Tanner Trail, Palisades and Cardenas Areas:
5 Nights Below the Rim
by Jim Karsh

Click to learn more about our video: Hiking the Grand Canyon:  The Corridor TrailsFirst off, the title of this was supposed to be "SIX Nights Below the Rim". But the Grand Canyon of the Mighty Colorado is a tough ticket in the spring, my friends. This was a fact of which I was unaware when I went out to GCNP on April 13 without a backcountry permit. On a previous trip in the fall of '97, I had walked up to the BRO upon arrival and was told to name my trip. Not so this time. My plan was 1 night in Bright Angel Campground, 1 in Clear Creek, 1 in Cheyava, 2 more in Clear Creek, 1 in Indian Garden, and hike out on day 7. It was unavailable. Various permutations were entered and re-entered by the very patient ranger over the course of the next half hour.

The Itinerary. Finally, the trip arrived at was as follows, I would have to spend that night in a hotel, and hike in the next morning. That would be down the Tanner Trail, followed by 2 nights in the Palisades area, 1 night in the Cardenas area, 2 in the Tanner area, and hike out on day 6. I checked in to the Yavapai Lodge shortly thereafter to recalculate my food needs and think about how this change would affect water availability, and other factors. Shortly thereafter, I went to Babbitt's to pick up the 7.5 topo for Cape Solitude. While there, a collapsible bucket caught my eye. I figured that it might come in handy, as I anticipated (correctly) that the river would be my only source of water for the entire trip, and a bucket would help settle out any suspended material before filtering. I asked one of the employees in the store if he had done much Canyon backpacking and his response was, "Over 3000 miles worth" so I asked about the bucket. He said he didn't think that a bucket would do much good as the water might stand for 48 hours without much settling, and instead recommended using coffee filters to prefilter. He also added to my growing unease by telling me that he had once clogged a filter on it's first use in the river, and that the river was liable to be real silty due to recent snow and rain and the resulting runoff. I bought some coffee filters. I might add here that I didn't undertake this trip with the enthusiasm with which I had faced earlier trips. I didn't realize the reason until I began thinking back on the big picture. I am an airline pilot who flies internationally, and so spend more time further away from home than the average bear. Also this month, I had attended the funeral of my grandfather in Pennsylvania, followed by a trip to Phoenix with my family for spring break, and then a brief return home to repack for the GCNP trip. I diagnosed my reluctance as road-weariness. Now added to that were the failure to get my original itinerary and then the uncertainty of being able to purify water from the river without clogging my filter. My thought process at this stage is largely, "Why am I doing this?" But now I am back at the Yavapai, waterproofing my new map and filling my water bottles from the bathtub. I also recalculate food needs and remove some from my food bag. For water, I have four collapsible Platypus bottles, each holding about two and a half quarts, and two Nalgene quart bottles. I plan to cache two of the Platypus bottles on the way down, and so I wrap them in a big garbage bag to keep them from spilling water into my pack should one of them leak or come open. My sense of foreboding is increased when, as I use my knife to cut off the top of the bag, I slice into my left thumb. It will have to remain bandaged and wrapped with surgical tape for the rest of the trip to keep the dirt out.

Day 1: Down the Tanner Trail. The next morning I head out to Lipan Point. As I approach the road to Grandview Point just before 8 a.m., eleven mulie does begin to cross the road in front of me. Nine make it across, but the last two chicken out and head back into the woods on the rim side. As I slow down and look in my rearview mirror, those two nose out after I have passed, sniff around, and then make the crossing. A simple encounter, but uplifting and smile provoking. At 8:30, I begin my descent of the Tanner Trail. The initial descent is easy, but soon I am into the switchbacks, which are steep and rocky. Adding the weight of my pack which is holding three gallons of water and five days of food, and it doesn't take long for my thighs and feet to begin screaming. I meet three guys on the way up who tell me I will find many places to cache my water in the vicinity of the Escalante and Cardenas Buttes. I am looking forward to getting that extra water weight off my back as the trail reaches the bottom of the switchbacks and descends into a narrow arm of Tanner Canyon. It is here that I get another "bad omen" as I stand taking a breather amidst a jumble of boulders and bushes. With my head down and absorbed in my own thoughts as I catch my breath, I am standing on uneven footing when I hear a hooting sound just behind my right shoulder. As I turn to look, I catch a large sudden rustling motion in a bush just at my right shoulder out of the corner of my eye. It startles me so thoroughly that as I swing around to face whatever it is, my left foot slides off the rock it is on, my ankle twists and I go down hard. And when I say hard, I mean very, very hard. With nothing to break my fall, I hit on the small of my back directly on a large rock that juts into the trail. It knocks the wind out of me and I let out an involuntary "Aaaaaaaaaagh!!" And I am seeing stars. The first thought that comes to me when all the neurons unjumble themselves is that I must be seriously injured in some way. Something in my back or butt must be broken or ruptured. But nothing is. I get up and my back feels a little stiff and sore. I tell myself that I will be so sore when I wake up the next morning that I won't be able to get up. It never happens. I have no ill effects from the spill at all, except for a bruise on my back that my wife sees when I get home. I feel very, very lucky.

