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Preparing for a Denali NP Backpacking Trip…

Featured picture from Daniel Leifheit via Denali NPS

If you have landed on this post… you are likely very interested in backpacking Denali National Park.  Let me say at the outset that planning a Denali backpacking trip is unlike anything else you have done.  Over the last eight or so years I have backpacked many National Parks, each of them with their own individual and unique process for planning and permitting, as well as their own  distinct rules for the backcountry.  With Denali one may as well throw most of that expertise out the window.

Denali is unlike any other National Park in the United States.  It is the size of Massachusetts.  It’s diversity in terrain, plant-life, and wildlife is second to none. And the trail-less backcountry is as intimidating as it is exciting. So planning for a week-long backcountry backpacking trip can very easily overwhelming.

Before I get into the planning specifics… let me note a few important things that you need to know from the very beginning.

1. You need a backcountry permit to do overnight backcountry camping, whether it is one night or longer. And, the only way to get a permit is to show up in person. That’s right… in person. Unlike other National Parks that allow you to submit permit applications via an online form or by snail mail, Denali only gives out permits to individuals and groups who show up at their Backcountry Office on a first-come-first-serve basis beginning at 9am local time.

2. The entire park is divided into a grid with each part of the grid referred to as a “unit.” There are 84 total units, all varying in size and occupancy limits. As you can imagine, even though each unit varies in size, each unit is quite large. And while the park does not have designated areas within each unit were you have to camp (because you can camp anywhere within the unit), the number of backpackers able to camp in a specific unit is limited, with some units allowing a maximum of two people per night up to twelve people per night. This limitation decreases the amount of foot traffic and impact on the environment. Additionally, these limitations may significantly effect routes and specific areas you may want to pass through or camp within.

3.  Being that the Denali backcountry is trail-less (except for game trails and a handful of man-made trails), one should be comfortable using a compass and topographic map to orient and navigate.  Additionally, the trail-less backcountry will slow you down.  Under normal circumstances and conditions on well-maintained trails (of course depending on elevation changes, fitness, and snack/nature breaks) one may expect to average anywhere from 2-3 mph with a full pack.  In Denali, your expectations of daily mileage and speed should be tempered with the challenges of route finding, bushwhacking, stream/river crossings, etc.  Anticipating 1 mph is a reasonable expectation.  Sure you may move a bit quicker in a gravel bar, but you will be slowed down by the dense brush.  It all averages out.

Units

One of the larger challenges with planning a Denali backpacking trip is planning a route. If you are unfamiliar with the park, the variation in topography, and what is realistic in terms of distance and route from unit to unit, you are not alone. This is where we found ourselves at the beginning of our planning. I spent an enormous amount of time searching the internet to find information about the individual units. In my experience, there just isn’t much information out there discussing the units. The very best resource is Denali’s own National Park website that details in specificity each unit in the park (terrain, passageways to other unit, notable features, etc). This proved to be invaluable. While we are certainly at the mercy of the Backcountry Office in securing our route when we get there, because of demand and availability, we want to have each unit researched and ranked (according to the criteria most important for us) so that when we are given different route scenarios we can refer back to our preferences and priorities. If we are going to spend the time and money to get there… we want to have the possibility of the best backpacking trip as we can.

Gear

The weather in Alaska can be very unpredictable. In fact, it has been known to snow in any of the twelve months. Not only that but Alaska knows how to rain as well. The rainfall in July and August averages over five inches in each month. Packing the appropriate gear can be tricky because you basically have to plan for every contingency (snow/cold, rain, warm).

Denali Backcountry Office provides a bear canister to each person who camps in the backcountry. Forget finding places to tie off your food. Just throw your food in a bear canister and toss it a hundred yards from your camp and you should be safe from bears through the night.

Keep in mind that you can not take bear spray or gas stove canisters on your flight to Alaska. The good news is that you can purchase gas canisters and bear spray at Denali Mountain Works (http://denalimountainworks.com) located at mile 239 Parks Hwy, off Canyon Dr., about 1 mile north of the entrance to Denali National Park. Phone- tel:907-683-1542.

