Monday, May 7, 2012

Tuckup Canyon / Stairway Canyon Loop

Where:  Grand Canyon National Park, North Rim, Arizona
When:  April 24-30, 2012

Conglomerate Arch of Tuckup Canyon
My husband Mark, our friend Mitch, and I completed the less-traveled loop backpack in the Grand Canyon described in George Steck's book, Hiking Grand Canyon Loops.  Just driving to the trailhead is an adventure of 60 miles of dirt roads (south from Fredonia, Arizona) and keeping alert so as to not get lost.  We took the trip fairly casually, with a permit for 6 nights of camping in the Canyon.  The basic loop is to hike down the Tuckup Trail, enter and hike down Tuckup Canyon, bushwack along the Colorado River a few miles, hike up and out of Stairway Canyon, then traverse the Esplanade to rejoin the Tuckup Trail back to the car.

Day 0:

We met our friend Mitch in Flagstaff and after lunching at Big Foot BBQ we drove up Hwy 89 on a warm but cloudy afternoon.  We chose to drive 89A by Jacob's Lake rather than stay on 89 and go through Kanab.  Outside of Fredonia we turned south onto the well-maintained Antelope Valley dirt road (109).  Our mistake was not having George Steck's driving instructions out and in-hand with proper mileage and turn-offs, and we ended up driving too far on 109 and got a bit lost using our Arizona book map trying to get back on track to the trailhead.  Fortunately it wasn't totally dark by the time we found the trailhead, but close!  We cooked dinner and set up to camp on the rim that night.  A wonderful dark sky, and warmer than expected for the rim in April!

Day 1:

I'm ready to go!
Early to rise, eat breakfast, get packed up, and be ready for our adventure!  We started hiking at 7am on a easy-to-find and only moderately steep descent from the rim to the Tonto platform below, where we saw the note-worthy "cubicle boulder" which would serve as our landmark for the trail back up to the car on our return.

We saw the trail continue clearly north to the very start of Tuckup Canyon, but instead we followed Steck's instructions and walked cross-country to find a break in the basalt layer where we could find our descent into Tuckup.  We should have followed the trail, as the descent through the basalt layer was steep and awkward.  When we got down to the wash below, we could clearly see the trail which, though longer, would have provided a more gradual descent.

Shaman's Gallery
After resting a moment to clean out our socks from dirt and debris, and catch a bit of a snack, we embarked on our walk down Tuckup Canyon.  It wasn't long before we encountered a set of pictographs on the creek-left cliff, known as Shaman's Gallery.  We learned later that an out-and-back to this feature is actually a popular day-hike.
Soaring walls in Tuckup Canyon

We continued down Tuckup and enjoyed walking among soaring cliff walls and tiny frogs along the way.  

Hello Mr. Frog

I don't recall any super-challenging scrambling over boulders and such on this portion of the hike, the walk seemed very gentle and benign.  Mark has hiked the Grand Canyon on many trails since his Boy Scout days and commented that this was the easiest descent through the Redwall he's ever done.  We stopped for lunch at the confluence of Tuckup and Cottonwood Canyons, and by 3pm we had reached Conglomerate Arch.  There was a spring a short scramble just up-wash from the arch to get water from, plenty of flat level ground below the arch, and cool shade on large flat rocks available.  We decided this was camp!

Mark under Conglomerate Arch

Day 2:

Algae-ridden puddle in lower Tuckup
A 7am departure and we were continuing down canyon through some interesting narrows and rock layers.  We walked past occasional springs and puddles (some quite stagnant and green with algae!).  

Mark on the final section of down-climb
At two places  a trail took us above the wash past difficult pour-offs, and we finally reached the down-climb that everyone talks about in their trip reports of this hike.  Go carefully, for sure!  Mark went first (my bold, 5.12-climbing husband) to find the easiest way down, then nicely came up to retrieve first my pack, then Mitch's, so we wouldn't have to do the down-climbs with packs on.  For good measure, I changed into my Vibram Five Finger KSO Treks because I think those shoes provide me better gripping power than my trail running shoes.  I made it down without incident, and so did Mitch!  

At that accomplishment we left our packs and explored up-creek to see this pour-off we had just avoided.  I guess it wasn't so intimidating to Mark and Mitch because they both chimneyed up the chock-stone to the top to explore, and back.  I stayed behind to do some photographing.