At the base of Escalante Butte, I find a place to cache my water. Being a guy who can't normally remember where I have left my car when I come home from a trip, I take a long time and look around very carefully from several spots to memorize the landscape before continuing. My pack is very much noticeably lighter with the weight of five quarts of water gone. After contouring around the bases of the buttes, the Mighty Colorado finally comes in view. Flanked by the sheer wall of the Palisades of the Desert, the panorama is fantastic. At about 1:15, I meet two women who appear to be about college age who are hiking out after a rafting trip. One of them tells me that "it's all downhill from here", which I'm glad to hear, because it makes me think I'm close. But I don't reach the bottom for over three more hours. My feet are increasingly miserable as I descend. At one point I shout "I #%&*@# hate this!" and vow that if an elevator appeared in front of me, I'd get on, push the up button and never look back. I also tell myself that I'd pay good money just to walk uphill for awhile. It seems like the trail presents all kind of tortures for my tootsies. If it's not a steep rocky switchback, it's the narrow section along a hillside where one foot is constantly higher than the other. At 4:30, I finally reach the stony bed of Tanner Creek, and cross to the cairned intersection on the other side. The trail climbs a short rise where I can overlook the river. There is a rafting party setting up camp on the other side of the river. Here I drop my pack for a rest. (What the trail is called here, I am not certain. One book I have says it is the Beamer, while another tells me that the Beamer Trail does not start until Palisades Creek. For purposes of this post, I will call it the Beamer Trail.)

I take my empty water bottles down to the beach to fill up, and find to my delight that the water is a clear green instead of the silty mess I was expecting. After filtering, I walk over to some rafters who are sitting in their rafts on my side of the river and ask about trail conditions and campsite availability along the Beamer eastward. Then I walk back to my pack and head out. I don't have to go very far. The trail goes up and along bluffs of maroon Dox sandstone, a member of the Grand Canyon Supergroup. Three washes have been cut back into these bluffs. They stairstep down until each ends in a drop of maybe 50 feet into the river. The first one is occupied by someone upstream from the trail. I can see pieces of clothing hanging in a tree, but view of the site itself is hidden by a boulder. As I pass, I yell, "Pretty cozy place you have there." Either no one is home or they don't feel like talking, so I just keep going. When I pass the third wash, I decide I've had enough for one day, and set up on a flat area below the trail. Setup is easy as this time I have brought a bivy sack instead of a tent to save weight.

Day Two: Beamer Trail to Palisades Creek. The next morning I suffer a semi-embarrassing moment shortly after getting up. I head up the wash a way to take care of some "business", and am halfway through the paperwork when a group of three guys comes around a bend in the trail about 100 yards away. The guy in front is looking right at me. For some reason I feel slightly vulnerable with my pants around my ankles like that. I finish up, and stroll back toward camp. As the guys approach, I say, "I guess you caught me in the act." The lead guy says, "You gotta go some time." To which I reply, "I guess there's no room for modesty down here." At least they weren't females. They tell me that they camped in the Palisades Creek area the night before, and that the confluence with the Little Colorado is about 3 1/2 hours beyond that. I would dearly love to see the confluence, but a seven hour round trip seems more than my feet can bear on this day. And I have to be in the Cardenas area the night after. So I pack up and wander east with no particular destination in mind. Heading east on the Beamer, I run into a woman camped between the trail and the river in a sandy area. I talk to her briefly and she seems to know the area quite well. I also stop for awhile to watch two lizards (type unknown, male is green with a yellow head) going through what seems to be a protracted mating ritual. Male chases female, female dodges male, then turns and runs between males front legs from front to back......repeat indefinitely.

