“Hey, check it out,” I implored my hiking partner Dan. “I’ve got a fifth of the earth’s history between my fingers.” Dan interrupted his cool-down in Hance Creek to find my hand placed on the Great Unconformity, the precise point where the nearly two-billion-year-old Vishnu Schist touches the 500-million-year-old Tapeats Sandstone. This phenomenon was named by Major John Wesley Powell and represents a one billion-year-old gap in the planet’s geologic record. “Nice work Sherlock, keep an eye on it while I bag the river,” said Dan as he departed for the Colorado and a view of imposing Sockdolager Rapids. Dan was more enamored of pioneer history, like the turn-of-the-century copper mine shafts we’d peered into during our plunge off the eastern arm of Horseshoe Mesa that morning. The 20-mile Grandview to New Hance loop backpack off the canyon’s South Rim would be punctuated with plenty of both the new and the old.
Our two-nighter began with a precipitous descent of the scenic Grandview Trail and a brief visit to an aging mine shaft and it’s smattering of abandoned tools and cans. We broke for an early lunch at Page Spring—a delightful spring-fed pool in the midst of a prickly, sun-splashed desert—then pushed on to Hance Creek via the Tonto Trail. As I watched Dan disappear out of view, the distant rumblings of an advancing storm belied the clear blue skies. I trudged upstream to secure our campsite. When rumbles turned to crackling thunder, I grabbed our gear and exchanged the shelter of a towering cottonwood for that of a rocky overhang in the Tapeats Sandstone cliff. The storm arrived on cue as menacing clouds engulfed the Sinking Ship, a limestone-capped monolith dipping off the South Rim. Dan joined me just as lightning began to pepper table-topped Horseshoe Mesa above, his scramble to the river aborted in fear of a flash flood. Claps of thunder echoed between the roseate cliffs, and a brief driving rain soaked all but our guarded alcove. Too tired to move after the storm subsided, we called our dusty shelter home, and hunkered down for the night.
Morning found us eastbound on the Tonto Trail for the five-mile march to the beach shouldering Hance Rapid. Along the trail an agave plant lay flayed open like a charred pinwheel, no doubt the recipient of a direct strike during the previous day’s lightning shower. We rounded Ayer Point, dropped casually into Mineral Canyon, and then contoured the long Redwall finger that forms the base of Coronado Butte. Beneath Coronado’s southernmost tip, car-sized boulders dotted the low-gradient terrace like a mammoth chess game in progress. The rubble stood in stark contrast to the relatively flat terrain of the Tonto Platform. These daunting rocks had likely tumbled from the looming cliffs during a single cataclysmic event-a rockslide we were pleased to have missed. I was left with an uneasy feeling as we silently wended through the maze of stone giants, several of which resembled the eerie busts of Easter Island. We found Hance Beach uninhabited and pitched our tent near the banks of the Colorado River.
As if on cue, a pair of kayaks bounced through the frothy chaos of nearby Hance Rapid, heralding the approach of a seven-boat flotilla under the Canyon Expeditions flag. A near flip in lesser-known Son of Hance Rapid downstream drew our attention to the standing wave poised near the emergence of the Vishnu Schist. A true milestone for river runners, this stretch marks the beginning of Granite Gorge, where subsequent sheer walls of metamorphic rock “up the ante” through increasingly violent whitewater. Dan and I boulder-hopped on the unstable rubble to reach Son of Hance, where we both pursued our individual passions. Dan fished for trout while I angled for darkroom keepers. We returned to find a pair of New Englanders, sunburned, bewildered, and days off schedule. Over dinner we briefed our companions on what lay ahead, suggesting they do themselves a favor by aborting their trip and ascending the New Hance Trail after a good rest. Lying on the beach after the stars came out, the younger of our space cadet beachmates tried to walk us through his five-step method of feeling the earth rotate on its axis. We relocated, relying on the thundering rapids to drown out their nocturnal giggles, and managed to catch a few winks.
“The forecast calls for pain,” announced Dan as we took our first steps up Red Canyon’s New Hance Trail. The milky blueness of dawn enveloped us, and gave even the hard edges of our rocky thoroughfare an almost sensual appearance. We knew better. The blazing morning sun was not far behind, and greeted us on a formidable slope to the base of the Redwall cliff. Every arduous step added as many beads to the brow as miles to the view.
The South Rim’s Moran Point loomed above us all morning. It was near Moran Point that Hopi guides brought the first white visitors in 1540, Spanish explorers looking for lost cities of gold. Most agree that the Hopi chose daunting Moran Point in an attempt to discourage their “guests” and expedite the explorers’ return to Mexico. Sure enough, the Spanish turned back, but not before Cardenas ordered several soldiers to the river-only to have them return exhausted and defeated hours later. Mexico wasn’t sounding half-bad as we muscled our way across sheer terraces and through thick brush in pursuit of Coronado Saddle—roughly a mile from the top. After a lengthy breather we “topped out”—our treasure more valuable than Spanish doubloons—a hot shower ahead, and a supremely satisfying glance back at a hard day’s work.