Watercolor sketches at Tuckup
It wasn't long before we first heard, then saw, the mighty Colorado River.  Oh, this is always a welcome sight on a Canyon hike!  As it was only 9am, we decided to "conference" and come up with our plan on where to camp the next 3 nights along the river.  In the end we decided to camp each night in a new place:  Tuckup, Fern Glen, and Stairway.  This gave us the rest of the day to enjoy and explore the river around Tuckup Canyon.  After picking our tent spots and setting up a hang-line for our food, we each went our separate ways with our various entertainments.  Mitch set off exploring up-river, Mark got out his Martin Backpacker guitar to practice, and I got out my watercolor sketch kit.

Day 3:

Thus begins the surprisingly difficult bushwack along the river.  We only had just over 3 miles to Fern Glen Canyon, but they were a loooong 3 miles.  We figured that we were averaging 0.5 to 1 mph.  There is no trail, human-made anyway.  The choice seemed to be to either stay close to the river and battle vegetation, or go higher and battle loose talus slopes.  Our experience with rock climbing craigs led us to hug the cliff faces where we could because the ground is often more stable and clear of vegetation there, and this tactic did pay off at times.  Other times there was no choice but to descend closer to the river and follow faint big horn sheep trails through the brush.  It wasn't long before I realized that long pants were the way to go in this terrain, and I donned my leggings, even though I got a bit too warm in them.  Interestingly, a National Park ranger on patrol landed his boat near us while we were taking a break walked up to us to make sure everything was okay and that we had our proper permits.  I've not often encountered actual rangers in the Canyon except on the Kaibab/Bright Angel trails.  We all resumed our merry way and in that section we actually encountered the only rain of the trip.  The rain was nice in that it cooled things off.  But the down side was that the rain made the rocks we were hopping quite slippery.  The rain did not last long, however.

Fern Glen Canyon campsite

After a morning of trudging along the river we were at last rewarded with the wonderfully huge expanse of beach at the mouth of Fern Glen Canyon.  And our mood lifted further as the sun broke out through the clouds and gleamed in the white sand and illuminated the river into a bright green hue.

Mitch gathers Colorado River water

Abundant vegetation in Fern Glen Canyon

We spent some of the afternoon exploring Fern Glen Canyon, and it was very delightful with the high walls and abundant vegetation.  After a couple moderately-scary scrambles up a slabby boulder and a cliff wall, we arrived at the end of the line for us, a 50' high travertine pour-off.  An amazing formation.  Of course, Mark could not resist climbing up to near the top.

Mark cannot resist climbing the pour-off

It was obvious that this beach serves as a popular camp spot for river rafters, and sure enough by 6pm an AzRA motor boat trip pulled up and asked to share the beach with us.  They were extremely gracious and generous with their vittles and beer, and we also enjoyed talking with each of the guides.  In 2004 Mark and I took an AzRA hybrid raft trip down the Grand Canyon, so it was fun catch up on what the guides on our trip are doing now.  We were delighted to learn that the guide we enjoyed the most, Alan Fisk-Williams, was on a trip only a couple days behind this trip.  However, it was unlikely that we would see him because we would depart the river before his trip went by.  And that was indeed the case.

Day 4:

Morning illumination along the river

A pleasant walk on ledges
We knew well and good what was ahead of us this day because we had experienced it the previous day:  more along-the-river bushwacking to Stairway Canyon.  And yes, it was a trudge.  But not without a very pleasant section where we were able to walk along horizontal ledges right along the river.  It was a beautiful sunny morning, too.

Along the way a couple of raft trips drifted by and greeted us, offering to take our trash, and offering any information they might know about our trail ahead.  River raft guides are a special breed of folks, in our experience.  
By late morning we reached our goal of the beach at Stairway Canyon, and it was a pleasant surprise to find that beach still in deep shade from the cliff across river.  We relished the coolness as we snacked and searched for where to put our tent.  Though not as popular of a beach with rafters, we were still able to see evidence of river rafter camping and we chose smaller sites away from sites they might want.  But we ended up having the place to ourselves this night.

Stairway view watercolor sketch
With most of the day ahead of us we took the opportunity to clean our clothes and bodies in the river then attend our various hobbies.  Again, Mitch explored the area, Mark practiced guitar, and I did some watercolor sketching and reading.  It was a very peaceful afternoon and we were surprised to not see any river rafters go by.  I guess with Lava Falls so close, most rafting parties want to get through it by lunchtime.