River Crossings

This one may be a bit strange but river crossings have been one of the biggest issues for us. It’s not that we are concerned with how to cross, because our knowledge of how to cross is fine. It is more about having wet boots. We have looked at this from every angle and still are not satisfied with the conclusions. The bottom-line is that we don’t want to have soaked boots for the duration of our hike. But, we also don’t want to change shoes at every crossing like a bunch of pansies. That just doesn’t seem like a good Alaskan approach. The truth is that we know we are going to get wet in Alaska, that isn’t a big deal. Wet boots are abysmal. We still don’t have a satisfactory approach to this but would love to hear your thoughts.

The Green Bus

The main mode of transportation through the park, after the first dozen miles or so, is the Green Bus. These Green Busses take site seers, day hikers, and backpackers alike all 80+ miles of the park. You can stay on the bus the entire round-trip or you can jump off at any point to hike or backpack. All you have to do is catch a subsequent bus when you are ready to continue on.

For backpackers, who do not know their route or the units they will visit throughout their hike, it is difficult to plan in advance or make reservations until the backpacking route is secured. In many ways, a Denali backpacking trip is a lesson in going with the flow. And this is something I am not used to.

I am sure there is so much more that could be said. This has been one of the easiest trips for which we have planned… and one of the hardest. The easy stuff is airlines and rental cars, but the rest of your trip involves flexibility. The best piece of advice I would give is to read and study as much as you can so that you can roll with the punches.

Do you have additional advice based on your planning to backpack Denali? What is it? Leave comments below.

Peace…

Brandon

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Escalante Route (Grand Canyon NP)

We recently completed a 3 night, 4 day 33-mile backpacking trip along the Escalante Route in Grand Canyon National Park.  What drew our interest in this particular route was that Backpacker Magazine hailed it as one of their “Best Hikes Ever,” saying that “there’s no better route for the access, solitude, and scenery.”  Granted, we had just completed a 70-mile epically beautiful and hard-to-top hike in Glacier National Park (Montana) referred to as the North Circle Route, so we knew that any backpacking trip would struggle to even come close to how amazing North Circle was… but we also knew that, in order to avoid comparison, we should do something 180 degrees opposite from Montana.  So after a handful of options were on the table along with some quick deliberations, Escalante had our hearts.

Route on Map - Whole Canyon

Route on Map - Whole Route

A couple of quick things to note.  The Escalante Route is not a maintained trail by Grand Canyon NP.  In fact, it is technically not a trail at all.  It is an unmarked route in which GPS, compass, map, and orienting skills are necessary.  But, and this is a big BUT, the route appears as if it has had so much traffic over the years that a clear trail is visible the entire way.  Even more, in areas where the trail may not be completely visible there are cairns leading the way.  I don’t want to give you a false sense of security by saying that, because the entire route is certainly not for beginners, but don’t let this route scare the pants off of you either.

Also, while there are several ways to access the Escalante Route, we entered at Lipan Point along Tanner Trail to access Escalante and traveled east to west.  We exited Escalante via Tonto Trail and Grandview Trail to Grandview Point.  This is the exact route that Backpacker Magazine suggested, however we reduced the number of days on the trail from the suggested five to four.

Route on Map - From the East

Day 1

Lipan Point to Tanner Rapids

Total Mileage- 9.0 miles

Total Elevation Gain- 0 feet

Total Elevation Loss- 4650 feet

Day 2

Tanner Rapids to Escalante Creek Mouth

Total Mileage- 8.6 miles

Total Elevation Gain- 1200 feet

Total Elevation Loss- 1200 feet

Day 3

Escalante Creek Mouth to Hance Creek

Total Mileage- 9.9 miles

Total Elevation Gain- 1200 feet

Total Elevation Loss- 0 feet

Day 4

Hance Creek to Grandview Point

Total Mileage- 6.0 miles

Total Elevation Gain- 3700 feet

Total Elevation Loss- 0 feet

Also… if you are interested in our planning for this trip read Planning a Grand Canyon Backpacking Trip.

If you have any questions about the Escalante Route… feel free to write to me in the comments.

