it’s that much better when you’ve worked to discover new views for yourself.Hiking the Grand Canyon

As we started the grind back up the rocky slope on the morning of day 3, looking at 3,400 vertical feet of crumbling rock and tenuous climbing, I wondered why no one was clamoring to build a gondola to the top of Mount Rainier, as if eating a hot dog in the summit crater was some inalienable right we’d been depriving people since the first ascent of the mountain in 1870—the year after Walter Powell climbed out of the Grand Canyon up to the rim to see what was up there.

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