Day 5:

This was to be the most strenuous day of the trip.  We knew the next two nights would be dry camps (even though we would pass Willow and Cottonwood Springs, the water is reported to be so mineralized as to cause intestinal upset and thereby worsening dehydration), so Mark and I were to each carry our maximum capacity of 10 liters of water (and even then we would have to be careful to govern our use).  So we were to ascend from river level, above the Redwall, to the Esplanade this day carrying a lot of weight in water.  Ascending Stairway Canyon was strenuous in itself.  

Steck in his route description delineates four increasingly difficult obstacles, and unfortunately for us, the description of bypassing the final one, the 300+ foot pour-off at the Redwall, was written to be a tad misleading.  We followed the description of ascending to the apex of a talus slope, and we did see a crack, but it was way longer than 40 feet to the top.  Mark made the mistake of climbing it anyway, and the rock was very chossy and holds were constantly breaking on him.  He free-climbed up maybe 40 feet but ended up on a buttress with another 150 of wall above him.  I was getting very nervous about this situation.  Our trip leader is up on a dangerous climb and neither Mitch nor I wanted to follow.  Instead I went right and Mitch went left to look for the correct way up.  Fortunately Mitch found a cairn leading to a trail up a drainage.  Steck never mentions that you follow a drainage up to the crack!  And we had started our ascent up the talus slope too far up-creek (too close to the pour-off) to find the correct location.  
View atop the Redwall pour-off

Anyway, I fervently thanked Mitch for finding the correct way up, Mark was able to safely down-climb that scary cliff, and we hiked up that drainage to the crack.  The climb up the crack is actually more like 20 feet, if that.  But I did find it too awkward to climb it with my heavy pack on, so Mark hauled mine up with a rope, then Mitch's pack.  With no pack on, the climb felt amazingly easy, and Mitch and I were able to help heft packs up mid-climb.

With that ordeal over, it was time to enjoy the amazingly expansive view off the Redwall pour-off and eat lunch in what little shade there was by a boulder.  Wow.

View atop the Esplanade
We thought maybe the worst was over, but actually there was quite a bit more ascending up Stairway Canyon in 85 degree heat to go yet (I have a little thermometer on my pack).  The going was not easy, and again, my legs suffered quite a few scratches maneuvering around brush and sharp rocks in this section.  But it was so hot out that wearing my warm leggings were out of the question.  Pain was better than heatstroke, I guess.  The going was steep and certainly elevated my heart rate.  But finally by late afternoon we gained the Esplanade and the going was much easier (though we often failed to find the faint trail).

We arrived at Willow Springs at around 6 pm that evening, and we immediately went to work cooking dinner, setting up the tent on one of the sandstone ledges, then heading for bed.  I was exhausted by the end of this day!

Day 6:

The cottonwoods of Cottonwood Springs
An early start to beat the heat and do our longest-mileage day from Willow Springs to Cottonwood Springs and beyond.    We don't know exactly how many miles that was, but Mark had his GPS on and figures we did about 10 miles between the two springs, then after a long rest at Cottonwood Springs we walked another 2 miles to a camp spot on a minor-pour-off along the Esplanade.  The trail-finding was better today on the Esplanade, and at times quite clear (though there were still times where we lost the trail).  It was indeed a hot, cloudless day, and during our rest stops we sought shade, one time crouching under a large over-hanging boulder.  We arrived at Cottonwood early afternoon and enjoyed a long rest in the deep shade of an overhanging cliff by the cottonwood trees.  We napped a bit, ate some food, and I did a bit of watercolor sketching.

Mitch did gather and filter water from this spring as an emergency backup to his own supply from the river (as he only had the capacity to carry 6 liters), and described the taste as somewhat sulphuric.  His first taste of it he spat out immediately.  But in the end, he did have to make use of a bit of that water, though in small doses.  To my knowledge he did not suffer any ill effects.

At about 4:30pm, when the sun was getting low against the upper walls of the Canyon, we packed up and continued on the trail to find a camp spot for the night.  While Cottonwood Springs is a nice place to visit, there really are no flat areas for camping.  We ended up going about 2 miles before we encountered a nice flat sandstone drainage/pour-off to camp on.  We didn't bother setting up the tent for the first time this trip and instead enjoyed a night under the stars.

