In the middle of April a group of us will be hiking the 40-mile Escalante Route in the Grand Canyon. Over 4 nights, 5 days we will descend over 5000 feet down Tanner Trail to the Colorado River and then hike along the unmarked Escalante Route from east to west, connecting to Tonto Trail and then Horseshoe Mesa along Grandview Trail. Here is a more detailed summary and map of this route.
Planning a backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon poses a few challenges, but nothing that experienced backpackers can’t easily handle. Leading up to this trip there were three main challenges that we needed to spend some time discussing: getting the backcountry permit, time of year to hike this route, and clean water sources.
Getting the Backcountry Permit
For some reason we had significant issues landing a Backcountry Permit for the Grand Canyon, although we did finally get one after several submissions. Like most National Parks, permits are required for backcountry camping but each park has it’s own process for how that is done. Most of the time it has to do with the volume of requests. Being that there is a higher demand in Spring/Early Summer and Fall for backcountry permits in the Grand Canyon (because of more moderate temps), there is a four month window in which the backcountry permit application needs to be submitted for a random drawing. For instance, if you are wanting to hike in April like us, the backcountry permit application needs to be submitted on December 1. Once submitted, the random drawing and slotting begins. The mistake I made on this particular application was that I only listed our preferred itinerary and one alternative itinerary. From my research the Escalante Route does not have high demand so I thought we would be slotted easily. My other mistake was that I thought the Backcountry Office would contact me and offer another suggestion if one of the campsites had already been taken. Sure enough I received a DENIED email and letter. Upon calling the office and asking why our application had been denied I was told that one of our requested sites had already been filled for that particular night. I was very frustrated because every other NP I have ever worked with has been incredibly helpful with offering other options or suggestions. The Backcountry Office at the Grand Canyon told me that they have too many applications each month to work with people. Anyway, after three submissions we were FINALLY approved… even though it is over Easter weekend. My suggestion is to do your research and know all of the backcountry camping spots that are available to you in each zone and the mileage between each. Be prepared to submit your application with three separate itineraries to increase your odds of getting exactly what you want. It appears that the spot that was the snag for us was Tanner Creek. This must be a spot that overnight hikers compete for as well.
Time of Year
As I mentioned above, the best time during the year to hike the Grand Canyon is Spring/Early Summer and Fall. Winter is an option as well, however icy conditions may make trails difficult and/or dangerous. One thing to take into consideration is the change of temperature with altitude. The Grand Canyon is a bit different than what you might expect. The elevation at the North Rim is about 8000 feet and the South Rim is about 7000 feet. As one descends, the temperature actually rises and can be up to 30-40 degrees warmer at the bottom. This is significant and should be taken into account when planning the time of year that you want to go, the gear you should pack, and your strategy for water.
For our group this has been the most discussed topic. On the Escalante Route there are few suitable drinking water options. Now granted, we will not be hiking in the middle of the summer in which the canyon temperatures could reach up to 120F and necessitate significant water consumption… but for the elevation changes and the daily mileage we will cover we also do not want to carry large quantities of water. Water weighs in at about 8 pounds per gallon and can easily become the heaviest single item in your pack. There is at least one spring along this route near Horseshoe Mesa (Page/Miners Spring)… so utilizing the Colorado River is essential. The greatest single threat for pumping and filtering out of the Colorado is fine silt, which can easily pass most pre-filters and damage the pump. After considering several researched ideas we put together a few that should make for some fresh, clean water. We are planning to bring a collapsable bucket so that we can scoop water out of the river. By adding Aluminum Sulfate to the water, particulate begins to clump together and fall to the bottom of the container. This will allow us to use our water filters without fear that the sediment will damage them. Additionally, we are going to secure our pre-filters with coffee filters in order to add one more layer of filtration. Overkill? Always.
Once we return I will give a day-by-day account of the hike.
Have you hiked the Escalante Route in the Grand Canyon? If so, tell me about your experience.