Peace…

Brandon

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Escalante Route (Grand Canyon NP)- Hance Creek to Grandview Point

Hance Creek to Grandview Point

Total Mileage- 6.0 miles

Total Elevation Gain- 3700 feet

Total Elevation Loss- 0 feet

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When we began to pack up all of our gear on the fourth morning at Hance Creek we didn’t anticipate it being our last day.  Our hike had us leaving Hance Creek and climbing Horseshoe Mesa where we would spend our fourth night.  We knew that one big obstacle to staying an extra night at Horseshoe Mesa was the lack of drinkable water.  That meant that whatever water we would pack at Hance Creek would be the water we would have for drinking and cooking for the next day and a half.  As we geared up, each of us packed 4-liters (8 pounds) of water.  It is worth noting that we were attacked by hundreds of mosquito-like bugs as we packed up.  They didn’t sting but they were insistent upon flying in our eyes, noses, and mouths.  It was pretty overwhelming honestly.  Ultimately we had to cover our faces so that we could pack up.

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We could not have asked for a more beautiful mid-April day- blue skies, breezy, and warm.  The colors and contrasts were as beautiful as any of the previous days along the Escalante.  Tonto Trail would be leading us to Horseshoe Mesa on this morning and there were three different approaches that we could take in order to get on top of the Mesa.  In our initial planning we decided that we would circle the mesa in a counter-clockwise direction along Tonto (following Cottonwood Creek) and then trail up the western side of the western arm.  This route meant significantly more mileage and more difficulty because it is more exposed and washed out.  While the closest option, the eastern route that passes Page Spring, would be a shorter hike… it too is difficult and exposed.  In light of this we decided to take the most direct route to the eastern side of the western arm of Horseshoe Mesa.  There was a juncture a couple of miles from Hance Creek where you could take the path to the left or right- the route we took was to the right.

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Just before the base of Horseshoe Mesa we stopped for one last break in the shade before tackling the steep ascent.  It was a hot day and once we would begin the hike there would not be any reprieve from the sun.  While we relaxed in the shade and as we took in the rich and exquisite view, one of the guys said, “It would be great if we were listening to Iron & Wine while we were standing here.”  Being Mr. Johnny on the Spot, I pressed play on the handy iPhone and we stood there for the next four minutes listening to Sam Beam sing about that “Passing Afternoon.”  And all was good and right in the world… at least at that moment.

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In the next picture you will see us approaching the western arm of Horseshoe Mesa.  For even greater perspective you will see Grandview Point in the distance at the top left.  What we didn’t know at the time of this picture was that we would arrive on top of Horseshoe Mesa around 11:15am, which was only a 3-hour hike from Hance Creek, and decide to hike out to Grandview Point after our lunch break rather than stay the night on top of the Mesa.

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The views atop Horseshoe Mesa…

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Horseshoe Mesa has several campsites which require a permit.  Day-hikers can access Horseshoe Mesa from Grandview Point and take the 2600 foot plunge over 3-miles to enjoy the views and old copper mine remnants.  The signage below is from an old masonry structure that is falling apart near the mining area.

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The last three miles were all up, up, up.  Keep in mind that Horseshoe Mesa is around 4800 feet above sea level and Grandview Point is about 7400 feet.  That means that the air is thinner and you will be even more winded climbing out of the canyon.  To be honest, it was hard work.  At about the end of every switchback I stopped for a short breather.  I also stopped in the shade occasionally because, once again, the noon sun was bearing down.  The trail itself was interesting, to say the least.  It was a vertical cobblestone below and throughout most of the Coconino Saddle.  I found this type of cobblestone trail very cumbersome and difficult to hike upon… but the views… well… made me forget about the dang cobblestone.

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This three night, four day Escalante Route backpacking trip was phenomenal.  I personally give it a 10 out of 10 and would highly recommend it to backpackers who are ready to up their game and hit some difficult terrain.  The Grand Canyon gave us everything, and more, that we were looking for- epic panoramas, beautiful river views, slot canyons, beaches and swimming, and tons of memories.

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Until Denali in September!

Brandon

To read the first post for Escalante Route click here

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Escalante Route (Grand Canyon NP)- Escalante Creek Mouth to Hance Creek

Escalante Creek Mouth to Hance Creek

Total Mileage- 9.9 miles

Total Elevation Gain- 1200 feet

Total Elevation Loss- 0 feet

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This was by far our longest day… but maybe one of our best in terms of seeing everything the Grand Canyon had to offer.  This trek from Escalante Mouth Creek to Hance Creek ended up taking us 11.5 hours.  We began at 8am and reached Hance Creek at 7:30pm.  You may be wondering how in the world we moved at less than a mile per hour.  Well… because we stopped a thousand times to take pictures.  We took a two hour lunch break that involved swimming, pumping water, and washing out our sweaty clothes.  And we reached three different spots in which we ran around like little kids because it was so spectacular.  We wasted a ton of time… but it was beyond worth it.  And other than the hike being 10 miles in distance… the actual terrain was relatively easy to move across.