The route now involves climbing back up another set of bluffs. The map shows the trail following the river right along the waterline, and indeed there is a high/low fork in the trail as I approach the bluffs. I take the high option, and further along I see it was the correct choice. There may be a riverside trail when the water is lower, but to me now on the bluffs, the mishmashed jumble of boulders below looks impassable. This second set of bluffs is also a bit hairier than the first, involving more exposure. At one point, a rock juts out of the cliff face over the trail, requiring me to hang my butt out into empty space to get my hips by it. I have usually been pretty confident while hiking in the Canyon and have hiked trails described as "exposed" in guidebooks without thinking too much of it. For some reason, when I do this particular manuever, I think, "If I slip with this pack on my back, I am probably going to fall. If I fall, I am going to die." It makes my mouth go dry for a second.

When I get to Palisades Creek, I take off my pack and eat. It is a pleasant area, right next to Lava Canyon Rapids and I am in no hurry to leave. I put my pack on a rock by the rapids and explore further down the trail, and for a ways up Palisades Creek. Campsites are not real numerous but there are several that will do. My favorite is unfortunately eliminated upon close inspection. It is on a large flat sandy shelf about 7 feet above, and not visible from, the bed of Palisades Creek. It has a tree from which to hang my food. But it has some good sized animal tracks running through it. The soil is sandy, so the tracks are not real distinct, but they appear to me to be paw prints rather than hooves. I decide that if a mountain lion uses this route to hunt at night, I don't want to be lying here in a bivy sack when he or she strolls through. Then I decide that is really stupid and paranoid. Then I decide that stupid or not, any sound I hear during the night will make me feel like a 13 year old teenager on her first babysitting job watching "Halloween" on the tube in a creaky old house. Forget it. Instead I find a side wash of the creek that is obstructed in a couple spots by boulders. It ends in what I can almost call a rotunda, covered by smooth polished pebbles and surrounded on three sides by stone walls. As private as you could wish for. Perfect.

Day Three: Back to the Cardenas Area. The next day I resist the temptation to violate my itinerary in order to see the confluence of the Little Colorado and the main river and I head back to the Cardenas area. The confluence will have to wait for a future trip. On the way I meet a couple other parties and chat with them as we pass. One is composed of an eight year old boy, another boy I guess to be about 11, and a guy who I assume is their dad. All three have fishing poles. They are wanting trout for dinner. I recross Tanner Creek westbound and pick up the Escalante Route. The route here is well marked and easy to follow, and just after passing Basalt Creek entering the river from the other side, I see the place I want to camp. It is not very private, being right below the trail, but it is right alongside the river. The area looks like someone took the bookend away from the end of a shelf of huge sandstone books, and then pushed them over. Gigantic slabs of stone line the river, all canted at an angle. I find a flat one and set up on it. I take off my boots, walk down to a little sand spit and into the C olorado River for the first time. OOOF! Man is that water C O L D!!! Once I get over the initial shock, it feels wonderful on my poor abused dogs. But NO WAY would I ever attempt to swim across that river. I feel quite sure I would not make it a third of the way. I spend much of the rest of the afternoon lolling around, watching the rapids, taking pictures, and giving the finger to the tour aircraft that pass overhead constantly, in twos and threes. Seven hikers pass by in the late afternoon and evening. Some say hello, others I don't even notice until they have passed. I also get farther into the book I have brought along, Edward Abbey's "Hayduke Lives!". It is a fabulous and funny book and more than once during this trip the Canyon critters have heard the sound of a human belly laugh busting out of my bivy into the dark. I sleep that night to the constant rush of the rapids and am up before dawn. I set up my tripod and take some sunrise photos, none of which turn out worth a damn.