Day 7:

The Dome
Again an early start to beat the heat and resume our way along the trail (such as it is) to the "cubicle boulder" and up the final ascent to our car.  The morning sun offered a beautiful illumination of The Dome, and below us we could see our old friend, Tuckup Canyon.  We reached the "cubicle boulder" by 7:15am (a welcome sight) and found the clear trail up to the top of the rim.
Approaching the "cubicle boulder"

Comments on Gear:

I would definitely recommend pants for this loop hike.  Though I had leggings, they were too warm to wear in hot weather and my skin would have greatly benefited from nylon or cotton pants.

It's a good thing we had the capacity to carry 10 liters of water each.  We used our 3-liter Camelbak bladders for hiking, we each had 6-liter MSR dromedary bags for our main water carrying (very durable!), and we each had a 1-liter Platypus water bottle for convenient drinking at camp.

We had stove problems (a new Snowpeak LiteMax stove) that crippled us but did not put us off our feed.  The stove would start out with a strong flame but would diminish to a small flame and sometimes go out altogether.  Sometimes it helped to let the stove cool, remove it from the fuel canister, shake the canister, reassemble, and re-light the stove.  When we got home we returned the stove to Summit Hut and they graciously accepted the return and we paid the difference for a Jetboil stove.  Mitch had along a Jetboil stove with no problems whatsoever.

This was the maiden voyage of our new backpacks, the Deuter ACT Lite (Mark has the men's version and I have the women's).  These replace backpacks we bought in 1999 (now retired to full-time climbing packs).  We chose these Deuter packs because they are light weight yet have a large carrying capacity.  I also have a small waist and was pleased that the waist belt fit me perfectly.  And the final strong advantage of this pack over all the others we looked at is the adjustable torso fit.  I am small but I have a long torso, and it's wonderful to be able to customize the fit of this pack.  Though common to most packs these days, the facility for a hydration bladder was another bonus for us (as our 1999-era packs lack that feature).  In all the packs carried our loads wonderfully and comfortably, we couldn't be happier.  My pack did sustain a bit of damage from hauling it up a couple pour-offs in the trail, but that can be fixed with taffeta tape.

This was also the maiden voyage of our new tent (to replace, yes, our 1999-era backpacking tent--North Face Slickrock--which now leaks), a Mountain Hardware Archer 2 backpacking tent.  It's apparently a new tent design for them, and though a bit unusual in shape, is very easy to assemble once you get the hang of it.  It's bulkier than our Slickrock to carry but not too much heavier.  It's certainly roomier inside, thanks to the near-vertical walls.  We did not test it in rain, but I expect it will do well.  We're pleased.

I always bring a second pair of shoes on my backpack trips, usually for wearing at camp.  I usually bring Chacos, but this time I brought my relatively new Vibram Five Fingers KSO Treks.  Though I am reluctant to get these wet (where I wouldn't hesitate with Chacos), they are much lighter than Chacos to carry and extremely comfortable to wear.  They are very grippy on rock, too.  I did the little hike up Fern Glen Canyon in these and they were great.  They are now my second-shoe-of-choice for backpacking trips.  My main hiking shoe is the La Sportiva Wildcat trail running shoe.  Lots of cushion, and very light-weight.  I have loooong ago shed the popular hiking boot. Those are heavy and guaranteed to put blisters on your feet!

This was a great hike and wonderfully isolated.  Of course, with such isolation comes a huge responsibility to keep yourself healthy and able-bodied!  Any illness or injury could be disastrous.  But that is part of the adventure, isn't it?


  1. Neat adventure! We live in Kanab and went to Shaman's Gallery today. I stumbled upon your blog while researching the panel. Looks like you had a great adventure!

  2. Enjoyed reading this. I did this trip with 9 other college buddies from Ohio State in 1996. It was a trip of a lifetime - we had a mixed bag of guys and skills, including a discovery during the trip that someone was afraid of heights. We too read Stecks book, and joked often at night around the fire about how his descriptions of the difficulty of the trail were not quite the reality that we saw. To top it off, we looked up George Steck on our drive home and stopped by his house and had a nice conversation with him and his wife. It was a fantastic trip.

  3. Nice Article! Thanks for sharing with us.

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  4. Seven of us made this hike in March 2012 just a month before you guys! We actually hiked down Hades Knoll canyon into Tuck-Up a short distance from the Colorado. We then inflated our pack-rafts and crossed over the other side of river and explored National Canyon. We then went down to Fern Glen and later to Stairway. We also struggled to find the crack and got boxed in before finding our way out. We all drank from both Willow and Cottonwood which transformed us from the "Magnificent Seven" to the "Immodium Seven"!