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From Escalante Creek Mouth we immediately began an ascent leaving the river.  Opportunities for hiking close to the river were absent because the beaches yielded to cliffs and walls.  By following the trail, and the cairns, the trail began to cut sharply to the southeast to circumvent steep cliffs and walls that hugged the river.  The Escalante Route was taking us to a point where we could drop down into the dry Escalante Creek.  We would then follow the creek bed through some sweet slot canyons and then back to hiking just above the river until we reached another beach that introduced the Papago Wall.

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There was a bit of a discussion/debate about this portion of our hike.  We could either scale the 40-foot Papago Wall and then navigate Papago Slide back down to another beach which would take close to an hour total to tackle – or – we could float our packs on our inflated sleeping pads and walk them down the river about 70-feet to the next beach.  Either route would lead to the same destination… with the water option looking like a lot less work.  I am sure that whatever time would have saved doing the water option was obliterated by how much time we spent discussing both options.  It was finally decided that we would tackle Papago because the water was too cold and because the water option was too unpredictable.  As it turned out… Papago Wall and Papago Slide were pretty cool to navigate.  We took a break at Hance Rapids before hiking back to our Hance Creek destination.  We had lunch, did some cooling off in the river, and pumped some water before we began our biggest ascent of the day.

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This portion of our hike, from Hance Rapids to Hance Creek, was the best and longest portion of our hike.  While there were spectacular, unbelievable, astounding views all around us… it seemed as if we would never make it to Hance Creek.  Even more… I seriously wondered if Hance Creek would even have water.  Every single saddle that we went over and every single bend that we turned was evidence of dry creek after dry creek.  If it wasn’t for the views and two separate picture-taking diversions I may have gone crazy.  Anyway, check out these pictures.  The panorama was almost, almost, almost as epic as our panorama from 50 Mountain in Glacier… both extraordinary in their own unique way.  Wow!

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As it turned out, Hance Creek did have water.  When we were about a quarter mile away we saw this lush, green habitat right in the middle of this rocky, dry arid canyon.  We knew water was near.  And as we drew closer to Hance Creek we began to hear the cadence of frogs beginning to come out for the night.  We knew we were entering a strange ecosystem… but we just didn’t know how strange.  We dropped the packs and set up the tents.  We were spent.  But we also had to pump water because most or all of us were dry and we were also very hungry.  Upon examining the 2-inch deep creek that moved just enough to keep it from being stagnate… we saw hundreds of tadpoles in the water and dozens of frogs making their debut for the night.  Their roar was louder than their size.  They could really belt it out.  It wasn’t five minutes into pumping that one of the guys began to yell that white mice were attacking our packs.  Upon investigation, the mice had chewed through two packs and were looking for food.  Being that our food was already secure, the mice only found wrappers.  But their deed was already done.  They made holes and pooped around the packs.  All they could do was watch us while we ate our warm meals… and they did.

Our hike for the next day would take us up to Horseshoe Mesa and, surprisingly, out of the canyon to Grandview Point.  We ended up forgoing our stay on Horseshoe Mesa and opting to make the final push out in one day.

For the first post in this series click here.

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Escalante Route (Grand Canyon NP)- Tanner to Escalante Creek Mouth

Tanner Rapids to Escalante Creek Mouth

Total Mileage- 8.6 miles

Total Elevation Gain- 1200 feet

Total Elevation Loss- 1200 feet

Route on Map - Day 2

 

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The morning at Tanner Beach was cool in the low 50’s… which was perfect.  The skies were promising- already a clear and beautiful blue.  I could tell the pictures for this day were going to be epic.  The morning views at the river were dramatically different than even the evening prior.  Our plan for the day included an 8.6 mile hike with 1200 feet of ascent taking us away from the Colorado, and then 1200 feet of descent back to the river.  Our camping destination would be just short of the most talked about landmark that we would encounter- Papago Wall.