Day Four: Tanner Area. My permit calls for me to camp in the Tanner area tonight, so I pack up and head back to the east to look for a good spot. On the way, I run into three guys who are out for a stroll away from their campsite near Tanner Rapids. They are guys who are probably a couple years older than me and are camping with a group of 11, most of them teenagers. One of the guys I'll call Mr. B, the second is Jim, and the third I'll ignore because I never saw him again. Anyway, these gents tell me they are hiking out the same day I am, and I do see them on the Tanner on day 5, which is a story for a bit later. We part when we get to their tents, and I see that the critters have gotten to their food while they were out on their walk. Mr. B holds up a nylon stuffsack that has a large hole chewed clean through it, and Jim wanders around picking up the wrappers that the critters have scattered around the campsite. Seeing this confirms something I had thought maybe I was too concerned about, and that is taking whatever measures I need to, to keep my food from the critters. It is one of the things I am most concerned about when I pick a place to camp, and I am always looking for that ledge, overhang, or tree from which to hang my food and garbage before I decide to camp at any particular spot. Seeing their food scattered about tells me that the reason I have never had my stuff chewed up is because of that extra caution, and I'm probably NOT too paranoid about it. These guys are in a spot with plenty of trees, too, so getting raided like they have been is totally avoidable.

I decide on the hike back to Tanner that I don't want to spend a whole lot of time looking for a campsite, so I will go to the place where I saw the clothes hanging from the tree in that spot in the bluffs on my first night. There is a question in my mind as to whether it is in the Tanner or Palisades area, but the 7.5 topo does not have the area boundaries, and the scale on the Trails Illustrated map is too small to determine exactly where the site is in relation to the boundary. It's not that big a deal so I hike to that spot and look around. It's hidden from the trail by a boulder, but I want to find out what the rest of this wash looks like, so I continue upstream awhile. I get to a spot that's not perfect, but it has a tree to hang my food from, and it's around a bend and far enough off the trail to be private, so I unload my pack and put on the Tevas. So far this is the hottest day since my arrival and I am thinking it must be in the high 80's. There is no shade to speak of, so I give up on getting out of the sun and go exploring up the wash until I reach it's end. Scrambling up the boulders, I top out on the flat rocky surface of a hill overlooking Tanner Canyon to the west, and dominated by Comanche Point immediately to the east-southeast. To the east, a butte that is a projection of Comanche Point looks climbable to a certain level, but the view is good here, and I go back to my pack and get my camera and tripod. My sandal prints are the only ones in the coarse sand of the wash, but cairns in several places mark routes of less resistance to my hilltop. Back on top, I have nothing to do but take the occasional photo, relax in the hot sun, and just look. On the west, I am overlooking the Tanner Trail as it makes it's final descent along two steep hillsides, or it's initial climb out of Tanner Creek, depending on which way you are going. This is the part of the trail where one foot is higher than the other and I started to lose my sanity on my way down. As I gaze at it now from this height, a solitary hiker moves, ant-like, up the trail. I decide to time him as I watch and see how I compare tomorrow on my way up. He takes frequent breaks and requires 50 minutes to disappear. The next day I am encouraged when I cover the approximate same distance in less than half an hour at a normal, easy pace. But today, I am somewhat uneasy about the hike out, remembering how steep and rocky the switchbacks looked in reverse on the hike in. I am feeling like I used to when facing a run of any distance when I was in high school. I know I can do it, I just don't know how bad it's gonna hurt. Soon after the Lone Hiker fades around a bend, the fisherman and his young compadres appear. I can hear their voices drift across the space of Tanner Canyon as they make their way upward at a brisk pace. All told, I spend a couple hours on the hilltop before I make my way back down the dry wash to my camp. I call it a night early, because I want to start up the Tanner tomorrow early, before it's too hot.