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For the next day and a half we would be on the Escalante Route.  As you can see from the picture above there is a clear pathway heading west from Tanner Beach that delineates where the route begins.  Our permit had us camping in Cardenas at the end of this day, which could be reached after just three miles of hiking but would leave us almost fifteen miles from our destination of Hance Creek at the end of day three.  After some conversations with the Backcountry Office several months earlier, they advised that we hike to the far western edge of Cardenas and camp east of Papago Wall.  That would even up our hikes for both days.  Their advice was invaluable and really helped us on both days.  I would highly recommend, when working on an Escalante itinerary, to check in with the Backcountry Office.  They can give you a realistic perspective on the distances between points.  But, they also told me that our proposed and accepted itinerary of four nights, five days may be too difficult for us (and we ended up doing it in four days).  Take their advice and then be realistic with the condition and expertise of your group.

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Around lunch time we detoured to the river and spent some time cooling off at Cardenas Beach.  It was a beautiful spot to relax and swim and I would highly recommend it.  I am not sure what the temperature of the water is in the summer months, but in mid-April it was ice cold.  I stayed in it for about 10-15 minutes and checked the temperature on my watch, which had it around mid-50F, but it was still going down when I got out.  Nonetheless, this blue/green water cooled us down before the 1200 foot ascent.

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There were some absolutely AMAZING views throughout this hike and this portion of the Escalante had some of the most stunning.  It didn’t hurt that we had clear skies, for the moment.

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I am not much for naming all of the landmarks and geologic strata so if that is your thing… I am sorry that I can’t be of much help.  However, one of the guys in our group spent a ton of time researching and knew the name of every single thing that we saw during our hike.  I will have him write a guest post so that you will have some sort of idea what to look for during this hike.

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During our ascent it began to cloud up quickly and hint of rain.  When it began to sprinkle we were fortunate enough to have an area with some rock caves and carve outs, which we ducked into for about thirty minutes while it rained.  I suppose this added to the excitement of the trip.  If nothing else the sun, which had been baking us during our ascent, was now hidden.  Even though it was April… it was still very hot.  The remainder of the hike took us down Escalante Creek (which is dry) to the Colorado once again.  The evening cleared up spectacularly with clear skies and an amazing opportunity for star gazing.  I commented to the guys that this particular camping area (Escalante Creek Mouth) ranked as one of my favorites on any trip.  Not as good as Elizabeth Lake and Fifty Mountain in Glacier or the Boulderfield going to Long’s Peak… but in my top five. And again, we took advantage of pumping directly from the Colorado without any problems. The water situation the next day at Hance Creek was interesting, to say the least. But more on that in the next post.

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The next day would take us to Hance Creek, which ended up being the longest hiking day and the strangest location that we would encounter on this trip.

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Escalante Route (Grand Canyon NP)- Lipan to Tanner

Lipan Point to Tanner Rapids

Total Mileage- 9.0 miles

Total Elevation Gain- 0 feet

Total Elevation Loss- 4650 feet

Route on Map - From the East

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Our first day would take us from Lipan Point to Tanner Rapids. Being that this route is a point to point, a couple of the guys dropped our vehicle at Grandview Point and hitchhiked back to Lipan Point. Lipan Point trailhead travels directly to the Colorado via Tanner Trail.  This 9-mile route drops nearly a mile straight down which means you better have your trekking poles out and adjusted appropriately.  On this mid-April day the temperature at the rim was in the high fifties and we expected it to warm considerably as we descended… but it was also overcast with a threat of light rain.  Our first night camp destination was Tanner Beach.

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I would note that the common theme throughout our four day hike was that we spent more time looking at our feet than at the views.  Of course that is a bit overstated, because we got everything and more from the picturesque views at every point throughout the hike, but there is also some real truth to the fact that we spent an enormous amount of time looking down.  Without question, this was the most difficult, sustained terrain I have ever hiked.  That is not to say that it is the most difficult in the world, but just the most difficult terrain I have hiked to this point.  Case in point- despite trimming my toenails before the trip and lacing my boots tight… the descent wreaked havoc on my big toes, pressing them up against the end of my boots.  My big toes swelled twice their normal size and I am currently losing the toenails of each toe.  Too much info?  Probably.  But all that to say, going a mile straight down can really strain your body- ankles, knees, toes, etc.  Prepare well and do not push yourself too hard.  The park guidance states that it takes 12-15 hours to Tanner Beach… and the Backcountry Office told me that I should count on half of our group getting their butt kicked on the first day because of the length of the hike and terrain.  That’s a long day for sure, but we did it in about seven hours, and we were all intact when we set up camp.  In fact, we had some energy to spare.