Day 5: Up the Tanner. I get started in good time the next morning, and have filtered water and am passing the Beamer Trail junction on the way up at 8:10 a.m. Soon, I see hikers on the trail ahead of me heading the same direction and shortly I recognize Mr. B and Jim. They appear to be the tail end of their party and we exchange greetings as I pass them. I will see them on and off for the rest of the day as we leapfrog each other on our rest stops. About 1/4 to 1/3 of the way up, I look back and see Mr. B and Jim moving slowly up the trail below and a half mile or more behind me. Coming up behind them are two other, younger hikers, moving very fast. I keep going and finally catch three other young guys who are in Mr. B and Jim's party, and are waiting for those two to come in view before continuing. We are at the foot of the first steep section, and I decide to rest also before tackling it. The young guys, having made visual contact with Mr. B and Jim press on up the switchbacks several minutes after I take a seat. It takes a little longer for those two to reach where I am, and when they do, they yell for the young guys in front of them to hold up. My first guess is that Jim, who has a little extra adipose tissue, might be having problems. But it is worse than that. Mr. B's son has lost the car keys. One of the two fast movers I spotted coming up behind Mr. B and Jim was Mr. B's son, and when a search was conducted for the keys, they were not to be found. So having already hiked almost a third of the way out, the young lads have returned to Tanner Beach to search for the car keys. I shudder at the thought, because given the choice of Death by Roo-Roo, and returning to the bottom of the Grand Canyon to recommence the hike out, it is a no-brainer. I select Death by Roo-Roo every time.

It takes me about six hours to reach the area where I intend to camp for the evening, at the base of Escalante Butte, in the vicinity of the saddle crossing the head of 75 Mile Creek. Just before I get there I see the familiar landmarks and retrieve my cache of cool, delicious, lifegiving Yavapai Lodge bathtub water. (OK, lifegiving Yavapai Lodge bathtub water....forget the cool and delicious.) Mr. B and Jim come up behind me and continue toward the final switchbacks and the rim.......and their keyless Chevy Blazer. They stop and admire the magnificent and mesmerizing view over 75 Mile Creek for awhile, and then disappear. Not more than 10 minutes later the two lads who went for the keys come puffing through. They are a couple of stud hiking machines and will no doubt catch Mr. B and Jim inside of a half an hour, well below the rim. And, they have found the keys.

I spend the rest of the daylight hours enjoying the incredible view over 75 Mile Canyon and, in the opposite direction, my constant companions on this trip, the Palisades of the Desert. The Desert View Watchtower is still perched on the rim, much closer now. It makes me a little paranoid, because I imagine someone watching me with huge binoculars from it's teensy windows. Despite the great views, I am not real crazy about the area as a campsite. There are too many obvious signs of camping and too many abandoned water bottles lying around for me to feel as if I am in a very remote place. But it is my launching pad for the stretch drive tomorrow, and for that it fits the bill.

Day 6: Seventyfive Mile Saddle to Lipan Point. I am up before my dawn on my final day in the Canyon and am on the trail by 6:10 a.m. As I pass through Tanner wash, I easily find the spot where I took my nasty spill on the first day. My twisted footprint still looks fresh. As I head up the switchbacks, I am puffing, but I find that my feet and legs are handling this much better than on the way down. About 30 minutes from the rim, I hear voices on the switchbacks above me and pull over to the side to take a blow and clear the trail for the guys coming down. I might add here that I am wearing the Michigan State Spartans cap that I received for Christmas, that replaced an identical one that I lost on Horseshoe Mesa last September. As the two guys turn the corner of the switchback, the guy in the lead looks at me and says, "Michigan State!? I can't stand it!" As I briefly consider whether a good shove over the side would be punishment enough, he points to his pal and says, "HE went to Michigan State." So we yuk it up and share a little Spartan Spirit there in the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. The guys are on a five day trip along the Escalante Route, coming out on the Grandview Trail. Since I was in the Grandview/Horseshoe Mesa/Hance Creek area last September, I share what information I have stored in my brainpan. We talk for about 20 minutes and I am again on my way upward. It takes me 2 hours and 15 minutes total to reach the rim. I realize I am there when I round the last switchback and find myself in the wooded and gently sloping area leading up to the parking lot. I am filled with the same feeling I always have when I reach the rim and that feeling is pure, unadulterated joy. I spontaneously throw up my arms and shake my fists at the sky, huge, huge smile on my face. "I did it", is all I can think.

Back in the village, I go to the Yavapai Cafeteria and order up the All-American breakfast, plus a piece of cherry pie. Most of the people around me are dressed in clean clothes, with freshly brushed teeth and shiny combed hair. I am wrinkled, sunburned, filthy, and stinking.....and enjoying my All-American very much, thanks. And as I begin to pick up the snatches of conversation around me, that's when it hits me....that I am once again back in the world of traffic, of money, of radio, of newspapers and war headlines. Back in the human world. At least until my next trip.

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