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There was a really cool place where we took a lunch break.  I believe it was called Escalante Saddle.  It was really well marked with vertical rocks and had great views on either side.  It was a really nice spot to take a break.  The saddle was about 2.5 miles into the hike and about 1700 feet down from Lipan.

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The views that of the Colorado that become apparent are spectacular, even for an overcast day.  At about 2000 below the rim, the view of the Palisades with their magnificent and varying color is truly amazing.  I believe it was at this point that we were scratching our heads expecting the Colorado to be more brown than blue.  I was quietly hoping that we would be surprised by a clean river from which to pump.  My hopes would be realized for sure as the river became even greener and bluer the closer we got to it.

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As we approached Tanner Beach the temperature was in the low 70’s.  It was sure to be a warmer night than the previous night on the rim, which was in the mid 30’s.  There were several spots from which to choose.  I believe that Tanner Beach could accommodate 4-5 groups easily.  There were only two other groups in the area that night, but we would see even fewer as we started the Escalante Route the next day. The best surprise was that the Colorado River was, in fact, a nice blue-green color with hardly any silt. This was huge because we could use our water filters without any problems at all.

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The next day we would begin our march along the Escalante Route from Tanner to a site near at Escalante Creek Mouth, just a mile before the Papago Wall.  The gray skies succumbed to the blue and the sun was radiant.  Day Two would be a day to remember for sure.

You may also be interested in reading:

Planning a Grand Canyon Backpacking Trip

Escalante Route (Grand Canyon NP) Quick Summary

 

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Escalante Route (Grand Canyon NP) Quick Summary…

I just finished the Escalante Route in Grand Canyon National Park and want to give a quick summary of the hike before I give a more detailed day-by-day account, which I will post soon.

My overall impression of this hike was AMAZING! It was, by far, the most strenuous extended hiking I have ever done… but some of that may be due to the fact that we packed six days of hiking into four days. We covered 40 miles of very difficult terrain from Tanner Trail, Escalante Route, New Hance Trail, Tonto Trail, and then out via the Grandview Trail. The views were stunning and everything about the trip was right on.

Here are a few things that really surprised me:

1. The Colorado River was a beautiful blue-green and not the dirty brown I expected. When I was in Moab, Utah last year… the Colorado was dirty brown. I am not sure what happened but our approach to water access changed dramatically. We just used our water pump filters like normal. Not only that but we actually got in the water to swim a couple of times. We planned for the worst and were pleasantly surprised at the Colorado. That was a huge relief.

2. If you do this hike any later than May… you are insane. The base was about 30 degrees warmer than the rim and we spent the majority of the time along the Colorado. If you add together the tough terrain, the physical exertion, and the heat… man it is rough. We were able to pump at our campsites at Tanner Creek, Escalante Creek Mouth, and Hance Creek. So we usually never carried more than 2-3 liters. But as we left Hance Creek, we took 4 or more liters because that would have to last to Horseshoe Mesa and then Grandview Point. Keep in mind that our trip was in mid-April… so water quantities will vary based upon time of season and how well you hike in hot conditions. I don’t happen to hike well in hot conditions, so April was ideal for me… even though it was toasty on our final ascent.

3. Escalante is not really a “route”… it is a trail. At this point… Escalante has been hiked by serious backpackers and the route has become quite noticeably a trail. You do not have to have navigational skills… other than following cairns and the occasional map orientation. While this was a small let down… it was still incredible. Should you take the Escalante seriously? Absolutely! But just don’t be afraid if you don’t have the best nav skills. You will make it. You should be more considered about your physical condition because the terrain will eat you up if you are not ready for it. We were… and had an amazing trip!

There was also tons of solitude. We only saw 20 passerbys over four days. We did, however, see a ton of helicopter tours passing overhead and quite a few rafters.

Here is the link to Day 1- Escalante Route (Grand Canyon NP)- Lipan to Tanner

Brandon